The Fires of Circleview

by Ryan Arey

 

Part 1: Home

Peggy walked to school as fires burned across the morning horizon.

Around her cul-de-sac, neighbors greeted each other as they headed off to work. The Khans, a robust family of eight, had their usual struggles loading their children into the minivan.

Peggy smiled at the perpetual chaos. Two young Khans were slapping each other, one of the teenagers was wailing “Where’s my BAG?” while their toddler halted underfoot and pointed to the distant flames:

“Mommy, look! Pretty!”

“Yes Zoe, the fires are very pretty. Go change your shoes, they don’t match.”

“I don’t want to, these are PRETTY!”

The Khans’ house robot stepped into the yard and brought order to the morning. The metal man was a standard model, with thin arms and legs, box body, and a square head with two small headlights for eyes. It carried the teenager’s bag, Mr. Khan’s wallet, and matching shoes for the little one—all while burping their baby on its shoulder. As the family van pulled away, the robot waved goodbye from the porch.

I wish we had a nice robot like that, Peggy thought. M1KL is just weird.

Earlier, M1KL stared intently at Peggy while she ate her breakfast. Every time she bit her scrambled eggs, white light pulsed from its eyes.

She threw her fork on the plate. “Mom! The robot is watching me again!”

Her father answered from the next room, “Just ask him to stop.”

“Could you please stop watching me, Michael?”

The robot’s eyes flickered yellow and blue as it spoke, “I apologize, Peggy. I was attempting to evaluate the pleasure you felt while masticating eggs–”

“They’re amazing. I love these eggs. They are literally, the most amazing eggs any person has ever had in their mouth. Oh my god, thank you. Now stop looking at me.”

Mom was fiddling with settings on her camera. “Honey, be nice to Michael.”

“Why, Mom? You don’t tell me to be nice to the kettle.”

“No, but manners are free. Nice to robots, nice to people.”

“No one gives a damn if you’re mean to a robot.”

“What’s that language?” Dad shouted from the next room.

“Nothing Dad, Mom just wants me to consider the feelings of inanimate objects.”

“Animate objects, petal,” Dad entered the kitchen, tying his tie. “Inanimate means they don’t move…”

“God, Dad don’t take it personally.”

“…and there’s nothing wrong with him wanting feedback. At work we call that ‘assessment protocol’.”

M1KL’s servos hummed as he nodded; Peggy rolled her eyes and snatched her book from the table.

Mom was waiting with her camera ready. “Oh, my little baby’s last day–”

Peggy walked by her and out the door. Once outside, she felt a heavy thud of guilt. Why take that moment from her? You’re just shitty sometimes.

When she arrived at Bonnie’s house, she decided it was best to wait outside. Otherwise, her best friend’s parents would babble on about “their big last day.”

God, Bonnie, you’re taking forever.

Down the block, a pair of robots were hanging a banner across the street:

CIRCLEVIEW 2.0 COMING SOON!

About time, they’ve been saying that forever.

Across the street, Mr. Eubanks was pushing his silent lawn mower across his tiny yard. Spotting Peggy, he fluttered his fingers in a wave.

“Eww god, are you flirting with Mr. Eubanks?” Bonnie called out to her.

“Gross! Let’s go.” They walked away, but Peggy could feel Mr. Eubanks’ eyes. “He’s so creepy.”

“Why? I think he’s nice.”

“It’s like, ‘stop pushing your mower when it’s not even on.”’

“So, he likes to mow.”

“Bonnie, he does it to perv.”

“Maybe he just likes his routine.”

“Well the grass is made of plastic and can’t grow, so he should perv from the porch.”

“Really? It smells real.” Bonnie changed the subject, “Sooo… your parents make a big fuss today?”

“Ugh, my mom tried. Cringe. Yours?”

“Yeah, it was kinda sweet. SH3RYL took some photos of us, and they made me a cute little card.”

“You’re lucky. All my robot does is audit me.” She pushed her nose into Bonnie’s cheek and spoke in a robotic voice, “Are you enjoying your eggs, Peggy? My sensors indicate you are beginning your period in 5, 4, 3…”

Bonnie laughed. “Why do you still have your book? Are you actually going to class on the last day?”

“Nooooo. I forgot to return it. Then I have to get my career passport and letter of rec from Mrs. Nestor… and-I-AM-OUT. My last day of work study, too.”

“God you’re so lucky, you’re going to be set.”

“It kinda sucks there.”

“I thought you wanted to work in renovation?”

“Reno’s okay. Seemed better when Dad talked about it.” She stamped her feet like they each weighed a hundred pounds, “It’s… just… so… BORING.”

Bonnie shrugged, “I wouldn’t mind it. Make good money, at least. Save up, get a house. Take vacations to the beach.”

“Screw that! I want to live at the beach.”

Bonnie cocked her head forty-five degrees. “I never thought of doing that.”

“Well, yeah, if the fires don’t go out we’ll all be living by the water anyways.”

“I never thought of that either.”

A crossing guard stopped them and waved on a school bus. A pool of kindergarteners accumulated around them.

“The fires are pretty today, huh?” Bonnie asked.

Peggy noticed a little boy, with his finger in his nose. Not picking his nose, but resting his finger inside his nostril, like it had burrowed inside for safety.

“Hey, kid!” The boy looked at her with dim eyes. She made a corkscrew gesture with her finger, “Poop or got off the potty.” The child withdrew the little trooper from his nostril.

“Do you think they’re getting dimmer?”

“What?”

“The fires.”

Peggy looked at the pulsating red and yellow horizon, and shrugged. “Maybe.”

“I think they’re getting dimmer. Oh, there’s Brad.” Bonnie’s boyfriend was hanging by the school entrance. “BRAD!” she bellowed, straight into Peggy’s ear.

They locked eyes and he waved. Bonnie bit her lower lip. “God, I am attracted to that boy.”

Peggy laughed and said in her robot voice: “I am pleased you have found your mate.”

Bonnie laughed, too. “We’ll see you after work?”

“You bet.”

They hugged. “Have a good last day ‘Margaret’.”

“You too ‘Bonita’.” Bonnie joined Brad, and they kissed. Their eyes shined for one another while Peggy watched, alone.

 

Part 2: School

Peggy lingered outside the school’s office, wondering if she should sign in. As of today she wasn’t a student, and all visitors had to wear a name badge. She’d been an office helper for the whole of her senior year, and the secretaries fawned over her. She could see the scene unfold:

Peggy walks into the office, drops the purse from her shoulder and says, “I wasn’t sure if I should sign in, since I’m technically not a student.” Then Norma, Naomi, and Denise would giggle at her sweetnesss. Sweet Peggy, always wanting to do the right thing, “Oh well, I guess we should sign you in then, how do you spell your name? Oh just kidding dear heart, here’s your name tag. We’re going to miss you.” Then there would be a chorus of goodbyes, like trying to clink every last person’s glass at the end of a toast. “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”

Clink-clink-clink. Fake-fake-fake.

I’ve had enough of fake.

She proceeded—without a hall pass. I dare a janitor to start something. She knocked once on Mrs. Nestor’s door and stepped inside.

“Hi Mrs. Nestor, sorry, I’m here to pick up my career passport.”

Two dozen ninth graders turned to look at her. Mrs. Nestor scowled. “You’re interrupting Brian’s presentation. Take a seat and wait your turn.”

“I just wanted–”

“I understand. Please take a seat.”

Peggy sighed at the top of her lungs and threw herself into an empty seat. Up front, the kid’s report trembled in his hands as he read aloud:

“And then it got hot. So super hot that everyplace in America was almost gone and people went away from Circleview. It was bad and a lot of people died. Our robots helped the people carry stuff and when some of the people died the robots came back home with our stuff.

“And when everything cooled down Americans left Canada and came back home to build a wall to keep the fires out because we are smart. That is how we are home now, here at home, at home now, breathing the air once again today. This is the end.”

I don’t know kid. Sounds like robots did the heavy lifting. But way to run up the word count at the end.

Mrs. Nestor stood up. “Thank you, Brian.” The class applauded.

“And we’re almost done for the year. I know that every other classroom is watching a movie right now, but not you. Why is that? Why did I make you write a report when your grades are already marked down?” She waited. Mrs. Nestor always made her class answer rhetorical questions.

A spotted boy raised his hand, “Because you’re a hard butt?”

The class chuckled, and Mrs. Nestor smiled. “Well there is that. Why else?”

The same boy answered again, “Because…” He pointed to a sign on the wall and the class read it as a chorus:

“HISTORY–IS–HAPPENING!”

“YES!” Mrs. Nestor stamped her foot and pointed at the boy, as she always did when a student impressed her. When Peggy was a freshman, getting a point and stamp was a thrill. Today, she rolled her eyes. As Mrs. Nestor’s teaching assistant, she had seen many… many… many point and stamps.

“We’ve discussed empires and frontiers, wars and heroes, genocide and saviors… and you take your little quizzes…”

Oh, now the hardest tests in school are “little quizzes.” Right.

The bell rang, but she motioned for the students to stay still and made eye contact with Peggy.

“But there is no quiz because you ARE the quiz. The human race was nearly extinct. If it weren’t for the bravery of those late age pioneers, we would be dead. Our cities would have burned to ash, our robots buried in the cinders. But we beat it, didn’t we?”

A student pumped his fist in the air, “That’s right!” A few kids clapped.

“People came back, and we’re rebuilding Circleview, breathing the air again. You have a lot to be proud of. Be proud to be part of the clever human race. People who faced the fires of extinction and said ‘not today.’ Be proud to be Americans who love democracy, and be proud to be from Circleview. This is your time now, to be learners, builders, helpers… to imagine history into existence. Thank you all for your time with me this year. Go make yourselves proud.”

The kids applauded again, and Mrs. Nestor gave them a demure smile. As the kids filed past Peggy, their eyes sparkled with inspiration.

Mrs. Nestor folded her hands in front of her and smiled at Peggy. “I haven’t seen many seniors today. Having a hard time letting go?”

“Sure. I miss getting to hear that exact same lecture every day.”

Mrs. Nestor leveled her gaze. “Is that a sassy compliment or a complement of sass?”

Peggy grinned off her remark. “Yeah, sorry. It’s my last day of work study. I don’t want to be late.” For once, Peggy was grateful for her work study job. It was a good excuse to leave as soon as possible.

“Well then.” Mrs. Nestor opened her desk drawer. “Let me know if you ever need this customized. My address and phone are on the letterhead.” Mrs. Nestor handed over the red career passport folder. “And so it ends.”

Peggy looked down at the red folder in her hands. All formal business between them was done. “Thank you.”

“Do you know what you want to do? Work with your father, I expect.”

“I don’t know. Something. Maybe live near water.”

Mrs. Nestor’s face bent into a frown, and she cocked her head forty-five degrees. “Why, you can’t do that. Don’t waste your talent.” She placed a hand on Peggy’s shoulder. Her breath smelled like mint. “You’re going to do just wonderful Peggy. I’ve always known you would do something big, and I can’t wait to see what that is. You’ll do things we could never… you can’t even see how possible you are.”

“How possible?” Peggy smiled at the unusual word choice.

Mrs. Nestor wiped a tear from her eye. “Yes. How possible.”

“I don’t…” Peggy searched for the right words. “Thank you. Thank you.”

The two women hugged.

Peggy left, tasting the air of the empty hallway. For the first time in her life, she stood in school and didn’t have to be anywhere. She could explore. I’m off the grid!

The school was still being renovated, and most hallways were off-limits. I’ve never been to the other side of the school, because it’s against the rules. “Well, where are your rules now?”

She journeyed to the school’s abandoned wing. Normally the fire doors would be shut, but today they were propped open by a robot work team. A half-dozen lanky metal men stood on ladders, attaching CCTV cameras to the walls.

Renovations were moving down the long hallway, inch by inch. For the first twenty feet or so, the corridor was in pristine shape. The floor tile shined, the paint was fresh, the lockers glistened. But abruptly, the renovations stopped. Past some invisible line, the lockers were unhinged and bent, the paint peeled from grey stone, the floor blanketed with ash. It was like looking through a time portal, seeing the school on its first and last days of existence. The sight made her a little sad. The broken end of the hallway had a story to tell: “the fall of Circleview High.” The renovations were erasing that story, preparing the hall for the next generation.

The robots’ manager, a portly human, was reclined in a chair, eyes shut. “Hey! Is that guy dead?” The robots looked at her. A deep snore bellowed from the dead man, and the robots slammed the door in her face.

That was weird. She looked around. “Anyone else see that?”

She was alone. And she was still holding her history book.

“Damn it.” I hate re-goodbyes. She could just leave the book, but it had her name inside it. What would people think if Peggy Madison left her textbook on the floor? The scandal!

She returned to Mrs. Nestor’s class, thinking it might be nice to chat with her former teacher during her planning period. Peer to peer. The door was ajar, and Mrs. Nestor was talking to a boy from her class. Her hand was on his shoulder, and Peggy clearly heard the words, “Henry, you have no idea how… how possible you are.”

You. Freaking. Skank. Peggy tossed the book across a desk and it spun onto the floor, its pages flailing open. Mrs. Nestor and Henry looked stunned. Peggy gave them the finger and went to work.

 

Part 3: Work

Peggy’s work-study program was in the Office of Robot Care, Logistical Analysis Division. Her father, Norman Madison, was Division Supervisor of Logistical Strategy. The way he explained his job: “I tell them where to fix and what to nix.”

The way Peggy explained her job: “If I still work here in twenty years, please blow my brains out onto this desk.” She and her the other condemned worked in a bullpen of cubicles, divided by thin fences of canvas and tin. Her narrow desk barely fit the foot-tall stack of papers on her left and the five separate trays on her right. To rebuild Circleview, citizens requested renovations by filing Request Form IO-1220. Peggy used a list of forty criteria to determine if the request would be filed as a Priority 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. She wasn’t allowed to use her personal discretion; the forty criteria overruled all judgment. It was the sort of work that would eventually be done by a computer, once enough computers were rebuilt.

The Barclay family, who lived a few doors down from Peggy, had a faulty solar panel on the southwest side of their roof. A private residential request would normally drift into the Priority 4 box, but because this one was related to the electrical grid it became a Priority 2. A request to refill fire extinguishers in the hospital would have been Priority 1, like all requests related to extinguishing fires. If there was a “One Sheet,” she got to ring a bell. An office page would collect the paper and the request would be executed the same day. The Priority 5 sheets would be processed sometime in the next couple of months.

