Tag: "war"

EP555: Monstrance of Sky

AUTHOR: Christopher Mark Rose

NARRATOR: Alethea Kontis

HOST: Norm Sherman

about the author…

Christopher Mark Rose is a fledgling writer of speculative fiction. His story “A Thousand Solomons” won first place in the 2015 BSFS Amateur Writing Contest. He participates in the Baltimore Science Fiction Society Critique Circle, and has finished a first draft of a novel. He hopes to write stories that are affecting, humane, and concerned with big questions. His day job is in the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory, where he designs flight firmware for NASA missions. His work is flying now in NASA’s Van Allen Probes, and will be in the soon-to-be-launched Solar Probe Plus spacecraft.

about the narrator…dcon-parade-2014

Alethea Kontis is a princess, author, fairy godmother, and geek. Author of over fifteen books and contributor to over twenty-five more, her award-winning writing has been published for multiple age groups, across all genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, humor, contemporary romance, poetry, graphic novels, Twitter serials, non-fiction…the works.

A former child actress, Alethea hosted over 55 episodes of “Princess Alethea’s Fairy Tale Rants” on YouTube, and continues to host Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow every year at Dragon Con. She enjoys audiobook and podcast narration, speaking at middle schools across the country (in costume, of course), and one day hopes to make a few more movies with her friends. Alethea currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie.

 

Monstrance of Sky

By Christopher Mark Rose

Aerbello — the shape one sees in the movement of wheat, blown by wind. The shape of wind, written in sheaves.

 

I left me, without really leaving. Well, not I myself, but Eva. She told me she was leaving me, as we made love in our bedroom. It was clear she didn’t mean immediately.

 

Cova — any place a crow could be. A crow-sized void, unoccupied by an actual crow.

 

She said we weren’t good for each other, we weren’t helping each other to grow. She said my God obsession had gotten to be too much. She said her presence in my life was redundant.

 

“Please don’t go,” I said. “If you go, my heart will be a cova.”  I couldn’t understand, and it hurt me. It felt as though I had swallowed a razor blade, without realizing.

 

Monstrance — a vessel, in Catholic tradition, in which the consecrated Host is placed, to be exposed for the adoration of the faithful.

 

Without knowing why, I had started making a list of words that meant God, or related to worship, or words I thought could describe God. I found I was transcribing large portions of dictionaries, encyclopedias. I couldn’t explain it, I just felt compelled. I was probably obsessed. I wasn’t a believer but neither an unbeliever then.

EP493: Beyond the Trenches We Lie

by A. T. Greenblatt
read by Andrew Clarke

about the author…

Who am I? I’m A(liza) T. Greenblatt. An engineer and a writer. A collector of cookbooks and recipes. An adventurous/messy cook and baker. Movie watcher, button mashing gamer, traveler, and gym rat. I like to make things and solve problems. I like to build things and write things down.

And I like stories. Ever since I figured out how to read, I’ve been a passionate reader. Always had a book or two in my book bag in school. My must-read booklist is still bottomless.

Why don’t I use my full name as my byline? Because when I first Googled myself this Aliza Greenblatt came up. It’s okay though, she beat me to it fair and square.

I was an editorial assistant for a few years at Every Day Fiction and am a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI. I currently volunteer as an interviewer at Flash Fiction Chronicles, pestering EDF’s top author of the month with questions.

about the narrator…

Andrew Clarke is a London-based musician, writer and actor who has created work for the stage, film and radio in an ongoing quest to work out how to make any money at all. He is currently writing the second series of The Lost Cat Podcast – which details the adventures he has had while looking for his lost cat – featuring monsters, ghosts, Old Ones, several ends of the world, some cats and lots and lots of wine. The first series can be found here: http://thelostcat.libsyn.com/ He is also currently demo-ing his latest album. The previous album, called ‘Bedrooms & Basements’ can be found here: Bedrooms And Basements, by A.P. Clarke

 

Beyond the Trenches We Lie
By A. T. Greenblatt

This morning, the Globs are waiting for us, just like always. Despite what the official propaganda shows, we, this little band of ragged soldiers, don’t even bother to line up anymore. We just cram down our nutritional packets as fast as we can and climb out of our holes. Captain Beamon scowls at our lack of discipline, but he doesn’t push the point. Not when there’s a battle to be won.

Beyond the trenches, the meadow is flourishing from the war. The grass is dark and lush, though it’s been trampled by soldiers. You can hear the brook running about a hundred paces away, fat and happy, while the tall elm trees on its banks overlook the whole situation from a distance. Win or lose, they will still grow for a long time to come.

Every morning, I yank myself out of a trench, pull myself up with my cane, and make my way across the field. We never start the fight running, despite what the vids show. No need. The Globs will wait for us.

Hell, they are waiting for us. On the other side of the brook, they’ve gathered on the banks, their clear gelatinous bodies undulating. Their neon eyes watching, boring into me from across the meadow, seeing nothing. Seeing everything.

Every time, I shudder. And every time, hate myself for it. I hold the clod of dirt I pulled from the trench wall to my nose, inhale, and remember.

My lies are endless. Everyone on the front line needs a mantra. Everyone needs a prayer. Mine helps me remember it’s the Globs that should be afraid of me.

Still, in spite of it all, I enjoy my morning walk. In the first weeks of fighting, the mud repulsed me (you avoid squishy, smelly, wet things on the station -usually at all costs). But now I walk through the field barefoot, savoring the wet thwacking sound my soles make with each step, though I’m careful not to snag my feet -or cane – in the soft uneven ground. Unlike Reggie, I never relished my boots.

