Robert Lowell Russell* is a writer and trophy husband (obviously). He is a SFWA member and a member of the Writeshop and Codex writers’ groups. He is a former librarian, a former history grad student, a former semi-professional poker player, and is now pursuing nursing degree (say “ah!”).
Rob has also just noticed how outdated and lame his website has become and will be modifying it in the near future here: robertlowellrussell.com
His stories have appeared (or will appear) in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Penumbra, Digital Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction (thrice!), Stupefying Stories (fice? what’s the word for five?), and a whole bunch of other places (see complete list on the right side).
*RLR finds it a bit silly to write about himself in the 3rd person.
about the narrator…
My name is Ethan Jones, I live in Melbourne, Australia. I have a passion for audio drama, and this passion led me to create my own. All on my lonesome, I have created ‘Caught Up’, an audio drama about three men who are unwillingly thrust into a world of crime after a shocking encounter with a hardened criminal. You can find this podcast on iTunes by searching my name or ‘Caught Up’, or find more info and subscribe via RSS on the website: http://caughtuppodcast.tk
Gorlack the Destroyer’s All You Can Eat Adventure
by Robert Lowell Russell
Seven hundred battered cases of “Unleash Your Inner Awesome!” mega-nutri-bars dotted the purple grass for kilometers in every direction. Pelle the Silicate rested his rocky body on one of the battered metal crates and sighed.
Noxious smoke from the wrecked “Do-It-Yourself and Save!” cargo lander wrinkled Pelle’s nose. He wondered if the “environmentally friendly materials” the lander was constructed from were in fact sarki beetle shells and dung.
Pelle had bet the Silicate colonists on this distant world would trade their exotic spices and rare materials for a little taste of home. Now, those little tastes were baking in their crates under an alien sun, a thousand kilometers from the nearest settlement.
“I’m ruined,” he muttered.
Gorlack the Destroyer fixed his gaze on the rough-skinned alien sitting on the metal box.
“Bah! Zarg, my friend, it is only another of the stone creatures.”
Zarg shook his head. “These are trying times.”
The troop of warriors and women gathered behind Gorlack murmured its discontent.
“A number three fusion blade will pierce the creature’s hide,” said Zarg, “but leave its soft, inner flesh intact. They taste like kana.”
Gorlack spat on the grass. “Everything tastes like kana. I long for a proper meal.” He turned to Zarg and rested a furred paw on the other’s shoulder. “The number three blade it will
be, but first, honor demands I offer the creature challenge.”
“The coward will refuse.”
Gorlack nodded. “Undoubtedly.” He strode boldly through the grass, approaching the alien. The murmurs turned to silence.
Gorlack addressed the alien telepathically. “I am Gorlack the Destroyer. You are my prey.” He waddled forward, flaring his hips. “Observe the size of my genitals. My many children will feast on your flesh.”
He opened his eyes wide and wiggled his rounded, furry ears. “If you flee, I will find you. If you hide, I will hear you.”
He flexed his fingers. “The Goddess did not give my people pointed claws, yet I will rend your flesh.” Gorlack opened his mouth, showing smooth, rounded teeth. “The Goddess did not give my people sharp teeth, yet I will consume you.”
Gorlack held his arms wide. “Look upon your doom and despair!” Then he filled his lungs, and he screamed aloud the ancient war cry. “Hagmay!” (Continue Reading…)
Marina is the author of award-winning original stories such as Master Belladino’s Mask, Sojourn for Ephah, and Balance. She has written tie-in work for the Star Citizen and Sargasso Legacy universes. When not writing, Marina can be found reading speculative fiction (of all types for all ages), drawing, exploring the outdoors, or gaming it up. She loves exploring new cultures and travels as often as she can.
about the narrator…
I’m a writer. I’m a podcaster. I’m a not-quite-trainee anymore martial artist. I’m a nurse’s kid and a teacher’s kid. I’m a former bouncer. I’m a huge movie nerd. I’m sort of what Abed and Jeff from Community’s kid would be like if he was spliced with the DNA of Helo from Battlestar Galactica. I’m learning.
Imma Gonna Finish You Off
By Marina J. Lostetter
On the examining table lounged a body. It was an unremarkable body–rather wrinkly, with an inordinate amount of hair in all the wrong places and too few clothes for most people’s liking, but otherwise nothing to write your congressman about. The only thing special about the body was that it was dead–a problem that Detective Harry Sordido hoped would resolve itself quite soon.
“Will he just get on with the coming back to life already?” Harry huffed, checking the glowing numbers embedded in his left wrist. With his right hand, he patted his ample, middle-aged girth. “He’s not the only victim I’ve got to question today.”
“I’m not sure what’s the matter with him,” said the medical examiner, lifting the dead man’s wrist between two thin fingers. “He should have let out a nice scream-of-life by now.” He let the limb flop back to the sanitary paper.
“What do you think it was?” asked the detective, “Accidental? Experimental? Purposeful? What do you think he died of?”
“You’ll have to ask him to be sure. He was found out on the sidewalk. No indications of violence or a struggle, but he does look a tad flaccid.”
“Ah, disgruntled lover, then.”
“No, I mean on the whole. Like he’s been wrung out.”
They both stared at the body for a long while.
“You don’t think he’s really–?” began Detective Sordido.
“It is starting to seem a bit permanent.”
“That’s impossible! No one’s really died for damned near a millennium.”
The examiner shrugged. “There’s a first time for every eventuality.”
“What was his name again?”
“Mr. X is what it says on his bio-tat. Here, I’ll show you.” The two men moved to the once-ambulatory end of the body, and the examiner held a black light over the pad of X’s right foot.
Jei – /jā/ – noun – A twenty-something, first-gen Korean-American speculative fiction writer and freshly minted librarian currently installed in the Rust Belt with a hydrobot and a hedgehog.
Preferred pronoun: gender neutral ( ey / em / eir )
Likes: thunderstorms, body mods, martial arts, comic books, bioluminescence, cute stationery, crepuscular skyscapes, the sea, werewolves, the Seoul metro system, coffee (black), whiskey (neat), and cheese (aplenty)
Dislikes: people who talk at the cinema, humidity, werewolves, and vindictive dead things with too much hair and a penchant for flouting the laws of physics
Research interests include: ambient intelligence environments, augmented reality, cyborg anthropology, linguistics, memetics, the occult, and spooky stories
about the narrator…
Amanda Ching is a freelance editor and writer. Her work has appeared in WordRiot, Candlemark & Gleam’s Alice: (re)Visions, and every bathroom stall on I-80 from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis. She tweets @cerebralcutlass and blogs at http://amandaching.wordpress.com.
Sounding the Fall
by Jei D. Marcade
Sometimes, Narae can almost convince emself that the AI’s Voice was a dream. Some kind of minor stroke misremembered, a neurological glitch retroactively given recognizable shape.
But sometimes–less frequently of late, but still, sometimes–Narae wakes to find emself sitting up in the dark, jaw slack, a sustained, atonal note spooling from the back of eir throat.
Narae steps through the open archway of the southwestern gate, bare toes curling in the cool blades of real grass with which the temple grounds are seeded. The lotus-shaped lanterns hanging from the eaves go dim as the sun activates, and from its single-tiered pagoda at the top of the hill behind em, the morning bell tolls.
The alms left anonymously against the outer wall in the night include a couple bolts of inert grey fabric, some bags of rice, and a stack of real tea bricks. Upon hefting the rice, Narae’s eyebrows inch toward the shadow of eir hairline at each bag’s weight: not synthetic either, these. Something that is part bemusement, part nostalgia tugs at the corners of Narae’s mouth, and ey shakes eir head as ey piles the bags and bolts into the bottom of the wheelbarrow before turning to gather the rest.
There, on the topmost tea brick, tucked along the raised edge of an elaborate curlicue that must have gone overlooked when the temple’s faceless benefactor hastily scraped off the embossed logo, is a perfectly rolled joint.
Narae plucks the thing up by one tip and crosses the outer lawn, ready to cast it over the rail that wraps around the temple grounds and down along the winding stone staircase to the lower levels.
Steady as a heartbeat, the temple’s morning drum begins to sound out. When its reverberations subside, they leave an even deeper reservoir of silence behind them.
Narae falters at the edge of the lawn. Ey brings the roll of rice paper to eir nose, gives it a tentative sniff, and releases an explosive sigh; Narae would bet a week’s worth of chores that it’s real–none of that backstreet synth hash with its foul aftertaste. Muttering a guilty prayer, ey palms the joint.
I live, work, and write in Seattle, Washington. Gray sky days, abundant restaurant choices, and distant mountains are my idea of paradise.
In 2013 I abandoned my cat, tortoise, and boyfriend to spend six weeks studying writing at Clarion West. The experience taught me to commit myself and do the work, which is a lot less fun than just thinking about writing. It also introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve ever had. If you’re a writer considering whether you should apply, I’m happy to share my take on things. It’s not for everyone. But if it’s right for you, it’s worth it.
My tastes run to modern fantasy with a lyrical edge, though I’ve been writing science fiction, lately. If you’re looking for funny stories with happy endings, I fear you’ve come to the wrong place. I can’t seem to write anything without a dash of heartbreak.
about the narrator…
Erin Bardua is a Canadian singer and performer. She lives in near-rural Canada, where she assembles a living from singing and teaching others to sing. She always has about a dozen projects on the go; some of the more interesting ones have included acting and singing in a serialized film-noir murder mystery, and a collaborative clown opera. Erin is the artistic director of Essential Opera (www.essentialopera.com) which operates in Atlantic Canada and Ontario (so far), and recently rediscovered her writing habit, which she indulges in whenever the house is quiet enough.
Everyone Will Want One
by Kelly Sandoval
On Nancy’s thirteenth birthday, her father takes her to the restaurant he likes, the one with the wood paneling, the oversized chandeliers, and the menus in French. Around them, people talk in low voices but Nancy and her father eat their soup in silence. After the waiter takes the bowls away, her father sets a wrapped box the size of a toaster on the table.
She doesn’t open it, just smoothes down the ribbon and rearranges her silverware. The unsmiling waiter is watching her; she can feel it. She can feel that he doesn’t want her in his restaurant, opening her birthday present. It isn’t a birthday present sort of place, isn’t even a thirteen-year-old in her best dress kind of place. She tries to be very small in her chair.
“Go ahead,” demands her father. “Open it.”
He’s frowning and his frown is much closer than the waiter’s. Nancy picks at the bow, undoing the knot as best she can with her fresh manicure. Checking to make sure the waiter’s not looking, she picks up her knife and slides it under the tape, easing it loose without tearing the shiny paper.
The box inside has the logo of her father’s company on it. Nancy’s tangles her fingers together, stalling. She wants, very much, for it to be a toaster.
“Hurry up,” says her father.
She wants to fold the paper into a crisp square or turn it into a giant origami swan. She wants to pretend that is the present, a sheet of white wrapping paper. Her father clears his throat and she cringes. The box isn’t taped and she tugs it open. Inside, there’s a layer of packing foam, which she picks through, not letting any spill on the table, until her fingers meet fur. The thing in the box is soft, cold, and the size of her two closed fists. She traces the shape of it, four feet, a tail, ears pointed alertly upward.
