Science Fiction

Another Life

I don’t know what I am. Maybe I’m a God. If so, I’m the worst excuse for a God that’s ever been. The only thing I can be sure of is that I’m not normal.

The first time it happened, I had just woken up from a nightmare. Something malevolent had been chasing me through a twisted corkscrew of a hallway. I lost my balance and fell. As I rolled onto my back, I caught a glimpse of something jagged descending toward my face.

I woke with a shout, my heart-racing, arms and legs tensed. I lay dazed, barely able to breathe, trying to remember my own name. Rain pattered against the window just above me, while gusts moaned to one another in the dark.

Lightning struck with a sudden flash of light and a loud crack. My mind clenched and a stab of pain pierced my skull. Something inside me lurched.

One moment I was in bed, an after-image swirling across my vision, and the next I was somewhere else.

I stood on a hill, overlooking a city. A giant mushroom cloud dominated my field of view. White hot at the base. Yellow as it extended up. Red as it billowed outward. Dark gray at the rounded top. Each color shot through with streaks of black. It was beautiful and horrific at the same time. Larger than I could have imagined.

Two more, smaller but no less ominous, perched on the horizon.

I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I tried to turn away, but I was frozen in place.

Nothing moved. Nothing at all.

Ahead of me, an older couple clutched one another. A woman in a bright pink coat cradled a dog, crouched on a nearby sidewalk. Two guys, roughly my age, one wearing an Orioles baseball cap, froze halfway out of their rusted Ford Mustang.

Terrified and awestruck, I stared at a picture of nuclear Armageddon, and felt very small.

Not a single sound intruded on the hellscape. Not one car horn, not a single voice, not even the wind. Just empty, eternal silence.

This isn’t real. It’s another nightmare.

But it wasn’t, and in a flash I knew why. I wasn’t Bobby MacDonald, senior at Robert Murrow High School, candidate for class valedictorian.

No. I was Benjamin Joseph Shelton, senior foreign relations adviser to the President of the United States. B.J. to my friends. Benji to my wife, Melissa.

I was both at the same time. I knew everything about Bobby MacDonald. Every last detail of my nerdy little life. I remember asking Jenny Byars to go to prom with me. I remember getting Eric, Jason and Glenn to come over on a Friday night to watch the premier of Battlestar Galactica. I remember cursing at my mom and the resulting slap across my face. I remember my dad breaking down in tears when my granddad died of a stroke.

Those memories were me. Bobby MacDonald.

But I also remember catching a quick out from Skip Morris at the goal-line just as time expired. I remember my Bar Mitzvah. I remember asking Melissa to marry me at my parent’s lake house, and the joy of holding my newborn baby girl for the first time. I remember bringing my dog, Buster, to the vet to be put down. I remember the giddy, surreal feeling of meeting President O’Neil for the first time.

And because I was Benji, I knew the city was Washington D.C., and I knew why, most likely, there were mushroom clouds blooming all over the United States.

Eleven days ago, from Benji’s perspective, one of our Dart-class surveillance subs, the USS Lansing, disappeared. Intelligence reports placed her in the East China Sea and the top brass were ninety percent certain the Chinese had captured her. I attended one high-level meeting after another. The Pentagon had to bump my security clearance for a meeting with the President and Joint Chiefs. If I hadn’t been so terrified, it would have been a thrill.

The White House got me a hotel room ten minutes away, and a town car to chauffeur me. I hadn’t seen Melissa or the kids since the whole thing began, though I talked to them on the phone each night.

The whole situation spelled disaster. The Chinese postured, we blustered. It spiraled out of control. The UN stepped in. President O’Neil took us to DEFCON 1 earlier today, Tuesday, September 21, 2027.

Queasiness overtook me. It wasn’t 2027. It was Monday, January 21, 2013. Barack Obama had begun his second term, the East Coast continued their recovery from Hurricane Sandy, and a sick horror clenched my stomach at the thought of Sandy Hook.

