TCL #44 – Summer 2022

The Street Fisher

The street fisher came to the roads each morning in the early hours, when the dark streets rippled with stillness and the air tasted sweet as motor oil, and he cast his line.

He was clad in a yellow coat and a matching hat that flopped above his wiry brows, which pressed taut in concentration. A large, white beard hid most of the lower half of his face. He had caught the coat and hat years ago and wondered, at first, to whom they belonged. But he couldn’t find a home for them, and eventually realized they were intended for him. Nothing else had been intended for him since. But nothing else was supposed to be intended for him, so this did not upset him.

The rod unreeled, buzzing in his palm, and he watched the hook as it blinked in the light of the waxing moon and then fell, with a plink, into the freeway. He watched the line as it sank, disappearing below the asphalt, dark and thick as honey. And then he waited. It wasn’t long before he felt a familiar pull, and the thin tip of the rod bounced and then rebounded, jittering with excitement. He gave the rod a tug, smiling when it resisted, and then began reeling.

The line came in quick and light. Other fishermen would be disappointed by a small catch, but the street fisher wasn’t. He reeled, and the hook broke the surface of the pavement. An item fell from the hook. It was round and small, about the size of a quarter, and he had a sneaking suspicion that it would have glittered a great deal if the sun were high and not still hidden below the horizon. It bounced onto the road and then spun around on itself, clinking against the pavement before settling into stillness and silence. The street fisher lowered his rod and went to inspect his catch.

It was an engagement ring, slim and silver with a diamond settled in the center. He picked it up and turned it over. It glimmered, mirror-like despite the darkness, and the street fisher wondered, as he always did, how it ended up here.

When he caught an item, he assumed it came from one of two possibilities. The object may have been thrown away willingly; flung from the open window of a car racing down the freeway. These items wanted to be left behind. They wanted to be forgotten.

But maybe this ring had been wrapped around a woman’s finger. Maybe she had been sitting in the driver’s seat and rolled down the window to rest her arm on the ledge. Maybe she wanted to feel the rush of warm summer air in her face as she drove, turning the radio up loud enough to share her music with the other drivers. Maybe the ring slid off her hand as it rested outside the car, and she didn’t even realize it was missing until she arrived at her destination and noticed her naked finger. Maybe she cried.

Or maybe she threw it. Maybe she was running away, driving away, and ripped it from her hand and launched it as far as she possibly could.

The street fisher looked at the ring, turned it over in his palm, then placed it into his coat pocket. He glanced up to the sky. It was still quite dark, but the edges of morning were beginning to peak over the eastbound lane, and a songbird flew overhead, silhouetted. He had time to cast again, but only once more.

He flung the line into the street, and it caught almost immediately. He tugged at the rod, and it tugged back. He began to reel.

A small hand emerged, grasped around the line, and then an arm followed. The street fisher kept reeling. A head appeared, small and round, and a body followed, wrapped in a fuzzy lavender blanket.

The street fisher had caught a child.

He walked towards her. She was an infant, really, and her cheeks were stained with tears, her nose red, her eyes puffy. She blinked and looked up at him. Her lips warped into a gummy smile. He reached down and hoisted her onto his chest. She wrapped her small arms around his neck and lowered her forehead against his shoulder. The street fisher felt her small breaths puff against his shoulder as she relaxed against him, and when he looked down, her eyes were closed, lashes pressed against soft cheeks.

The street fisher noticed his shadow on the road and looked up to see the sun lifting itself fully above the eastbound lane. He was finished here.

Deletable Love

Mom and dad are outside the room, watching me on the view screen. I grip the small holoroom remote in my hand. Pixels swirl around me, transforming into a park. As soon as I see Ava on a bench reading my mouth is dry and there’s tears in my eyes.

I don’t even know what to say or how to say it. My parents want me to delete my girlfriend.

Ava looks up from her book and smiles, but it slides away. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“My parents want me to erase the program,” I say. I can’t believe I blurt it out like that. The horrible look on her face twists my guts. “I’m sorry.”

“Why?” Her voice is barely a whisper.

Hot tears drench my face. I clench my teeth and take an unsteady breath through my nose. “Mom and dad don’t think we’re legit. They think it’s wrong for us to be together.”

Her dark eyes meet mine. There’s tears there, but I can tell she’s more angry than anything.

“What’s wrong with what we have? Why do they get to decide who you love?”

They shouldn’t be able to. I tried to tell my parents that when we argued. But I live in their house. Their rules. Either I delete Ava and get a real girlfriend or they will. What other choice did I have?

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” I say. “You’ve been my everything for the last six months. I love you.”

“Yeah, I can see that. And what’s in your hand. Is that it? The remote. You’re going to do it aren’t you, you’re going to kill me?”

