Fiction

The Vaulting Vandals of Termina Celeste

Back then, we liked to scour the docks of Termina Celeste for starships to tag: sleek crafts with hulls like vast canvases and cabins that were mostly unattended because the space-lagged passengers were off in the city somewhere, getting drunk or on business or both.

Blaise Landry was the leader of the crew, being the oldest out of the five of us. I was his lieutenant. That meant whenever Blaise was out, decommissioned–because sick or in deep trouble with his dad or whatever–I got to be in charge that day, which meant I got to choose which ship to tag.

Our evening began like every other: calm and lubricated with a little beer. No hint of the chaos you may’ve read about or seen on holotrope feeds. That all came later.

We were leaning over the cliffside railing in the southeast quadrant of the docks, spitting into the deep canyon beside which Termina Celeste had been built. In my holotrope lectures that week, I’d learned about DNA, and I fancied each little ball of my saliva was bringing down into the River Andalosi a library of tiny blueprints of me. An artist takes whatever legacy he can get. I hocked up a good one and watched the yellow tadpole tumble through four and a half kilometers of space.

“I’ll do you one better, Lucas,” said Hugo Gunfrey. Turning at a slight angle for modesty, he relieved himself over the edge with a sigh that shook his huge belly.

“God that’s revolting,” Robin Vexler said. She guarded her eyes with a flap of her orbital-jumper jacket and scowled. “You and me, Lucas, let’s push him over, how about it?”

“Sounds like a lot of work,” I said.

“Gravity’d do most of it.”

I laughed.

I knew I wasn’t the only one with murderous fantasies whenever we hung out by the abyss. Everybody has dark thoughts now and then. But imagining them behind Robin’s waifish face and big brown eyes was difficult.

“Any word on the boss?” I asked Jacob.

At fourteen, Jacob Landry was younger than his brother Blaise by a year. He was also the tallest and sturdiest of our crew by far. He could’ve passed for a bouncer at one of his father’s mob-front nightclubs, or maybe a truancy officer.

Jacob shook his head as he cast through his wrist holotrope for Blaise’s whereabouts, then shut it off, nixing the dance of holographic minutiae. “With a girl tonight, probably. Doesn’t drop out of the Buzz otherwise.”

“Traitor,” said Hugo.

Robin clipped on her orbital-jumper helmet. Like her jacket, it was several sizes too large and scuffed from the junkyard where she’d found it. “Give that here, Lucas. I wanna hit one of those buzzards.”

I handed her my empty beer bottle, and she chucked it at a sentry drone floating overhead. The bottle burst with a festive crash, a tinkle of falling glass.

By the time the robot spun its floodlights around we were already gone, darting off across the cliffside promenade and laughing.

Bands had struck up in the neon towers of Termina Celeste’s midtown, which clustered like an orthodontic night-terror below the city roof. Music of all kinds, from all places: Jovian blues and heat-death metal, quantum jazz and Horsehead pomp. One strain after another came rolling down off the cool evening air, balled up with smells of fried noodles, potatoplum sauce, koalaroo dumplings, trampagne.

“If Blaise is out, you know what that means,” I said, smiling. I was the first to take out my vaulter. It was long and cold and smooth, a baton of collapsible supercarbon thick as a femur. I kept it in my knapsack with the spray cans and other things.

“Means out with Benito, in with Blackbeard,” said Jacob. His back furrowed as he unsheathed a vaulter of his own. He held it like a gladiator might a pike, with one end balanced on his trapezius muscle.

“That’s right,” I said. “Means I’m in charge. And seeing as I’m in charge, I pick that beauty as our target.”

I pointed my vaulter at the pristine white argosy that’d held my eye all evening, snug and so temptingly secure in its hypersilk moorings. The name Kingfisher was lettered on its hull in old-fashioned silver characters, and from the blue roses running through their gaps I knew the craft belonged to a Delphine merchant prince. The sort of prince, from what I’d glimpsed on holotrope feeds, who needed taking down a few pegs anyway.

“Delphines? They don’t screw around,” said Jacob. “It’s like picking on the uranium mafia.”

“Stuff we’ve been through? Tch,” I said.

“This is different,” said Robin, rubbing her nose through her visor. “This is crazy. You’re crazy, Lucas.”

“Amen,” said Hugo.

“Bunch of cowards, then,” I said. “Guess I’ll have to do it myself.”

They tensed. Getting tagged a coward was no small thing if you ran with a high-wire crew like us. The only worse insult was snitch.

“Screw it,” said Jacob.

“You can’t be serious,” said Robin.

“He’s the boss, and I’m no coward. Are you?”

“These snakes, the Delphines, you said it yourself. They catch you, it’s not exactly a fine.”

“They have to catch you,” I said.

Hugo crossed his pudgy arms. “No way.”

But I’d made my point.

After waiting for a sentry drone to pass, I ran to the edge of the cliff overlooking the docks–faster, faster–and rammed my vaulter into the girders at an angle, letting the energy in the supercarbon whisk me up and fling me over the gulf between platforms. I was rising, flying, and landed on a docked starship with a metal thud, somersaulting once to absorb the impact.

I twirled my vaulter. “Last chance!” I called.

They glanced at each other helplessly. What choice did they have?

Feint and Flourish

The smell of milk spilled, spoiled, and waxed forever into the linoleum floor–the grocery store smell–hit me square in the nose as I opened the cooler doors to turn each container of butter to face the glass. A four-note jingle from the front of the store meant a customer, strange for the late hour, but since it was just me and the night manager back in the office doing paperwork, or maybe sleeping, I abandoned my neatening in the dairy and rushed back to my register.

Halfway there I saw him, not a customer after all, but instead a hottie with a sly look on his face and a secret only I knew. I bit my lip so he wouldn’t see me smile and with effort slowed my pace. It was early for Levi, my boyfriend–I was pretty sure I could call him that–to have finished hanging out with his friends and show up here to loiter. Most of the shift was ahead of me.

“Excuse me miss, can you tell me where to find the hot chicks?” And he laughed adorably at his own terrible joke.

“Hot sauce is on aisle two, poultry’s past the dairy.” I answered and was rewarded by a chuckle. I took up the spot on the fatigue mat behind my register, mostly to keep the pretense if my manager decided to notice me.

“What are you doing here already? I’ve got hours left.”

“I was bored. Kinda hoping you would call in.”

I rolled my eyes elaborately. “Hard to call in when I’m already here. You should sleep. I hear it’s what people do at night.”

“I’ll sleep tomorrow afternoon when a certain brunette is available for cuddles.” He leaned over my counter and held his palm out for my hand. I smiled at the little tinge of excitement from my skin on his.

He admitted, more seriously, “I missed you.”

“I left your house two hours ago.”

He toyed with the chunky costume jewelry on my wrist. “Way too long. Come over again tonight? Tomorrow? Whatever.”

“My parents are going to make me move out if I don’t start showing up for family dinner every once in a while.”

He grunted noncommittally and brushed his fingertips over the enamel beads at my wrist, feather light. The air around my wrist distorted, an odd wobble, and one by one the beads changed from green to a deep red. Like a rose bud matured but not quite blossoming.

I gasped and clutched my other hand over the beads, tossing a glance over my shoulder, down the check-out aisle, though of course I knew no one would be there.

He straightened, stuffing his hand into his pocket, and looked at me from under his eyebrows unable to hide his grin and unsure if he ought to try.

My grin mirrored his, conspiratorially, and I said in an unnecessarily hushed voice, “Levi! There are security cameras. What if someone saw?”

His smile grew wider, toothy, and my heart skip-hopped across the inside of my rib cage. He was so beautiful when he really smiled. “They’ll never see. No one comes in here at this hour. It’s like a museum of a grocery store. I don’t know how you stand it. The only way anyone will find out is if you told them and I know you won’t.”

I turned to organizing the gum rack above my register so that he wouldn’t see my satisfaction. No, I wouldn’t be the one to rat him out.

Levi rarely used his super powers and almost never in public. He couldn’t afford the registration fees to sign up with the Conference and he didn’t want to get caught as an unlicensed super. I hadn’t even known that he had powers when we first started dating. I could tell he really cared about me the night he confessed that he had a third-tier illusion ability that could sometimes become permanent.