I stared at the freeze frame in front of me. Nuclear devastation. An event that Bobby MacDonald could barely grasp, but one Benji Shelton could.

This isn’t an XBox game or a movie. It’s real. All too real.

I desperately wanted to cry, but couldn’t. A wild panic grew in my chest, flooding me with an insane desire to scream, long and loud.

Pain shot through my skull again.

When I opened my eyes and saw the dim outlines of the ceiling in my room, a burst of relief overcame my fear. My room, not Benji’s. I twitched a finger, wriggled my toes and raised a knee. I let out a shuddering laugh before dissolving into helpless tears.

At some point, emotionally exhausted, I blacked out and slept.

The Flower Garden – Part 2

Greg knew his thinking was impaired. He was halfway back to his father’s house, with Annie in the passenger seat nursing two doggy bags. And it meant that he was also going to have to run her back into town later. She might have some vague plan about staying over, but if she did, this was the worst possible way to go about it.

“It’s real close to the road now,” Annie told him. “I saw on the news there was one in Florida, marching through some sugar plantation. It was on track to go between two of the houses on the farm, but the alien budded about three days before. Split into two. The two of them set off on different directions, one heading for each house. Craziness.”

Greg watched the thing as they drew nearer. There were still cars parked on the shoulder. It was definitely closer to the highway than when he’d arrived.

“Nobody tried to stop them?” he said.

“Sure. There was footage of a farmhand with some kind of sugar machine, kind of like a bulldozer, trying to push one of them to the side. Even the budded ones are too big to budge. Their tendrils dig down deep. And the army and all what have you, they’re busy with the really big ones.”

Greg swung the car into his father’s driveway and pulled up near the old pickup and stopped. His father was on the veranda with the telescope. Greg climbed out and walked over.

“Company,” his father said.

“You remember Annie?” Greg said. “I brought her over to talk some sense into you.”

“Hey,” Annie said. “I brought wings.” She held up the bag.

“Wings.” Greg’s father smiled down at her. “I could go for some wings. You bet.”

“They’re just leftovers, really.”

“I’m not fussy.”

Inside his father arranged the wings on a plate and nuked them. In moments they were crispy hot again. “So,” he said, setting the plate on the table. “Going to talk some sense into me, huh? People have been trying that for decades.”

Annie laughed. She took one of the wings, and his father took one too. Greg just sat. He didn’t like the way his father looked at Annie. Not quite a leer, but it was at least flirtatious. He was too old and sick to behave like that.

“I figure you’ve got plenty more life in you,” Annie said. “I don’t understand this attachment to the land. There was a whole long period that you didn’t even live here.”

“That’s right. And there’s two things. First, what I’ve got is terminal. I don’t have plenty more life in me. Unless I let them experiment and, you know, quite frankly I don’t have the energy for that.”

“Experiment?” Greg said. “There are other treatments?”

The Flower Garden – Part 1

Greg Winden saw the living machine thing from the Lockheed’s window as the aircraft made its final approach into Garnet Hill. He’d always enjoyed seeing his father’s house from the plane whenever he flew in from Newark, but it was weird seeing a mechwurm just across the highway. He remembered his father grumbling about being so close to a flight path when planes came over. Garnet Hill was so small that there were only a couple a day, and nowadays the aircraft were so quiet you barely noticed them anyway. Really, his father had little to complain about.

The alien machine changed that. His house and garden were in its path. Both would be crushed under the thing.

Greg stared at it as the plane went by. His earset snapped off some photos.

The thing was like some ancient whale-sized bottom-dwelling sea creature. Bigger than whale-sized. Its black, segmented body would have looked little bigger than a snail, from the altitude, but the passing cars on the highway almost straight below belied its real expanse: they looked like toy cars. Like a kid’s micro-slot car set, with a fascinated frisky cat about to pounce on them. It had to be two hundred yards wide, and more than three times that in length.

Apparently it was one of the smaller ones. Some of the biggest, in Africa, had grown to several miles in length.

Then it was gone, the plane making a last banking maneuver, correcting for final approach.