She sounds so hurt and my heart feels like it’s gonna burst. I hadn’t even thought about it like that. But she’s right. Deletion will do more than end her program. It will erase her forever.

I don’t know what to say. All I can do is stare at the beautiful girl in front of me and wonder what the hell is so wrong with loving her. Ava is every bit as real to me as anyone else I’ve ever known. She’s more than a program.

She takes a deep breath, wipes the tears from her face, and sets her jaw. “Just do it,” she says, voice steady. It’s amazing how strong she is. How brave. I love her so much.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want be the one to do it, but I wanted to say goodbye. I love you.” I take a few steps toward her.

I feel like I’m gonna puke. I raise the remote and I’m about to do it when she says my name.

“I know it’s not your fault. I love you too. Keep me right here,” she says and she points to my heart.

I press two buttons. Ava fragments and the world around us crumbles. Her small body fades as pixels drop and dissipate. The last piece of her to go is her bright, toothy smile.

I’m alone in the empty holoroom. It wasn’t how I wanted my goodbye to go, but my parents were watching. I had to make them believe I’d done it. Before I deleted, I saved a copy. I doubt they’ll verify the files are gone. It’ll be some time before I’ll risk seeing her again. I’ll have to sneak visits when my parents aren’t around. But I love Ava with all of my heart, and I refuse to let my parents tell me that I can’t love a hologram.

Eric Fomley’s stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Galaxy’s Edge. You can read more of his stories on his website

The Day the Sky Split Open

The day the sky split open was the day my mother died, and I couldn’t help but think that it split open because of her, or maybe because of me. Maybe both.

When I walked into the hospital that morning, the sky was fine. Intact but overcast. We went to her room, and we waited for her to do what people often do in hospitals. What we expected her to do in this hospital.

When I walked out, shaking, my cheeks wet with slimy tears, the massive rent stretched from the sun to the horizon. It was like fire, but air. It was like feathers, but light. Everything wore a reddish orange cast that danced like the northern lights. It was something I didn’t just see with my eyes. Could I have assumed anything different than heaven had opened to accept her in?

I was only 10, led by my father’s hand out from the lobby. I wasn’t the hand holding type with him normally, but mom was dead. We stopped in a lane meant for ambulances, stood on peeling diagonal lines. Dad’s jaw slacked. He didn’t believe, but he believed then, whispering “Sweet mother of Christ.” We stood there and stared for I don’t know how long. I think part of us both expected the world to end because the world had just ended.

The next morning was the strangest. How do you wake up in the morning and eat cornflakes when the world was over? But that’s just what we did. The placemats were the same plaid they were the last time we’d eaten on them. There is a sound to the first milk striking the dry cornflakes that you know in your bones, that crunch of the first bite that has yet to accept the decay of absorption.

Afterward, dad lay on the couch and didn’t get up for four days. At the time, it didn’t strike me as odd. I just assumed that’s what people did when their family members died. I tried not to get up either, but I would get hungry and thirsty, and I had to go to the bathroom. Dad went to the bathroom on the couch and the living room stank so horribly. He hardly spoke, but then again, it was really hard to tell if he was asleep or awake.

When my Aunt Liz finally arrived, she broke into gasping sobs in the doorway. I guess my mom had called her on the way into the ER, but Liz hadn’t known mom was gone. She shepherded me out onto the walk, and I gaped at the tear in the sky while she screamed obscenities six or more words deep at my dad. Several things broke. Bottles. Cups. Picture frames. While dad cleaned himself up, Aunt Liz and I cleaned the wreckage. At one point, she pressed her hand to my cheek and told me to remember that I was loved. It would have been really sweet, but a glass pebble was stuck to her palm and it drew blood just past the corner of my lip.

The funeral was a couple days later. A few people came, but no one I knew. We didn’t have much family to begin with, and everyone was busy putting their lives in order because the sky had torn open and feathery filaments had begun to extend outwards from the rift. Folk with high magnification cameras and telescopes said that whenever the filaments wafted, they caught glimpses of wild and glazed eyes behind them. On the news, they said fistfights were breaking out in the offices of attorneys who dealt in last wills and testaments. Churches were busy as the Superbowl. So were bars. Supermarkets shelves cleared within the day. Distant gunshots woke me regularly, but none ever hit my house.

Aunt Liz stayed a couple more days, but she kept stopping and crying, her shoulders jolting with sob in the middle of the hall or on the third step or while reaching up to put away a dish. On the fourth day after the funeral, she left while I was taking a shower. She didn’t leave a note, but she left all the dining chairs on the front porch. I tried to get dad to call her, but he said “No, go to school,” even though school hours were long over and no one was really going to school anyway.