No one knew, not even his friends, and not just because he was avoiding the Conference. He was shy about it. About having an ability that wasn’t ever going to save the world. He only ever used his power around me. To make me smile.

He hauled himself up to sit cross-legged on the counter facing my register.

“You’re going to get me fired.”

He snorted, “What a tragedy that would be.”

“Hey!” I affected a hurt-tone to hide the real pang I felt at his dismissal. This was the job I’d managed to hold down the longest without screwing it up. So far I had managed to stay awake through every shift, despite the less than stimulating work conditions. And, even better, I had never fainted despite being on my feet all night.

“Seriously, Sam,” and he tilted his head to stare at me in that way that made me forget to breathe, like he was seeing more to me than was really there, “you can’t tell me that this place makes you happy.”

“It’s got seven different types of cheese whiz, what’s not to love?”

“Ha. Ha. No, I mean it. You can’t do this forever.”

“Do what?” I made to restack the gum rack yet again and managed to somehow knock an entire row onto the floor. Typical Sam. I bent to clean the mess.

He plucked the wire gum wrack out of my hand when I straightened. “You can’t hide here like you don’t deserve something better.”

I swallowed hard. That was the thing wasn’t it? “Maybe I don’t?”

It’s not something I could say to my parents or even my sister, Olivia. It wasn’t right to force them into the position of defending me when they were the ones most hurt when I dropped out of University. When it turned out all that high school potential was so much fluff.

That was before I met Levi. He wouldn’t get it. I forced a false smile and a false voice and held out my hand. “Unless you’re planning to make a purchase, sir, I’m going to have to ask for that gum back.”

He slid off the counter, down to my side, forcing me back a step. He caught my wrist to stop my retreat and pulled me in close. Wrapped both arms tight around my shoulders.

I was so overwhelmed by the gesture that my vision went blurry, my head light, it was hard to breathe.

He whispered in my ear, “What do you want, Sam?”

Through the fog of my emotions all I could think to say was, “This.”

Being Human

I can’t breathe, the simulation room is swimming so hard. Swirling shades of blue and green, so many shades! I don’t know how the humans stand it. Tears–the real thing–smear my cheeks as I clutch at the clothing covering my body. I’d do anything for the comfort of white walls right now, for the solidity of my pod-group pressing tight against my membranes–

“Stop,” I gasp, and curl atop the simulation room floor, feeling for it past the maelstrom of colors. “Stop the test! I cannot–”

The air flashes, and a moment later, the room settles, resolving into nothing more than blank walls.

Blessedly blank walls.

My panic slowly subsides, but the tight squeezing in my chest does not. I know already the disappointment of what is to come next…

From the nearby wall bud, the project leader’s voice buzzes in disapproval. “Candidate Jandoon,” the project leader says, “you have failed Assimilation Test 351x. Prepare for reincorporation into your pod-group.”


A chaotic array of emotions unfurls inside me, a mix of human neurochemicals and the remnants of my own. I’ve spent years training for the Earth system observation program. Years being coaxed into the unforgiving shape that is human, inoculated into the bizarreness that is sound and speech.

And worst of all, the colors. So many terrible, pointless colors, all of which refuse to settle to stillness in my brain-mass.

This project has been my entire life.

And now I have failed. I am to be reincorporated, so close to my final goal.

“Hey!” A familiar voice echoes down the undulating white passage behind me. “Jandoon, wait up!”

I bite back my cringe–one of the few human expressions I excel at–and turn to face my competitor. “Greetings, Candidate Neeome.”

Their face squints oddly, and I realize I’ve erred too formal.

Neeome would never make such a mistake in language. They have passed every test formulated by the project leader. Have become so human at this point, some question whether they will be able to fully reincorporate into their pod-group once the project is complete.

Their dedication is obviously stronger than my own, an observation which always causes me internal pain. If any of us are chosen to initiate first contact with the humans, it will surely be Neeome.

Neeome matches my pace, joining my disgraceful slouch down the passage toward reincorporation.

“I heard what happened,” they say. “In the color room.”

I say nothing. I do not wish to express myself in human sounds, and chemical clouds are not an option until I have been reincorporated.

“You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of,” they continue. “Plenty of us fail the color tests. They’re tough!”

I stop. Neeome is being compassionate. Likely practicing for when they are sent planet-side. Even now, their dedication continues to shame me. Still, I cannot help but glance down at my near-white hands, veined with faint tones of yellow and blue.

Unlike the color room, my hands do not swim before my vision–but how many weeks of training did that take to overcome? And the colors are still so pale–so muted!–compared to what our final shapings will be and what we will face on the planet’s actual surface.

I grab futilely at the air with my limited human hands. If I were my true self, the air would be permeated with the chemical signature of my frustration. If I were my true self–

“Hey.” Neeome takes my hands, encasing them in their own. It reminds me of my birthing sac, of that brief period surrounded by the pod-group’s mass, touching but not yet joined.

My hands shake in theirs. Sending signals, signals that are so much harder to interpret than what I’ve always known. “I just…I just don’t understand how you can do it. How you can stand it, it’s all so bright. It makes me want to burst from this skin.”

“Hmm.” Neeome glances down the passage both ways, then leans in close. “You want to know the secret to all these tests?”

There is a secret? I was unaware there was a secret.

Cautiously, I nod.

“Well,” they continue, speaking quietly, “ninety-five percent of it is just faking. Pure performance. You know, pretending that everything is okay even though it’s really not.”

I startle. That cannot be right. The project leader would surely catch on. If we do not learn to adapt to being human in all ways, our observations will become compromised at the first moment of extreme stress. Everything we have worked for will be lost.

But the expression on Neeome’s face is one of intense seriousness. And expectation.

As for what they are expecting…?

Oh.

“So,” I ask, “what is the other five percent?”

She grins as though I have shared an amusing adage or called a large canine companion a “good boy.”

“Nightmares, mostly. Accepting you’re going to have them about everything you work so hard not to see. I spent a week waking up screaming after my first real tree. A week! And the things still give me the trembles when I see them. If the project leader decides to post me at a forested observation point, I am so screwed!”

I laugh at the euphemism. Then nearly jump because it is my first spontaneous laugh.

It sounds quite different from the practice rooms.

Neeome pats my back, then sets off down the passage. “You should ask to take the test again,” they say before exiting a side passage.

I consider.

“Yes,” I say to nobody in particular, “perhaps I should.”


“Candidate Jandoon,” the project leader states from the wall bud, “we have accepted your request of a second trial for Assimilation Test 351x. Proceed.”

Already sweating–why must these bodies shed so much moisture?–I step into the testing room. The walls are white and blank. Everything is void. Comforting.

But it will not last.

In fact, as soon as I begin to settle, the walls flash.

Blue and green assault my vision in a chaotic spray. Beneath me, an ominous mass of orange and silver tilts, nearly tipping me over.

I start to crumple, wishing I could suck my eyes inward and erase the horrors stabbing at me from every angle. The rocking, the roiling, the terrible colors!

But I catch myself.

Ninety-five percent of it is just faking.

Neeome who excels at everything has admitted even they are not so perfect. And if they can bear the pain of assault from all these newly embedded senses, then there is no reason I cannot do the same.

Right?

My eyes water excessively as I bite my lip and send a heavy dose of pain signals to my brain-mass, and my legs quiver beneath me. But I do my best to pretend at stillness. At calm.

And, in what I am certain is to be the greatest error in my life-cycle, I stare directly into the maelstrom.

It hurts.

Oh, how it hurts. Every movement is a stab into my brain-mass. A furious jab whose sole task is to undo me.

Instinct screams at me to shut my eyes. To curl on the floor that I know is there outside of the simulation until the roiling stops. Until my inputs are manageable once more. But though the thought of reincorporating to my pod-group feels urgent under this assault, I know the urge will not last.

Because there is one thing–just this one thing–that I want more.

I want to be a part of making history.

I want to observe.

Wave after wave of sheer terror, I fight off as the colors swoop in from every direction. As they peel away my carefully practiced preparations.

And then, just as I think I can bear no more…a shape resolves.

High up, a winged fluttering. White feathers cutting through the chaos, tipped in black.

“A gull,” I say, my breath sucking free. I remember the pictures, the grayed-out stills we studied in class for preparation.

And as I say the word, the rest of the simulation begins to resolve into shape. Into form and purpose.