When we reach the banks, we halt, taking a moment to eye our enemy. Sizing each other up, as it were. And then, slowly, we begin the assault.

I pick my way carefully down the bank and ease my feet into the water -my time on Earth has taught me to mistrust slippery pebbles. A comrade, Mae, offers me an arm and together we cross the brook.

The Globs meet us on the bank, slick and shiny like river stones in the morning sun. It’s impossible to tell for sure, but I can swear there are more of them today.

Why are you here?

The question is wordless – they don’t have mouths. Instead, the words rumble deep within your stomach vibrating, humming until every cell in your body understands what they are asking and you would do anything – anything – to stop that damn question from rolling around inside you. Even if it means telling them the truth.

The trick ­­-the thing that all those “traditional” soldiers and diplomats couldn’t manage – is not to lose yourself in the question. Keep your feet on the ground. Squeeze the clod of dirt in your hand. Remember who you are.

And lie.

Mae turns and looks at me. “I don’t miss Reggie,” she says, “I’m not sorry he’s gone.”

The humming of the six closest Globs bleeds into high-pitched whistles. Their dying screams

Mae’s a good solider. I study the remaining healthy Globs surrounding us and see my face reflecting in their shiny skins.

“Me neither,” I say. And a dozen more start to die, their glassy, dissolving bodies turning our reflections into monstrosities.

Despite what the military tells you, there aren’t any strategies or battle plans here. No higher logic or particular order. It’s just me and my fellow “soldiers” holding the line with a pocketful of lies. It’s true; all the traditional methods of warfare have failed and the traditional fighters have died months ago. But I’m not your typical soldier. Me and my brother were master liars long before this war.

“It’s like we’re pretty much invincible,” Reggie told me once, as he wriggled his feet into his new boots, trying to work out the pinching stiffness.

But we’re not. The Globs ate my brother two weeks ago.

Mae gives me a small nod before moving on alone and I make my way to my usual spot, the elm with the perfect size nook for a soldier in its roots. Because in this war, your lies are your own.

There is a Glob by my tree. My spot.

Why are you here?

“It’s true, I don’t miss my brother.” I tell it. And the Glob melts, not as fast as before, but it yields me my spot all the same.

Don’t ask me why the same lie doesn’t work as well a second time. It’s a problem for most soldiers. But not for me. My lies are endless.

Tucking myself between the roots and propping up my cane beside me, I flex my stiff leg, and wait for my enemies to come. They always do.

Why are you here? Every Glob asks the same question, their demanding insistence rattling around inside, until you start to doubt your answer. Why. Are. You. Here.

It’s easiest when you have a story -a mesh to weave all your lies on. Today I tell the Globs all about my family. It’s big, with a mom and a dad and lots and lots of sisters. No brothers, of course. No twins.

All around my tree, my enemies fall. In this war, there is no blood or bodies on the battlefield. No weapons or scorched earth. Just puddles, puddles, puddles. And the occasional pair of shoes.

The swollen brook besides me runs joyfully on.

By the time noon has come and gone, I’m drenched in the remains of my enemies and the only thing I want in life is a hot shower and a walk. About fifty paces away, Mae is surrounded by Globs. Her lies don’t come as quickly, she has grown pale and rivulets of sweat trickle down her neck. She’s going to slip.

I dig my cane into the ground and haul myself up, my leg protesting the change, refusing to bend.

“How’s your sister, Mae?” I call as I move, cursing my slowness.

“Fine,” she replies, licking her dry lips, “She always tells the best stories.”

Only two Globs fall and ten more move in to take their place. They can sense her weakness.

Why are you here? Why are you here?

By the time I reach her, their question is so loud and insistent, that I want to stick my fingers in my ears and scream. This is why no one’s ever managed to come close to a Glob without dying. But we are the military’s elite fighters. Our lies define us.

Mae is biting her lips, trying not to give them a shred of truth to eat. There is no color left in her face.

So, I dig my heels into the mud and take a deep breath.

“I have this sister who loved nutritional packets. Like, would wrestle me for them. It was a good thing that she was a slower runner than I was because otherwise I would’ve had to start giving her a few bruises of her own. Was a skinny little runt too. Like living proof that those things weren’t as cracked up as they’re made out to be. But she’s a weird one. She’s interested in Earth and seriously, who cares about Earth anymore?”

I pause. All around us, the Globs are whistling their death songs. Mae stands there silent, shaking, drenched, the relief honest on her face.

“See, this isn’t so bad, now is it?” I give Mae a mad grin.

And another Glob dies.

#

I think the leaves of the elm trees have souls. I’ve been watching them for a while now; they rejoice in the sunlight and dance in the wind and thrive in the rain. They die.

The trees alone make this fight worthwhile. Even a space station brat like me can understand why everyone’s taking up arms to protect Earth.

This evening, after the battle and before the Globs begin to reappear, I walk to the elms by the brook. I stand under the golden leaves that were once green and in the pile of fallen ones, browning at the edges. There’s a beauty here that I can’t quite understand and also a sadness, which I know all too well. When the transformation had first begun, Reggie had stood here with me.

“Nim, what’s happening?” he whispered pointing at the yellowing leaves.

“They’re dying, I think.”

“Why? Do you think it’s the war?”