When, a minute later, she gets it free of the box and shakes the last of the packing foam from its fur, she sees it has the shape of a kitten. Its fur is black and silver, with patterns that look nothing like a real cat’s, all loops and whirling, dizzy spirals. It looks like a synth-pet. They’re popular at her school and her father’s company does make them. But Nancy has a kitten, a dog, and a tiny jeweled unicorn at home. He wouldn’t give her another.
“Thank you,” she says, setting it beside her bread plate. “What is it?”
Sarah Pinsker is the author of the novelette “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,” Sturgeon Award winner 2014 and Nebula finalist 2013. Her fiction has been published in magazines including Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, the Journal of Unlikely Cartography, Fireside, Stupefying Stories, and PULP Literature, and in anthologies including Long Hidden, Fierce Family, and The Future Embodied.
She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums on various independent labels (the third with her rock band, the Stalking Horses) and a fourth forthcoming. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland and can be found online at sarahpinsker.com and twitter.com/sarahpinsker.
A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide
by Sarah Pinsker
Andy tattooed his left forearm with Lori’s name on a drunken night in his seventeenth year. “Lori & Andy Forever and Ever” was the full text, all in capital letters, done by his best friend Susan with her homemade tattoo rig. Susan was proud as anything of that machine. She’d made it out of nine-volt batteries and some parts pulled from an old DVD player and a ballpoint pen. The tattoo was ugly and hurt like hell, and it turned out Lori didn’t appreciate it at all. She dumped him two weeks later, just before she headed off to university.
Four years later, Andy’s other arm was the one that got mangled in the combine. The entire arm, up to and including his shoulder and right collarbone and everything attached. His parents made the decision while he was still unconscious. He woke in a hospital room in Saskatoon with a robot arm and an implant in his head.
“Brain-Computer Interface,” his mother said, as if that explained everything. She used the same voice she had used when he was five to tell him where the cattle went when they were loaded onto trucks. She stood at the side of his hospital bed, her arms crossed and her fingers tapping her strong biceps as if she were impatient to get back to the farm. The lines in her forehead and the set of her jaw told Andy she was concerned, even if her words hid it.
“They put electrodes and a chip in your motor cortex,” she continued. “You’re bionic.”
“What does that mean?” he asked. He tried to move his right hand to touch his head, but the hand didn’t respond. He used his left and encountered bandages.
His father spoke from a chair by the window, flat-brimmed John Deere cap obscuring his eyes. “It means you’ve got a prototype arm and a whole lot of people interested in how it turns out. Could help a lot of folks.”
Andy looked down at where his arm had been. Bandages obscured the points where flesh met prosthetic; beyond the bandages, the shine of new metal and matte-black wire. The new arm looked like their big irrigation rig, all spines and ridges and hoses. It ended in a pincer, fused fingers and a thumb. He tried to remember the details of his right hand: the freckles on the back, the rope-burn scar around his knuckles, the calluses on the palm. What had they done with it? Was it in a garbage can somewhere, marked as medical waste? It must have been pretty chewed up or they would have tried to reattach it.
He looked at the other arm. An IV was stuck in the “Forever” of his tattoo. He thought something far away was hurting, but he didn’t feel much. Maybe the IV explained that. He tried again to lift his right arm. It still didn’t budge, but this time it did hurt, deep in his chest.
“Can’t prosthetics look like arms these days?” he asked.
His practical mother spoke again. “Those ones aren’t half as useful. You can replace this hand with a more realistic one later if you want, but to get full use of the arm they said to go with the brain interface. No nerves left to send the impulses to a hand otherwise, no matter how fancy.”
He understood. “How do I use it?”
“You don’t, not for a while. But they were able to attach it right away. Used to be they’d wait for the stump to heal before fitting you, but this they said they had to go ahead and put in.”
“You don’t have a stump, anyway.” His father chopped at his own shoulder as an indicator. “You’re lucky you still have a head.”
He wondered what the other options had been, if there had been any. It made sense that his parents would choose this. Theirs had always been the first farm in Saskatchewan for every new technology. His parents believed in automation. They liked working the land with machines, gridding it with spreadsheets and databases, tilling the fields from the comfort of the office.
He was the throwback. He liked the sun on his face. He kept a team of Shires for plowing and used their manure for fertilizer. He had his father’s old diesel combine for harvest time, his biggest concession to speed and efficiency. And now it had taken his arm. He didn’t know if that was an argument for his horses and tractors or his parents’ self-guided machines. The machines would take out your fence if you programmed the coordinates wrong, but unless your math was really off they probably wouldn’t make it into your office. On the other hand – now a pincer – it had been his own stupid fault he had reached into the stuck header.
Andy’s world shrank to the size of the hospital room. He stood by the window and read the weather and fought the urge to call his parents, who were taking care of his small farm next to theirs in his absence. Had they finished harvesting before the frost? Had they moved the chicken run closer to the house? He had to trust them.
The doctor weaned him off the pain medications quickly. “You’re a healthy guy,” she said. “Better to cope than get hooked on opiates.” Andy nodded, figuring he could handle it. He knew the aches of physical labor, of days when you worked until you were barely standing, and then a Shire shifted his weight and broke your foot, and you still had to get up and work again the next day.
Now his body communicated a whole new dialect of pain: aches wrapped in aches, throbbing in parts that didn’t exist anymore. He learned to articulate the difference between stinging and stabbing pains, between soreness and tenderness. When the worst of it had broken over him, an endless prairie storm, the doctor gave the go-ahead for him to start using his arm.
“You’re a fast learner, buddy,” his occupational therapist told him when he had mastered closing the hand around a toothbrush. Brad was a big Assiniboine guy, only a couple of years older than Andy and relentlessly enthusiastic. “Tomorrow you can try dressing yourself.”
“Fast is relative.” Andy put the toothbrush down, then tried to pick it up again. He knocked it off the table.
Brad smiled but didn’t make a move for the fallen toothbrush. “It’s a process, eh? Your muscles have new roles to learn. Besides, once you get through these things, the real fun begins with that rig.”
The real fun would be interesting, if he ever got there. The special features. He would have to learn to interpret the signal from the camera on the wrist, feeding straight to his head. There were flashlights and body telemetry readings to turn off and on. He looked forward to the real tests for those features: seeing into the dark corners of an engine, turning a breach calf. Those were lessons worth sticking around for. Andy bent down and concentrated on closing his hand on the toothbrush handle.
Just before he was due to go home, an infection sank its teeth in under his armpit. The doctor gave him antibiotics and drained the fluid. That night, awash in fever, he dreamed his arm was a highway. The feeling stuck with him when he woke.
Andy had never wanted much. He had wanted Lori to love him, forever and ever, but she didn’t and that was that. As a child, he’d asked for the calf with the blue eyes, Maisie, and he kept her until she was big enough to be sold, and that was that. He’d never considered doing anything except working his own land next to his parents’ and taking over theirs when they retired. There was no point in wanting much else.
Now he wanted to be a road, or his right arm did. It wanted with a fierceness that left him baffled, a wordless yearning that came from inside him and outside him at once. No, more than that. It didn’t just want to be a road. It knew it was one. Specifically, a stretch of asphalt two lanes wide, ninety-seven kilometers long, in eastern Colorado. A stretch that could see all the way to the mountains, but was content not to reach them. Cattleguards on either side, barbed wire, grassland.
Andy had never been to Colorado. He’d never been out of Saskatchewan, not even to Calgary or Winnipeg. He’d never seen a mountain. The fact that he was able to describe the contours of the mountains in the distance, and the tag numbers in the ears of the bald-faced cows, told him he wasn’t imagining things. He was himself and he was also a road.
“Ready to get back to work, buddy? How’s it feeling?” Brad asked him.
Andy shrugged. He knew he should tell Brad about the road, but he didn’t want to stay in the hospital any longer. Bad enough that his parents had been forced to finish his harvest, grumbling the whole time about his archaic machinery. There was no way he would risk a delay.
“Infection’s gone, but it’s talking a lot. Still takes some getting used to,” he said, which was true. It fed him the temperature, the levels of different pollutants in the air. It warned him when he was pushing himself too hard on the treadmill. And then there was the road thing.
Brad tapped his own forehead. “You remember how to dial back the input if it gets too much?”
“Yeah. I’m good.”
Brad smiled and reached for a cooler he had brought with him. “Great, man. In that case, today you’re going to work on eggs.”
“You’re a farmer, right? You have to pick up eggs without cracking them. And then you have to make lunch. Believe me, this is expert level. Harder than any of that fancy stuff. You master eggs with that hand, you graduate.”
Brad and the doctors finally gave him permission to leave a week later.
“You want to drive?” asked his father, holding out the keys to Andy’s truck.
Andy shook his head and walked around to the passenger side. “I’m not sure I could shove into second gear. Might need to trade this in for an automatic.”
His father gave him a once-over. “Maybe so. Or just practice a bit around the farm?”
“I’m not scared. Just careful.”
“Fair enough, fair enough.” His father started the truck.
He wasn’t scared, but it was more than being careful. At first, the joy of being in his own house eclipsed the weird feeling. The road feeling. He kept up the exercises he had learned in physical therapy. They had retaught him how to shave and cook and bathe, and he retaught himself how to groom and tack the horses. He met up with his buddies from his old hockey team at the bar in town, to try to prove that everything was normal.
Gradually, the aches grew wider. How could you be a road, in a particular place, and yet not be in that place? Nothing felt right. He had always loved to eat, but now food was tasteless. He forced himself to cook, to chew, to swallow. He set goals for the number of bites he had to take before stopping.
He had lost muscle in the hospital, but now he grew thinner. His new body was wiry instead of solid. Never much of a mirror person, he started making himself look. Motivation, maybe. A way to try to communicate with his own brain. He counted his ribs. The synthetic sleeving that smoothed the transition from pectorals to artificial arm gapped a little because of his lost mass. If anything was worth notifying the doctors about, it was that. Gaps led to chafing, they had said, then down the slippery slope to irritation and abrasion and infection. You don’t work a horse with a harness sore.
In the mirror, he saw his gaunt face, his narrowed shoulder, the sleeve. His left arm, with its jagged love letter. On the right side, he saw road. A trick of the mind. A glitch in the software. Shoulder, road. He knew it was all there: the pincer hand, the metal bones, the wire sinew. He opened and closed the hand. It was still there, but it was gone at the same time.
He scooped grain for the horses with his road hand, ran his left over their shaggy winter coats. He oiled machinery with his road hand. Tossed hay bales and bags of grain with both arms working together. Worked on his truck in the garage. Other trucks made their slow way down a snowy highway in Colorado that was attached to him by wire, by electrode, by artificial pathways that had somehow found their way from his brain to his heart. He lay down on his frozen driveway, arms at his sides, and felt the trucks rumble through.
The thaw came late to both of Andy’s places, the farm and the highway. He had hoped the bustle of spring might bring relief, but instead he felt even more divided.
He tried to explain the feeling to Susan over a beer on her tiny screen porch. She had moved back to town while he was in the hospital, rented a tiny apartment on top of the tattoo parlor. A big-bellied stove took up most of the porch, letting her wear tank tops even this early in the season. Her arms were timelines, a progression of someone else’s skill; her own progression must be on other arms, back in Vancouver. She had gone right after high school, to apprentice herself to some tattoo bigshot. Andy couldn’t figure out why she had returned, but here she was, back again.