“And the ocean,” I gasp. “And the beach! It is the beach!”

A mass of water expands as far as I can see, blue and green and every shade between, murmuring as it stretches calmly up and down the golden sands beneath me, oddly reminiscent of the chemical clouds of home. Overhead, the gull swings in a wide arc, eyeing the waves below.

And though the image fills me with a new kind of terror, the world no longer reels beneath me and my limbs no longer shake.

Indeed, I am laughing, though it takes me a moment to realize it.

I’m laughing because I know now, whatever the challenges, I will pass the tests before me. I will pass them and be as human as I can be no matter how frightening it is because some things are greater than fear.

And maybe, if I am brave enough, it will be me who gets to initiate first contact.

And then I will be the one who gets to teach a human how to be us.

Michelle Muenzler writes words both dark and strange to counterbalance the sweetness of her baking. Check out michellemuenzler.com for links to more of her work.

Witherwings

Nashira sat on the highest branch of Talltree, squinting into the dawn sky where specks shifted against glowing peach cloud. From such a vast distance the tiny blemishes looked like a flock of birds, but as they neared, details emerged. Silhouetted, slender figures. Hair shifting in the breeze. And of course, wide, fluttering wings.

Nashira never wearied of watching her fellow fairies return from night gatherings, their cluster rising then lowering in unison, saving energy by working with the wind. They travelled slowly thanks to bulging bags that hung from their shoulders. When Nashira had been a gatherer, she’d judged the success of a venture on how deeply her shoulder ached on return. It had been a long time since she’d felt that satisfying pain.

As the fairies’ silhouettes dissolved into glinting gold armour and brightly coloured wings, Nashira rose to her feet. It was time to go. If she could see the patterns on her brethren’s wings, then they’d be able to see her details just as easily. But the grey, flaking excuse for wings drooping from her back weren’t assets to display with pride.

It had been a year since Nashira had contracted Dust Disease. The illness had arrived after a fierce, hot wind that destroyed plants and coated the forest in a strange dust. The forest recovered when the rains arrived, and at first it seemed the dust had washed away. But it had only moved, choosing a new target. Fairy wings.

While Dust Disease picked victims randomly and wasn’t contagious, Nashira preferred to avoid healthy fairies. The sight of her withered wings made many folk uncomfortable, and each time she witnessed their unease it killed a little of her heart.

Concentrating, she managed to move her wings. A hindwing twitched. A forewing fluttered weakly. She tucked all four wings against her back then dashed along the branch in the direction of Talltree’s trunk. Each stride caused her wings to shift, and the movement sent pain stabbing down her spine. It was tempting to grow still and fear-frozen, but the breeze carried voices on it. The returning fairies were close. With teeth clenched, Nashira hurried on.

Then behind her came the patter of feet, fairies landing on the branch. With no time to scramble down the trunk, Nashira placed her back against the bark, hiding her wings from the other fairies’ sight. As they made their way towards her, Nashira stood in what she hoped would pass for a casual stance.

The gatherers were chatting as they walked the stretch of the branch, but when their eyes fell on Nashira, they fell silent and still. They stood bunched together, staring.

Nashira breathed through nerves. She was sure the gatherers couldn’t see her wings, but they were probably picturing them, flaking brown, ugly and useless. Even from a distance Nashira recognised the barely masked disgust on some faces, and horror and pity on others. Then she spotted a smile.

“Nashira, hello!” Miram, Talltree’s best armour maker jumped up and down and squealed. “It’s good to see you, Nashi.” She broke from the huddle and skipped along the branch, stopping in front of Nashira. “It’s been so long since I last saw you. How are you?”

How was she? Really? Her wings were dying. Still, Miram was at least willing to speak to her. That counted for something.

Nashira dragged a smile onto her face. “I’m well, thank you.” Dropping her eyes to hide the truth, her gaze fell on Miram’s bag. “What did you gather last night? Moon flowers? Owl eggs?” No. Night gathering at that time of year could only mean one thing. Her heart fluttered. “Dragon scales?”

Everyone who lived on Talltree prized dragon scales above all other items. They made the strongest, most light weight body armour and the sharpest swords. No brownie spear or hawk talon could penetrate dragon armour, and not even rock-monsters could withstand the edge of a dragon scale blade. And the best time for fairies to collect scales was during the dragon mating season.

Like everything a dragon did, the mating ritual was savage. A fairy bold enough to approach a recently mated dragon could salvage scales knocked loose during the ritual. Until the dust took her wings, Nashira had been a brilliant scale collector.

“We had a most successful night,” Miram said, patting her bag. “I found a collection of tail scales that had fallen from a dragon nest. Though small, they’re lovely colours. They’ll make wonderful wrist armour. But Wurren had the greatest find.”

Wurren. His name was enough to send nerves scooting through Nashira in a thousand directions. Spotting him amongst the watching fairies weakened her knees.

“Wurren,” Miram called over her shoulder. “Come show Nashi what you collected.”

Wurren didn’t move. With eyes shock-wide, he stared across the space dividing himself and Nashira. She had a feeling he would have remained that way but the fairy beside him gave him a rough nudge that made him stumble forward. With his bag clutched in front of him like a shield, Wurren moved slowly and rigidly along the branch. His obvious discomfort hurt Nashira worse than any pain her wings could inflict because she and Wurren had once been inseparable. But thanks to the Dust Disease, for almost a year they’d barely seen each other, let alone spoken.

As Wurren neared, he snapped his emerald wings closed. Maybe he thought the sight of their beauty might break Nashira to pieces. No wonder they’d once been such a perfect couple. They’d understood each other exactly.

He stopped in front of her. “Good morning, Nashira.” His stiff politeness stung. “What brings you all the way to the landing branch?”

Longing? Jealousy? A twisted need to torture herself?

“I roam Talltree every morning,” Nashira said with forced poise. “It was just coincidence that brought us here at the same time.” Then to shift the focus away from her, she jutted her chin at Wurren’s carry bag. “What wonderful treasure did you find last night?”

Wurren opened his bag, revealing a stack of large, scarlet scales.

Nashira whistled. Not only was red the rarest colour, it was unusual for such large scales to come away from a dragon’s hide. “What a find! What will you do with such beauties?”

Wurren shook his head as he stroked their glossy surface. “I have no idea. How am I supposed to decide the best way to use such a special collection?”

“They’d be perfect for body armour,” Miram said.

“Of course you’d say that,” Wurren replied. “You’re an armourer. But the scales are too colourful. If I wore red armour in a brownie battle, the brownies would die laughing.”

Nashira smirked. “Quite a powerful weapon then.”

“Except,” Wurren said, “my fellow fairies might also succumb to the joke.”

Miram pouted. “I didn’t say they’d make armour suitable for you, Wurren. But I’m sure there are many other fairies who’d love a scarlet breast plate.” She toed the bark beneath her feet. “Armour looks delightful when it matches a fairy’s wing colour, don’t you think?” With her face set in innocence, she opened her wings a little, revealing a hint of vivid crimson.

Nashira’s insides curdled, not from the beauty of Miram’s wings, but from the way Wurren smiled crookedly as his eyes roamed all over them. He used to save that look for her.

As if realising how see-through he’d become, Wurren hid his pleasure with a concerned frown that he planted on Nashira. “Should you be up here with your ill health?”

While his words were gentle, they still hurt. Did she really look so poorly?

His frown deepened. “How did you even get up here without the ability to fly?”

He stood on his toes, trying to peek at Nashira’s wings, but she pressed her back harder against the tree trunk. The pressure worsened the ache that was her constant companion, but she breathed through it. Better some pain than the shame of Wurren seeing her hideous, useless wings.

“I have arms,” she said, recapturing his gaze. “Strong arms. I could climb around this tree far longer than you could fly. Besides, I’m quite well and I’ll remain so. Healer Lich is making great progress on a cure for Dust Disease.”

“He is?” Miram gave a little clap. “That’s wonderful to hear, isn’t it, Wurren?”

“Of course, it is… if it’s true.” Wurren’s eyes narrowed and he searched Nashira’s face. She met his stare but feared he could see past her eyes to the grim truth that Lich was failing.

“We’re so glad you’re feeling better, Nashi,” Miram said. “You’ll be flying with us again in no time.”

