DP FICTION #48B: “How Rigel Gained a Rabbi (Briefly)” by Benjamin Blattberg

Rabbi Dov Applebaum argued—quite eloquently, he thought—for keeping the spaceship to its original flight plan. After all, there were Jewish children on Orion Station who needed Torah lessons before their upcoming B’nai Mitzvah. And yet the AI refused to listen to him and instead plotted a new course towards the distress signal on Rigel-7.

When the AI stated that intergalactic law compelled them to answer a distress call, Dov might’ve kept quiet—he wouldn’t actually have kept quiet, but he might have—but when the fakakta computer started citing Jewish law, Dov had to object.

“True, Leviticus says not to ‘stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor,'” said Dov, “but there are many interpretations of the Jewish law around distress signals. For one, what is a neighbor, galactically speaking?”

Dov could have discussed this for days, turning the argument about so that every angle of interpretation caught the light. But he only had hours before landfall and the AI had stopped actually listening anyway. Dov was used to that. His students throughout the galaxy didn’t listen, so why should his ship? Dov tried to imagine the Jewish children on Orion Station wailing and rending their garments over the delayed arrival of their favorite rabbi, but it was easier to imagine them eating synth-pork and forgetting what it meant to be Jews.

To add to Rabbi Dov’s woes, as his ship entered orbit and prepared to descend to the surface of Rigel-7, the Rigelian ambassador Cho’sun called on the viewscreen to forbid Dov from landing.

The spider-like Rigelian spoke its own language, which sounded to Dov like Coney Island being picked up with little warning and shaken. Luckily, Dov had a universal translator, a small black box clipped onto the upper sleeve of his flight suit, loaded with an AI that had been trained specifically to Dov’s native language. The box seemed to hum and clear its throat before translating.

“Listen, schmuck,” said the Rigelian through the translation box, “we have no laws to protect outsiders and you’ll just have to live with the consequences.”

Dov glanced at the translation box skeptically and tapped at it with one chewed nail. He couldn’t hear any loose parts in there—and if there were, what could he do about it?

“You hear me, schmuck?” Cho’sun waved its anterior arms in emphasis.

“Ah,” said Dov, as he attempted to stroke his red-brown beard thoughtfully, as his teachers had done and their teachers before them. The effect was rather ruined by his beard’s tendency to float up in microgravity, the curly mass haloing his jaw. “But you see, Ambassador, I am not landing—the ship is.”

Cho’sun made a sound like a garbage disposal chewing up dinosaur bones. The universal translator rendered this as laughter at first and then clarified: “Dismissive laughter.”

“Ambassador,” said Dov, “intergalactic law demands that distress signals be answered by the nearest available ship.” Even if that ship was a weaponless family transport that currently held no family, just Dov and his collection of Judaica, including a parchment Torah in a chased silver case all the way from Earth. That treasure he rarely brought out: only for brief ceremonies and never while his people were noshing.

“Universal law, shmuniversal law.” The ambassador flexed its claws, which might have been body language for emphasis or negation or something else entirely. Dov had skipped taking xeno-linguistics in college and the translator had its limits. “And in any case, Mr. Bigshot, we plan to take care of our own distress call, thank you very much.”

“Ah, so there is nothing to be distressed about?” Dov looked over at the terminal where he imagined the AI to be, a slight air of triumph in his raised eyebrow.

“Nothing at all distressing,” agreed Cho’sun. “As soon as we find them, we will kill off the entire unclean species that is sending whatever call you are receiving.”

Dov grimaced like he’d tasted a bad piece of whitefish. “It sounds, Ambassador, like you are speaking of genocide.”

Insofar as a spider can smile, the ambassador did. “Aha, now you understand.”

Dov’s bad fish expression deepened and he sighed. He couldn’t see any way to avoid landing on Rigel-7. He raised his hands and shrugged, the ancestral Jewish gesture for “What can I do about this? Nothing.”

Even the ambassador, who had probably never met a Jew before, seemed to take Dov’s meaning. Its voice took on a husky edge: the Empire State Building being scraped the length of Long Island. “We will cleanse Rigel-7 of this degenerate species and if you interfere, your life will be forfeit, schmuck.” The viewscreen went dead, the communication cut.

After a long moment of sighing, Dov flipped on a tablet, calling up commentaries on mediation by the most esteemed rabbis, as well as accessing a brief summary of the Rigelians. Their description—violent, xenophobic—sounded to Dov much like his ancestors’ stories of growing up with the Italians in Yonkers. And hadn’t they made peace there before moving to Scarsdale and Florida?

Perhaps Dov could be the one to bring Rigel-7 into the intergalactic community. He’d rather keep to his schedule and be teaching Torah to ungrateful children on backwards space stations, true, but if he had to make peace between two warring tribes on Rigel-7 and go down in history, so be it.

Perhaps, with his help, no one would die.

***

They were all going to die.

Cho’sun had called these other aliens a “species,” but the ambassador had called Dov a “schmuck,” too, so what did he know? Truth be told, Dov felt less like a schmuck and more like a schlemiel: not the clumsy waiter spilling the soup, but the guy the waiter spills soup on. Only in this case, it was more like the universe itself was spilling soup on Dov.

To Dov, these aliens didn’t seem like a distinct species. For one thing, there just weren’t that many of them, maybe ten total, camped out here in the middle of the green-black jungle. The jungle itself smelled faintly of burnt sugar, like overspun cotton candy, and was lush and thorny. Dov had time to discover the thorns as he hiked a few miles from the only clearing where his ship could land, since this benighted planet hadn’t any spaceport or roads or Chinese food. It was unpleasant, even if the air was breathable and the only large predators here were the man-sized, spider-like Rigelians.