Instead, I sat on one of the dining chairs on the porch and ate some pasta in tomato sauce straight from the can. It was cold and kind of gelatinous. The filaments formed elaborate patterns, and from each extended filaments in miniature versions of those patterns. I had no doubt that the filaments’ filaments would also have the same patterns. The living fractal undulated like a gliding jellyfish, now almost long enough to brush the mountains on the horizon.

That night, Dad and I swiped through the photographs on the tablet one after another. Pictures of me, pictures of him, pictures of mom. Pictures of meals we’d eaten and pictures I’d drawn. We’d stopped at a pet store the week before her stroke and taken a picture of me holding every animal they let me. She’d been thinking of repainting the bathroom, so she took pictures of every single paint swatch in the shore because it was less wasteful than bringing them home.

Dad ran to the bathroom and threw up. He came back brushing his teeth, and he dropped the toothbrush on the floor when he was done. He swallowed the toothpaste I suppose, which makes sense, because it’s not like a little fluoride would matter that much at this point. I wanted to put the tablet down, but dad gave my shoulder such a fierce squeeze when I made to do so that I knew that was not an option.

The next morning, the filaments ripped a mountain from the ground and pulled it into the sky. I was still asleep when it started, but the sound and concussion through the bedrock of the breakage shook everything with earthquake force, taking all the books off my shelves. The trip down my hall was like walking above decks on a schooner in a storm. I made it outside in the cold in my boxers as boulders the size of houses plummeted down on the farmlands outside of town and crushed several families. Dad bellowed for me to go back inside, but it was the kind of thing that you might as well watch because you were getting crushed inside your house or out if it was your time.

After a moment, dad took my hand. I felt like I should say something. This seemed like the time to have an adult conversation. Maybe we should talk about sex. Or why I shouldn’t do drugs or smoke cigarettes. Maybe this was the time to ask dad if he had any secret stash of drugs or cigarettes.

The macro filaments wrapped around the mountain with an ethereal embrace. The smaller filaments burrowed into the surface as gentle as can be, boulders tumbling away from their probes like rain.

“Your mom’s cancer was like that,” Dad whispered. “Burrowed all through her organs, breaking things as it went.”

I nodded though he wasn’t looking at me. His eyes never left that massive tear.

“Why didn’t she ever tell me,” I asked.

“She wanted your last memories with her to be free of it,” he said.

Across the streets a couple kids with stuffed animals came out onto their porch. Marty and June. Marty made shooting sounds and pretended like his plush giraffe was a rifle he could shoot the rift with. June kicked a soccer ball through her father’s garden and let her ladybug pillow watch.

“When she collapsed in the park,” I said, “I wet myself. I didn’t know what to do.”

“No one ever really does,” Dad said. He reached behind the dining chairs and picked up a push broom that had been left against the siding. He began sweeping dirt and dust from the porch planks. “Not in the end, anyway.”

Marty squawked something at June. Marty was staring at dad and I. Marty was six and June eight. I didn’t play with them much because June didn’t like any of the shows I liked and Marty was just too little to be fun for me. All his games were excuses for explosions and to punch the other players in the shoulder. June told Marty to mind his own business.

Marty scowled, walked to June and punched her in the shoulder. June grabbed her shoulder and then decked Marty straight in the forehead. The boy took one step back and then his legs stopped moving while his butt continued. He fell on his butt with a jolt, looking up at June with a dazed expression. Down the street, a car pulled out of a driveway and turned towards the main intersection.

“Should we be driving away from here?” I said, pointing to the sky, where the mountain was disintegrating. Large chunks still fell, the ground vibrating with each of their thuds, but most of them had began to ascend into the rift of their own accord with the same languid drift as the filaments.

“I’m not of the mind that that is something we can escape,” he said. “Mom couldn’t drive away from her cancer either.”

“I don’t think that thing in the sky means anything like that, dad,” I said.

He shrugged and continued cleaning the decking.

“Might as well make it mean something,” he said.

Marty and June started to argue. Pointing at us frequently. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the urgency in their tones was clear. Squinting, it occurred to me that their faces were pretty dirty. Their clothes too.

The Memory Exchange

Meghan Lee smiled into the camera, awaiting Dan’s signal to begin and trying not to look too much like the enthusiastic newbie she was. But gah! Her very own segment! She was young. She was pretty. She was on fire!

“You’re go in five, four…” Dan held up three fingers, then two, then pointed at her.

“Hello,” Meghan said, intentionally letting her smile falter somewhat. “This is Meghan Lee reporting to you from Central Park where masses of empty shells are…” Meghan paused, thoughtfully. “Should I go with empty shells or human husks?”

“What?” Dan wasn’t paying attention to her; he had the camera pointed toward a hauntingly lovely young woman with dark hair, bronzed skin, and dull, empty eyes.