In the small terminal, Greg saw Annie Smith in an airline uniform, checking baggage tags. She was still slim, though her hair had lost its sheen. They’d dated in school. Two months, then she got pregnant to one of the linebackers. For a moment–a year or more–Greg had felt like he’d never recover from the betrayal, but looking at her now, he felt no animosity. She was just another woman approaching middle age, still living in Garnet Hill.

“Greg,” she said as he reached for his bag.

“Annie.” He pulled the bag off the carousel.

She waved her scanner at the bag, then at his earset. “Not stealing someone else’s bag are you?”

“What’s your little magic thing there say?” He stared at her eyes. There was something about them still. Like a kind of homing beacon. Land here they said, everything’s safe. He was surprised at still feeling a physical attraction.

She glanced at the scanner. “Well,” she said. “Who’d have thought. It’s actually yours. Staying long?”

“Maybe. Dad’s not well.”

She nodded. “I hear that thing’s heading straight for his house.”

Greg nodded. “Crazy, huh? I saw it from the plane. Like a giant slug.”

“Yeah. A few months ago it looked like it was going to mow right through Garnet Hill’s downtown, such as it is, but then the thing budded and changed direction a little. People lost interest when they knew their homes and businesses were safe..”

“But now it’s heading for my old family home back off highway 91.” Greg watched other people taking bags and leaving the terminal, meeting family or heading for the Hertz kiosk.

“Sorry. I remember your Dad. Came back from San Francisco.”

“Shouldn’t you be checking those bags?”

Annie glanced over, then back at him with a grin. “It’s Garnet Hill, Nebraska. Who’s going to steal a bag?” She paused, watching his face. “Regulations. I’ve got to appear to be checking bags. Makes everyone feel better.”

“Sure.” Greg shuffled his bag up onto his shoulder and headed for the kiosk. “Nice to see you again.”

“Uh,” she said. “Go for a drink? While you’re in town?” She paused. “Maybe.”

He looked back around. Her eyes were wide, the grin had faded. Greg nodded at her. “Sure. Why not?”

She thumbed her earset and he did likewise. His gave a quiet tinkle that it had received her details.

“I’ll be in touch,” she said.

The Land of Dreams

Cass set the last feed bucket down and leaned against the paddock fence, idly tugging a soft clump of gray-green dream pig fur out of the wire. The sun was breaking free of the distant mountains just in time to be swallowed up by blossoming amber clouds. She frowned, twisting the wool around her fingers. Just another normal day on the farm. Morning chores were almost done, but she couldn’t seem to settle into her usual rhythm. Even her eyes felt gritty and irritated. She rubbed at them with a cleanish patch of her shirt sleeve.

“Sleepy? Her father hung his elbows over the top wire casually, missing her mood entirely.

“Yup.” Cass shrugged. Agreeing was easier than trying to explain the restlessness that had been tugging at her. They stood side by side and watched while a couple of yearling dream pigs mock-battled over the last few bits of slop. Their curved horns clashed, donkey-sized bodies smacking into each other. “Hey, Pop? You ever thought about expanding the farm?”

“Into what?” His gaze stayed fixed on the posturing dream pigs, but his tone was carefully neutral, putting her on her guard. It was the tone that meant he already knew where he stood on a topic.

“I dunno. Maybe a few more hands to help around here. More stock. We have the best dream pigs around. Who knows? Maybe we could even have farms on other planets someday.” Cass watched him hopefully, for the first time letting her daydream sneak out into real life. There was no telling what might happen if they tried to make things better.

“I like it the way it is. We can manage what we have as a family. Tulandra’s where the dream pigs came from and Tulandra’s where they should be raised. Other planets won’t suit as well.”

“But you don’t know that.” Cass wanted to clang him on the head with the feed bucket. He was always so single minded.