Like the ones standing in front of Dov, asking for help, and not really listening when he said he couldn’t give them any.

“No, I don’t have ray guns on my ship,” explained Dov again. “What should I have ray guns for?”

The aliens talked to each other in voices that sounded like the Long Island Expressway being rolled up and eaten like pastrami, in the same language that Cho’sun used. Not only did they speak the same language and look nearly identical to Cho’sun—the same dark compound eyes, chitinous exoskeletons, and abundant limbs—but they waved away Dov’s well-thought-out arguments with the same motions. Dov wasn’t sure what set these Rigelians apart or why he hadn’t become a dentist with a nice little practice on Mars.

“Given your similarities, why do the Rigelians hate you so?” asked Dov.

Yen’tah, a smaller and slightly reddish but just as horrifyingly chitinous and hairy spider-thing, bristled, rising on its posterior four legs. “I reject your question—we too are Rigelian! It’s divisive speech like that—”

The other Rigelians began to yell at Yen’tah, making even more noise than it did. Dov’s translation box parsed their commingled cries: “hush, sheket, enough already!” Yen’tah made a gesture that Dov assumed was rude among egg-laying, non-binary sentients, but it stopped speaking and a moment later the ones who had shouted Yen’tah down quieted to a low grumble.

“The Kin hate us Other-kin because they do not believe in change and we have changed,” said Buch’ker, who was larger than all the other Rigelians and spoke in a voice that sounded like a Ferris wheel making love to a container ship. Buch’ker cocked its head to one side and then the other, a gesture that indicated thought among the Rigelians. Buch’ker was considering how to explain to Dov, and eventually it said, “We see the world differently.”

“Ah, a philosophical difference,” said Dov. “As a Jew, I have some experience—”

The Otherkin around him cut him off, their bulbous abdomens grumbling. The whole noisy rabble reminded Dov unexpectedly of a congregation held too long at service, with the promised land of cookies and gossip so close.

Buch’ker pointed to one of its eyes, as shiny as new challah, and said slowly, as if to a young child, “We see the world differently.”

After some clarification, with Buch’ker talking ever slower, Dov eventually realized this talk of “seeing the world differently” was the literal truth, as well as a metaphor. As metaphor: whereas the Kin avoided change and only maintained the technology they had inherited, the Otherkin believed change was acceptable, particularly when it would help them avoid extinction. And as literal truth: the Otherkin had experienced a genetic shift that allowed them to sense many different wavelengths. Though as they hadn’t developed a theory of genetics yet, Buch’ker explained this as simply a difference between its family—all the spider-aliens here being closely related—and the other Rigelians.

Also, Yen’tah explained, their thoraxes were smaller or hairier or something, but Dov couldn’t see it.

While Buch’ker explained this, two of the Otherkin scuttled up the trees and began to dismantle their nests high in the canopy overhead. These nests were temporary structures, Buch’ker had said before, put up and taken down as the Otherkin migrated through the jungle, staying ahead of their distant cousins and would-be murderers. A few others began to look up at their nests, realizing that Dov couldn’t help them, that running away would be their only hope. Maybe, if they were lucky, the next starship they called with their distress beacon would be more help.

And if not, more running, more distress calls, and more running.

The original distress beacon was still beeping—Dov’s ship relayed the call to his suit, despite his request to the AI to not do that, please. Dov had even asked the Otherkin to turn off the beacon, fearing that the Kin could track it.

Alas, explained the Otherkin named Gon’nef whose eyes were oddly close together, they had just recently invented the distress beacon and had not yet invented the off switch. A few Otherkin made a noise that seemed like laughter at that.

But Dov decided to leave that topic alone, especially after Buck’ker told him that the Kin had viewscreen technology that operated only on that frequency, but not a lot of other communication technology. The Kin couldn’t track this new signal since they didn’t invent any new technology, just lived with whatever old things they had and never changed.

“This taboo against change, this is taught to the Kin from your Creator or Creators?” asked Dov then, looking forward to discussing comparative religion rather than the first topic the Otherkin had wanted to discuss: ray guns.

“What kind of a cockamamie question is that?” grumbled Yen’tah.

“No,” said Buch’ker, “the Creators didn’t teach anything to the Kin before the Kin ate them.”

But now, with the Otherkin packing their nests and preparing to run, Dov felt rather sympathetic to that distress beacon, calling off into the interstellar night for help that might never come. There was something deeply Jewish about it. Dov could almost imagine the Otherkin as the Israelites of the book of Exodus, under the cruel yoke of the pharaoh.

“I have a plan,” said Dov proudly. “We run.”

“This he calls a plan?” Yen’tah sneered.

“If we run, we can escape,” said Dov, “as long the Kin can’t track our signal.”

***

“We easily tracked your signal,” said Ambassador Cho’sun, as it entered Dov’s prison cell, high up in an ancient tower. “But then you probably figured that out when we caught you.”

Dov turned from the window, where he’d been watching his spaceship’s rocket trail, but after he saw the look on Cho’sun’s face, Dov almost turned back. On a human, Cho’sun’s expression would’ve been called a deep frown, but on a human that expression wouldn’t have exposed so many chitin-brown, needle-sharp teeth.