The sleeves of his jacket hid his own arms. Not that he was hiding anything. He held the beer in his left hand now only because his right hand dreamed of asphalt and tumbleweeds. He didn’t want to bother it.
“Maybe it’s recycled,” Susan said. “Maybe it used to belong to some Colorado rancher.”
Andy shook his head. “It isn’t in the past, and it isn’t a person on the road.”
“The software, then? Maybe that’s the recycled part, and the chip was meant for one of those new smart roads near Toronto, the ones that drive your car for you.”
“Maybe.” He drained the beer, then dropped the can to the porch and crushed it with the heel of his workboot. He traced his scars with his fingertips: first the scalp, then across and down his chest, where metal joined to flesh.
“Are you going to tell anybody else?” Susan asked.
He listened to the crickets, the undertones of frog. He knew Susan was hearing those, too. He didn’t think she heard the road thrumming in his arm. “Nah. Not for now.”
Andy’s arm was more in Colorado every day. He struggled to communicate with it. It worked fine; it was just elsewhere. Being a road wasn’t so bad, once he got used to it. People say a road goes to and from places, but it doesn’t. A road is where it is every moment of the day.
He thought about driving south, riding around until he could prove whether or not the place actually existed, but he couldn’t justify leaving after all that time in the hospital. Fields needed to be tilled and turned and seeded. Animals needed to be fed and watered. He had no time for road trips, no matter how important the trip or the road.
Susan dragged him to a bonfire out at the Oakley farm. He didn’t want to go, hadn’t been to a party since he had bought his own land, but she was persuasive. “I need to reconnect with my client base and I don’t feel like getting hit on the whole time,” she said. He hung his robot arm out the window to catch the wind as she drove. Wind twenty-one kilometers per hour, it told him. Twelve degrees Celsius. In the other place, five centimeters of rain had fallen in the last two hours, and three vehicles had driven through.
The bonfire was already going in a clearing by the barn, a crowd around it, shivering. Doug Oakley was a year older than Andy, Hugh still in high school. They both lived with their parents, which meant this was a parents-out-of-town party. Most of the parties Andy had ever been to were like this, except he had been on the younger side of the group then instead of the older side. There’s a point at which you’re the cool older guy, and then after that you’re the weird older guy who shouldn’t be hanging with high school kids anymore. He was pretty sure he had crossed that line.
Susan had bought a case of Molson to make friends and influence people. She hoisted it out of the backseat now and emptied the beers into a cooler in the grass. She took one for herself and tossed one to him, but it bounced off his new hand. He glanced around to see if anybody had noticed. He shoved that can deep into the ice and freed another one from the cooler. He held it in the pincer and popped the top with his left, then drained half of it in one chug. The beer was cold and the air was cold and he wished he had brought a heavier jacket. At least he could hold the drink in his metal hand. His own insulator.
The high school girls all congregated by the porch. Most of them had plastic cups instead of cans, for mixing Clamato with their beer. Susan looked at them and snorted. “If I live to be two hundred, I will never understand that combination.”
They walked toward the fire. It blazed high, but its heat didn’t reach far beyond the first circle of people knotted around it. Andy shifted from foot to foot, trying to get warm, breathing in woodsmoke. He looked at the faces, recognizing most of them. The Oakley boys, of course, and their girlfriends. They always had girlfriends. Doug had been engaged at one point and now he wasn’t. Andy tried to remember details. His mother would know.
He realized that the girl on Doug’s arm now was Lori. Nothing wrong with that – Doug was a nice guy – but Lori had always talked about university. Andy had soothed his broken heart by saying she deserved more than a farmer’s life. It hurt him a little to see her standing in the glow of the flame, her hands in her armpits. He didn’t mind that he was still here, but he didn’t think she ought to be. Or maybe she was just leaning against Doug for warmth? It wasn’t his business anymore, he supposed.
Lori slipped from under Doug’s arm and into the crowd. She appeared next to Susan a moment later.
“Hey,” she said, raising a hand in greeting, then slipping it back under her armpit, either out of awkwardness or cold. She looked embarrassed.
“Hey,” he replied, nodding his beer toward her with the robot hand. He tried to make it a casual movement. Only a little beer sloshed out of the can.
“I heard about your arm, Andy. I felt terrible. Sorry I didn’t call, but the semester got busy…” she trailed off.
It was a lousy excuse, but his smile was genuine. “It’s cool. I understand. You’re still in university?”
“Yeah. Winnipeg. I’ve got one more semester. ”
“What are you majoring in?” Susan asked.
“Physics, but I’ll be going to grad school for meteorology. Climate science.”
“Awesome. You know what would make a cool tattoo for a climate scientist?”
Andy excused himself to get another beer. When he came back, Susan was drawing a barometer on the back of Lori’s hand. She and Lori had never been close, but they had gotten on okay. Susan had liked that Lori had ambition, and Lori had liked dating a guy whose best friend was a girl, which she said was pretty unusual. If they had moved to the same city, CTV could have made some cheesy buddy comedy about them, the small town valedictorian and the small town lesbian punk in the big city. He would make a one-time appearance as the guy who had stayed behind.
After his fifth beer he couldn’t feel anything but the road in his sleeve. The air in Colorado smelled like ozone, like maybe a storm was about to hit. That night, after Susan had drawn marker tattoos onto several of their former classmates and invited them to stop at her shop, after promises of email were exchanged with Lori, after the hazy drive home, he dreamed the highway had taken him over entirely. In the nightmare, the road crept up past his arm, past his shoulder. It paved his heart, flattened his limbs, tarred his mouth and eyes, so that he woke gasping before dawn.
He set up an appointment with a therapist. Dr. Bird’s broad face was young, but her hair was completely silver-white. She nodded sympathetically as she listened.
“I’m not really here to give my opinion, but I think maybe you were rushed into this BCI thing. You didn’t have a part in the decision. You didn’t have any time to get used to the idea of having no arm.”
“Did I need to get used to that?”
“Some people do. Some people don’t have a choice, because their bodies need to heal before regular prosthetics can be fitted.”
What she said made sense, but it didn’t explain anything. It would have explained phantom pains, or dreams that his arm was choking him. He had read about those things. But a road? None of her theories jibed. He drove home on flat prairie highway, then flat prairie two-lane, between fallow fields and grazing land. The road to his parents’ farm, and his own parcel of land in back of theirs, was dirt. His new truck had lousy shock absorbers, and every rut jolted him on the bench.
He had lived here his whole life, but his arm was convinced it belonged someplace else. On the way home it spoke to him without words. It pulled him. Turn around, it said. South, south, west. I am here and I am not here, he thought, or maybe it thought. I love my home, he tried to tell it. Even as he said it, he longed for the completion of being where he was, both Saskatchewan and Colorado. This was not a safe way to be. Nobody could live in two places at once. It was a dilemma. He couldn’t leave his farm, not unless he sold it, and the only part of him that agreed with that plan was not really part of him at all.
That night he dreamed he was driving the combine through his canola field when it jammed. He climbed down to fix it, and this time it took his prosthetic. It chewed the metal and the wire and he found himself hoping it would just rip the whole thing from his body, clear up to his brain, so he could start afresh. But then it did keep going. It didn’t stop with the arm. It tore and ripped, and he felt a tug in his head that turned into throbbing, then a sharp and sharp and sharper pain.
The pain didn’t go away when he woke. He thought it was a hangover, but no hangover had ever felt like that. He made it to the bathroom to throw up, then crawled back to his cellphone by the bed to call his mother. The last thing he thought of before he passed out was that Brad had never taught him how to crawl on the prosthetic. It worked pretty well.
He woke in the hospital again. He checked his hands first. Left still there, right still robot. With the left, he felt along the familiar edges of the prosthetic and the sleeve. Everything was still there. His hand went up to his head, where it encountered bandages. He tried to lift the prosthetic, but it didn’t move.
A nurse entered the room. “You’re awake!” she said with a West Indian lilt. “Your parents went home but they’ll be back after feeding time, they said.”
“What happened?” he asked.
“Pretty bad infection around the chip in your head, so they took it out. The good news is that the electrodes all scanned fine. They’ll give you a new chip when the swelling goes down, and you’ll be using that fine bit of machinery again in no time.”
She opened the window shade. From the bed, all Andy saw was sky, blue and serene. The best sky to work under. He looked down at the metal arm again, and realized that for the first time in months, he saw the arm, and not Colorado. He could still bring the road – his road – to mind, but he was no longer there. He felt a pang of loss. That was that, then.
When the swelling went down, a new chip was installed in his head. He waited for this one to assert itself, to tell him his arm was a speedboat or a satellite or an elephant’s trunk, but he was alone in his head again. His hand followed his directions, hand-like. Open, close. No cows, no dust, no road.
He asked Susan to get him from the hospital. Partly so his parents wouldn’t have to disrupt their schedules again, and partly because he had something to ask her.
In her car, driving home, he rolled up his left sleeve. “Remember this?” he asked.
She glanced at it and flushed. “How could I forget? I’m sorry, Andy. Nobody should go through life with a tattoo that awful.”
“It’s okay. I was just wondering, well, if you’d maybe fix it. Change it.”
“God, I’d love to! You’re the worst advertisement my business could have. Do you have anything in mind?”
He did. He looked at the jagged letters. The “I” of “LORI” could easily be turned into an A, the whole name disappeared into COLORADO. It was up to him to remember. Somewhere, in some medical waste bin back in Saskatoon, there was a computer chip that knew it was a road. A chip that was an arm that was Andy who was a stretch of asphalt two lanes wide, ninety-seven kilometers long, in eastern Colorado. A stretch that could see all the way to the mountains, but was content not to reach them. Forever and ever.
Mark Philps is a writer and video production professional who lives and works in Vancouver, BC. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop. His writing has appeared in such publications as Vancouver Magazine, AE-The Canadian Review of Science Fiction, and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.
about the narrator…
Christina Lebonville is known by the online moniker, Evil Cheshire Cat, a tribute to her sense of sarcastically dark humor and toothy resemblance to the re-imagining of the classic Wonderland character in American McGee’s video game, Alice. She has done voice work and writing for skits and songs played on the now retired comedy podcast, The Awful Show, and is the co-creator and former co-host of the podcast Obviously Oblivious, a nearly four-year running comedy podcast with a science twist. Christina has since retired from podcasting to pursue a doctorate in Behavioral Neuroscience.
Falling Through Creation
by Mark Robert Philps
_HD 168443 b — Extra-Solar Terrestrial Planet, Silicate Core, Active Plate Tectonics_
We drift in warm lighted liquid and dream of a home that we have never known. Below us the dead world hangs in space, its mantle loose and wrinkled like dusty grey skin. We fire probes, watch as they arc towards the planet in long loops of light.
We wonder if this planet is our planet. Will we find some trace of our people here?
The probes have laser cutters and diamond drills and they burrow deep into the planet core. We collect samples from the surface and test them. This had once been a lush world, a garden in a droplet of water, trembling in the void. Now it is dead, the atmosphere a noxious soup, and we can feel only its past in the rocks that remain.
This world is not our home.
We play cards while the probes do their work. You always win. Remember how Father would drift above us–a short man, even for a human, pudgy, bald and smiling, some kind of Buddha in a wetsuit–teaching us how to play? How he would laugh as we pincered the oversized polymer cards between jet-black mandibles. Now the cards are slick with the residue of our feeling for him.