“Getting the off-world itch, Cassie?” He might as well have asked her if the farm and her family weren’t good enough for her anymore. She knew it was what he meant. Her parents had worried about her wanting to leave since she had mentioned looking at off-world farming techniques once when she was fifteen. It was worse now that the new spaceport was finished barely twenty miles from the farm. She hadn’t missed the fact they weren’t all that keen on her running errands out that way alone or lingering there for any length of time.

“It ain’t that. It’s just – what we do is special. We could use that to make a better life.”

“Sometimes, when things get too big, they stop being special. Gotta give something to get something. What’re you willing to give up to make this place bigger? Your home? Your family? Get a bunch of strangers in here and that’s what might happen.”

“It was just an idea.” Cass shrugged, trying to brush off his dismissal. She didn’t think it was fair to assume that making the farm a little bigger would ruin their lives. She should have known better. He never wanted to hear her thoughts about farm stuff. “Don’t you ever get tired of it, Pop?” Cass looked out at the building cloud bank. If she looked him in the eye, he’d know she wasn’t ready to let it go. Then he’d get stubborn back and that would be that. “One bad flood, a new pig-plague, economy crashes…any of that or a thousand other things and we’ve got nothing. Nothing.”

“You think I don’t know that, Cassie? We’ve been here three generations now.” He looked at her like he had when she was six years old and tying bows in the piglets’ fur. “Jimmy’s family settled here around about the same time. Look at them now – no land left after the Land Grant Agency decided they hadn’t made good enough use of what they’d been given. Now they’re all stuffed in a little place in town, living off of what I can afford to pay him.”

“All the more reason to make things better here.” Cass turned towards him.

“Better means a bigger investment. We take enough risks relying so much on the dream pigs for profit. No.” When she opened her mouth to argue, he shook his head. “Leave it alone, girl. We’re doing well enough right now. Be happy with that.” The all-weather comm hooked to his belt beeped and he turned away from her to answer it.

Cass clenched her jaw. Maybe she was wrong. It just galled her that he was willing to settle for ‘well enough’.

“C’mon, enough sulking.” Pop clapped her gently on the shoulder. “Jimmy needs help with Tika. Birthing’s not going smooth.”

Illuminate: A History and a Future

Voice Over – Hannah Skerritt

“My life is a lesson about the things people refuse to accept. And about what they choose to accept. And maybe you’re thinking that sounds like a lovely life. Or maybe you’re thinking it’s a horrible life. And while you’re thinking it’s a horrible life, the person next to you is thinking it sounds pretty great. That’s the problem with everything, you never know what the other person is thinking. So, ok, you take a drug to try and connect. Or you sing a song or paint a picture. And suddenly you get it, you can tap into the perception of the person next to you. That’s the point of creation, right? I never intended to hurt anyone.”


Illuminate: A History and a Future
Alexa Norton

This is the only shot I’m going to be in. It’s me against the wide blue sky of Idaho, standing along a strip of highway outside Boise. I spent two days waiting for the right weather and the right light. The road bends behind me, the yellow stripes recently painted and bright on the asphalt. Every few feet a stubby pine tree pokes up out of the long grass.

I’ve got a microphone, mostly for looks. I wear a pants suit and kitten heels. My hair is dyed a honey blonde because I think the highlights will look good in the sun. I’ve come to Idaho to visit the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center and finish my documentary. It has been four years since I started and the stretching road seems like a bad metaphor. I hope it doesn’t come across that way on screen. I snort, thinking of the thing ever making it to a screen, small or otherwise.

Lucus pans his camera across the backdrop. I met him two weeks ago at a local bar. He told me his name was Dermot but everyone called him Lucus. I replied that my name was Alexa and that’s what people called me, whether I wanted them to or not. He asked if it was all right if he called me Alexa too. After a few drinks, he took me to his apartment and showed me pictures he’d taken of his niece after she’d broken her arm. Even in black and white I could tell the girl was shaken. Her eyes round as melons and her bottom lip curled in like little kids do when they are dead afraid, as opposed to pouted out when they are merely frightened. I couldn’t tell how the photograph made me feel or if it made me feel anything at all.

“Did you take Illuminate to get that photo?” I asked him.