Dov pulled at his flight suit to try to smooth it out and got his beard caught in the suit’s velcro at the neck. “Ambassador, intergalactic law demands that I be allowed to communicate with my home government.”

Cho’sun ignored him. It placed a black box between them and settled itself into the narrow room as best as it could. To fit here, Cho’sun had to fold and tuck its legs under it, like a spider who had extensively practiced yoga. Like most of the city that Dov had seen—while being carried by angry Rigelians—this room was built to a different scale and shape than these natives. The Kin literally lived in houses made for others who had come before them, which, even for Dov, was taking respect for tradition a little too far.

Cho’sun tapped the black box, paused, then tapped it again, this time harder.

“Ambassador, I demand—”

Cho’sun picked the black box up and held it up to its ear canal and shook it, before placing it down and pressing it one more time, firmly. Dov heard a slight pop, like a jar of garlic pickles being opened. Cho’sun clicked its mandibles, which Dov had learned was the Rigelian way of nodding to oneself. Then it began to talk.

“You putz, I told you not to land and what did you do?” Cho’sun fell silent, staring at Dov.

After far too long a silence, the Rigelian added, “That’s not rhetorical, mister. This is your trial right here, nu? You want we should execute you now? Don’t say anything, fine with me.”

Dov paused stroking his beard, getting it caught in velcro again. Buch’ker had told him the Kin would hold a trial before executing and eating him—more respect for tradition, Dov supposed. He just hadn’t thought his impending death would be quite so impending. Dov considered his situation against the long history of the Jews: this was not the worst situation his people had been in. It was not a very comforting thought.

“You want me to explain what I did?” asked Dov.

“Blockhead! We know what you did—you had the gall to save those unclean things with your…” Words failing it, Cho’sun waved a claw towards the window, towards the rocket trail, a column of smoke in the daytime sky. “They all escaped, so I hope you’re happy with yourself.”

Dov considered for a moment before deciding, yes, he was a little happy with himself. It hadn’t been, all things considered, a bad plan for him to run while broadcasting a signal the Kin could detect on the viewscreen technology, while the Otherkin made their way to Dov’s ship, following a signal only they could detect. Dov had a deep, rabbinical urge for symbolism, which was satisfied by the fact that the signal the Otherkin followed was their own distress beacon, relayed from his ship.

Only now he realized the plan’s tragic flaw: he was going to die. It had seemed so clear—and so righteous—at the time for Dov to be the decoy: if any of the Otherkin were left behind, they’d be immediately killed and eaten. At least Dov got this farce of a trial. Not a long enough trial for people to come rescue him, but at least it was something, right?

“We know what you’re guilty of,” said Cho’sun, “we just want to know why. You can explain yourself. And then, the execution.”

“But what am I really guilty of?” asked Dov, a sudden flash of inspiration rising to the surface of his brain like a matzah ball of the perfect lightness and airiness. “The Rigelians wanted to cleanse Rigel-7 of the Otherkin”—Cho’sun bristled at that word, the tiny hairs covering its body vibrating with anger, no xeno-linguistics degree necessary to read that—”and I have done that. There are no more of… them on Rigel-7.”

“Our world is cleansed,” said Cho’sun flatly, “but we were looking forward to killing them all. And now we have to be satisfied with killing only you. And speaking of that,” and Cho’sun reached out to turn off the black box.

“Wait, I can explain better,” said Dov, half-reaching out to swat away Cho’sun’s claw. He caught himself and steepled his fingers as if in thought. “We Jews have an old saying from the Babylonian Talmud—a book of commentary on our laws—that says, ‘whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.'”

“I do not understand,” said the Rigelian, claw still hovering over the black box.

“Ah,” said Dov, nodding, “you see, it’s a moral calculation that asks us to consider—”

Cho’sun waved him off. “Schmuck, it’s ‘book’ I don’t understand. Whatever those are, we don’t have them and don’t want them.”

But then Cho’sun cocked its head to one side and then the other, the Rigelian gesture for considering.

“And how is one life equal to a world?” asked Cho’sun.

“A lesson like that has to be interpreted,” Dov said quickly. He paused as he heard steps coming up the narrow stairs to his tower cell. The steps were halting and clumsy, the narrow stairs not at all suited to the Rigelian’s sprawling legs. And on top of the click of Rigelian claws, Dov heard something else being dragged, bouncing on each hard step with a clunk. Dov had a moment of vivid worry, imagining them dragging some torture device up to his cell.

Cho’sun had to move aside for the other Rigelians to make their way into the cell and drop what they were carrying in a pile at Dov’s feet. The Jewish children of Orion Station would’ve said it was a torture device, but after wiping away some leaves and mud, Dov recognized it all as his collection of Judaica and teaching materials.

They were dented here and there and all jumbled together—the Seder plate next to the shofar horn, his tefillin straps tangled around Elijah’s and Miriam’s cups, the menorah with one arm bent down, the Torah surfing on a sea of yarmulkes, and a classroom’s worth of tablets, loaded with lessons on everything from basic Hebrew to the most abstruse rabbinical commentary.

“We have only you and all of this,” said Cho’sun, gesturing to the pile. And then, with a little more hope in its voice, it added, “Is any of this edible?”

“No,” Dov admitted, “but I can explain how a life is worth a world.” He picked up a tablet, the least dented and mud-covered, checking that it was still working. He turned it on, flipped to the first page, and turned it to face Cho’sun. “This, here, is the letter aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.”