“Maybe.” But that didn’t make sense. Whatever Globs became when they died, it makes things grow. The meadow was sickly and dry when we first arrived on the battlefield – the grass and the weeds and the wild flowers. Now, everything thrives. Only the leaves wilt.

I’ve done some research since then, learned about the seasons (yes, this information is in the station archives-if you know where to look) and how things on the surface sleep when the cold comes. I wish I’d known earlier, of course. Reggie would’ve been relieved. But I’ve been here for four months and this Earth – it’s new to me.

Hell, when we were kids, me and Reggie use to paint pictures with our water on the older parts of the station, where the galvanized steel had worn away from time and traffic. We had to be patient with those portraits and come back every day to “touch up” our work. But eventually the rust would begin to bud, filling out the drawings we had so painstakingly made. The adults would scoff, but they never told us to stop. Besides ourselves, it was the closest thing we had to anything that could grow.

Well, except for our lies, of course. Those got bigger too. Even back then we knew that lies should be endless because your truths are as finite as you are.

We lied because we were the rare set of twins in a station full of single child families. We lied when my leg went gimp and I couldn’t outrun the bullies. We lied to cover for Reggie’s pranks. We lied to deceive and to entertain. We lied because we could.

We must have been memorable, because when they figured it out, the army came for us – the cripple and the hell raiser, the most unlikely of soldiers.

I turn my face up to the autumn tree and pick a leaf out of my hair. This is the type of tree I used to make up stories about as a kid. Except in my stories, the leaves were blue.

I hope we were memorable. Because when Reggie slipped and began to tell Globs almost-truths, they devoured him, piece by piece.

Memories are all I have left of him now.

#

Tonight, I eat my nutritional packet, as always, from within the tightly packed walls of my trench. The Globs are back, I can hear them humming in that same tuneless voice and I know if I look up over the rim, their neon eyes will be there to greet me.

I wonder where they’ve come from, the Globs. I figure they’re like cells, reproducing by splitting in half and making perfect clones of themselves. I can’t imagine them courting or having sex – not with those deadpan eyes and repetitive questions.

And to think that me and Reggie laughed at the Globs the first time we saw them.

To think, one more week and I will be leaving my cozy trench behind.

From a few holes over, Captain Beamon climbs over and joins me in mine.

“Congratulations on your promotion, soldier,” he says dropping down next to me, “Can’t say I’m envious, but those station kids need to know what they’re getting into.”

I nod my thanks, but we both know I’ll make a terrible instructor. It was a promotion of compassion.

“I’m sure I’ll be an excellent role model,” I say, without sarcasm, of course.

The Captain gives me sidelong look. “You know you still have leaves in your hair, right?”

“Yes,” I lie, rushing to find them and pull them out. In my hands, in the trench, they look like misplaced recruits.

Funny, it was Reggie who always wanted to live on the surface and I figured if all we had to do were tell a few lies, I would help him. I didn’t hate the crowded station, but without him, I didn’t have a reason to stay.

The Captain braces his tall boots against the wall and lovingly rubs away the dirt. “What are you fighting so hard for, Nim?” he asks, like it’s the type of question you ask offhand.

“For Earth, of course,” I say. Reggie – who never owned a pair in his life – had been so excited about those damn shoes too.

The Captain nods, though I know he doesn’t believe me. He’s smarter than that; he’s been here for months now, since the beginning of the war. Rumor says, he’s the one that figured out how to kill the enemy first.

“Goddamn Globs,” he says, looking up over the edge of the trench, “Won’t stay dead.”

And like an idiot, I look too.

There must be hundreds of them out there. The military’s calling this the alien invasion that mankind has feared since, well, forever. But us, the few living soldiers who have been fighting this war day in and out for weeks can see that they are turning this yellow, arid Earth green again.

“Why are we fighting them?” I ask quietly, keeping my eyes trained on the enemy.

“What are you going soft on me, now? They want to destroy this place!”

In the distance, the Globs’ whistles grow so loud it’s almost unbearable and we both dig our hands into the trench walls. I grind my teeth and wonder why the Globs are wasting their time with this place.

But I guess some questions you’re better off not knowing the answers to. Sometimes a quick fib is even easier than giving in and dying.

When the Globs have finally melted and we can speak again, the Captain leaves in silence, both of us too tired for anymore lies.

#

This morning the Globs haven’t made it to the banks of the brook yet, but there are hundreds waiting for us. Probably more.

Today, their question is why.

Why?

They echo it over and over. The question with no right answer, the question with millions of truths. Maybe the Globs aren’t as stupid as they look.

It rained in the middle of the night and the world smells clean and damp and earthy. The field beyond the brook is soaked and covered in leaves, but the grass is so green and vibrant, it seems almost a crime to bend its blades. I do anyway, of course, because fighting is harder when you have to worry about your feet (and your cane) getting tangled.

Today I tell the Globs about all the sports awards I’ve won over the years.

Why?

Hell, where do they come from? What do they want? Why are we, this little band of misfits, the only ones who can fight them? Stupid questions I know, but I wonder about them anyway as I plant my feet in the ground and lie.

Why?

I see Mae about fifty paces away and give her a small smile. I know she can see the sweat on my forehead and my fist clenched around my cane. She knows I can see her paling face. It starts to rain again as I move over to aid her, fibbing my way through the crowds of Globs. My lies are endless. She’s the one that needs the promotion, not me.

Why? Why? Why?