He stuck a cigarette in his mouth, saying, “I don’t do drugs.”

I laughed and hired him on the spot.

It’s important to have good, creative people working alongside me and they must have a sense of humor. He frames me in the shot. He waits for my cue and I give it. Start rolling.

No More Horizons – Part 1

The soldiers called it Lake Exile. It sparkled below me like a field of glittering emeralds in the sunlight. The green mountain that loomed over us was Warden Peak, and although this planet was known on star charts as Manasseh, the soldiers called it New Alcatraz.

They could call it what they wanted. I called it paradise. Ensign West found me on the veranda gazing down at the verdant lake under the churning pea-green sky. The raptors in the trees around our so-called prison camp may have been startling to look at, but their song was melodious and rhythmically hypnotic. I was caught up in the spell, content to absorb the natural symphony of sight and sound forever.

“Mr. Yancey,” West said.

I tore my eyes away from the lake and turned.

“The admiral would like to speak with you.”

Kate had told me to expect this—a debriefing. I stood and followed Ensign West into the heart of our camp.

As prison camps go, I’d give it five stars. Cobblestone paths, a wide common area surrounded by copper-shelled cabins. Soldiers sat at picnic tables and talked. Some kicked a soccer ball around. Others played Frisbee. I passed a few men and women tossing pennies against a cabin wall.

In one corner of the common area, shunned by everyone, sat one of the Buttheads. Its head hung low, its red-rimmed eyes stared at the ground, its forehead a fleshy, bulbous protrusion that hung over its eyes like a visor. The forehead was what earned our alien hosts their dubious nicknames. More shocking than the forehead, however, was the Butthead’s mouth—a wound-like gash that stretched to the sides of its head at its widest point. Its willowy arms hung listlessly at its sides.

I hesitated as West led me past the bench on which the Butthead sat. I was still unaccustomed to seeing the aliens up close.

The alien stood, startling me backwards a pace. Its eyes closed, it threw its large head back, and in a beautiful vibrato tenor, it began to sing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

My mouth hung open. West had to pull on my sleeve to get me moving.

“Do they always sing like that?” I asked.

“Only that one. We call him Opera Man.”

“So it’s a male…uh…Butthead?”

West shook his head. “Who cares?”

Cincinnati Steam Shovel Blues

Machinery daunted him, levers, gears, and all those moving parts, but Nester needed the work. After three days on the job, the longest stretch he had worked in one place for the past year, he finally settled in on a contraption the folks in salvage called a steam shovel. It was something they’d pieced together from a hodgepodge of spare parts, and as they were apt to do, salvage boasted of their success in bringing the thing to life.

Its boiler tank had been yanked off a driller in the salvage pit, apparently the only part on that rig not twisted up or fused together by a powder blast. The winch and steam engine they’d plucked off a rail tractor, and the axles and rims came from an ancient gasoline-powered truck excavated from the quarry bottoms. But her guts, they told him, the boom, crane and bucket, and all her pulleys, came from a Cincinnati steam shovel, probably the same kind their ancestors used to dig out the Great Quarry. It was equipment so well forged, they claimed, that, not only was it still salvageable after three hundred years in a rust heap, but the recognizable symbol of the Cincinnati Man stamped on every piece kept the company legend alive centuries after its demise. Every time Nester jerked back the boom handle and dropped the bucket for a scoop of soil, seeing that faded logo of a man in red boots standing on the edge of the earth with a hammer in one hand and spade in the other, made him feel as though he had traveled back in time.

“Fourteen in this batch, Nester. Nothing but proles and infantry.” Millie, who was dressed in her usual gray overalls, inspected a clipboard.

“One hole?” Nester scooped another load of coal into the firebox and stoked the flame.

“You’ll get used to it. If it bothers you, spade’s leaning by the shed.” Millie shrugged. “But I’ve never seen a one-legged man work a spade into this hard earth before.”