Cho’sun looked skeptically at the image of the aleph on the tablet’s screen. “Listen, bubele, no more nonsense—this you call the answer to my question?”

Dov considered that for a moment, before answering. “It’s the beginning of an answer.”

“How long will this answer take?”

For once, Dov didn’t say what he thought—hopefully long enough for a ship to come rescue me—but merely shrugged, hands up, and gave Cho’sun the same answer his rabbis had given Dov back when he was a student. “It takes as long as it takes.”

Cho’sun looked back at the tablet, its head cocked first to one side, then the other. “Oy vey,” it said finally, and then clicked its mandibles. “What comes next?”

 


© 2018 by Benjamin Blattberg

 

Author’s Note: The seed of this story was probably planted by William Tenn’s “On Venus, Have We Got A Rabbi!” Not the story—just the title. (Though eventually I did read the story and you might want to check it out, too.)

 

Ben Blattberg is a software developer, improviser, and writer currently living in Austin, TX, as long as there are no follow­up questions on any of those facts. His stories have appeared in Tina Connolly’s Toasted Cake, Crossed Genres, Pornokitsch, Podcastle, and Pseudopod.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #48A: “Local Senior Celebrates Milestone” by Matthew Claxton

The reporter is young, smells young even through the miasma of bleach and boiled vegetables. Three Willows Retirement Village is not an olfactory feast, so Millie is grateful for the scents of mango shampoo and coconut hand cream the girl brings with her.

“First of all, congratulations on the milestone!”

Millie wraps her knuckles around the gnarled head of her driftwood cane, leans forward.

“Congratulations?” She releases a calculated chuckle, gently chiding. “On not dying?”

“I just mean… I mean, not everyone gets to celebrate their one-hundred and tenth birthday!”

“Well, that’s very true. I’ve been blessed.”

“I was hoping you could tell me a little about your life. You must have seen so much!”

“Oh, yes.”

The girl has a notebook out now, pen poised.

“I was hoping you could tell me, what’s your earliest memory?”

The pods. The heat of the sun soaked into the sand by day, warming the cluster of egg-sacs. Warm, dark, protected. Her lungs and gills growing, the bones of her limbs hardening. Keratinous spurs on her wrists grew sharp, and the urge to surface gripped her hard. The skin of the egg parted like paper, and salty sand mingled with the cooling jelly. She had squirmed onto the beach. Her parents watched nearby, their horses shying.

Her siblings had crawled free, but she had been the first, the first to see the stars.

“I remember the beach. We always lived near the water, and I loved to run across the sand at low tide, when it was cool. When I was older we’d ride the old mare down. Tried to get her to gallop along the shore once, and she threw me right into a tidepool!” Millie forces a chuckle and a wry smile.

“You grew up on a farm?”

“Oh yes. Lots of chores to do. And schooling, of course. Mama educated us herself, us being so far out in the country.”

They stalked one another through the trees and fields, games of hunt and evasion. Millie had the sharpest nose. She could find her siblings hidden even when their skin changed to match the mottled pattern of leaf and twig. They pounced and bit one another, drawing blood and laughing, violently tender.

Later, Mother drilled them. Human languages first, English and Mandarin, German and Spanish. “You must be able to blend among them. You can’t rely on your hybrid DNA. Never let them suspect. The slightest slip could be fatal to our kind and our mission.”

After lunch it was their Home language, the keening and clicks, the consonants aspirated through flared gills. They studied the old poets and the old songs, in glyphs as twisted as the coils of barbed wire that marked the edges of their homestead.

The reporter leans forward, elbows on the table. “I suppose you didn’t have a telephone, or a car? Do you remember when the first time you saw a car was? Or a radio?”

Father held the communicator in his palm. Smooth as beach glass, liquid fractals pulsed from its center as he clicked and cooed.

“When will I be able to speak to Home?” Millie asked. 

“When the time is right,” said Father. “When you are old enough to begin work on the mission.”

He gently stroked her hair, palm still warm from the communicator. “Soon,” he promised.

“Radio seemed like magic. I heard it first at another family’s home. Voices through the air, you know. The first car I ever saw was considerably less pleasant — it was an old Model-T. The rattle and roar of the thing! I clapped my hands over my ears.”

The reporter nods, scribbling.

“You’ve lived through such turbulent times. What was it like to live during the World Wars?”

The government man’s heels beat hard against the cheap rooming house carpet. Millie held tight to the wooden handles of the garrote, ignoring the blood that seeped around the wire and dripped onto her good shoes. 

Too close. He’d come too close, had seen her emerge from the lake near the munitions factory.

When his heart stilled, she eased him to the floor, then collected every trace of her presence from the small room. She’d have to abandon her identity, find another source for the chemicals they needed for the third phase. The damned war had made the humans watchful, almost clever.

Not so clever that they wouldn’t be easily thrown off the trail. She left a torn page from a German-American Bund pamphlet in the back of the cheap plywood dresser. 

She left, not worrying about fingerprints on the doorknob. She didn’t leave any.

“Nothing as exciting as you may imagine. It was all victory gardens and scrap drives for me. The war on the home front. I was just fortunate that I didn’t have any children in harm’s way.”

“But you did have children?”

“Oh my, yes. Everyone had a big family, back then. A family meant a future.”

She and Henry didn’t bother to put their clothes back on, just walked out of the beach house and onto the moon-silvered sand. She dug the hole with a garden trowel.

“I’m worried,” he said. “We’ve lost contact with the Chicago brood.”