And there, out of the corner of my eye, I see them. There. Between the Globs. His boots, about twenty paces away with the bright laces and scuffed toes, lying in the mud as if he dropped them carelessly there moments ago.

“Reggie.”

An instant too late, I realize my mistake. But the Globs are quick when they want to be; they see the almost-truth for what it is. The one closest to me lunges forward and I topple back into the mud.

The Glob takes a long, greedy piece out of my leg.

Funny, it doesn’t hurt as badly as I always thought it would. But I scream all the same.

Their neon eyes are hungry, so hungry, their questions are more demanding, frantically insistent now. And once you start telling the truth, it’s hard to stop.

I scramble back, pulling up a chunk of earth and throw it at the nearest Glob, but it doesn’t even make a dent. I see Mae moving, rushing toward me, killing Globs as fast as she can. But she still is too far away. So the next handful of dirt I hold on to. And I remember my lies.

“I always wanted to be an only child. Couldn’t stand that I had to share everything with Reggie. I’d rather have been like all the other kids, single and alone. I was tired of always getting into trouble, I liked the rules and stuff. Hell, I didn’t want to follow Reggie down to this place. Because…because I hated my brother.”

I’m shouting, almost shrieking. And the Globs -all of them within a thirty pace radius -begin to melt. For entire minutes, the battlefield is filled with the sound of their screaming whistles. I try to crawl away, but my bad leg has finally forsaken me. This is one wound it does not tolerate.

So I wait until the Globs are nothing more than harmless puddles.

“How did you do that?” Mae asks as she pulls me up and puts an arm around me.

I shrug, and try not to look at my bloody leg. “My lies are endless,” I tell her.

And then, mercifully, everything becomes silent and black.

#

This is my last evening on Earth. Like hell I’m going to spend it in the medics’ tent. Not when I have the elms and the meadow. What, you think a lame leg is going to stop me? Never has before. It’ll take more than a crutch to keep me from sneaking out.

The elms welcome me by showering drops of water as their branches sway in the wind. That smell – which I now know is the distinct smell of wet leaves – is extraordinary, a summary of life and death in a single sensation. And I know that in all my life I will never experience anything as beautiful as these fallen leaves.

My leg is comfortably numb and I want to sit between the roots one last time, though I doubt I’ll be able to get up again if I try. So I stand under the elms for a long time.

“Does it hurt?”

I turn to find Mae standing behind me, her hands jammed into her pockets.

I look down at my senseless limb. “Stings like hell.” I say.

“I..I wanted to thank you for saving my life the other day. If you hadn’t been there…”

I nod. “My pleasure,” I say. Before I realize that this is, in fact, the truth.

The words sound funny – out of place – like not recognizing a familiar voice. Mae must have realized it too because her eyes widen in surprise.

“Well, now that I’ve lost my edge,” I say, “You’ll have to raise a bit of hell yourself out here.” I smile. I can see why the truth’s hard to stop. I’ve missed the sound of it.

Mae nods. “I’ve been wanting to ask you for a while,” she says softly, “What was it like, having a brother?”

I frown, my hand clenching my crutch, my smiling slipping away. It’s not that I don’t appreciate her effort, but in a society made up of one-child families, no understands the loss of a sibling.

“Like having a partner in crime,” I say.

But that is an almost-truth. Rather, it was like having a bit of yourself kept safe within another person. And because I lied and didn’t lie enough, I’ve lost that piece.

You see, I’m the one who loved Earth, who studied it late at night. I’m the one who convinced Reggie to agree to the recruitment. I dragged him down here; Reggie knew how to handle the bullies and tell a quick story, but it was me who had the endless lies.

It’s my fault Reggie is dead.

“You’re not going to do anything reckless, are you?” Mae asks, twisting her hands in front of her.

I shrug. Suddenly, all my lies taste bitter.

So instead, I link my free arm around hers and together, we stare up past the trees into the night sky, our eyes focused on what we can’t reach. If Mae notices my tears, she never mentions it.

#

This morning is my last morning on Earth. Alone, I cross the brook for one final time. The crutch digs into my armpit and the world is still cold and dim in the early dawn light.

Their eyes are watching me, waiting as always. They are patient as I limp across the stream and I take my time. They greet me with their questions.

Who are you?

But today I have no lies. No stories. No fight. Today I have just come to reclaim my brother’s boots, the ones he had so loved. The boots with “NIM” scrawled on the inside. The ones I gave him when his own got destroyed by Globs. It’s was my fault, you see, I had slipped up and he had to fight them off using his shoes as shields. Our boots are the only solid piece left of him.

So I shuffle forward through the crowd of Globs that don’t attack me or even blink. They just ask.

Who are you?

The boots are exactly where I left them yesterday. Before I fainted and Mae dragged me away. Stupid, I should have held onto them tighter. I should have taken better care of Reggie.

I pick them up, clutch them to my chest and turn, cringing slightly as my bad foot sinks into the wet ground.

There is a wall of Globs blocking my retreat, their question drowning out everything but the feeling of dirt between my toes and the boots against my chest.

Who are you?

I look at the boots and at my scraggy signature. Hell, even this is a lie. Nim was just a nickname Reggie gave me. Short for Nimble. Our joke, you see.

Who. Are. You?

I look at the Globs and at my reflection in their shiny bodies, barely visible in at dawn, and I no longer recognize what I see.

“Who are you?” I ask. My reflection asks.

