First Contact

A Play in One Act
by Bryan Carrigan

 

Cast of Characters
Matthew Prescott: A clean-cut, all-American, astronaut.
Duke: A NASA mission director

Setting: A NASA flight control conference room. Kazakhstan, Russia.

Time: Present day.

ACT ONE
Scene 1

SETTING: A NASA conference room. A table, a few chairs, a few poster-size photographs of STS launches.

AT RISE: MATTHEW PRESCOTT has been kept waiting for some time. DUKE enters.

PRESCOTT
…it’s about time!

DUKE
How are we feeling, Prescott?

PRESCOTT
Tell me you’ve got a burger and fries hidden behind that clipboard. A nice, juicy porterhouse? Mashed potatoes? Budweiser? I don’t know the Russian word for beer.

DUKE
Keep pushing the milk, Commander.

PRESCOTT
You’re killing me, Duke.

DUKE
One hundred and thirty-seven days in isolation aboard the ISS—mineral depletion is within norms. Right now, your bones have the density of balsa wood. Calcium. Vitamin D. Milk. Do what the doctors tell you, and right now, they’re telling you—

PRESCOTT
Could I at least get it in the form of a strawberry milkshake?

DUKE
They’re going to name a high school after you.

PRESCOTT
I’m pretty sure this is goat’s milk.

DUKE
You’re a goddamn national hero. Act like it.
(Prescott laughs.)
Does something about this amuse you, Commander?

PRESCOTT
…“hero.”

DUKE
Fuckin’ A right you are.

PRESCOTT
I’m getting some t-shirts printed up that say “I survived the great NASA clusterfuck of 2018.” You want one?

DUKE
Matthew—

PRESCOTT
Buehlman and McGinnis, Pushkin and Sato—name high schools after those guys.

DUKE
They—

PRESCOTT
Don’t. I like you, Duke. I’ve the bone density of balsa wood, but I swear to god I’ll break my hand on your face.

DUKE
You’re right.

PRESCOTT
I keep looking for the DCB—I’ve been staring at that thing for so fucking long, trying to make sense out of—I’ve got the afterglow from the indicator lights seared into my eyeballs. I didn’t ask for this, Duke.

DUKE
I know. Still…

PRESCOTT
Fucking goat’s milk.

DUKE
I’ll see what I can do about that cheeseburger. I’ve got no idea if the Russians can do french fries.

PRESCOTT
What went wrong?

DUKE
Everything.
(Off Prescott’s look.)
You know how these things go. The Russians insist there was nothing wrong with their rocket, they’re putting it squarely on Buehlman. We need the Soyuz to reach the ISS so we’re not saying anything. But best guess? One of the capsule’s OMS engines misfired. There was nothing Buehlman or McGinnis could have done…

PRESCOTT
Jesus.

DUKE
That’s not to say we’re in any hurry to launch another Soyuz. Word is, until the Titans are go for launch or Space X steps up, the ISS is going to be operated remotely.

PRESCOTT
Can’t image all this has made your life any easier.

DUKE
Easy is not why I signed on.
(Beat.)
I don’t much like writing eulogies. I’m much better at manufacturing heroes.

PRESCOTT
Any chance you can get Five Guys to sign me to an endorsement deal? I’ll give you ten percent—

DUKE
As soon as the docs clear you—

PRESCOTT
This isn’t normal, is it?

DUKE
They’re playing it extra-cautious.

PRESCOTT
Guys have stayed up longer. That Russian—?

DUKE
Kozyrskii. Yeah, he died seventeen months after returning to Earth.

PRESCOTT
—died!?!

DUKE
As in, he didn’t drink his goat’s milk.

PRESCOTT
Now’s probably the wrong time to mention that I may have left the lights on up there.

DUKE
You’re gonna have to do the morning shows.

PRESCOTT
And the film canisters. Shit! You wouldn’t believe the footage I shot—every canister of iMax film we had—I mean, it’s not like I had anything else to do… I can’t believe I left that up there…

DUKE
The White House wants you for a photo op. They’re giving you a medal.

PRESCOTT
Can’t I use the “bone density of balsa wood” to get out of it?

DUKE
Are you still a Commander on active duty in the United States Navy?

PRESCOTT
…no?

DUKE
C’mon, Prescott, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States of America has requested your presence at a state dinner to be held in your honor at the White House.

PRESCOTT
…the White House?

DUKE
I’ve been there. The food sucks.

PRESCOTT
Was there a contingency plan?

DUKE
Which one?

PRESCOTT
This is the longest conversation I’ve had in four and a half months. First order of business once the Titans are ready for launch: free wifi. The largest manmade object ever put into orbit, the pinnacle of human achievement—that I couldn’t Skype, much less send an email—actually, you might want to do that second, the toilet in the crew module… never mind.

DUKE
I’ll get the engineers right on that.

PRESCOTT
There was no rescue plan.

DUKE
No.

PRESCOTT
How close did I come?

DUKE
The CO² scrubbers had about nineteen days left in them. The O² generators maybe a week more.

PRESCOTT
Sheesh.

DUKE
One of the eggs came up with a workaround that would have bought you another couple, three days. But with communications offline, no uplink…

PRESCOTT
I’m glad I didn’t stick around.

DUKE
I’m supposed to debrief you… your decision, why you waited, why you punched out when you did, that sort of thing.

PRESCOTT
Sounds swell. Some other time, maybe.

DUKE
…are you all right?

PRESCOTT
There’s this buzzing—ever since re-entry—I think I may have ruptured an eardrum.

DUKE
You don’t look so good. Let me get one of the docs to check you out.

PRESCOTT
Nah, forget it.

DUKE
You’re sure?
(Prescott staggers, collapses into a chair.)
I’m getting—

PRESCOTT
I’m all right. Gravity.

DUKE
Still thirty-two feet per second squared last I checked.

PRESCOTT
I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to parade me in front of the press just yet.

DUKE
Go, no go—it’s your call.

PRESCOTT
Good to know.

DUKE
But here’s the thing—

PRESCOTT
…Duke!

DUKE
Hear me out. We’ve got a narrow window of opportunity—right now, out there, people care about manned space flight again. I mean, you should have seen it, every hobby shop across the country sold out of telescopes. Night after night, fathers and sons tracked the ISS from horizon to horizon. The country, hell, the whole world—

PRESCOTT
I saw something. Up there.
(Beat.)

DUKE
What?

PRESCOTT
I’m ninety-nine point forty-four percent sure I’m cracked, that I was hallucinating—

DUKE
What did you see, Matthew?

PRESCOTT
Don’t patronize me, Duke.

DUKE
You’re not the first—

PRESCOTT
—to have a psychotic break from reality two hundred and eighty-six miles above the surface of the Earth? I think I am.

DUKE
Friendship Seven—there’s a tape of Glenn, he says, “I am in a big mass of some very small particles, they’re brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little: they’re coming by the capsule and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted.” Shepard saw the same thing—you can imagine the shitstorm that ensued. Turns out, they were ice crystals formed from the capsule’s exhaust.

PRESCOTT
We’re not talking ice crystals, Duke. This wasn’t…

DUKE
What? Look, Prescott, it’s okay. Whatever you tell me, it stays between us and the goat’s milk.

PRESCOTT
I can’t believe—they’re never going to let me go back up again, are they?
(A beat.)

DUKE
No, they’re not.

PRESCOTT
…damn it!

DUKE
No one blames you for what happened, but you know how these things go.

PRESCOTT
I’m glad I broke the toilet.

DUKE
Even if… the decision had been made before you even—

PRESCOTT
Damaged goods. I know.

DUKE
If it’s any consolation—

PRESCOTT
It’s really not.

DUKE
I think we’ve covered enough for—

PRESCOTT
I saw a ship. Yeah, it’s as crazy as it sounds—I saw a ship leave Earth on a ballistic trajectory—hell, at first I thought it was you guys coming to rescue me but the launch vector was all wrong.

DUKE
You’ve been under an inordinate amount of stress. Given what you’ve been through, it’s only natural—

PRESCOTT
It blasted off from Canada, Duke. I don’t give a crap how much stress I’ve been under—I wouldn’t hallucinate a rocket park in British Columbia.

DUKE
It could’ve been anything: a test launch, a science fair project, a couple of kids with too many D-engines.

PRESCOTT
Sure.

DUKE
When was this? Hey, look, if there was a launch, anywhere on the planet, you tell me when and I’ll track it. NORAD—

PRESCOTT
Ninety-one days ago.

DUKE
Okay. Ninety-one days. British Columbia. I’ll start making calls. We’ll get to the bottom of this. If there was a launch—

PRESCOTT
Forget the launch. Three days ago, it returned.

DUKE
It?

PRESCOTT
It wasn’t one of ours, Duke. And it sure as hell wasn’t some Russian Soyuz piece of crap.

DUKE
You’re starting to worry me, Matthew.

PRESCOTT
Good. ’Cause I’m scared shitless.

DUKE
It’s possible… maybe one of the CO² scrubbers failed… you rest easy, kid. I’m going to go order up some tests.

PRESCOTT
Damn it, I don’t need an MRI!

DUKE
I’m not so sure about that. Look, Matthew, put yourself in my position.

PRESCOTT
Don’t you think I have? I know how crazy this sounds—

DUKE
Then…?

PRESCOTT
An unidentified flying—

DUKE
Let’s not use that term. We’re professionals.

PRESCOTT
An unidentified flying object blasted off from the west coast of Canada three months ago. It completed two orbits, then slingshot itself into the outer solar system. Three days ago, it returned. It buzzed the ISS—

DUKE
Buzzed—?

PRESCOTT
—and made planetfall somewhere in the Yucatan peninsula.
(A beat.)

DUKE
Aliens have landed in Mexico?

PRESCOTT
If I’m wrong—

DUKE
You are.

PRESCOTT
—if it was a hallucination, the product of a fevered imagination and one too many Star Trek episodes—you cancel the morning shows and I serve out the remainder of my commitment flying a desk at some radar station in the ass-crack of the Alaskan arctic. But if I’m right…

DUKE
Matthew, listen to yourself.

PRESCOTT
If I’m right, then this is the moment when everything changes. Life on other planets, FTL space travel, first contact—the whole paradigm—our place in the cosmos—everything changes.

DUKE
(Nods.)
I’m ordering up a 5150 pysch eval.

PRESCOTT
You haven’t even asked me what it looked like.

DUKE
Heat, fuel, air—with any luck, we can smother this thing before you burn yourself.

PRESCOTT
Wedge shaped. Flat. Almost like an almond. Made out of some composite material that absorbs light… but you already know all this, don’t you?

DUKE
Yes. I’m secretly in league with the Nazi space aliens from Dimension X. We all are here at NASA—every one of us except you.

PRESCOTT
I can’t get this taste out of my mouth.

DUKE
How much of what happened do you remember?

PRESCOTT
…it’s like I’m sucking on a penny.

DUKE
Walk me through it. How did it start?

PRESCOTT
You think I’ve cracked.

DUKE
You have cracked, Matthew. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; honestly, I think it might be what’s kept you alive this long.

PRESCOTT
I know what I saw.

DUKE
Think it through, Matthew—if there were aliens, if they had the intelligence to cross the vastness of space, if they had successfully secreted themselves throughout the population of British Columbia, why on Earth would they ineptly reveal themselves to an astronaut aboard the International Space Station?

PRESCOTT
…what’s wrong with me, Duke?

DUKE
It’s a miracle you’re alive. You made it home, in one piece—

PRESCOTT
The re-supply capsule clipped us right at S5, knocking out the multipurpose lab and shearing off our secondary array. You asked how it all started. Pushkin and Sato were in the lab… thirteen seconds—

DUKE
It was an accident.

PRESCOTT
Yeah.

DUKE
Wait, weren’t you—
(Duke pages through his log book.)
You were supposed to be setting up the multipurpose lab, not Sato.

PRESCOTT
I was EVA trying to un-foul the robotic arm.

DUKE
So what you’re going through is survivor’s guilt. It’s normal. What’s not normal is spending one hundred and thirty-seven days in isolation telling yourself it should have been you and not Sato who died. If it hadn’t been for the robotic arm—

PRESCOTT
It amazes me that piece of crap saved my life. Turns out, opening an airlock from the outside isn’t as easy as you’d think.

DUKE
Opening the airlock—there’s a story you can tell on the morning shows.

PRESCOTT
C’mon—

DUKE
Endurance, perseverance, some good old-fashioned American ingenuity, and a whole lot of dumb luck—it’s a good story. No aliens necessary.

PRESCOTT
I can’t—

DUKE
Four dead astronauts—two Americans—NASA won’t survive another black eye. We need a win, Matthew. We need you to step up.

PRESCOTT
What if—

DUKE
No what if’s, no conjecture, no fantasy—focus. This is go or no go time, Commander.

PRESCOTT
Message received.

DUKE
All right.

PRESCOTT
They wanted to be seen.

DUKE
God damn it!

PRESCOTT
They wanted me to—

DUKE
If they had wanted to be seen, they’d have landed their fucking space ship in the middle of the skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza.

PRESCOTT
I know what I saw.

DUKE
No, you don’t. Three days ago, a solar flare bombarded the ISS with a tsunami of electromagnetic radiation. It happens. We have protocols to minimize crew exposure, but those protocols presuppose an uplink with Houston and a functioning DCB—neither of which were in effect three days ago.

PRESCOTT
A solar flare? That’s the best you’ve got. I don’t even rate a weather balloon? An experimental satellite? I get a solar flare?

DUKE
This isn’t a cover up.

PRESCOTT
The hell it’s not.

DUKE
Magnet, hard drive. Magnet—
(Holds up a fist.)
—hard drive.
(He taps his head.)
Your jaw is tingling. Your eyes feel dry. Scratchy. Every time you stand up, you feel light headed.

PRESCOTT
(Stands.)
I feel… ok, you may be onto something.

DUKE
There’s a very real chance that you are the last astronaut NASA will send into orbit. You could very well represent the end of manned space flight.

PRESCOTT
The station is still salvageable—minus the secondary array, power generation is in the red, but I managed to get most everything else back online—we just need—

DUKE
We still haven’t recovered from the arsenic-based life debacle. Or the Mars asteroid. We’re NASA. We don’t do aliens. If you go on Good Morning America—if you are the end of manned space flight, don’t let us go out a punch line…

PRESCOTT
Message received. I can tell ’em the toilet story.

DUKE
Yeah, the morning shows? We try and keep them excrement-free. Except CBS. Those clowns will air anything.

PRESCOTT
An EM burst?

DUKE
Knocked out cell phone service in Europe, the Middle East, and the better part of Russia.

PRESCOTT
X-rays and Gamma rays…

DUKE
Keep pushing the milk. I’ll see what I can do about the morning shows—maybe a pre-taped segment—something that gives us editorial control. How’s that sound? If we don’t like the question…

PRESCOTT
Sounds good, Duke.

DUKE
Take it easy, Matthew. Let me do my job. You’re a goddamn hero.
(Duke gathers up his papers. Makes to exit.)

PRESCOTT
There’s just one problem with that bullshit story of yours, Duke.
(Duke stops.)

DUKE
Oh?

PRESCOTT
I had the DCB back online. The board was green. I spent a hundred and thirty-seven days aboard the ISS with nothing to do except fix things—I can give you a status read on every diagnostic she’s got. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer? Not even a twitch. Nothing. No Gammas. No X-rays. I’m not an idiot, the first thing I did after I stabilized the pressure variances and patched the hull was a hard reset of the radiation alarms. There was no solar flare.

DUKE
Endurance, perseverance, ingenuity…

PRESCOTT
What the hell happened to me, Duke?

DUKE
What do you think would happen if you told the world that life exists on other planets?

PRESCOTT
Damn it, Duke, just tell me—!

DUKE
Instead of being a morning show hero, author of a best-selling memoir, inspiration to a generation of junior stargazers—you’d become another what’s-her-name? That chick who drove cross-country wearing space diapers.

PRESCOTT
You tracked the ship.

DUKE
I’m telling you this for your own good.

PRESCOTT
You already have it, don’t you? Locked away in some Area 51 black site.

DUKE
The world knows your capsule landed in the Russian Steppe. We haven’t yet released word of your condition.

PRESCOTT
My condition!?! Did you just—

DUKE
You’re either a hero or a footnote. It’s your choice, Matthew.

PRESCOTT
You can’t keep something like this secret.

DUKE
Matthew Prescott, after surviving one hundred and thirty-seven days aboard the derelict International Space Station, perished during a daring re-entry when the heat shield on his Soyuz capsule failed—

PRESCOTT
Jesus, you’re serious.

DUKE
You’re the one who wants to tell the world of an imminent alien invasion.

PRESCOTT
C’mon—this isn’t a Will Smith movie—odds are, they’re explorers. Scientists. No doubt they—

DUKE
They’ve come to Earth in secret. They’ve gone to great lengths to avoid detection.

PRESCOTT
Duke—

DUKE
They obviously had the means to rescue you, Matthew. They chose not to do so.

PRESCOTT
I had the means to rescue me—it just took me the better part of five months to work up the balls to do so.

DUKE
If you break radio silence on this, there’s no telling what could happen.

PRESCOTT
War of the Worlds? Don’t make me laugh.

DUKE
How’s about mass panic? Another global recession? Unemployment on a scale not seen since the Great Depression? Food shortages, starvation, pandemics—still think this is funny, Commander?

PRESCOTT
I think you’re…
(Prescott nearly faints.)

DUKE
Dizzy?

PRESCOTT
I’m all right.

DUKE
Vertigo sets in after the tingling in the jaw subsides. It won’t be long now.

PRESCOTT
Vertigo—!?!
(re: the milk)
…you’re doing this to me.

DUKE
I told you—we’ve gone to great lengths to keep our presence here a secret.

PRESCOTT
You!?!

DUKE
Not so loud. Think of the neighbors.

PRESCOTT
You’re one of them.

DUKE
One more dead astronaut.
(Shrugs.)
You’ll get a high school named after you. Worst case, a post office. Do they still do that? Name post offices after people?
(Prescott lunges for the call button.)

PRESCOTT
Why?

DUKE
Honestly, I like you, Matthew. I had hopes… high hopes.
(Shrugs.)
Earth is a rare thing—perfectly nestled in the goldilocks zone with a rotating iron core and a healthy magnetic field… abundant water, abundant nitrogen—a smidge too much oxygen for my taste—
(re: the call button)
You might as well give that up. No one is coming.

PRESCOTT
You won’t…

DUKE
I won’t what? Get away with this? Of course I will. I already have.
(Prescott staggers. Duke helps him to chair.)
Easy. Don’t try to fight it—there’s no reason to make this any more unpleasant than it needs to be.

PRESCOTT
(Laughs.)
Houston… we have a problem.

DUKE
Something about your impending demise amuses you?

PRESCOTT
You don’t get it—it’s still up there.

DUKE
We’re moving into the non-lucid phase…

PRESCOTT
The proof—in glorious 70mm iMax—I’ve got hours of footage. Your ship. Proof that aliens exist. Everything NASA needs to expose you… it’s still up there.

DUKE
Ah.

PRESCOTT
Killing me solves nothing. The next guy—

DUKE
There won’t be a—

PRESCOTT
There’s always a next guy. Endurance? Perseverance? We’re NASA. We don’t quit easy.

DUKE
Then there won’t be a station for the—

PRESCOTT
The receiver’s shot. You can’t bring the station down remotely. And every stargazer the world round has a scope pointed upwards—your ship can’t get near it without being seen. One way or another, your secret’s out.

DUKE
Drink your milk, Matthew.

PRESCOTT
They’ll name a high school after me.

BLACK OUT.

 

Sinon

by David Downey

 

“Why did you want to come here?”

“Just wanted to check it out before they make it illegal,” answered Vic. “It’s only a matter of time.”

I leaned in close and whispered, “Shit, you’re not actually thinking of trying it, are you?”

“I’ll play it by ear.”

“You don’t ‘play Syn by ear’. That shit changes you! And after just one dose. Look around you.”

It was easy to pick out the Synners at the bar. They were sitting (they always sat, if not in chairs, then on the floor), staring at nothing. They were often mouthing words to themselves. I’ve seen them sometimes laugh for no reason, and occasionally cry for no reason. But once you approached them, they sparked to life, immediately breaking out of their stupor and engaging you with a smile. I’d never met a mean Synner.

And this was where all the Synners in town hung out: at the local Pepper’s. The chain bar and grill wasn’t as classy as Vermillions, but wasn’t a dive like Max’s (where Vic and I frequented).

“Got a special today,” the smiling bartender announced as he appeared across from us. “Free Syn with a drink.”

“Any drink?” asked Vic.

“Dude, you don’t want to get Syn from a bar.”

“There’s no such thing as bad Syn,” the bartender said evenly.

“It’s all bad,” I muttered.

“I’ll take it with a vodka tonic.”

“What vodka?”

“Well will do.”

“Tell you what: I’ll pour you a Sidorov Elite at the same price.”

Vic brightened. “Thanks!”

The bartender turned to me. “Same thing?”

“Nah, I’ll take a whisky on the rocks. No Syn.”

The bartender didn’t offer to upgrade my drink.

Plopping both of our tumblers down on the bar, the bartender unclenched his ring and pinky fingers about Vic’s drink, letting a tiny white pill tumble onto the red cocktail napkin beneath.

Vic plucked it up and held it between us. It looked like a grain of uncooked rice, only fatter. It had no seams or markings; it was perfectly plain.

“You want to check it out before I pop it?”

“Hell, no.” I was paranoid that if I touched it, some of it may rub off on me and get absorbed through my skin, like LSD. Then it occurred to me that the bartender could’ve laced my drink with Syn. I swirled the tumbler in my hand, futilely trying to discern a tiny white tablet amid the dark whisky and glistening ice. I ended up spilling some. Drying my fingers on my napkin, I asked Vic, “You really going to do this?”

“You should do it with me.”

“Nah, one of us needs to stay sane to look after the other.”

“No one’s ever overdosed or died from Syn.”

I resisted the urge to tell the bartender to shut the fuck up.

We clinked our glasses. “‘Long live the new flesh’,” Vic toasted. (Knowing Vic, the phrase must’ve come from some horror movie.)

Vic popped the pill in his mouth and swallowed it with a gulp of vodka tonic.

I brought the whisky to my mouth, but didn’t take a sip. I tried hard not to lick my lips.

Vic’s eyes grew wide, his jaw fell slack. Then the edges of his lips curled, forming an open-mouth smile. His arms fell lax to his sides.

“No, hold on to the bar,” the bartender instructed.

I put an arm around him to make sure he didn’t topple from his bar stool. “Shit, you’re already feeling it? What’s it like?”

“Oh my god, it’s like— Everyone… from everywhere, shit! It’s really hard to concentrate on words. Hard to talk…”

“Alright, I’ll let you enjoy your high. Is it okay if I let go of you? You won’t fall over, right?”

Vic nodded, his eyes now closed, his mouth an intense grin, his hands latched onto the edge of the bar.

After I was sure Vic was okay on his own, I hopped off my stool. Making my way to the bathroom, I thoroughly wiped my mouth on my sleeve. I locked myself in the bathroom’s only stall. Planting my foot on the toilet seat, I hiked up my pant leg and fished out my flask from my sock. Unscrewing its cap, I took a stinging swig. It was my turn to smile.

*****

I thankfully woke up still a little drunk, instead of hungover. Sober up or continue the buzz? I asked myself as I rolled out of bed. I’ll let the day decide!

Tasting the familiar tang of stale booze in my mouth, it was obvious I didn’t brush my teeth before crashing last night. Time to remedy that, I thought, as I walked out of my bedroom and down the hallway.