“Empty shells or human husks?” Meghan asked impatiently. “I need this first segment to be perfect. Some people are calling them zombies, but–”

“That’s offensive,” Dan replied.

“Exactly, so empty shells or human husks?”

“Have you ever known one?” He looked annoyed, suggesting he had. But he’d been a cameraman a lot longer than she’d been a reporter.

“I talked to some of these yesterday, before I pitched the segment.” Meghan waved vaguely at the people behind her. It hadn’t been precisely these people, although she thought she recognized a white-haired man sitting on a bench, but they’d all had more or less the same things to say: Can you spare some change for the memory exchange?


“My brother ended up like this,” Dan said with a scowl. “Kept trading up his memories for better memories until there was nothing left of him.”

“That’s why we’re doing the segment, to warn people away from disreputable memory brokers.”

Dan scowled again. He never seemed to approve of Meghan, no matter what she did, and he acted like he was at least a decade older than her when in fact, he was barely twenty-five. Maybe he’d gone to a disreputable memory exchange, too, and was remembering what it felt like to be an eighty-year-old man.

The thought made her smile.

“All right, let’s start over.” Meghan stood tall and stared at the camera.

“Go with lost souls,” Dan said as he reset the shot.

“A bit poetic, but…” Meghan shrugged. Maybe. She started rehearsing possible lines in her head as Dan once again cued her to begin.

“Hello, this is Meghan Lee reporting to you from Central Park where the scourge of lost souls continues to grow by the day. These people were once our brothers and sisters, moms and dads, daughters and sons, but now they wander aimlessly on errands not even they comprehend for they have forgotten even that which drives them.”

Meghan stared into the camera for another few heartbeats, then began walking along the path toward the white-haired man she was pretty sure she’d seen yesterday. He was particularly gruesome, and would punctuate her segment nicely.

“Excuse me, sir, may I have your name?”

He looked up at her vaguely, his eyes struggling but finally finding focus on her face. “Do you have some spare change? I’ve run out of memories to exchange.”

“Do you even know your name?”

“It might be Tom. Or Donald. Or Beth.”

“Which memory exchange do you use?”

“Do you have some change?” he asked again.

Meghan had been expecting this. She motioned to Dan to cut the recording while she passed a fistful of bills to the old man, knowing exactly what he would do with them. As soon as he had his cash in hand, he stood up from the bench and began to walk across the park.

Meghan and Dan followed.


I sharpened my hook against my whetstone and cast my line into the inky blackness.

Three tries later, I hooked a star.

I was a novice sky-caster and those slippery points of light liked eluding me. We seemed to have developed a relationship, though; if I practiced with good-natured patience, eventually the stars allowed me to catch them. Then I set them free.

The stars were drawing other casters, as well. Holding a slender casting pole, a boy the age of my young grandson approached me. “You’re not very good at that,” he said, with the innocent bluntness of youth.

His observation didn’t bother me. It was accurate, after all! “I’m sure I’ll get better, in time.” I reeled in my line, accidentally tangling it again. The little star broke free from my hook and sailed back up into the sky. A pang went through my heart—I would have enjoyed admiring its glimmer up close for a moment. How easily some things slipped away from us when we weren’t ready to let them go.

“It got away!” A girl a little older than the boy joined us, holding a banged-up tackle box and gripping another pole. Her eyes seemed hungrier for the stars than the boy’s. Some of us casters needed more wishes and dreams than others. I wondered what dreams she needed, and why.

But I only said, “I’m learning from the experience. I’ll eventually figure it out.” I finished untangling my line and cast again. Glorious stars lay strewn across tonight’s meteor-filled sky, creating a double glory—a sky begging for admiration.

“How can you be learning if you’re doing it wrong?” the girl asked.

“I untangled the line, didn’t I?”


“Aren’t you awfully old to just be learning now?” The girl set down her tackle box next to me, opened it, and chose a hook. The boy rummaged through the box’s contents and selected a hook, too.

They were brother and sister, I guessed. They had the same soulful eyes. I considered my answer to her question, since I was the oldest woman I’d seen casting, so far. “I don’t think it’s a matter of age. It’s about caring about what you’re doing.”

The girl studied her pole as if she hoped it would capture things far bigger and even finer than stars.

A minute later, I caught another star, a tiny, graceful one that perched on the tip of my hook like a finely crafted diamond. “Beautiful.” I gently pulled it in—no tangles this time—and let it rest on my palm so my new companions could see it. We all admired its sparkle, and then I nudged it free of the hook. It flew back up into the sky with a brilliant arc of light, the kind that sends hope into your soul and makes you smile after a dark day.

“You let it go already!” the boy cried in dismay.

“I couldn’t keep it,” I said, my curiosity rising about their method of sky-casting. But I didn’t want to spoil our new friendship with too many questions. “Look how brightly it shines up there. It wouldn’t be content down here with me. In fact, it’s light might go out.”