“Yes.” Nashira clenched her teeth, forming a rigid smile. “Well, I mustn’t keep you.”

Wurren returned the smile but it looked strange mixed with his worried frown. “It’s been nice seeing you, Nashira. Really. I…”

“Yes? What is it, Wurren?” I miss you? I still want to be with you? She held her breath.

“Ah, nothing.” With the shake of his head, Wurren hefted his bag, moved to the edge of the branch and stepped into the air. Spreading his wings, he descended slowly between branches and disappeared.

Nashira’s spirits sank with him.

One at a time, the other gatherers followed until only Miram remained. “It really has been lovely to see you, Nashi. And I mean it, I really can’t wait to fly with you again.” She hid a chuckle behind a hand. “Gatherings are dull without you convincing us to take silly chances.” With a last smile, Miram stepped gracefully off the branch. She spread her perfect, scarlet wings and floated after Wurren.

Even after the gatherers disappeared from view, Nashira continued leaning on the tree. Every nerve ending in her back sizzled, but she refused to move. Given time, maybe the pain would hurt worse than the loss of Wurren’s love, her friendships and her freedom, but she doubted it.

Royals

Saturday moans and whimpers in his sleep. The noise is one of the things keeping Abbie awake. As he tosses and kicks, soaking the sheets with sweat, she’s torn between stroking his long greasy hair to calm him, or grabbing him by the neck and choking the life out of him. If she dared. But she doesn’t do anything. Unless watching him in the dark, desolate hours when she should be unconscious counts as something.

During the day, he has moments when Abbie swears he’s his old self: funny and energetic. The guy who engages and upsells their customers. It melts her fucking heart, despite herself, despite everything. Despite the fact that he’s high. Those moments let her pretend she’s still charmed by him. Still in love, even.

But as he relaxes into a semblance of normal sleep, a cold numbness settles into Abbie’s chest and brain, and it doesn’t seem to matter anymore how she feels about him. She can’t decide if it’s a relief or the saddest thing in the world. She’s wide awake. Her latest notebook is on the bedside table, the one she writes her lists in. She doesn’t remember when it started, but she’s filled a few. She takes it, slips from their bed, picks up a hoodie from the floor that reeks of sweat, his sweat, and slides it over her head. She shuts the door behind her, taking care not to wake him. He has no idea she’s going to leave him.

She pads down the hallway to her lab and stands in the dark listening to the hum of the machinery. She loves her lab. It’s clean, organized, and unlike the rest of the apartment, which has gone from shabby chic to something more like genuine squalor, it makes her hopeful. But she’s leaving this too.

She switches on the light and goes to the glass tanks lining the back wall from floor to ceiling. She gazes in at the delicate creatures covering most of the surfaces inside, some slowly crawling, others half-buried in moist dirt. Shimmer beetles. But these Shimmers are squat, ugly things, dark and unadorned, glorified cockroaches if not for the secretions they ooze from the tiny glands on the backs of their legs and the tops of their feet. She moves down the rows of tanks to the biggest tank with the fewest insects. The Royals. She pulls one out and places it on her notebook atop the stainless steel table.

It’s still, except for the twitching of velvety antennae. It’s walnut-sized, has a delicately tapered, triangular head, and a shiny black carapace covered in silvery whorls of delicate hairs, arching and spiraling in complex patterns. She bends to look closer, and the whorls stir under her breath, and lo and behold, seem to shimmer.

“Hello, beautiful girl,” she whispers.

She’s tempted to set it on her arm or neck, to let it do its work, but truth be told, she’s afraid. She’s only let a Royal crawl along her arm for a few seconds at a time, and even that? Damn. It was too much for her. And she made them, working month after month splicing genes, chopping and pasting sections of DNA until they were as perfect as they could be. Saturday says it’s the best work she’s ever done. Abbie’s not so sure. It’s only a matter of time before he wants to try one out.

She picks up the Shimmer beetle, gingerly, and puts it back in its tank.




List of Things You Don’t Do Anymore

1. Play guitar.
2.
3. Look at me.
4.
5. Touch me.
6.
7. Notice when I walk into the room.
8.
9. Bathe every day.
10.
11. Laugh.
12.
13. Try to make me laugh.
14.
15. Leave the house.
16.
17. Build things.
18.
19. Paint things.
20.
21. Have friends.
22.
23. Fuck.
24.
25. Be kind.
26.


Abbie wakes on the living room couch to Saturday shaking her arm. He’s gentle but it’s jarring, and she yanks her arm away and sits up, clutching her knees to her chest. Late morning sun sneaks through the gap between the two curtains, illuminating his pale, hairless chest. It’s covered in tattoos, tiny ones and zeros from neck to naval. Binary code. She used to ask him what it meant but he’d never say, acting cagy and mysterious. Now she suspects it doesn’t mean anything.

“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He frowns, and hugs his arms tight into his chest, like he’s mimicking her posture. “Why are you sleeping out here?”

“I didn’t sleep out here.” Abbie knows she sounds defensive. “I couldn’t sleep so I went to mess around in the lab. I was going to come back to bed but I must have drifted off.”

He’s nodding, biting his lip. There are Shimmer tracks along his neck and arms, the older ones pale and dull, and last night’s, pink and shiny. In their own way, she has to admit, they’re sort of beautiful.

“Okay,” he says. He shows her his palm. There’s a message there, red letters shining through from the device imbedded beneath his skin. He smiles. “Jota wants them. A big order. Sight unseen.”

“Jota wants what?” She’s still a little fuzzy, still half in the land of sleep. Then she stiffens. “Wait. The Royals?”

“Yeah! Isn’t it great?”

“No! I told you they aren’t ready yet. I haven’t even given them a full test run.”

His hands go up like she’s pointing a gun. “I know, I know, Abbie. But he wasn’t offering much for the usual. He tried to knock off 20%, mentioned Caputo, going to see what he’s got for sale. I had to do something.”

“Really? Did you?” She’s on her feet now, glaring at him, trying not to melt down. Not again.

“Yeah, I did. Because you’ve been working on those things forever, and it’s taking up all your time, and all our money. Sales are slow. We need to make the Royals pay off.”

He moves toward her, and she can’t help herself, she backs up. He’s a full head taller, all sharp angles and long, pale limbs like old tree branches, skinny but gnarled with muscle. His dark eyes are big, unblinking, and his teeth are bared in the grimace he uses to intimidate difficult clients. The look that made her quit going to drops, the look that makes her wonder if she actually knows anything about Saturday. Then he stops. He sighs and crosses his arms again, shrinking back into himself. It’s a relief. And yet, she wants to reach out and pull him to her.

“I think we need to do this, Abbie, ready or not. Or we’ll lose our biggest customer.”

I don’t care, she wants to shout. I don’t care anymore. I’m leaving. But she stays silent.

“Besides, if we need to give the Royals a test run, I can try one out this afternoon.” He says this quiet and casual, but she hears his desperation. “Better me than you, right?”

Abbie keeps her eyes on the ones and zeros covering his chest, on the message flashing in his palm, on the shabby couch. Anything but his face. She can’t stand the look in his eyes, the burning need that has nothing to do with her.


List of People I Miss

1. Lilah.
2.


And The Lord Taketh Away

This time when I’m woken, it’s not by Janice, which is odd. Not at all to routine. Speaking of which…

“Engineer John Lord, begin a non-regular waking log.”

Firstly I’m confronted by a wall of sheer humanity, most of them are dressed in rags, or nothing at all.

“Lord, we apologise for disturbing your rest. Our lights grow dim and our crops are blighted. The air is not what it once was.” The one speaking for them is wearing the tattered remnants of what was once an engineering tunic, his speech is slow as if rarely performed now.

As I feel the energising solution reviving my muscles, I wonder how long it has been since I was last awake. As I step from the stasis tube, the uniformed man takes a knee and bows his head. All the others do likewise, without any prompting. So they’ve started worshipping us again? Ah, that’s not good. I remember what happened two cycles ago, so I’ll have to nip this in the bud if I can. The air feels far too hot, so he’s right about that. I wonder if that’s why they’ve woken me?

Not that they are supposed to be able to wake me, unless one of the others has shown them how.

At a guess, there’s at least a hundred of them here, just inside the stasis room. I can see the signs of habitation, scattered behind them. Shacks built from welded-together food trays. Shit, if they’ve been living in here, how many of them are alive right now?