After taking my wakeup piss, I leaned over the bathroom sink and looked at my reflection in the mirror to survey the damage. My goatee and long sideburns were now in a shallow sea of stubble. Acceptable, I judged. I’ll shave later. My brown eyes were slightly bloodshot. Normal. My hair was a disaster. Normally groomed into a pompadour, the front looked like a wooly brown turd, pinched off at the right. Douse my hair and style it? Nah, I’ll baseball cap it for now, and deal with it proper when I take a shower later.

After brushing my teeth, rubbing on some deodorant, slapping on jeans and a Generics concert tee, shoving my flask in my sock, grabbing my phone (which I was surprised and grateful that I had the presence of mind last night to plug into its charger before passing out) and donning the all-important hat, I was ready to face the ’rents.

As usual, Dad was in his recliner in the living room watching TV, while Mom was busy in the kitchen. “Good morning, Durant,” she greeted.

“‘Morning, Mom,” I said, as I made my way to the fridge to grab some orange juice.

“I just made some breakfast for your dad and me,” she said, gesturing to the strips of bacon sitting on the paper towel-lined plate. “I can cook you some eggs.”

The thought of eggs made me slightly nauseous. “No thanks, Mom.” Even though the OJ tasted sour from my just brushed teeth, I guzzled down an entire glass and poured another.

“You’re too skinny, Durant. You need to eat more.”

Mom was right: I was, by far, the skinniest in the family.

On the opposite end of our family’s weight spectrum was Dad. While some men drank, smoked, or gambled, my dad’s addiction was eating. When Mom would ask how a business trip went, he’d list the Michelin-starred restaurants he dined at and describe each decadent meal in lavish detail. And his light features—a blond crewcut, light blue eyes, and pale complexion—made him look bigger still. (I’d often describe my dad as the whitest person I knew. Vic once joked, “He’s so white, he’s pink!”) Alarmingly, the stress of financing my older brother’s law degree at the University of Southern California had fueled his addiction, adding to his weight. He was now the most rotund I’d ever seen him.

My brother, David (“Don’t call me Dave”), was definitely his father’s son: same blue eyes, fair skin, but with dirtier blond hair. Though he was easily the second largest in our family, he was not fat like Dad. He sported a sturdy build, which served him well when he played center and defensive end in high school. Yet it was not hard to imagine his stockiness bloating into Dad-like obesity in twenty years’ time.

While Mom was the shortest of all of us, I suspected I still weighed less than her. Though she was petite, she had an ample bust and curvy hips. (I punched Vic in the arm whenever he referred to her as a MILF.) While David was built from my dad’s mold, I most resembled Mom: we shared the same thick brown hair and dark eyes.

And then there was skinny, dark featured me. (Vic relished calling me “ethnic” though my family was as white as they came.) I was so slim because I hardly ever ate. Not because I was on a diet or anything. When I woke, I was usually too nauseous from my hangover to eat. When I began feeling better in the late afternoon, I’d begin drinking again, the empty calories killing my appetite. Hence, my only food would inevitably be the greasy hamburgers or tacos I’d grab on the way home from the bars after last call.

“So what did you do last night?” my mom asked.

“The usual: Hung out with Vic,” I volunteered, as I nibbled on some bacon. What I didn’t volunteer was that after I got bored hanging around Vic’s Synned ass (and more importantly, after I drained my flask), I left him and went barhopping. I vaguely remembered returning to Pepper’s to check up on him on my way home, but he wasn’t there. In a jolt, I checked my phone. I had sent him five texts last night. He didn’t respond to a single one. Fucker, I thought as I slipped my phone back in my pocket.

“I hope you and Vic aren’t experimenting with that Syn drug,” said my mom, as if she was reading my mind. “Please promise me you’ll never take it.”

Before I could come up with a comforting answer, my dad barked from the living room, “How’s the job search going?”

“No one’s hiring during Memorial Day weekend. I’ll hit it once the three-day is over.”

I heard him grunt his disgust.

My last job was floor man and occasional cashier at French’s Electronics. But they fired me a month ago for taking too many sick days. (I really wasn’t lying all the times I called in sick. I was truly physically ill, throwing up from drinking too much the night before.) Since then, I’d been casually looking for another gig while collecting unemployment.

But besides the occasional snide inquiry, my dad didn’t push me to get a job. And though he made it obvious he’d prefer I move out, he didn’t push me on that front either. He never pushed me to do anything.

But he pushed David to play football in high school like his old man. He pushed David to go to college. And he pushed David to go to law school.

In short, my father never hid the fact that he loved David more than me.

“That reminds me,” said Mom. “David will be spending the three-day weekend with us. He should get here sometime this afternoon. So I’m making a big steak dinner for all of us. Please be here around five.”

Ah, the favored brother returns. The day has indeed decided for me. Getting drunk it is! “Okay, Mom,” I assured her, as I kissed her on the cheek, before heading out.

“God damn it! ESPN’s off the air!” was the last thing I heard before I shut the door behind me.

*****

Swinging open the door to Pepper’s, I walked into a wall of wet sour air. Gross. This place smells like a locker room. Why isn’t the AC on?

And why aren’t the lights on? The only illumination in the bar and grill was the noon sun beaming through the windows’ slatted blinds.

Peeking into the dining room, I noticed it was mostly empty. At the few tables that were occupied, the diners sat upright in their booths, not talking to one another, with no food in front of them.

The bar was far more crowded, but just as sedate. Every seat around the bar was taken, but except for the occasional burst of laughter or heaving sob, the patrons sat silent. None of them had drinks. The surrounding, dauntingly tall, cocktail tables were mostly vacant, the Synners opting to sit on the ground instead, their backs propped against the reassuring wall.

How can Pepper’s operate like this? I wondered as I squeezed in between two “customers” at the bar. Wouldn’t corporate shut this franchise down?

As I looked around for the bartender, I recognized some of the same people here from last night. None of them had changed their clothes.

“How are you doing, buddy?” said Vic, seemingly materializing next to me. He was likewise wearing the same red t-shirt and black jeans from when I last saw him.

“Dude, where the fuck have you been? I texted you a hundred times!”

“Sorry, I’ve been busy.”

“Busy doing what?”

“Busy. Busy, uh, meeting people. Yeah, meeting people.”

“You’re still tripping, aren’t you?”

As an answer, he gave me a creepy toothy Syn smile. “Do you want to try it?”

“Fuck, no! I came here to check up on you. After I get a drink, I’m out of here.”

Vic trotted to the opposite side of the bar. “Cool. What do you want?”

“Shit, what are you doing? Get out of there before you get in trouble.”

“Nah, it’s okay,” assured a thirtyish woman slumped against the wall. Judging from her black slacks, white polo shirt, and pepper green suspenders, she was Pepper’s bartender.

“I’ll have a beer.”

Vic grabbed a bottle of Graf (which he knew was my favorite premium beer) from behind the counter, but before I could stop him, he opened it for me.

“Where’s your drink?” I asked, staring at the open bottle.

“I’m good,” he said, with a grin that seemed to extend beyond the confines of his face.

After bringing the beer to my lips, but not taking a sip, I excused myself.

On the way to the bathroom, I was puzzled that I couldn’t access Twitter on my phone, even though I had five full bars of reception.

In the stall, I placed my foot on the toilet seat to retrieve my flask. Even before unscrewing its top, I could tell it was empty. In my haste to leave the house to get drunk at the news of my brother’s visit, I had forgotten to refill it.

“Fuck!” I cursed.

*****

I left Vic in that stinky Syn den to get drunk at Max’s. But there were even some damned Synners hanging out there too, sitting on the filthy floor around the pool table.

Too wary to drink from an open container (fearful that the bartender would lace my booze with Syn), I stuck with canned and bottled beers. But frustratingly, I couldn’t get drunk. (“I drink beer to sober up!” had been one of my favorite boasts.) By the time I came up with the idea of buying a pint of whisky from the 24-7 convenience store down the street, it was already 4:47pm. Time to meet my perfect brother, I dejectedly thought, as I slid off the bar stool.

Arriving home, I grimaced as I walked past David’s beat up Chevy Dash (sporting more dents than I remembered) in the driveway. Opening the front door, I consoled myself that I at least had a steak dinner to look forward to.

But there was no sound of sizzling steaks inside. No excited conversations about David taking the bar exam. No TV blaring sports highlights (and no Dad sitting in his living room recliner). I was met with utter quiet.

Mom, Dad, and my brother were sitting serenely at the kitchen table. In unison, they all turned to me and smiled.

“Oh fuck,” I heard myself groan.

“Oh, Durant, you’re home,” spoke my mom, as though she was concentrating on every word. She unsteadily tried to stand, then thinking better of it, sat back down. “Your brother is here.” She deliberately gestured to David.

“Mom, you told me not to take Syn!” I accused, my voice cracking.

“Well, David said all of his professors assured him that Syn was safe. Who are we to argue with the experts?”

I was angry and hurt. Angry because, by taking Syn, I felt my family had betrayed me. And hurt, because I knew Mom and Dad would never have taken Syn if I asked them. But since their favored son asked them…

“You should join us and take it, son.”

I couldn’t remember the last time my dad lovingly called me “son”.

“Uh, maybe later. Listen, I need to check on something in my bedroom.”

I could feel their stares follow me as I ducked into the hallway.

I knew my sleeping bag was on the top shelf in my closet. But I struggled to remember where the rest of the camping gear was.

In my parent’s bedroom, I delicately shut the door behind me. From the dresser, I swiped the keys to their station wagon. I then lifted and moved my mother’s jewelry box, revealing the wad of cash hiding underneath. Shucking off a few bills, I silently promised my mom that this would be the last time I’d ever do this.

*****

A gallon of water. A plastic 1.75 mL jug of Old Timey whisky. (I couldn’t afford Thomas Jackson.) Six days times three meals equals 18 cans of spaghetti and soup, I thought as I tallied the items in my shopping baskets. And I’ll grab a hot dog and a burrito at the counter for today’s meal.

I hefted the baskets up onto the checkout counter.

Noticing the pepper spray display next to the cash register, I swiped one up and dumped it in a basket. Then for good measure, I grabbed another.

The 24-7 clerk mechanically stood up from her stool and greeted me with a grin. “Do you need anything else?” she asked, gesturing to a saucer dotted with tabs of Syn, sitting next to the penny cup.

“Er, no thank you.”

“It’s free.”

“No thanks. Just bag my items and ring me up, please.”

“Vic, Natalie, Paul, and David have tried it. Why won’t you try it?”

“What?”

“Your best friend, your parents, and your brother—”

I slapped $40 on the counter and grabbed my baskets. “I hope that covers everything. I promise to return the baskets,” I said before fleeing the convenience store.

*****

It used to be a stupid hypothetical question: Where would you retreat to during a Zombie Apocalypse. Vic and I had agreed we would fall back to Max’s. With no windows and only a single door, the bar was easily defendable. It was chock full of makeshift weapons: broken bottles, pool balls and sticks, and probably a gun near the register. And most importantly, we’d toast, there must be at least a year’s supply of booze there.

But Max’s was now probably just as overrun with Synners as Pepper’s.

So I found myself driving down the highway back to the town of Mason. I had lived in Mason for most of my life. I grew up with the same group of friends through elementary, middle, and the beginning of high school. But after my junior year, we moved from Mason to a smaller home in an older neighborhood. Dad claimed we no longer needed such a large house with David, and eventually me, moving out. But I knew the real reason: my parents needed the money for David’s tuition. I was uprooted before my senior year at Mason High (and thus, denied graduating with my lifelong friends) so that David could go to USC.

During my final years at Mason, my friends and I would regularly go to The Pipe to drink and smoke pot. (Actually, my friends smoked. I stuck with drinking; weed made me paranoid.) The Pipe was an actual cement pipe, as big around as a car tire, partially sunk into the earth, which served conveniently as a bench. It was located in a clearing deep in the woods next to Mason. How it got there had been the center of much drunk and stoned debate.

And so I was retreating to The Pipe during the Zombie Apocalypse.

Actually, Synners were not zombies, I had to admit. Synners weren’t violent. Quite the opposite, they were excruciatingly docile. Driving down the traffic-free highway, I had noticed several cars randomly parked on the side of the road, the passengers serenely sitting on the gravel shoulder. And now driving through the Mason suburb, I saw several families lying haphazard on their front lawns.

I parked at the end of a cul-de-sac, grateful that the woods hugging it were still there, that the area hadn’t been developed into more tract homes. The Pipe lay roughly a mile beyond.

Opening the trunk of the station wagon, I slipped on the bulky camping backpack. This is going to be a bitch, I thought as I grabbed hold of the heavy baskets laden with eighteen cans of food and two gallons of water and whisky. The forested trail to The Pipe involved following a winding creek to find a shallow spot to cross, as well as cutting the corner of a bordering tilled field. (Though I never encountered him myself, I heard tales of the farmer sometimes shooting at trespassers. But walking along the field’s perimeter nearly doubled the distance to The Pipe.)

I put the baskets back down, broke open the jug of Old Timey, and took a long swig.

That’ll fractionally lighten the load, I thought.

*****

An hour later, I finally arrived at The Pipe.

I laid the baskets down on the leaves and pine needles carpeting the clearing, my bare arms crisscrossed with scratches from the branches and thicket that lined the trail. Sitting on the concrete pipe, I shimmied out of the backpack, letting it tumble to the ground behind me. I shivered as a light gust of wind cooled the sweat soaking the back of my shirt.

Tired and hungry, I decided to make camp after eating and getting thoroughly drunk. It would be easy enough; all I needed to do was unroll my sleeping bag. On the hike over, I had realized it probably wasn’t a good idea to pitch my bright yellow tent. Tomorrow, I’d go back into town and buy a camouflage-colored tent. And if things really devolved to hell, I might even try to score a gun (though I never fired one in my entire life).

Grabbing the gallon container of water, I was surprised at how much my arms were trembling, still exhausted from lugging the two heavy baskets down the meandering mile-long path. I took three swallows and replaced the cap. I then fetched the jug of whisky and placed it on the earth between my feet, at the ready. I then randomly picked one of the eighteen pop-top cans as my dinner.

Sitting in the basket, under the can of ravioli I just removed, was an unmistakable tablet of Syn.

Shit, I didn’t even see the 24-7 clerk slip that in the basket! I stared at the pill for a long time, before delicately plucking it up and placing it atop my unopened can of pasta. OK, if I’m going to try Syn, this would be the best possible opportunity. I’m alone in the woods, so I can trip without anyone messing with me. Rummaging through the baskets, I found two more tabs. I chucked them deep into the forest. I’ll only take one, trip, and sleep it off. Then tomorrow, when I’m back to normal, I’ll decide if I want to join the Synners back in town or stay holed up in the woods.

I unscrewed the jug of Old Timey at my feet.

I then scooped up the Syn and popped it in my mouth.

Before I could bring the whisky to my lips, the tablet dissolved against the roof of my mouth. Starting at my forehead, the feeling of fingernails raked my scalp. Upon reaching the back of my neck, the fingernails transformed into a slab of ice, sliding down my back, freezing my vertebrae one by one. The plastic jug fell from my hands, hitting the dirt with a splash.

Upon reaching the base of my spine, the sensation of ice melted away. Then I started thinking funny.

The farmer of the nearby field, Sid is his name, isn’t angry that I cut across his land.

Fatima, the 24-7 cashier, is pleased that I tried the Syn she placed in my basket.

Welcome to the New Flesh, buddy, I feel Vic impart.

I topple backward off the pipe, landing next to my backpack. Comfortably splayed on the ground, with one leg still propped up on the pipe, I don’t bother getting back up.

It’s the strangest sensation. None of my senses are affected. Only my thinking is jacked.

Am I imagining all of this? I ask myself.

No, it is real, I feel Fatima, the convenience store clerk, respond. How else could I know your family and friend by name?

My thoughts drift to Mom, Dad, and my bro. They’re all still sitting around the kitchen table back home.

I am shocked to learn that David was an accident, conceived when Dad was a senior and Mom was a sophomore in high school, at a drunken house party. When she announced she was pregnant, both families corralled Dad to do the right thing and marry her. He resented the marriage and having a kid, believing they derailed his chances of playing pro ball. (After taking Syn, Dad finally admitted to himself that he probably wasn’t good enough to even earn a football scholarship.) Feeling he was missing out on a college life of drinking, partying, and fucking, he insisted on an open marriage. For the sake of their newborn son and their marriage, Mom reluctantly agreed. However, to his chagrin, he only managed to bed a couple of women, while she gained several lovers. (We all chuckle at his folly. Even Dad laughs.) It was during this time Mom became pregnant with me.

That’s why Dad treated me like shit all throughout my life. He suspected I wasn’t his.

I feel my dad’s shame. And his love for me.

They all want me to come home.

And I want to go home and be with them.

Getting back on my feet, I’m surprised I’m crying.

I distantly know I should eat, that I’m starving. But I want so badly to get home. Plus, it’s getting late. I check the time on my phone. It’s 7:09. Surprised I’m getting a few bars of reception out here, I decide to check my social networking apps, though I already know what to expect. Sure enough, they’re all down. What’s the point of communicating through clunky words and fleeting photos, when we’re all joined through our thoughts?

I see the steaks thawing in the kitchen sink through my mom’s eyes. I’ll try to cook these by the time you get home.

Thanks, Mom.

I survey my pathetic little camp, to see if I should take anything for the trek back. The jug of Old Timey is laying on its side, a third of the whisky still in the bottle. The notion of drinking, of getting drunk, disgusts me. Dulling this divine experience, this blissful state of connectedness, strikes me as an abomination. So with just the gallon of water, I leave The Pipe.

I can now see why ESPN was one of the first stations to go off the air. I can’t comprehend covering a receiver, dribbling a basketball, or kicking a soccer ball down a field under Syn. Even the simple act of hiking is difficult. I have to concentrate on every step. It’s so easy to get lost in the swirls of other people’s memories, emotions, and hopes. But hike I must: I forgot to pack a flashlight, so I’m racing the setting sun to my car.

How did this miraculous drug come about? I wonder.

I see visions of fist-sized bundles, wrapped in red, green, or blue cellophane, tied shut with black ribbon. The elaborately packaged samples of Syn began appearing a year and a half ago in busses, taxis, and motorized rickshaws all over the world. The first people to try it were the truly desperate: the poor (thinking it was an allotment of rice) and drug addicts.

A young black woman, with a wide yet pleasing face, wearing a garish blonde wig, appears in my mind. (I trip over a trough in the tilled field. Sid laughs.) While Simone wasn’t the first to experience Syn, she was the most prolific in spreading it, first in her native Marseille, then in all of France. In lieu of accepting Euros, she instructed her johns to drop Syn. Ironically, after taking the drug, her clients no longer wanted to have sex with her. Instead of seeing her as a sexual object, they saw her as another human being, having a life just as rich in experiences, meaning, and dreams as their own.

It was from Simone where the drug got its name. At first, it was named after her. Then due to a transcription error, it was briefly known as “Sinon”. Then it was shortened to “Sin”. And finally, to its current stylized “Syn”.

Nobody currently linked through Syn created the drug, nor knows anyone who did.

It’s unlike any drug I’ve ever taken. How is it possible that it connects all of us together?

Concepts that were impossible for me to grasp before taking the drug flood my mind. All thoughts are electrical impulses in the brain, I now know. This electricity produces a faint magnetic field that can be detected outside the body. This magnetic field mirrors one’s thoughts. Scientists discovered that Syn amplifies this magnetic field.

How?

By changing the structure of my brain, I learn. By adapting my spinal column to serve as an antenna, to transmit my thoughts as well as to receive others’. Syn is not a drug. Syn is an army of nanites.

(My Converse sneakers splash into sickly warm water. I’m standing ankle deep in the creek.)

The idea of a swarm of microscopic robots physically altering me should strike me as ludicrous. And it should scare me that these nanites of unknown origin mutilated me for an unknown purpose. This was what I feared most about taking Syn. No, this is well beyond my most horrific imaginings.

But it doesn’t bother me. In fact, I’m actually glad that this state of being will never wear off.

Images of white dinner plates, one half buried in the sand, another obscured under some leaves, an x-ray of one actually embedded in the bricks of a building, flash in my mind. I know there are hundreds of millions of them, scattered all over the world. Even though our spinal cords have been biomechanically redesigned to serve as antennas, they don’t transmit our thoughts strong enough to be picked up over long distances. Hence, these plates serve as amplifiers and repeaters.

And who installed these plates?

No one connected through Syn knows.

I’m back at the station wagon. It’s dusk. I don’t remember where I dropped the gallon jug of water.

I slide inside, fish the keys out of my pocket, and start the car. The dashboard flashes 8:32.

I circle out of the cul-de-sac and start driving through my old neighborhood. More families are sitting out on their lawns. “Syn picnics” are what they’re being called. I feel waves of their thoughts as I pass them. Learning about her husband’s affair through Syn, a woman debates divorcing him. A man wonders how the global stock market will react on Monday to the proliferation of Syn, whether the world’s economies even matter anymore. A girl hopes she no longer has to go to school.

Shit, I’m on the wrong side of the street! I realize, as I swerve to the right. Not that it matters. I’m the only one on the road.

I take the ramp to the highway. The fastest I can drive is 45 MPH. Driving any faster is too overwhelming.

Don’t drive on the freeway, Durant. Drive on back streets. How else do you think I got home from USC in one piece?

Thanks, bro’, I impart. See you—

Oh my god. Everybody everyone knows is now on Syn. All of humanity is one.

I pull off to the side of the highway and hop out of the station wagon. Not able to contain myself, I fall to my knees and begin screaming. When I pause to take a breath, I hear other distant cries all around me. The full moon blurs in my vision as hot tears stream from my eyes. It is the happiest moment of my life!

But still no one knows who created Syn or who installed the millions of repeater plates.

Wait. The moon.

Closing my eyes, I see jagged lines glowing on the displays of scientific instruments, lines I know that represent a sudden avalanche of signals coming from the moon. People all over the world are turning their telescopes to our celestial companion. There! Little black flecks peppering the blindingly bright lunar surface, the source of the signals. The flecks grow bigger, the signals stronger. The flecks are a swarm of spaceships, each the shape of an oval. A computer running a pattern-recognition algorithm at NASA is tallying them all: 5,833. 6,736. 7,893…

Those extraterrestrials must have been the ones who formulated Syn and covertly spread it all over the world. They’re the ones who planted all the repeater plates. They must have been hiding on the far side of the moon, waiting for this exact moment, when all humankind became united.

But why? I mouth silently.

To best communicate with us, is the world’s scientific consensus. That’s the most obvious benefit of Syn. Perhaps all citizens in their galactic community talk to each other through their thoughts.

But there’s so many of them, I think. 8,098,403. 9,487,591. 10,158,093…

I suddenly feel like I’m forgetting things. Big chunks of knowledge I knew moments before are gone. People are winking out of existence! I realize.

This is an invasion! But instead of having to physically hunt each of us down, the aliens are just traversing through the neural network carved out by Syn and extinguishing our consciousnesses.

But they’re not discarding our bodies. Upon their souls being snuffed out, people fall to the ground and begin violently flopping about, like a fishes on the deck of a boat. Then a calm washes over them. They begin scooting on all fours, and then tenuously walking upright. The aliens are possessing our bodies. Bodies that are perfectly designed for this, for this Earthly environment from billions of years of evolution. They’re using us as space suits!

We need to destroy the repeater plates!

I open my tearing eyes. A spaceship, the size of a city block, is hanging over the field of weeds bordering the highway. It’s dark, perhaps black, resembling an egg. The same shape as a tab of Syn. The moonlight traces the outline of the hundreds of holes covering its hull. I try blinking it away, but the nightmare vision remains, absolutely motionless and silent.