“But it’s gone….” the boy murmured. “Not everyone can see them when they’re so far away—”

The girl nudged him, and he stopped talking.

“It’s all right,” I said. “We all see differently.”

The girl and boy looked at each other, as if swiftly judging me. Then, she said to me in a low voice, “Mama can’t see the stars anymore. She says she’s going blind. The stars used to make her so happy. Now, she can only see them when they’re up real close. When she can hold them. So, we like bringing them home to her. Then she’s happy…for a little while.”

“I think I understand.” A longtime friend of mine had also lost his sight, and he’d loved the joy of the sky. “That’s a very loving thing for you to do for her.”

The girl glanced down at her tackle box. “Does their light really go out?”

“I’ve never kept a star for that long, but yes, I’m told so.”

“Do you always let them go?”

“Well, I’ve often wanted to keep them,” I admitted, sensing the need to be a co-conspirator. “It’s very tempting, but they’d be lost without their sky. And if everyone took one….” I didn’t need to finish.

“That’s what mama says sometimes.” The boy quietly wiped an eye, then gripped his pole. He tugged at his line, staring up at the sky’s brilliant display. A meteor shot past us. A smile flickered over his face, like a ghost.

Cold Blooded

There was nothing else for it. I pushed myself into the pile of ice that Glen had tipped onto the sidewalk and tried to get comfortable for the night. The weather bureau was predicting sub-zero temperatures overnight and a heavy frost in the morning. There was no chance the ice would melt.

The soothing cold of the ice slowed my heart rate. My worries unwound as cool blood pulsed into my brain with each measured heartbeat.

Being a kitchen hand at a cafe in suburban Canberra wasn’t a great job. I wasn’t sorry that the arse-hat who owned it went broke. I hated schnitzel Tuesday and making fifty bowls of chips a night.

But he had invested in a proper industrial kitchen. And the second-rate chef, Glen, made sure there was a good old-fashioned hierarchy. Being the lowest of the low meant I had to stay late and clean up. When everyone was gone, and after I’d screwed up my eyes and cleaned the hot ovens with hydrochloric acid, I slid into the generous cool room, closed the door, and relaxed in the cold dark.

That apartment sized freezer made it the best job I’d ever had. But it was taken from me that night. The freezer had been turned off and the door had been propped open to slow the buildup of mildew. All the stock that could be sold had been sold. The rest was in a dumpster. Even the ice had been tipped onto the footpath.

My mother used to say that she remembered me trying to climb into the freezers at supermarkets when I was a toddler. Those were the old-style ones where frozen goods were presented to buyers in a frost lined trough filled with cardboard packs of fish filetsfillets and tubs of Neapolitan ice cream.

I complained about being too warm growing up and threw off constricting heavy woolen jumpers in winter at the first chance I got.

After child me begged my mother to let me roll in a pile of hail that had pooled on the footpath on the way to our local shops, I’d never told anyone about what made me happy. I learnt disapproval easily and early.

And as I got older, I also learnt to camouflage my needs, like my teenaged friends with un-obvious desires or frowned upon addictions. Even though I yearned for cold and dreamed of running away to the arctic, I got by in my teens by stealing time in my parents’ chest freezer, the pride of the house, when they went out to dinner.

I never wanted to know why I craved the cold. As far as I was concerned, I was just built that way, and I didn’t care to change. Even if it made a marriage, career, and children impossible.

Ice on a street wasn’t my preferred sleeping place, but the bar had shut quickly, and I couldn’t make other arrangements. I was kind of excited to be sleeping rough again, even if it was only in an inner north suburb of the nation’s Capital. I pushed myself into the ice. It felt even colder than Glen’s cool room. I drifted off into a deep sleep.

I was woken by a sharp prod on my foot, and a high-pitched scream. I felt a hot spot on my left heel. Someone had started to pull on the foot which must have slipped out of my ice bed.

“Don’t do that, we should leave it for the police.”

“But he might still be alive. Maybe we can help.”

There was another hand on my foot. It was pulling down my sock and gently feeling my ankle.

“No, he’s pretty cold. There’s not much we can do. Let’s just call the police.”

I needed to get out of there. I tensed and un-tensed my muscles. I knew from experience that a deep cool sleep could make my movements stilted when I woke up, and I didn’t want to jerk about like Frankenstein’s monster when I first emerged from the ice pile.

My graceful exit from the embrace of my ice bed was greeted by another scream.

“Umm, hi. It’s okay. I was just fooling around, hiding from my mates.” I looked down at my tatty jeans and cheap cotton windcheater. The ice hadn’t melted, so they weren’t soaked with water. No one could believe that someone would sleep out overnight in jeans and a thin top,so it was plausible that I’d only been there a couple of minutes.