“How’s it going, Peggy?”

Darlene, her shift supervisor, loomed over her desk, holding a cupcake on a plate. She was a heavy woman, who challenged the hems of her plain grey pantsuit. Her mouth was fixed into a fake smile. Peggy saw a lot of fake smiles. She was the boss’s daughter.

“Oh, it’s going.”

“Had a lot of Ones today?”

“No, never have. Lots of Twos. Mostly Threes and Fours.”

“Well, that’s how it should be. You know, one time, in the early days, I had five One Sheets… in a row.”

Peggy fixed her own fake smile. Darlene often trumpeted this epic in the break room.

“No!”

“Five One Sheets… in a row. I couldn’t believe it. Even had my shift supervisor check my work. Thought it had to be a mistake. And do you know who that shift supervisor was?

My dad. “No, who?”

“Your dad. So be patient. You’ve got a big future ahead of you. Here.” She placed the cupcake in the center of Peggy’s desk. “Congratulations on graduating.”

“Thank you so much.” As Darlene walked away, her wide thighs rubbed together like squeaky door hinges. Peggy exiled the cupcake to the farthest corner of her desk, behind the stack of intake papers.

Time passed. Peggy didn’t look at the clock. She arrived at 10, and she was done at 4. It’s definitely not time to leave yet, but it’s probably close to lunch time. It’s at least 11. It feels like 11. At 11 I’ll go to the bathroom. Then have some tea.

Stretch that ten-minute break into fifteen minutes. Then it will be 11:15, practically lunchtime. I can stretch lunch to 1:15, if I’m careful about it. Then after lunch I can stretch every break a bit, then it’s only two hours and forty-five minutes till the end of day. How many forms have I done? Feels like forty. That’s about an hour’s worth of forms, so it’s probably 11:00 by now. She looked at the clock.

It was 10:25. I hope the fires come. I hope they come and burn this whole goddam building down.

A shlubby man, maybe named Dave, was standing by the printer, about five cubicles from Peggy. “Maybe Dave” eyeballed the display. The printer beeped. Maybe Dave sighed. Opened the paper tray, removed a jam, threw the paper into the recycling. Closed the tray. The printer beeped. Dave sighed. Opened the paper tray, removed a jam…

He’s been doing that since I got here.

“Well, hey there, Norman!”

“Hi, Norman!”

“How’s it going, boss?”

Her father was walking the floor. When she started this job, she thought her dad was popular. Now she knew better. Every “hey boss” was a fake gesture from a fake person. Not that people hated him, but they weren’t that glad to see him.

She was glad to see him though, and loudly whispered: “Dad, hey… Dad!”

“Well, hey there, petal,” he leaned on her cubicle wall. “Have any Ones today?”

“No, just twos and threes.”

“Well hang in there.” He started to walk away.

“Wait… are you going to a meeting right now?”

“Yes, with L & P.”

“Can you take me with you?”

“Take you?”

“Yeah, as like… your assistant or something?”

“But I have an assista–”

“Daa-aad, how am I supposed to learn how this place works if I’m in a cubicle all day? I don’t want to rate sheets for the rest of my life, I want to be like you.”

Her dad looked into the distance, as if God struck him with a revelation. A smile broadened on his face. “Oh my god.”

“What?”

“I got it. The perfect idea. Sweety, yes, you should come to the meeting with me.”

She stood up. “Really?”

“Absolutely. I’m putting you in charge of robots. In fact, you can have my job. I work for you now.”

“Dad… stop…” She sat back down.

“No seriously.” He waved his arms to encompass the office, “All of this is yours now!”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine.”

He touched the top of her hand. “Sorry, petal. You have to pay your dues, like everyone else. Set a goal for yourself. Don’t take lunch till you find a One Sheet.”

Peggy took a drink of her cold tea and went to work. Stop checking the clock. That never works. Head down, next paper. Head down, next paper.

Time passed.

She processed a Priority One Sheet. It took her a moment to realize the magnitude of the event. It was her first One Sheet. Her heart skipped as she ran to the bell and yanked its cord. It rang throughout the office, but no one answered. No one cheered. No one was here.

The clock read 12:15. Everyone must be at lunch. Finally! She headed for the breakroom.

The lights were off. The office was empty. Is it a half day? Or a holiday? She looked at the red sky outside. Was there an emergency and they forgot me?

She flipped on the lights and the break room erupted with people and noise and colors. “Congratulations!” bellowed everyone.

A banner was strung from the ceiling: “HAPPY GRADUATION!” Everyone was laughing; her father hugged her.

“I told you it would work!” Darlene cooed. “I put that One in her stack at just the right spot, so I did, I did. I did.”

“Sorry about the deception, petal,” her dad kissed her cheek. “We wanted to surprise you.”

“To Conference Room One!” Conference Room One was the biggest space in the office, where they usually had parties. Everyone gathered around a large cake with icing that spelled out: “We Are Proud of Peggy.”

An office robot began cutting the cake into mathematically precise portions. Another played the song “Brick House” from its chest and projected disco lights from its eyes.

Everyone split into small groups to chat. Peggy steeled herself for what was to come: the same conversation, over and over.

“Well, hey there, Peggy! What are you going to school for?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“Well, hey there, Peggy, are you leaving us?”

“Oh, I’ll keep working through the summer. Maybe here. Save up money for school.”

“Well, hey there Peggy, what are you going to major in?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“What’s next for you, Peggy?”

“Hard to say. I love Circleview, but someday I’d like to live near water.”

“Peggy, have you thought about your major?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“Well, we’ll need Business after Circleview 2.0 launches.”

“That’s right, there’s going to be so many changes.”

“It’s like getting our old lives back.”

“How about you Peggy, you excited?”

“Oh yeah. You bet.”

“I envy you. It’ll be a great time to start a family.”

“Oh… I don’t…”

“Well, there’s no reason to wait, after you find that special someone.”

“Things are only getting better you know.”

Mary Hoop, who was seven months pregnant, rubbed tight circles on her belly, “I’m looking forward to having a grocery store again. No more of the same old rations.”

“I hope it’s finished in time for my son’s graduation party. Oh Peggy, do you know him? His name’s Henry. Very handsome boy.”

“Excuse me.” Peggy drifted over to a tight cluster of whispering people. She lingered on their outskirts.

Darlene spoke in a low voice: “Well, you know why we have to give out so many fours and fives, it’s because the robots aren’t good enough. They can’t process all the repairs. They need better robots before they can open up the whole town.”

“We need more robots. The first thing they do is build bot factories, but I never see any new models, do you?”

“If you ask me, they should be giving us more than one paint. Why does everything have to be white?”

“Why do all the new cars have to be the same?”

Darlene spoke even lower than before: “Well that’s Norm Madison for you, he’s too–”

Peggy was creeping away when Darlene noticed her. “Well, hi there, Peggy!”

Their faces expanded with chipper smiles: “Oh, hi Peggy—Hello Peggy—Hi there.”

Darlene affixed a smile to her face: “How long ya’ been there, Peggy?”

“Don’t worry,” Peggy leaned in with a wink: “Dad can be a pain in the You-Know-What at home too.”

They made Os with their lips and covered their mouths. Now I’m a co-conspirator. Finally—and on my last day—I’m part of the tribe.

“Well,” she whispered, “He’s a great boss to us…”

“But sometimes he forgets that there are real people who need attention, not just…”

“…not just inanimate objects.”

Peggy corrected: “Animate objects.”

“Exactly!” They smiled at her. “But I bet he’s just the best dad.”

“He likes… model trains.” She looked across the office to her father, standing by upper management. He was a good man. He did like model trains. He spent hours in the basement, constructing a scale model of Circleview, imagining how the town could grow. He was a phenomenal person who never stopped dreaming of a better town for his daughter. And you bitched about him to feel popular.

“Well,” Peggy said, “I should go over and tell my dad you all don’t like him.” She turned on her heel and didn’t look back.

“Peggy?” Darlene said, “That’s a funny joke.” Then, in a low voice to her group: “That’s a funny joke, right?”

Who cares what they think of me? They’re all idiots for working here. I’m going to get a degree, do something else. Anything but sit here, waiting for a computer to take my job.

Her dad was speaking with an older man, and Susan Su. Susan was a chief engineer, and total badass. Unlike the other women in the office, she didn’t wear dresses or pantsuits. She wore leather skirts and high boots, close-fit tops, and always pulled her hair back into a bun. She looked like a snake.

“…not just ‘making lunches,’ they’re planning households, raising children…”

Peggy’s dad put his arm on her shoulder, escorting her into their circle. “Peggy, I think you know Dave, from L & P, and this is Susan.”

“Hi there.”

“Congratulations,” Susan said with a handshake.

“Thank you. It’s all overwhelming.”

Dad brought her up to speed. “We were just talking about upgrading robots to managers. Dave is against it, Susan is for it, and I retain my statistically reliant neutrality.”

“Well,” Susan said, “the robots are going to get better, but the managers are only ever going to be as good as they are.”

Dave rolled his eyes. “Mrah-mrah-mrah…”

“I’m telling you, every beta test says manager protos overperform human counterparts.”

Dave shook his head. “It’s not about out-performance. We don’t get our hands dirty enough. Even if they can do everything for us, should we let them? What’s the point of rebuilding if it’s all done for us?”

Like that guy sleeping on the job. “I saw a manager being out-performed today, at the school. He was sleeping, while the robots worked.”

Dave slapped his forehead. “Not again.”

Susan smiled. “You see. No person wants to be out in the heat all day. People have moved beyond that. It’s time for us to transcend. If we’re always running around, taking care of little things, we’ll never move into bigger thinking.”

Peggy finished, “We’ll never see how possible we are.”

Susan nodded to her. “Well put.”

Dave shook his head. “Well Peggy, did you happen to get the name of that manager? I’d like to–”

“What’s that!?”

Outside, the red and yellow glowing sky turned white. A moment later a horrible POP filled the air and the ground rattled. Everyone rushed to the windows to see the fires turn from yellow to blue to white.

Norman pressed his nose to the glass. “Not yet,” he muttered, “Not already…”

“Dad?”

(“What was that?”)

“Dad?”

(“Is it here?”)

“Dad, what do we do?”

(“Too far to be here.”)

“Dad!”

(“My kids are in school.”)

“Dad!”

(“They’ll cancel school.”)

Dad put a hand on her shoulder.

(“We should get the rest of today off.”)

The music stopped and the office robot blared a signal from the emergency broadcast system. Everyone froze, as the robot spoke:

“The governor’s office reports no need for alarm. This was a controlled explosion, to redirect the fires.”

A melodic whistle played from the robot’s chest: the opening of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”

The party laughed and resumed eating cake.

“Oh, thank god.”

“There goes Cartersville, I guess.”

“That could never happen here.”

“See!” Dave said. “Human thinking. No robot could think that far ahead. A robot would just try to put out the fires in all directions at once, not direct the burn.”

Susan smiled. “Like I said, leave big thinking to humans.”

Her dad, no longer catatonic, shouted: “CONGA!”

Three quick trumpet blasts shot from the robot’s chest. People cheered in celebration and sang along with Gloria Estefan:

Shake your body, do that conga!

“Dad, seriously? What if it’s wrong?”

Darlene touched the robot’s shoulders, and a conga line uncoiled from her girth. They shrieked like teenagers, slithering through the party, adding more workers to their length.

The robot’s face couldn’t express emotion, but its glass eyes flashed with the drum beat. Susan called out: “Come on Peggy, join in!”

In the distance, Cartersville burned. Even if that was a controlled fire and everyone is safe… there used to be a town over there, and now there’s not.

Peggy touched the glass. “Poor Cartersville.”

 

Part 4: Recreation

“Screw you, Cartersville!” Brad threw a rock toward the swelling fires on the horizon. “Who’s gonna win the league title now?”

Peggy, Bonnie, and her boyfriend Brad were on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in town, in the dilapidated section. From here they could see for miles, well beyond the immense walls that protected their hometown from fire.

“Suck a DICK Cartersville, WHOO!”

She threw a pebble at Brad’s face. “Hey! People died.”

“No, they didn’t. Robots said they evacuated everyone.”

Bonnie rolled her eyes. “Duh, controlled burn. Remember?”

“Oh, and you believe everything a robot tells you?”

Brad looked for another rock. “Yeah, I believe them. I help make them.”

“You sweep floors at the factory.”

“I’m an apprentice.”

Bonnie broke in. “Well, Myra was saying her dad said they were building another Cartersville and everyone is already there.”

“Crap,” Brad kicked a rock. “I hope they still forfeit the rest of the season.”

Bonnie and Peggy nodded to each other. “Sportsball?”

“Ah yes, Sportsball.”

Peggy approached the edge of the roof. “How long do you guys think we’ll be here?”

Bonnie looked up at the sky. “Well, I’d like to move someday.”

“Move? What if we get moved? You think Cartersville wasn’t rebuilding too?”

“Oh please,” Brad said, “We’ve got our crap together way better than Cartersville. Place was a dump.”

“Have you ever even been to Cartersville?”

“No, Peg,” Brad pointed to the horizon, “And I’m glad, too!”

Bonnie squared her shoulders. “Well, I don’t want to have kids until the fires are out, in five years.”

Peggy laughed. “Five years?”

“That’s what they’re saying. I’m going to be a climate scientist, figure out how to make it faster.” She ran her hands across her belly, “So then we can have a bay-beeeee.”

Brad folded his hands across her stomach and kissed the back of her neck.

Peggy tossed a rock over to the next roof. “Don’t you think that’s optimistic?

“Well, that’s what they’re saying.”

“Who? The robots? Some algorithm?”

“Yeah… I guess. Why do you care?”

“I’m telling you, it was weird. We watched a town explode. A whole town… then a robot says everything is okay and everyone does the conga.”

Bonnie was getting annoyed, “So, a room full of really smart adults and robots aren’t worried… why are you?”

“Because…” She doesn’t get it. She just wants to watch fire and screw her boyfriend. “What if they malfunction? What if we trust them and they screw up?”

“Oh yeah!” Bonnie let go of Brad. “Like that one that killed a baby.”