My first guess is the ship’s systems are struggling to provide for too many people. My second guess is Doc Jay hasn’t been monitoring their reproductive rates. Or doing anything, by the shape they appear to be in. Half-starved, from the way their bones are protruding through their skin. I beckon their speaker forwards. Probably a priest, I assume, based on previous experience. “How many do you number?”

From the instant look of confusion on his face, it appears that Doc Jay isn’t the only one not doing his damn job. Miller hasn’t been running them through the education programs once every century either. Okay, fine. I’ll have to get the answer in the old fashioned way. Hopefully, it won’t spook them too much. “Janice, not including myself or the crew, how many life-signs are currently onboard?”

“Thirty-three thousand, four hundred and sixty-seven, Lord.”

Fucking hell, Doc! The ship was designed to safely home between three and four thousand people at any one time. No wonder the air feels so damn weird.

“Also, Lord. Be aware, the seals on reactor four are close to breaking down. Time to safely repair is less than three days.” Hmm, why hadn’t Janice woken me before now?

“Janice, was there a reason these folks woke me up to fix this mess, and not you?”

“Captains final orders, Lord, just before he died. Civilian population to have full discretion, except in cases of a most dire emergency. I’d have woken you up tomorrow myself anyway if they hadn’t already done so. You might want to get onto that reactor sooner than later though.”

They don’t seem to be surprised to hear Janice. At least this generation isn’t worshipping her. I think she kind of enjoyed the last time. I guess I’ll need to train enough people to replace those reactor seals. Lucky for me, there’s no shortage of warm bodies which need disposing of. I doubt this will even make a dent in their population boom though. “Thanks, Janice. Nano Solution number two, deliver to stasis room please?”

I grab the tube and start pouring it into cups. After beckoning their priest over, I give him the first one. “Drink this. I need everyone in this room to help me fix your problems. Please make sure to pass these drinks around. One cup for everyone. No exceptions.”

I use Janice to ensure they all get the upgrade. Within sixty seconds, I’ve got a room full of mostly trained engineers, they’ve got all the knowledge they need to act as a repair team. “If you can hear my voice, head to reactor four and replace the seals. Lockdown all bulkheads in the adjacent sections, no-one is permitted to leave. Go now!”


I monitor them from my station, including the bodies already inside, Janice tells me they are shutting six thousand people into that section. I check the rest of the ship. It’s no shock to find a couple of enormous population centres clustered around the empty cargo bays. Once I’ve done a headcount down there, I vent the bays into space. I close a few security doors and wrangle the rest of the people into the observation bay. Not counting the folks I just sent to their imminent radioactive death, it’s a little over a thousand people, all told.

The folks in the reactor get the seals replaced fairly quickly and begin the job of decontamination. I didn’t give them too much training, just enough to perform the repairs to a good enough stand as to last a few thousand years. They don’t need to know it’s a suicide mission. I’m glad they haven’t even questioned my order to seal themselves in.

A simple clean-up job by hand isn’t possible in this scenario. I have to trigger a phased pulse scrub, destroying any lifeforms therein. Even after their clean-up and my scrub, I still won’t be able to use those sections for at least another six thousand years or so.

At least I’ve got the population down to a manageable amount now. Speaking of which… “Janice! I want wake-ups for Doc Jay every fifty years to perform routine lifeforms checks. The command cannot be superseded.”


After I watch the last few molecules being phased out of existence, I make my way to the Observation Deck, where the remaining survivors have settled themselves. At first, none of them will speak to me. Eventually, I just lose my patience and grab one of them. “You. You’re in charge now.”

I see the immediate wave of fear behind his eyes. “But Lord, our Priest?”

I shake my head. “He’s dead. You’re head man around these parts now.” I motion around us, to the others. “Everyone you see, this is all the people left alive. Your job is to take care of them.” Frankly, they look pathetic, as if they haven’t had a good meal in several decades. The only food I can see is emergency biscuits, and those are being nibbled sparingly like they’ve no other source of sustenance. Miller is supposed to teach them how to use the ship’s systems, including the Food Processor. Well, seeing as how I’ve just loaded it with new materials, I may as well show them.

I walk over to one of the many wall-mounted Dispensers. “Place your hand here. Food comes out of there. Don’t worry, there’s enough for everyone now. There’s no need to starve yourselves again. Just be careful not to gorge right away. You’ll just make yourselves sick, otherwise. Many of your friends and family have sacrificed themselves so you might eat now.” I have to make them get up, seeing me use the dispenser sets them all to kneel in worship. If Miller did her job every other century, they might understand this is just science, and not damn magic.

“Janice. Set a wake-up for Miller, every century. Tutorial of ship’s systems and education program. Deny further stasis access until tasks are fully performed. These damn colonists shouldn’t look on us as their Gods!”

I make sure they all take Nano Solution eight, then show them the Teaching Stations. Hopefully, a bit of good old science will squeeze the religion right out of them. If not, I guess there’s always the engineer’s solution. “Janice, monitor life-form numbers. If they go five percent over safe limits then have their old or infirm either report to an airlock or a recycler. Whichever happens to be closest.”

It shouldn’t be my job to do all this shit, but I guess an engineer has to fix things, even if they aren’t exactly within my remit. I check all the ship’s systems. Everything else seems fine, now reactor four is resealed. With the population down at a sensible amount, power and air soon return to normal.

A lot of these folks don’t remember ever having good air or lights at full power. It might damage their eyes, so I’ll have to take steps to allow them to get used to it slowly. “Janice, increase ship-wide light levels by one percent every day until you reach normal operating conditions. Lord, out.”

Having fixed the immediate problems of the world, I go back to stasis to get my head down for another century or two, hopefully. I doubt if Doc Jay and Miller will be best pleased with me having them awake so often. What are the odds they defrost me when they find out who issued those particular scheduling orders? At least the ship is back within safe operating parameters again.

I didn’t want to waste all those folks, but we’ve still got another fifty thousand years of travelling left, yet. It had to be done.

With the Captain gone, I guess that leaves me in charge now? The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

And so to sleep. Sweet Dreams!

Ray Daley was born in Coventry & still lives there. He served 6 yrs in the RAF as a clerk & spent most of his time in a Hobbit hole in High Wycombe. He is a published poet & has been writing stories since he was 10. His current dream is to eventually finish the Hitch Hikers fanfic novel he’s been writing since 1986.

’68 Mustang

On Saturday morning, I make my way down the stairs to the kitchen, and Dad is sitting there in the breakfast nook, facing the window, a cup of coffee in his hand. I catch a faint whiff of tobacco. There’s something natural about his presence, not surprising or shocking or horrifying. I’ve been looking for him all this time, and now he’s here.

“Dad,” I say, taking a chair opposite.

He’s been dead more than thirteen years, but that seems too obvious to mention.

“Why are you here?” I ask instead.

He looks at me, the corners of his brown eyes crinkling as he smiles.

“You dreamed about me last night.”

“Yes, but…”

He’s often in my dreams, not as the focus but as a background character, just someone who’s there.

“I summoned you?” I say.

He sets down the coffee mug, which features a faded Toronto Blue Jays logo. It’s one of his, one I inherited when Mom cleaned out the old house.

“I wanted to come,” he says, “but I have only this one day.”

“One day,” I say, and I see what this is. It’s an opportunity, the chance any son would take to see his Dad one more time, to say and do the things he always regretted not saying or doing. I think I should probably break down sobbing, reach across the table and grab him in a big bear hug, but we were never that huggy, and I feel no need to sob. I’m more worried I’m about to waste this time.

My hands shake a little as I prepare a simple breakfast, just juice and toast. Dad looks at the newspaper on my tablet, says, “Things have changed, but not really.” He has that faint, calm smile that I remember, as he just sits there, sipping his coffee, as I eat my toast. This is like so many mornings, long past.

I remember the car.

“I need to show you something,” I say, filled with sudden purpose.

My wife Janine, who always gets up before I do on weekends, is in the garden, not so much gardening as admiring what she’s accomplished so far. Her face goes slack as Dad and I emerge from the back door.

“Look who’s here,” I say.

She advances and throws her arms around him.

“Oh!” he says, a little awkward, but then he slaps her back and adds, “It’s good to see you!”