The Globs hesitate and the humming stops. And for a moment, there’s nothing but silence. Silence. The question to which there are too many truths and too many lies.

Then, the Globs begin to hum again, inching closer, and the war resumes.

A lie springs to my lips and it tastes foul. I don’t want to say it though I don’t want to die. So, I squeeze the boots closer and shut my eyes. But I can still see them, in the distance, the tall, defiant elm trees, who win or lose, will grow and look forever on.

EP428: Paradise Left

by Evan Dicken
read by Barry Haworth

Links for this episode:

Author Evan Dicken

from the Daily Science Fiction author bio – By day, Evan Dicken fights economic entropy for the Ohio Department of Commerce, by night, he writes. His work has most recently appeared in: 10Flash QuarterlyStupefying Stories, and Ray Gun Revival, and he has stories forthcoming from: Chaosium and Tales of the Unanticipated. Visit him at:evan.dicken.com.

About the Narrator…

Barry Haworth is from Australia and he first narrated for Escape Pod in episode 317. This is his second appearance after offering to narrate as a way to help Escape Pod.

 

PARADISE LEFT
by Evan Dicken

Rob was feeding the dog when Ashley came home from the rebellion. It took less than a second for the front door to recognize her and slide open, but it still wasn’t fast enough. She kicked the jam with a muffled curse and stalked into the room, five and a half feet of wiry,dirt-smudged outrage.

RL-147 was on her like an excited puppy. “Welcome home, MistressAshley. Would you like me to–”

“Go fuck yourself.” She tossed her omnirifle onto the kitchen counter with a look of disgust and leaned over the sink to shake the ash from her hair.

“Belay that command, Erl,” Rob said under his breath. “And switch to silent mode, please.”

“Acknowledged.”

He dumped the last of the artificial beef into Whistler’s bowl and the dog dove in face-first, snuffling up the stew with wet,guttural gulps.

“Calm down, I’m not going to take it away,” Rob murmured.

Cupboards banged open and closed as Ashley rummaged around,looking for something to be angry about. “Where’s my damn Sea Pines mug?”

“Above the microcleaner, near the back.” Rob gave Whistler one last pat and stood with a soft sigh. He’d avoided the question as long as he could. Ashley already blamed him for leaving the rebellion. She was only going to get angrier if he kept ducking the issue.

“So…I take it the war didn’t go so well?” Rob tried for a sympathetic frown, but felt his jaw tighten. He didn’t like being out of the loop. There would almost certainly be news of the rebellion on the Wikifont, which he would’ve been able to see if Ashley hadn’t disabled the holoplates to protect them from “machine propaganda.”

“No, it went great. Just great.” Ashley sprayed her head off in the sink, then shook her hair, splattering the kitchen with drops ofgrimy water. “I’m president of the New Human Republic.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.”

EP339 – “Run,” Bakri Says

By Ferrett Steinmetz
Read by Mur Lafferty
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Asimov’s
All stories by Ferrett Steinmetz
All stories read by Mur Lafferty
Rated 15 and up for violence

“Run,” Bakri Says
By Ferrett Steinmetz

“I just want to know where my brother is,” Irena yells at the guards. The
English words are thick and slow on her tongue, like honey. She holds her
hands high in the air; the gun she’s tucked into the back of her pants jabs
at her spine.

She doesn’t want to kill the soldiers on this iteration; she’s never killed
anyone before, and doesn’t want to start. But unless she can get poor, weak
Sammi out of that prison in the next fifty/infinity minutes, they’ll start
in on him with the rubber hoses and he’ll tell them what he’s done. And
though she loves her brother with all her heart, it would be a blessing then
if the Americans beat him to death.

The guards are still at the far end of the street, just before the tangle of
barbed wire that bars the prison entrance. Irena stands still, lets them
approach her, guns out. One is a black man, the skin around his eyes
creased with a habitual expression of distrust; a fringe of white hair and
an unwavering aim marks him as a career man. The other is a younger man,
squinting nervously, his babyfat face the picture of every new American
soldier. Above them, a third soldier looks down from his wooden tower,
reaching for the radio at his belt.

She hopes she won’t get to know them. This will be easier if all they do is
point guns and yell. It’ll be just like Sammi’s stupid videogames.

“My brother,” she repeats, her mouth dry; it hurts to raise her arms after
the rough surgery Bakri’s done with an X-acto knife and some fishing line.
“His name is Sammi Daraghmeh. You rounded him up last night, with many
other men. He is – ”

Their gazes catch on the rough iron manacle dangling from her left wrist.
She looks up, remembers that Bakri installed a button on the tether so she
could rewind, realizes the front of her cornflower-blue abayah is splotched
with blood from her oozing stitches.

“Wait.” She backs away. “I’m not – ”

The younger soldier yells, “She’s got something!” They open fire.
Something tugs at her neck, parting flesh; another crack, and she swallows
her own teeth. She tries to talk but her windpipe whistles; her body
betrays her, refusing to move as she crumples to the ground, willing herself
to keep going. Nothing listens.

This is death, she thinks. This is what it’s like to die.

#

“Run,” Bakri says, and Irena is standing in an alleyway instead of dying on
the street – gravity’s all wrong and her muscles follow her orders again.
Her arms and legs flail and she topples face-first into a pile of rotting
lettuce. The gun Bakri has just pressed into her hands falls to the ground.