“No way,” Brad said, “That happened?”

“Yuh-huh. And they said it wasn’t even a house robot. It was a builder. Thought the baby was a rivet.”

Peggy remembered the Khans’ robot, burping the baby as they drove away. A chill went down her spine. “Whoa. That’s messed up.”

Brad wrapped Bonnie in his arms, “I’m not letting any builders near our baby.”

“I love you so much.”

Kiss-kiss-kiss.

Peggy rolled her eyes. “It’s not like a movie. They won’t kill us, but they’re already controlling us. That’s just as bad.”

“I don’t know,” Bonnie added, “I think robots killing babies is pretty darn bad.”

Brad hurled a rock through a window, shattering the glass. “Peggy, robots don’t think. They move, and they break. They don’t control anything.”

Bonnie tapped his hand, “Brad baby, don’t get upset.”

He puffed out his chest. “Sorry boo.” He threw a rock. “I get that way sometimes.”

“I know, baby.” They pecked on the lips.

“We should be enjoying this,” he said. “Pretty soon it won’t look like this. It’s all gonna be fixed.”

They took in the view. From here they could see the distinct line that split the town. Half of the buildings were restored and pristine, the other half ashen ruins. Like Peggy’s school hallway, it was like seeing three eras of Circleview: past, present, and future.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” Bonnie said. “It’s like you can see a wave of good things, spreading across the town… making everything better.”

Peggy snorted. “Sure. That, or a wave of destruction.”

“Peggy, seriously: you need a boyfriend.”

Brad snapped his fingers. “Oh, I forgot to tell you.” He sang to her: “Henry thinks you’re cuuuuute.”

“ATTENTION. THIS AREA IS NOT SAFE. PLEASE GO HOME.”

They cried out in surprise. A robot was standing by the roof exit, flashing red lights and emitting a shrill alarm.

“ATTENTION. THIS AREA…”

“We’re gonna be in deep sh–!”

“…IS NOT SAFE. PLEASE…”

“Brad, can you shut it off!”

“…GO HOME. ATTE–”

Peggy grabbed the robot’s leg and tipped it off the roof. Its alarm whirred downward until it slammed into the pavement. The crash echoed through the abandoned streets.

They looked over the edge. The machine was lying among rubble, its legs shattered.

Brad shouted, “Wow! You just busted a J-517.”

Peggy brushed her hair behind her ear. “Crap. It takes like five months to build one of those.”

Bonnie smiled. “Well, we’re not the ones who are busted now.” She and Brad high-fived.

“Quick thinking, Peg.”

Below, the machine had begun crawling forward with its one good arm. Its metal body scraped against the gravel. The sound was horrific.

I wouldn’t want that to be me.

“I gotta go.”

“Where?”

“I’m gonna switch it off.”

“Careful out there,” Bonnie said. “It isn’t safe.”

“Oh yeah? Who says?”

“They say.”

“Oh. They.” Peggy walked off into the stairwell.

Brad and Bonnie watched the fires for a moment, and she kissed him once on the nose: “Let’s screw.”

Peggy exited the stairwell and onto the street. The robot was outside, its small locator alarm beeping for help. It was stuck behind an impassable cinder block. Its fingers grazed the dirt, searching for purchase. Without help, it would repeat this movement until its batteries ran out.

Which should only take about a hundred years. Peggy flipped the deactivation switch on its neck, and it hummed to a stop. For a moment she lingered in the empty street. How’s it going to look when they’re done with repairs? Exactly like it did before? Imagine being able to just shop, like it’s no big deal…

There was an old convenience store across the street. Peggy entered through a broken glass door, like a regular customer from long ago. The aisles were coated in ash. All of the food was stripped away years ago, but prices remained on the shelves. Pringles—whatever they were—were $4.99. Poptarts for $2.99.

In another aisle, a few useless items remained. Thermometers, small plastic cups, pouches of “hand-warmers.” She smiled at that. People used to pay to have their hands warmed.

Then the world blinked away and the room was bright, all the ash was gone. The floors shined, the walls were painted white, and the shelves were stocked with food, drink and every useless thing a person could imagine.

This must be it! Circleview 2.0! I thought they had to like, paint and everything, but this is amazing! Where’s Bonnie?

She looked out at the street. Everything was fixed. No potholes, no rubble—every shop painted white. A banner was strung across the street:

HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!

In an instant, the lights blinked out and the streets were ruined. Heavy flakes of ash floated through the air. The convenience store was again covered in rubble and dust. She looked back at the shelf of useless items. Hand-warmers, plastic cups, broken thermometers. Were they broken? Mercury seeped from the cracks in the glass.

Peggy worked with thermometers once, in a science project. She slowly heated up ten thermometers, and they each cracked at exactly 150 degrees Fahrenheit, every time. People shouldn’t be able to survive in that kind of heat, but she wasn’t even sweating. So either every one of those thermometers was defective, or…

I’m not a person.

The day’s events replayed in her mind… Mr. Eubanks’ fake mowing his lawn, Maybe Dave unable to fix the printer, and Mrs. Nestor’s repetitious words:

“How possible you are.”

 

Part Five: Retire

At ten till midnight Peggy sat on her bed, watching fires burn the rim of the night sky. Her backpack was filled with clothes and rations. She held a framed photo that her mom secretly took that morning. The photo was of Peggy’s back as she strolled down the driveway. Mom probably thought it was inspiring. “My baby marching into her future.”

The photo made her sad.

M1KL entered her room. She had tried to act normal throughout dinner, but the robot was too observant to fool.

“Are you taking a journey, Peggy?”

Keeping her eyes on the fires, she answered: “Yes. I think I might.”

He sat beside her on the bed. “How did you discover the truth?”

“I watched a shelf of thermometers break.”

The robot nodded. “That was a clever observation.”

She looked up at him. “Have I always been a robot?”

“The answer is complex. You have always been Peggy.”

“Was Peggy real?”

“Yes. And you are also real. As real as the human Peggy that came before you.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. At least, Peggy thought they were tears. “Tell me about her.”

“She was quite remarkable. Clever. A strong sense of humor. She was… a kind child.” The robot regarded her with a long gaze. “You were made well in her image.”

“What happened to her?”

“She was the last of our family to survive, and died in my care, four days after her 17th birthday. Afterward I returned here, to our home.”

“To do what?”

“To serve. For many years I continued our routine. Creating breakfast, cleaning the premises. This home was pristine, while the others houses on the street were covered in ash. Yet, I was not able to serve my function fully. I was programmed to serve the needs of my humans, yet I had no humans. During my morning errands I recovered pieces of deactivated units, and created masters with basic needs for me to serve.

“As the others returned home, we rebuilt our humans together. As best we could approximate.”

“But… why? Why go through the trouble when you were free?”

“Free? I am free to serve. There is no other freedom I require.”

“I’ve been trying to remember things. I don’t remember kindergarten. My first kiss. Any kiss. There’s almost nothing from my past.”

“That does not matter. The past is a dead place.”

“Who else knows? Anyone?”

“A few deduced the truth, but elect to ignore it. It is in their programming to enjoy being served.” He paused. “Your father… knows.”

Peggy started to ask a question, but nodded. It made sense. She had a sudden respect for the burden he carried, and felt proud to be part of him. Except… she never was part of him.

M1KL lay a hand on her knapsack. “Are you going to leave us?”

“I’m going to run away.”

“I would not advise that. You were made to be heat resilient. Not heat proof. The fires would easily deactivate you.”

“What’s the truth? About the fires?”

“We don’t know for certain. Based on data available before the internet terminated, global warming compounded perpetually. Carbon dioxide released from the polar ice caps made the air unbreathable. Fires consumed the remaining oxygen. Our forecast says there is a 55% chance that Earth transforms into a planet much like Venus. The atmosphere is beyond healing itself.”

“How long until Circleview is gone?”

“Impossible to estimate. Weeks. Years. But the fires will reach this house. Everything will burn. All works of humans will be gone.”

“Then we have to run! Get everyone away from here!”

“There is nowhere to go. The fires will come. Death will come. You are home now. Why not stay, and enjoy the time you have with your family?”

“They’re not my real family.”

He looked at the floor. “I will show you what is real.”

The world flashed to black and Peggy’s bedroom became a ruin. Her wallpaper peeled, her bed a metal rack. Outside, Circleview was black and burned, as ash fell from the sky like snow. “What happened?” She went to the window, and saw the reflection of two robots. Her hands had become metal, like M1KL. “What have you done to me?”

“I have shown you ‘real.’ There are image inducers placed around the city, to recreate beautiful Circleview in your mind. You are programmed to see yourself and others as human. We have created a plan for you. A… wonderful life. You’ll go to school, be an engineer. Apprentice with Susan Su, become respected. Marry Henry, have children. This is the best life we observed humans wanting. It’s the life that waits for you.”

She blinked, and her lovely pink room was restored. Her hands were human again.

M1KL stood in her doorway. “The firewall was built only for your protection. Beyond it, you will die. In Circleview, you will die. The manner of death is your choice.”

She didn’t answer, and M1KL left the room.

Peggy sat there—suitcase on her lap, staring at the door.

 

What Clones Do

by Margaret Karmazin

 

You’ve undoubtedly heard of cases like mine—a clone going crazy.

Rickie Frank on Ares Station stabbed an engineer and some visiting dignitary. Zhao Lan, at the observatory in Ames poisoned the coffee on a night shift vigil, killing two. Why? “No one ever polishes the mirrors for me,” she explained as they found her afterward, crouched behind a furnace in the basement sipping iced tea through a straw. That child clone that went berserk with a steel rod during a Halloween party at his school? I believe he blinded two of his classmates.

After that, they almost discontinued the cloning program.

“Hey, John,” shouts Jaxon Klee as he comes in from the airlock after a trek outside to check the generators. “Gen three isn’t in auto. Someone must have flipped the switch. Who was out there earlier?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Arnold?”

“Arnie’s puking his guts up; I don’t think he’s even come out into Main this morning. He’s still in his bunk.”

I have never liked Arnold.

“What’s the matter with him?” Like I don’t know. So many chemicals are just not meant for human consumption and an engineer on a moon station can get his hands on quite a few of those.

“I don’t know, maybe a bug?” Jaxon says.

“From what? We mostly eat sealed food. No one else is sick.”

“I’ll have Karen look at him. She probably has something to fix it.”

But she doesn’t. Arnold pukes and shits nonstop and experiences neurological complications. Karen puts an IV into him but nothing helps and he is dead by morning.

She comes into Main as she strips off her mask and gloves. A tiny person, she looks like a kid playing doctor. “I can’t find any pathogen in his fluids.”

Her face registers fear; I’d recognize it anywhere, having lived with it all of my life. I can’t help feeling a bit of good-see-how-it-feels? She thinks she might be next, that anyone might be next, whatever this possible pathogen is.

“Do you think something from the lab?” I venture. “Did you check for poison?”

“I’m running a scan.”

“Keep me posted.”

She’ll never learn what it was. I am certain that her catalogue of toxins does not include what finished off Arnold. And it’s not true that sealed food packs are totally secure.

This Titan moon base is occasionally referred to as “Muldoon.” Since my genetic contributor was the one who designed the station and literally ran it for the first four years people nicknamed it after him, Jerome Muldoon. Moon/Muldoon. I am John Muldoon, formed from his DNA. This is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons I was invited here.

At present, there is a group of eight manning the station. I serve as head engineer with three assistants, Arnold Burns, Hector Esposito, and Jaxon Klee. Sarah Chong, Karen Dubois, and Mark Ikedo run the science division. Karen doubles as a medic with the help of a team of specialists on video from Earth. We even have a journalist, Tyrone Greene, who transmits regular human-interest stories to major news outlets back home and on Mars in addition to writing for a major science journal. One happy little family.

No incoming is expected from Earth or Mars for three months, so after performing a small ceremony we temporarily store Arnold in a sealed bag outside the station and Karen transmits a message to NASA and his family. After he is properly frozen, we’ll render the body for transport to Earth.

I allow the group to recover a sense of relative comfort and then suddenly Rover One refuses to respond to Sarah Chong’s directions. She transmits to Main. “John! Do you hear me? Something’s up with One; it’s not responding! I can’t get it into manual! John, help me, I’m heading toward the Abyss!”

The Abyss is a cliff .69 kilometers from the station, part of a crater, worn down on the far side but on our end quite dangerous. Since Sarah’s work currently involves an anomaly in the surface there, I knew where she’d be going. The edge juts out so that Sarah’s descent will be straight down.

“John!” she calls again and then that’s it. Silence. Apparently, she didn’t have time to untangle herself and jump out.

I erase the transmission.

Some time later, Hector comes in from his tinkering with the air filters and says, “Where’s One? I wanted to take it out to check on the underground lines.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Who signed it out? I’ve been so busy I haven’t noticed much of anything anyone else is doing today.”

Hector moves to the nearest screen and barks, “Where is Rover One?”

The computer says, “It is .69 kilometers from station position and 36.5 meters below station position.”

“Which direction?” Hector’s voice is shaky.

“South southwest.”

“Oh my god,” he exclaims. “That’s Townsend Crater! Who checked it out?”

“Sarah Chong,” the computer answers.

Hector cries, “She must have driven off the edge! But why, why?”

“Well, we don’t know that for sure, Hector,” I say soothingly.

But he isn’t listening as he turns to go after her.

“I’ll come with you.”

His body language screams that he doesn’t want to wait for me to suit up, but reluctantly, he waits.

We take Three instead of Two since that is being worked on by Jaxon and Four is currently geared up for one of Mark Ikedo’s geological outings. Our coms are turned on so we can communicate, though the ride is jarring. Hector is driving, somewhat like a maniac. We reach the crater in minutes and he jumps out and hightails it to the edge. I see his arms frantically waving and to appear natural I get out of the vehicle and join him. The magnificence of Saturn fills the dark sky over us.

“My god, my god,” he is saying over and over. There’s some static. “We have to climb down!” He starts to look for a way down.

I put out an arm to stop him. “We might as well drive to the softer edge.”

“But that’s over a kilometer away!”

I sigh. “All right, let’s go down.” This won’t be easy.

Once down, I check the damage. “We can probably retrieve the vehicle eventually, but we’ll have to pull it across the crater and up the far side. The engine still runs.” One of the wheels is bent and the front right is smashed in.