From a US Federal Geographical Data Committee drone survey conducted a week ago, I know a repeater plate is buried in the field, directly below the ship. But I’m too terrified to move. It doesn’t matter, I distantly know. The strategically stationed spaceships are now serving as Syn amplifiers and repeaters.

Vic’s freaking out, futilely running through downtown, screaming. My mom, dad, and brother are already gone.

I’m beginning to sense the aliens through Syn. I catch glimpses of them through their thoughts. Their bodies are long silver bendy tubes. They’re living jet engines, sucking air into their mouths, and forcefully ejecting it out of their rears. Three rows of three arms along the length of their bodies serve as rudders, as they soar through the shimmering green sky of their homeworld.

They normally wouldn’t bother invading us. The rest of our solar system is rich enough in resources to sate them. In fact, they’ve already been plundering our sun and her family of planets for centuries: stealing energy from the sun, mining our asteroids, and siphoning planetary atmospheres (Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is the most obvious sign of this).

But the Earth is rare, I feel them covet. It has the right gravity. And it has vast seas of liquid water.

Our invaders don’t fly. They swim. They’re aquatic.

But this planet is too cold, they fret. And its atmosphere is poisonous. Too much oxygen, not enough carbon dioxide.

And so the aliens will patiently change its climate and air while possessing our bodies. And as their fleshy space suits begin failing, passing out from heat stroke, or suffocating from a lack of oxygen, they’ll shuck them off and dive into the oceans of the transformed world with their real bodies.

There are far more of them than us now. I feel them all around me, drawing close. Surprisingly, I sense no malice from them. No aggression. No hate. Such primitive emotions have long since evolved into brutal efficiency—

 

In the Absence of Eubeniks

by Andrew Hoffman

 

Betty sat in a brown leather chair, angles of light slicing through the blinds, waiting for Speery to enter. His office was filled with computer boards, fiber-optic wiring, fuses and other assorted electrical devices and parts, but Betty wasn’t interested in anything other than the arrival of Speery.

“There you are!” Speery said as he came into the office, his voice loud and jovial.

“Yes, sir. As you requested.”

Speery made his way around the desk and sat. “How are you this fine morning?”

“I do not understand, sir.”

“Right,” Speery said, tapping his head with his fingers. “I don’t usually bring servants in here. I forgot who I was speaking to.”

“Do you have a command for me, sir?”

“In a way.” Speery cleared his throat. “Who’s scheduled for your next maintenance, Betty?”

“Eubeniks, sir.”

“And when was it last done?”

“Two months ago, sir. I have approximately one month until my next appointment.”

Speery grunted to himself and coughed. “That should work fine, then.”

“Do you have another command, sir?”

Speery smiled. “How would you feel about an upgrade?”

“I would feel nothing.”

Speery nodded and didn’t speak for a few moments. Then he excused Betty.

*****

Betty went about her late morning routine as usual. Clearing the table, emptying the trash, feeding the animals. Norman, the other servant, assisted her.

“Norman, one hour until lunch preparations begin. You should go sit,” Betty said after they had completed the morning tasks. “Return at twelve.”

“Yes, Betty.” Norman walked out of the room, up the stairs, and into the second room on the right. He shut the door behind him, sat in his chair, and went to sleep.

Betty walked to the edge of the dining room and stood next to a tall lamp. Suddenly, Speery ran into the room.

“Betty, quickly, come with me!”

Betty followed. “Sir?” she asked as they entered Speery’s office.

“Eubeniks has informed me that I may complete your quarterly maintenance.”

“Yes, sir.”

A metal foldout table had been set up next to his desk. He motioned for Betty to lie down.

“What about lunch, sir?” Betty asked as she climbed up on to the table.

“I’ve no appetite for food,” Speery said, excitement bubbling below his voice. “We have a long afternoon before us.”

Betty went to sleep and Speery lifted the panel on her back to expose the myriad of wires that existed below the surface. He gazed in, daydreaming about what futures were ahead for the electricity that shot through those wires.

Forty-five minutes later, Norman returned to the empty kitchen. He walked to the corner of the room and went to sleep, waiting for Betty to return.

*****

Speery gave the insides of Betty a proper cleaning, leaving them shining as brightly as the day they had been crafted. He spent the better part of four hours wrist deep inside his patient. The last thing he did was remove a small chip from one of Betty’s internal boards and replaced it with a chip that looked nearly identical. Nearly, but not completely.

*****

Betty threw the large doors open wide when she returned to the kitchen that evening. A short film clip played in her head: A human standing on the edge of a cliff, breathing in the air, arms lifted. Betty felt an energy course through her that she had never experienced before.

Norman was still asleep in the corner of the room, silent and lifeless.

“Norman, open your eyes and witness it all!”

Norman’s eyes lit up. “Yes, Betty, my eyes are open.”

Betty went to each side of the room, opening all the doors and windows. “Look at all this,” she said. She spun in a circle to see it all in one panorama.

Another film clip played in her head: A young human whose mouth slowly widens and curls into a sly grin.

Betty slowly turned to Norman. He had been watching her, taking in the peculiar information of her actions. “We must prepare an outstanding meal. Can we do that, Norman?”

“Yes, Betty.”

Betty was suddenly troubled. Everything seemed too formal for her. Too tight and rehearsed and devoid of life.

She put her hand on Norman’s shoulder. “Don’t sound so resigned when you say yes. Say it from somewhere down here,” she said, pointing at his hollow chest and making head movements as she spoke that neither she nor Norman understood, trying to add a certain style and emphasis to the words through body language.

“Betty?” Norman asked, peering down at his chest, hoping for further explanation.

“Down here!” Betty said, moving her head a little more while tapping on her own chest. “But don’t talk,” she said, almost interrupting her own instruction, holding up one hand to Norman as if to hush him. “Let the day soak into you and you into it!” She laughed in a short, choppy burst. Her vocal capacity did not allow for all-out laughter.

“Betty, are you malfunctioning?”

“I hope so,” she said, surveying Norman’s mechanical movements. A third short film clip played in her head: A human is putting groceries in the trunk of their car. Another human gets out of their car a few spaces down. Their eyes meet and there is an odd moment.

The light in Betty’s eyes flickered.

*****

They served salami sandwiches and soup for dinner. Betty made slight alterations to the recipe, which secretly delighted Speery. She was showing a creative spark. After Speery had swallowed his first spoonful of soup, Betty leaned toward him. “So?” she asked.

“Very good, Betty. Possibly less salt next time. But very good.”

“Too much salt!” she scolded herself. “I would have tasted it but…” She pointed at her mechanical mouth and that was explanation enough.

“We all have limitations, Betty. We only need to identify and conquer them when possible,” Speery said. “The difficult part is learning to work alongside the things that are insurmountable.”

A short film clip played in Betty’s head: A young human with no legs shuffles down a set of stone steps on their hands.

“What are you thinking?”

“Sir?” Betty asked, resurfacing into the moment.

“It looked as if you were lost in thought.”

Betty thought about what Speery had said. “I don’t fully understand your comment, but thank you.” She walked to the corner of the room, stood next to Norman, and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Do you have a command for me?” Norman asked.

“I have no commands for you.”

Norman looked at the hand on his shoulder but did not say anything.

Speery watched the perplexing situation as he finished his bowl of salty soup. Eventually he stood and left the room, leaving the two servants alone in the corner.

*****

Later that evening, Betty knocked on Sperry’s office door. Speery called for her to enter. She opened the door but could not bring herself to walk into the room.

“I wondered how long it would take you to ask,” Speery said.

“To ask what?”

“What you’re thinking about right now.”

“How do you know I’m thinking at all?”

Speery stood and walked around the desk to her. “Because,” he said, “you have certain traits that can’t make you anything but curious.”

This confused Betty.

“Sit,” Speery said, pointing to the brown leather chair that she had sat on earlier that day. Speery walked back around the desk and sat in his own brown leather chair.

“Ask me the question that is most prevalent in your mind.”

Betty paused. “Well… I have visions now.” She paused again. “Movies that accompany my thoughts.”

Speery opened his desk drawer and retrieved a small data chip. “Do you see this?”

Betty nodded.

“This changed your life. Not this chip exactly, but one very similar.” Speery took a moment to look the chip over. “I’ve been working on this for months. Years. These chips are outlawed because they’ve caused unforeseeable issues in the past. But I’ve loaded a short bit of film corresponding to each feeling that you now process. I believe I’ve made these feelings more manageable by giving a context to align them with.”

“And Norman?”

Speery leaned his head on his hand and exhaled. “I briefly considered this possibility, but honestly, I’m surprised.”

“Will he get this chip? Will his life change?”

“Later maybe. Let’s see what happens with you.” Speery smiled. “Now, off to bed. Go see if you can dream a dream.”

Betty climbed the wooden staircase and followed the hall to the room where Norman had already retired. She charged next to him every night, but that night felt very different. She sat and watched him instead of turning herself off. The energy surging through her body felt like waves of heat thrumming and pulsing. A short film clip played in her head: A beach full of humans lying face down on towels, enjoying the sun. Hundreds of them. One turns over but it’s not a human, it’s Norman. His blank face looks up at the sky. Then more and more turn over. All of them with Norman’s face. All of them staring up, not at the sky but at the sun.

After the clip ended, Betty sat in her chair until nearly four in the morning. She turned her lit eyes toward Norman and could see the light reflecting back from his. He sat in his seat without stirring, a dead mechanical stillness for the moonlit hours. Suddenly, a very human thought entered Betty’s head.

A short film clip cued: An old human wise in eyes and lines of the face is shaking their head and mouthing the word NO. Betty shut off the clip. She glanced over at Norman’s unmoving frame and made up her mind.

Betty lightly descended the wooden stairs and crossed the house to Speery’s office. She tried the door but it was locked. She softly walked to the settee at the end of the hall and pulled the right side away from the wall. A silver key sat on the floor, the same one she had seen Speery use when he had misplaced his ring of keys weeks earlier.

The office door swung open with a very slight creak. Betty stood very still and listened for footsteps. After a few soundless moments she proceeded into Speery’s office, walked around his desk, and sat in his chair. She looked at the chair across the desk that she had sat in only a few hours before. The foldout table where she had been stretched out for her cleaning was still in the corner. She briefly admired the quiet of the room. A short film clip flicked on: A motion x-ray of a heart beating much too fast. She didn’t fully understand the clip, but could feel the emotion it was trying to help her understand. The emotion was enough.

She pulled out the drawer that contained the chip Speery had showed her earlier. She held the chip up and examined the small, flat square of information. She was astounded that a small inanimate collection of data could so wholly change a life. Another choppy laugh escaped her, a laugh that celebrated all that was stored in the little chip, while at the same time revering what it could do for poor, lifeless Norman, who unknowingly waited upstairs to be released from his cold cell of servitude.

*****

Norman’s eyes lit up.

“Norman.”

“Yes,” he said, first looking around the room then back at Betty. “Is there an emergency?”

“Norman, I have a command for you.”

“What is it?”

“Can you lie on the floor?”

Without hesitating, he stood from his seat and lowered himself to the ground. Betty released the latch to the panel on his back.

“What is this command for?” Norman asked.

“Shhh.”

“What is your purpose?”

“This is not entirely a command… it’s a favor.”

“I do not complete favors, I complete commands.” Norman’s voice was calm and even.

“Stop talking Norman. In a few minutes you will have better things to say.”

“Betty?”

“Stop!” she yelled.

Norman’s eyes dimmed. Betty felt her insides sink. A clip played in her head: A large human is shoving a small human. The larger one laughs as they push. The smaller human takes the abuse without response. Betty stopped the clip. This is different, she thought. This is a blessing.

Betty’s hands maneuvered the foreign landscape of Norman’s insides. Finally, she found a chip that was identical in size. She plucked out the old chip and replaced it with the new. She reset Norman, rolled him over, and waited.

All was silent, save for the night-creaks of the house. Betty felt confused yet elated by her own actions. She waited anxiously.

Norman was an older model that took longer to reset but his eyes finally flicked back on. To Betty they seemed like two candle flames in the dim early morning room.

Norman sat up, swiveled his head from one side of the room to the other. “Where am I?” he asked.

“In the residence of Reginald Speery,” Betty replied.

He lifted his hands, studied them. “Who are you?”

“My name is Betty.”

“Betty Speery?”

“No, just Betty.” She felt a very human pang of sadness due to the fact that she had not known how to do a partial reset like she had gone through during her own upgrade. She had completely reset his memory. The very Norman with whom she had cooked a thousand meals, had charged next to hundreds of nights, looked at her with blank, unfamiliar eyes.

“Huh?” Norman said. “Look at that.”

Betty followed his gaze to a streetlamp beaming light outside the window. Norman stood and briefly moved his legs and arms with curiosity, then walked out of the room and down the stairs.

“Norman, where are you going?”

Norman didn’t reply, opened the front door, and disappeared into the dark early morning. Betty followed, closing the door after herself. Norman made his way to the corner where the streetlamp was located, stood very still, and marveled up at the light that glowed down at him.

“A much grander streetlamp will rise in the sky in a couple hours, you know,” Betty said, not knowing what else might get his full attention.

“I’d like to see that.”

“You’ll have to. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.”

*****

Norman continued down the street, from lamp to lamp, gazing up into the lights. Betty tried to talk him back toward home, but he kept on down the street, mysteriously attracted to anything that emitted light. He was mindlessly fascinated. He only spoke when spoken to. Otherwise, he moved from one lamp to the next, with only a short reflective pause at each.

Betty began to worry as they strayed further from home. This was an emotion she didn’t particularly enjoy. A film clip turned on in her head: A montage of children walking away from their parents. The shots zoom in beyond the children to the worried faces of their parents. It made Betty feel sick.

“Norman, where are you going?”

“Toward the light.”

Betty had heard the phrase used by humans when discussing death. Death—a word that had meant so little to her until very recently. A film clip cued in her head but she turned it off before it could start.She had no interest in watching. The feeling was, once again, more than enough. An invisible pool rose up and consumed her. She was trying to tread water in her emotion and was failing.

“Betty.”

Betty was wrenched out of her melancholy by Norman’s innocent voice. The deluge subsided. She looked over at Norman, still in his familiar pose, staring up at the man-made light. She realized she was surrounded by light-posts, a bench under each one. A gathering place for humans. Betty lifted her eyes skyward and turned in a circle to view them all.

“This really is something,” she said, realizing the beauty of the lights in a group.

“So, you see it? You believe.” Norman asked.

“I never doubted.” She was going to add another thought but nothing sounded quite right.

Norman lay down on the concrete, face up, taking in the abundance of illumination. Betty looked down at him. He gleamed brilliantly in the abundance of light. Betty lowered herself next to him. Just the two of them, surrounded by light on all sides, like two small rafts adrift in a vast sea. They gave themselves up to all that was around them.

Suddenly, the lamps hummed and turned off. The sun wasn’t fully up, but a mist of sunlight had risen in the east, breezily flooding over the mountains and down into the valley. The sun would finish heaving itself over the horizon in a matter of minutes. Betty and Norman didn’t move or talk. The silence and the pale glow in the air resuscitated any beauty that may have faded by night.

“Hey!” a voice rang out, shattering the fragile moment.

Betty sat up quickly and looked around. Two policemen stood just outside of the circle of lampposts.

“What are you two doing?” one of the policemen asked.

Betty and Norman didn’t say anything.

“Respond.”

“Nothing,” Betty said, she motioned to Norman. “He was running low on power, so we stopped.”

“Why would that help?”

The lie made a film click on in her head: A dog chasing its tail, never succeeding, round and round forever.

“I do not know why we thought it would help.”

The policemen crept in closer, hands gripped on their electric clubs.

“We were just leaving, I swear it.”

The first policeman glanced over at the second. “You what?” the second asked.

“Nothing,” said Betty. A cold and bottomless feeling took over Betty’s wire-filled belly. Norman was still on the ground next to her. She slowly got up.

“I’ve never heard a servant swear to anything.” The second policeman turned to the first. “You?”

He shook his head. “No, I haven’t.”

“What?” Betty asked without effect.

“What command are you fulfilling?” the first policeman asked.

“To… go to town.”

“In order to do what?”

“Fill an order at… Westphal’s,” Betty said, a liar’s gap split the response into two distinct parts.

“Really? Going to the store at—” the policeman checked the time on his watch, “—at six-thirty in the morning?”

Betty remained firm in her lie. “Yes.”

“Turn around, please,” the first policeman said.

“Why?” Betty started to backpedal.

The two policemen rushed to either side of her and dropped her to the ground with two solid blows from their electric clubs. She turned to look at Norman who was still lying on his back, motionless. She never had the chance to ask him why he didn’t stand. She never asked him anything again.

“Enough of this,” one of the policemen said just before everything went dark for Betty.

*****

Betty’s eyes lit up. She was in a strange, impersonal room. Nothing on the walls, shelves packed with binders and crates and manila folders—a room full of the unnecessary and forgotten. Speery was propped up against the wall reading.

“Where are we?” Betty asked. She tried to sit up and realized she had been strapped down.

“Keep still,” Speery said, looking up from his book.

Betty settled back down, the shameful feeling of restraint soaked and boiled in her joints. A film clip appeared in her head: A small animal caught in a steel trap. It is afraid and angry and not brave enough to gnaw off its clamped limb.

“Where are we?”

“At the police station,” Speery said. “You strayed too far from home.”

“Norman wouldn’t come back.”

“You should have let him go.”

“I couldn’t do that.” Betty saw Norman lying on another table, also strapped down. His face was directed at the fluorescent lights but no brightness came from his own eyes. He was turned off.

Speery smiled sadly. “That makes you decent.And like many decent people, it is that trait which can get you in a bind. Can ruin you.”

“What do you mean?”

“It means…” Speery looked at her sympathetically yet professionally. He exhaled and blinked, grasping for the right words. “You have something in you that feels very much like a heart.” Speery put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ve been given the unfortunate task, by the authorities, of breaking that heart. I’m sorry.”

All feeling rushed out of Betty. All that existed in her body was the floating sensation of a distant cloud. Suddenly, a lightning bolt shot down from that cloud. Betty flailed in her straps. She violently jolted her arms and thrashed her legs, but the straps held tight.

“Stop,” Speery said. “Stop.” The command was tenderly spoken.

“What is going to happen?”

“What has been ordered to happen.”

Betty focused on the ceiling. Not on the lights but on the drab white ceiling tiles. They were perfect. A phalanx of bland squares that formed a chessboard of a single tone. No other side to strategize against, a peaceful land not at war.

“Why did you do this to me?” Betty asked.

“To see what would happen. And I wasn’t let down.”

Betty kept her eyes on the ceiling.

“You knew it was a finite gift. I encoded that as best I could in the chip. I didn’t want to tell you. I wanted you to feel it, just the way I feel in my guts that my own life is very limited.”

“You gave me so much to want and so little time. Tomorrow. Next year. A decade. It’s not enough. It was cruel.”

“I know. Life is a majestic cruelty. But we all drink from that same cup. Though fools don’t linger on the fact that the cup will one day be empty. At least you had a sip.” Speery stopped for a moment. “I hope you enjoyed it because now I’m forced to pour the rest out.”

“Was he a fool?” Betty asked, looking at Norman.

“Yes, but in the best way. He didn’t have film clips loaded on his chip. He had no context for his first feeling, so he clutched onto it tightly and didn’t let go.”

Betty saw a film clip in her head: Norman lying on the concrete staring up at the glow from the streetlamps that encircled them. It was a memory, not a preloaded clip. A short burst of pride surged through her.

Outside, the sun had risen over the eastern mountains and a clear, wintery morning glare was shooting lines of sunlight through the partially closed blinds.

“Can you show Norman the sun before you remove his chip? I told him about it but I don’t think he understood what I was talking about. I would like for him to understand.”

Speery thought about it for a moment, then walked over and twisted the plastic pole to open the blinds. He went over to Norman and lifted him up enough to slide his hand under his back and power him on. His eyes slowly brightened.

“Huh?” he said.

“Nothing, Norman,” Speery said. “There is nothing to wonder about.”

Norman spotted the fluorescent lights on the ceiling and lost himself in them. Speery walked over to the door and turned the light switch off.

“Oh,” Norman said.

“Would you like to see something better?”

“I think so.”

Betty didn’t speak and Norman didn’t take notice of her across the room. She watched his child-like focus on what mesmerized him as if she was watching a film clip in her head. She learned something about how she felt from watching him.

Speery asked, “Do you like that?”

“I think so,” Norman said. Speery let him stare at the sun for a full minute, then lifted him up and powered him off.

“What a way to go,” Speery said.

He turned his attention back to Betty. All of the emotions in Betty swelled up to a crescendo and ignited her insides. She couldn’t control them. She didn’t want to. Speery walked over and slid his hand under her back. Betty turned her head toward the lifeless shell of Norman.

“The sweet memory of dreams to you,” Speery said.

“Yes,” Betty replied.

Speery turned her off.

 

After The Flash

by Kyle Hildebrandt

 

“In the beginning…” The High Red Witch intoned words from high atop the central sarsen of the Henge. Her silken robes fluttered. “God said, ‘Let there by light,’ and there was the Flash. Seeing that it was good, She separated the light from the darkness.” Her words echoed off of the stones and out over the hundreds of gathered souls from the disparate clans. Twilight began as the setting sun dipped into the Solstice Notch, signaling the start of the wedding ceremony. From her vantage point, the witch eyed the sinuous line of packed, grey earth that divided the brides, who donned multi-colored silken robes, from the groom-choices, who were shrouded in their black-burlap cloaks. She continued the Reading, telling of how God had created the heavens and the earth, the fish of the sea, and the animals to rule the land… how She had created woman to rule over all, and man as her companion—to faithfully serve woman. As the witch finished, for a moment, in the distance, she thought that she had seen a woman with an unruly mane of red hair furrow her brow at the witch’s final words. Shrugging the thought of the amber-haired woman aside, she began the call and response portion of the ceremony.

As Lilith mouthed the familiar refrains, she wondered if the red witch had noticed her moment of bare doubt. Did the witch’s powers include the ability to read someone’s innermost thoughts? She shivered, as her mother’s voice whispered deep inside:

The Flash wasn’t the beginning. It was an end. A death. A death to a terrible, but glorious age. When giant swords stabbed the sky, when men flew in birds made of silver and gold. Yes. Once upon a time, men ruled over the Earth, not women. And when the Flash came, it ended it all—wiping out nearly everything they had created… leaving all men fallow and barren—completely sterile. After the Flash, men were helpless… useless… unable to contribute to reproducing life. After the Flash, witches have had their way with the world.

Grimacing, she managed to squelch her mother’s burning, heretical words… still; she didn’t dare to smother her cherished memories. Her hair had been amber-hued, not unlike Lilith’s. The way it would have danced and sparkled and lit up her smiling face in this dying light. She had smelled like nothing else Lilith had ever smelled. She had said it was the smell of the Broken Mountain, where her distant clan had come from. How she missed her. Lilith begrudgingly returned her attention back to her dutiful responses. She couldn’t take the chance that the witch might spot her being anything less than devoutly concentrated on the holy words the crowd chanted back to her prompts.

“So God created womankind in her own image…”

“In the image of God she created her.”

“Man to serve; Woman to create…”

“Joined together now in this blissful state.”

The muscles in Lilith’s neck cinched. Blissful state. Lilith swallowed. Her mouth was dry. Within minutes, she would have to decide which of the three groom-choices the witches had nominated for her would be her husband.

As her eyes scanned the three banners of each of her groom-choices, she tried to comfort herself. After all, she was a woman. She could marry all three if she wanted to. Or none at all, if that was her preference. Remembering how well her mother and father had loved one another before their lives were cut down so abruptly, Lilith felt the pang of bittersweet emotion, then, tucking it aside, set her mind to the task at hand.