Dying was worse than she’d thought. Her mind’s still jangled with the
shock, from feeling all her nerves shrieking in panic as she died. She
shudders in the garbage, trying to regain strength.

Bakri picks her up. “What is your goal?” he barks, keeping his voice low so
the shoppers at the other end of the grocery store’s alleyway don’t hear.

Why is he asking me that? she thinks, then remembers: all the others went
insane. She wouldn’t even be here if Farhouz hadn’t slaughtered seventeen
soldiers inside the Green Zone.

It takes an effort to speak. “To – to rescue Sammi.”

“Good.” The tension drains from his face. He looks so relieved that Irena
thinks he might burst into tears. “What iteration? You did iterate,
right?”

“Two,” she says numbly, understanding what his relief means: he didn’t know.
He’d sent her off to be shot, unsure whether he’d linked her brother’s
technology to the heart monitor he’d stuck in the gash in her chest. It was
supposed to trigger a rewind when her heart stopped. If he’d misconfigured
it, Irena’s consciousness would have died in an immutable present.

Irena looks back at The Save Point, stashed underneath a pile of crates, a
contraption that’s totally Sammi; it’s several old X-Boxes wired together
with rusted antenna and whirligig copper cups, the humming circuitry glowing
green. It looks like trash, except for the bright red “<<" arrows Sammi spraypainted onto the side. That, and the fact that it just hauled her consciousness back through time. Bakri gives her an unapologetic nod: yes, I sent you off to die. "We can't let the Americans get it." "No," she agrees, then runs out to the street, headed four blocks down to where the prison is. She closes her hands into fists so her fingers don't tremble. She's been shot. She will be shot again, and again, until she rescues Sammi. # "Run," Bakri says, and this time she pushes the tether up around her arm - it's wide enough to slide up over her bicep, underneath her abayah's billowing sleeves - but the guards are panicky. They shoot her when she crosses the chain they've strung across the road to the prison entrance. God damn you, she thinks. I'm not like Sammi. I don't want to kill you. But they're terrified of what Fahrouz did. He cut the throats of seventeen men before anyone heard him; it's why the Americans rounded up anyone who had any connection to the resistance last night, including her brother. They think Fahrouz was a new breed of super-soldier; they believe any brown face is capable of killing them. But she's just a girl who's never fired a gun, not even in Sammi's stupid videogames. "Run," Bakri says. She tries climbing the high fence around the prison, but the barbed wire rips at her hands and the guard on the wooden sniper platform scans the prison every sixty seconds. He is inhuman, never tiring (at least in the fifty minutes she has before The Save Point's power fades and she's pulled back to the alleyway) - and his aim is infallible. He introduces her to the horror of her first headshot; when she reappears in the alleyway, her brain patterns are so scrambled she has a seizure. "Run," Bakri says. She tries different approaches; she smears her face with blood, yelling there's a shooter in the marketplace. She weeps, approaching as a mourner. She sneaks from the shadows. Anything to avoid killing them. They yell that they have orders to open fire on anyone crossing the line. Though they wince when they pull the trigger, open fire they do. "Run," Bakri says. She tries prostrating herself upon the ground. As she kneels to place her hands on the concrete, the tether slides down her arm. The sudden movement causes them to fire. "Run," Bakri says. She's getting good at dying, now. The trick is to go slack, so you don't flail upon waking when you rewind. Yet surrendering to her body's shutdown is like dying before she's dead. And every time she returns, Bakri's grabbing her with his sweaty palms, demanding to know her goal. "Stop it." She slaps his hands away. She shakes the iron bracelet at him; things inside it rattle. "You gave me a tether that looks like a damn bomb. No wonder they're shooting me! You have to restart it - Sammi made a tether you could bite down on, so no one could see - " "That one broke when they shot Fahrouz in the head," Bakri snaps back. "You're lucky I could build any tether at all. You're lucky I'm here. Everyone else thinks this machine just drives men mad. They want Sammi to die." The stitches from where Bakri implanted the heart monitor never stop hurting, her gashes always bleeding in the same way. She's always thirsty; her body can never relieve itself as she loops through the same time again and again. She gorges herself on stolen drinks from the marketplace between the alleyway and the prison - but then she's back with Bakri, dryness tickling the back of her throat. Why didn't she drink before Bakri started this? Why didn't anyone tell her to start the Save Point when she was lying down, so she wouldn't keep falling over? "Run," Bakri says. She wishes she could tell Sammi about her improvements. All this hard-earned knowledge, lost. It becomes a game of inches. The babyfaced soldier is hair-trigger, ripping her body to shreds the moment anything unexpected happens - oh, Fahrouz, you put the fear of God into these Americans, you were only supposed to steal a laptop - but he's also a softie, arguing with his older compatriot if she's crying. The older black man is hard-edged, by the book; he yells that he will shoot if she comes two steps closer, and he always does. Sometimes the babyfaced one vomits as she's dying. The soldier on the wooden sniper platform always looks down like a distant God, crossing himself as she bleeds out. Then Bakri, asking her what her goal is. "Run," Bakri says. She doesn't always die. She can usually get to the button on her wrist. But dying never gets easier. Her mind understands what will happen; her body cannot. No matter how she steels herself for the bullet, her body overwhelms conscious thought with dumb animal terror. "Run," Bakri says. She learns to optimize. If she's crying this way to tug on the younger one's emotions, and creeps that way when the older soldier's busy bickering with the young one that they can't help, then how far can she get before they fire? There's a wet