We play for a long time. Days, weeks, months–it is easy to forget that time moves differently for us, faster than it does for Father and the other humans.
_They are liars. They use us._You share this once, many times.
_They let us leave,_ I reply _They could have killed us._
I don’t remind you that it was because of your anger, your frustration, your rejection of ignorance, that we are out on the edge of the void, alone and separated from Father and the Star-City where he raised us. I don’t care about these things. Besides, you are the mercurial one. The stronger one.
David Brin is a scientist, best-selling author and tech-futurist. His novels include Earth, The Postman (filmed in 1997) and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. A leading commentator and speaker on modern trends, his nonfiction book The Transparent Society won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. Brin’s newest novel EXISTENCE explores the ultimate question: billions of planets are ripe for life. So where is Everybody? David’s main thread: how will we shape the days and years ahead — and how will tomorrow shape us? – See more at: http://www.davidbrin.com/about.html
about the narrator…
Joe Scalora is the senior marketing manager of Del Rey Books, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Random House. When he’s not working or attending conventions, he lends his voice to audiobooks (The Shakespeare’s Star Wars series), podcasts (Pseudopod, The Drabblecast, PodCastle, HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast), and
selling cars. He lives with his family in New Jersey.
Tim Pratt lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Heather Shaw and their son River. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Subterranean, and Tor.com, among many other places (for complete details, see his bibliography).
His debut collection Little Gods was published in November of 2003. His second collection, Hart & Boot & Other Stories, appeared in January 2007, and was a World Fantasy Award finalist. Third collection Antiquities and Tangibles and Other Stories appeared in 2013.
First novel The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl was published in late 2005. It was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award, and won a Romantic Times Critic’s Choice Award for best Modern Fantasy, and an Emperor Norton Award (which has the coolest trophy ever: a bust of Joshua Norton).
about the narrator…
Rachael K. Jones is a science fiction and fantasy author, and the co-editor of Podcastle. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons,PodCastle, the Drabblecast, Intergalactic Medicine Show,Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and Penumbra. She has a degree in English and is currently pursuing a second degree in Speech-Language Pathology. She lives in Athens, GA with her husband and perpetual alpha reader, Jason.
You can follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
by Tim Pratt
If you find yourself squatting over a pit toilet while wearing stiletto heels, you’ve made a few bad choices at some point during the evening. I could have taken off my shoes, but then I’d be barefoot, in the woods, in the half-light of a lantern dangling from a tree branch, standing in whatever you can expect to find on the ground around an artisanal hand-excavated poop hole.
Apparently there was a fashion for high-and-low cultural juxtapositions in this particular dimensional node, hence a full fancy-dress party being held in and around a homemade earth-and-sod house lit only by torches. The hors d’oeuvres were processed cheese foam sprayed on mass-produced crackers, served on silver platters passed around by leggy supermodels dressed in hair shirts and stinking rags, plus prune-wine brewed in a ramshackle still and passed around in crystal goblets. Let me tell you something: prune wine goes right through you, so I didn’t even have to pretend I needed to use the facilities when the time came to get in position.
The pit toilet was well back in the woods, some distance behind the sod house, but it nevertheless came equipped with a scrupulously polite bathroom attendant–he was standing on the lowest branch of a nearby tree–dressed in a green velvet tuxedo and prepared to offer towels, breath mints, and cocaine on demand. Interdimensional travel is often way more boring than you’d expect, but this was not one of the boring times.
Earlier, when I was mingling among the partygoers–the worst human beings this node had to offer–a guy wearing a moth mask had lunged over to me drunkenly, tried to touch my cheek and slurred, “Your skin . . . so beautiful . . . like porcelain . . .”
I’d knocked his hand aside and said, “My skin is like the stuff toilets are made out of?” Proving that I’d had a way overly optimistic idea about the quality of the local toilets.
Hello, my name is Erica and I hate writing introductions. But hey, when in Rome. I have published over a dozen short stories in such venues as Shimmer, Clarkesworld Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and PodCastle. If you want to read some of my fiction, check out the “Stuff I’ve Written” tab. I am an active member of SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) and am a member of the Codex Writers Group. I am currently at work on a novel for which I will be seeking representation. I work as a freelance editor, and teach classes on SF/F writing at Portland Community College.
I used to live in Pittsburgh, then in Baltimore, and now, Portland (Oregon)! I have three cats and a spouse named Rob, who writes the review blog Panel Patter. When I’m not writing/editing/teaching, I enjoy riding my bicycle, knitting, playing outdated computer games from the early aughts, and adding to my collection of tattoos.Twitter:@ericasatifka E-mail: satifka at gmail dot com
about the narrator…
I am an American voice talent living in Norway. When not admiring mountains, I can be found recording for a variety of projects at home.
The Silent Ones
by Erica L. Satifka
The year travel opens up between alternate Earths is the first year you fall in love, with a strapping farm boy from one of the rural worlds named Paul. He takes you to a barn dance thrown by his people, where you learn to smoke a corncob pipe. His sister, a tiny girl with saucer eyes and dirty hair, steals your purse. You’re too hammered to mind.
You get drunk on apple wine and fuck Paul behind a haystack while a band of his cousins screeches on their fiddles and moans in that unintelligible alternate-world dialect of theirs. At the pale green Formica kitchen table, Paul gives you a stick-and-poke tattoo of his initials inside a heart.
But when your six days are up, it’s back through the travel gate with you, and no more Paul. You mope for weeks, watching but not performing the calisthenics exercises on television, alternating handfuls of candy and amphetamines. Finally, your two best girl friends drag you from your home – “Don’t be such a drag!” – and bring you to the club.
And that’s when you see your first silent one. With the robes and everything. Shit. He’s sipping a martini, looking totally out of place, bopping his head to a spastic electroclash beat. Club soda rises up your nose, coming close to spilling out.
“Hey, get a load of that,” Sydney says, poking you in the ribs.
You laugh. It’s pretty hilarious.
“Rocks pretty hard for someone who dresses like a Druid.”
“Shut up,” you say. “He’ll hear you.” But when you look over again, he’s already left the bar area, his martini abandoned.
“Beam me up, Scotty,” Sydney jeers through gulps of rum and Coke.
You’re disappointed. You wanted to watch him more; it’s a new thing to you. But already you can tell that the band’s as weak as the club soda. No wonder he left. Bum scene.
“Hey, I’m out of here. Tell Randa.” You escape Sydney’s talons and light up in the parking lot. Thirty yards away a glowing red orb that pulses like your cigarette’s tip hangs at crop duster level. You turn away, vaguely ashamed. It’s like when you were seven and accidentally spilled milk into the aquarium, becoming an instant murderer. Your parents didn’t really care, but you did.
Not everything happens all the time, everywhere.
That’s the first line on every bit of literature dealing with the alternate worlds. Want to visit a world where the triple World Wars never happened? You can. Want to see a place where computers run on steam power and even the horses wear corsets? Go for it.
Or you can just muck about in a world full of beautiful hillbillies or debauched Atlanteans. That’s more your personal speed, anyway.
Most of the planes open for travel aren’t that different from your world. The atmosphere has to be breathable, at least, and it’s helpful if the inhabitants are roughly human, and mostly your size. Nothing will destroy a plane’s Yelp rating quite like a tourist crushed by forty-foot-tall giants.
Nobody stays in an alternate world for long. The languages aren’t remotely learnable, and the social structures are often even denser. But it sure beats a week at Grand Cayman!
You keep the glossy travel brochures in your nightstand. Sometimes you fan them out, a little universe. And only fifteen days of vacation a year, you think wistfully.
The following autumn the government finally decides to do something about the widespread cultural cross-contamination propounded mostly by visitors from the more religiously-inclined planes. Cops catch saffron-robed adherents of a syncretic faith wheatpasting suras onto the sides of subway cars; a Ming vase with a detailed depiction of the Crucifixion shows up in the Smithsonian. Big deal, you think. Histories are made to be broken.
You are given the opportunity for a sabbatical, but you can only afford to go to one of those really crappy Central American commune worlds that don’t even have bathrooms, so you postpone it. You think of Paul every morning when you layer foundation over your tattoo. His sister took out a credit card in your name that first month. It was a bitch to cancel; you’re glad he’s gone.
Sydney and Randa take you to the beach instead, and you lose two weeks’ salary in a slot machine. A little peeved, you lounge on the pier in your sheerest camisole, watching the red lighted orbs dart and scatter along the darkened shore.
They’ve been showing up more frequently now, eliciting a minor amount of concern by the tinfoil hat crowd. On the beach below, teenagers lob beer cans at the orbs, which scuttle away, only to be herded back to a central location. You watch as a baker’s dozen of red lights are forced into congregation, then look back at the teenagers on the sanded ground.
“Blast-off!” yells a jock in a white cap. A firecracker shoots from a puny metal stand, and you remember, yeah, it’s Independence Day. The orbs flicker wildly and scatter like birds at a shot. One falls, and another teenager rushes to intercept.
“Ow, fuck! It’s hot! My hand!”
“Serves you right, idiot,” you say, loud enough for everyone on the beach below to hear you. It’s not loud enough to reach the teenagers, who have already dispersed to pick on a tribe of old people foolishly walking the beach after dusk.
A deaf man hands you a card with three globes and a squiggly line printed on it.
“Sorry, I don’t have any money.” As if your camisole had pockets or something.
But as you look at him, really see, you realize it’s a silent one convincingly dressed as a beachcomber, in a rumpled tee shirt, red visor pulled low over his eyes. His eyes are a light purple that just doesn’t exist in your world’s genetics.
“Well, what do you know.” Except for the eyes he’s not a bad-looking guy, a bit flabby around the middle, fitting in better than the one in the club a year ago. You hold up the card. “So what does this mean, hmm?”
He smiles with all his teeth, points up.
“You’re from space, is that it? You come from those red things?” He shakes his head no. “Okay, I give up. What are you doing here?”
Another grin, and a sound from his throat that sounds like a grinding gear. He flaps his hands frantically and spins in a close circle.
“You want me to buy you a drink? Hey, I’ve got some friends with me, how about we all go out for some drinks, big guy?” You’re taunting him, and it makes you feel sick, like you’re no better than those teenagers on the beach. But the guy’s almost asking for it. You cock a finger. “This way.”
He follows like an eager puppy, his pointless visor attracting attention. There’s no real code of etiquette for the silent ones, but you have the feeling that what you’re doing is so totally wrong. They’ll serve him, of course. But this kind of thing just isn’t done. You halt, and he collides with you.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was doing. Stay here.” His eyes glisten, quizzical. “Don’t follow me in.”
He understands. He starts to pace away, but then breaks into a full run, diving off the pier onto the beach, the weirdo. Only a few people have gathered at the edge. You look down and there is nothing there.
You are cold in your camisole.
That autumn, a red lighted orb runs for Congress on a write-in campaign. It doesn’t win, but it’s a step forward. So say the major television commentators, anyway.
Randa takes a long weekend in an orgy world and never comes back. Rumors spread that travel between planes is being severely restricted. You wire Paul, no response. It’s hard not to think of the alternates as being fake worlds, their inhabitants somehow lesser. You wonder if maybe that’s the reason you slept with Paul.