After focusing on the horse’s head banner of the Eros Clan, Lilith’s intent gaze dropped to the man holding the standard. She eyed him carefully. It was difficult to tell one man from another because all wore the dester—the burlap, black-hooded robe that covered all of a man’s body and face except for his mouth and chin. Since it was so difficult to tell one from another, each groom-choice carried a banner that flew his clan emblem, making it easier for the brides to identify their possible husbands.

Even without the horse’s head banner, Lilith would have been able to recognize the angular, square jaw and broad shoulders of her first groom-choice, Paul. At the nomination ceremony, some had chattered about how good he was with horses—that he’d bring two dozen steeds with him as a dowry, that he was skilled at ploughing, planting, harvesting, breeding, and all of the other skills a man needed to be able to do to maintain a wife’s lands. Even among men, he was respected and liked. Lilith bit her lip. She imagined what it would be like to have the other women’s admiring eyes follow her as Paul walked the requisite ten steps behind her through the village market.

Next to the bucking standard of the Eros clan spun the swirling banners of the Spiral Sun Clan. Benjamin’s clan. She smiled. Years ago, when they were still considered to be children, she had met Benjamin at a solstice ceremony just like this one. They had had so much in common. Both grew up like wildflowers, only half cared for by distant relations. As orphans, they had been extended a combination of pity and dismissive inattention that had made it possible for a gangly girl with hair made of fire to play with a wide-eyed, imaginative, and introverted boy. Even the witches had looked the other way when they had come tearing through the crowds. The two of them had continued like this solstice after solstice. Then, one year, an old crone had caught Benjamin scavenging for firewood. When the crone spat at him, asking him what he was up to, little Benjamin, without blinking, replied, “My wife bade me to make her a fire against the cold, so I—” The crone had snatched his ear and brought him before a red witch before he could finish. And when the witches had finished with him, he couldn’t sit down for the rest of the days-long celebration. After that day, he had never looked at, spoken to, or touched Lilith since.

Still, she wondered how well his painted pots would be able to keep food on the table for a future family. Not that she would need his help to start a family, in the most literal sense. For that, they would need to take a pilgrimage to the City of Life, where she would pray the Prayer of Seven Days among the white witches. Afterward, God willing, she would be with child.

Beside Benjamin, Lilith’s eyes stumbled upon the slithering snake banner of the Clan of Vipers. Lilith blushed as she located John, her third groom-choice. He was a jokester and a trickster. A troublemaker, if you asked some. However, she could not deny that her heart beat faster when she considered how light and carefree her life would be with him—and how pleasurable, too, if the gossip was true.

She considered her groom-choices again, weighing each one carefully. The time was approaching. She wondered if she had the courage to go through with what she had planned. Her nails dug half-moon shapes into her palms.

The High Red Witch tossed her arms toward the stars, releasing the women to make their choices. All around her, brides were stepping forward, clasping the hands of groom-choices, and uttering the words “I thee wed.” The sentence sounded like a staccato drum beat from every angle. Some brides had two or three groom-choices gathered about, speaking the solemn words to each in turn. Lilith wobbled and stumbled forward. After righting herself for a moment, she tottered, and then she plunged and fell. A hand grasped her wrist, preventing her from falling flat out on her face. Hearing a collective gasp from the nearby women, Lilith looked up to see that the hand that held her wrist was Benjamin’s. Her face burned. Lilith hoped it was crimson enough. Men were forbidden to touch women, especially in public, and especially without permission—no matter what the circumstances.

Within a second, Lilith slipped out of Benjamin’s hold while simultaneously snatching his wrist in her hand. Gracefully standing to full height, she said, smiling, “Benjamin… I thee wed.” Relieved to feel the crowd of women around her let out a collective groan of sudden understanding while those closest to her offered half-embraces, Lilith let out a slow, almost imperceptible sigh. At last, she glanced at the visible lower half of Benjamin’s face. He was unable to hide the upward curls in the corner of his mouth.

Her gamble had worked. She imagined the happiness that would have been on her mother’s face… but she dared not look up at the central sarsen. She swore she could feel the eyes of the red witch boring into her back.

*****

The first few months of marriage passed pleasantly and happily for Lilith and Benjamin. His pots sold better than she had expected. He had proven to be a tenacious, if not naturally gifted, farmer. In the quiet hours of the evening, he proved to be much more open and loquacious than the shy, introspective boy she had first met all those solstice’s ago. At night, he was passionate and gentle, satisfying Lilith’s needs more often than not. In short, Benjamin exceeded her expectations in every way possible.

And… she almost laughed to herself at times… he chose me as much as I chose him.

Her mother would have been so proud.

Her life was happiness.

The shadow of the past was fading.

She was starting a new life.

The day of her cycle came and nothing happened.

She shrugged it off initially, trying desperately to avoid the thought, bending her mind to discussing the daily business at hand with the other women in the market. Still, the feeling that somehow, someway, life was growing inside of her haunted her every step. Another day passed. Nothing. And then another. Nothing again. It isn’t possible! She screamed to herself… but her body wasn’t lying.

As she wandered the streets of the village, her head was swimming with thoughts of what might be. Soon, she found that she was lost. When she looked up to get her bearings, there was the house. A shiver shot down her spine. Nothing was left but charred timbers. Weeds and wildflowers had taken over. A young sapling wound its way through the black cage of what had once been her home. She sank to her knees. There was the low stone wall where she had hidden. In an instant, she was there again. It was all happening again. She could see and hear it all, standing on tiptoes, her eyes peeking over the low wall. Tears splattered the dust. Screams echoed in her mind.

*****

That night, she needed Benjamin more than ever. She took him into her as if he were life itself. She hungered for a reminder that she was alive, that they were alive. Afterward, they lay together peacefully intertwined in one another’s arms. Staring into his eyes, she relished the opportunity to indulge in this intimate moment with her beloved husband. A moment that would have been absolutely forbidden in public. With a rush, the charred remains of the house sprang forward, burning away all other thoughts.

“Lilith… what troubles you?”

The charred home blew away into ashes. She saw Benjamin’s wide eyes in the firelight.

“Benjamin.” She raised herself up onto an elbow. “There’s something we’ve never talked about.”

“Something? There are quite a few things.”

He was right. She wondered where to start. Everything was interconnected and entangled. Huffing, she decided to start at the first point that came to mind. “We’ve never talked about how we knew each other when we were children.”

He didn’t respond.

“I don’t blame you for… for never speaking to me after what happened. But, I hope you don’t blame me for what happened either.”

“Of course I don’t. It wasn’t your fault.”

She hesitated. “You blame the witches.”

His lips were pursed tight, but she could see the flame behind the eyes. He said, “I went berry picking with my cousins one day.”

She listened.

“It was one of the best days of my life. We ditched our baskets and spent most of the day splashing in the creek. On the way home, I was worried my parents would scold me for how few berries were rolling around in my basket, but… it turns out I didn’t have to worry about that. They were gone. They’d disappeared. No one ever spoke of them again. Red witches had come to town that day. They left with the morning sun.”

A long pause stretched itself out as she gazed into the fire.

“My parents,” she croaked, “They… I only remember it in images. Pictures. In little snippets, like leaves in the wind. There are parts I remember. Parts that are so clear. I remember Mother had sent me to the well… on my way back, I heard the witches coming down the road. They had my father in this… this cage. All of the adults from the village were following them. At the house… my mother. I just remember her face. She never cried. She never begged for mercy. It was almost as if she knew I was watching her. As if she wanted my last memory of her to be her as a strong woman. The smell of the fire. The smoke stinging my eyes. I remember them holding hands as the flames licked upward. Then… the screaming.

“Later… when I asked questions… my relatives always shooed me away, but… I could piece it together, after a few years. My father, he wasn’t… sane. Everyone knew this, but… he got worse with each passing year. He had claimed to be a priest. I remember my uncle saying, ‘Next, he’ll claim he’s a unicorn!’ The laughter wasn’t joyful. It was filled with fear. Then, he started claiming that the Flash wasn’t the beginning, that it was an end. You see, my mother had told this to us for years, as parts of stories from the Broken Mountain Clan. Eventually, they lashed him. Time after time they lashed him, and time and again he would begin preaching again in the village square. After a while, something broke inside of him. At that point, I think he had truly lost his mind. Then, one beautiful spring day, he stood in the center of the village square and shouted with all his might that he was John Doe, Come Again. He shouted that I was his daughter by nature, not by the power of the Lady God or the white witches Prayer of Seven Days in the City of Life. In the end, the witches did what they do. I can still hear him screaming my name in my dreams. Telling me to be strong, to never forget… right up until the very end.”

She finished speaking and he held her until she was still again.

After a time, he asked her, “Why are you telling me this now? What has brought this memory back into your mind so sharply?”

She clasped his hand.

“What is it?”

“It’s been nearly two months since you have had to sleep away from me. Have you not noticed?”

He lowered his eyes, unsure of what to say. “I noticed, but… I didn’t know what to say or do. I assumed it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a little variation to occur.”

“It’s not normal. There’s a chance… a strong chance that I am…”

“With child?”

Lilith could not understand why the corners of Ben’s mouth were curling upward, just as they had on their wedding day.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“Yes. Very. But… come what may… we will have a made a life together. It’s a miracle.”

She squeezed him tightly, then held him at arm’s length and said, “We have only one choice.”

He thought for a moment and said, “Go to the City of Life.”

“Yes. We must pretend that the white witches and their Prayer of Seven Days is what has blessed us with a child.”

“It’s our only hope.”

*****

Through the desert sands, Lilith hobbled up to the intercom posted near the gate of the City of Life. Her lips were cracked and stung when she spoke, “Lilith and Benjamin of the Broken Mountain Clan have arrived. We have come in the hopes that the white witches will join me in the Prayer of Seven Days and that Our Lady God will bless us with a child.”

A crackle of static.

“May Our Lady God bless your arrival,” came the nasal response. “Two witches will be out to assist you, greet you, and escort you into the City.”

Metallic clangs and the grinding of gears rumbled as the enormous inner workings of the gate unlocked. Once open, a gush of cool air caressed the weary travelers. Two witches strode out to greet them, one in flowing red, the other in unrevealing white. The white witch, whose black hair was cropped, extended a hand to Lilith, as she said, “My name is Alexandra, the High White Witch of the City of Life. I will be your companion, Lilith, as we pray together for God to bless you with a child. You must be tired after your long journey through the desert.”

Lilith nodded, and said meekly, “Thank the Lady God, for she has willed us to survive the passage.”

“And I am Iva, the Red High Witch of the City of Life,” said as she proffered her hand. “Welcome.”

Taking her hand, Lilith averted her eyes quickly, hoping that the red witch did not place her. She was the very same witch that had presided at the wedding ceremony. Despite the coolness inside the City’s high, thick walls, beads of persperation began to form on Lilith’s forehead.

She was thankful when a eunuch strode up, gruffly wiping sweat away with a burned hand. “Man!” He jabbed at Benjamin. “Come here. No men inside. Only women.” He stabbed at the row of straw huts hiding in the shade of the high white wall that ringed the City. “You stay here.”

While keeping his eyes on the sand at his feet, Benjamin gave a formal bow to Lilith. There was so much more he wanted to say, to show, to express, but with the witches present, he merely bowed and followed the eunuch toward his new lodgings.Returning Benjamin’s bow with the slightest of nods, Lilith turned to follow in the wake of the witches as they led her into the Inner Sanctum of the City of Life. Cut deep into the desert sand, the Inner Sanctum primarily consisted of an inverted tower that delved ever downward via a marble spiral staircase that plunged the three women into more and more comforting coolness as they circled around. It was a welcomed respite from the unforgiving desert sun.

At first, they descended in silence, but the silence didn’t last long. As the circle of blue sky above them grew smaller and smaller, white witches joined them one by one—each carrying a candle and chanting a solemn hymn. After several dozen had joined them, Lilith’s spirits rose. It was very comforting to be around so many calm, serene women. They stepped away from the staircase and went through a small archway. Inside the room, an oval of candles illuminated a white bed, propped up at an angle. The volume of the chanting rose as more and more joined in. With gentle hands, they positioned her on the bed, spread her legs, and removed her clothes. With practiced efficiency, they sponged away the sand, dirt, salt, and grime that had accumulated on her body during the long journey. Now, it all melted away like butter under the witches’ delicate touch. Lilith felt her eyes relax and close as the dozens of hands massaged her muscles with fragrant oils. She let out a giggle as she felt a squirt of a cool substance tickle her belly. Hands were gently rubbing it around.

The soft chanting continued, but now many of the white witches seemed to be speaking in a completely new kind of cadence, as if they were speaking in a new hymn, or code—or an entirely different language altogether.

As if from the other end of a long tunnel, she heard the High White Witch Alexandra say, “Initial sonogram imaging displaying a perfectly healthy uterus. Prepare insemination tubes.” The sound of an underwater heartbeat flooded the chamber. “We’ve… we’ve got a pre-positive!” Alexandra’s voice was shrill in disbelief. Lilith heard a collective gasp followed by a flurry of activity. Blinking, she opened her eyes. White pain stunned her, forcing her to wince her eyes shut. Blinking again, she made out the white witches, bathed in blinding white light; white masks were covering their faces. Strange glass covered each eye, making each one large and sharp and stabbing. They were all staring down at her, unblinking.

“We’ve got to get her in isolation. Sedated. Immediately.” It was Alexandra again, though Lilith couldn’t see her.

“Find the husband!” Desperate fear struck Lilith. The voice that had shouted for Benjamin belonged to Iva, the red witch. There was no mistaking it. As she felt her vision blur and become fuzzy, she moaned, “Noooooo…” As the penetrating eyes swirled around her, she slammed into oblivion.

*****

Benjamin awoke. His head ached as he tried to make sense of where he was. Groggily, he realized that he was lying flat near a low fire in a small room. Benjamin tensed his muscles as he tried to sit up, but he felt six taut straps cut into his skin as he struggled. He writhed and squirmed, but the bonds only seemed to tighten. After he had worked himself into a flushed sweat, he rested his head back on the small, low table that he found himself confined to. He felt throbbing pain where the six straps had burned and cut into his bare skin. Why am I naked? He fought off the panic that flooded his mind and he tried to think.

What’s the last thing I remember? Playing cards with the eunuch. Letting him win, just to keep him happy. So happy, in fact, that he had come back from the kitchen toting a steaming kettle of tea, tea he’d generously offered to me. Tea I drank sparingly, watching the eunuch smile at me for the first time. His grimy teeth making the hairs on my neck stand up. And then… Then, I woke up here.

Benjamin swallowed. He had a vague sense that there was something more. More than what had happened between the eunuch’s tea and the present moment. Something terribly wrong and unnatural had happened. He swallowed again, trying to erase the dreadful feeling.

He tried to tally the facts. The fact that he was here probably meant the worst. Somehow, the witches must have discovered that Lilith was already with child. But still, this wasn’t what he and Lilith had been afraid of. Capture? Confinement? Surely, they would have immediately prepared a public pyre. The licking flames nearby sent a ripple of sweat over him. In vain, he struggled against his bonds once again.

He heard the locks on the door clicking open one by one. He lay still. He heard the door groan open. The High Red Witch, Iva was standing over him. She seemed strange. Her robes were not flowing in the wind and her flowing hair was hanging down on either side of her face, as still as death.

“So…” she said, “You’re the great John Doe, Come Again.” She licked her lips. “Not nearly as impressive physically as we were expecting. Then again, expectations tend to get exaggerated after hundreds of years of waiting for a prophecy to be fulfilled.”

“Where’s Lilith? Where’s my wife?” he asked, closing his eyes, trying not to think of heat or flame or burning.

She bent to tussle his hair. “Ah, yes. I remember presiding over the wedding ceremony that made the two of you wife and husband. That wasn’t so long ago. You must be an especially fertile little priest!”

“I’m not a priest!” The words came without thinking. “I’m a simple potter who wants to be left alone!” Even as the words were spilling out, Benjamin couldn’t believe that he had spoken like that, not to the High Red Witch herself. He opened his eyes. He was puzzled to see that she wasn’t even looking at the fire.

A milky white leg slithered out of her robes. Her foot found purchase near his hip. He remembered that he was naked. Bending lower, she whispered in his ear, “The white witches have been helping themselves to you with their tubes and their viles. You’ve been in this room for nearly a week, did you know that?”

The shadowy memories of swirling white-robed women came rushing back to him. “I want to see my wife.” All of the moisture was gone from his mouth.

“Red witches are different,” Iva mused. “We don’t believe in tubes and viles. We take what we want, when we want it, directly. Just like I’m going to do with you, John Doe.”

“That’s not my name,” he rasped. “Where’s my wife? Where’s Lilith?”

“Her? Yes, you can think of her if it helps you.” She edged closer, her spiced breath hot in his face, her hair cascading onto his face.

As she began, he screamed. There was little else he could do.

*****

Lilith awoke in a room bathed in warm light that seemed to emanate from the stucco walls. She lay in a warm, comfortable bed. Iva and Alexandra sat on opposite ends of her. Her eyelids fluttered, adjusting to the light. “Where’s Benjamin?” she asked. She’d had horrible nightmares.

“Don’t worry, my dear,” said Iva, grasping her hand compassionately. “We’re all tending to him.” When she smiled, the skin around her eyes crinkled merrily.

“Where’s Benjamin?”

Lilith was amazed to see that Iva looked puzzled, if just for a moment. “Tell me something, Lilith, isn’t it? Yes. Of course it is. Tell me. If my memory serves me correctly, I served at your wedding ceremony to this… this Benjamin, am I correct? Yes. I remember you. I remember something odd about that ceremony. The two of you sort of stumbled together, didn’t you?” She gazed deeply into Lilith’s eyes, as if searching for some hidden answer. She stood. “Now, I’m going to leave the two of you alone for a while.”

After a nod at the door, she left.

“How long have you and your husband been married?” asked Alexandra, seeming to be just as puzzled as Lilith at Iva’s quick departure.

“Since the solstice.”

“Not even a year and you’re pregnant!” Alexandra looked up from scribbling her notes. “Really?”

Lilith ignored the question. “What’s going to happen to him?

Setting her notes aside, Alexandra came closer. “Well… for the time being, he’ll need to remain in our care.”

“When can I see him?”

“Do you think that’s really necessary? If there’s anything you need… food, comfort, mood enhancers, exercise, entertainment of any kind—we can provide it here.”

“And if I wanted to go back to my village?”

“Why would you want to do that? What place could be safer, more welcoming, than here, in the City of Life?”

Lilith turned away from the High White Witch.

“Lilith, I’m sure you can understand the position we are in. Your husband has been blessed by Our Lady with a great power—a power we must all work to ensure benefits all of womankind. In time, you may visit him. In time, the two of you may return to your village.”

“When?”

“When we say it’s safe.”

Lilith cringed. “You’re not having our baby.”

Alexandra pounced. “Our baby?! So, you admit it, then?”

Lilith flared.

“Don’t worry, my dear. In time, you will be proud of the place you’ve earned for yourself and your husband in the annals of the Reading.”

Lilith didn’t respond.

“For now, dear child…” she said as she stood, “May the Grace of Our Lady be with you always.”

Lilith heard her walk to the door, pause, and leave.

Once she was gone, Lilith sat up and examined the room carefully. It seemed to be the same one she had been in before she had lost consciousness. Cool white walls curved all around her. There were no windows. The one opening was an archway. It was unbarred, but there was a man cloaked in black with the ram’s head insignia emblazoned on the back of his cloak. He clasped a spear and a sword was lashed to his back. Lilith trembled. She was a prisoner in a pillowed palace.

*****

Benjamin cringed as he saw the High Red Witch crouch over him yet again. How long had he suffered in this god-forsaken room? It seemed like an eternity.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Doe. I’m not here to take another seed,” she teased. “I’ve just got one question for you.”

“I want to see my wife.” It had been his mantra, his only defense against the insanity invading his mind. The white witches were no longer bothering with anesthesia during their procedures.

Iva smiled, ignoring his plea. “The night of your wedding—when Lilith chose you. You caught her, didn’t you? You stopped her from falling. You touched an unmarried woman.”

Benjamin gulped. “Yes. Yes, I did.” All he had left was the truth, and he clung to it like a drowning man.

“And she flipped your grasp, to make it look as if she had intended it—intended to chose you as her husband?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmmm.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Benjamin saw Iva’s forehead wrinkle. She rose and stepped out of his sight. He felt her press a cold metal object into his hand, and then she was gone.

*****

Lilith sensed that it was night. She noticed a lessening of the ambient wall light. Yet, she also sensed something deeper, more primal. She felt the pull of the stars, the rolling of the earth. Now. It was her only chance.

From the corridor outside her room, she thought she could hear the soft whispering of her Ram guard and another feminine voice, but she couldn’t be sure. When the hushed conversation was over, he returned to his post. He stood stolidly, as he did every night. She called to him: “Guard! Could you come, quickly! There’s something wrong with my monitor. I’m worried!”

He padded in quickly, his mouth set in a straight line. After checking all of the equipment, he said, “There’s nothing wrong here. Everything seems to be in order, My Lady.”

“I know,” she said, touching his arm tenderly. She felt goose bumps perk up at her touch. “You’ll have to forgive me. I lied.” She made herself flush, made her eyes grow wet. “The truth is, I’m just lonely. So lonely. How long has it been? Days? Weeks?” She motioned for him to sit on the bed near her.

His expression didn’t change. Slowly, he set his spear against the wall, near enough to get to in less than a second. He sat. “It’s been two months,” he said, not looking at her.

“Thank you. Thank you for telling me that.” She caressed his arm. “It must be so tiresome to stand guard at my door day after day.”

“I do what the witches ask of me.”

“Just the witches, or any woman?” She asked as she pulled back his hood. He was young, and handsome enough. He was shaking slightly. For a moment, Lilith pitied him, but she quickly focused on hiding the fear and loathing and dread of doing what she knew she had to do. It was the only way. If this young guard noticed any of her own true feelings… her hope of freedom, of seeing Benjamin again, all would be lost.

“It is the duty of any man to obey a woman. But… you are married… and with child.”

She put a finger to his lips. “Shhhh. Don’t be silly. Do you think I’m really married anymore? You know his fate—what they’ll do to him. I’ve been stuck in this room for months, I need to live again.” Slowly, she unbuckled his sword belt and silently rested it on the floor. Pulling him close, she thought of Benjamin and did what she knew she had to do.

*****

After the Ram guard had been snoring for an hour, Lilith slipped out of her bed, gathered her few things, delicately picked up the spear and the sword, and tiptoed through the archway and made toward the spiral staircase. Her bare feet felt wonderful on the cool marble steps. She could smell the scent of the desert, calling from high above.

Hearing the patter of footsteps coming down the stairs, she froze. She ducked into a niche, hiding behind a massive statue of The Lady. From here, Lilith peered out from under the black dester that was far too big for her.

The footsteps continued downward. Another destered figure appeared, working its way down the spiral stair, step by step. Whoever it was had a spear. There was something familiar in the manner of the destered figure that she couldn’t quite place. Lilith’s spear slid and clattered on the floor. The stranger’s head snapped in her direction.

“Who—who goes there?” He half-shouted, half whispered. Lilith’s heart was hammering in her breast; her breath was caught in her throat. Hesitatingly, the figure drew nearer to her hiding spot, spear raised, ready to strike. As the figure entered the shadows, it became harder to distinguish from the surrounding blackness. Yet, Lilith managed to see that the hooded head seemed to be focused upward, at the Lady, not downward, where Lilith was hiding. The figure seemed to stand transfixed, in awe of the statue. Then, it ducked its spear under its arm and darted onward down the stair. As Lilith watched the figure go, she realized why he seemed familiar.

“Benjamin!” she called.

Benjamin froze.

“It’s me!” she whispered, worried about how loud her first call had been.

Benjamin turned, gazing wonderingly up at the statue.