Nester nodded and eased back the lever, lowering the boom, bucket open. He carved a ditch as deep as a full-grown man and as wide as three men abreast as he backed the steam shovel toward a stone marker. Then Nester signaled his eleven-year-old son, Lemuel, who helped out at the burial yard because he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the school anymore.

Lemuel grinned and gave one of the corpses a kick in the head. Following a dust-up of lime, the body swung halfway over the edge of the ditch.

“Have some respect, boy,” Millie shouted. “Gently!”

Lemuel glared first at Nester, as though he expected his dad to keep quiet, then at Millie, who was a young woman about the age Lemuel’s mother would have been. And Nester did stay quiet. Nester’s own father would’ve wrestled him down and tanned his hide. But Lemuel wasn’t right in his head, and Nester already had to sleep with one eye open.

Millie marched over to the boy wagging her finger. “Look here. Nobody would know if we just threw these poor saps over into the garbage heap. But when I scratch the names on that stone,” she said, pointing to an irregular headstone in front of the steam shovel, “well, that’s all the mom’s of these kids have. And that’s who matters because that’s who’s still alive–moms.” Then Millie went on and on under her breath about the injustice of her being pulled off of book salvage duty to tend the dead yard. It made Nester nervous to watch Lemuel’s face during her rant, as though he enjoyed his time here among the dead.

“Now, give them stiffs a good sprinkle of lime. Or else they’ll get ripe on us.” Millie pointed to a mound of white powder with a spade sticking up out of it.

Nester hop-skipped over to the shed and studied the lime pile. At the same moment he heard a whoosh of steam behind him. His chest felt as though someone had clinched his heart up into a fist, the same feeling he got every time Lemuel got up to something awful.

Nester’s mouth gaped as though a bubble grew on his tongue big enough to hinge his jaw wide. The boom on the steam shovel lowered over the hole, gears grinding. In the window of the operator’s cab, Nester saw the face of his son, an innocent face, just like the one he wore the day he was born, his eyes wide, not wanting to sleep or cry or eat, just stare at things, at people, at Nester, as though he might climb right up in through Nester’s eyeball and rummage through his brain. Lemuel had just sat and stared for the better part of three years before he ever tried to make a word. That happy vacancy had dug into Nester, into Lemuel’s mother, the way the teeth on that steam shovel bucket ate chunks of the earth. On the far edge of the ditch, Millie, working the water pump, had her back to Lemuel as the bucket positioned over her head getting ready to drop.

Nester almost screamed, but Lemuel turned his head at that moment staring right at him, swallowing anything Nester planned to yell before it left his mouth. The bucket on the steam shovel lowered, jerking back up and down again. With the eleven-year-old at the lever, the crane arm swiveled back and forth before the bucket crashed into the ditch, missing Millie’s head by a hawk’s beak.

Millie hopped aside, landing flat on her back. “Mama Jones! That was close. You trying to kill somebody, Nester?”

Nester couldn’t move. He could only watch his son frustrated by the controls on the steam shovel, slamming the lever forward and then back again. “Lemuel.” Nester said, realizing he had said it so softly there was no chance anyone had heard him. “Lemuel,” he called louder, though still much too quietly.

Millie sat up. “Nester! What’s that boy doing in that shovel?” Her expression soured when she saw just how close the shovel had come from her head.

Nester dropped the spade and made his way for his son. “Nobody said you could get up there. Did they? Get down from there.” Sometimes Nester just wished Lemuel would say something, anything at all that would tether him in the regular world.

“Don’t bring that kid back here. Consider yourself canned if you can’t find a place for him.” Millie pointed at Lemuel as though she spotted a rat scurrying off the mooring line of a ship.

“All right, Millie.” Nester had heard those words before. He guided his son up to the top of the hill that overlooked a valley filled with headstones, each covered with columns of names. Nester knew he was supposed to cherish his boy, teach him the ways of manhood, let him learn from his mistakes, but he didn’t think Lemuel knew right from wrong. And without his mother to guide him through, Nester figured Lemuel might just be a bread loaf so molded—by the time all the green spots were cut out there wouldn’t be any bread left to eat.

