Science Fiction

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.

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.”