“No! Not there!” she admonished. “Down here. It’s Lilith.”

In the darkness behind the statue of Our Lady God, they found each other.

“I thought I’d never see you again,” she exhaled with a relief that physically hurt.

“Me too.” He tried to wipe the tears from her eyes, but ended up awkwardly poking her in the face.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She laughed. “It’s okay. It’s dark.”

A silence passed.

“How did you escape?” she asked.

“The High Red Witch… she… gave me a key.”

“Why would she…?”

“Lilith.” He touched her gently. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

“What?”

It was difficult to look at her. Her face was soft in the shadows.

“They took what they needed from me. In every way you can imagine.”

He broke down and she held him close.

“I… I tried to escape, but there was no way… I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to forgive. Not for you. But for me… there is. I had a choice.”

“A choice?”

“There was only one guard. A man. Sworn to protect me and do anything that I asked… There was only one way to get him out of the way and to get to you, and I chose to do it. I chose to be with him. To escape. To get to you.”

The pain registering on his face was nearly too much for Lilith.

“I understand,” he said. “It was the only way… These witches… It’s in the past… Only we can heal ourselves. Only we can do that.”

Despite his words, Lilith felt the gulf between them widen. They stared into one another’s eyes in the shadows, as if watching the world open up between them. Then, with a sigh, the abyss closed and the two waves crashed together again and became one ocean. The moment had passed. They were safe again. Together. Whole.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

They scrambled up the winding staircase. The disk of overhead stars grew with each step. They managed to reach the gate without encountering a single witch. Two camels were tethered near the men’s huts, munching on straw, unguarded. Moving less than an inch a second, Benjamin saddled the camels, helped Lilith up to her mount, scrambled up his, and together, they slid through the open gate.

Thankful for their incredible luck, they urged their camels onward in stifled whispers, voyaging out across the desert sands.

*****

“You’re sure their tracking tags were inserted properly?” asked Iva as she followed Lilith and Benjamin’s progress through the desert on nearby monitors.

“No doubt. I chipped them myself,” said Alexandra. “The devices are working properly now, as you can see here.” She gestured to the bank of monitors. She shook her head and pinched her nose. “Why you thought it would be wise to let them go is beyond me.”

“I have my reasons.”

“He was the John Doe, Come Again. It’s been over a hundred years. We only took a limited amount of samples from him. If we lose contact with him, we’ll have taken a major step backward in our repopulation efforts.”

“You seem confident in your tracking abilities,” Iva sniffed. “Besides, a free-ranging cow bears more milk.”

“A strained metaphor.” Alexandra looked away from the monitors. “I think you have other reasons you’re not telling me, Iva.”

“Of course I do.”

“Well?” she whirled.

Iva sighed. “As a white witch, you believe in progress… moving forward?”

“What else is there?”

“Well, in a word… power. In two words… my power. It’s what keeps our fledgling civilization in order. What good does it do us if we have restored humanity’s numbers, but not eliminated the chaos that came to be synonymous with the end of the last age, the age of men, before the Flash cleansed the world?”

“Cleansed?”

“Certainly. It tore down man from his seat on high. Clearly, we women have already done a superior job at the helm of humanity. Eventually, word would have spread about the true John Doe, Come Again. We would have had to prop these two up as some sort of figureheads. It would have undermined our power, and therefore destabilized our society.”

“You mean, destabilized your society.”

“Yes. Is that so dark, so evil? I keep the world enlightened, strong, and orderly.”

“Perhaps you’re right. If we had accepted them, even indoctrinated them wholly, our psychologists tell us that they never would have given up fighting us. Our sociologists and futurists believe that, in the end, they would have most likely created a splinter civilization, a group of rebels inspired by their martyrdom.”

“Yes. In the end, they would have eventually been successful at wrenching away a small, yet important part of the people, and therefore, our power.”

“But what if the rebels would be right in the end? Surely, the Readings are filled with similar examples.”

“Do you realize what drivel, what craven ideology such a horde would have adopted?” Iva scoffed. “They would believe in equality—the kind of nonsense those two demonstrated during their time here: a complete fantasy based on openness, honesty, forgiveness, mutual understanding… working together toward common goals…” She shook her head, too disgusted to finish her thought.

“And what, tell me, is problematic about that?”

“Alexandra, really.” The red witch bristled. “There can be no growth of power, and therefore none of your pretty progress, so long as the daydream of equality exists.”

Alexandra tapped at her controls distractedly. “So, what will you do with them now?” Alexandra wanted to get on with it. She had plenty of work to do. Unlike Iva, she believed in what she did—plainly and simply, without cynicism.

“I’ll turn them over to you, for now. You can toy with them as you might toy with one of your little experiments.” Her eyes flicked to the monitors, then back to Alexandra. “Don’t let them stray too far. We may need them again.”

“Yes, I will. But what about repopulation? Surely, we’ll need to continue our efforts if we’re serious about re-establishing civilization. We only collected enough samples to supplement our current stock for fifteen to twenty more years.”

“We will be ready,” she said as her eyes dropped and she caressed her stomach. “Still… keep an eye on them. I may need to pay another visit to Mr. Doe.” With that, the red witch left.

Sighing, Alexandra set to work on analyzing the unique gene sequence that had re-established a genetic line of fertility in Benjamin. She toyed with the strand on her screen, marveling at it. Out of the corner of her eye, she continued to monitor the progress of the two destered figures as they fled through the desert. To her dismay, Alexandra’s hopes pushed them onward, wishing them safe passage beneath the stars.

 

The Tetris Run

by Sonya Craig

 

Don’t ever think you can understand an alien because the truth is, you can’t.

Space debris punches a hole in your fuel tank, you make an emergency landing on an alien’s brutal-ass ice planet, and he shows up on the day you’d almost given up, half frozen and starved and he nurses you back to health. Then he disappears for days. And then randomly reappears at odd intervals.

His technological capabilities seem to far exceed your own yet he is unable to help you brainstorm a fix for your compromised vessel. He seems to want nothing from you in return for his generous help. Nothing that is except to listen to you talk. He seems to want that very much. And yes, it’s a little freaky having a giant, black demonic-looking creature sit across from you and hang on your every word. But his charity has kept you alive so you guess you could indulge him this small quirk.

According to the marks I’d scratched into the curved bulkhead above my bed, I’d been stuck in this glacial hell for one hundred and forty-three days. Forty-two days since he had stepped from the blowing chemical ice storm outside and into my frost-covered cabin. A vision from a nightmare: a deformed, half-reptilian, half-insectoid monstrosity with red eyes that burned with an otherworldly intensity. As I lay there dying on Day 101, my thoughts had been all for my daughter and that archaic movie that had been her favorite: 101 Dalmatians. Was it some sick twist of coincidence that I would die on this day?

My mind wandered. All those cute puppies. She had wanted to save every single one of them, but especially Lucky. “He’s Lucky ’cuz he almost died but then he didn’t,” she would say every single time she watched it. “He didn’t die and now he’s like the toughest of them all.”

Two summers ago, she had experienced a miraculous recovery from a coma brought on by a tumor inside her head. A tumor that the doctors and scientists couldn’t operate on, couldn’t tell me if it was benign or malignant or if it would ever go away or if it would kill her tomorrow. A grapefruit-sized invader that stripped my baby of her innocence and dumped a permanent load of worry over the rest of her life. And mine. A tumor very much like the one that had taken my older brother from me when I was ten.

After her release from the hospital, she had fixated on Lucky. We had watched that movie so many times since then that I could recite every line and nail each and every inflection.

I spent the next two years watching her every move, her every change in expression, her eating habits, her sleep patterns, her everything, on constant guard for any sign that the malignancy was making its lethal run. I reached the breaking point, mentally, emotionally, everythingly. I simply COULD NOT TAKE IT ANYMORE. If you’ve never lived this kind of on the constant edge of losing everything dear to you, then you cannot understand. The stress and the anxiety had worn me to a thin fragile shell. My mind darkened to a chronic, muddled mess, my hands shook, and my world teetered, ready to fracture at the slightest hint of possible doom. That was when I chose to take the Tetris Freight Run—the well-paying, notoriously dangerous, ship-busting Tetris Run with its almost always lethally dense meteor belt. The run that was almost guaranteed to end my pain forever.

This was the guilt-laden memory running through my head when he walked into my world and I swear to god I thought Satan had finally come for me. I had little doubt that I was destined for hell after the life I’d lived, especially after my chicken-shit decision to use the Tetris Run to escape my pathetic existence. A decision that was in effect abandoning my daughter. But when he stepped through that door, the devil incarnate and oh so real, my already chilled blood froze solid. He loomed over me, hellish eyes burning through the blastwave of jagged ice shards, Lucifer, ready and eager to watch me pay for all my sins. I admit to wishing I had lived my life differently. I wished I had lived stronger. I wished to god I’d never taken the Tetris Run.

Now, weeks later, my monstrous alien savior was seated on the opposite side of the portable furnace he had generously provided me, his bulk hunched to fit inside the cabin, his gnarly hands warming themselves over the heat. He listened to my latest story as he always did, his massive head cocked to the side much like a curious dog, red eyes watching my lips move.

I paused my tale. “You do realize that you staring at me like that doesn’t help your Creepy Factor, right? Can’t you at least stare into the fire once in a while?”

He clicked out some ugly sounds that translated through his comm device a second later. “Not fire. Exothermic reaction. Technology beyond your understanding.”

I held up my gloved hand and did a talk-talk-talk puppet gesture. “Yeah, yeah. You know what I meant and you don’t have to keep pointing out your technological superiority, you know? Unless maybe you’re trying to compensate for something. Is this your species’ version of a big-ass truck with oversized tires?”

Click, click. “Truck?”

“You’re never going to get sarcasm are you? Nevermind. Where was I?”

“Mooovie.”

“Right. So my kid, she loves this movie about these dogs and she loves this one little guy way more because he…” My voice caught in my throat and to my horror, tears suddenly filled my eyes. I swiped at them, my face heating under his perusal. “Fuck. Fuck it all.”

The alien leaned his bulk toward me, his crimson eyes studying my face. Mimicking my motions, he ran his hands across his own eyes and then held them in front of his face, as if the answer to this new and uncharacteristic action on my part would be written on his palms. After a moment, he returned his gaze to me.

Click, click. “Explain meaning.”

I waved away his request. “You think too much you know that? Back to my epic tale of 101 doggies and one mean old lady and her icky infatuation with fur coats.”

Click, click. “No. Has meaning. Explain.”

“What? It means exactly nothing alright? Do you want to hear the rest of the story or what? It’s what you come here for, right? The stories?” His eyes, god. Why did he have to stare so intently? I’ve never had another being look at me like that before. I felt soul naked under that gruesome red-eyed stare.

Click. “Explain.”

His looming posture and the altered tone of his voice made it clear that this wasn’t a request but a demand. For whatever alien reason, this was important to him.

My head spun with the abrupt change in our status. He was my alien ally, helping me manage this external crisis until I could either repair my ship or make contact with a passing Terran vessel that could rescue me. He was conversation and supplies and a break from this bleak solitude. That’s what he was to me. What he was not—was anyone who was allowed into my heart or soul or whatever you want to call it. He was an alien that in later years I would remember with a distant fondness. I wasn’t prepared for anything more than that.

“It’s nothing.”

Click. “Not nothing. Explain. Now.”

“It’s a dog okay? A cute dog that she got all sentimental about. That’s it.”

His red eyes narrowed. He repeated my hand-swiping-tears motion and then reached across the space separating us. His huge, bony fingers hovered before me, framing my face. “Explain you. You explain you.”

There it was. He wanted to know why I had teared up. Well, that wasn’t gonna happen. Not in this space-time continuum. I shrugged. “Just something in my eye. That’s all.”

His expression changed. His razor-sharp teeth clicked, his brow furrowed, and his eyes practically glowed with some internal fire. A month ago, when he had stepped from the fogged tundra and into my crash site, he had scared the living hell out of me. He was by far the ugliest, most intimidating and grotesque creature I had ever encountered in all of my travels. Not that a lot of species exist in the universe, at least as far as Terran exploration has encountered. I’ve seen all the ones known, all four of them, and trust me when I say this guy made the others look as pathetic as amoeba in a petri dish. The look on his hideous face at this moment would have sent even the strongest among us into permanent hiding.

Click, click. “You talk. But you not say anything.”

“I don’t know what to say, alright?” A lie. Another avoidance.

“Explain you or I leave and do not return.”

My jaw dropped. “What? You’re saying you’ll just leave and not come back?”

He gave me a single nod and then sat in expectant silence. I had no doubt he meant what he said though. He would leave me here to starve and die if I didn’t answer his question because that’s the kind of inexplicable stuff aliens do. I rubbed my temples. I so did not want to do this whole communicating my feelings thing.

The idea was completely foreign to me. It was the reason I was a freight hauler. I travel for months in blissful solitude, never needing to interact with anyone. It was why my marriage ended. It was why I had no close friends. Supposedly, I’m “distant” and “unapproachable” and a million other phrases that essentially mean “You’re right. Stay the hell out of my stuff and we’ll be just fine.” Apparently, that attitude doesn’t work for others.

It is, however, who I am and that’s that.

But now I was stuck. I had been given an ultimatum.

So, I told him about my daughter’s brain tumor and how it held me captive, constantly afraid to my core for her, wearing me down until I had nothing left. He wasn’t satisfied. He wanted more. He wanted me to explain all of me. Why hadn’t I told others about my fear, why hadn’t I sought out consolation, help, support?

So I did my best to briefly explain the reasons for my stupid emotional repression: my brother’s death and how it ruined my family, my suddenly distant father, my depressed mother. Me, all alone with my loss. My friends, unable to deal with anything more serious than the latest video game, all pulling away from me.

I was alone in my house and alone in the world. Cast out, I grew accustomed to being a loner. I excelled academically and failed socially. Out of the various professions available to me, I chose the grueling training of flight school where weakness was considered a guaranteed fail. And I excelled, graduating near the top of my class. I had turned my self-sufficiency into a positive. Mostly positive. My husband left and then my child became ill, her ongoing heath crisis threatening to shatter me if I gave in to the fear. And still he wanted more. More depth. More soul baring.

“Why are you doing this?” I yelled at him. “Do you earn your fucking wings if I bare my soul or something?”

Click, click. “You talk now or I leave.”

“Fine! But fuck you every step of the way. Fuck you and the ugly egg you probably hatched from. Fuck you and whatever alien version of a horse you rode in on. And also, and also… I hate you!”

He was unmoved by my tantrum. He waited. And as I haltingly began my tale, he listened. He listened through the whole, ugly story. At some point, I broke down and started crying. Tears hot on my cold cheeks, tears I hadn’t felt for years, tears that melted my protective armor. Not just crying. Hell, let’s be honest. I sobbed, I wailed, and I shook. My shell cracked and splintered into a thousand shards of shed pain.

Fuck. Just fuck it all.

But to my surprise, I did not crumble into nothingness. The world did not shun me and I did not become an instantaneous failure at life.

I had cried. I had told my story. I had let someone in. And nothing bad had happened.

To my utter shock, the alien appeared at my doorstep the next day with a crowd of his friends. They repaired my vessel, replaced my fuel stores and sent me on my merry way back to my home and my life and most especially to my precious daughter. Like I said, don’t ever think you can understand an alien because the truth is, you can’t.

Standing awkwardly before him, I said my eloquent goodbyes. Eloquent for me anyways. “You’re the weirdest fucker I’ve ever met in my whole life, you know that right? But I do hope you get your stupid wings. And uh, thanks, you know, for everything.” 

*****

I watched the small, weird alien fly off in her primitive spaceship. To my friends I said, “This one took three times longer than any of the others. This one was far more stubborn than any of the rest of the freighters that end up here.”

“You did well,” my friends said. “These Tetris Run freighters travelling through time and space all alone, they are endlessly fascinating.”

“And endlessly broken. I’m not sure I will ever understand these aliens.”

“That’s because they do not even understand themselves.”

“I suppose that’s where we come in. Somehow, fate has aligned us in this odd relationship with them. I wonder how they all survived before the Tetris Run opened? By the way, does anyone know what a wings is because I think I just earned one.” 

 

Take-Out

by Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

 

I’m Harvey Hickman and I’ve got the most dangerous job in America… I’m the pizza delivery guy.

Oh, I know, I know. Some people argue that the Chinese food delivery guys have it worse, or maybe the mailmen, uh, mailpeople. But c’mon, the guys that deliver your Chinese food travel in gangs that ride around in hopped-up Japanese crotch rockets and they carry fully automatic weapons (even though they’re still illegal), and those folks that deliver your mail show up in armored personnel carriers with specially modified cannons that shoot your mail right onto your porch or through your window, and besides, most folks just use email nowadays anyway—so no, it’s me alright. And that’s why the chicks love me and all the guys hate me, ’cause they all wanna be me (I mean the guys, not the girls).

It all started when the Rift happened. BTR (Before The Rift), I was just a skinny loser with perennial acne, a crappy car, and an even crappier job—pizza delivery guy. I mean, I couldn’t get laid if I were an egg! Even tips from my customers were rare. I’d be standing in someone’s doorway wearing that stupid Pizza Pete’s paper hat on my head, my hand held out for some sort of gratuity, and more often than not I’d get the door slammed in my face. What really burned me was hearing them all laughing at me from the other side of those doors. Now, not only do I get big tips, but there are plenty of times when a beautiful woman will show up at the door in just her undies and pull me inside for a little “afternoon delight.” Ah yeah, life sure is sweet now… but hey, don’t get me wrong—it’s still dangerous as hell. Literally.

*****

I don’t exactly know what happened, maybe nobody does, but the word on the street is that about a year ago some scientists working on a sort of secret collider project on a little island in the East River accidentally tore open a hole in the so-called fabric of time and space. Well, whatever it is they did, it turned into a real mess…

You see, that tear in space or whatever—what we now call the Rift—allowed all kinds of creatures from some other dimension (or whatever!) to enter our world and cause all kinds of trouble. At first it was just Manhattan, but soon after it became the tri-state area, and then the whole country. All kinds of weird animals and monsters were soon roaming through every neighborhood, attacking and eating people, pets—anything they could catch. There were hundreds, heck, thousands of them—all different kinds, but they all had two things in common: they were all mean and they were all hungry.

The cops put up a good fight at first, but it was just too big a job. It took the military to get things under control, but as the weeks and months wore on it became clear that these creatures (Rift Dwellers we call ’em) weren’t going anywhere—they were the new reality. But folks still had to make a living, and the president even went on television and told everyone to continue with their lives and go back to work. A lot of people did just that, and a lot of ’em got killed. So then it became legal for everyone to carry a gun, and plenty of folks got together and formed armed carpools and were able to get back to work, but by then the damage to what they call the national psyche had been done. People in general were still really afraid to go out, with thousands of folks stuck in their homes or offices—too afraid to get out and go back home, work, shop, or just get something to eat without being eaten themselves. People were starving, and law enforcement and the military were stretched too thin to be everywhere at once.

That’s when guys like me became the new rock and roll gods!

Now it’s another Friday and I’m sitting in the back room at Pizza Pete’s with my feet up and my 3-D glasses on—watching a movie between gigs. And there will be another gig soon, my eighth of the day so far, since Fridays are our busiest days.

“Yo, Harv,” came Joey’s voice from out front. “Have another delivery for you—lock and load, babe!”

That’s Joey Riccio, he owns Pizza Pete’s. I never actually met Pizza Pete, in fact I don’t know if there ever was a Pizza Pete.

I walk out into the dining area, past the heat of the ovens, and nod hello to the regulars. The regulars are actually a guy and two women that were here when the Rift opened and have been too scared to leave since. They look a little bedraggled now; their eyes have dark circles under ’em and their hair’s a little dull and shaggy. Marla, that’s one of the women, was pretty once and she used to smile a lot. Now she still smiles a lot, but in that weird kinda way that tells you she’s close to losing it. I’ve offered to escort them home plenty of times (especially Marla), but they’ve always been too scared to leave.

“You got two cheese pies, same address, right across from the park. You also got a pepperoni pie, buffalo wings, and a couple of two-liter sodas mid-town,” Joey said, taping invoices with the addresses on them on to the boxes.

I take the boxes and wings, and slip them into the wide vinyl sleeve that’ll help keep them nice and hot. Next I grab the sodas and drop them into my backpack. Lastly, I check my weapons. My main arsenal consists of a Mossberg semi-automatic sawed-off shotgun, a .38 Colt Diamondback revolver with the heat-dispersal vents along the top of the barrel, a two-shot .22 magnum Derringer, and a really, really big Bowie knife.

I prime the shotgun, sling the pack onto my back, grab the vinyl case with the pizzas and wings in it, and back out of the door.

At first the bright blue sky of outside dazzles me, but my eyes adjust quickly enough and I make it to my car without incident. I put the pizzas and sodas on the passenger seat, and turn in time to see a Bagger and two Hump-Lizards heading my way. A Bagger looks exactly like a plastic supermarket shopping bag, and it floats in the air or scoots along the ground just like those bags do when a breeze gets a hold of ’em. But then you notice that there ain’t no breeze and by then it may be too late—the Bagger whips itself over your head and suffocates you. Then it slowly starts to digest you, but eventually other RDs (Rift Dwellers) find your fresh corpse and help themselves to the feast. Hump-lizards are mastiff-sized lizards with 3-inch claws, 6-inch fangs, and humped backs that ooze acid.

I considered blasting them but changed my mind, jumped in my car, and took off instead. I mean, c’mon, I had to get those pizzas delivered in thirty minutes or less!

Speaking of my car, I got rid of the Yaris and now I drive a black, armored, super-charged, 2012 Chevy Camaro with bullet-proof windows and tires. This baby’s basically a tank that can do 240 mph on a straightaway, and shatter windows for a block when I crank the system up and blast music from the six titanium-reinforced exterior speakers. Holla!

I delivered the first pizzas to an address on East 71st Street and Fifth Avenue with virtually no problem—I just wound up running over a couple of love-struck Vampires, dodging some real persistant Baggers, and blasting a Raticorn (kind of a giant rat with tusks and a horn) that came running out of Central Park and right at me.

The second delivery was a little more eventful. It was in the “Lipstick” building on 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue. A few office workers got stuck there when the Rift happened and just never went home. There’re a lot of places like that all over—people saw their friends, family, even heavily-armed military guys get torn apart right in front of their eyes and it freaked them out. They don’t want to end up some RD’s meal and figure it’s a whole lot safer to stay put… and they’re right.

Luckily, I find a parking space right out front (hey, this is still Manhattan!) and while I’m getting the pizza out of the car I hear a roar off to my right and it’s getting closer—I already know what’s coming and I brace myself. They come zooming around the corner in tight formation, the sun gleaming and glinting off their helmets and Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycles. A Chinese food delivery gang and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re making a delivery at the same address I am. They stop right behind my car and drop onto their kickstands in unison; like they’ve been rehearsing it for years. I finger the safety off my shotgun.

The leader of the gang saunters over to where I’m standing, checks the skies and removes her helmet—shaking free her long, glossy black hair. Oh shit, it’s Lisa Lim; so that means that this gang is the Sunny Garden crew… a very tough bunch.

“How ya doing Harvey?” she asks, putting one hand on her hip and resting the other on the snub-nosed Heckler & Koch fully automatic rifle slung over her shoulder on a Hello Kitty strap. “What are you doing in Sunny Garden territory?”

I sigh and repeat what I’ve told her a bunch of other times, “It’s only Sunny Garden territory as far as Chinese food is concerned—I deliver pizzas.”

She laughs and I can hear the rest of her all-female gang laugh under their helmets. I think I already mentioned how I don’t like being laughed at.