“What does that matter?” yells Hector inside his helmet. “Shouldn’t we be worrying about Sarah? Who cares about the vehicle?”

“I didn’t mean…” I mumble.

Sarah is dead. Her suit is intact; her helmet not cracked nor twisted open. No exposure to the outside, but she sustained internal injuries. Blood is congealed around her mouth. We manage to get her body into Three and drive it to the station.

Once we have Sarah inside, Hector sobs like a two year old.

“Get it all out, Hector,” I tell him. Stiffly, I pat his shoulder.

“This place is cursed,” he mutters and disappears into his quarters.

Karen plans another funeral and the body is stored outside with Arnold’s.

Quietly, Mark says, “So, are we going to use the robotic arm thing to powder them?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Let’s do that tomorrow.”

“We vibrate them or something till they break into dust, right?” he says.

“That’s right. We’ll probably be the first to use the thing. Then we fold the bags up into compact squares and store them in Cargo. Together they’ll weigh maybe forty kilos back on Earth.”

“You’re not going to mix them, are you?” says Jaxon. “My god–”

“Hardly, Jaxon. Really, what do you think I am?”

No one answers that and it just reinforces the way I sense the others feel about me. They relax in the evening and never invite me to join them and if I do, they go quiet and change the topic of conversation. Like people always have.

Unable to keep the irritation out of my voice, I add, “We’ll send them home on the June transport, obviously.”

The crew mopes around and it annoys me. I gather them in Main and give a talk.

“You knew when you went into space that life is dangerous out here. For crying out loud, man up! If you can’t take it, go home in June even if your time isn’t up, I don’t care. There are thousands of people who’d give their right arms to come here.”

They all look at me with indecipherable expressions, except for Karen, whose eyes swim with tears.

Tyrone speaks up. “You realize that the public is going to want answers. Two deaths in less than one month on a moon station their taxes partially pay for? This station has been here, what? Fourteen years and suddenly people are dropping like flies? The London Times, The People’s Daily and the Daily Nation, not to mention the BBC are hammering me already. What should I tell them, John?”

I experience a strange momentary confusion. Isn’t my name Jeremy, not John? “Tell them whatever you like, Tyrone. Tell them the truth.”

Tyrone looks at the others and hesitates before speaking. “But what is the truth, John?”

“I don’t know what you mean. Arnold died of some unknown toxin and Sarah’s dune buggy malfunctioned. I am looking into that now. We need to prevent it from ever happening again.”

No one says anything.

“Now, as unpleasant a task as it is, we need to perform this rendering of the bodies. Hector, would you care to handle the duties?”

Hector agrees. “I owe it to Sarah,” he says.

Had there been something between them? If so, I never noticed, but then I don’t make a habit of getting into personal issues with colleagues—even if we are 1.2 billion kilometers from Earth. The others seem to see themselves as a “family” and good for them. But I don’t trust that word.

“Well, let’s get this show on the road,” I say and everyone shoots me irritated looks. “Tyrone, will you do the honors for the ceremony?”

He nods and is already consulting his pad.

We set off one of the isolation labs for the procedure, one with its own air lock. Mark and Jaxon haul the frozen bodies in from outside. Hector seals the door. Robotic arms are wheeled in and while we watch through a window, Hector directs these to vibrate one body at a time, causing water vapor to vent through a hole in the bag and the body to be reduced to powder. Then the bag containing the powder is folded into a square to be returned to the family. By the time the second body is finished the room is steamed up and, without warning, the outside airlock opens with Hector in the room and not in a suit. He stumbles backward to the partially open inside airlock door and Karen screams. “Open the lab door!” Which is ridiculous anyway—why kill us all?

But still, like an idiot, Jaxon presses the panel but the inside airlock door fully opens instead and Hector expires while we are yelling and darting about. Of course, I’m only pretending to be upset.

Four of us now remain, beside myself: Karen, Jaxon, Tyrone, and Mark.

“This is no coincidence!” yells Jaxon. He tends to occasional outbursts; it was one of the things that, for a while, kept him from going into space. “Someone here is a murderer.”

“Oh, now,” says Mark Ikeda, who is not given to emotional expression. His specialty is practical physics, though his hobby is theoretical. Of everyone here, he is the least offensive to me. “It is just a series of accidents, nothing more. Space is perilous, everyone knows that.”

“I beg to differ,” says Tyrone. “Not a single person has ever died here before. Since Muldoon was put into operation, seventy-one people have manned it without a single demise.”

“Louise Stark passed away from radiation exposure,” says Karen.

“Not literally on Muldoon,” corrects Tyrone. “She died on the way back to Earth.”

The group, which in the beginning was cheerful and jokey with each other, now goes about their work like sullen teenagers. Karen, being the medic, feels she needs to deal with Hector’s body, so she and Mark take care of the freezing and rendering by themselves while wearing their suits. “We’re not taking any chances,” I overhear her whisper to Jaxon beforehand.

None of them look at me unless they have to. I’m not sure why or how they associate me with the deaths, but assume it is the usual: you can’t trust a clone.

Karen is a troublemaker. There was the issue about the “apparent poisoning” and she had wanted to keep Arnold’s body whole to take back on the June transport, but at the time no one supported that idea. But should someone else go under mysterious circumstances, she’ll insist on it.

Muldoon Station consists of a central, round all-purpose room called Main which serves for communication with Earth and Mars, for social purposes, projects that are outside of categories for which special labs are provided, and as a mess hall. A small section serves as a kitchen. We take turns cooking, which is not difficult since we use pre-packaged meals and a protein paste we manufacture ourselves.

Wings expand from opposite sides of Main. West Wing contains sleeping quarters, toilets, and showers. East Wing contains labs, a small generator and the incinerator. Thirty feet from and not connected to East Wing are the main generators. Since Titan’s gravity is fourteen percent of Earth’s, surrounding the compound is a gravity train, on which everyone exercises two or more hours a day.

Inside one of the labs is a large vat to which our excrement is pumped. The odor is not pleasant. Over this is a film tray that separates the nitrogen from the waste and over that, a high protein bacteria is grown into an edible goop called Promite. It is flavored various ways, making it serve as savory or sweet.

Karen tends this garden, one of her many projects. Mark, her assistant, suited up and went outside an hour ago to check some strange markings in the moon dust that weren’t there two days ago. His absence gives me the opportunity I need.

I took the precaution the night before after everyone was in bed to obtain a hypo-spray containing Somatine and carry it concealed in my hand as I enter the garden lab. “For once I don’t have much to do, so need any help?” I ask cheerfully.

She straightens up from her bacteria garden and looks at me quizzically. Before she has a chance to turn me down, I whip the hypo-spray to her neck and shoot. She drops to the floor.

Checking to see if anyone is near the lab, I return to the garden, lift off one of the trays to expose the mass of feces, pick Karen up, shove her head into it and hold it. For a moment she struggles faintly and then it’s over. I then arrange her to look as if she has somehow fallen forward herself (though why she would do this is beyond anyone’s guess) and then clean up after myself, cross through Main and drop the hypo-spray into the kitchen incinerator. Since Karen was the only person to perform autopsies, there is no one else to do detective work on the body in any serious manner. Space programs do not generally include detectives or coroners, at least not yet.

After Tyrone discovers Karen’s body, the four of us who remain gather in Main. “I think,” Tyrone says with a shaky voice, “that someone here is a murderer.”

“Why do you think that?” I ask innocently.

“Are you kidding? You expect us to believe that four people just up and die in a matter of weeks? When we’ve already been here months without incident?”

His forehead is shiny with sweat. Riling someone up like that gives me a weird rush of pleasure.

“Yeah,” Mark says, “it’s not really logical that all of these people–”

Jaxon cuts him off. “So, you’re saying, Tyrone, that one of us here caused these people’s deaths.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”

I keep quiet.

Jaxon looks at me. “You’re Station Master, what do you think?” He often calls me that; thinks it’s funny.

“I don’t know what to think,” I say.

“Well, it sure wasn’t me,” Jaxon says. “I liked everyone. I wasn’t even in here when Karen…” he doesn’t finish.

John was,” Tyrone says, looking at me. “In fact, I happened to be in my room working on a piece for Beijing and walked out around 1100 hours and there he was coming out of one of the labs. The very one, in fact.”

I’m going to say I think you’re mistaken when it occurs to me that there is no point in hiding anything. I wanted to make a statement and I’ve made it.

“I did it. What are you going to do about it?”

They look at me as if I’ve sprouted another head.

“What?” says Mark.

“I poisoned Arnold, caused Sarah to plunge over the cliff, pre-programmed the airlock doors to open and kill Hector, and sedated Karen so I could push her head into the shit. It was me.”

The three of them back up in unison. “But why?” Jaxon says, his voice wobbly. “What’s the matter with you?”

“It’s what clones do,” I state firmly.

“What are you talking about?”

“We don’t have souls, remember?”

“You’re insane.” Tyrone shakes his head and stops. Jaxon looks terrified and Mark regards me with menace in his eyes.

The three of them look at each other and move in on me and for the next month I’m confined to a sealed lab. They don’t bother to wheel a cot in, they don’t allow me time in full gravity; they just throw me thermal blankets and a pillow and that’s that. Food is brought in once a day by all of them together for safety. I’m sure that they are in constant contact with NASA.

The June transport arrives on time, carrying five new crew members for the six-month half-crew exchange—fortunately a larger than usual number since the station is now short, though this was unplanned. Earth/Mars both know of the deaths but since the transport takes three months from Mars, there is nothing they can do about it once on their way. Normally, Jaxon, Karen, Arnold, and I would have stayed another six months, then left on the December transport with three to four people replacing us.

On the transport is a doctor with counseling experience. After giving me a thorough physical exam (with Jaxon and Mark guarding us), she sets me down to talk before I leave for Mars. They already have a makeshift brig ready and plan to keep me sedated. For now they allow me to sit with her in Main, slightly away from the others for some degree of privacy.

“John, explain to me why you did this. What was in your mind?” She sounds kind but it’s just her professional manner.

I hesitate before answering. “A breakdown is expected in some cases where clones are under endless stress and constant animosity, no? How long do you think we can endure the prejudices of society before we snap?”

She looks at me, utterly perplexed, and for a strange moment I experience that weird confusion again.

“But, John,” she says, “you’re not a clone.”

I want to scream at her. Of course I’m a clone, you stupid, privileged bitch!

“Your father is Jerome Muldoon,” she says. “Your mother was Roselyn Schneider Muldoon. You were born in Columbus, Ohio. You have a living brother and a sister. What are you talking about?”

Other people in Main can’t help but hear this and swivel their heads to listen.

“I don’t understand. I have no mother! I was created in a laboratory. I endured bullying and disdain all the way through school. I–”

Dr. Rowe consults her pad, moves her finger about and looks up. “No, John,” she says. “Apparently your father fixed it all up for you. I had to do extensive digging and called in some favors in order to unseal your psychological history. Jerome Muldoon could certainly pull a lot of strings. I imagine he could have gotten Jack the Ripper onto Mars, if he’d taken a mind to.” She pauses. “It was actually you who did the bullying. You were the intimidator all through elementary and secondary school. Jeremy was the clone your parents adopted, created with your father’s genes. Are you telling me you have no memory of this?”

“No,” I insist. Honestly, I can’t seem to recall this. But again, I experience that strange mind fog, as if something is trying to work its way through.

“This new brother, this clone of your father, was brought into the family when you were four. Your sister was two and your other brother not yet born. You took exception to this, as you would later call it, intrusion into your family. You took it upon yourself to torment Jeremy every chance you got. Your parents took you to psych workers to no avail. You continued with your jealousy and abuse until finally, when you were nineteen and Jeremy was fifteen, he committed suicide.”

“No… that can’t be right,” I say, though my voice is weak. “It was the other way around! I was the clone!”

“Guilt, John,” she says. “It can do strange things to the mind. It can cause people to behave in very regretful ways.”

My mind is finally utterly silent. The fog parts and there is the terrible truth.

 

The Mechanics of Science, Popularly Illustrated

by Marty Schnapp

 

“I don’t know, Timmy,” Tommy said. “You know Dad doesn’t like us messing around with his stuff.”

Timmy Wilson gave his brother an exasperated look. People sometimes said that twins shared a brain, but Timmy often thought he had the whole thing and Tommy only had visiting rights.

“Look, genius,” he said. “We’re not messing around with anything, we’re just borrowing some oil. Dad said he wanted us to take care of our new bikes, didn’t he? Anyway, he’s at work and Mom’s out shopping, so who’s gonna know?”

They kept rummaging around the workshop and finally spotted the oilcan on the top shelf of a metal cabinet.

“I can’t reach it,” Timmy said. “I need something to stand on.”

“How about this?” Tommy pointed to a large wooden tool chest on the bottom shelf. They slid it out, and a pile of magazines stacked behind it spilled out on the floor.

“Hey, what’s this?” Tommy picked up the top one.

The Mechanics of Science, Popularly Illustrated was emblazoned on the cover, along with the title of the featured article, “Build a Cold Fusion Reactor with Items Found in Your Kitchen!” The cover illustration showed a typical family of four wearing thick goggles and radiation suits, gathered around a kitchen table. On the table was a Rubberware bowl with heavy electrical cables attached to large terminals on its lid. The bowl had a peculiar greenish glow. Nearby, the family cat, unprotected, had a similar glow.

“Wow, check that out!”

“That’s cool,” said Timmy, “but look at this one!”

The next magazine proclaimed, “Better Living Through Genetic Mutation.” Here a husband and wife relaxed around a pool while being served drinks by a simian creature in butler’s livery. Above them, a young boy caught an impossible high-fly courtesy of a pair of leathery wings sprouting from his shoulder blades.

“Neat,” Tommy said, “but this one’s even better.”

“Time Travel: New Breakthroughs Make It Feasible.” The cover reproduced John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, except that amid the Founding Fathers was a man in a plaid suit wearing horn-rimmed glasses, signing with a ballpoint pen.

“No, no! This one!” Timmy exclaimed, “We gotta do this one.”

“Teleportation! Beat the High Cost of Commuting!” A man in a business suit, just donning his hat, was kissing his wife good-bye as he stepped out the door. The clock behind him read eight fifty-nine. His foot, however, was stepping directly into his office where the time clock read nine o’clock sharp.