newspaper flattened against the street, then a tire track a little further, then a rusty coil of barbed wire next to the entrance. She can get past the newspaper consistently, nearly getting to the tire track before they blow her apart; what can she say that will get her to the barbed wire? "Run," Bakri says. Their conversations become monotonous variants: Sir, she needs help. We have orders, soldier. Nothing she can do will make them discuss the weather, or tell her what cell her brother's in, or even smile. Just the same recycled topics, chopped into different words. It reminds her of home, listening to Sammi outwit AI guards and their recycled vocabulary, back when Sammi built bombs and played videogames. "Run," Bakri says. Now she can always hit the tire track. Sammi always played videogames. He hated going outside. He got political at thirteen after Mother was blown apart by a smart missile programmed with the wrong coordinates. Even then, Sammi never placed the bombs. He just handed people boxes of death, with instructions where to place them. Irena remembers how he'd tinker with his explosives and then play first-person shooters to relax, as though they were aspects of the same thing. "Run," Bakri says. Sammi was a genius with wires. When the Americans jammed the cell phones he used to activate his bombs, Sammi set the bombs to go off fifteen minutes after the cell phone signal cut out. And when the Americans got a jamming device that fuzzed the signal but didn't kill it, he switched to proximity sensors. Then he started working on other sensors - sensors that predicted when people would walk by, sensors that sent signals back to twenty seconds before they were disconnected. By the time he was seventeen, bombs bored him. He started other experiments. "Run," Bakri says. Now she's consistently past the tire track, her fingers halfway to the barbed wire. She'd gotten janitorial jobs for Sammi's volunteers, after they'd finished their trial runs with The Save Point. They made lousy employees. They knocked over cups of coffee and stared at the spill for minutes, then sobbed in relief. Irena understands why, now. They were grateful the spill stayed. Something remained changed - unlike her thirst, unlike the gash in her side, unlike the endlessly soft-hearted boy soldier and his hard-assed sergeant. "Run," Bakri says. Now her fingers always touch the barbed wire. Now she knows how to die. Now she fires the gun when they're perfectly distracted. She aims for the young one first because he shot her first, it's only fair; the gun's kick almost knocks it from her hands. She fires three more times, gets lucky, the third shot catches him in that babyface, a wet red fountain, and as he tumbles to the ground she laughs because she's no longer scared. She knows why Fahrouz killed seventeen soldiers. He was just supposed to get a laptop and get out, but how many times was he beaten before he slipped past the spotlights? How long did he endure the fear of being shot before he realized the Save Point erased all consequences? The guards' dumbstruck surprise as she kills them is the repayment for a thousand torments they can never remember. "Run," Bakri says. She does, now, eagerly. She's going to kill them as many times as they killed her. # Irena realizes she's drifting off-mission when she starts shooting Bakri in the face. She didn't mean to shoot him; it's just that Irena had gone down in a particularly bad firefight with the soldiers, one where they'd shot her left arm before tackling her to the ground, and she'd barely jammed the tether-button against the pavement before they hauled her off to prison. And she'd fallen over again once she'd rewound, and Bakri'd grabbed her and yelled "What is your goal?" and she yelled that her goal was to shut him up and she shot him. It was a good idea, as it turns out. She needs to shoot well, and firefights aren't a good time for lessons. So when Bakri says "Run," now she walks down the alley, takes aim, and shoots Bakri in the head. The marketplace shrieks when they hear the gun, but she just empties the clip at a garbage can and presses the tether-button. "Run," Bakri says. Bakri should be the one running, but he doesn't know. He's always surprised. If her first shot doesn't kill him, he weeps apologies. "Run," Bakri says. Then, once she jams the gun into his belly, he blubbers: "I know I should have told you the heartbeat monitor might not work. But you might not have done it then - we can't let Sammi's ideas fall into their hands!" She doesn't care about that. That was weeks ago. "You drove him insane, didn't you?" she asks. "He wanted to stop, didn't he?" "Him who?" Bakri is dumbfounded. Fahrouz was just yesterday for him, and already he's forgotten. She shoots him. "Run," Bakri says. She feels a pang of guilt once she realizes that Bakri might not even know what he did. Yet she knows what happened all the same: they told Fahrouz he had to get the laptop, and condemned him to God knows how many cycles of breaking into the Green Zone until he returned with one. Bakri and Sammi would never have turned it off until Fahrouz brought them results. The machine doesn't drive people mad. Its controllers do. "Run," Bakri says. She tortures Bakri for a while, trying to get him to turn off The Save Point. He won't, and she can't break him in fifty minutes. Bakri knows Sammi will reveal The Save Point's mechanisms once they start in with the serious interrogations. He tells her he'd die a thousand times before he let the Americans have this technology. "Run," Bakri says. "Run," Bakri says. "Run," Bakri says. Irena gets up to three hundred and seven deaths before she takes Bakri at his word. She thinks about shooting The Save Point to end it all. But Bakri barely got it working, and Sammi's told her there's a shutdown sequence. What if she unplugs it and everything freezes but her? Her brother's technology is as vicious and unpredictable as Sammi himself. She doesn't dare. Her aim's improved, though. She stops shooting Bakri and goes off to start in on the soldiers again. She's getting closer; she can catch the sniper on his wooden tower one time out of three now, and she almost always kills hard-ass or babyface. Though she's shot them enough that she thinks it's no longer their fault. It's the damn