Month: April 2024

Truth in Repetition

My fellow negotiator circled the map projected on the broad table in the center of the pool, her tentacles sloshing small, briny waves over my knees. I watched her movements, the way her lower limbs acted with complete independence from the upper arms.

If I hadn’t decided to work for the company, I could have joined one of the science teams coming to study her people. Instead, I knew just enough about them to convince her to sign a mining contract. I told myself, like I had on the other worlds, that she’d forgive me when she found out the truth.

It was one of the lies I repeated so often I almost believed it.

My encounter suit had the latest technology, the cost of which came out of my pay, but the chill of the water crept through to numb me to mid-thigh. The cold drained color from my skin, which helped me in these talks. With the environment safe for humans, at least for a while, I’d left the encounter suit open at the top so she could see my face, neck, and chest. For them, covering the skin during a negotiation showed dishonesty.

I’d spent the nine months of my journey studying what the company’s research teams had learned about her people. If I didn’t succeed, this would be my third failure. I’d be fired, debts unpaid.

A faint iridescence chased over her flat, gray torso. Her face had no brows to furrow, no nose to twitch. Her black eyes had no discernable pupils to dilate. Instead, her people looked at the colors on their skin as an emotional compass.

“I do not understand.” Finally, she spoke. Her mouth took in air and pushed sounds back through tubes on her back to hum through the air and water.

The translator bot was reliable but spoke without emotion. I looked to her skin to gauge her mood. Flares of yellow and orange stood out from the gentle swirls of color on her skin. Annoyance, and curiosity, which I could head off if I did everything right.

“Why would you stay such a short time, and only for this land?” She waved a webbed hand, thick and stubby and not human, at the map. “You offer us the technology and experiences of a hundred worlds, for a rock.”

I listened to the clicks and whistles of her speech and felt the vibrations from her voice. The complicated triumvirate of communication using skin pigmentation in addition to auditory signals that also caused vibrational patterns was entirely unique. Their art, their music, would be astounding. Non-human artistic expression had been my specialty. I could have learned so much if I’d kept on a scientific path.

It wouldn’t have paid my loans, which were accruing interest as we spoke. I took a deep breath to keep my heartbeat steady. A flush in my skin would put her on alert. The red color, to them, would mean anger or shame, emotions I should not be feeling. The wrong reaction and she would send me back.

“The land marked in blue is where we would like to buy from you.” I pronounced each word to be sure the translator bot would capture it as well as it could.

“I can read your language, and I understand this map. Better than you do, since it is my world.” Her speech tubes buzzed angrily, and orange flared down her neck and chest.

I couldn’t stop the flush this time and bowed my head, acknowledging regret, until the agitated hum faded from her breathing tubes. Even with my trained patience, I had to struggle to stay relaxed. If I could convince her to sign, I’d get two percent of the profits from selling this planet’s rich fields of beryllium ore. The success would be enough to pull me out of the hole I’d climbed into. If not, I’d have no way to pay off what I owed to school and company until the seven-year non-compete period ended. By which time the interest rate would have ballooned the sum to a number I couldn’t imagine.

I’d spend the rest of my life living in a charity pod so small I’d only be able to lie down one way. I swallowed hard to choke down the thought of what I’d have to do to stay alive. Human life was cheaper than robots, which left ways to earn money that would wear you down to nothing. The chill in my gut had nothing to do with the water or the wind off the ocean waves beating at the walls of the room. I never intended to be a liar, but when I had to choose between lying and the fear of a life of pointless pain, that’s exactly what I did.

“Beryllium is very valuable to our technology,” I said. “You don’t use it. The field of ore is in that area, so we don’t need to go anywhere else. We estimate it will take five sun cycles to extract most of the ore, at which time we can make further arrangements, or we could move on. You would own the ocean above, and we would limit our presence to the land nearby. As you can see, my people aren’t made to move in water like yours.”

I gestured to my legs, thick and clumsy in the waves. She watched me, unblinking. The edges of her solid black eyes crinkled. Darkness flickered amongst the iridescent swirls that flowed against her silver skin. That meant heavy thought, usually concern. Reasonable emotions, in this situation. No need to worry.

“A regret.” She opened her jaws to show a glimpse of pointed incisors – her people’s way of smiling. “We could teach you, if you stay.”

My heart lurched. There it was – the chance I’d have once given everything to take.

She moved again, passing between me and the map as she circled the room. I avoided looking at her, tongue tied and glad my skin wouldn’t show conflict.

“Perhaps.” It was all I could say.

“What if we do not approve of your work?” She moved on. “What if we want you to leave?”

An easy answer, one I’d rehearsed that allowed me to keep a hold on my emotions.

“Your people would observe as much as they wanted. You can halt the project at any time,” I said. “Everything is in the project proposal.”