She dropped to her haunches. “Protocol. Scatter and hide. They’ve done it before, after a mission’s gone bad.”

“It’s been too long. I think they’ve been captured, or killed. One of those G-men pursuit teams maybe.”

She shuddered, half at his words and half at the birth-ecstasy. The egg mass slid out of her and filled the hole. Blue-veined embryos blinked at the black sky for a moment before she covered them with sand. She pressed one hand to the spot for a moment, felt their warmth.

“It will be okay,” she said.

“Tell me about your husband.”

“Henry? We met at work, after I first moved to the city. I knew he was a good man, and, well, our families were friendly. We were a good fit.

“It turned out to be a real love match, though. That was rarer than the movies would have you believe.”

She pauses, contains herself. Let the reporter see the sorrow, not the anger.

“He died young.”

The first bullet caught him in the lower back. Purplish blood oozed from the wound as they ran through the alleys, seeking cover in the steam rising from the sewer grates. Men in long coats ran behind them, yelling into crude radios.

The second bullet struck higher, in Henry’s spine. His legs spasmed wildly as he fell. She grabbed his coat, pulled him with fierce strength, but the alley ended in a filthy courtyard.

“Go,” he hissed. She hesitated, and he sang the word in the speech of Home, his golden tones strained with pain. She scaled a fire escape, bullets shattering against the metal railings.

She looked back once. He wasn’t moving.

That winter, she found the leader of the FBI pursuit group. She watched his house burn on a cold night. No one got out, not the government man, not his wife, not their children.

“I still miss him. He was a good man. Left me with a little nest egg, fortunately. In my later years, I travelled, all the trips we’d meant to take together after we retired. But the loneliness… it can get to you, sometimes.”

Goa was comfortably warm, the monsoon kind to her skin. The mathematician at the university had proved amenable to sharing his notes. He was bright, too bright. She cupped the communicator in her hand and reached out to the brood in Bombay. They would need to arrange an accident.

After, she reset to commune with Home, but the device remained silent and dark.

Nothing. Three years, and no word.

What was going on?

The stars were cloaked by clouds, and the sky held no answers.

The reporter taps pen to notebook. She is already running low on questions. Millie sighs. She’s been through the gauntlet at one-hundred, and again at one-hundred and five. There are only a few questions left to go, then it will be time for the tooth-achingly sweet cake, and a walk back to her room.

“Did you ever expect you would live so long?” The question bursts forth, the pleading look says the girl would take it back if she could.

“No,” Millie says. “But when you’re young, you always think you’ll live forever.”

Millie’s knee ached, the arthritis a gift of her human genes. A hurricane was coming, rolling in across the Gulf and making for Florida. She could feel it even inside the sterile grey-carpeted halls of Cape Canaveral.

She pushed the mail trolley, dropping packages in cubicles and offices. When no one was looking, she palmed the scanner the Moscow brood had sent her over racked floppy disks. The scanner hummed in her hand like a wasp as it soaked up data.

They were stealing technology from the humans now, desperately trying to build an alternate means of communicating with Home. Pathetic, but what else could they do?

They could forget. Susan and Abel and Henry Junior spoke to her in English now, called her on Sundays and worried about mortgages as much as missions.

How many of the old poems did they still remember? How much could they be expected to remember, three generations removed from Home?

Thirty years, and no word.

“I suppose everyone learns the secret, if you go on long enough,” Millie says. “You just keep on living. You hope you find someone you can love to spend your life with, you try to do right by your children. You do your work, and hope things turn out well. They don’t, always. You have to make your peace with that. That’s about all I’ve learned, in my time on this planet.”

She sighs, and something in her face makes the reporter draw back a little. A little too much revealed there, the twinge of guilt at any crack in the facade. But she’s an old woman. Who will think her moods are anything worse than the product of a decaying mind?

The singing comes from the kitchen, singing and fire’s feral glow. The fools have somehow lit a full hundred and ten candles atop the white-and-blue frosted slab. It reminds her pleasantly of a burning house.

The chorus of “Happy Birthday” dies away.

“Blow out the candles, Millie!” shouts the home’s manager through lipstick-smeared teeth.

The reporter has her camera pressed to one eye. Fine, if they want a photo, she’ll give them one. She draws breath into lungs deeper than any human’s, and purses her lips.

The flames flicker and die, a hundred smoke trails coiling about like seaweed at slack tide.

The applause is genuine, the kitchen staff and nursing aids shouting in wonder. “Go Millie!” “Lookit that!”

The reporter leans in again, face bright. Good photo for her sad little page twelve human interest story, that’s all she cares about.

“What did you…” She breaks off. “Your brooch…”

Millie puts a hand to her sweater. The communicator hums with life. Fractals bloom across its surface in wondrous, glowing profusion. She clutches her hand around it hard, closes her eyes. It has been so long. One of the lost broods?

No.

Home, the signal strong and clear, the message simple: We are coming.

Millie smiles.

“Just a piece of costume jewelry, dear. What were you saying?”

“I, um, what did you wish for? When you blew out the candles?”

“If I tell you, it won’t come true now, will it? But I think you’ll find out soon enough.”

She lets them cut her an extra slice, and with relish she licks the frosting from her fingers.

On her way back to her room, she hums one of the hymns of home, in subsonics and whispered gill-speech too low for any human to hear.

Millie smiles. She is eager to clip out a copy of the young reporter’s story. Assuming there is another issue of the paper.