At the grocery store, you wait in line behind an orb with two small satellites circling it. Children? You think you should know more about these things. After all, you’ll be working for them next week; they bought the firm. But what do you do? Tap it on the shoulder and say hello?
You feel, for a moment, hunted. Like something small, furry, and endangered.
In the parking lot you spy a hooded woman kneeling next to your car. She is siphoning the gas with a black hose.
“Get out of here!”
But she just watches you, blank-faced, the siphon hanging out of the side of her mouth like a piece of black licorice. With a gulp she swallows a mouthful of Texas tea, then reaches into her pocket, hands you a card.
One word, scrawled in ballpoint pen by a childish hand: GO.
“This is my car, psycho.” You take her by the shoulder and pull her to her feet, rough. Her thousand-yard stare is directed at the grocery store. Looking behind you, you see the family of red lights, the small planetoids of children spinning around their mother. You look back to your car. The silent woman opens her mouth wide, as if screaming. Her face glows with rage. You realize that she is screaming.
The silent woman takes the opportunity to wrest herself from your grip. She uncaps the bottle of gas and launches it at the largest of the red lights, the mother. Within five seconds, she’s removed a match from her pocket and struck it. You slap her wrist.
Her face droops in disappointment. Shaking her head, she walks behind your car, of course disappearing as soon as you think to follow her. The orb family drifts away, gasoline dripping from them with a pat-pat-pat.
A family of red lights moves in across the street. It keeps you up with its constant glowing, like a burning brand.
Be more tolerant, you tell yourself. It’s how they communicate. Or, so it would seem. What other reason?
You keep the two index cards gathered from the silent ones, the card labeled GO and the card filled with chickenscratch, in your wallet. You don’t know why. Maybe they are the last silent ones you will ever see. You haven’t seen a single one since that hooded woman attempted to burn the family a month ago.
I should have let her do it. The thought comes unbidden, unwanted, and you hate yourself for it. An alien species comes to Earth for the first time ever, and you want to kill it. Some shining example of humanity you are.
Still, as the light on your cigarette’s tip reflects in the curve of your wineglass shaped like a woman’s torso, you think about a dead culture inhabiting some shitty South Pacific island, stringing broken beads around their conquerors’ necks, not realizing that it was too late to do anything until it was, in fact, too late.
Slowly, your neighborhood becomes a red light district.
As the red lights move in, the city is remade. Doors are widened, then dropped altogether, in favor of three-sided buildings open to the elements. It’s November and you freeze in two layers of clothing and three scarves. When you ask the super why she’s done this terrible thing, she just shrugs.
But thank the heavens above, television still exists. You flip through the three hundred entertainment options until you find some news, any news, you don’t care about the slant.
It’s a Presidential press conference. In the three-walled White House, the President stands bundled in four coats behind a thicket of fungus-like microphones. Behind him, the White House dog roasts on a spit.
Well, that’s weird, you think, until you see how gaunt the President is. No surprise there. You haven’t had a decent meal yourself in a week.
He opens his mouth for a hearty my-fellow-Americans, but nothing comes out. He grins sheepishly and shrugs. You throw a stiletto heel at the television, expecting it to crack, but it doesn’t even make it halfway there.
You attempt a test. Leaving your house you turn to the sky and scream. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you! Get off our planet!” Nothing comes out at all.
Well, that settles it. You go back inside. The president warms his hands over a burning pile of papers. Enough of this. You pack. You prepare. You wait.
You’ve Amtraked it to a travel gate they haven’t yet shut down, somewhere in a Dakota, similar to Paul’s version of Earth. You didn’t know places like this still existed, cut away like this. All the houses here still have four walls.
You touch your stick-and-poke tattoo, and smile.
Standing on a street corner, you take out the small pile of cards you assembled on the train ride. Writing them was difficult. You can still speak your name and the phrase “Here’s my ticket,” but when someone asks you what you’re doing here, even that is glued over.
No matter. You have the cards. And some of them are even legible.
FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT.
There must be Earths they haven’t yet reached, planes still untouched. You remember what the glossy travel brochures said about the alternate worlds when they were first discovered: not everything happens all the time, everywhere.
In another place, people are free. All you have to do is get to the gate. Just get to the gate. It’s a golden half-moon, like a giant dull penny sticking out of the prairie. Just get to the gate.
The attendants, clad in super-serious black and silver uniforms, aren’t saying much either. As you go down the line, into the barely-used travel gate, you hand each of them a card.
FIGHT, you say to the man with cornrows who hands you the ticket.
FIGHT, you say to the old woman who punches it, her lips puckered tight like a coin purse.
FIGHT, you say to the young woman who hands you a sack lunch. Not all alternate worlds have food that you can digest.
Almost as an afterthought, you raise the hood on your parka, shielding your face from detection. It’s not as good as a robe, but maybe you’ll get that in the next world, if it’s still untouched by the invaders.
The gate’s set to random, and that’s just the way you want it. You feel the familiar slicing sensation, like a cheese grater being taken to your skin, and then another plane of another Earth opens up before you like a vista on a transcontinental flight after you’ve broken through the clouds. There’s a street, and a bus stop, and an orange sky, and not much else.
The people here will mock your stolen voice, sure, and the way you act and the clothes you wear, but enough will pay attention. You’ll devise new ways of communicating without writing or speech. Sidelong glances and interesting smells, perhaps.
This time, this world, it has to be different. You shoulder your bag, ruffle the cards in your pocket, and start walking.
Jason Sanford is the award-winning author of a number of short stories, essays, and articles, and an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Born and raised in the American South, he currently lives in the Midwestern U.S. with his wife and sons. His life’s adventures include work as an archeologist and as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Jason has published more than a dozen of his short stories in the British SF magazine Interzone, which once devoted a special issue to his fiction. His fiction has also been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Tales of the Unanticipated, The Mississippi Review, Diagram, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Pindeldyboz, and other places. Book anthologies containing his stories include Year’s Best SF 14, Bless Your Mechanical Heart, and Beyond the Sun.
A collection of Jason’s short stories, titled Never Never Stories, was published by a small press in 2011.
Jason’s awards and honors include being a finalist for the 2009 Nebula Award for Best Novella, winning both the 2008 and 2009 Interzone Readers’ Polls for best story of the year (and being a co-winner of the 2010 Poll), receiving a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship, being nominated for the BSFA Award, and being longlisted for the British Fantasy Award. His stories have also been named to the 2012 and 2013 Locus Recommended Reading Lists along with being translated into a number of languages including Chinese, French, Russian, Polish, and Czech.
Jason co-founded the literary journal storySouth, through which he ran the annual Million Writers Award for best online fiction. His critical essays and book reviews have been published in a number of places including SF Signal, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and The Pedestal Magazine. He also writes a regular column for the Czech SF magazine XB-1.
about the narrator…
Marguerite is a native Californian who has forsaken sunny paradise to be with her true love and live in Merrye Olde England. She frequently wears so many hats that she needs two heads. When she’s not grappling with legal conundrums as a trainee solicitor or editing Cast of Wonders, she can be found narrating audio fiction, studying popular culture (i.e. going to movies and playing video games) with her partner Alasdair Stuart, or curling up with a really good book. You can follow her at her personal blog, Project Valkyrie, or on Twitter via @LegalValkyrie.
by Jason Sanford
As the Tonatiuh arcs through the sparkling coma of Heaven’s Touch, Parda’s holographic proxy wraps herself around my spacesuit and kisses my visor. “Please let Sister Dusty live,” the proxy prays in fervent devotion, defying the actions of the real Parda, who at this moment is piloting our ship on a collision course with the comet.
But I’m too busy for either Parda or her proxy. After topping off my suit’s air, I crank open the exterior airlock door until whiteness swirls before me, my fatigue-addled mind turning the ice and dust to ghosts. Countless comet ghosts. Icy haunts begging me to embrace my destiny.
“If you jump now, you’re dead,” the proxy whispers seductively in my ear. “All the prayer in the universe won’t save you. Wait until we’re closer to the surface.”
I nod, almost forgetting this isn’t the real Parda. Instead, the autonomous AI program is a near-perfect imitation of my best friend–the proxy’s programmed intelligence infesting my spacesuit, my visor’s holographic projectors creating the illusion of her body. The proxy appears to wear a white dress as she stands barefoot before the open airlock door, as if Parda and I were once again in Florida running along white-sand beaches.
To my eyes, this is Parda.
As if knowing my thoughts, this simulated Parda suddenly pirouettes and, without a care on the lack of gravity, dances out the open airlock door into the coma. The proxy’s green eyes gaze at me as she shimmies and spins through the ice and dust, her slender brown hands clasped firmly together in prayer.
“Stop that!” the real Parda hisses over the radio, her voice mixing to the cockpit’s proximity alarms and computer warnings. I should have known Parda would be monitoring her proxy’s actions. Chagrined, the proxy appears to skulk back into the airlock, eyes downcast as if ashamed to express frivolity in such a serious moment.
“You should join me in prayer, Sister Dusty,” the real Parda broadcasts to me. Without waiting for my response, she begins: “Blessed be those who embrace their destiny, for they shall see heaven. Blessed be God’s one true destiny, for it carries humanity to paradise.”
Her words run ice through my spacesuit. That’s the martyr’s prayer, uttered by Seekers prepared to die in attainment of their destiny.
“She doesn’t mean it,” the proxy whispers. “She loves you, Dusty. Your death is merely an undesirable aspect of achieving her destiny.”
I don’t answer, even though I want to curse and scream. Perhaps this intelligent program believes her words prove her love for me. Perhaps she believes her AI-generated prayers can spark miracles, just as religious fervor led Parda’s real self down the path of martyrdom.
Knowing I’m out of time, I edge closer to the open airlock door. Before me, the comet’s dirty surface reaches for the Tonatiuh. Parda has piloted our ship into a near horizontal approach to Heaven’s Touch, closing on the ice at only 10 meters a second. But that’s still too fast for our delicate ship to handle.
Parda repeats the martyr’s prayer twice more before sighing, disappointed I didn’t join in. “Don’t forget,” she says. “I’ll always be your friend, my sweet. That’s God’s only truth.”
The proxy’s holographic face nods her own agreement, looking so like the real Parda I want to punch her for her progenitor’s deeds.
“Don’t worry, Dusty,” the proxy says excitedly as the comet’s black surface races toward us. “I know God heard me. You’re going to make it. You’ll finish building your ice ship and see the universe!”
I don’t answer. We’re mere seconds from crashing. All I have to do is stay in the airlock and my death will be quick. If I jump I’ll probably only prolong my life for a few days.
I mutter how I didn’t want to die like this. Not alone. Not knowing I was betrayed by my closest friend.
“You aren’t alone, Dusty,” the proxy says with a loving sigh. “I’m there for you. Always.”
I nod my head. Parda is with me. Always.
I jump into the coma.
Perhaps the proxy was Parda’s way of comforting me. Perhaps gifting me with the intelligent program proves Parda still cared–that even as my friend piloted the Tonatiuh toward its impact with Heaven’s Touch, some part of her still needed to reassure and look after me.