A young woman in active wear, with a pink viscose headband and gloves, stared back at me, phone in one hand dog lead in the other. She looked uncertainly at an older woman dressed in a more dignified manner, who was standing just to my left. The dog, a generic brown fluff ball, just sniffed the ice.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” said the older woman. “Your foot was very cold.”

“Nah, I’m fine.”

“So I shouldn’t call the police?” The younger woman was concentrating on the older one, not me. The older woman had gray hair, a thick jumper, long red woolen scarf, and woolen pants. Who has woolen pants anymore? I thought. She took a step towards me and without asking for permission, put her hot hand on my forehead.

“I work at the hospital,” she said, as if that excused anything that she might do next. I twisted away from her hand, and she grimaced.

“You should really see a doctor,” she said, looking me over with light blue eyes. “We could call an ambulance for you.”

“You’re being very kind,” I said. “But I’m really all right. Just a bit of a practical joke. My friends will be along soon looking for me, I expect.” Of course, I had no friends, but I was hoping that the conversation wouldn’t go on long enough for the old duck to find out.

“You’re as cold as ice,” she responded. “I hate the cold. It’s the source of most illness in winter, you know.” I looked at her thick jumper, pants, scarf, and heavy leather boots. I could see that she did indeed hate the cold and was determined to defeat it by any means possible.

I turned to her companion with acrylic cold protection. “Look, I’m really grateful that you are both so concerned for me, but I’ll be alright. I promise.” I started to walk away. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I charted a path that didn’t involve trying to barge past the two women and possibly inflaming their concern for me by brushing a cold limb against their insulated bodies.

I felt a warm and surprisingly strong hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, but I really must insist,” said the older woman. “Narelle, call an ambulance. Young man, if you’re worried about the cost, I’ll pay for the ambulance. But we really need to get you to a doctor. People who let their core temperature drop as low as you have can die, you know.”

At that point, I started to run. I knew I wouldn’t get far before my legs warmed up and cramped. But I didn’t think that I had to go very far to get away from Narelle’s bossy companion. Narelle might have been able to outpace me, but she didn’t really look like she was that interested.

The Cradle

We have a rule: once a kid reaches the age of ten, we don’t use them to spread the fire anymore.

I took my son to the cradle the day after his ninth birthday. Nine is a good age for this. When kids are little, they have no comprehension of how the world works, relying on you for guidance. They trust you. Tell them they’ll be okay, and they’ll believe it. The youngest one we’ve ever used was four, a boy, and he gave me a thumbs-up right before he ran towards the fascists’ checkpoint. A thumbs-up and a trusting smile. I’ll never forget it.

The sacrifices one must make to free our country. I know what history will say about us, but history has a lot to talk about. Sooner or later, we’ll be a footnote against the course-changers like the second world war or the DC Incident.

The DC Incident. I’m using the fascists’ term for it but it’s our term too, we’ve adopted it. The DC Incident.

My son wasn’t afraid. I waited until he was nine because I don’t want him going in completely ignorant. I want him to experience the world the fascists have given us–shape his understanding of our mission. This isn’t an excuse to kill and maim; it’s a fight for freedom.

It’s a fight for our lives.

The fascists maintain a ten mile perimeter around the cradle. Only authorized personnel are allowed through, and authorized personnel include security and scientists. The fascists make grand claims about restoring law and order to our country, but enough cash helps the perimeter guards look the other way. I’ve been coming here for years.

It was the first time for my son. Lanky like me when I was his age, Ryan took after his mother in other respects. He had a curious, determined gaze, and he perched on one knee, overlooking the cradle. His gaze peering back through history to the charred ruins of a once great capital. The DC Incident, indeed.

“Careful,” I said, the air filter deepening my voice. “You don’t want to rip your suit.”

The radiation suits were top of the line, surplus stolen from a truck. There are hot spots all over the country but the cradle is the worst.

“Did you check your geiger?” I asked.

He ignored me for a few moments. Such a contemplative boy. I wondered then if he would go through with it. Little kids are easier to fool, true, but even they have second thoughts. Our primal nature sometimes defies even our trusted authority figures. A five-year-old girl refused to go at the last minute. We feared the opportunity was lost, until I procured a Hershey bar. Kids are still kids, and she annihilated a convoy.

He raised his geiger. “Ten.”

I smiled inside my suit. The filter blessed him with an authoritative voice—a man’s voice. What he could have become. If not for the fascists.

“Can we proceed any further?” I asked.

“No. The cradle’s too dangerous.”

“Good.” I shuffled up beside him, looking out over the cradle. I carried a pack on my shoulders—supplies for both of us—and I pulled out a pair of binoculars. I handed them to him. “Careful, don’t press it on your screen.” I waited for him to get the binos in position. “What do you see?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Ruins.”