It would be nice to have a keepsake. It’s been a day for milestones.

 


© 2018 by Matthew Claxton

 

Matthew Claxton is a reporter living near Vancouver, British Columbia. His stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Mothership Zeta, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction 34. Rumours that he is three small dinosaurs standing on each other’s shoulders in a trenchcoat have never been proven. You can follow him on Twitter @ouranosaurus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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BOOK REVIEW: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

written by David Steffen

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty is a science fiction mystery, one of the finalists for the Hugo Award for the Best Novel category of 2017.

In the future, cloning is commonplace, but its use is strictly limited by law to ensure that it’s only used for longevity of a person rather than multiplication.  Every clone makes regular mindmaps of their memories and after they die, a new youthful body is cloned from their DNA and the mindmap copied into it.  Many clones have hundreds of years worth of memories they carry with them as though they have lived a single long life.  The practice of cloning is not accepted by everyone, especially religious groups, many of which consider clones to be soulless abominations, and there have been violent conflicts about cloning practices.

And what better use for clones than to crew a starship?  Equip the ship with a cloning bay and mindmapper, and a crew of six can staff a starship that would require a generation ship with much heavier infrastructure with an uncloned human crew.  Not many clones would be interested in such a long dull trip, but criminal clones granted a pardon for their crimes as payment can be convinced, watched over by an AI to make sure things don’t get out of control, and a cargo of humans and clone mindmaps to colonize the planet at the end of the trip.

But, something has gone terribly wrong.  Maria Arena and the other six crew members wake up simultaneously in newly cloned bodies, to their own murder scene.  They have been in transit for twenty-five years but have lost all of the memories of their journey, the gravity is off, the food replicator is only manufacturing poison, the AI is offline, the cloning bay has been sabotaged, and presumably one or more of them was the murderer but even they don’t remember that they did it.  Their previous crimes are strictly off the record as part of the pardon deal, so no one knows if any of the others had a history of murder.

This was an enjoyable SF mystery, an amped-up locked room type of mystery, where this crew of six is set to investigate their own murders, and it could’ve been any of them since they lost the memories of the journey.  As they go they have numerous other obstacles they have to deal with just to keep going, as well as searching for clues to who committed the murders.  Scenes from the present are interspersed with scenes from each person’s pasts so the interplay between the characters makes more and more sense as we understand their histories.  I don’t read a lot in the mystery genre, but I liked how this novel took familiar tropes like the locked room mystery and by changing the setting and technology level gave them interesting new angles to explore.  The book flowed easily from beginning to end and I was satisfied with the resolution.  I don’t know how well it will stand up to avid mystery readers, but I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

BOOK REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

 written by David Steffen

A Wrinkle in Time is a young adult science fiction novel written by Madeleine L’Engle and first published in 1962–it has been adapted for a movie that will come out in March 2018.

Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry is a smart girl, but who gets into trouble at school.  She excels at math, but not in the way her teachers want her to do the work.  She lives with her mother (a scientist) and her five-year-old brother Charles Wallace is a prodigy.  Her father (also a scientist) has been on a mysterious scientific mission for quite some time and Meg’s not sure when he’s coming back.  They encounter their eccentric new neighbor Mrs. Whatsit, who it soon turns out is a creature from another planet, one of a trio that are nearby. Mrs. Whatsit knows where Meg’s father is, and she knows that he’s in trouble.  Together with the neighbor boy Calvin they set out with Mrs. Whatsit and her friends to transport themselves to another planet and save Mr. Murry.

Like other science fiction books from this era, many of the ideas might seem familiar simply because we’ve read later books that were inspired by this one, which does make it harder to judge.  Also like other science fiction books from this era, there is a lot of explanation, what might be considered over-explaining in today’s publishing environment.  But overall this book ages better than other books of its time, in large part because of its focus on characters rather than nuts-and-bolts science.  I cared about Meg and her family and her friends, and I was rooting for them as they came across strange situations on strange worlds.  It’s a very short book, a very quick read finished within a week (which is very fast for me).  It’s fast-paced, never any dull time, and it has a reasonably tight arc from start to finish.  This book works as a standalone, introducing the characters and the situations and tying up the main arc, but there are four later books feature the Murry family (which I haven’t read, so I can’t comment on).  This is one of those classic books that I constantly hear people reference, so I wanted to read it for that reason alone, but I thought it held up better than average for a book of its time.

DP Fiction #28B: “Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship” by Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2160-11-11

 

Dear Ziza,

You already know what this is about, don’t you, dear Sister? The robot raccoons I found clamped along my ship’s hull during this cycle’s standard maintenance sweep?

Oh, come on. Really? You know I invented that hull sculler tech, right? They’ve got my corporate logo etched into their beady red eyes so my name flashes on all the walls when their power is low. I admit some of your upgrades were… novel. Like the exoshell design–I’ll never understand your raccoon obsession. Impractical, but points for style. I hadn’t thought you could fit a diamond drill into a model smaller than a Pomeranian’s skull, so congrats on that. Not that they made much progress chewing through my double-thick hull, but I’ll give credit where credit’s due.

Still, it was unsisterly of you, and it’s not going to stop me from dropping the terraforming nuke when I get to Mars. Come to grips with reality, sister: you’re in the wrong. You always have been, ever since we were girls. Especially since Mumbai accepted my proposal for Martian settlement. Not yours.