Not that it worked. Parda had trapped me in the main airlock after I’d left the ship for routine maintenance on our antenna. Naturally, I didn’t seen the betrayal coming. Instead, as Parda helped me into my space suit, she’d grinned happily and promised to cook a big dinner upon my return. I’d laughed at her lame joke–there was no cooking involved in heating packets of synthetic food–but as the airlock door closed her grin turned horribly serious. I thought she was merely worried about my safety, but when I finished the space walk I discovered the inner airlock door jammed shut and a suddenly religious Parda proclaiming her destiny.
“I’m sorry, Dusty,” she’d said sadly. “It doesn’t matter to wish things different. We can’t go against God’s will.”
I cursed her to no end. Back on Earth, our company’s director begged Parda to reconsider. When that didn’t work, the company reluctantly turned control over to NASA, allowing Johnie Acaba and the other astronauts I’d once worked with to broadcast soothing words at Parda. None of it made a difference. With me trapped and Johnie and everyone else so far away, there was nothing to stop Parda’s dream of martyrdom.
But she did share her proxy with me.
Perhaps, in the end, that means something.
After jumping from the Tonatiuh, I shoot high in the weak gravity and waste most of my suit’s emergency jets reaching the surface. The proxy had been correct–if I’d jumped earlier I wouldn’t have made it.
The ship hits the coal-black surface a few moments after I land. I watch the Tonatiuh rend and twist as automatic lines and spurs shoot out, anchoring the ship even as it breaks apart. Our precious foil-wrapped cargo bay breaks away, The cockpit explodes in a burst of decompression. I imagine Parda screaming as tears boil from her eyes.
When outgassing finally hides the crash site, I gaze with despair at Heaven’s Touch. We’ve crashed on the comet’s dark side, meaning I won’t immediately bake to death or be outvented into space. As I stumble across the black surface–scraping or punching through to the volatiles below with each step I take–I leave behind a dingy trail of smoking pearls. Above, the comet’s misty coma wraps the sky in a glittering gauze.
Heaven’s Touch is a sungrazer twenty kilometers in diameter. Our mission had been to anchor the Tonatiuh to the comet and siphon enough water to build an ice ship. While the timing had been tight–we’d have only had a few weeks before the comet was too close to the sun to safely work–the potential payoff was so exciting Parda and I eagerly agreed to the mission.
But obviously Parda had hidden her true plans.
The crash site outgasses for almost an hour before dying down enough to again see the ship. The Tonatiuh looks relatively intact even though her right angles of struts and interconnected modules have partially collapsed. I bound over to discover large rips in the ship’s mirror-reflective skin. Through a hole in the main cabin I see my zero-gee sleeping bag fluttering as the main oxygen tank vents. The airlock I’d been trapped in is also destroyed.
The only good news is the auxiliary airlock still works. I crank the airlock open and step inside. The space is tiny, barely big enough for me and my suit. Still, its emergency batteries function and the backup air supply means I can top off my suit for at least a week. If I wanted to waste the air, I could even pressurize the airlock and take off my helmet.
Not that it matters. Unless I escape this comet, an extra week’s air will mean very little.
I leap carefully to the top of the Tonatiuh–not wanting to hurl myself too high in the low gravity–and scan the wreckage. My visor’s holographic interface lights up with rainbowed notations showing coded supplies of food, gear, and other survival items. I ask the system to locate additional air supplies, but there are none.
Then, in an urgent starburst of red vital signs and flashing arrows, the visor points me to Parda’s body.
Needing to see her one last time, I hike toward the ship’s cockpit, which broke off and rests dozens of meters from the rest of the wreckage. Parda is strapped in her control seat and wears a white Seeker gown, which blurs to the comet’s mists. She must have cut the gown from her sleeping bag’s lining, with the gown’s whiteness indicating she attained her life’s destiny.
“God’s only truth?” I mutter. I kick her already frozen body. I would cry except there’s no way to wipe tears in a spacesuit.
As I look at our shattered ship, I naively believe Parda’s goal has been to stop our mission. To keep us from creating the first long-term spacecraft in human history.
I am wrong.
As usual, Johnie Acaba breaks the bad news.
“Here’s the problem, Dusty,” he broadcasts from a space station in low-Earth orbit, his voice mixed to static from crossing so many millions of kilometers. “She rammed the blipper.”
He means the tiny nuclear device NASA launched a year earlier and attached to the comet. While Heaven’s Touch easily missed Earth this go around, its close approach to the sun would change its orbit. When it comes back around two decades from now there’s a high chance of a devastating impact. NASA designed the blipper to explode at the comet’s closest approach around the sun, changing its orbital path by a few millimeters. While that wouldn’t matter much in the short term, over the next two decades the effect would grow until the comet missed Earth by a safe distance.
“Where’s the blipper?” I ask, waiting the long seconds for our broadcasts to cross space.
“On a quick drop toward the sun. Parda jumped it like a cue ball off an icy pool table.”
I grimace at Johnie’s silly analogy, even if it’s accurate. This is bad. While my mission was privately funding, our company had subcontracted with NASA to remotely inspect the blipper and make sure it was still functional. But as I watch oxygen and other gases venting from the Tonatiuh, I realize this no longer concerns me. I won’t be alive in a few weeks–let alone twenty years–unless I escape Heaven’s Touch. Still, it explains what Parda had been up to.
“The Seekers are going crazy down here,” Johnie says. “They’re proclaiming the comet to be God’s will. Saying unless people repent Heaven’s Touch will destroy the world.”
“That’s what you get for subcontracting out important work,” I joke, instantly regretting the words because I know they’ll be misunderstood by too many people back on Earth. I don’t ask if NASA can launch another blipper at the comet–I already know the answer. Thanks to anti-tech religions like the Seekers, NASA barely has the funding for a single blipper. Hence subcontracted players like me.
Besides, the timing is off. The easiest way to change the path of a large comet is to affect it at perihelion. With the blipper gone, that opportunity is lost. By the time the comet heads back to Earth two decades from now, it’ll be extremely difficult to change its course.
“I’d hate to be in your shoes right now,” I say, imagining the panic and finger-pointing unfolding on Earth over this debacle.
“It’s worse than you know,” Johnie says. “Parda uploaded something into the Tonatiuh’s systems before she crashed the ship. This, uh, thing, kept us from remotely accessing the ship’s controls.”
Despite Johnie’s vagueness, I know he’s referring to Parda’s proxy. I’ve been so busy trying to survive I’d forgotten about the AI program. If the proxy had access to my suit before I jumped, it is a safe bet it’s still hiding somewhere in my systems.
“Are you there, Parda?” I ask. For a moment the radio static giggles. Johnie asks me to repeat my statement so I explain that the proxy has already infested my suit. His silence tells me all I need to know about what this means for my chances at survival.
I glance at the shimmering white sky. I stand on a comet with only a weak suit radio to contact Earth, more alone than any other person now living. If this proxy really did help Parda crash the Tonatiuh, then it isn’t as benevolent as I originally thought. It might even be able to take control of my space suit. All it has to do is shut down my heat exchangers or air system and I’ll die.
“Sucks to be me, huh?” I mutter. “Although it might suck to be you in twenty years.”
To his credit, Johnie doesn’t disagree. “Worry about yourself, Dusty,” he says. “Maybe the comet won’t hit Earth. And twenty years is a long time.”
I nod. A long time. Much longer than I have.
After securing as many supplies as I can, I recharge my suit’s oxygen and sleep a few hours in the airlock, closing the outer doors but staying in my suit. My stomach snaps and begs–I’ve now gone almost two days with only a single high-energy protein bar to eat, which is all the food we normally keep in a space suit. To eat anything else I’d have to pressurize the airlock and remove my helmet. But I refuse to waste air on a grumbling stomach.
As I fall through a fitful sleep, Heaven’s Touch shimmers and vents. Each vibration hums the airlock’s darkness, reminding me of the violence the sun throws my way. If the lack of air doesn’t kill me I’ll eventually be baked alive or exploded off the surface by outventing.
Lovely thoughts. Perfect for meditating on while falling asleep.
Eventually I do sleep, only to dream of meeting Parda two years back at our company’s training facility near Cape Canaveral. During our training and the time we spent on the Tonatiuh, I felt like I’d discovered the sister I’d never had. We were the perfect team, knowing each other’s needs before our own.
Once, during an EVA, my space suit snagged on the communications array. I kept quiet, figuring I could free myself, only to see Parda floating beside me with a cutting tool. Somehow she’d figured out the situation without a word from me.
After slicing off the metal snagging my suit, she’d pushed me back to the airlock with a giggle. “Dusty,” she’d said, “I don’t know what you’d do without me.”
I wake from my dream as the airlock shakes from an extremely violent outgassing. My breathing echoes in my helmet as I hear Parda’s voice whispering. Apologizing. Saying she is still my friend.
I tell her to go to hell as I fall back to sleep.
When I finally open the airlock door–feeling even more tired, hungry, and angry–I walk to the Tonatiuh’s cargo bay, which appears intact. I open the bay using the manual release. Inside, the mechanical spiders are undamaged, as is the massive package containing the ice ship’s fabric shell.
Despite everything Parda has done, there’s no reason I can’t still build our ice ship and use it to escape from Heaven’s Touch. Everything I need to melt the ice and fill the giant fabric shell is in this cargo bay. Even the arm-sized solid-fuel rockets to lift the completed ship from the surface have survived.
But my hopes die when I look at the collapsed solar sail–during the crash one of the ship’s structural beams impaled it. I run my gloved fingers across the sail’s silver sheen. The sail had always been the most delicate part of our mission. Even if everything else works, without the sail the ship can’t be propelled back to Earth. It’ll drift on a long-term orbit just like this comet, and I’ll die the same as if I’d never left Heaven’s Touch.
I curse as I grab my anchor gun, used for bolting items to the ice. I hike to the destroyed cockpit and cut out Parda’s stiff body. Her frozen, holier-than-thou gaze pours through my visor. I bolt her hands and feet to the ice with the anchoring gun and ram one final bolt through her heart. I hope her ghost screams at the insult. I hope she’s gone straight to the devil for betraying me.
Panting at the exertion, and angry at wasting my limited time and air on such stupidity, I try to decide what to do. I could still build the ice ship but I’d only drift inside it until my food supplies ran out. Far better to die here. Simply shoot the anchoring gun through my suit and be done with it.
But as my hand absently taps the gun, Parda appears. She stands barefoot on the frigid surface, her white gown sparkling to the soft rain of ice crystals I’ve stirred up.
“Hello, Dusty,” she says, her beautiful lips puckering as if to kiss my facemask.
I jump–literally, rising dozens of meters in the air. My emergency jets kick on and return me to the comet’s surface.
I land beside Parda’s bolt-impaled body, her white gown speckled with black dust. I kick her leg and feel her frozen flesh crack.
“Hello again,” Parda says.
I spin to see Parda again standing before me. She laughs the irritatingly happy grin she’s always flashed when she knows the answer before I do. Even though I understand this is the proxy, I still reach for her. My gloved hand passes through her body.
“You’re not real,” I say, more to myself than to Parda.
“Real as you, perhaps.”
I curse, remembering what Johnie said about this proxy helping Parda crash the ship. I radio him and wait for several long minutes, far longer than he’d need to respond. Nothing.
“Johnie won’t be talking anymore,” Parda finally says, her brown skin glowing against the whiteness of her gown and the outventing mists. “I didn’t like what he said about me, so it’s now just the two of us.”