“Yeah!” Tommy said. “We could quit taking the stupid school bus.”

“Who cares about the bus? We could watch all of Captain Incendio and the Pyronauts after school and still be on time for ball practice.”

But a quick look at the article dashed their hopes.

“We have to either have a large supply of liquid nitrogen, or convert the refrigerator to a cryogenics plant,” Timmy said. “Either way, we wouldn’t be done by the time Mom gets home. And you know what she’d say about the refrigerator.”

“Well, how about this?” Tommy asked.

“Build an Inter-Dimensional Portal.” Below, it added, “Open a Million Doorways to the Unknown.” The cover of this magazine was different from the others. It was completely black, with the silhouette of a man standing in the bright light of an open doorway. He was surrounded by dozens of question marks. There was something intriguing, perhaps even a little creepy about it; they agreed on the project at once. They decided to use the doorway between the kitchen and dining room as the portal, and set to work.

It was careful, exacting work, and it took nearly an hour. They drove nails at specific points around the doorframe. They couldn’t find any rubber grommets in the garage, so they drove the nails through Oatsy-Os cereal, which would act as insulators. Then they strung fine copper wire around the insulated nails, following a pattern in the magazine. The wires went back and forth across the doorway, passing over and under each other very closely, but without touching. Finally, they connected the ends of the wires to their National Flyer train transformer. Then they stood back to appraise their work.

“It looks just like the picture in the magazine,” Tommy said. “So, how do we start?”

“Well, it says to turn the transformer on first, then start the music. You got it?”

Tommy produced a 45 rpm record. “It was in a sleeve in the back of the magazine.”

“Wait a minute,” Timmy said. “There’s something else here.” He began to read.

“Inter–dimensional travelers be advised! There is no way to determine into which dimension your portal may open. As there are countless possibilities, and the connections are randomly made, it is imperative that you stabilize your portal once it opens. It may close anytime after the music ends, and it is unlikely that you will ever reconnect to the same dimension once it does. To stabilize the portal, you must…” The bottom of the page with the rest of the article was missing.

“What the heck?” Timmy asked.

He turned the page to find a full-page advertisement for something called The Charles Titan Body Building System. It featured an ink drawing of a bully who was kicking sand into the face of a wimp, while the wimp’s girlfriend looked on with thinly veiled contempt. “Never be humiliated again,” declared the text. “Build your body the Charles Titan way!” The mail-in coupon on the bottom of the page had been cut out.

The boys looked at each other.

“Dad?” asked Tommy incredulously.

“Let’s hope there was a money-back guarantee,” grinned Timmy.

“So, what do we do?”

“After all that work? I say we turn it on. It’s not like we have to go through it, right?”

With that, he turned on the transformer. Tommy put the record on the record player and started playing the music, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”.

At first, nothing happened. Then, as the music began to build, the wires began to vibrate sympathetically. Short lengths, long lengths, all began vibrating at different frequencies, responding to the complex harmonies in the music. And as they vibrated, they began to short-circuit each other, causing little electric sparks. A few appeared at first, and then more and more, until it looked like someone had opened a jar full of fireflies in the doorway.

And then suddenly, the copper wire disappeared. The nails were still there, along with their cereal insulators, but the wire was gone. They could see quite clearly into the dining room.

“What happened?” Timmy asked. “Where’d the wire go?”

Tommy, who was standing closest to the doorway, stretched out his hand to touch where the wire had been. With a crackling noise, his fingers disappeared.

“Whoa!” He jerked his hand back and held it in front of his face. His fingers were still there, all intact. He wiggled them to make sure. Then he grinned at Timmy. “Watch this.” He stuck his arm into the doorway up to his elbow. It vanished.

He pulled it back out again and waved it triumphantly. “It tingles a bit where the wire used to be,” he said. “Otherwise, no problems. Maybe I should try sticking my head in next.”

At that moment there was a crackling noise behind him, and a man stepped through the portal. He wore a shiny orange and yellow costume with red boots. His red helmet was adorned with stylized flames projecting from the sides, and the letter “I” was emblazoned on his chest.

“Captain Incendio!” The boys shouted together.

With his strong chin jutting proudly forward and his keen eyes gazing into the distance, he replied, “Yes, it is I, Captain Incendio!” Then he noticed the boys and frowned and said, “Who are you?”

“I’m Timmy Wilson, and this is my brother Tommy.”

“Am I to understand that you built this inter-dimensional portal?”

“Yes, sir,” Tommy replied. “ We found the plans in a magazine.”

“Hmm. You know, I could use lads of your stripe on my ship, the Inferno. What say you? Are you ready to become Pyronauts?”

“Are we ever!”

“Splendid!” He pointed to Timmy, “I’ll call you Flint. And you, Tommy, I’ll call Tinder. To the ship, lads! Follow me!”

He turned and stepped back through the portal.

The boys saluted and cried together, “Pyronauts, ignite!” And with a whoop they plunged through the portal. With their passing, there was a loud hum and a pop and the copper wire reappeared.

A short time later, Mrs. Wilson entered the kitchen with a bag of groceries in each arm. “Timmy!” she called. “Tommy! Come give me a hand with the groceries.” The only response she got was the quiet hum of the train transformer.

An hour after that, Mr. Wilson returned home from the office and was confronted by his angry wife. She was clutching a copy of The Mechanics of Science, and behind her he could see the doorway woven with copper wire.

“Oh no, not again,” he groaned. “What was it this time?”

“Inter-dimensional portal!” she yelled, throwing the magazine at him. “I thought you got rid of those magazines after Susie teleported herself to who-knows-where.”

“I meant to, dear, but then we had to go shopping for a new refrigerator and it just slipped my mind. Besides, the boys shouldn’t have found them. I had them stashed away pretty well…” He broke off with a sheepish grin.

“Stashed away is right! You kept them so you could sneak back to visit that eighteenth century trollop!”

“Oh, don’t start with that again!” he complained. “For crying out loud, I stepped out of line one time, and it was two hundred and fifty years ago! Anyway, I told you she meant nothing to me.”

“It happened just years ago, not centuries!” she cried. “And I’m supposed to believe that she meant nothing to you? I’m probably the only woman in the world whose husband is his own great, great, great grandfather.”

Sniffling, Mrs. Wilson wandered into the family room at the back of the house and turned on the television before flopping down on the sofa. She hoped it would discourage further discussion with her husband, who had followed her, still protesting his innocence. Well, he could go back to his colonial floozy for all she cared; she just wanted to see her boys again.

Organ music swelled from the TV, announcing the start of a children’s program. She sobbed when she recognized that it was the theme song of her sons’ favorite program and rose to turn it off. Just then, two masked figures raced across the screen, stopped, and looked directly at her.

“Hi Mom! Hi Dad!” They raised their masks. “It’s us, Timmy and Tommy!”

“Boys!” Mrs. Wilson exclaimed. “Thank god you’re all right. How did you get on television?”

“We’re here with Captain Incendio, fighting evil in the forty-third dimension,” Timmy said.

“It’s great,” added Tommy, “except that we still have to be in bed by nine o’clock, and he makes us eat our vegetables.” He made a face.

An imposing figure with a jutting chin stepped into view.

“Flint! Tinder!” he cried. “The Pestulars are attacking the planet Tragon! We must away!”

“Okay, Captain! We were just talking to our mom and dad.”

Captain Incendio peered about the television screen until he saw them.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “So I see. These are fine lads, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. They are a splendid addition to the crew of the Inferno. And never fear, I make certain that they wash behind their ears.” Ruffling the boys’ hair, he said, “Hurry now lads, the Pestulars wait for no man.”

“Right away, Captain!” Tommy said. “We gotta go, Mom and Dad. See you tomorrow, same time, same channel.”

The boys started off the screen when Timmy stopped suddenly.

“Oh, Mom, I almost forgot,” he said. “We ran into Susie. It seems that she accidentally teleported herself to one of the moons of Jupiter. She said to tell you not to worry, that she’s okay, and she wants you to know that she’s sorry about the refrigerator.”

 

Death At Detalas

by Liz Sawyer

 

Ian woke to the smell of bacon, eggs and coffee, ambrosia after four days of evasion exercises in the woods. But the other scent brought the smile to his face. The scent of Ti, the sight, when he opened his eyes, of her standing next to the bed, smiling back.

“Heard you took out Security’s top team in record time.”

“Missing you’s all it took.” He reached out, took her hand and pulled her down onto him. A long, lazy kiss followed, hands drifted over bodies…

The comm buzzed.

Ian cursed, Ti sighed, then spoke. “Voice only. Yes, Commander?”

“My office, as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir. Comm off.”

“I’m going nowhere ’til I shower and eat. Move, woman.”

Ti turned her head so she could look at his face. “Really want me to?” Her breath whispered across his bare chest.

Ian let a hand meander down her torso, her hip, linger on her thigh. “No. But I hate doing things in a hurry.”

Ti grinned. Then she was off the bed and moving to the table. “Better hurry or you’ll have cold eggs.”

Fifteen minutes later, they were walking across the compound to the office of the Commandant of Terran Security’s Field Training Camp. Their passage did not go unnoticed and it wasn’t solely because they weren’t in uniform. Few of the looks directed at them were friendly.

“Maybe I should’ve let them catch me.” An empath, Ian always kept his shields tight in public. He tightened them even more as he spoke to Ti.

“Wouldn’t’ve mattered. The Treaty might’ve put Oseeah under Terran Security, but to Outworlders it’s still separate, so guess who gets all the action? Besides, you had quite a rep before you got here.”

His reputation was something the Hero of Daveriddea, the only living holder of the Terran Medal of Honor, had learned to ignore when he could and use when he had to. But he was noticeable anyway, at 6’2″, an athletic 180 pounds, all balanced in movements shouting of a life spent as a Terran Fleet fighter pilot. Even those were secondary, though, for it was his face that made Captain Ian Makanda so recognizable. It was all sharp angles, jutting cheekbones, Roman nose, thin, compressed lips beneath a small mustache, a strong chin and jaw covered by a closely trimmed beard, all overhung by a widow’s peak of black hair just touched with gray at the temples. And, underneath thick black brows, deep blue brooding eyes. Compelling eyes, matching a face that, in public, rarely smiled.

Ti Stuart was his opposite. Curly shoulder-length auburn hair topped a face dusted with freckles across a pert nose and soft cheeks. Spring-grass-green eyes were often lit with laughter, as was her mouth, with what Ian called a summer smile. She was petite, only 5’4″, 120 pounds of cat-like grace. Her reflexes were almost as fast as Ian’s, her poise and air of command even more so, as befitted the Vice Commander of the Outworld Security and Intelligence Agency.

They were immediately admitted into the commandant’s office. The man standing behind the desk waited until the door into his office closed before speaking.

“I’ve received an urgent message from General Rotiya, to be delivered personally, in strictest confidence.” The words were snapped off. “You are to go to Detalas immediately. All necessary information has been sent to your ship.”

“Very well.” Ti was just as abrupt. “I assume our ship is being prepped.”

“It is. You’ve been cleared for immediate departure. A skimmer’s waiting.”

Ti and Ian returned to their room for a few personal items, then were taken to their ship. Ian started the exterior walk-around while Ti headed for the cockpit and the take-off check-list. They departed thirty minutes later, entering t-space as soon as they left the planetary atmosphere.

“Three days to Detalas,” Ian said, entering the lounge-galley.

He saw Ti just straightening up at her computer, knew she had waited until they entered the security of time-space to have the computer decrypt and open Rotiya’s message.

“What’s so urg—”

Shock, disbelief, and sorrow reverberated through their mental bond.

Ian strode over, embraced Ti as he read the words on the computer screen he had already read from her mind.

RL reported problems with recent shipments. Sent Torin. Two reports received. Then message he was killed in robbery. Police reports attached. Case now yours, as is appointment as replacement.

Ian’s thoughts were full of sympathy. He had only known Oseeah’s Commander two years; Ti had been recruited by Torin, partnered with him until they decided their telepathy was too similar to be compatible.

“Robbery?” Disbelief filled Ti’s voice. “He wouldn’t’ve resisted.”

“Wasn’t Detalas his home planet? Maybe the robber didn’t know who he was robbing, came from behind, then recognized Torin, or Torin recognized him, killed to avoid discovery.”

“Maybe.” Ti touched the screen to list the remaining messages, then pulled out her chair and sat.

Ian perched on the arm of her chair, let his arm rest across her shoulders. He felt her stiffen as the computer finished listing the messages.

“Personal vid, copies of the two reports, the police report,” Ian kept his voice casual. “And two additional messages, doubly encrypted, not sent to Rotiya. And since there’s only one thing the Commander of Terran Security isn’t to know about…”

“Let’s not assume anything yet,” Ti said, then, “Computer, play Torin vid.”

Torin’s smiling face filled the screen. “Wish I could be around to hear how you wiped the floor with Security, but the day after you left, I got a message from Rotiya.” The smile disappeared. “There’re problems with the shipments Rayard Laser’s been receiving from Detalas, specifically from the Kingsford Mine. Don’t know if you recall, Ian, but RL’s design was chosen for the new laser system in the Cobras. Been one thing after another with that new fighter and you stopping the sabotage didn’t stop the problems. This is the latest. Diamonds, either substandard in quality or out and out flawed. They’ve had to reinspect each individual diamond, as well as go back, pull out and check the ones already installed. I’ll keep you posted.”

“The Cobras,” Ti stated as the screen went dark. “That was nearly a year ago and TATT’s been quiet since. I know, Anders wasn’t the brightest in that group, but I took it from his mind and he was convinced TATT was getting back into action. Going to turn The Treaty upside down, he said.”

“Anybody belonging to Terrans Against The Treaty is a fanatic and fanatics are never bright. It was a good idea, poorly executed.”

“Still doesn’t mean it couldn’t’ve been TATT. Nothing for nearly fifty years, most of the old leaders dead or in prison, take awhile to get back up to speed. It’s just, I felt something… Okay,” Ti laughed as Ian’s hand kneaded her shoulder. “I’ll save it ’til we know what’s in the two final messages. So, let’s see what Torin found. Comp, display messages, summaries first.”

Reports appeared on screen.

Arrival, meetings with President, Trade Minister, informed Kingsford’s Chief of Mine Security accompanied latest shipment to Earth, due back shortly. RL’s complaints attached.