The 13th Prophet

They say Defiance is dead. Yeah right. Some kid on the street threw a bottle at my head.

Men with long black beards sit on the sidewalk huddled around a TV, like a fireplace, warming their hands. A man shouts in a deep poet-preacher’s voice, “The Prophets have spoken! Cross-cut shawls for women, high beam neck ties for men! All straight from the Temple! The new Control ‘Blue’ hits the shelves today, and it is to die for! The Prophets scoff at the styles of last season!”

A young man punches the speaker in the gut. “The Prophets mourn! Defiance is dead!”

Defiance is dead. What a joke.

“Need a tune up?” says a young thing with more makeup than skin. “What’re you running? I got twenty bucks with your name on it if I can’t guess what you’re runnin’.”

“And if you can?” This will be fun.

“You come in and see what we’re selling?”

“Sure” I say, and she starts guessing.

“Tell me your name and what you do. I nail it every time.”

“Burke,” I say. “Mulligan Burke.”

“What do you do, Mulligan?” she asks, and I tell her it’s Burke to people who like me and Burke to people who don’t and she says, “You’re very funny. If I didn’t know better I’d say you were running a Solitude model . . . ” She eyes me, checking for a tell. It’s obvious she’s running a Control Model 10 with some Bliss highlights. I can almost see the source code for this one. “So, tell me what you do, Burke.”

“I’m a PI, lady,” I say.

“Like in those old movies?” she says.

“An old job for an old dog,” I say. I’m not too hot these days. A little rounder and softer than I used to be.

“Okay, I got it,” she says. “You’re running a Courage model. But you’ve augmented it by overlaying a ‘Blue’ rising touch.” I ask for my twenty bucks and she scowls. She offers me a discount, but I’ve had enough of her patter so I beat it.

An old Chinese woman sits at a little stall. She’s selling Bliss knockoffs. She winks at me as if that’s enough. Hey, these days it is.

“The Prophets have spoken!” coming from another street hawker – god I hate 77th street on days like this. “If you’re still wearing the Model 15 Desire Personality you need an update. The long-awaited Desire Model 16 hits the shelves tomorrow! Be first in line! Be first in line!”

By the time I reach the door to the Mercer Building, I’m sweating. It’s a cold sweat. And there’s this crowd packed in around the doors, shouting. The TVs out front are running the daily fashion lineup and Defiance is missing. There isn’t a body, but so what? The city is his chalk outline. The vibrations on the train, like Morse code, tick tick ticking out the words: Defiance is dead.

The Wreck of the Emerald Sky – Part 2

Chapter 7

A klaxon woke him.

The room was bright.

He sat upright, the chair’s coils slipping away.

Meriam was gone.

He kicked for the door. His flight went awry. They weren’t in zero-gee anymore.

Under acceleration.

The klaxon kept sounding.

He caught a loop and slipped up against the wall. It was a low thrust, perhaps five percent of a standard gee. Maneuvering thrusters.

Where was Meriam?

Hauling himself through the door, he saw crew rushing along the companionway. Some were wearing environment suits. One of them still in coveralls stopped nearby, yanking open a locker in the companionway wall and pulling out a deflated suit. She quickly started putting it on.

“What’s happened?” Larsen said.

“Out of Barris,” she said, looking at him. Her face was grim, eyes wide. She kept working to get the suit over her coveralls. “But I don’t ask, I just get suited and go where they tell me.”

“Thanks.” Larsen started forward, bouncing off his feet, grabbing at loops.

“Wait,” the crewwoman called after him. “You’ll need a suit.” She held out another one she’d taken from the locker.

“I’ve got to find my daughter,” he said. He kept moving forward. He should have set up a proper communications line between the four of them. At least Meriam’s sliver hadn’t activated. She was still alive and still balanced. He wished it had a homing beacon on it.

“Larsen.” Trasker was further down the companionway, waving at him. He had his legs in a suit, the torso, arms and helmet hanging free.