She looks stricken as she steps back, hands going to her mouth, face flushing.

“What’s going on?” she says.

“We’re going to the garage,” I say, realizing this doesn’t answer her question, but I’m eager to show Dad the ’68 Mustang. He’d always wanted one, but life got in the way.

In the garage, his face glows. He doesn’t have to say anything.

“The gearbox has been leaking a bit of oil lately,” I say. “I don’t know why.”

Dad lights a cigarette. That’s what killed him, but I don’t object, because it’s also a part of him.

“If I had time, I’d take a look at it,” he says. “Might be the humidity, but also because the car is just old.”

Janine is in the doorway, watching. Behind her, my son appears, hair dishevelled and sleep still in his eyes. He adjusts his glasses and says, “Grampy?”

“Look how big you’ve gotten!” Dad says.

Tim was five when Dad died, and is eighteen now. His thirteen-year-old sister is trailing behind him, carrying a banana which I assume passes for her breakfast.

“Suzy,” I say, “come meet your grandfather.”

She was born about three months after Dad died, and this is a moment I’ve wished for many times. She’s shy and looks down. She’s been hearing things about this man all her life, has seen pictures and videos, and I imagine he must be something of a legend to her.

“Very pleased to meet you, finally,” he says.

I’m like a soda bottle that someone just shook before popping the cap, and have to walk away, back into the garden. I can hear Tim talking, voice rising in giddy excitement, telling Grampy all the things that he’s been up to lately. I hear a welcome ring of laughter from Suzy.

When I go back into the garage, Janine is alone.

“Tim wanted to show him his room,” she tells me.

She seems a little embarrassed by her earlier loss of composure, and I encircle her with my arms. She lays her head against my shoulder and whispers, “We’ve been given an amazing gift.”

Tim convinces Dad to go for a walk down to the creek, and Suzy goes with them. I stay back and try to decide how to make the most of this. It starts to rain, and Dad and the kids return, laughing as they try to dodge raindrops. By now it’s lunch time, so we eat and Dad and I have a beer and watch some of the ball game. I haven’t been watching baseball since he died.

Later, we take the Mustang for a spin. I let Dad drive and just enjoy the look of satisfaction on his face. When we return, the rain has stopped and we have a barbecue on the patio, then sit in the deck chairs while Suzy gets her three-quarter sized guitar and sings us a song, something she’s usually too self-conscious to do in front of her parents.

As the last note fades, Janine looks at me with a sad smile and, wiping at her eyes, asks, “Would anyone like tea or coffee?”

Time is passing too swiftly, and shapes swirl and blur around me. The night is warm, the deck chairs comfortable. Dad and I are alone and he’s just a dark shape marked by the point of light from his cigarette tip, like a tiny orange star.

“This is a cozy spot,” he says. “You’ve done well for your family.”

And I think of all the years that I couldn’t settle on a degree program, how I’d worked for a non-profit and couldn’t get a job in the field I’d eventually chosen, and how my relationships with women, until I’d met Janine, had been ridiculous and childish, and how stupid I’d felt a lot, and how frustrated…

“I know how you used to feel,” Dad says. “And why you were so touchy for a while there.”

It’s true. He and I had been close, very close, especially when I’d been a kid. There’d been no drama, but sometimes we create drama from nothing.

“When you got older and things didn’t work the way you wanted, you thought you were a loser and I was disappointed.”

He chuckles, but in fondness, not mockery.

“I need you to know something,” he says. “I was never disappointed in anything you ever did. Not when you were in school and not after. I know you thought I was, but I wasn’t. I knew what you didn’t, that life can’t be planned and doesn’t always go how you want it, but you accomplished more than you think, and I always thought you’d been awfully lucky to find Janine, and when Tim came I was never so happy in my life.”

I can’t speak. My throat feels stuffed with cotton.

“I’m going to have to head back soon,” he adds. “Right now, actually.”

I can’t bear it. I never asked for this day, but I don’t want it to end. I feel like I need to do something to mark it, make some gesture. He did this for me. I need to do something for him.

I still have the key to the Mustang in my pocket.

I give him the key.

“This was always for you,” I manage to say. “Maybe you can fix that leaky gearbox, wherever it is you’re going.”

He holds it, looks at me.

“You sure?”

“More than anything,” I tell him. I don’t want him to refuse it, and he doesn’t. He nods and slaps me on the arm.

I stand in the garage as he starts the car. Janine and the kids come out of the house and we all watch as Dad waves and backs out of the driveway, then as the car rumbles down the road to the stop sign, brake lights flaring, turns right and disappears around a bend.

The night is quiet.

“You saw him, right?” I say to my wife. “Did I dream that just so I could hear something I must have wanted to hear for years?”

“No,” she says. “And don’t try to explain it. Just let it be.”

The next morning is like every other Sunday morning. Janine is in the garden, and I make myself coffee and go outside. She just smiles and says nothing.

I go into the garage, half expecting to see the Mustang still there, but it’s not. There’s just an oil stain on the concrete, and the faint scent of yesterday’s tobacco.

Scratch

She came to Fatum two days after the rats. Her feet spattered with mud, her face round and healthy. She had no hair but wrapped her head in cloths of many colors, dyes we hadn’t seen in months. Plague makes all things scarce.

We first heard about the coming of the rats from a tinker. She entered our village and stayed at your inn. That was two weeks before. Her name was Glorys. The night she arrived, she told us about the rats as you wiped the bar with a stained cloth.

“I came from Chiad’ow.” Some of us knew the name. It was a town twelve miles north. Sipping from glasses and cups, we waited for her to continue. “I was going to settle there, wait out the winter with plenty of business and a strong roof over my head, a strong wall around me and my cart.”

Glorys lowered her head. She was in her fifties, her skin betraying her origin from the north. She stood out in our midst, pale and wrinkled by care. Her eyes were a disconcerting blue.

“Why did you leave?” one of us asked. At the bar, you’d stopped paying attention to your work, your gaze fixed on the tinker.

Glorys shook her head, a small, trembling motion matched by her hands as they tried to clasp the drink you poured her. “They came,” she said.

We all leaned in to hear the next words.

“The rats.”

Glorys moved her cart into your stable. In the first week, we heard little, but travel from the north had started to increase. Chaid’ow was facing famine—and something else too unspeakable for travelers to relay as they passed through our village. As the days passed, the temperature dropping each night, refugees from Chiad’ow came to stay, then from Darna, about seven miles away from Fatum.

Plague, we whispered in the streets. You opened rooms that hadn’t been filled in years. Your daughter moved in with her brother to free up space.

I’m sorry about her. Your son was old enough to escape.

When the rooms filled, some of us opened our homes, for a price. With winter setting in, it did not pay to support extra bodies without recompense. I took in a weaver who paid her way by crafting marvelous woven goods. When I had all I needed, she moved to a neighbor’s house, supplying another of us with the means to survive the cold. She did not stay, however. Not when she—like all of us—heard that Treas had been struck, not two miles north. Then, she left. The refugees from Chiad’ow, from Darna, moved on. Some arrived with scratches on their hands, bites on their necks. These injuries healed before they left. But we worried, when Treas happened.

Some of us chose to leave before the rats came. You stayed, and so did I. We have weathered many things in our lives. I wish now that you had gone, taken your daughter and fled with the rest. But we didn’t know what would happen, after the rats.

When they came to Treas, we knew what we faced. Stores overrun, thatch roofs ruined, vestries profaned. The rats brought filth and disease into Treas, and those that had waited—like us—soon found themselves at Fatum’s gate.

We did not have room, so many moved on from there. A few slept in the streets, wincing as winter’s teeth bit into their flesh at night. In the morning, some were dead. Perhaps they were luckiest.

The next day, the rats came.

The Alternate Appeal of a Jelly Fox

I was midway through a series of concept sketches when Chuchuko popped out of my drafting table with a high-pitched dojyan. “Ohay?gozai-nezu, Otsuji Yuko!” chirped the RariJump mascot. “You have two guests waiting in the president’s office. Your presence is requested immediately! Otsukaresama deshita!” With that, the hot pink mouse swan-dove back into my table, rippling my sketches like reflections on water.

Guests? I didn’t get guests. I didn’t want guests. But I would get yelled at if I didn’t show up in five minutes.