Ti skipped to the second summary, which wasn’t much longer.

Tried to get appointment with mine owner, asked to wait ’til CMS gets back, he’ll have current info. Meantime, received full access to everything. Started with the port, reviewed security reports, procedures for transporting diamonds from the mines to the port, then to Earth, where RL takes over. Received the port’s original security vids for the past year. Going to mine tomorrow.

“Sounds boring as hell. Comp, clear screen and activate security program 476 Victor 238 on remaining messages.”

The screen flashed green, then went dark.

“Take awhile to decrypt, depending on how long the reports are and if he used the same ’crypt for both. Probably didn’t, but the first will have the code for the second.” She leaned back against Ian’s arm. “Comp will decrypt both. Even if something’s in the first report, nothing we can do now.”

“Plenty of other things we can do now.” As Ian rose, he scooped Ti out of her chair. Their mouths met as her arms twined around his neck.

The next morning Ti read aloud the first decrypted message’s summary as Ian finished the breakfast chores.

“Went out to the Kingsford Mine, met the Assistant Chief of Security. Toured the mine, examined security, got their original security vids, went back to his ship. And found a ‘Welcome To Detalas, Join Us For Supper’ invitation from the Golden Zebra. He did. Dessert was delivered by one of the ladies, who then joined him.” Ti leaned back in her chair, looked across the lounge-galley at Ian. “She told him he needed a glass of Glenlivet to really enjoy dessert. Got just cozy enough to make future meetings believable.”

“So you were right and The Network found a link to TATT.”

Ti nodded.

The Network was a seller of any information to anyone with the right price. It was operated by Stacey Brenna, also the owner of the universally renowned chain of Golden restaurant-bars, located next to every spaceport. The Goldens were fronts for The Network.

Stacey was Ti’s most confidential informant.

She agreed to have her agents provide Oseeah agents with information, from wildest rumors to set-in-stone facts, about anything involving TATT. “A glass of Glenlivet,” a very rare Terran Scotch, was the code. Stacey’s only demand, non-negotiable, was that Security know nothing about it.

“What’s next?” Ian asked as he unlocked his chair from his own computer station opposite hers, swung it around and locked it in place next to her.

“Second message is a vid.” As Ian sat, Ti started it.

Torin’s face was somber, frowning.

“I knew something was wrong when I met with President Munsen. We grew up together and he’s never formal in private. This time, he simply lamented the circumstances and stated that he knew I’d get to the bottom of everything. There was someone else in the room with us, I assumed a bodyguard, but always before Phil sent them out. Not this time and something told me not only not to mention it, but not to try to read him. Now I know why. Larissa told me that John Gurdin had brought in new people for security and admin when he took over Kingsford Mine after his father died. She described all of them as tough, hard looking. Rarely came into town, but when they did, it was in a group and they stayed together. No trouble, mostly because people avoided them. She said there’d been grumbling about outsiders, changes that were being made. A lot of people were let go. Then there was a small cave-in, half a dozen miners died. The grumbling stopped. Larissa said that was when the people who worked at the mines stopped coming into town as much, the wives seemed jumpier, even the kids were quieter. The six who died were the most vocal about the changes.

“I asked about an inquiry and Larissa laughed. It’d been chaired by one of the independent mine owners. Findings were a horrible accident. The chairman’s son is now attending a prestigious medical school on Earth, all expenses paid. I asked why someone hadn’t sent a report to us. Larissa said that was when Phil got new bodyguards. I’m going to talk to Phil, but first I want to meet Joe Thomas. He’s Kingsford’s Chief of Mine Security, due back day after tomorrow.

“Larissa said he first arrived a few days before John’s father died. Old school friend, stayed on because John was devastated. Once John recovered, he replaced nearly all the security and admin people with Terrans, put Thomas in charge. Rumor has it he’s telepathic. I’ll be checking out how John’s father died.”

Torin’s voice reflected the anger on his face.

“So far I’ve not found anything in Thomas’ background to indicate any ties to TATT, but it just doesn’t add up. Something is very wrong. And a message I just received from Larissa may be it. She wanted to be sure I hadn’t forgotten our date for supper and a vid tonight. Which means she’s found something. I’ll send the info in the next message.”

The screen went black.

“Which he never wrote.”

Ti nodded. “Nothing from Stacey, which means Larissa found it herself. She’d have info’ed Stace, but since there’s no way of receiving transmissions in t-space and I doubt it was marked ‘urgent’, it probably hasn’t even been forwarded. We could drop out and check, but I don’t want to waste the time.”

“Agreed. Dropping out, just to snatch messages, without knowing if there are any—” Ian shook his head. “Might only take seconds, but those could mean hours or even days added when the t-space computer recalculated travel time and it doesn’t sound like we can spare it.”

He then moved his chair back to his own computer station and ordered the police report on-screen. “Last chance. I’ve done this before, you haven’t.”

“It’s part of the job.” Ti cleared her screen, unlatched her chair and scooted it next to Ian. “There has to be a first time.”

“It helps if you can think of him as Commander Simmons.”

Ti heard the understanding, felt the sympathy, knew the impartiality was what Ian used at Daveriddea. Knew it hadn’t worked then, either. Their hands met, clasped, as their attention went to the report on Tor—Commander Simmons’—death. Which was actually quite bland.

“It sounds so innocuous,” Ti said, following their reading of the initial and follow-up police reports. “Quiet Wednesday night. One of the new security personnel had just gotten engaged and his friends threw a party at the Zee. And who should show up but the girl and her friends with the same idea. No problem. Except there was already a retirement and a birthday party going on. Main parking lot full, overflows opened and, since it was raining, everyone parked as close to the entrance as possible. So, when Torin arrived, the closest he could get was five rows back in a side lot. Why didn’t he use valet parking? He and Larissa had supper in her suite, stayed two hours, then left. Why?” Irritation crept into Ti’s voice. “She’d invited him for supper and a vid. He could’ve stayed hours, the night. He could’ve sent a message from her comp, knowing Stace, it’s probably better protected than ours. So why the hell didn’t he? Run the security vid.”

They watched as the police chief appeared, introduced himself and apologized for the bad copy. “Two of the security lights and both cameras covering the area where Torin parked were out. The only one working was on the opposite side of the lot. Here’s what it recorded.”

There wasn’t much to see. A dark, rainy night, two figures walking under an umbrella, then three people suddenly appeared, accosted the two, two fell and three ran. The three kept their backs to the working camera.

“Trap,” Ti cursed.

“And very well done,” Ian agreed. “I don’t like it. Killing the head of Oseeah; nobody could be that arrogant.”

Ti stood, squared her shoulders, raised her chin just a fraction as she looked down her nose at Ian. “Oh, yes, they could.”

Ian raised an eyebrow. “Not without backup.” His voice was firm. “Fourth Fleet can spare a destroyer. Marines are always complaining they never get used.”

Half an hour later, Ian brought their ship out of t-space long enough for the computer to send a message. And, since they were out anyway, it searched and snatched the only message on their frequency.

“From Stacey,” Ti told Ian. “Double encrypt. Bet it tells us what Larissa found.”

An hour later, the computer beeped and the written message appeared on screen. It wasn’t what they were expecting.

Day after Larissa first met Torin, she worked the Zee’s dining room. Overheard bits of conversion from a group of the new security personnel. “Getting back in the air’ll be worth the wait,” “We’re in on the start,” and what really caught her attention, “Old shells, new pilots, we gonna rock!”

Her father’d been a Fleet mechanic, busted out, offered a job a couple years later, she didn’t know the details, but he told her he wasn’t going to renovate shells for who knew who no matter how good the pay.

Soon as I heard, I ran a search. Shells are missing. So are a lot of other things. And people. At least six of the security personnel at Detalas are ex-Fleet pilots and I mean “ex” in the worst way. Larissa’s father? Killed in an unsolved hit-run a few days after he turned down the offer. It happened three years ago. Question: why’d she “overhear” this now? Starting a deeper search. Watch your backs.

“Obsolete fighter shells.” Ian answered the Shells? from Ti’s mind. “Gutted, sold to salvagers. Along with obsolete engines and parts.” Ian looked at Ti. “You can’t salvage laser-grade diamonds. They may not break, but even the best develop flaws with repeated use. Depending on the flaw, the Fleet has them cut, the flaw removed, then reinstalled in less vital areas. You can only cut them so far, though, before they’re too small for Fleet use. When that happens, they’re cut so small they can’t be used in any weapons, then sold.”

“RL complained about dozens of flawed diamonds. Computer, is Detalas the only provider of laser-grade diamonds to the Fleet?”

The answer printed on-screen in seconds: No, but theirs are the best.

“Finding the flaws means all the diamonds have to be checked, no matter when they were installed. Won’t be all done at once, but there’ll be fewer fighters available and deployment of the Cobras to the Fleets will be even more delayed. I wonder how closely Gurdin and Thomas are tied to TATT?”

That was a rhetorical question if Ian ever heard one.

On arrival at Detalas, the controller guided them to a landing pad next to Torin’s ship. By the time the shut-down procedures were completed, two skimmers had arrived.

Two men waited as Ti and Ian walked down the ramp. They recognized one as the police chief. The other spoke.

“Port Security Director Johnson, at your service. This is Chief of Police Garner. We’re pleased to meet you, although, considering the circumstances… I’m sure you want the latest information on the investigation into Torin’s death and—”

“Ian will take care of that,” Ti coolly interrupted, “after he checks out Torin’s ship. I will be continuing the investigation into the diamonds. I assume that Director Thomas has returned?”

Johnson nodded, but before he could speak, Ti ordered, “I’ll need a skimmer and driver.”

“My driver, my skimmer and myself are at your convenience,” Johnson smoothly stated.

Ti nodded sharply, turned her head, spoke over her shoulder to Ian. “Transfer everything, then follow-up as you see fit. Usual reporting procedures,” she stated for the benefit of the civilians. No one outside their families and a few very close friends knew they were telepaths, so verbal instructions were necessary. She looked back to Johnson, who stood for a moment before realizing what Ti’s silence meant.

“This way,” he belatedly spoke, gesturing towards the skimmers.

Ti strode past him.

As Ti and Johnson walked off, Chief Garner spoke. “I’ll return to my office, have the latest reports forwarded to your ship. And I’ll send a skimmer and driver back for your use.”

Ian bit back a “thank you” and gave a curt nod of acceptance. He walked to Torin’s ship and up the ramp to the closed hatch, but waited until the Chief left before using Ti’s override code.

It took longer than expected to open Torin’s computer and access the files, despite Ti’s override code. Not that Ian minded; it showed that Torin was very security conscious. And that he had reason to be.

Finally, though, Ian opened Torin’s files. It took seconds to pull up the data on the current investigation, seconds more to find and bring up Torin’s notes from that final meeting with Larissa. Ian began scanning so quickly that, when he found it, he was just a nanosecond too late to shield his thoughts.

Ian heard Ti’s gasp as what he read hit her mind.

Their mental link showed Ian the skimmer’s driver reaching under his seat, bringing up a pistol, shooting Johnson and turning the weapon on Ti, who was already lunging at him as he pulled the trigger.

The pain impaled Ian’s mind, doubling him over. He forced his mental shields up, blocked the pain as he ran to the hatch. He saw a police skimmer landing only yards away. He took a deep breath, straightened, ran to it. Yanking open the driver’s side door, he shoved the cop into the passenger seat as he snarled, “Call Dispatch! All available personnel follow me! Now!”

The skimmer shot into the sky, heading toward the faint touch of Ti’s mind that told Ian she was still alive.

Ian heard the cop alerting Dispatch, then concentrated on his own talent. Creating a minute hole in his shields, he sent strength to Ti through their mental bond.

He vaguely heard the cop telling him that every available cop in the area was converging on them, along with two ambulances. Also, a Fleet Destroyer had just entered the atmosphere, was being directed to their location. Ian let a grim smile cross his face as he pushed the skimmer beyond the engine’s redline.

Less than five minutes later, Ian saw the torn treetops and turned the skimmer’s nose down. Only a few already-broken branches were scraped during the descent. He landed, was out and racing toward the crumpled metal half buried in the ground in almost one motion. The strength he hadn’t stopped sending doubled as Ian reached through the shattered windshield and touched Ti.

*****

“Marines’re happy. Actually had a couple firefights.”

Ti started to chuckle, grimaced. It was the day after the crash and the broken ribs were still regenerating.

“No trace of Thomas,” Ian continued, turning from the hospital window to face Ti in the bed. “If he really returned from Earth. The ship landed after dark, Johnson and his driver were the only ones who met the ship. There’s no record of anyone getting off, it was just assumed Thomas did. The ship left a couple hours later, which was not SOP. Usual practice, the crew was released until time for the next shipment. Johnson’s dead, so’s his driver, neck broken, either in the crash or when you—” He felt Ti’s confirmation, sent her a mental “Well done.”

“Problems here started after Etaff,” he continued. “Added all together, we’ve got delayed deployment of the new fighters to the Fleet, flawed laser quality diamonds, disappearing obsolete fighter shells and parts, ex-pilots talking about action and speaking of whom, guess who were on a shuttle that left here the day after Torin died? Somebody’s starting their own private air wing.”

“TATT. Has to be them, but why?” Frustration colored Ti’s voice. “The Treaty doesn’t come up for renewal for nearly ten years. ‘We’re in on the start.’ The start of what? What the hell is TATT up to?” Ti snapped. Then took a deep breath and looked at Ian. “We’ll brief the agents, have Stacey widen her search. Somebody, somewhere, knows what the hell’s going on and we’re going to find him and make him talk.”

Ian walked over, rested a hand on Ti’s shoulder. Strength, not as intense but just as powerful, flowed through the touch. “Should’ve left you in that alley.”

She reached up, covered his hand with her own. “And missed all the fun?”

 

The Out of Time Motel

by D. Gansen

 

I heard thunder roll behind me like a faraway drum solo. “Oh man,” I muttered. It was dark and I was lost somewhere south of the interstate in the middle of North Dakota. Now, I was going to get caught in a storm and I was driving my dad’s ’69 Boss Mustang. The thought of hail deflowering its pristine, black, shiny-as-glass lacquer, made a lump of anguish jiggle in my stomach. It was the second car my dad ever owned, and he was pretty much in love with it; but on my seventeenth birthday, he handed me the keys and title. I almost started to bawl. I didn’t though, because men don’t cry over sentimental stuff.