“What you do is safe?”

Her body flipped in a graceful arc to turn to look at me, one pair of lids blinking as she leveled her stare. I imagined those eyes going dull, the chasing rainbows on her skin decaying to a sickly green. The natural, briny scent of the ocean changed to one of rot and chemicals in my nose. I knew that smell now, from visits to planets at the ends of their contracts. The fine print did not specify how the minerals would be extracted, only that it would be done “safely, with minimal impact.” The company chose planets that were part of no alliances and would not know to ask for specifics. With a contract willingly signed, they had no legal recourse with our government.

“We have done this many times, and safety is our first concern,” I said, the approved words stumbling from my lips while I tried to think.

“This is the truth?” She watched my skin, not my eyes, waiting for it to give me away. All I had to do was to let my heart beat faster and she would know when I lied.

The truth was that her people would be poisoned by the process of extracting minerals. Beryllium particles would float through the water and into their lungs. Only some would die, but their world and their society would be changed forever. The truth was that the company specified a five-year period because they estimated, from experience, it would take that long before they couldn’t hide what they were doing to the planet.

If I told her, she might expel me for the lies. The company would fire me, and I’d fall into a slow death, and for what? I’d be replaced with someone else as they moved to the next planet on their list.

Or I could tell the truth and ask for sanctuary. I could expose the company to anyone who might care. I could do what I’d always wanted and stop lying.

Wind came in from the sea outside, as cold as a splash of ice water. Nothing in the file told me if she would be merciful and let me stay. But I knew exactly how merciful the company would be.

I looked up and smiled. My breath came easily, steady with confidence in my choice. The warm beginning of a flush faded from my skin. As she watched me, yellow whorls of doubt dissipated from her body.

“Of course it’s safe.” I smiled and lied to myself that I didn’t feel regret. “You have my word.”

Elizabeth Rankin is the daughter of a librarian and grew up telling stories in the stacks. She worked in publishing before transitioning to marketing for a company that makes technical materials, which provides lots of story ideas. When not writing, she might be trying out new recipes, volunteering for more than she should, or playing with her dogs. She lives with her husband in their eventual dream house in Cleveland, Ohio, USA


Know Thy Roommate

The first week in my house, Hermann ate my bookshelf.

Overgrowing his ceramic pot, his green leaves and tentacly vines encroached on the shelves, one by one, covering my books with ivy-like foliage.

Hermann is a plant. At least, I thought he was. Now, I’m not so sure.

He was an odd find at a yard sale eight weeks ago, and I couldn’t leave such a lonely, over-pruned plant sitting in the cold rain. The sight hurt my heart, as if someone had given the Queen’s roses a buzz cut during full bloom.

It needed a loving home. So, I brought it to my house and named it Hermann.

Today, he sits as if plant-purring at me, draped between my bookshelf and curio cabinet, resting the way plants might, if planning. I wonder what he’s thinking. Maybe he’s preening in the cabinet mirror, or trying to figure out how hinges work so he can make his viny way through the door. I have a feeling he might get there someday.

I haven’t tried to rein him in. Maybe I should—but I’m a strong advocate for freedom of all living things. That includes plants, doesn’t it? Maybe I should be more careful, but I like letting Hermann wander around the house. I think he deserves a chance.

Now, Hermann’s vines cover the entire bookshelf and he’s headed for the sofa and end table. Tiny leaves curl around my bookmarks. I imagine his little humming plant thoughts working away at titles, choosing this one or that one—I can almost hear them. Do plants read? Hermann didn’t seem interested in books at first, at least not three weeks ago. Then, I noticed a slight disarray on the shelves, as if small fingers were tipping out volumes and then pushing them back. A week later, Hermann managed to knock selected works off the shelves in alphabetical order. I think he’s getting smarter.

I think he’s trying to tell me something.

Last week, he went for Shakespeare.

Maybe he’s hungry for knowledge.

Three days ago, I started reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn out loud to him. I thought he might like it. He didn’t rustle for hours afterward, but he’d consumed the end table by morning. I’d also left my copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel on it.

This morning, his fallen leaves spelled out my name on the floor. I’m touched, but I’m getting a little nervous. When I come home from work today, I think I’ll talk with him.

I climb the last steps to my front door, thinking about Hermann, as I have all day. As I place my key in the lock and turn it, leaves curl out from under the door, arranging themselves into the word “Bienvenue” on my doormat. A tiny vine threads through the crack in the door and winds around my key. As I apprehensively push open the door, a tendril drops from above, sliding over my shoulder. It coils around my wrist and I’m tugged inside my house, into evening darkness, hearing a distinct rustle of approaching familiar leaves.