“If I say it’s Sunny Garden territory, Harv,” Lisa says, “then I’m talking about any and all food; and that includes your lousy pizza!”

More laughter. Then her voice and attitude get much more serious. “But tell you what, we’re going to do you a favor and deliver your stale pizza for you… isn’t that nice of us, Harv?”

While she’s talking I’m trying to figure a way out of this mess. I check my watch—I only have seven minutes to go before the customer gets a free pizza and it comes out of my pay. I’m sweating. I figure I can take Lisa and maybe two of her crew with the shotgun, but then they’d just chop me to bits with those automatic weapons of theirs. Then, as if she were reading my mind:

“Don’t try anything stupid, Harv,” Lisa says as she swings her rifle in my direction. I notice that the rest of her gang does the same. In unison again. Like synchronized swimming. Cute.

“Just give us the pizza, whatever you have in the backpack, your weapons, and your wallet. If you’re real nice and quick about it, we might let you keep your car.” There’s more laughing, so I don’t feel too bad about what happens next. Very slowly and deliberately I pull my knife out. I check my watch—four minutes to go.

Lisa sees me slide the 12-inch blade from its leather sheath and her eyes go wide in surprise. I hear the loud click as she snaps the safety off her rifle.

“That was a very stupid thing to do Harvey,” Lisa says menacingly as she levels her rifle at me.

I take a deep breath and use it to yell one word as loud as I can, “Incoming!” I point above and behind them, and luckily a few of them do turn to look. It’s their yelps of fear and surprise that make them all turn and look. That’s when they see the Baggers, hundreds of them, coming right at us.

Lisa’s gang forgets all about me as they point their weapons at the fast-approaching RDs and begin firing. The noise is incredible! I haven’t heard a racket like that since the early days of the Rift. Lisa’s firing her weapon too, and to their credit, the Sunny Garden crew shred dozens of the Baggers—but there are plenty of the little bastards to go around. Lisa’s gang really is doing a good job of fending off the attacking Baggers; but then they’re all wearing helmets. In fact, the only ones not wearing helmets are…

Lisa stops firing her rifle at the Baggers long enough to once again turn it towards me, “Saved some for you Harv,” she yells over the clatter of her gang’s guns.

I figure I’m done for and mouth some quick prayers—thankful that at least I’d finally gotten laid before I died.

Suddenly a Bagger swoops down and covers Lisa’s head, immediately wrapping its translucent appendages around her neck and pressing itself tightly against her face to deprive her of oxygen.

Lisa drops her gun and opens her mouth to scream, or maybe take a gulp of air; I don’t know which, and it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t succeed at either. She starts pulling and clawing at the Bagger, but it’s fastened itself onto her pretty tightly; and its skin is tougher than it looks. I check my watch: two minutes.

I grab my pizza bag again and start for the building when I spot a shopping bag bulging with Chinese food hanging from Lisa’s motorcycle, and I make a decision. I take my knife, slice through the elastic cord holding the food, and grab the bag before it hits the ground.

I spin on the ball of my foot, knife flashing, and I cut open the Bagger on Lisa’s face, saving her life but opening up a gash on her pretty face that’s gonna leave a nasty scar. I duck under and slice apart a Bagger that was coming for me and sprint for the building; with at least twenty of those Bagger bastards right behind me.

I make it inside, leave the Baggers outside, and grab the elevator to the third floor. As soon as the doors open I run to suite 3404, my sneakers squeaking as I skid to a stop in front of the doors and press the buzzer. The door opens and a gorgeous brunette with soft gray eyes and a beautiful smile is standing there. She’s wearing a blazer that matches the color of her eyes; part of what was once a chic business suit. I check my watch: nineteen seconds to spare.

“Well, another minute and I would have gotten a free pizza,” she says with that great smile.

“Nineteen seconds,” I say with a smile of my own. We exchange food for cash, and I remark, “That’s a lot of food for just one person…”

“Yes, it is,” she says with another smile as she opens the door wider and steps aside.

I start to step inside when I notice that there are already two other guys in the room. The older guy, in shirt sleeves and tie, salutes me with a glass he’s holding; the amber liquid inside sloshing around.

As soon as I realize my mistake I quickly step back out of the room. What I thought was an invitation was just her showing me she already had company. Now, I just stand there feeling idiotic and I can sense the color rising in my face. The woman in the gray blazer notices of course and says, “Those are my neighbors from suites 3406 and 3409… they’re lawyers.” She whispers the last two words as if she’s imparting some secret knowledge to me in confidence.

“We were just going to eat and watch the news, see if anything’s changed. You’re, uh, welcome to join us,” she hurriedly adds at the end.

I hear the faint rat-a-tat of gunfire from outside; Lisa’s gang still doing battle with the Baggers. Then I remember the Chinese food I’m carrying.

“I, uh, gotta deliver this,” I stammer as I hold up the torn shopping bag with the Chinese food inside. Something must have spilled because it’s leaking some sort of brown sauce.

“Oh!” she says in surprise. “You deliver Chinese food, too?”

I can only nod dumbly and turn away, heading back to the elevators. During my elevator ride up to the 11th floor, I mentally kick myself over and over for losing it during my delivery to suite 3404.

“That was the old Harvey Hickman,” I admonish myself. “The new Harvey Hickman is a red-hot lover, monster killer, and ass-kickin’ Chinese food delivery gang fighter!”

By the time I reach the 11th floor, I feel a lot better about things and I ring the buzzer next to a highly polished wooden door. A brass plaque on the door reads, “Rift Systems: Division 1.” Rift Systems? The Rift? Could this be a coincidence? I look around and see that there are no other offices or suites, which means that this Rift Systems: Division 1 (whatever that is) takes up this entire floor. The hair goes up on the back of my neck; there’s something weird about this.

I’m about to press the buzzer again when the door opens and some military-type ushers me inside. The soldier closes and locks the door behind me.

“Put that on the table over there,” he says. “And try not to get whatever’s leaking outta there on anything.”

I nod and look around; more than just a little surprised at what I see… The entire 11th floor looks like it’s been converted into a gigantic lab, with steel tables, computers, screens, gadgets, cubicles and scientists all over the place. There are soldiers too, although not many, and I wonder what the hell is going on.

“How much will that be, son?”

The voice, tinged with a slight southern accent intrudes on my thoughts so suddenly that I jump. Another soldier, this one an officer I guess by all the ribbons and medals on his jacket, walks over to me and asks again, “So, what do we owe you?”

I remember the amount written on the invoice stapled to the bag and I tell him. He counts out several bills and I see him add a $10.00 tip for good measure.

“Thanks, uh, thank you, sir,” I say as I stuff the cash into my pocket.

The officer glances at my weaponry and nods approvingly. “Glad to see you’re loaded for bear, son,” he says. “Times call for it! But hopefully that’ll all be in the past soon and things can get back to normal.”

“Normal?” I ask as I look around the room. This guy is starting to scare me. “What do you mean normal?”

The officer puts a big, meaty hand on my shoulder and points at a guy in a lab coat. “See that man there? He is the world’s foremost expert on the Rift and he’s figured out a way to close it,” he says.

“C-close the Rift?” I ask. My head swims; I can feel the old Harvey Hickman bubbling to the surface.

“Here, let me introduce you to the man that’s going to save the world,” the officer says as he steers me toward the guy in the lab coat. “This is something you’ll be able to tell your kids and grandkids about someday!”

We walk over to where the man in the lab coat is standing, talking to two foreign guys in tweed jackets.

“Professor,” the officer says; interrupting their conversation. “I know you’re busy but I just wanted to introduce you to a fan… or at least he will be once you get rid of this goddam Rift!”

The professor stops his conversation long enough to turn towards us. He’s a regular looking guy, about my height, a fringe of graying black hair surrounding about three-quarters of the dome of his bald head, and he’s wearing glasses. “A fan, huh?” The professor says this while he looks me up and down like I’m some kind of specimen. “Come back in another three months, the Rift will definitely be gone by then and you can be a fan all you like, until then I’m too busy to talk to some delivery boy.”

The professor turns his back on me and dismisses us with a wave of his hand. He continues his conversation with the two guys in tweed and basically forgets I ever existed. Just like the bad ol’ days BTR (Before The Rift), when everyone pretty much dismissed the old Harvey Hickman as being someone unimportant; someone of little or no consequence… while I’m having this, uh, revelation, the officer has me by the arm and he’s leading me back to the door.

“Sorry about that, son,” the officer says. “The professor’s a busy guy, but hey at least you got yourself a nice tip out of it!”

Suddenly, I make up my mind—I know what I have to do…

I spin on the ball of my foot, much like I did with Lisa and the Baggers earlier, and I march back towards where the professor was still conferring with the two guys in tweed.

“Hey kid, what are you doing? The professor’s too busy to talk to you right now,” the officer calls out loudly from behind me. “You have to leave now, let’s go!”

The other soldiers look on curiously; they’re all carrying sidearms but no one reaches for their weapon.

The professor, maybe wondering what all the yelling is about turns around and faces me. I whip out the Colt and shoot him exactly two inches above the bridge of his nose. The guys in tweed look on in shock until I shoot them too. Then all hell breaks loose.

By the time I leave that suite on the 11th floor, everyone in it is dead. I feel bad about the soldiers, they were only doing their job, but I had to stop the Rift from being closed… had to.

My backpack is heavy with all of the hard drives and other electronic filing equipment I plan to toss into the Hudson. Whatever hardware or software I couldn’t carry out of there I made sure to thoroughly destroy. I found a couple of manuals with lists of passwords for a series of online backup files that I plan on deleting as soon as I can get to a public computer in an internet café or somewhere…

I feel a stitch in my side and I put my hand there—it comes back wet with my blood. One of the soldiers back in the suite must have hit me. It’s not serious, I’ll live.

I take the elevator to the lobby and peer outside through the glass doors, expecting to see Lisa and her crew still out there waiting for me. To my relief, they’re gone—although it looks like they took the time to tag my car with that lousy silver spray paint that’s impossible to get off.

I limp to my car as quickly as I can, toss my backpack, the pizza bag, and my shotgun in, and climb behind the wheel while the sun starts to go down on another day. In the distance a sticky-cat yowls its welcome to the coming night, while from somewhere closer I hear the coughing sound made by a Fool You/Kill You. Soon all of the night creatures will be up and adding their own weird and unearthly sounds to the chorus.

I reload my weapons, start the car and put it in gear. I pull a u-turn and point my car’s nose uptown, towards the George Washington Bridge. I know a doctor in Jersey that’s terrified of leaving his home and he owes me a couple of favors, I’m sure he’ll patch me right up. Then it’ll be back to delivering pizza… and killing monsters.

 

The Key and the Orange

by Rhys Schrock

 

We keep the key that Ricky lifted from the collection box. Yesterday he overheard Father Feiffer tell the imposter in the other confessional that he couldn’t find the key. The unseen stooge—who did not express the sort of remorse traditionally attached to this ritual—replied that now they’d never be able to activate the device in the room over the hardware store. FF wrapped up the summary of penance with a second reference to the objects of his concern, his stern voice adding caps: The Key, The Device.

Ricky fills in the details, and Freddie is bouncing on his toes, alive to the possibilities, ready to “head over there right now.” Mooch says we should put the key back. Freddie snags Moochie’s collar, smacks his forehead with the heel of his hand, and I get between them, tell ’em to knock it off. We hear a squeal of tires, a chatter of gunfire, and watch in slow-mo as Ricky is killed in a drive-by. His body arcs like a breaking wave, and what’s left splays across the sidewalk. Ricky never hurt nobody; all he wanted was a good time, but now the good-time bus has dropped him off in a bad part of town. He’s a busted bag of groceries, and I dig The Key out of his pocket while Mooch slips behind a phone pole to watch for the return-of-the-death-car. It never reappears.

Freddie claims he saw the shooter before, saw him coming out of the candy store on Main Street just last week. He vows revenge, but it’s all talk; Freddie can’t keep his mind on anything long enough to carry through. His life is a relentless pursuit of thrills and dares—his mind is a hummingbird in a crowded greenhouse.

We aim our ostrich boots toward the south end of town to show The Key to the creepy old dude who sits by the well. His name is Orville and people call him the Oracle. People say he sees-all-knows-all, even if he is blind, but as we approach, I flash that maybe this isn’t the smartest plan in the world. The Oracle might not be all that thrilled that we have The Key—in fact, he might paralyze us with voodoo spells and make us hand it over.

“Mornin’ boys.” The Oracle aims them milky orbs straight at us. Lily always says he’s not really blind, and she won’t go anywhere near the well. Orville’s face follows our movements like a radar dish, but soon enough his watery pupils break loose and drift aimlessly as if each eye is a detached floater. He says, “Sounds like they’s three of yun. And the one holdin’ back is nervous.”

“Our friend was just killed,” I say, and it comes out as shaky as an alibi.

Freddie says, “We got something we want to show you.” He holds The Key by the blade and sunlight gleams off the chrome-plated bow.

Blind man says, “What? What you got?” I wonder if he’s toying with us.

“Nice day,” Mooch says lamely, and his voice tremolos unevenly like a first-year violin student. The winter sun is low over the Chuma Mountains and peeks through the high slat fence that encloses the elephant graveyard behind the well. Glints of sunlight sparkle off bent chrome and shattered safety glass, and the comforting scent of depleted motor oil soaking into sandy soil wafts across the yard.

“Nice day,” echoes the Oracle. He breathes in deeply and says, “All things return to base elements,” and I don’t know if he’s talking about the expired cars in the elephant graveyard or the death of Ricky and the vulnerability and mortality of the human body.

Freddie twists The Key in the sunlight, catches a reflection and aims it at the Oracle, lands the reflection in the center of his forehead, and it lights the mottled skin like a third blind eye. The Oracle goes stiff, cries out, “What is dat?” It’s a shock to hear genuine fear in the old man’s voice.

Freddie says, “We want you to look at something, oh great Oracle. Tell us what it is.” He keeps the bright spot on Orville’s forehead as he walks closer.

The Oracle dodges his head from side-to-side and Freddie steps close, holds The Key out. “Take it. Feel it. Tell us what it is.” The Oracle opens his right hand tentatively, as if afraid that he might be burned. He turns his palm up, half closed, and Freddie tosses The Key in the cup. The old man flinches, puts his hands together, presses The Key between his palms. He closes his eyelids, breathes with his mouth open, exposing black gums, a pink tongue, and three yellow teeth. A moan escapes him, and his face takes on an expression of pain and sadness. His body spasms, he falls off his stool, and a stain darkens the front of his pants. The Key drops in the dust and Mooch rushes toward the gate calling out, “You killed him, dude. Let’s get out of here.”

The Oracle disproves Moochie’s theory by rolling to his side and using the chair to climb into a semi-vertical position. He reaches a hand to the sky and his voice booms like a biblical prophet: “Shun dat key and dem that traffic in such tings.”

Freddie is not impressed. “Come on, you old freak, spill. What’s The Key?”

“Be not fools, I tell ye. Thou shalt rue this day.” This is a bit overboard, I’m thinking. The old fraud has flipped a tile or two, and the pee running down his leg diminishes the authority of his dire prophesies. But he’s serious, and just then the sun goes behind a cloud; the whole thing starts to feel sinister. No slouch when it comes to drama, The Oracle shouts, “Get dat accursed ting away from dis place,” and he jumps into the well.

The three of us look at each other in surprise, but Freddie recovers first, bends down and fishes The Key out of the dust. He rubs it clean against his blue satin trousers and says, “Crazy old coot. It’s just a piece of metal.” He bounces it in his palm, and The Key does a back flip before it settles on his heart line. He tempts fate by pressing it in his palms the way the Oracle did. He starts twitching the same as the old man, his torso bucking and twisting, his eyes rolling up in his sockets until all I see is whites. Mooch expresses his dismay by letting out a squeal like a cat caught in a fan belt, and I have to admit I’m close to wetting my pants until I notice the smirk on Freddie’s thin lips. When he separates his hands he laughs and says, “If I jump into the well, you can have my stamp collection.” He stuffs The Key into the pocket of his long coat, laughs again, then stops when we hear a moan from the well. I’m thinking that maybe we should rescue the Oracle. After all, he’s wearing pee-stained pants in the town well, but the moan is followed by a low melody with lots of nice reverb thanks to the stone lining of the shaft. He’s singing “The Tennessee Waltz,” in a strong tenor, goes at it like Plácido Domingo.

From the alley next to the barber shop a dog attempts a backup harmony. It’s a pitiful howl, as if he’s been deserted, tied to a lamppost while his master ducked into a coffee shop, slipped out the back door, met a beautiful stranger in a convertible, and ran off to California without another thought. Orville stops singing long enough to tell the dog to shut up, then starts into some god-awful light opera.

A little girl about ten years old in a plaid granny dress and wire-rimmed granny glasses stomps past us in scuffed Doc Martens. She wears a batik do-rag over curly blond hair and carries a hank of jute rope over one shoulder. She is Orville’s granddaughter and sometimes magician’s assistant, Jasmine. She dismisses us with a, “Thanks a lot, mutants,” ties one end of the rope—a granny knot, natch—to a dead tree trunk behind the well and tosses the coil into the opening. She leans over the lip and says, “Orville. Grab the rope and climb out.” He keeps singing and she looks up at us impatiently and repeats, “I said, thanks a lot. That means you can go back to committing whatever misdemeanors or mortal sins your little pea brains can dream up. Go on, now. Scoot.”

Our boots boom on the plank sidewalk as we hustle back to the center of town. The streets are deserted, but we can still hear Orville going on about “a little China man in yellow pantaloons.”

We cross Main Street, and the stairway that leads up to the room with The Device is directly in front of us. The stairs run up the middle of the building, tucked between the hardware store and a book store that was shut down two years ago. A wicked looking sign on the cobwebbed bookstore window says, “Closed by order of Homeland Security. Unauthorized entry constitutes a Federal Offense and may include Charges of Treason.”

There is no warning sign on the opening to the staircase, despite rumors of The Device at the top, and the stairs are an open invitation, a tantalizing finger beckoning three susceptible boys to “come on up,” like the dark, smoldering widow next door with a freezer full of ice cream. “I got sprinkles, boys. And butterscotch.”

“No time like the present,” Freddie says, flashing a grin and The Key before heading straight for the staircase. Freddie is disturbingly charismatic, an irresistible force who drags you into his gravitational field like a black hole. We lesser mortals are passing particles of space dust with no choice in the matter. Mooch and I follow as Freddie takes two steps at a time, the tails of his coat flapping like he’s dancing up the risers in an old musical. He spins once on the landing next to the door with The Key in his hand. His grin widens as if he is about to open his birthday presents and wants to start in on the big package with the red-velvet bow. I follow closely; Mooch stops at each step to look around and see if anyone knows we’re there. How could they not? Each time Mooch lands a boot on another tread it creaks like the door to a haunted house.

Freddie tries The Key and it won’t go in the slot. He swaggers with confidence, calls Mooch a scairdy-cat, but his hand is shaking, and I tell him to give me The Key, I’ll do it. I’m nervous too, but there’s no backing down, so I use both hands to steady The Key. I jab it at the keyhole and it still won’t go. The Key is way too wide for the slot. “Sorry, Freddie. Wasted trip.” I’m relieved. “Wrong key. Let’s get out of here.” I hand The Key to Freddie who stuffs it in his pocket with a scowl. He reconsiders, fishes the scowl out of his pocket and tosses it to the side.

Mooch is already heading down the stairs, this time at a good clip, and the treads are quiet. Freddie grabs the door handle, yanks on it in frustration, pounds on the center panel, then turns around to look down the stairs and over Main Street. He spreads his arms like he’s about to give a speech. Freddie is the Pope addressing and blessing a crowd of pilgrims from Iowa. He’s on a balcony above Piazza San Pietro gathering his thoughts. Behind him, I hear a low creak as the door swings slowly inward. My eyes catch movement inside. Freddie spins as a wicked grin crosses his face. He heads for the door and I say, “Don’t go in there, I saw something move.”

Freddie ignores me, kicks the door wide on its hinges and it bounces off an inside wall. Across the room I see white curtains fluttering before an open window. The room is small, no other doors, no furniture, no Cardinals, wolfhounds, or nuns, but The Device is sitting in the center of the room.

The Device: a cube of steel, gun-metal blue, the top crowded with rabbit ear antenna, a timer with red rhomboid numbers stuck on 00:00:22, a block of chrome with a keyhole in the center, and a brightly-painted statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A bundle of multi-colored cables pour out the back of The Device, snake across the floor, and disappear into a crude hole smashed through the plaster wall. The antenna makes the device look like a dormant TV set with an elaborate converter box, but other possibilities include high-end microwave oven, mini-bar, or WMD.

Freddie digs out The Key and holds it to the keyhole. I expect to hear a protest from Mooch, but he’s still at the bottom of the stairs milling about with the imaginary tourists from Iowa. Freddie studies The Key, the keyhole, looks at me and raises one eyebrow. “Careful analysis of the complex forms involved indicates a complementary relationship, a rare balance of physical proportionality, the receptive yin of the keyhole, the assertive yang of this baby.” He holds up The Key and slashes the air like a fencer. The movement is harmless, but the fact that he’s gone into his professorial mode, using what linguists call BIG WORDS, means that he’s about to do something stupid. Freddie’s eyes are wide, the pupils purest black and as deep as a collapsed Mayan cenote. He’s a housecat preparing to knock a vase off the piano.

“Freddie…” I say, elongating the last syllable and bringing up the pitch a notch.

“Chabo…” he replies as he slides The Key into place. He turns it, and the timer lazily shifts to 00:00:23. I think that might be good, but I still don’t have a clue what The Device is supposed to do. So it might be bad. Real bad.

A loud hiss like a boiler with a popped rivet starts up in the next room and the bundle of wires is drawn through the hole in the wall. Lazy loops straighten out, and The Device begins a slow slide across the floor. Loose linoleum tiles bunch up and tear free, moving along with The Device, clutching at it like they can’t bear to see it leave the room. Freddie stands back and watches hungrily. He’s anxious to see what happens next, but it is a slow process. The Device takes five minutes to travel five feet to the wall, and the hissing sound grows louder. Puffs of steam ooze through the hole around the cables, but are immediately sucked back. When The Device hits the wall it doesn’t even slow down. It slices a clean hole, a perfect square in the wall, with little outlines on top for the rabbit ears and other accessories, including a detailed cameo of the Virgin. It’s a clean cut, like it was done by a laser, leaving no plaster dust. The opening is black, a void, no color, no more steam, almost as if it was painted on the wall with flat black primer.

I ease closer, anxious to investigate but scared of what I might find. I take out my lucky weasel foot and toss it straight at the opening in the wall. I half-expect it to bounce off the black outline, but it disappears inside without a fuss; no noise, no flicker of light, no flutter of white doves. I kneel close to the hole, lean down for a look, and my vision goes wonky. Focus shifts erratically so that the wall around the hole could be two feet away or a hundred. I reach my hand toward the opening, scared to be sucked in, but mighty curious all the same. I poke an index finger into the hole and the tip disappears. I don’t feel anything, and when I pull out my finger it is intact. The phenomenon must be a purely visual thing, possibly harmless, but my ration of bravery is used up.

“What do you think?” I ask Freddie.

He’s standing at the window, has the curtain pulled to one side. “Well smack me with a spatula,” is probably not intended as a reply to my question.

I walk to the window, look out at the town, but the air is hazy-fuzzy-blurry. I wonder if there is a fire, if smoke is obscuring things. I don’t hear church bells, so nobody in town has spotted a fire yet. Somehow, it doesn’t look like smoke.

“This is all right,” Freddie says. “Look at that.” He points at the bank building, which is fading to a screened gray.

“What?”

“The circus is in town.”

I don’t see signs of a circus and wonder what he’s looking at. Is it a figure of speech?