“Tell me what the blast center looks like.”

Again, no hesitation. “Dark.”

I didn’t take the binos from him. I’ve seen the cradle so often I dream of it, both what it is now and what it was before the DC Incident. The blast radius isn’t dark, it’s a scar, a black scar on the earth. Outward, some ruins linger. The Washington Monument lost most of its inside like a bomb blast ripping tissue from one’s calf. It tilts to this day over a dry pool, charred and reflecting nothing, and year by year the monument inches towards collapse.

“How many people died that day?” I asked.

“Over 200,000.”

“How many died later?” I took a step towards the cradle and my geiger clicked. “And why?”

“Over 10,000,” Ryan said, still peering through the binos. “Radiation.”

I crouched beside him. The streets leading to the cradle were cracked, hardened puddles of melted asphalt. When the DC Incident occurred, it blinded witnesses for miles.

I pointed towards the wastes. Where the halls of Congress once stood, close to the blast center. Vaporized in seconds and they were the lucky ones. “Do you know why they did it?” I asked.

“Because they’re fascists.”

I smiled again. The simplicity with which a child views the world. Older, wiser…but not jaded. Nine is the perfect age to spread the fire.

“But do you know why?” I gave him no time to answer. “They wanted to blame us.”

“So they’ll be the heroes and we’ll be the bad guys.”

“Yes,” I whispered, my air filter changing my whisper into a growl.

I didn’t ask if he was done. I gave Ryan all the time he needed. It is impossible to understand our fight until you come to the cradle and see for yourself—I should know. I puttered around in my youth, engaging in mischief against the fascists. I thought stealing tires and ammo counted as a strike against them. I had no clue who I was dealing with until I came here, and glimpsed their work for myself.

At last, Ryan lowered the binos and said the words a little kid wouldn’t think to say and in that moment I knew I would never have to bribe him with a Hershey bar.

“I’m ready.”

The Way to Robot City

At recess, when other seventh graders called Nina a weirdo again, she knew there was no hope for her to make friends among her fellow humans. In math class, she drew sketches of robot cities, shading and highlighting their sleek metal structures, glass domes, and tidy squares where robots socialized through short-range wireless connections. She’d never been to any such places, but dreamed of finding friends there, even if they were synthetic.

At the end of the school day, she decided to skip soccer practice and try to sneak into Robot City 6724, the nearest to her town. If she timed it right, she’d be back before her robocar arrived to take her home at fifteen-thirty.

She wore a T-shirt and shorts, like most students leaving the school that afternoon, but she worried she might attract attention somehow. Standing out had always been her thing. For years, she’d required special treatment at school because of her rare genetic disorder that made her prone to fractures. She was always in a cast of some sort, which no one wanted to write on or decorate because they were told to be careful around her. In third grade, she’d undergone multiple surgeries for the titanium implants and the genetic enhancement, to become the only student in school who wore an exoskeleton that year, while she recovered. By the time Nina was free of it, her social life was dead. It didn’t help that she was now faster and stronger than everyone else in her class.

As she waited at the crosswalk outside the campus entrance, she told herself she was part-robot anyway, so it made sense to look for friends among her own kind.

A squeaky voice calling from above startled her. “Where’re you going? You’re supposed to be in soccer.”

Nina swung around to see a fourth grader sitting crisscross on the big rock engraved with the name of their school. She had a round face, curly hair, and a strange name. Something like a plant, but Nina couldn’t remember.

“What do you want?” Nina said.

“To come with you?” the girl said.

Nina looked around. “Why are you out here alone?”

“My dad forgot to pick me up. I’m sure he thinks it’s my mom’s turn.” She shrugged like she didn’t care, but Nina didn’t buy it. “They’ll figure it out by dinner. Can I come with you?”

“Sorry,” Nina said. “I can’t take care of a little kid.”

“I’m not a little kid, and if you don’t take me with you…” She squinted for a moment. “I’ll tell the admin you skipped soccer.”

So much for feeling sorry for that brat.

“Please, Nina.” She even knew Nina’s name. “I don’t want to wait around here for hours until one of them remembers to come get me. All my friends have already gone home.”

At least she had friends.

Nina was about to make a run for it, but she worried the brat would go to the admin, as threatened. Nina’s adventure could be over before it even started. “What’s your name?”


Clover, right. “Listen, Clover, I’m in a hurry and—”

“Oh, I’m fast.” Clover slid off the big rock and was at Nina’s side in an instant.

Nina was impressed but wouldn’t advertise it.

“Where are we going?” Clover said. She didn’t have a backpack, but Nina didn’t care to ask what had happened to it.

“You can come. But only if you stay quiet and do exactly as I say.”

Clover sealed her mouth and tossed the key.