A lamp turns on. I look up to find Hermann towering above me—he’s grown! I must have left plant fertilizer in an unlocked cabinet. But the foliage bends aside and the tendril tugs me over to the sofa. There, I find a hot cup of tea awaiting and Les Miserables sitting open on the coffee table.

A page is marked.

I look at Hermann. He rustles a little, as if waiting expectantly. “Thank you,” I say. I sit on the sofa and pick up the book, the fragrance of lemon tea wafting around me. As I read aloud about prisons and escapes and freedom, Hermann’s tendrils creep past me, rustling over to the window. Framing it with his vines and leaves, he seems to peer wistfully outside.

I close the book in sudden realization.

“I understand, Hermann.”


I go search for a shovel. Some living things simply aren’t meant to be contained. I’m so glad he told me. I know a perfect spot he’d like in the back garden, where he’ll never be enclosed again: in the sun, and at the edge of the forest, if he chooses to explore farther. I’d like him to have a choice. I’m sure he’ll tell me when he’s ready to move on. And, in the meantime, I have some lovely books about the outdoors that I think he’ll enjoy.

Sandra Siegienski is a speech pathologist in the Pacific Northwest. Her fiction has appeared in The Colored Lens and The Timberline Review, and has placed in multiple contests, including the Mike Resnick Memorial Award and the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. An enthusiastic student of languages, culture, dance, and history, Sandra is currently writing a variety of sci-fi/ fantasy and young adult novels as well as short stories.

The Moon, She Sings

Daniel pried his son’s grip from the windowsill. “I told you to stay down,” he said. “It’s not safe.” Gnarled impressions of carpet pressed into Daniel’s bare calves beneath William’s weight. They sat on the floor, William in his lap, tucked in the shadows behind the sleeper sofa. The full moon’s light shone through the windows despite blinds, curtains, pillows, and furniture.

How many days? He’d lost track. More than twenty.

Daniel stroked his son’s soft black hair. William’s breaths were quick, shallow. Emerging from the basement was risky, but Daniel couldn’t see Susan from the basement. She’ll be back soon. His wife had run after Annabelle, who’d escaped. She promised.

William’s feverish, first-grader eyes looked up at Daniel, then kept rolling until white. “The moon wants to see me.” The boy jerked in a near-seizure, back locked in an arch.

“I know son,” Daniel said, embracing William tighter, biceps aching from days of restraint. “But the moon isn’t good for you.”

Isn’t good for anyone. What did they call it? Supramoon. Fucking thing wouldn’t set, wouldn’t dim, wouldn’t let the damn sun come out. Just shine and shine and—


Screams in the street.

Sometimes the screams cut short. Sometimes they didn’t. Daniel couldn’t help but listen to the woman’s long wail—a police siren from the throat blaring an emergency that couldn’t be undone. There were silvery-skinned prowlers in the streets—nightcrawlers snatching moon-fevered children who chased the sky. A week ago, Daniel saw the neighbor’s twins, Reggie and Regina, break through their living room bay windows and run into the streets, heedless of the blood pouring from their arms and faces. The nightcrawlers grabbed the children, whisked them away into the sky, lost in the light.

Daniel spied a dented, unopened can of Diet Coke on the lopsided IKEA coffee table. Snack-sized pretzels and overturned plasticware littered the carpet. They never did get to watch the Superbowl. Did the Seahawks win? They probably lost. Everything was lost. He wished Susan and Annabelle would come back.

No—no more wishes.

Wishes were dangerous. Wish upon a star. Never again.

William squirmed in his lap. Daniel quietly hummed William’s favorite song from Pinocchio. They sat together for a while, William struggling, Daniel humming and clinching until William finally settled, exhausted. But William wouldn’t sleep—couldn’t sleep now. The moon’s lure was too strong. Daniel didn’t dare sleep either. He stared at the Diet Coke. Diet. Susan and her fucking diets. He wanted sugar, but at least the soda had caffeine.

Daniel leaned slowly, carefully, arm outstretched, grasping. The can was just out of reach. He shifted, leaning on one hip. The can spun clockwise against his fingertips. So close.

William erupted violently, flailing elbows and knees. Off balance, Daniel fell backward. “William!” He managed to snag his son’s shirt, but William pulled away, ripping out of it and Daniel’s one-armed grasp.

Daniel froze.

William’s skin shined moonlight. The boy ripped the barricade aside and smashed the window, silver running from the cuts.

“William,” Daniel whispered, terrified.

William turned. In place of eyes, perfect visages of the moon stared at Daniel. Then the boy leaped out the window, squeaky voice singing the lullaby into the night.

Phillip E. Dixon is an English Professor from Las Vegas. He holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, speaks lousy German to his two cats, and spends his rent money on coffee as a good addict should.