I holstered my plastiq stylus and saved my work; belatedly I noticed the horrors that had snuck into my doodles yet again. Skulking among studies of a book-loving omu-raisu were disemboweled teddy-bears and headless kittens. The art of kawaii was surgery, taking ordinary things and amputating what was sharp and hard and ugly, injecting them with fluff like a botox treatment; these were botched patients I couldn’t remember cutting, more kowaii than kawaii.

Instead of SAVE I hit TRASH. Yet another file of morbid crap onto a heap eight months tall. You weren’t going to be anything anyway, Chappu-chan. We both knew that.

I headed for the president’s suite, confident that this was going to be nonsense.

The offices of RariJump Kawaii Company occupied the outermost ring of Cooperation Tower, some eleven million stories outwise from the face of the moon. From the window that was our whole southern wall you could spend a lunch watching Visitors arrive at the General Port a microscopic thirty stories outwise, via space-crunch and fusion catapult and asteroid barge. Our location was worth the rent as high as a small GDP: looking in, they’d see our most famous characters parading from left to right across the glass, welcoming friends from afar to our humble space elevator. We were never more than a presh-reg glitch away from a critical decompression, but a good first impression was a first stab in an industry as murderous as cuteness.

Guests. Plural, and how perfectly ominous. My mother and sister maybe, to confirm that I was still alive. More likely, HR here to politely fire me. It would be about time.

“Come in, please,” said President Abioye Okabe at the sound of my knock. I found him at his sequoia trunk desk, its polished stump littered with bobble-head Moto-Shiba-kun’s and beanie-bodied Giving You Song’s and other RariJump top-selling characters.

“Take a seat, Otsuji-san,” he said, smiling broadly. He waved me over to the emptier of two chairs. The other contained a stranger, a plain man of silvering hair. His armband bore the emblem of two clasped hands. He glanced at me once and returned to not seeing me.

“This is Mister Sauerbrey,” Okabe said, “from the Cooperative. He’ll be moderating as needed. And these—” he gestured to the other two guests, “—are Lovely Vanilla-san and Chocolate Tiger-san.”

I didn’t sit just yet. Standing to either side of him were two Visitors like I’d never seen.

They were of the same xenospecies, erectomorphs like us humans but much taller; I was a sixth less than Okabe’s six-one, and they towered over him. They possessed digitated fingers, though wrongly jointed, and their faces were reminiscent of Homo sapiens in the way that tigers are reminiscent of cats. Too-huge eyes, thickly lashed, lips painted on. Rubbery cables of something approximating hair were tied into rainbow-dyed twintails on one and a bubblegum princess cut on the other. One had skin of eggnog, the other cookies-and-cream, and nearly every inch was flyered in character stickers; I recognized more than a few RariJump products among them.

My eyes burned at the brightness of them. They were dressed in the fashion of human Decora Girls: frilly skirts and blazers fit for a different phylum, clashing legwarmers puddled around their shins, each finger ending in a fifteen-centimeter false nail painted pink and blue and polka dot. I might have been offended at the blatant cultural appropriation were the aesthetic not so unnervingly inapplicable. What would have been cloying on a Japanese teenager was on them as good as a ribbon around a centipede.

Toikitti, I realized after a bamboozled lag. The rarest of Visitors to Cooperation Tower.

< (:D)(´?`)(^-^)(?)?> the one on the left said.

< (:D)( (/???)/)(<=3)> the other replied, seeming to concur, and both laughed in sync. Less like people, more like hyenas.

“Please excuse me, Okabe-san,” I said, still hovering by the door. “But what exactly is going on?”

The president beamed like a solar flare. “Otsuji-san, do you remember Goodnight Smile?”

“Yes, of course,” I answered warily. Goodnight Smile had been one of my bigger successes. My sleepy reindeer with her omnipresent sleep mask had appeared on a few decently-selling lines of bedtime supplies, but that was about it.

It was also my last success since Eiichiro had gone away.

Okabe could hardly contain his excitement. “Then you will be overjoyed to know that our guests here have just put it an order for two million pairs of your Goodnight Smile house slippers.”

I looked back and forth between the twin Toikitti. The rightmost grinned; its teeth were small and uniformly sharp, like the tines of a comb.

“I am very confused.”

He shrugged and motioned for the Visitors to explain.

They crossed the room and backed me up against the door. The tang of port-issued disinfectant was overpowering; they must have docked within the hour. < (->)(:DDD)(Q-Q)(->)(T3T)( _(._.)_)(>)> the leftmost, Lovely Vanilla, chittered. As the emotograms left her tongue, the tower’s AmBab snatched them and reorganized them into something intelligible to the human brain.

“We are honored to finally meet you. It is a human custom to shake hands in order to express appreciation, yes? May I do so?”

“By all means,” I said, and found my hand swallowed by their spidery paw. Their flesh was textured like a lollipop, with subtle seams between joints. Mechanisms revolved on tracks around their heart-shaped irises.

“We are the biggest fans of Goodnight Smile,” the other, Chocolate Tiger, eagerly explained. “See?” They parted their hair-analogue to show me the slipper hung from her chiropteran ear-analogue. “We love all of your characters, but Goodnight Smile is our favorite.”

“Extremely yes!” Lovely Vanilla agreed, still pumping my arm. “She is ‘Super Kawaii!’”

I looked to the president for help.

“Our guests have a special request for us,” he said. “One that I have agreed to fulfill, in light of their exceedingly generous purchase.”

“You mean that I will fulfill,” I replied, putting two and two together.

“Just so,” he said, pleased to have me on the same page. “Beginning tomorrow your priority assignment is to design a spaceship.” His tone narrowed to a point. “You weren’t doing much anyway.”


I returned to my apartment forty floors moonwise in the Residence Block to find a message from my mother waiting to ambush me. I let the apartment read it off as I changed clothes and watered the cat. “Yuko-chan. I hope you will call me when you get this message. Yukiko and I are worrying ourselves to death over you. We know you are hurting, and we want to help make it better. Please, call me. Love you, Your Mother.

More of the same then. Delete message. That was one of the secret perks of living in the middle of a space elevator on the moon. Moonwise or outwise, everyone was far way.

Design a spaceship. I hid from the new assignment in the shower, where the hot water helped defrost my icy guts. It must have sounded so simple to Okabe-san, from whom everything got done via inter-office memo. No no no, he’d chuckled, don’t worry about the hardware of it. All they want is the aesthetic. As if that were appreciably easier for me.

With my mauve-dipped hair in a towel turban I came to sit on the edge of my bed. Eight months later and my husband’s shape was still imprinted into the mattress. I swept my hand through that crater, hoping against impossibility to scoop up some dreg of his warmth. But no, nothing.

My apologies, Okabe-san. It was hard to see the world in pastel colors with an open wound in your bed.

I retrieved my pants and turned out my pockets; a glossy black business card dropped into my palm. The man from the Cooperative had remained silent throughout the meeting but had smuggled this into my hand as we’d shook our farewells.

I brushed my thumb along the icon of two clasped hands and hissed at a nip of static. I dropped the card as a thread of blue light lanced from its center. I scrambled for a T-shirt to throw on as that thread dilated into a window in AUGer space. If only I’d bowed like a more stereotypical Japanese, I thought. I’d have saved myself this imminent trouble.


“You want me to be a spy.”

“The official term is Voluntary Xenological Informant,” Sauerbrey said. “But basically yes.”

His light-knit simulacra hovered a foot above the fallen card. This rendition made the government man no less unremarkable. If bureaucracy had a mascot character, he was it.

“I refuse. Please leave me alone.”

“Hear me out. This is a matter of Security and Advancement. Of all those Visitor species known to us, the Toikitti are the most obscure. We view your situation as an opportunity to further Human-Alien Cooperation.”

Ah, yes, Cooperation. The cultural doctrine that had seen humanity through a universe older and smarter and tougher than us. It hadn’t taken long after first contact, when our fleet of quaint little warships came up against the Hanrit species like a bird against a glass door, for war to start showing diminishing returns. As much as we loved it like an old sweatshirt from college, we had to let it go. From the rubble of outmoded nation-tribes arose the One Earth United Government and Cooperation Tower, a neutral agora facilitating commerce and cultural exchange between Visitors in the furtherance of intergalactic good will. And if we happened to pick up whatever exotech they didn’t keep a close eye on, well, who got hurt?