I stare at the proxy, which looks so like the real Parda I fight the urge to hug her for being alive–or punch her for what she’s done. Our company had built detailed proxies of all its astronauts so the AI personality programs could be quickly run through mission scenarios. I assume Parda somehow copied her proxy and brought the program with us.
I try overriding my suit’s communication controls, which projects her holographic image onto my facemask, but I’m locked out. The proxy obviously wants no one else to talk to me–and to leave me no choice but to listen to her.
“So what are you doing, Dusty?” Parda asks as she stares at the black ice and the remains of our ship.
I grip the bolt gun tight. I could still end it all. Take the quick way out. But seeing Parda’s proxy standing there reminds me how angry I am at her. I refuse to let her or this Seeker nonsense be the death of me.
I holster the bolt gun and smile at the proxy. “I’m building an ice ship. You want to help?”
“I admire your will to survive,” Parda says, appearing to sit on the ice as she makes a snowman. “Not that I’m surprised. Your destiny’s among the stars.”
I ignore the proxy as I power up the spiders in the cargo bay. The spiders look like giant insects and are the perfect companions on construction projects, with a wondrously strong yet delicate touch.
As I test one spider, Parda throws a dirty snowball at me. I duck, my instincts forgetting she and everything she does are only holographic projections on my suit’s visor. I’ve already run a diagnostic and, as I’d suspected, the proxy is deeply embedded in my suit’s systems. But as long as the proxy only wants to harass me with words and images, instead of harming my suit’s critical systems, I’ll be okay.
Using the spiders, I pull the steamer out of the cargo bin, leaving a long, outventing scar in the black surface of Heaven’s Touch. I set up the small reactor several hundred meters from the crash. The steamer immediately snakes pipes into the comet’s surface to melt water for the ice ship.
“Going nuclear, huh?” Parda asks as she inspects the steamer. “Not very green of you.”
I laugh. The proxy perfectly mimics Parda’s lame sense of humor. “Not much green out here,” I say. “Which is, of course, why you’re frozen stiff.”
Parda glances at her body, which is still bolted to the ice. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“You didn’t have to crash our ship.”
“But I did. It was my–her–destiny. Come on, surely you suspected something. Didn’t you ever wonder why we became such close friends?”
I nod, forgetting I’m only talking to an intelligent program. I can see I’ll have to be careful–the more exhausted I become, the harder it’ll be to remember I’m not seeing and hearing a real person.
Still, the proxy is right. I’d long suspected Parda of being a Seeker from the little things she said. The words and motions only someone who’d grown up in that tech-hating religion would notice. How she seemed a little too convinced of her destiny in life.
I knew these things because I’d also grown up a Seeker, even though I’d never been a very good one. Instead I was always reading that cursed science fiction, and I loved fighter jets and space ships a little too much for a good God-fearing, anti-tech girl.
I never mentioned my suspicions about Parda because I remembered the obstacles I’d encountered as a lapsed Seeker in the space program. NASA had kicked me out when it learned about my Seeker background, and I’d only been able to find work as an astronaut for private companies. I figured Parda was the same–trying to escape her past. And we were friends. Best friends.
Obviously I’d been wrong.
“Why are you here?” I ask. “You reached your destiny. You destroyed the blipper, ensuring this comet will hit Earth.”
Parda giggles as she flops a snow angel in the comet’s ice. “Maybe I don’t trust you. Maybe I think you’ll find a way to disturb the destiny I died for.”
Obviously this proxy either doesn’t truly understand the situation I’m in, or is lying. “Are you going to kill me?” I ask.
Parda looks at me with wide, innocent eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you plan to finish what Parda started? If so, perhaps you should just do it.”
Parda gazes at me as her face beams purest love and caring. But while her projected image doesn’t waver, my suit does, the environmental controls suddenly flickering as the heat exchangers stop pumping. “Might be interesting,” Parda whispers. A wave of nervous warmth flashes through me. I can already imagine the temperature rising in my suit.
But then the heat exchangers start pumping again. I shiver, but not from the chilled air once again blowing against my body.
“I could kill you,” Parda says softly. “It’d be easy. But I’m not that Parda. Just please don’t mess up my destiny.”
I frown, trying to understand how a copy of a dead person’s personality and memories could have a destiny. Or if she’s simply referring to the real Parda’s destiny? Either way, I mutter that I won’t muck it up.
“You promise?” she asks.
“God’s truth,” I say between gritted teeth.
You know you’re in rough shape when you to lie to a computer program.
I work on the ice ship for three days straight with no food and little sleep. I drink my suit’s recycled water until the system can’t purge the taste of urine. My backup air supply in the airlock drains lower and lower while the ice under my feet continually shakes as the sun’s energy causes violent outventing on the other side of Heaven’s Touch.
Still, the ice ship comes together quickly. The spiders clear a flat area near the Tonatiuh and unfold the torus while I assemble the insulated pipes to carry water from the steamer to the ice ship’s fabric.
The nuclear steamer is, as expected, temperamental–pump in too much water and the pipes shoot off, the explosion of spray freezing on everything and making reconnection difficult. Still, I manage, and the ice ship’s reinforced canvas quickly fills.
The canvas is designed to be filled with water until it creates a ring torus 100 meters in diameter. When full the canvas will look like those old science fiction dreams of a rotating space station. Running along the middle of this torus–shielded by ice walls 5 meters thick–will be more living space than all the space ships and stations built across the last century. More than a hundred people could live for decades inside the ship’s bulk.
Nuclear engineer Anthony Zuppero first proposed creating an ice spaceship back in the 20th century. My company updated his design with a carbon nanotube mesh reaching between the outer walls to strengthen the torus. Once water freezes through the mesh the walls are strong enough to rotate and create an artificial gravity. The thick ice is also the perfect shield against all the nasty radiation space throws at us flimsy little humans.
I glance again at the sparkling coma framing Heaven’s Touch–already the comet’s slow rotation has brought closer the bright lines of sunlight slicing through those cloudy mists. With the comet quickly nearing the sun, the ice ship will soon be a great place to be.
On the fourth day I sleep again, pitifully collapsing from exhaustion in the airlock. Hunger dull-aches my body while my mind spins to the thousand things I need to do before launching the ice ship. I also gag on my suit’s recycled funk, wishing I could waste the air to pressurize the lock.
“Are you asleep?” Parda asks.
“I’m trying,” I say, uncertain if I’m asleep and dreaming of the real Parda, or awake while her proxy messes with me.
“I hope you know it wasn’t about you,” Parda says. “My destiny, I mean.”
“That makes it better? You betrayed me. Betrayed everyone. God’s truth.”
Parda sits silently beside me, her white robe flapping to breezes which don’t blow on Heaven’s Touch. “I thought you’d understand.”
Tears run my eyes. I want to hug Parda. To tell her everything is alright. That everything is forgiven.
Parda arches an eyebrow, the same mischievous look she’d flashed so often when she was alive. “Remember that beach trip?” she asks. “When that shark swam up behind Johnie?”
I grin at the memory. While I’ve been friends with Johnie for years, he is such an astronaut’s astronaut–with a chiseled face, perfect crew-cut hair, and big muscles from long hours of working out–that he often drives me crazy. But on that beach trip his macho image totally broke down. We’d been swimming a dozen meters offshore when a small sandbar shark swam by. Johnie had freaked and run from the waves while Parda and I howled in laughter.
Wishing I could go back to those happy days, I grab at Parda’s holographic hand and dream of playing yet again under the blue Florida sky.
“God’s truth,” Parda says. “If I’d wanted to kill you I could have let the real Parda crash the ship into the blipper at full speed. I convinced her that doing so risked missing the target. Do you know how difficult it was to crash into the comet without destroying the ship? I did that so you’d have a chance at survival.”
As I stare into Parda’s face, I want so badly to believe her. But did this proxy save my life, or had the real Parda done that while her programmed double now merely lies? It’s impossible to know the truth.
Suddenly the airlock shakes to another outventing and I shoot forward, smacking my helmet on the closed airlock door. I curse and kick like an angry child, wanting to be back in Florida where I’d known who my friends were.
“I’ll always be there,” Parda whispers in the dark. “Always.”
By the fifth day the ice ship’s torus is filled and frozen solid. I connect the steamer to the ship’s spare water bag–which will hang in the center of the torus like a big balloon–and use the spiders to attach the solar panel fabric to power the ship’s systems.
As I stand before the torus’ reflective skin, checking my suit for any possible damage, Parda speaks. “It’s all vanity,” she says
“The fact that you’re attempting to deny your God-given destiny.”
My body shakes from hunger as I glance again at Parda’s real body. She’s dead. But as I stare across the blackened landscape–and especially at the distant ring of ice fingers created by millennia of melting and freezing–I realize this is the perfect place for a ghost. A ghost-haunted comet.
“What do you know of my destiny?” I ask.
“You’re destined to reach for the stars.”
“So you’ve said. Well, guess what? I’m here.”
“No. To truly reach the stars you must ride Heaven’s Touch around the sun before heading further out than any human has ever gone.”
I laugh. “Is that what you want? To stay on this comet with me? Return to Earth and destroy the sinners? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Not really,” Parda mutters sadly. “But the real Parda once told me that was your destiny.”
I want to spit. Parda believed her destiny was to send this comet slamming into Earth, so of course she thought my destiny was to be dead and cold and tagging along for the ride. “If that’s what you believe, why did you save my life?”
“Because I wasn’t sure if Parda told the truth,” the proxy says. “Perhaps she was wrong about your destiny.”
“I guess we’ll soon find out,” I say, not sure where the proxy is taking this conversation.
“Exactly!” the proxy says, clapping her hands in excitement. “You understand! The only way to discover God’s true plan for you is to see if you survive!”
I start to tell the proxy to shut up–that at this point it isn’t God’s destiny that will save me but my own hard work. But before I can argue, my suit’s controls indicate that the steamer’s pumps have shut down, likely clogged yet again with slushy ice crystals. As I bound over to fix the problem, I mistime my landing and fall in slow-motion, banging my facemask on the ice. I curse as I flop over, trying to stand up.
Parda appears beside me. Holding me. Comforting me. Like she did during those long months alone in our ship. “You should sleep. Eat something.”
I push her away, only to fall forward as my hand shoots through what I’d thought was her body. I’m getting punch-crazy from exhaustion and hunger, but I don’t care. I stumble to the steamer, intending to clear the clogged pipe before taking a break.
I glance at the steamer’s control panel and see that the pump has shut down automatically. Leaning over the steamer, I unclamp the pipe, which jumps from my gloves as a blast of water explodes against my space suit. Parda shrieks in happiness as the explosion shoots me up in the weak gravity, spinning me end over end as my suit’s nearly depleted jets try to compensate.
After a few weak spurts, the jets die.
“I’m sorry, but I have to know,” Parda says softly, her image in my facemask shedding tears which dance around her face. “Now we’ll learn whether God truly wants you alive, or if you’re destined to perish here.”
“Leave me alone!” I yell, trying to focus on saving myself. Parda bows slightly and disappears.
I quickly assess the situation. While the jets have slowed my climb I’m still rising. Two hundred meters. Four hundred. The comet’s surface fades to white from the coma mists roiling around me. If I’m not careful, I’ll lose my sense of direction.