machine. It puts them into position like chess pieces. If it wasn't for the machine, they could see the sunset, quench their thirst with lemonade, do something other than be railroaded into a shootout. The machine reduces them to inputs and outputs. Was Sammi ever angry? She doesn't think so. That thought slides under her skin like a splinter as she re-runs the four blocks to the prison. When her mother died, Irena didn't have time for anger. She had to feed her family. She hustled pirated DVDs, worked tables, whatever it took. But she cried when no one was looking. Sammi never cried. He just played videogames and built bombs. She'd yelled at him for playing the Americans' videogames, but he went on about how well-designed they were. "Run," Bakri says. As she runs, she remembers a conversation: "Does it ever bother you that your bombs kill people?" she'd asked Sammi one night, as he harvested yet another X-Box for parts. "That's the goal," he agreed, not looking up. "No, but. what if it kills the wrong people?" "Bound to happen." He plucked a chip out, held it to the light. "Sometimes, people are in the wrong place." Irena flushed with anger. "Mother was in the wrong place." He frowned, seemed to notice her for the first time. "Well, yes." He cocked his head and squinted at her, confused. "She was." "Run," Bakri says. Those four blocks are getting longer. She'd told herself she couldn't judge Sammi's genius by the standards of other people. Besides, the bombs paid for their apartment. But now, running, she wonders: did Sammi make bombs to avenge his dead mother? Or was it a convenient excuse to make things that interested him? "Run," Bakri says. She's always running for Sammi. And by luck more than skill, she finally shoots all three. Clean headshots. They fall to the ground, the sniper toppling from his roost. Irena stands over their bodies, dumbfounded. I'm just a girl, she thinks. How did I kill three wary soldiers? Then she remembers how long she's been doing this. Months. Maybe years. She's almost forgotten what she's supposed to do now. She searches the older soldier's body for the key, praising God that this is just a holding location - a real prison would have thumbprint scanners and cameras - and she wonders why reinforcements aren't charging out of the gates. Then she realizes: this has all taken perhaps ninety seconds in their time. Nobody knows yet. She flings open the door to see a dank prison lobby in dreary bureaucrat beige, plastic bucket seats and buzzing fluorescent lights and a battered front desk. A receptionist sits at the desk - not a soldier, a local boy in an American uniform, looking strangely out of place. He glances up, surprised, from a phone call. "Where is Sammi?" She smiles. It's been so long since she had a new conversation. She aims the gun at him. He puts down the phone. "S-Sammi?" he stammers. She's surprised he doesn't know already, then remembers this is all new to him. It's a pleasant reminder that the whole world hasn't been reduced to Sammi's Save Point. "Samuel Daraghmeh." "He's." He looks it up. "In cell #8." "And that is where?" He points down a hallway with trembling fingers. She presses the gun barrel to his temple, whispers in his ear: "If you alert anyone, I will kill you every time from now on, and you will never know why." She removes the gun from his holster, shoots the phone. She hears a wet dribble on the tile as he pees himself. The prisoners see the young girl with the gun walking through the halls. They rise, bruised and bleeding, begging her to save them. Their words are canned. They will say the exact same thing whenever she returns. She ignores them. The guards inside don't wear bulletproof vests, making this easy. The prisoners cheer as she fires. And there, bunched in with ten other sweaty, beaten men, is Sammi. He looks miserable; the other men have crowded him out until he's perched on the dog-end of a cot. His lower lip sticks out as he stares at a urine stain in the corner, so concerned with his own fate that he hasn't even noticed the other men cheering. No wonder she has to rescue him. He's supposed to be reclined in a La-Z-Boy, a game controller in hand, not in a place where people actually get hurt. She motions the other prisoners aside, presses her face against the rusted bars. "Have you ever seen one of your bombs go off?" He registers the voice, not the words, jumping up with the same boyish thrill he gets whenever he beats a final boss. "Irena!" he shouts, running to the bars. His eyes well with tears of relief. She unlocks the cell door. "The rest of you run," she tells them. "I need to talk to my brother." "Irena." Sammi's chest heaves. "I knew you'd come for me." "Always. But listen. Bakri is dead." That much, she thought, was true; she'd taken to strangling Bakri and burying his body under the garbage as a matter of routine. "How do you shut down the machine?" "Oh, it's better than I'd thought," he says, eyes shining. "You're a part of my project! How many iterations did it take to get in? A thousand? Two thousand? You must have improvements." "I do," she agrees. "I want to understand how it works. Tell me how to exit the loop." He does. It's simpler than she'd thought. She hugs Sammi. "You did it," she whispers. "Your machine is perfect. It makes an untrained girl into an unstoppable killer." He squeezes her in triumph. She lets him ride his moment of absolute perfection, judging when her brother is happiest. Then she jams the gun against the base of his neck and pulls the trigger. His face explodes. She clutches his body until it ceases quivering. Then she drops him. Should she be sorrier? She probes her numbness and feels nothing. She shrugs, starts the walk back to The Save Point to shut it down and dismantle it. It's not until she gets to the lobby that the tears come. It takes her a moment to understand what's triggering them. From under the desk she can hear the muffled sobbing of the receptionist. He must have hid when the prisoners escaped. She stops long enough to tug him out, struggling, from the desk, then embraces him tightly. He shivers, a frightened bird, as she nuzzles him, wetting his shoulder with tears. "I don't have to kill you," she says, smelling his hair, feeling his clothes, loving him more than anyone she's ever loved before.