I’m sending back the robot raccoons in an unmanned probe. Back, because yes, I’m still leagues and leagues ahead of you. I only lost a day cleaning up the hull scullers. I’ve kept the diamond drills. I bet they’ll chew right through that Martian rock.

I’ve also included a dozen white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, because I know it’s your birthday tomorrow. Happy birthday!

Now go home.

Love your sister,

Anita

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2160-11-12

Dear Anita,

Remember that summer when Father dropped us off at the northern rim of the Poona Crater on Mars? Alone. For two weeks. “This rustic camping trip will be a great learning experience,” he said. “My precious daughters will bond.”

When I learned that there were no pre-fab facilities and that we were responsible for erecting our own dwelling, sanitation pod, and lab, I started plotting ways to poison our father. You, on the other hand, I am still convinced, were determined to thoroughly enjoy the experience just to spite me.

But Father was a conservationist, and now that I am older, I can appreciate that he was trying to instill that same spirit in us. “Not all life jumps out and bites you in the butt,” he used to love to say. And we learned the truth of that when we unearthed a family of as-yet-undiscovered garbatrites in the red dust on one of our sand treks.

We spent hours watching them under high magnification under the STEHM, trying to communicate with them, recording their activities and creating hypotheses about the meanings of their habits. I have to admit, there was a point when I stopped cursing father and started to secretly thank him. And where I sort of, kind of, could maybe see why you weren’t so bad after all.

I don’t think I’d ever seen you so dedicated to anything before this. You missed meals and stayed up throughout the night trying to communicate with the elder garbatrite. The one you named Benny. Exhausted, you fell asleep at your desk and left the infrared light on too long and effectively fried the poor critter. You cried for days and you even held a formal funeral for Benny, something his fellow garbatrites didn’t seem too pleased about.

With that in mind, how could you possibly want to drop a terraforming nuke on a planet you and I both know is already teeming with life? Creating a new habitable world only has merits if it’s not already inhabited.

If you won’t see reason, then I’ll just have to make it impossible for you. The Council for Martian Settlement may have accepted your proposal, but let me remind you that I’ve never been keen on following the rules.

So, you found the hull scullers, eh? I knew those diamonds would distract you from my real plan. You’ve always been so… materialistic. But hey, someone has to be.

On another note, the cookies were to die for! They were even better than Mother’s, but I’ll never tell her that. I really appreciate you thinking of me. I have a proposal to make. On our next monthly meal exchange, I’ll make your favorite, a big old pot of Anasazi beans and sweet buttered cornbread, if you’ll send more of those cookies.

XOXO

Ziza

P.S. My sweet raccoonie-woonies, Bobo and Cow, liked the cookies too. They also send their love.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2160-11-15

Sister:

Come now, Ziza. Let’s not make me out to be some kind of villain. Of course I remember that summer. I remember how we licked the condensation inside our lab windows to stay hydrated because Father’s Orion Scout childhood romanticized survival stories. It’s the real reason we’re such die hard coffee drinkers nowadays. He ruined the taste of water for us.

And I remember the garbatrites. How could I ever forget? That dusty red boulder we found in the sandstorm provided just enough shelter to pitch our emergency pod while we waited out the squall. Nothing to do but talk with each other, or play with the STEHM. Which meant we chose the STEHM, obviously. It’s the closest look I’ve ever gotten at you, all those disgusting many-legged organisms crawling on your skin and hair, in your saliva, your earwax. You’ve always had an affinity for vermin.

But I’ll be forever grateful you suggested taking samples around the boulder. When we first saw the garbatrites, their tiny little dwellings drilled into rock like mesa cities–that might be the closest I’ve ever felt to you, each of us taking one eyepiece on the STEHM, our damp cheeks pressed together, our smiles one long continuous arc. When the light brightened or dimmed, they danced in little conga lines. We weren’t sure if it was art, or language. Is there really a difference?

There’s something I realized when Benny died. The sort of revelation you only have when you’re nudging together an atomic coffin beneath an electron microscope with tiny diamond tweezers just three nanometers wide: life is short. Life is painfully short, full of suffering and tragedy and wide, empty spaces. And those rare spots hospitable to life are just boulders tossed into an endless red desert, created by accident or coincidence. The only real good we can do in life is to spread out those boulders, minimize the deserts where we find them. Make a garden from dust. Plant our atomic coffins and let them bloom. Terraform whole planets, so we’ll have more than just the blue boulder of Earth.

That’s what you never understood, dear sister. It’s why when you spent your youth chasing pretty men, I betrothed myself to science, burned my hopes of human love in the furnaces of my ambition. Do you remember when Asante, my poor besotted lab assistant, proposed to me at the Tanzanian Xenobiology Conference? How I laughed! As if any children he could give me would approach the impact my terraforming nuke will make on our species. Never forget, Ziza, that this mission is my life’s work, my legacy. You will not stop me.

In other news, I got the Anasazi beans and cornbread, still warm and fresh in their shipping pod. How did you know I had the craving? That was a kindness. I remembered you while making salaat today.

I was less pleased about the virus installed in the shipping pod’s warming program. Nice try, but I saw through that in about five seconds. Here’s a tip: next time, beta test it on all the shipboard systems I invented, not just the navigation. My sanitation program does more than filter my own crap.

I’m sending you an e-manual on Programming 101, and an ordering catalogue for Anita Enterprises in case you’d like to support the family business.