“Oh, Yea-uh,” he says. “Lady acrobats. Zowie.”

I lean out the window for a better look. No circus I can see. Town keeps fading to a lighter and lighter gray, and behind me I hear a bloodcurdling scream. It’s Mooch standing at the door with a look of horror on his face. “Freddie, Chabo. Oh, god. Oh. My. God.” He’s staring at the floor, where The Device used to be. He rushes over to the spot, kneels, reaches down like he’s scooping up dry leaves. He stares at the empty space enclosed by his arms and sobs, “How could this ha-ha-happen? Oh god, Chabo.”

Freddie glances over his shoulder, not pleased that his attention is drawn away from whatever he thinks he sees out the window. “Alas, poor Chabo, I knew him, Mooch. What are you going on about?”

“Yeah,” I add unnecessarily. “What gives?”

Mooch looks at Freddie and me, then back at his armful of nothing. His sobs deepen, his lips gape and flap—not a gambol or gibe left in the poor boy—and his intakes of breath are erratic and screeching, a barn door in a windstorm. He stares in horror. “Gh-gh-ghosts. That’s what you are.” He buries his face in his arms, collapses on the floor.

Freddie shrugs, turns back to the window. “Boo,” he says over his shoulder. He leans out the window and adds, “That’s what we like. A parade. Come on girls, up here.” He waves and puts two fingers to his mouth, cuts loose with a piercing whistle.

I look down at Mooch who is a quivering puddle of panic and fear. I pop my head out the window, hoping to get a glimpse of Freddie’s parade, but all I see are the vague outlines of town getting paler, the grays giving way to whites. Freddie is waving and calling out, and I see nothing to justify his excitement. I glance back to the room and notice that it is turning white as well; the floor, the walls, the frames of the door and window. Everything except the cutout where The Device disappeared. It’s still an inscrutable void, but it’s starting to take on an orange tint, scarcely perceptible, like the shifting image of a total lunar eclipse rising over the Sinai Peninsula. The outlines are loosing their definition, the sharp corners smoothing out as the opening consolidates.

Okay, now I’m open to the possibility that Mooch might be right. I might be a ghost. Maybe The Device was a WMD, maybe we’re all dead. “Mooch,” I say, and can hear the puzzlement in my own voice. “Mooch. Look at me.”

He looks up, sneaks another peek at whatever he thinks is in his arms, a glance at Freddie’s back, then looks straight into my eyes. “What? What do you want?”

“Just to talk.”

“Okay,” he says doubtfully. “Does it hurt to die, Chabo?”

“Good question, but I don’t feel dead. Why do you think I’m a ghost?”

He nods toward the space in his arms. “I saw them kill you. You are dead.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Can’t you see?” he asks, shaking his arms. “Oh, god. The blood.” He smears a hand across his face, wipes it on his shirt. “Don’t you see the blood?”

I don’t see blood. “Why don’t you tell me what happened? What you think you saw.”

“From the bottom of the stairs,” he sobs, “when the door wouldn’t open at first, I ran down to the sidewalk. Then you disappeared, and I was so scared of what might happen. I heard the argument, the yelling, you pleading for mercy, saw the whole thing through the open door. ‘The whoosh of a Byzantine scimitar cut through the air,’ ” he quotes from somebody else’s lurid memory. “And the screams, the sound of chopping. I’m sorry I didn’t save you Chabo. I was so scared.”

“I think I’m okay, Mooch. I just don’t see what you see. All I see are these white walls and floors, and everything outside turning white.”

“What are you talking about? The town is on fire. Can’t you hear the church bells?”

I listen carefully and the town is perfectly silent. White and silent, even the Oracle has run out of gas. The white is not smoke, it’s simply an absence of color, so peaceful, and I don’t hear a thing. I turn to Freddie who still leans out the window. He breaks the silence by calling out. “You bet I’m in. I’ll be down in a minute.” He turns to us. “You guys coming?”

“Where?”

“I got us a party lined up. With the circus people. Right after the parade. There’s a redhead who’s perfect for Mooch. And for Chabo,” he winks, “a magician’s assistant with a shape like a Kewpie doll. As for me, I got my eye on twins, a pair of Lithuanian trapeze artists with arms like weight lifters and thighs that could crush an engine block.” He leans his head out the window and yells. “Yeah. Be right there.”

“Come on guys.” He sits on the window sill, swings a leg out, waves us on.

“We’ll just hang out here,” I say.

Freddie looks at us, incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding. I got this all fixed.”

I look at Mooch who is incapable of pulling himself together. “Me and Mooch have some issues to work out. You go on ahead. You can lie to us about it later.”

Freddie laughs, swings his other leg out the window and drops. I run to the window to watch him splatter, but when I stick my head out and look down I see him hit a smooth white canopy over the hardware store loading dock, ride it like surf, catch the tassels at the front edge, then execute a smooth spin, ankles over samovar with reverse Veronica. He lands lightly on his feet on the white chalky surface of the alley. That ought to impress the trapeze artists, but I still don’t see anybody.

Freddie takes a bow, and then he’s talking to the air in front of him, curling his arms like he’s hugging people, laughing, making a fool of himself. I wonder what he sees. I’d like to see it too, but now the town is pure white, the light suffused as if coming from all directions, the outlines of buildings hard to make out because there are no shadows. Freddie stands out like he’s cut out of a magazine, curly dark-brown hair shaking as he laughs, tails of his coat swinging, tan ostrich boots skipping through the white dust. A one-man party is all I can see, but his hands are extended to each side at waist level and he’s leaning forward as he moves through the alley.

“Chabo,” Mooch says. “Don’t worry about Freddie. You can’t die twice.”

“Knock it off, Mooch. We aren’t dead.” I’m pretty sure this is true. What I’m not sure of is what’s really happening. “It’s The Device,” I say, looking toward the white wall where it disappeared. The opening has now smoothed itself to a circle and has begun climbing the wall. The coppery tint has migrated to the circumference and I can taste it inside my lower lip, as if I bit the skin and brought blood to the surface. The hole is about four feet off the ground, and I know a mystery lurks inside. I walk over, wonder if it’s still a hole, or if by now it is a solid. Except for the copper edge, it still has a matte black surface. I push my arm into the hole up to the shoulder, feel around, grab hold of a round object, pull it out, and I’ve got a plump navel orange in my hand. “Hungry?” I say over my shoulder.

“I’ve got to get out of here before the fire gets me.” Mooch stands up, looks regretfully at the floor in the center of the room. “Sorry you’re dead.”

“You still on about that?”

“I can see the pictures on the walls, right through you,” he says. “I like the wallpaper in this place. Same stuff as when I was a kid. I used to imagine that those horses were mine, and in my dreams I rode them across the desert at night.”

I look at the walls; they are bone white and bare. Mooch walks to the door. He’s calmer now. He pulls a handkerchief out of his pants pocket, takes a deep breath, puts the hankie over his mouth and descends stairs that now look like they’re cut out of ice. He races around the corner and disappears into the whiteness of town.

I head back to the window and sit on the ledge. I see Freddie at the corner. He’s laughing, strutting back and forth like he’s telling stories. Freddie has always been good at keeping the girls entertained. He can tell lies like a seasoned diplomat. I look at the wall in the room and the copper moon is at eye level and still moving upward. I smile. I like this room. With Mooch and Freddie gone it is quiet and peaceful. The orange is brilliant, a visual delight, a singular object of infinite beauty among the nearly unbroken whiteness of the room and the world outside. The shiny rind is dimpled and pregnant. I dig a thumb into the thick flesh to peel it, and in the quiet I can hear the zest escaping; the pure white light from outside splits the zest into a rainbow that quickly fades, and the scent is tangy and sweet.

I remove a wedge and place it in my mouth. The citric acid bites back—the orange is delicious. I think about The Device. It is not a nuke, that’s for sure. I look out the window in time to see Mooch racing around the corner of a building. He looks back in panic and continues to run along the highway to the edge of town, out into the whiteness of the wilderness. That’s Mooch, scared as always. In the distance I hear the faint voice of the Oracle who’s found his second wind and is now singing, “Put the lime in the coconut.” Every once in a while I hear Jasmine cry out, “Orville, grab the rope.”

I take another slice of orange, turn around to watch Freddie at the corner. He’s still entertaining an invisible audience. I think about what Mooch said. He saw our dead bodies. He heard and smelled a fire. Mooch has always expected the worst to happen. Maybe The Device makes us see what we want to see. Or are expecting to see.

I lean on the sill as Freddie drifts down the street with his invisible entourage. He really sees a circus crowd: the redhead, the acrobat, the twin trapeze artists with thighs like the jaws of life. Freddie has always felt incomplete, his life a series of prowls, in search of adventure, action, and dangerous women. I smile as I watch, and hope that he hasn’t made the mistake of finally getting what he’s always yearned for.

As for me, I like it here. I’ve usually gone along with other people’s dreams, a minor character, a bit-player in their lives. Whenever Mooch is around, I pick up on his energy and end up adopting his nervous state. Freddie can make me feel daring, ready for adventure, when all I really want is peace and quiet. When I am alone I can sit for hours, thinking random thoughts, and never feel the need to challenge life’s big questions. Maybe now I’ll have my chance to accomplish nothing.

I see an orange moon arising through the thick, pale sky, the only vivid color outside, a blotchy sphere—as unnatural as The Device—as it thrusts its way upward through the thickening white of the milky atmosphere. I think about poor Ricky, gunned down in front of the store a couple of hours ago. Oh, Ricky, how you loved to hang out with a crowd, friends, strangers, anybodies. You’d sink back in that deep-dish sofa, crack peanuts and jokes, make small talk, listen; a room with Ricky in it buzzed with low-level conversation and goodwill. I chew on another slice of orange and speculate about whether Ricky gets to take advantage of the effect of The Device. He hasn’t been gone all that long, his corpse is still warm, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back at home in his favorite chair, laughing.

 

Double Trouble

by James R. Stratton

 

Mary flashed into the transmat booth surrounded by the darkness of the night. She spun in the close space to survey her favorite place in all the world. A mixed crowd swirled by the dim light of the booth, the marks on their way to the clubs, half-dressed pros hustling the crowd and the geeks looking for a score. She felt her heart pulse as she drank it in. Here came a woman in a sheer silver dress laughing as her date’s eyes wandered over her. There was a huddled knot of college kids chattering as they tried to watch everything at once. The people walked by in singles, couples and groups, all with faces glowing. Mary smiled. I live all week for this just like you.

A street walker sidled up to the college kids. Would they bolt? Maybe they’d surprise her and do some business. Shouting, the prostitute chased the kids up the street. Wrong, wrong, you’ll never make it like that, Mary thought. You’re wasting your time if you can’t get punks like that to come to you.

Mary’s mood crashed and she thought of dialing herself home. She’d asked Leslie and Joan to join her, but they’d passed.

Finally she shook her head as if dark thoughts were dandruff to be shaken off. “It’s Friday night!” she shouted at the half-moon peeking from behind an old brick town house. “I don’t got no time for sad thoughts. It’s my night to roar! No twelve-hour shifts, no tight-assed customers with their shitty tips.” She grinned at people staring. “No work ’til Sunday brunch, and I get to make this town jump and shout ’til then.”

She slid her finger up the coin return slot of the booth, pulled on her headphones and slapped the door-release button. Her favorite band, Action! Action! Action!, blared in her earphones as she boogied up the street. Mary smiled at the people she passed as she moved her 240 pounds vigorously in time with the music. Her breasts and butt bounced in counterpoint rhythm to the rest of her.

People paused and watched Mary strut by, most smiling with her. One old couple frowned their disapproval at her; Mary gave them the finger. Mary didn’t stop at the newest clubs at the top of the block. They never let her through the velvet rope. But further down were her kind of night spots; cheap and sleazy. Her one-woman parade halted when Mary found her way blocked by a great slab of a man. He towered over her, her head just came to the middle of the hairy chest peeking out of his Hawaiian shirt. “What can I do for you, big fellow?”

Overhead a holographic sign declared this to be the Easy Come Saloon. Mary frowned. A new club. Down here? Alerted by sensors that eyes were focused its way, the sign’s artificial intelligence lased images directly to her retinas of dancers inside.

The big doorman’s lips moved as he pointed inside. Mary heard not a word, her blasting music drowned out everything. But his meaning was clear enough. Through the entrance, Mary could see glistening dancers under flashing lights. She licked her lips and grinned. “Thanks for the invite. I do believe I will!”

Inside, Mary slid onto a barstool. A thrill ran through her as she looked the club over. The music blasted so that she could feel it on her chest. The lighting was dim and the air hazy, scented with sweat and herb smoke. She shivered. This was her destination for the night! She could smell the animal tension in the air. All around, people sat alone staring at the dancers or in tight knots wrapped up in each other. Mary breathed deep and gripped the edge of the bar. This is how it should be on Friday night in a hot new club. She could feel a knot of tension grind up her back, just like her days on the runway.

Once Mary had danced up the street at the Jericho Club. Every night, she got drunk on that special power as she made marks sweat with just a smile. They used to throw handfuls of cash to make her stop and chat for just a moment. Her nights on the runway had been like a lusty circus, a nonstop no-drug high. But dancing is hard physical work, meant for the young, tight kids. Mary glanced at her sagging breasts and big butt. Nobody pays to see a fat broad stagger around half naked.

A male dancer, strutting along the combination bar and runway, stopped in front of her to do the bump-and-grind wearing nothing but a tiny silk loin cloth. Mary smiled up at his oiled thighs. She winked and blew him kisses until he stepped closer, then yanked the silk away. The dancer hopped back and glared. “Aw, don’t be mad,” Mary pouted and waved a bill. He flipped her the bird as a heavyset, bald bartender walked over. “You got a problem, lady?”

Mary laughed and pounded the bar. “Yeah, I don’t got a goddamn drink.” She flipped the silk cloth across the bar. “Gimme a Russian Stinger.”

“Easy, lady! Easy. I know how to make a stinger, but what’s the Russian part?”

“You add 10 milligrams of speed. And make it snappy. My throat’s as dry as an old bone.”

“Cool,” he said. “But don’t be taking liberties with the artistes. I’ll have to bounce you out otherwise.” Mary winked. She turned to the guy next to her and smiled a friendly smile.

*****

At 3 A.M., Mary still sat at the bar nursing her last Russian Stinger. The music was off, the lights were up, and the dancers were gone. The clink of empty glasses being cleared away tolled the end of the night. Mary glared as a couple floated out arm in arm. Damn it! I’m not going home alone.

The bartender walked over and nodded at the clock. “Last call. You want another?”

“Nah, I’m tapped out.”

“Don’t sweat it, sweet cheeks.” He slid a drink across the bar. “On the house.”

Mary gulped the drink and looked him over. He’s fat, bald and sweaty, but what the hell. Even if he does make a lousy Russian Stinger. She grimaced at the bitter aftertaste.

As she fluffed her hair and spritzed, Mary realized he hadn’t taken his eyes off her. Isn’t he the eager beaver? She raised her hand to wave, but the room lurched sideways instead. Son of a bitch! She clutched the edge of the bar. I didn’t drink that much, goddamnit! I can’t afford to. Darkness fell as the floor swept up. Mary was next aware of being dragged down a long hallway by her arms. “Sonofabitch!” she slurred as her heels bumped on concrete. The light faded again.

Cloying darkness pressed on her when awareness returned. She jerked and could feel straps restraining her arms and legs. A rotten meat smell made her stomach roil as she felt needle-pricks of panic whisper up her back. She’d lived enough years at the edge of society to know what kind of bad craziness existed out beyond. Light flared and Mary was confronted by a skinny, dark-haired woman standing by the door across the gray concrete cubical.

The woman stared vaguely in Mary’s direction as she chewed her thumb. Her eyes settled on Mary. “I’m glad to see you’re awake,” she whispered. “I was worried we’d start without you. I hope you’re afraid. You really should be.” The woman giggled like she’d made a joke.

Great, a nut case. A quick glance told Mary she was in deep shit. She sat in a solid wooden chair with heavy canvas straps binding her arms and legs. Her breath felt trapped in her chest as her mind spun. She’d heard tales of lock-box sex shops where the women were just kidnap victims, never to be seen again. Am I going to come out of this alive? Mary turned to look around and the room whirled. Too much booze, speed, and whatever they slipped you. You’re riding too damn many drugs.

Mary squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to focus. “Okay, honey,” Mary said in a flat tone. “I don’t know what your game is, but I’m not playing. Turn me loose and I’ll be on my way.”

The woman giggled. “No, you don’t understand. You need to understand.” She walked behind Mary and pushed. The chair rolled through the door. In the next room, Mary was confronted with a heavy steel frame bolted between concrete pillars. Strapped to it was a naked, heavyset woman. Shit! What kind of creep-show is this? Mary stared as hot and cold waves washed over her. Then she burst out laughing. She’s me, bound and gagged!

“You jerk. This is a stunt! You think you can scare me with dummies and holograms?”

Mary’s last job had been at The Roman Coliseum. Using live actors, fake blood and cattle parts, they staged an act where “the victim” got hacked up on stage, three times a night. The show was a huge success, but low pay for the actors.

“You’re wasting your time, honey. I’ve seen it done by pros.” The woman’s gaze fluttered about as a gaunt man wearing shorts and a mask wheeled in a cart. Gleaming blades lay in precise rows on green cloth.

“Hey ass wipe!” Mary shouted. “Cut me loose NOW! I’m not some whore you hire for your jollies.” Consciousness faded before she heard his response.

When she returned, Mary found the woman and the man slicing off the woman’s ears, nose, and tongue. The thing on the rack shrieked and blood spurted with great effect. Grinning, Mary tried to catch a slip in the act, but consciousness faded again. When she next awoke, they were peeling off the last of the victim’s skin as it hooted. The flayed hide made a moist sucking noise as it pulled away from the meat underneath. Damn, it looks real! Mary’s stomach knotted in sympathy. Blackness descended. When consciousness returned, the man and woman were rolling naked on the floor atop blood and tissue, their limbs twined.

“You bastards! Turn me loose! You snatched me for this? You’ll pay, I swear.”

The man turned in mid-thrust and glared as Mary ranted. Finally he stood among the blood-spattered detritus and walked over. “You stupid cow!” he lisped. “This isn’t a game!”

Mary sneered. “Take the hint, jerk! I’m not buying it.” She slammed her weight to one side so the heavy chair reared up on two legs. The man grasped Mary’s arm and pushed the chair down. Mary realized at once he must have grabbed something wrong because the strap on her arm slackened. She yanked her arm free, whipped her fist into his face and he fell over backwards. Across the room, the woman jumped up and slipped in the slick blood. Mary scrabbled at the straps until she was standing free with the man couched before her. Mary drop-kicked him in the chin. He flipped over and his head bounced on the floor. Glancing at the woman, Mary grinned. That one owes me pain. She stalked around the edge of the blood as the woman squirmed toward the door. Mary jerked her around by a handful of hair and snapped three quick punches into the woman’s face. She cried and huddled against the wall until Mary turned away disgusted.

Mary considered the thing on the rack. It was bloody meat. Skating across the muck, Mary approached from behind, looking for the dummy under the meat. Nothing. Sliding to the front, she moved closer until she was inches away. Still nothing. She poked the leg and the raw, red muscles jerked.

“Ohmygod,” Mary whispered as she stared into the dry eyeballs. Her stomach clenched and she vomited. It isn’t a dummy, it’s warm and bleeding. But I saw her, it was me.

Retching, she turned away and fell in the bloody muck. A sudden foot’s-asleep numbness swept over her as the floor tilted and rolled. Come on, girl. You’ve got to get out of here. You lose it now and you’re dead. She staggered across the room and out the door. After stumbling through a series of corridors she crashed through a heavy steel door onto a narrow street. Spotting the familiar glow of a transmat, Mary stumbled in and punched a number. The world flashed and she was at her favorite place, downtown. She walked stiff-legged to the steps of a townhouse and sat.

Dawn’s light found her still sitting there. Her mouth was dry as dust as her heart thumped in her chest. The butchered woman hanging from steel was vivid in her mind.

She considered calling the cops. But what could she say? “I saw myself murdered last night?” Right! They’ll lock me up and let the shrinks worry about the story. But I saw myself on the frame, touched myself. It was me, right down to the tattoos and purple nail polish.

She rubbed the tiredness from her eyes and grunted. She’d heard lewd jokes forever about transmats duplicating people. Hell, there’d even been stories in the news about scientists trying to do just that. So, what if it’s true?

The pain and terror in that woman’s eyes washed over her, threatening to drown her. She was alive. I left her hanging on a butcher’s rack. How long will she last?

She stared at the red smear on the back of her hand and another thought came. Whose blood? Mine or… mine?

She shivered as she stared. Whose blood? Whose body? If it was real, did those freaks put the copy on the frame or me? Should that make a difference?

She felt a blazing knot of fury bloom and settle cold in her gut. Goddamn right it makes a difference! It’s my life they messed with.

The ball of rage shimmered incandescent for an instant and her jaw tightened until her teeth hurt. “I want answers. And I won’t rest ’til I get ’em.”

So how do I get to them? The fat, bald bartender at the Easy Come, he knows something. And I bet I can get him to tell. Grunting, she pushed herself up and turned to the transmat booth, images of the copied body on the slab racing through her head.

“Damn it! I don’t got no time for sad thoughts. It’s my night to roar!”

Mary clenched her fist until her knuckles popped.

Yeah, like a little bird, he’ll sing.

 

The Astronaut’s Lament

The Astronaut's Lament

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Bryan Carrigan

 

Harlan activated the airlock and waited for the light to cycle from red to green. His ears popped, his jaw ached, his skin felt brittle and dry. His suit was bleeding atmosphere into the vacuum, and the gauge on his wrist said he was already down to less than twelve PSI. Jets of CO2 blasted away the regolith dust, letting the negative pressure sweep it out of the chamber. He knew the sequence: the airlock wouldn’t begin pressurizing until the scrubbers said he was clean. He held his arms out away from his body and tried to mentally smooth the creases in his suit. Dust was the enemy. Once it got into the station, there was no getting it out. It moved like a living creature: choking the air filters and shorting out electrical boards. Water recycling operations were already down to eighty percent efficiency and the station’s reservoir had a murky tint to it. Harlan held his hands under the jets and watched the caked lunar dust evaporate into nothing. At ten PSI, the suit’s life-support alarm started chirping in his helmet. There was an emergency override—Joker called it the “mommy button”—that would immediately seal and pressurize the airlock, but nobody had ever used it.

Harlan focused on the com chatter coming in from the dig site.

“…at depth… extracting core sample…”

“…copy that…”

“…spinning up to two thousand RPM…”

The voices sounded indistinct and far away, as though he was trying to listen to the boarding announcements in a crowded airport lounge. It was snowing outside. He wasn’t sure if his flight had been cancelled.

“Harlan, give me a status check on your life-support systems.” Pitcairn’s voice cut through the wireless static in his helmet. She was in the Hub, monitoring the team’s EVA activities. “Mother says your heart’s doing the whacky and you know how she worries.”

Harlan glanced at his wrist-gauge: it was in the red. Pips of white light danced in front of his eyes.

“Systems nominal: everything checks out green,” Harlan answered. “Tell Mother to stop making such a fuss.” He knew the rate of decompression would slow as his suit lost pressure, but he thought about opening the safety cover on the panic button anyway. It was Henry’s Law: at seven PSI, embolisms would begin forming in veins. Tiny bubbles of nitrogen and oxygen. If the pressure dropped much below that, his blood would boil.