Before me, the sunlight burns a bright line through the coma. When I cross out of the comet’s shadow, my suit’s heat exchangers will struggle to keep me alive.
I am dead. I’ll die alone, floating endlessly through these white mists.
“If it be Thy will, please let Sister Dusty live,” Parda whispers.
Nodding agreement, I reach for my anchor gun and turn it to full power. I shoot a bolt into space, then another, only three bolts left. Two. One.
The bolts slow my accent, maybe even push me back the way I’d come. But in the mists I can’t tell if I’m now falling or still rising. I fling my gun away to give me a final grab at momentum before relaxing. There’s nothing more I can do.
Parda giggles nervously before reappearing, her body appearing to hug my suit. She is still praying, begging God to save my life, just as the proxy did before the ship crashed. I float in a sea of milk as tiny ice motes swim by, my addled mind again turning them into ghosts.
My suit’s clock counts twenty minutes before the mists clear and I can see the comet’s dirty surface approaching. Without my jets I land hard, rolling across the ice as I pray my suit doesn’t break.
When I look up–bruised, but safe and alive–Parda stands before me. She smiles as she leans over and kisses my helmet.
“I’m glad you made it,” she says. “And now, Sister Dusty, we know the truth. God intends you to live.”
After checking the steamer, I realize what Parda did. She’d projected a false image of the steamer controls onto my facemask. The pipe hadn’t jammed and it hadn’t been shut off by automatic controls. When I’d opened the valve, instant liquid explosion.
Even though I have very little air left, I need rest and food. Going for broke, I climb into the airlock and pressurize it. I twist off my helmet, removing Parda’s ability to interact with me. I drink fresh water and eat packet after packet of food–not caring what flavor it pretends to be–and fall into the best sleep I’ve ever known.
The airlock controls wake me ten hours later. I place extra food and clean water pouches in my suit and twist on my helmet.
Parda is waiting. “You don’t have much time,” she says urgently. “Only twelve hours of air left. You must hurry.”
“So what are you going to do? Support me or stop me?”
“I’m your friend. And now that we’ve determined God’s destiny is for you to live, I’ll do anything I can to help.”
This proxy is as crazy as the real Parda. I’m about to say that when suddenly Parda disappears, replaced by a holographic diagram showing detailed blueprints of the ice ship. But the blueprints have been modified, with the water bag in the center of the torus now connected to the steamer.
“Even if you launch the ship,” Parda says, “without the solar sail you’ll never reach Earth. But if you hook up the steamer to the spare water container, you could use spurts of steam to slow your orbit. My calculations show we could get close enough to Earth for NASA to mount a rescue.”
I scan through Parda’s diagrams and numbers, which seem to add up. “It might work.”
“I thought of the idea after the steamer blasted you off the comet,” Parda says, grinning wickedly.
The proxy is obviously playing with me because those are exactly the wrong words to make me trust her. Still, her plan is solid. And if the proxy’s now convinced it’s my destiny to escape Heaven’s Touch, perhaps she won’t get in my way. “Do I have your word on this plan?” I ask, remembering how this proxy once made me promise not to mess up the awful destiny the real Parda died for.
“Would it matter?” she asks. “Stopping you isn’t my destiny, is it?”
“No, it isn’t,” I say as I open the airlock and return to work.
Parda sees herself as a true believer. I wonder if the proxy should instead call herself insane.
After all, proxies are only meant for simulations, not real life. Whether utilized by NASA or a private space company or the latest high-tech startup, you plug proxies through simulation after simulation and they are none the worse for wear. But real life–who knows what that does to them.
No matter how closely they’re molded around our minds, memories, and personalities, the proxies aren’t us. Parda’s proxy obviously inherited the love Parda showed me before her betrayal. But Parda also somehow hid her true memories and belief in martyrdom from our company, or else they would never would have let her become an astronaut. So when Parda copied this proxy, she copied an inexact replica of herself. And when she hacked the proxy into doing her bidding, she moved the program even further from what my friend had once been.
I can’t trust this version of Parda any more than I could trust the real Parda.
But I also don’t want to die alone. And right now this Parda is all I have.
With the spiders I install the ice ship’s main airlocks and finish moving the heavy equipment inside. According to the original mission plan, at this point Parda and I would have used the tiny rockets attached to the ice ship to lift it from the surface. After rendezvousing with the ice ship, we’d have brought the internal systems online and used the solar sail to guide the ship into Earth orbit.
Obviously I don’t have that last option. But if Parda’s plan works, perhaps it won’t matter.
With the ice ship hooked up to the steamer I have enough power to run the systems until I unbolt the ship from its anchors. I plug the final hose into the ice ship and set the steamer to both pumping in and heating up the ship’s atmosphere. It’ll be cold in there when my suit’s air runs out, but at least I’ll be able to live.
One final time I finger the solar sail’s collapsed sheen. The sail’s mirror-like gossamer would have been a beautiful sight, stretching for kilometers through space after it unfolded. But with the sail damaged there’s no way it can propel the ship. I order several of the spiders to drag it away. The other spiders continue carrying supplies to the ice ship, and hooking up the steamer to the massive ice bag in the center of the ship’s torus.
By the time the ship has a breathable atmosphere, I have less than an hour of air left in my suit. I cycle through the ice ship’s airlock and stand inside the massive, curved hallway. Dim glow lights light the space. After a career in the cramped quarters of space stations and tiny spaceships, my eyes tear at the size of this ship.
“You should be here,” I tell Parda. “This is the start of humanity’s real exploration of space.”
“I am here.”
I start to argue. To tell the proxy that no, the person she’d been modeled after was dead on the ice, her body waiting to be exploded by outventing and baked by the sun.
Instead, I remove my helmet and breathe deep of the chilled air.
“I knew you could do it,” Parda says, her voice a whisper from the helmet in my hands. “Do you think they’ll be able to rescue us in time?”
“Maybe. If not, I’ll be embracing that starry destiny you mentioned.”
Parda laughs in happiness.
I also laugh, attempting to sound relaxed. Because this proxy is so smart, I don’t want to risk her discovering the last part of my plan. “Parda, can you run a final check of the launch sequence?” I ask. “The maneuvering rockets weren’t designed to lift both the ship and the steamer. We don’t want something going wrong.”
“I’ve already analyzed all possible outcomes. Do you want me to do this again?”
The proxy almost purrs with satisfaction as she dives into her deep analysis. With Parda distracted, and while still cradling my helmet in my arm, I turn the helmet slightly so its sensors can’t monitor my hands. So the proxy won’t see what I’m about to program the spiders to do.
I’ll take most of the spiders with me. They’ll unbolt the ice ship and hang on as the maneuvering rockets lift us from the surface. But I have a special mission for the spiders I’m leaving behind. I’m tempted to tell Parda my plan. But as I’ve learned, I can’t trust her too much.
A minute later, Parda says her calculations show everything is still a go for launch. “Now what do we do?” she asks.
“Test my destiny,” I say. “See if it’s still God’s will that I survive.”
Parda giggles like a little girl receiving a gift. I put my helmet back on and walk through the entire torus, showing Parda the ship we’ve built. She seems impressed, her voice chuckling over every square meter of open space.
“Do you forgive me?” she asks. “Maybe we can both embrace our destinies?”
“Maybe,” I say as the spiders unbolt the ship and the rockets kick us into space.
Five months. Five months of the ice ship spinning blindly.
At first Parda is so happy to escape the comet she lets me speak to Johnie and everyone else back home so they’ll know I’m alive. So they can mount a rescue mission. Using the spiders, I also finish hooking up the steamer to the spare water bag in the middle of the torus. With the steamer functioning as a simplified steam engine, I slow the ice ship enough to give a rescue ship from Earth a shot at reaching us.
Parda’s excitement lasts until we receive telemetry that Heaven’s Touch has changed course. Johnie and everyone back on Earth are baffled, so I finally admit ordering the spare spiders to unfold the solar sail across ten square kilometers of the comet’s surface. As Heaven’s Touch neared its closest approach to the sun, the sail reflected back so much energy that the projected outventing greatly decreased. The comet’s trajectory changed far more than the blipper could ever have achieved. Heaven’s Touch would never again threaten Earth.
Naturally, Parda is furious. In a burst of un-God-like rage, the proxy crashes the ice ship’s communication and sensor systems and refuses to speak to me for a week. Still, I know NASA is coming. It’s just a matter of whether they reach me before my food supply runs out.
But it’s a long, lonely, hungry wait.
“Today’s the day,” Parda says as I wake. I’m in the ice ship’s cockpit. It’s cold in here–I’ve never been able to activate all of the ship’s solar-heating systems–but my spacesuit’s insulation keeps me warm enough. Because the suit long ago ran out of air, I now wear it with my helmet cracked open so I can breathe the ice ship’s atmosphere. But aside from that, the suit feels much like it did on Heaven’s Touch.
This has the added benefit of allowing Parda to keep me company. To keep me from being the loneliest person in the solar system. To ensure this, Parda always reminds me to recharge the suit using the ship’s power, and as the suit’s main systems crashed she rerouted the controls so the holo displays continue to show her to my eyes.
At the sound of Parda’s voice I try to sit up but fall back to the deck. My food ran out weeks ago. The other day I asked Parda if I was going to end up a ghost like her, but she hadn’t answered. She hates it when I’m morbid.
I sip my suit’s water as I watch Parda sit on the control panel, her flowing robe as sparkling white as ever. When she’d first learned I’d destroyed the real Parda’s destiny she’d been angry. But over time she’s forgiven me like only true friends can do.
“You said yesterday was the day,” I whisper weakly, “but no one arrived.” I stare out the cockpit windows. Without communications or telemetry, staring into space is the best I can do. Parda still apologizes every day for crashing those systems, but at this point there’s nothing to be done about it.
“Today it will happen,” she says in a cheerful voice. “Today they will arrive.”
I grin and reach for Parda’s hand, forgetting for the millionth time I can’t touch her. She and I both know the orbital mechanics. There’s a narrow window when a ship from Earth can reach us. We’re almost at the end of that time frame.
I then fall back asleep and dream of food–rice and beer and chicken and spices and pies, a feast I’d give anything to eat. Each time I wake I listen to Parda prattle on about what we’ll do when we’re rescued. She’s afraid they won’t keep us together. That everything will change between us. Before I fall back asleep, I reassure her that nothing could ever change.
I wake a final time to silence and the sensation of the ice ship shaking slightly. Only a small shimmy, but enough to know something is happening.
“What’s going on?” I ask. Several of the cockpits controls flash rainbow colors, but I’m too weak to sit up and read them.
“Parda?” I whisper. “Are you there?”
“Are we still friends?” her tiny voice asks. For the first time since I’d known the proxy she sounds nervous. Afraid.
“We’ll always be friends.”
“Do you really mean that?” she says. She stands in front of the control panel and twists her white robe back and forth. She stares fearfully at the cockpit door.
“Yes,” I say as Johnie and another astronaut step before me. They shout my name and twist my helmet off, vanishing Parda in a burst of light. Johnie holds a food bulb before my face and squirts soupy protein between my lips. I swallow greedily.
“Parda!” I yell, hoping she can still hear me. “Don’t worry. You’ll always be my friend.”
You know you’re in rough shape when you lie to a computer program.