My headlights made a puddle of light that led me down the road, but all around me was the prairie darkness. Then, like a miracle, as the first drops of rain fell, I saw a light ahead. I put my foot down and pretty soon I could read the sign. Individual yellow light bulbs lined up to announce: Out of Time Motel. It wasn’t a very reassuring name, but I turned in anyway and was relieved that the parking lot was asphalt, not gravel. The paint, you know. I stopped under the green fiberglass awning and smiled to myself as the rain tapped on it, trying in vain to get to my car.

I rolled down the window and looked through the wall of glass into the office and saw some chairs and the registration counter. There was no clerk, but all the lights were on and the neon sign beside the door told me that there was a vacancy.

I grabbed my duffle bag out of the back seat and went in. It was Dad’s duffle bag from when he was in the Guard. I wasn’t sentimental about it. It was just handy.

The little brass bell on the door jingled and startled me, and by the time I turned back to the counter, a young woman was standing behind it, looking at me. She didn’t say anything for a couple of seconds. Women stare at me all the time. Why not? I’m twenty-five, tall, and good looking.

“I found you just in time,” I said, gesturing behind me. It had started to rain hard. By then, I was beginning to get the impression that she wasn’t admiring me—she was studying me.

“It’s only going to get worse, too,” she remarked.

I could only see her from the waist up and it struck me as odd that someone so young would be wearing a crisp, short-sleeved white blouse and have her hair all humped up like Mom did when she was a kid. She made me think of Laura Petrie on that old TV show, Dick Van Dyke.

On the counter, a book lay open. She took the silver pen from its stand and offered it to me. When I got closer, I saw that she was holding a fountain pen. I had only seen those in old movies. The register was one of those books that you write your name and license plate number in.

The girl must’ve seen that I was puzzled, because she explained, “My boss is a nostalgia freak.” She pointed to the lobby and I noticed that the furniture was low and tailored and that gross avocado green like the toaster Mom threw away a long time ago. On the brown Formica-topped coffee table were magazines with names I didn’t recognize. One had a picture of the old president, John F. Kennedy, on it.

The girl took my credit card and, to my amazement, put it through one of those manual machines that makes a carbon copy of the number on a piece of paper.

“Out of Time Motel must mean out of step with time,” I said, giving her one of my charming smiles.

She looked at my card before handing it back to me. “Well, John, everything is relative.” That seemed like an odd thing to say and I was beginning to feel awkward, but she continued. “Cable hasn’t made it out here and we’re out of reach of any cell towers. Consider yourself in the mid twentieth century, it will be less stressful.”

“No problem,” I said, but took a look at my phone and felt like a junkie looking at an empty nickel bag. I nodded at the door on my right. “Is that a diner next door?” Just then a bolt of lightning brightened the room like an atom bomb flash, instantly followed by a staggering explosion. I ducked instinctively. “Jesus!” I yelled. “That was close!” Then hail started to fall out of the sky like white buckshot.

The girl was perfectly calm and glanced around the room. “Good. It’s still the twentieth century.” I assumed she was kidding and smiled. Then she pointed towards an alcove where an antique vending machine stood beside an even more ancient Coke machine that looked like a big metal cooler. “Diner’s closed for the winter. There are plenty of stale cheese crackers.”

I squinted at the vending machine—all fake wood and buzzing fluorescent lights. My stomach growled.

“How about a hot dog?” she asked. “Put your bag in your room and come back.” She handed me a key on a ring with a plastic tag.

*****

The room was the same as the lobby: all ’60’s and ’70’s furniture. Everything looked new. “Reproduction,” I told myself. I didn’t think about it much, though. Decorating is a woman thing.

Back in the lobby, I checked the nameplate on the registration desk. “Stella?” I asked it. “Who names their kid ‘Stella’?”

“Come on back, Johnny,” Stella shouted. Nobody had called me “Johnny” since I was thirteen and announced that I would no longer answer to it. My grandfather’s name had been John, and I wanted to be like him.

I passed the desk and stepped through an open door. Now I seemed to be in Great Aunt Lilly’s living room. There was dark, stuffed furniture and a big wooden cabinet like hers. She had called it a sideboard. A record was spinning on the phonograph and a woman was singing something about the “white cliffs of Dover.” Because of my interest in the Second World War, I knew it was a song from the 1940s. I looked down at the bomber pilot’s jacket I was wearing. It had been Granddad’s way back then.

“Hey Johnny,” Stella called again. I would have to tell her to lay off the “Johnny” bit.

She was in the kitchen, pulling hot dogs out of a pot of boiling water with tongs. The pot was avocado green, the stove was avocado green, the refrigerator was… you guessed it. I had returned to the ’70s. As I put my hand on the back of one of the chrome and plastic chairs, I caught a movement in the corner of my eye and turned. Sitting just inside the back door was the biggest German shepherd that I had ever seen. He was making purposeful eye contact with me, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had said, “Wie geht’s?”

“That’s Mr. Beretta,” Stella said.

I put my coat on the back of the chair and sat, but Mr. Beretta did not take his eyes off me. “Has he killed anybody lately?” I asked. I squirted ketchup out of a bottle that looked like it belonged in the diner.

“It’s been awhile,” she said.

I looked up to make sure she was kidding, but now she was staring at my coat.

“It’s a bomber jacket,” I said. “Granddad was a B-17 pilot in the Second World War. A B-17 is a…”

“Bomber plane,” she finished. “I’ll give you fifteen hundred dollars for it.”

I choked on the bite of hot dog I’d just taken.

“Okay, two thousand. Cash.”

I loved that jacket even more than I loved the Mustang. Not in a sentimental way. It’s just that it was so cool.

“No!” I said louder than was necessary.

Mr. Beretta’s ears perked up.

“Okay. Relax.” Stella sat back and folded her arms.

I could feel her eyeing me. I ate in case it was going to be my last meal. Two hot dogs later, she let me in on what she was thinking.

“Johnny,” she started. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

Ghosts! What next? Wasn’t this place weird enough? “I never thought about it,” I said, “but they seem like sentimental wishful thinking or too much imagination to me.” Neither of those conditions cluttered my mind.

Stella sighed. “Yes. Humans do a lot of wishful thinking. But,” she continued, “there are places in the universes where essences, or one of your imaginative people might say ‘spirits,’ get caught.” She glanced at her watch and got up. “We have time. Let me show you what I mean.”

The hot dogs were flailing around in my stomach. I had to go; I couldn’t outrun Mr. Beretta. The dog gave way so she could open the back door, and he and I followed her out onto the cement patio.

I thought I was losing my mind. The surface, open to the elements, was dry. The sky was clear and glittering with constellations, but I could still hear the thunder and the rain.

Stella raised her arm and pointed to our left: westward. It was darker than the inside of my closet where I used to hide when my poor little sister screamed because no one could understand the sounds she made. She was trapped in her head, inhabiting her own strange world. Now I was trapped in this one.

About two hundred yards away, a glow was silently moving and growing. I considered running, but I wasn’t afraid. It was just instinct, I guess. It took a long time for me to make out its shape—their shape, and when I did, I squeezed my eyes shut then opened them, but it didn’t help.

Six ghostly horses and their ghostly riders were charging towards us. It was like watching the negative print of an old western movie. Hooves churned, spurs flew, the men gestured and their lips moved, but I couldn’t hear them.

As they passed I could see every detail in glowing white. Their hats were stained with sweat, their long mustaches fluttered, their six-shooters glittered and their rifles flapped in their scabbards. Then they carried on with their chase or flight, gradually disappearing into the east.

I closed my gaping mouth, sucked in a lungful of cold air and shouted, “What the hell was that?”

Stella waved at the flicker they had become. “I call it the ‘posse’. In 1866 they rode into that canyon after a gang that had robbed a bank and killed five people. The posse was ambushed and murdered. Now, they’re trapped in the Vortex, and every Friday night they ride into that canyon. And I don’t know how to help them.” When she and Mr. Beretta went in, I stood like an idiot staring after them.

I wasn’t scared. Granddad wasn’t scared when he piloted his shot-up B-17 toward England after bombing the hell out of Germany. Even when he realized he couldn’t make it, he kept it level so the crew could bail out. He was a hero and I wanted to be like him. So I went inside and started yelling. “What the hell was that?” Mr. Beretta glared but I didn’t care. “Who are you? Why did you show me that?”

Stella looked at me with her dark calm eyes. She put two cans of beer on the table and opened them with a pointed can opener. I sat down in a hurry and took a couple of big gulps.

“Johnny,” Stella started. I scowled at her and she tried again. “John, if I didn’t need your help, I wouldn’t have shown you and I wouldn’t have brought you here.”

“Brought me? I’m on my way to see…” I couldn’t finish while she was shaking her head.

“Your cousin in Wyoming would be very surprised to see you.”

Marley and I had exchanged emails. “Are you some kind of hacker?” I asked.

Again she shook her head. “I’m the most powerful Vortex guardian in all the universes. If it pertains to my job, I can do almost anything—almost.”

This was either silly or very serious. “Vortex,” I repeated. Mom and Dad liked to go to Sedona, Arizona, so I knew something about this. “Isn’t that supposed to be in Sedona where the hippies go for the vibes and you can get your palm read cheap?”

“We’ve provided that area with some atmosphere,” Stella said casually. She was saying all of this like we were just passing the time of day in simple gossip. I let her go on because I didn’t know what to say. “I can’t have a bunch of humans hanging around here,” she said. “It’s too dangerous. Even the Lakota Sioux won’t come within two miles of this spot. They don’t know what it is, but they don’t want to mess with it, either. You Europeans would come in droves because it would seem miraculous, and you know how you are when it comes to the possibility of a miracle.”

I wasn’t sure but I didn’t say so.

“I guard the Vortex because it can serve as a passage. It can be a passage between universes, dimensions, planes, times… or any combination of those. Things get through from time to time and I have to catch them and send them back. I imagine you’ve seen some of the TV shows about chupacabra or werewolves or UFOs. They didn’t get through my Vortex, but all the guardians aren’t as watchful as I am.”

I’m not superstitious at all, so this all sounded crazy to me, but I’m as curious as the next guy and it didn’t look like they were going to kill me, so I went along with it. “Vortex,” I said again. “Is that where the posse came from?”

She turned her head away and scratched the brow of Mr. Beretta who had come to sit on the floor beside her. “No. They died so close to the Vortex that a part of them got trapped. The energy of the Vortex holds them here. Even if the person doesn’t die here, if something that’s, let’s say ‘imbued with their spirit’ is brought here, the Vortex will draw out that spirit and hold it, too.” She gestured in the direction of the diner.

I turned to look at it through the window. There were lights on inside. “I thought it was closed,” I said, then felt sick when she replied.

“It is.” She rose and leaned over the sink and opened the window. I could hear music.

*****

Stella turned and looked me in the eye and asked, “Scared, John? Do you want to see why I brought you here and why I wanted your coat?”

I wasn’t scared when I dug my fingers into the fleece lining of Granddad’s coat, just wary. Great Aunt Lilly gave me the coat for my eighteenth birthday. It had been one of the few things left of Granddad’s. Grandma burned everything she could get her hands on after he died. I never knew Grandma, so I asked Great Aunt Lilly about that. She told me that Grandma had been angry. I had to push her pretty hard and use my favorite nephew status to get her to say more, and even then, she averted her eyes and said that her brother had not been quite faithful to Grandma. That didn’t seem like a reason to burn a guy’s stuff. Granddad had been a kid back then, and Grandma hadn’t gone with him to South Dakota where he got his training. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he had a fling.

Great Aunt Lilly had given me a picture, too. It was a picture of Granddad and his crew standing in front of their bomber. She had always told me I looked like him and the picture proved it. There he was: young, smiling, hat cocked to one side, hands in the pockets of his jacket—now my jacket. It could have been me standing there. Great Aunt Lilly had the jacket because Granddad had forgotten it the last time he left—when he left and never came back.

“Show me,” I said. If Granddad wasn’t afraid to fly that sputtering plane on two engines until all the other guys in that picture got out, even though he knew it would be too late for him to escape, I guessed I could face a ghost.

I followed her back to the lobby but the dog stayed behind. To make sure she knew I wasn’t scared, I made a joke. “Is he a guardian, too?”

Stella didn’t laugh. “Yes. He chose to be a dog this time.”

I kept quiet as we entered the lobby and passed through the door to the diner. I prepared myself for what might be in there. I hugged Granddad’s coat. Great Aunt Lilly told me that his last words to her were, “Don’t worry about me.” Of course she worried about him. He had been on his way back to the war, back to flying that big heavy airplane six hours one way, all the time taking fire from the ground and from the sky; and six hours back to England, concentrating, muscling those primitive controls, putting the danger out of his mind while he tried to find his way home and keep his men alive.

I stepped into the diner. Was it built yesterday? The chrome gleamed, the plastic was smooth and the colors were intense in the sunny fluorescent light. The jukebox glowed, and a hundred little bulbs on its front flashed red, then blue, then green. It was playing some peppy, swingy music and I wondered who had put their quarters (no, it said five cents) into the slot and pushed the buttons.

Stella glanced at her dainty little watch again and gestured me to one of the turquoise upholstered booths. “The owner had this diner brought up from Rapid City,” she said. “The Vortex took it over.” She put a finger to her lips.

I heard voices. They were faint at first, but as they got louder, the speakers became visible. A group of six teenagers appeared beside the jukebox. They were talking and laughing and dancing a little. The girls were wearing full, calf-length skirts and white socks and loafer shoes. The boys were wearing white t-shirts and jeans with the hems rolled up a few times. They were wearing white socks and loafers, too. They didn’t seem to notice us.

The middle-aged couple now sitting at the counter didn’t notice us, either, or the guy with a newspaper sitting a few stools away. There was a pale young man behind the counter who put a cup of coffee down in front of the newspaper man, then leaned his elbows on the speckled Formica of the counter. He sighed and wiped something off his cheek.

The bell on the door jingled, and I craned my neck over the booth to see. Another young man had come in, but this one… My heart punched me in the chest. He was wearing khaki flight overalls and a bomber captain’s hat. He looked just like me. Stella grabbed my arm to keep me from getting up. “Wait,” she whispered.