“What’s going on?” Larsen shouted.

“We’re on site,” Trasker called back. He was hanging from a loop, feet braced. Low acceleration was tricky, much harder than either zero-gee or full acceleration.

Larsen came up. “Have you seen Meriam?”

“Jamie’s with her.” Trasker pointed back. “In Jamie’s cabin.”

Larsen felt tension leach from him. He sighed. “How can we be on site already?” Then he looked at the time. He’d slept that long. Actually for-real slept. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept for more than a couple of hours at a time.

In a moment he was at the open door to Jamie’s cabin. They were both in environment suits.

The klaxon shut off.

The Wreck of the Emerald Sky – Part 1

Chapter 1

Derel Larsen sat bolt upright in the bed as his ear-roll chimed. He was halfway to Meriam’s room before he realized that the chime wasn’t her security alert. It was just a phone call.

“Larsen,” he said, thumbing the connect. He kept going towards Meriam’s door.

“Larsen?” a voice said. One of the controllers at flight. Jamie, Larsen thought. Nice woman, even if she did have to confirm his name right after he’d said it.

“Medical leave is over, sport,” Jamie said.

Larsen pushed Meriam’s door open. She was asleep on the bed, white sheets pushed back down around her feet in the humidity. The painted readout on the armature above her head was all blue. She was sleeping normally. He went in and pulled the sheets up over her, staring at her face for a moment. So sweet and angelic. How had five years turned this bubbly academic elementary school achiever into a semi-suicidal wreck?

“Larsen? You still there?”

He stared for a moment longer, then went back out to the hallway.

“Larsen?”

“I’m here,” he said. “I was just checking on Meriam. Didn’t want to wake her.”

“Sure, yeah. Anyway, I’m sorry to tell you that the flight director has cancelled your medical leave. You’re to report to the pads at China Lake first thing.”

“You call me in the middle of the night to-”

“It’s seven am,” Jamie said. “Normal alert time.”

“Seven.” Larsen thumbed up a wall display. 7.03am, July 20th. His sleep was so messed up these days. He headed for the kitchen

“Sorry, sir, but Director Richfield says that you’ve been gone long enough and this is a priority run.”

Larsen was quiet for a moment. “Jamie?”

“Sir? Please. He said they’ll send a car for you if they have to. Then he said that they would make all the arrangements for your daughter while you’re off-planet.”

He could feel his anger rising. Technically they could call him back, anytime they liked. But Richfield had promised him as long as he needed.

At the bottom of the stairs, Larsen turned and went and tabbed open the kitchen door. As he came in the lights flared on and the morning panels slipped up into the ceiling. The coffee cylinder started brewing.

“You still there?” Jamie said. “If you hang up on me, they’ll send a car.”

Larsen thumbed for toast and cereal. Cancelled the cereal and thumbed yoghurt. Protein bacillus crazy-making tasty keep you alert yoghurt. He missed the old days when he could run on just coffee without some medical spiker at the base running his blood and censuring his diet.

“Sheesh,” Jamie said. “I can hear you doing your breakfast stuff. No wonder Richfield said he wouldn’t call you. How naive am I to be the one on the end of one of your silent tantrums?”

Silent tantrums? That sounded like one of Richfield’s terms. He’d probably said that to poor Jamie when he gave her the work chit. “It’s not a tantrum,” Larsen said. “I’m just processing the details.”

“What’s to process? Get to base or get court-martialed. A medical team will be-”

“My daughter tried to kill herself again two days ago.”

Jamie didn’t say anything. The coffee cylinder flashed a bead of blue at him and filled the cup. This was Centauri Coffee. Off-world. And it still amazed him that here was coffee from light-years away. It was within his lifetime that it had changed. The kids today just accepted that their produce came from anywhere, but when he was a boy all these new worlds were the frontier of discovery. Columbus sailing for the West Indies. The domestication that had happened in thirty-odd years astonished him. It was becoming hard to find anything except fresh vegetables that was made right here on Earth.