“If we want to Cooperate we need common understanding,” Sauerbrey went on, “and these bastards are a big sparkly question mark. We’ve established a Minimum Tolerance Basis with them but beyond that, we don’t know where they’re from, we don’t know how they reproduce, and we don’t know what makes their ships work better than ours. About all we do know is that they go nuts over our cute crap.”

“The official term is kawaii,” I shot back, a little offended. “It’s different. And it’s not crap.”

“Whatever, sorry. All we need is for you to record your interactions with them. Give us more observations to work with than what we’ve got. We’ll be providing you the necessary equipment.”

“I’m not hearing anything about a carrot here,” I said, folding my arms.

“I’ll do you one better,” Sauerbrey replied, his gray voice suddenly going ice-blue. “Here’s a stick. If you choose not to comply, as is your right, the Cooperative might decide that this highly in-demand apartment here would better serve a citizen with a higher Utility Score. Apropos of nothing, your boss tells me you’re in something of a slump. I’m sorry to hear that.”

I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood. “Fine.” Losing my home meant losing my job. I’d plummet as hard into my old room at my mother’s place in Nowhere Prefecture as if I’d fallen there from all the way up here. I told you, Yuko-chan, she’d say. You go to live with the aliens (using the Cooperative-discouraged slur) you wind up broke with a probe up your backside.

But worse than saying I told you so, she’d pity me.

That I could not stand.

“Excellent.” Sauerbrey’s lips twitched into the bare minimum of a smile. “You’ll receive what you need via GoPak within the hour. Have a good evening, Miss Otsuji. Best of luck.”

The Recovery

There was a rock in Alan Gunnel’s boot but he was too nervous to try and dig it out. Bruce Finch meanwhile was holding in a bowel movement and Ryan Kaczka was thinking what it would take to knock down all the trees and build a race track. It was Mrs. Corbin’s idea the men should all hold shovels, so the Ouranoi knew they meant business, she said, but also so they could better tell the laborers apart from the ambassadors and the television crew. When the men weren’t looking toward the sky they were scanning the rocks and the scrub. Tom Dietrich had found an old rifle casing so now everybody was on the lookout for some piece of the battle, some memento to bridge the gap between theirs and their grandfather’s generation, to assure them that, yes, despite growing fatter and softer and never having to worry about war or hunger, they were still the same species of man. Ed Finch, who was Bruce’s cousin, thought he saw something glinting in the weeds but it was just the sun on the dew.

It was 8:55 when one of the television crew pointed it out, a faint, dark spot puttering across the blue. Mrs. Corbin and the government people all put themselves in order, to which Charlie Stern, the foreman, commanded his men to do the same. Standing up straight, resituating their collars and gripping their shovels, they brushed up against that feeling of being a soldier. They watched the ship carve an elegant streak of white above the mountains then double back on itself as it descended, toward a patch of ground that’d been stamped out ahead of time into a landing pad. As it set down there was none of the jostling or general rickety quality of an earth ship; it moved like a pat of butter across a hot skillet. The ship sat there a minute, humming, a sheen of ice still clinging to the hull. The television crew seemed to have a hard time photographing it.

The engine quit and the ship opened and the first one out lead the way in acclimating to the planet, a process of opening what counted for his nose and mouth in such a way it looked like he was warbling a silent, impassioned aria. Pete Calabrese said to Alan Gunnel it was the ugliest looking thing he’d ever seen.

When that first one was finished he turned and signaled the rest to follow. They were five in all, not counting the pilot. One of the Ouranoi was markedly older than the others and had to be helped to acclimate by his nurse. There were deep pale scars knotting up the left side of his face and while the others all looked like they were singing he looked like he was screaming. It took him longer to get his breathing right, but once he did he settled into a deep, bovine repose. He scratched his chest as if to fondle the air in his lungs and observed the place, the people, like it was all just an obstacle to him taking a nap.

Mrs. Corbin, flanked by her attaché, stepped forward and, unsure of who to address first, spread her deference equally among the Ouranoi. She had a clear, ingratiating voice and a daring, cards on the table smile, but enough sense not to stray too far into whatever body language wasn’t included in an Ouranoi handbook for Earth custom. One of the Ouranoi, the leader in breathing the air, identified himself and a partner as from the government. Ouranoi speak English like it pains them, like they’re spitting hot coals from their tongue. Their voice, their appearance, was such that, the war aside, it was, according to men like Ryan Kaczka, only natural to be prejudice against them, the way a boot is prejudice against the spider. A shudder ran through him as the Earth and Ouranoi ambassadors shook hands, as they rubbed their legs together like each was one half of a cricket.

“The women,” he said, pointing to the Ouranoi nurse. “A friend of mine says the women click their teeth like castanets when you touch them just right.”

He got some of the other men to laugh but then Charlie Stern overheard and upbraided him. He’d fought tooth and nail for the contract, he said, and wouldn’t let anyone ruin it.

The introductions, the formalities, were all rather painstaking. The tenor could never be too patriotic, nor to conciliatory, nothing that might upset or suggest weakness in one side or the other. It was warm milk to the television crews, who were after even just a sliver of the bombs, the death. They trained the majority of their cameras the majority of the time on the worn and ravaged face of the old Ouranoi man, who never spoke nor was made to speak. After the introductions the Earth and Ouranoi delegates went off on their own and the old Ouranoi man, his nurse, and what turned out to be his son, sat beside their ship, passing back-and-forth what appeared to be some kind of dried fruit. The son kept leaning across the nurse to speak in a hurried patter at his father, to which the old Ouranoi man, maintaining a dreamy gaze out over the field, would languidly flex the fins at the top of his head, what counted for the Ouranoi nod. Rob Lingenfelter was trying to listen in but could only make out every other word. His grandfather had been a translator during the war.

“Something about money,” he said. “Something about money and somebody’s mother or something.”

The men stood at some distance under a nylon canopy, smoking cigarettes and on the whole in generally good spirits for so far getting paid to stand around doing nothing. Alan Gunnel finally dug the rock out of his boot and Bruce Finch went to use the bathroom.

“Now he’s saying something about the weather. Something about the air. Don’t know if it’s complementary or not.”

“All sounds like mush to me,” said Ryan Kaczka.

“A lot of it’s just the same couple of sounds and once you get those you can start picking up on things.”

“I didn’t say I wanted to learn I just said it sounded like mush.”

“I’m going to go try and talk to them.”

The other men all watched Rob Lingenfelter stub out his cigarette, fix his hair. He was young and excitable, irritating in an admirable sort of way. He had screws in his leg from a four wheeling accident and was half deaf in one ear from standing too close to a homemade firework.

“Charlie said not to bother them,” said Alan Gunnel.

“Not going to bother them I’m just going to talk to them. I never met one before.”

The other men wanted to see what would happen and gave up trying to reel him in. The son of the old Ouranoi man frowned as he approached; the nurse crossed her legs. Rob Lingenfelter greeted them first in English then in Ouranoi, then stuck out his hand, which the son shook, the nurse squeezed, and the old man observed a moment, as if some curious piece of driftwood, then took in both of his. The old Ouranoi man whispered something over their grasp.

“What’d he say?” asked Rob Lingenfelter. “I didn’t catch all that.”

The son muttered a reply but Rob Lingenfelter couldn’t understand that either.

“Do any of you speak English? I know some Ouranoi but not enough. My granddaddy was a translator and he––”

Rob Lingenfelter didn’t know he was speaking as loud as he was. He was used to speaking like that because of his ear, because he spent all day working with loud machinery. The nurse plugged her ears and turned away from him. The son waved a hand and let slip a war-time insult, which was, unluckily, one of the couple dozen words in Rob Lingenfelter’s Ouranoi vocabulary.

“Come again?” He observed the nurse, the son. The old Ouranoi man seemed to’ve already forgotten him and was staring somewhere off into the distance. “Do any of you speak English?” He tried them in their own language but the reaction wasn’t any better. “Alright then,” he said. “Alright,” and went away a lot less enthusiastically than he arrived. He rejoined the men and lit another cigarette.

“How’d it go?” asked Alan Gunnel.

“Couldn’t understand them. Just a bunch of mush.”