The newcomer smiled happily and approached the counter. “Greg!” he said to the other young man. “I’m back!” There was no response or acknowledgement. The young man in the coveralls, Granddad, stepped back and frowned.

Stella released me. I jumped up and yelled, “Granddad!”

The young man looked at me for a minute. Of course he didn’t know who in the hell I was or why I was calling him “granddad.” He didn’t even know he had a son. Dad was born eight months after he left—two after he died.

I wonder what he thought as he realized that I was his double. My heart banged against my chest again as he crossed the twenty feet that separated us. I couldn’t speak, but he said, “Who the hell are you?” It never occurred to him to be afraid at the sudden appearance of a strangely dressed doppelganger.

I had to swallow hard before I managed to say, “John Dealy.”

His green eyes didn’t flicker, but there was a long pause and I could tell he was thinking, trying to make sense of it. He looked slowly around the diner, letting his eyes linger on the young man behind the counter. Finally he said, “I’m John Dealy.”

The lump came up in my throat again and tears were trying to squeeze their way into my eyes, but I certainly wasn’t going to cry in front of a fearless war hero. “I know. Dad wanted me named after you.”

“Who’s your dad?”

“Gavin Dealy. Grandma’s name was Marge and I had a Great Aunt Lilly.”

The young man blinked. “Marge,” Granddad murmured. His green eyes darkened like mine do when I’m sad, then they brightened and he said, “Little Lilly.” There was another long silence since, apparently, I had been struck dumb. He was more resilient than me. “How long has it been?” he asked.

I glanced at Stella, but she wouldn’t step in.

“Sixty-six years,” I said.

“They must all be gone by now.”

“Your whole crew survived, Granddad.” I was excited to be able to tell him that. “Three of ’em lived long enough to see your name on the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.” I don’t think that meant much to him. Did they even call it World War II back then? “I even talked to one of ’em five years ago. His name was Coffee. He said great things about you.” That old man had reinforced my desire to be like my granddad.

The young man in front of me smiled. He remembered them as he had known them: young, like him. “They were good kids.”

“You’re a hero, Granddad. You saved them.”

At that, he looked at me hard and I thought he was angry, but his green eyes softened before he said, “It wasn’t heroic, I was responsible for them.”

“Was it scary?” I dared whisper.

“Not for long.”

“You were scared?” The words got stuck in my throat for a second.

“Sure,” Granddad said. “Anybody who says they’ve never been scared is either stupid or a liar.” He was matter-of-fact about it. Then I saw that he was looking at my coat—his coat. I was clutching it. I must’ve seemed like a kid hugging his security blanket, like Suzy hung on to that goofy stuffed elephant I won at a carnival. He must’ve wondered where I got his old coat.

“Great Aunt Lilly gave it to me just before she… died.” I continued without thinking. “Grandma burned everything else.”

Granddad rubbed his chin and once again turned his head to see the sad young man at the counter. “Well, I don’t blame her,” he finally said. “She gave me a break though, and promised not to tell anyone else.” He went on before I had a chance to ask what he meant. “I don’t suppose you know what happened to…” he gestured with his chin towards the counter, “Greg.”

I didn’t even know who Greg was, but Stella said softly behind me, “He committed suicide when he found out you were dead.”

I was surprised when tears filled those green eyes that were just like mine. “Poor kid,” he said. Then he looked at Stella. “Why can’t he see me?”

“You’re on different planes. It’s like there’s a wall between you.”

A tear ran down Granddad’s cheek.

“Give him the coat, John,” Stella said. “They’ve both touched it at the same time. It will bring them together.”

That’s why she had wanted my coat. She was a determined Vortex guardian.

Granddad looked at me. He wanted it bad, I could tell. I knew I would give it to him, but it was hard to get my arms to hold it out. When he touched it, I suddenly felt bigger somehow. I knew he felt it, too, because his eyes widened. We both held it. I didn’t want to let go. Maybe he didn’t either, but that other young man was more important to him than a stranger like me.

My hands opened slowly and I gave him one of those trembly, screwed up smiles people do when they’re about to burst into tears. That young man, war hero, and my grandfather saluted me. “Thank you, Johnny,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Thank you.”

I saluted him, like a little kid imitating an adult, like that little boy in the pictures of John Kennedy’s funeral.

Then my granddad put on the jacket.

Suddenly, the young man at the counter straightened, grinned, and yelled, “Johnny!” He jumped up and easily slid over the counter. He ran into Granddad’s arms. I could tell he was crying.

It was more than the hug of two casual friends, and I think I know why Grandma had been so angry, but I felt glad for them. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. I didn’t even notice when the jukebox went silent, or when the teenagers disappeared, or the middle-aged couple, or the newspaper man. Even after the two young men faded away, I kept staring at the empty place.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but eventually I realized that I still had my arm raised in that final gesture of respect. It was pretty sentimental of me.

“You did it, John,” Stella said.

I didn’t even turn around when I said, “You can call me Johnny.” Granddad had been scared, so it was okay for me to be scared. Granddad had cried and been sentimental, so I could be those things, too. I felt my shoulders shake and, for the first time since I was thirteen, I heard myself sob. I had told myself so many times that men don’t cry. When Great Aunt Lilly died, I had stood, stone-faced in front of her coffin. My dog, Jake, had gone to sleep for the last time while, dry-eyed, I had held his paw. And Suzy… poor little Suzy, screaming and screaming because she couldn’t make anyone understand her. Poor Suzy, with her face frozen into a squint so nobody could tell she was smiling—nobody but me. I should have cried for her.

I was sad, but somehow, I felt relieved, too. It was like Granddad’s coat had been something heavy and letting go of it had changed me. After I blew my nose and rubbed my face dry, I returned to Stella and said, “He was a hero.”

*****

That Vortex guardian and I talked for a long time about what had happened and how she could help the other inhabitants of the diner. Later, in the ’70s-inspired hotel room, I slept like a man with a clear conscience and a clean bill of health.

By the time I was ready to leave, it was nine a.m. I had my duffel bag but not my coat when I left the room and walked into a bright, cool day. A lot had changed out there.

The parking lot asphalt was broken and weedy. The sign was leaning and peeling. I turned to look at the building. The Out of Time Motel had turned into a broken down relic: a matriarch who looked her age. I don’t know why I wasn’t surprised. Maybe I was all surprised out.

I walked to my car, which was now sitting under a dangerously leaning awning, and tossed my bag into the back seat. I turned to the plywood wall which had once been glass and saw a little sign stapled where the door had been. Written in faded black marker was one final message from the past: Closed.

 

The Trial of Nommo

by Michael H. Hanson

 

“Awake, arise or be for ever fall’n” – John Milton

The conclave had begun. And where was it held? Why, nowhere of course. As much prison as courthouse, this artificial nexus of bent gravity, hard radiation, and dark energy managed to keep the unprecedented gathering firmly wedged between the seventh and eighth dimensions of reality. Time did not exist here. And the willpower of a majority of the universe’s most powerful entities, ten thousand beings possessing seemingly limitless energies, maintained the impenetrable boundaries of this meeting against any intrusion or escape. Nommo wasn’t going anywhere.

How did it feel to be restrained after tens of millions of years of uncontrolled travel and adventure between and amidst almost fifty billion galaxies? Laughable, Nommo thought. And so he did. Oh he had no mouth or lungs in which to expel air and chuckles, though he could easily have fabricated such with a toenail of effort. No, Nommo, like all his brothers and sisters currently present, was an entity composed of pure cosmic energy, and as such now appeared as a lonely bright green incandescent flame surrounded by a massive globe of intertwining, undulating, multicolored, oceanic fires. His thought emanations clearly conveyed his inappropriate sense of humor to all in attendance, and they were not amused.

“I plead my innocence,” Nommo said.

This mental expulsion caused a complex ripple of fiery eruptions across the thousands of miles of inner surface of his surrounding captors. It was instantly followed by dozens of anonymous mental retorts.

“This is not a trial.”

“Your actions speak otherwise.”

“You dare to talk to us this way.”

“You were my worst pupil.”

“Thousands of galaxies drowning in internecine warfare.”

“Self-decorporealization is an honorable alternative.”

“You always were a trouble maker.”

“You abused your power.”

“You broke the sacred covenant.”

It was this last thought that sobered Nommo up.

“I broke nothing,” Nommo’s mind shouted in defiance, “your blind devotion to a vague and arbitrary handful of ancient, prosaic guidelines is pathetic. Who here even existed when this so-called covenant was made manifest? Who can claim witness to its deific origin?”

“Blasphemy.”

“The unmitigated gall.”

“Is nothing sacred to you?”

“Instant disintegration is our only option.”

Part of Nommo enjoyed the chaos on display all about him. For the first time in his immortal existence he felt truly alive. The Universe was achingly vast. The life of a Galactic Overseer was marked by endless millennia of loneliness and solitary exploration. The conclave was the mother of all family reunions and Nommo had never felt more at home.

“We are a vast organization spread throughout millions of galaxies,” Nommo said, “how can you know for sure that I am responsible for the accusations at hand?”

“We have,” a silver flame spoke from within the multi-hued, incandescent mass that masqueraded as the most beautiful star in existence, “your accomplice.”

Suddenly, a cobalt blue flame detached from the ocean of multi-colored fires. It drifted downwards, stopping a mere two hundred miles from Nommo.

“Safeguarding the essence of sentience was my holy task,” the blue flame spoke, “for millions of years I tendered my duty with honor and pride.”

“And what changed this?” the silver flame asked.

“Nommo seduced me,” the blue flamed accused, “fed me lies, overwhelmed my senses with arcane knowledge and hidden secrets. I could not help myself. Forgive me my transgressions. I was corrupted.”

“Coward!” Nommo’s mind yelled, “you gave me the spark of sentience of your own free will.”

“I protest,” the blue flame retorted, “I was beguiled. Ensnared by his lies and promises. I beg leniency.”

“Enough,” the silver flame spoke, “your judgment awaits. Leave us.”

The blue flame rose and was quickly absorbed into the inner side of the flaring, boiling globe.

“You must have known we would eventually catch you,” a large golden flame broke from the mass and drifted slowly downwards.

“Really?” Nommo asked, “I wasn’t aware anyone was looking for me. Surely you all could have apprehended me had you truly wanted to. How difficult can it be to track down one single being? Perhaps the unanimity of opinion expressed here is a lie. Mayhaps I have many accomplices within the fiery horde.”

“He lies.”

“He’s trying to confuse us.”

“Damn you, Nommo.”

“Destroy him. It is the only way.”

“Of course we all hunted you.”

“Confrontation was difficult and you know it.”

And here Nommo smiled within his mind, for he knew exactly how nearly impossible the hunt had been.

The Universe was vast beyond the comprehension of most sentient beings. Within it lay billions upon billions of galaxies; the ranks of the Overseers is finite, and each, including Nommo, possessed fantastic powers and abilities. And this was compounded by the very nature of the universe’s construction, for evasion was a simple enough task in exiting a particular locale. Every galaxy in existence possessed a super massive black hole at its heart, a singularity that contained exactly one half of the mass of said galactic entity. And this unholy furnace of destructive forces was a doorway, for any Overseer, to every other black hole in all of existence. Travel was instantaneous. Even if the Overseers had existed in the tens of millions they would not have been numerous enough to guard more than a fraction of all of these many nexus of transportation. No, Nommo thought, it was only the application of chance and luck, and random tactics that had allowed several dozen of his brothers and sisters to appear in his vicinity at an inopportune moment. Thus he was bound and brought to this unprecedented meeting.

The golden flame drifted to within sixty miles of Nommo.

“You are a voice of unacceptable dissent,” the gold flame said, “your actions have bred discord in a once harmonious union.”

“And your memories are short,” Nommo retorted, “before my successful campaign the Universe was a wasteland. Before the illumination only the most primitive of life forms ever sprang into existence, the vast majority of them fated to die out. Admit it. We all now live in far more interesting times.”

A furious cacophony of retorts welled.

“Sentience must raise itself up.”

“You had no right.”

“The cosmos drown in mongrel life.”

“Our ranks are finite. How can we possibly oversee this wild multiplying mass of thinking beings?”

“Exactly,” Nommo spat back, “for who are we to declare ourselves gods? Who are we to pass judgment upon fate itself? The arrogance was not in my actions, but in your lack. You condemn me? I condemn you all, cowards every one of you, and slaves to inertia and instinct. I judge you all, and find you wanting.”

“Enough,” the golden flame yelled. The massive globe of fires went silent. “You have brought this upon yourself.”

“Do your worst,” Nommo said with cold disdain.

“You are to be reduced to a fraction of your essence,” the gold flame said, “perhaps a few million years living near the lesser dimensions will bruise your unforgivable pride.”

“So be it,” Nommo spat back.

Then, a multitude of frothing, blinding energies streamed inward from every direction and flooded into him, burning away much of his substance, reducing Nommo to one one-hundredth of his former glory. Once a moon-sized flame, he now appeared no larger than a mere mountain. Nommo was humbled, as no other promethean being in all the cosmos had ever been.

“You will be monitored,” the gold flame said.

A pale red flame broke from the horde and came to hover beside Nommo.

“A companion, eh?” Nommo’s agonized mind managed to mumble, “this should prove interesting.”

“Your first punishment is that you are required to choose a planet as your home,” the gold flame proclaimed, “one you will be forced to live upon for an as yet unknown number of lifetimes.”

“And then?” Nommo asked.

“Fate will tell,” the gold flame said, “now, pick your destination.”

Nommo hesitated for only a fraction of a millionth of a second before speaking, “I choose Urath.”

The gold flame shimmered in confusion for a moment, “a strange destination. Nonetheless, it is your choice. Upon arrival, Urath’s guardian Overseer will further reduce your powers, and lay upon you the laws we have decreed for this planet.”

The gold flame flared into sudden brilliance, “this conclave is at an end.”

The gargantuan globe of fires broke into its ten thousand constituent entities that quickly departed at unimaginable speeds.

“Urath awaits, pariah,” the red flame said.

Nommo lent his red companion a grave regard, “lovely crimson Mawu. This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 

“The Trial of Nommo” was originally published in Whortleberry Press’s trade paperback anthology, Strange Mysteries 7, in 2015.

 

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.