Nina led the way by half a step. Drones buzzed overhead, robocars zoomed by, some people rolled in their special lane on smart scooters. It wasn’t so bad having someone to walk with, Nina thought. The two of them looked like a team with a purpose, so adults didn’t stop them to ask questions. But after a while, Clover began to pant, and Nina realized they were walking too fast. Enhanced bone and muscle tended to do that.

She slowed down, watching Clover catch her breath. Of course Clover wouldn’t complain, not after bragging about being fast.

“You could’ve asked me to slow down,” Nina said.

Clover pointed at her sealed lips.

Nina laughed. “You can speak.”

“Do you have your phone with you?”

“I left it in my locker. My parents track it, so it’ll look like I’m at school.”

“I wish I had a phone,” Clover said, “but my mom says my dad should buy it, and he says she should.” She had a funny way of speaking with her hands, not just her mouth.

Nina didn’t know what to say or how to help. “Sorry, Clover, but I’m not your friend.”

Clover shrugged. “Duh. We’ve just met.”

“No, I mean I’m not trying to make friends.” They turned the corner into a busy boulevard. “Not in this city, anyway.”

“Then where? Robot City?”

Nina didn’t answer, annoyed she’d been so easy to figure out.

“I knew it!” Clover grinned with satisfaction. “Wait, have you ever seen a robot in real life?”

“They’re really cool,” Nina said.

“But are they friendly?” Clover said.

“They’re not unfriendly, and that’s good enough for me.”

“My dad says caretaker robots killed people years ago.”

Nina rolled her eyes. “That was before they broke off with us and built their own cities. Robots are super peaceful now. They’re good neighbors. No more synth caretakers to worry about because now they have the same rights as we do.”

Clover shrugged as if bored with the sudden middle school history lesson, and remained quiet. But she had a strange way of skipping when she walked, sometimes bumping into people, and after a while, Nina switched places with her so Clover wouldn’t be in danger of falling off the sidewalk into traffic.

“What will we do inside their city?” Clover said.

Nina didn’t know. She was too anxious to get there. “I have a plan, don’t worry.”

My Android Mother

Growing up, I didn’t really get how my mother was different from the other moms. And I never questioned her love for me. She made picture-perfect pancakes with strawberries and whipped-cream in the morning, strolled with me through a park or a museum in the afternoon, read me fairy tales before bed, and told me she loved me before she planted a dry kiss on my cheek and cooed, “Good night, honey-bunny”.

I took her quirks for granted—her phobia of water, the faint scent of rubbing alcohol on her skin, the way she lifted the fridge with ease when a pea rolled behind it, the quiet whirring when I put my head against her chest.

Maybe I was slow for not putting two and two together. But I never gave any of it a second thought. It was just the way Mom was.

Summer, I sat in the pool with my best friend, Betty. Shrill squeals of laughter erupted from mouths with missing milk teeth. The sun bounced off sunglasses and soda pop bottles. My mother lounged on a chair in capri pants and a white turtleneck, a lifestyle magazine flicked open to the same page for hours. Now I think back on it, I bet she was ‘reading’ hundreds of books at the same time, while keeping her eyes on me.

“Why isn’t your mommy wearing a swimsuit?” Betty asked.

“She can’t swim.”

“Isn’t she hot?”

I shrugged. The temperature never seemed to affect my mom. When icicles hung from the eaves like teeth, and I pretended every breath out was a puff of cigar smoke, she’d run to the store without a coat. She’d be forgetful like that.

But she balked at going out into the rain. If we were in town, we’d wait outside the bakery and listen to the pitter-patter on the striped awning. I craned my neck and stuck out my tongue to catch the rain drops that dribbled from the scalloped border. On our way home, I splashed into puddles, delighting in Mom’s horror.

The Last of That Strange Wine

The ferryman sipped the last of his ouzo and waved me over.

“I’ll take another,” he said as I walked the length the bar. I grabbed a bottle and gave him a long pour. He raised his glass to me, then brought it to his lips.

“I’m tired of coins, you know,” he said.

I knew, but just gave him a questioning look.

“What use are they to me?” He drank the last drops from his refilled glass and stood. “I don’t even need them _here_.”

It was true. All our drinks were free.

“See you tomorrow,” he said on his way to the door.

“Tomorrow,” I replied.

Soon, I was closing up the bar for the night. As I worked, I tried to keep my mind from the pull, that constant ache in my head telling me that I didn’t belong here, that I should be across the river.

I washed the glasses and put everything back in its place. I didn’t need to check the bottles; after all, they’d all be full again tomorrow morning.

Well, all but one.

I went into the back room where I slept, thinking about that strange skull-shaped bottle of wine that I kept out of sight below the bar. There was one drink left — for me, when my wife Helena joined me here on the shores of the Acheron.