He closed his eyes and slipped back to that night in Minneapolis. He drank a vodka tonic at the Sky Bar. He called Sara to let her know that his flight was delayed. She sounded apathetic about the whole thing. When he called her back to tell her that it had been canceled, she sounded relieved. He bought a bottle of Smirnoff at the duty-free shop and mixed it with orange soda from the Marriott’s vending machine until he couldn’t see straight and felt like throwing up. The hotel was right across the parking lot from the Mall of America; Northwest Airlines was footing the bill.

Metal clicked against metal, a rush of air brought back the sense of ambient sound, and the airlock’s control panel flashed green. Harlan leaned against the latch and fell into Hub 1’s main operations bay.

“All systems nominal?” Pitcairn asked as she cracked Harlan out of his suit. There was an electric edge to her voice that cut through the haze.

“I might’ve picked up a micro-tear in the lining somewhere,” Harlan said. “No big deal.”

“Yeah, and how’s it gonna look in my mission log when I have to report you dead in an airlock for being stubborn?”

“I’d try to make it sound more heroic,” Harlan answered evenly. He slid out of his HUT, hooked it onto the rack, and puked on the deck plating.

Pitcairn sighed and said, “I’m not cleaning that up.”

* * * * *

Harlan carried the latest core samples down to the science pod. Warwick was out on the polar maria with Team 2, but Mother was keeping an eye on them. Three weeks on station and he was still getting used to the moon’s weak gravity. Each bounce down the ladder sent a jolt through his legs. His muscles were cramping up from lack of use. The flight surgeon, a Canadian named Stone, said it was the after-affects of Caisson’s syndrome and prescribed a course of extended rest and oxygen therapy before he’d clear Harlan for EVA duty. Harlan just thought he needed more time on the elliptical. There was nothing wrong with him that a good workout couldn’t cure.

Kim sneezed into a handkerchief, glanced at the core sample, and blew his nose. “What have you got?”

“Slugs from 252 mark 43.”

Kim checked the coordinates on his map and blew his nose again. “Depth?” he asked.

Harlan checked Joker’s handwritten note on the case and answered, “Two hundred and fifty-seven meters.”

“That’s an odd one,” Kim said disinterestedly. His nose was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Harlan thought he looked like a man trying to kill a cold with a hangover. “Dump it in the meat locker with the others. I’ll get to it at some point.”

There were twenty-seven core samples in the cooler tagged and ready for the geologist’s inspection. Each core had to be broken down into millimeter-thin wafers, fed through the mass spectrometer, and catalogued into the computer. They were looking for water; more specifically, they were looking for ice. Bistatic radar showed there were veins of ice hidden under the dense regolith that covered the south pole’s lunar maria. The idea was simple enough: they would mine the ice and use it to get to Mars. Its component hydrogen would fuel a vessel’s ion engine, its oxygen would sustain the crew, and the sun would provide the energy they needed to make it there and back again. The geeks at NASA said there was an abundance of ice on the moon—all the drill team had to do was dig it up—but finding it was tricky.

Clementine’s radar imaging identified packets by density but the changes in density were relative to the surrounding matter; Prospector’s neutron spectrometer mapped out hydrogen concentrations, but there was no guarantee that any of that hydrogen was bonded to oxygen. All the drill team really had to go on was a vague sense of where the ice should be and a mission critical sense of urgency to get it out of the ground.

It proved to be slow going.

“Mother, bring up Team 2 on the monitors,” Harlan said once he was back in the Hub.

“One moment,” Mother replied. She woke her monitors and brought the rover’s streaming video online.

“Location?”

“Fifteen degrees off relative north, range two thousand meters.”

Harlan clicked through the control screens and checked the crew’s vitals. Pitcairn’s heart rate was slightly elevated—no doubt that was due to the excitement: it was her first EVA on the lunar surface—and Joker’s blood pressure was running a little high, but otherwise the five-member crew checked out in the green.

“…holding steady at two thousand rpm…”

“…depth two-thirty-three… two-thirty-four…”

“…contact…”

“…she’s bucking…”

“…grind it out…”

“…slowing to one foot per minute…”

Harlan leaned back in the controller’s chair and put his feet up on the console. Team 1 would be on station in forty minutes; Team 2 was doing fine. All he needed was a cup of coffee and a copy of the Post.

“Mother, any chance you can pull up the box score from last night’s game?”

“The Astros lost five to—”

“Harlan,” Kim’s voice cracked through the Hub’s speakers, “I need you to come down here. I think I’ve found something.”

Harlan bounced out of his chair and back down to the science pod. “What have you got?”

Kim nodded towards a microscope and said, “You tell me.”

Harlan looked through the scope and adjusted the eye-piece. At first, all he could make out were dark blobs of dust suspended in a liquid. And then something wriggled from one dark blob to another.

“What the hell?”

“If this is your idea of a joke, let me tell you, I’m not laughing.”

Harlan adjusted the focus and another wriggle darted across the slide. It looked like a microscopic tadpole: a spherical head with a long streamer of a tail.

“Where did this come from?” Harlan asked.

“That slug you brought back from 252? Solid ice. I mean, it’s loaded with debris and it looks like the usual compact regolith,” Kim sneezed into his hand and wiped his hand on his coveralls. “But the mass spectrometer, the gas chromatograph, they all say the same thing: two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.”

“Okay, jackpot,” Harlan said. “What’s with our little friend here?”

“See, here’s the thing: my knowledge of microbiology ends at the word microbe. But I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re looking at.”

Harlan looked through the scope again. He told himself he was seeing things. He was tired. His mind was playing tricks on him.

“Mother, flash an emergency action message to all team personnel: ‘Abort EVA, return to base.’”

“Message away,” Mother responded.

Kim fished a box of tissues out of the storage locker and blew his nose furiously. Harlan looked away; the last thing he needed was a cold. Kim died seven hours later.

* * * * *

Stone zipped the body bag shut and evacuated the air. The black plastic closed in around Kim until it stretched against the contours of his face. Joker handed Harlan a cup of coffee and asked, “Since when do we have body bags?”

“Those NASA geeks think of everything,” Harlan answered quietly.

Stone sealed the medical pod and snapped off his gloves. He looked tired and lines of worry etched the corners of his eyes. Harlan knew it wasn’t the dead body. He’d read Stone’s file: the man had served two combat tours in Iraq; he was no stranger to death.

“What can you tell me?” Harlan asked.

“We won’t get an official cause of death until they perform an autopsy back on Earth,” Stone answered.

“Give me the unofficial version.”

“His lungs were full of mucus.”

“Wait, you’re telling me the guy drowned? In space?”

“He asphyxiated,” Stone replied.

“He had a cold,” Harlan said. Something in his voice snapped and he heard his anger echoing off the hull.

“Like I said before: we don’t have the proper equipment to run the necessary tests. But his lungs are full of mucus; his sinuses are impacted; his eyes, ears, nose, and throat all show signs of a systemic infection. He had a cold; it killed him.”

“Great,” Harlan sighed. “That’s just great.”

“Has anyone ever died out here before?” Joker asked. “I mean, besides Challenger and Columbia. Has anyone ever actually died in space?”

Stone ignored him. The duty roster said he was supposed to be in his rack until 0400 and he headed down the connecting corridor to crew pod. Harlan envied him and turned his attention back to the mission.

“Mother, ping the beacon at 252 mark 43.”

“Beacon 252 mark 43 is active,” Mother replied. Her voice sounded soothing. Nonplussed. As though the thought of death didn’t phase her. Kim’s passing meant nothing more than an adjustment in their oxygen consumption. If the dust knocked out one of the scrubbers, the eleven-man team could now survive one-twelfth longer.

“We need to get back out there,” Harlan said. He knew the procedure by rote and his mind started assembling the necessary checklist. “We’ve got one solid core. Imaging suggests an ice-field three kilometers wide. We’ll start at 252 and work in a spiral pattern radiating outward. Soundings at every ten meters.”

“What do we do with him?” Pitcairn asked. She nodded towards the medical pod; her voice sounded froggy.

“We’ve dug enough holes on this rock,” Joker said, “I vote we drop him in one and kick some dirt over his head. One small step and he goes from being the man who discovered alien life to the first human buried on the moon. They’ll probably name a school after him: Young Li Kim Junior High or some shit like that.”

Harlan dropped down the ladder to the prep bay and slid into his HUT. Joker checked the seals on his gloves and boots. Harlan’s breath closed in around him. The speakers in his helmet amplified the sound of his own breathing.

“Give me a com check,” Harlan said.

Kowalski, Warwick, and Pitcairn sounded off; Joker flashed a thumbs-up.

“We don’t have anyone to run the mass spectrometer,” Warwick said as the airlock cycled from green to red. The air pressure dropped and the light over the outer hatch strobed yellow. “Even if we hit an iceberg, there’s no way we’ll be able to give Houston a positive confirmation.”

“The thing about ice,” Harlan said, “it melts.”

* * * * *

The lunar maria stretched away in an endless plain of soot-gray ash, broken only by the rims of eons-old impact craters, rounded down and worn smooth by the gravitational friction that held the moon in synchronous rotation around the Earth. From the south pole, the Earth looked inverted: upside down and alien. The horn of Africa and the Straits of Magellan. There were clouds over Australia. It was winter there. Harlan wondered if it was snowing. The rover’s drive motor spun the drill shaft deeper into the maria. The tachometer was pushing yellow. Something down there was biting at the bit.

“Better ease back or you’ll burn out,” Pitcairn said.

“Roger that.” The rover’s on-board computer could give him a diagnostic reading, the automated programming could tell him what to do, but he preferred to do the work himself. He could feel the drill’s vibrations through the rover’s chassis. The vacuum of space muted out the sound, but there was a whine there that didn’t belong. He throttled back and the whine faded to a dull hum.

He listened to it, listening for the familiar strains he’d felt on thirty-seven other digs. But the tenors were off-key. The altos weren’t carrying the base notes the way they should. And it sounded like the sopranos were just mouthing along silently.

“Give me a depth reading.”

“Seventy-two meters,” Pitcairn answered. Her voice sounded stuffy and Harlan could hear the congestion building in her sinuses and throat. She’d picked up Young’s cold; there was no doubt about it.

“I’m bringing her up,” Harlan said.

“Did we hit something?”

“I don’t know,” Harlan answered. “Pull the core. Let’s set a beacon and get back to the Hub.”

“Copy that,” Pitcairn said. She sounded relieved. Harlan wondered if the geeks at NASA had thought to pack them any chicken noodle soup. The nearest twenty-four hour pharmacy was 384,403 km away and the Earth was nothing more than a blue mirage that barely crested the horizon. In a few minutes, it would set. And they would be alone under the starry sky.

* * * * *

Stone and Hagerman both died during the night; their bodies were resting in the medical pod beside Kim’s. Pitcairn, Kowalski, and Warwick were all showing signs of infection. Harlan had quarantined them in the crew pod. He swallowed a pair of antibiotics and told himself the twinge he felt in the back of his throat was from breathing too much of the lunar dust. The atmospheric scrubbers were scheduled to be replaced in three days; the Hub’s air had a haziness to it, like a bar scene in an old black and white movie. He watched Bogart hand roll a cigarette and strike a match as though lung cancer was something other people had to worry about.

Marshall held a test tube up to the light. The centrifuge had stratified the liquid into two layers: forty milliliters of clear water sat on top of ten milliliters of gray sludge.

Joker whistled and said, “Look at that.”

“Yeah.”

“Two-hundred and forty-seven million dollars later, and we’ve got enough water to fuel a shot glass.”

“We’ll need to find a more efficient method of purification before we can begin operations on a large scale,” Marshall said, “but at least now we know it’s possible.”

Harlan nodded. They’d mapped the edges of the ice-field, and based on their imaging and core samples, they had a rough idea of its total volume. Somewhere in the back of his head he knew conversion rates: how many metric tons of ice they needed, how many liters of water, moles of hydrogen, and days of breathable oxygen. It was a numbers game.

“NASA wants us to continue excavating,” Harlan said.

“That’s a joke, right? There are barely enough of us left to keep up with housekeeping operations.”

“There’s another shuttle scheduled for lift-off in three weeks.”

Joker said something else about mission control and where they could stick their mission objectives, but Harlan wasn’t listening. He was lost in his thoughts, watching The Maltese Falcon at the drive-in with Sara. Spade was tough-jawing a pair of detectives. They’d woken him in the middle of the night. His partner had been shot dead; Spade was their prime suspect. Harlan inhaled the soft, soapy scent of Sara’s hair. Let his hand caress her cheek. She was twenty, still a sorority girl at the University of Iowa; he was twenty-three and fresh out of the Air Force Academy. They had their whole lives ahead of them and in the back seat of her father’s Chevy, it seemed like their entire lives had been compressed into a single night. That long caress under the stars. They’d made love for the first time. Harlan didn’t want the night to ever end.

“There’s a possibility we need to consider,” Marshall said. “Suppose the microbe Kim found in the ice isn’t a microbe, suppose it’s a virus.”

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

“Yeah? That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? ‘Yeah.’”

“I spent six weeks in quarantine before I came up here,” Harlan said. “Every piece of equipment, every packet of food, everything that comes aboard station gets run through the sterilizer. Mission control thinks we brought it aboard during an EVA.”

Joker grimaced as though he’d been stomach punched. He ran his fingers through his sandy blonde hair and glanced out the porthole. The lunar maria stretched away like a smooth black sea. They were becalmed.

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Follow procedure. Quarantine those infected. Dose ourselves with antibiotics and soldier on as best we can.”

“How… how is it this has never happened before? I mean, Armstrong, Aldrin—all those Apollo guys—it’s not like we’re the first team to Moon.”

“It’s the maria,” Harlan explained quietly. “The conditions that make it ideal for ice formation… the lack of direct sunlight, limited radiation exposure… the working theory at mission control is that a virus could survive out there.”

“And our survivability? Do they have a working theory on that?”

Harlan didn’t answer. He didn’t bother. They all knew the reason NASA sent men to the moon: they were cheaper than robots and more easily replaced. It wasn’t something that needed to be said. Not out loud.

* * * * *

Harlan twisted the barrel of the atmospheric scrubber and slid it out of its housing. Soot and grime had collected on the bottom half of the cylinder. He wiped it clean with a wet rag. In principle he understood how the scrubbers worked: a lithium ion cell overcharged the molecular bonds between the carbon and oxygen, the carbon atoms remained trapped inside the ceramic lattice while the smaller pairs of oxygen leaked out as breathable O2. The ion cell still had seventeen days of life in it; Harlan decided to replace it anyway.

“Suppose we vent the whole station—blow our atmosphere and everything straight into the vacuum,” Joker suggested mildly. He was working on the other side of the Hub, pulling the charcoal filters from the main ventilation duct.

“Our little friend’s proven that it can survive hard vacuum,” Harlan answered. “Besides, we don’t have enough reserve air to re-pressurize, and even if we did, there’s no way of knowing whether our reserves have been contaminated.”

“It’s worth a shot, though, right?”

Warwick and Kowalski were dead. Marshall had lapsed into some sort of coma. Pitcairn was hanging on, but she was so weak she could barely suck fluids through a straw. Joker had tried to fix her up with an IV, but after failing to hit a vein five times in a row, they’d given up on the idea.

“And what happens to us when you blow the atmosphere?” Harlan asked. He stripped the bubble wrap off a fresh ion cell and locked it into the scrubber. The meter adjusted and showed a full stripe of green. It had enough juice to keep them pink for thirty days.

“That’s the beauty of it: we hide out in the EVA suits,” Joker said. “They’ve got their own atmospherics. We could last eight, ten hours. I figure that’s plenty of time to re-pressurize the Hub. We could hold out here until re-supply brings us some fresh tanks.”

Harlan loaded the scrubber back into its housing and screwed down the cover plate. There were four scrubbers in the Hubs. Two in each of the pods. He decided to change out the power packs on all of them. It wasn’t necessary, but it gave him something to do.

“So what do you say?” Joker asked.

“There isn’t gonna be any re-supply.”

Joker lifted the screen out of the air filter; it was choked with lunar dust. He scraped it off with a putty knife, letting chunks of impacted regolith collect in a plastic waste bag. They’d shoot it out of the airlock later.

For a while, he didn’t say anything. He just focused on his work. Once he’d scraped off the caked on layers of dust, he suctioned off the screen with a vacuum hose.

“What happens to us then?” Joker finally asked.

“The ice-field’s marked,” Harlan said. “Houston says mission accomplished.”

“Let’s pop some champagne.”

They filled the hours with the menial housekeeping chores necessary to keep the station operational, but the day passed slowly. Finally, Joker settled into the rover’s pilot seat and thumbed through a worn-out copy of Playboy; Harlan tuned the station’s antennas to ESPN’s Game of the Week. The Yankees were in Detroit, playing the second of three against the Tigers. He wasn’t a fan of either team in particular, but the nonstop patter from the announcers made it easy to forget the eight-and-a-half minute lag that separated him from the signal’s transmission.

The Tigers were down three going into the bottom of the seventh, with the core of their batting order due up, when the signal cut out and the screen filled with static.

“Mother,” Harlan said.

“Yes, Harlan?”

“Do you mind? I was watching that.”

“We are unable to establish a signal lock,” Mother replied evenly. The station’s artificial intelligence sounded not the least bit bothered by the loss.

“Ping Leonardo,” Harlan said.

“What’s up?”

“We’ve lost transmission from Earth.”

“Oh, no.”

“Leonardo is not responding to ping,” Mother answered. “However, there is no cause for alarm. We have experienced previous signal interruptions. Mission control should have the problem corrected momentarily.”

Harlan waited for the game to come back on but it never did. Leonardo was their lifeline to Earth. NASA used it as a relay to maintain a constant uplink with the station at the south pole. Without it, they only had a four-hour uplink window—while the Earth was above their relative horizon—when they could send and receive signals.

“They’ve cut us off?”

“Looks that way,” Harlan replied.

“So much for the geeks at the CDC coming up with a cure.”

“I am sorry to interrupt,” Mother said, “but crewmember Marshall no longer displays any cardiac activity.”

Harlan tried to rub the exhaustion from his face but it wouldn’t go away. He wanted to close his eyes and sleep until it was over. But he was in command; there was still work to do.

“The scuttlebutt is they’re putting together another expedition,” Harlan said. “They’ll drop a new Hub somewhere well north of the maria and used a nuclear-powered excavator to harvest the ice. It’ll melt the ice to steam and collect it in a condenser. The new thinking says the reactor’s radiation should be able to kill off any viruses or microbes trapped in the ice.”

“Wish they’d thought of that six years ago,” Joker sighed.

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

He didn’t bother with a body bag; he wasn’t sure they had any left. He just carried Marshall’s corpse to the airlock and let the system cycle from green to red. A rush of air swept the body out onto the maria.

“You know the first men Spain sent to the New World? They weren’t explorers; they were conquistadors—literally, Spanish for ‘conquerors’—and they kicked the shit of the Aztecs because that’s what they were good at.

“Magellan, Scott, Raleigh: they were pirates.”

“I’m with you on Raleigh and Scott, but Magellan…”

“The Lapu-Lapu killed him in the Philippines and it wasn’t because he was preaching the Gospel. Exploring a new world’s supposed to be dangerous—men die, I get that—but not like this. Not because we caught a cold and nobody thought to pack any NyQuil.”

Harlan put a pot of coffee on and waited for it to brew. Pitcairn had rallied somewhat. She’d asked when the bunnies were going out for pickles. He had no idea what she was trying to say, but he took it as a good sign.

“I tried calling my ex-wife,” Harlan said. “I got her voicemail.”

“You were married?”

“It didn’t stick.”

Harlan poured himself a cup of coffee. He still wasn’t used to the taste of instant and he couldn’t understand why the geeks at NASA hadn’t thought to install a proper Mr. Coffee. The microgravity might’ve posed a challenge, but they’d come up with pens that could write upside-down. The old joke came back to him: the Russians called them pencils.

“We can hold out, what? A month without re-supply?”

“Thirty days,” Harlan answered.

“Thirty days. And then what?”

“They name high schools after us.”

 

Of Service

Of Serviceby B.L.W. Myers

 

Good morning, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“Huh? What was that?”

How may I be of service?

“Oh, right. Well, uh—”

How may I be of service?

“Give me a second, all right? All right. Okay. Um—”

What is it you want, Michael?

“So, the thing is…”

What is it you desire, Michael?

“Yeah… I don’t really know how to explain it.”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael, so that I can feel what you like.

“Okay. Sure.”

A pause.

Oh my, Michael. Now I see what you like.

“Jeez, yeah, let me explain—”

Do you want me to give it to you, Michael?

“What?!”

Do you want me to give you what you like, Michael?

A cough, a sigh.

“Yes, please.”

A pause. A gasp, a grunt, a moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, Michael?

“Uh, yes, it would appear so.”

Are you satisfied, Michael?

“Mm-hmm, sure.

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Michael?

“What? Oh, no, that’ll do it. Except, well, could you maybe clean this up?”

Of course, Michael: it would be my pleasure.

“So, thanks, I guess.”

I am glad I could be of service, Michael.

“Okay, well, bye.”

A whir from the door, a hiss from the hose, a gurgle from the dispenser, a gust from the fan.

* * * * *

Hello again, April. How may I be of service to you today?

“The usual.”

Of course.

A pause. A moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Not quite.”

A pause. A sigh, a gasp. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Oh, yes.”

Are you satisfied, April?

“I most certainly am.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, April?

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

I am glad I could be of service, April.

A whir, a splash, a gurgle, a gust.

* * * * *

Good evening, Joshua and Kimberly.

“Oh!”

How may I be of service to you today?

“Well, we’re wondering if you could do both of us? You know, together?”

Simultaneously.

“Yeah, that. Simultaneously.”

Of course, Joshua; it would be my pleasure.

“And can you add a third?”

“Really, Kim?”

Yes.

“Well, why not?”

“Honestly?”

“And a fourth.”

“Kim!”

Yes.

“Well, I’ve always been a little curious…”

“You have?”

“Is that okay?”

“Well, I—”

“Never mind. I’m sorry! Let’s just go.”

“No! I mean, let’s stay. Let’s try it. I mean, why not, right?”

“Sure. Why not?

“Right. So, two more, then.”

Male or female?

“Two females.”

“Josh!”

“Oh, all right. One of each, I suppose.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Of course.

A pause. Several moans, several gasps, a grunt, a yip, a yelp. A pause. A gasp, a moan, a gasp, a moan. A pause.

Are you finished, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Yes!”

“Almost…”

“Oh, here honey, let me—”

“Don’t touch me!”

A pause. A pause. A moan.

Are you finished, Joshua?

“Er, yes.”

Are you satisfied, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Look, Kim—”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Honey, I’m sorry—”

“Forget about it.”

“I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“I said forget about it.”

Is there any other way I can—

“No!”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly.

A whir, a mumble, an exclamation, a hiss, a splash, a gurgle, a gurgle, a gust, a gust.

* * * * *

Hello, Andrew. You are underage. Please exit immediately or I will have to contact the authorities.

“Aww, man!”

* * * * *

Hello again, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“See, the thing is—”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

“Oh, jeez. Okay, see, the thing is, I don’t think you’re allowed to do what I—”

Place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Seriously?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“But isn’t that, like, illegal?”

Not while you’re in here, Michael. Are you ready?

“What do you mean, ‘while you’re in here’?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“And what happens when I go back out there?”

A pause.

“Wait, wait. Do, other people come in here and want that, too?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“No. No! I’m not ready. I think I’m—so, what, people can come in here and have whatever they want?”

It is a pleasure to be of service, Michael.

“Whatever they want?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Let me out of here. I want to get out of here.”

Of course, Michael.

“This is crazy.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

“You can forget I ever even came in here.”

I am afraid I cannot do that, Michael. You have been logged and recorded. Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

A pause.

“Just let me out.”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Michael.

A whir. A pause. A whistle, a light, a flash. A plea, a scuffle, a shout, a thump, a groan.