XOXOXO,

Anita

P.S. Go home.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2160-11-28

 

Anita,

It’s been nearly two weeks since we last spoke, and of course, you know why. When you told me to go home, I knew that you were serious, but I never thought you’d resort to using the health and welfare of our dear mother as bait to get me to turn around and head back to earth.

I’m still trying to figure out how you managed to simulate for video not only our mother’s countenance, darkened and marred by some mysterious illness, but her voice, the cadence like smooth stones tumbling in water and her accent. When she pleaded for me to return home, telling me that she was afraid to die alone, of course I turned back.

How much time did it take for you to create those videos, one arriving each day, her looking progressively worse? The worst was that one video with her by the window in her study, Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. It came on the third day. The sunlight that glinted through her silver hair, like icy filaments, made her look so painfully beautiful, yet it was not enough to erase the shadows beneath her eyes or the sadness in them.

A better question, I suppose, is “Why?” Why resort to that when you know how much Mother means to me, especially now that Father is gone? Are you still jealous of our closeness? Do you still believe she loved me most?

Not that you deserve to be, but I’ll let you in on a secret. I used to believe Mother loved me more than you as well. One day, I must’ve been about twelve, in my pathetic need to always be reminded that I was loved and cherished, I asked her why she loved me more than you. I waited a few moments, as she looked skyward, it seemed, for the answer. I was sure she’d say it was because I was more beautiful, more kind, smarter, that I had a more generous spirit, because truth be told, these things are true. But she didn’t say that. Mother told me that she did not love me most. Nor did she love you more than me.

Then why do you spend so much more time with me than Anita? Why do you kiss me goodnight and not her? I numbered all the things she did for me and not you. Do you know what she said?

Because you need me more than Anita.

In her way, which was always kind yet honest, Mother was telling me that you were the stronger of the two of us. But now, I wonder. Would a strong person use her sister’s weaknesses against her just to win? This was a low blow, Anita.

By now you’re probably wondering how I eventually figured out that the videos from Mother were merely a cruel ploy to get me to go back home without a fight. It was the video from Day Eight.

Mother lay in bed, slight as a sliver of grass. When her image popped up on the view screen my heart felt like it was trapped in a vice. She reached out. A tear traveled from the corner of her eye toward the pillow. She coughed, then called out my name. Her voice was so soft, so small and weak.

“Please hurry home, Ziza,” she said. “I don’t want to die without laying eyes on my favorite girl at least one more time.”

Favorite girl? No, Anita. Our mother never would have said that.

You think you’re so smart. You think you know everything. Yet, you don’t know kindness or humility. You don’t even know your own mother.

The decision to dedicate your entire life to science was an error. Life is so much more than entropy, polymerisation, and endothermic reactions. You really can have your coffee and the cream too. You should have married Asante. He would have humanized you. He would have taught you to slow down and enjoy the precious little moments, that together they all add up to a great big life full of disappointments, yes, but also joy and love and mystery. He would have saved you from yourself and cold loneliness.

This is where I remind you that you know nothing about programming that I didn’t teach you. Anita Enterprises is the mega-conglomerate it is because of me, your older sister and mentor. If I wanted to shut down every system on your ship, including life support, I could. And believe me, after this latest stunt of yours, I’ve been giving that idea serious consideration. The fact that I haven’t sent a couple of torpedoes your way is a testament to my love for our mother. She’d be angry if I killed you. So, I won’t.

See you on Mars.

Ziza

P.S. Don’t start none, won’t be none.

P.P.S. Bobo and Cow are very displeased with you.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-01

 

Ziza,

It’s been weeks since I last wrote, but you haven’t been far from my thoughts. Far from it.

While I continue toward the planet, I’ve been passing the time on my escape pod making a list of all the reasons I hate you, numbered and ordered least to greatest. It’s a long long list, forever incomplete. A sister’s hate is like the heat death of the universe: infinitely expanding, eternal, the last flame burning in this cold, barren desolation where God abandoned us.

Reason #1,565: I hate the way you eat popcorn with chopsticks to keep your hands clean. Are you too good even for butter smudges?

Reason #480: I hate how you laugh at bad jokes. Puns aren’t actually funny, Ziza. Everyone outgrew “why did the chicken cross the road” after elementary school.

Reason #111: Blue eye shadow. Self-explanatory.

Reason #38: “Don’t start none, won’t be none.” Really? Better knock that shit off. Like you’re not an adult responsible for her own actions.

Reason #16: I hate how Mother named you after herself, like you were the pinnacle of all her hopes, while I was named to placate our pushy grandmother.

Reason #15: I hate how you always laugh at me.

Reason #10: I hate how your favorite animal is the raccoon. You only picked it because it’s endangered. You can’t resist a lost cause, even if you don’t actually want to do anything useful about it.

Reason #9: Seriously, blue eye shadow.

Reason #4: That last family dinner we had before Father died, when we took the shuttle out to the Moon to picnic on Mons Agnes while we watched the Perseid meteor shower dancing bright upon Earth’s atmosphere like the footsteps of angels. Mother brought her heirloom silver for the occasion; I think we all knew in our hearts it was a special trip. We’d agreed for Father’s sake to get along, just for a few hours. He hated how we fought, how we picked at each other like children picking old scabs that won’t heal. Do you remember the white curling through his black hair? His cheeks sunk deep by the chemo? He wanted to dish up the jasmine rice and flatbread himself. His hands trembled so badly the peas rolled onto Mother’s quilt beneath the picnic pop-up, just skirting the regolith.

We both know I wanted to talk with him about the inheritance. I just wanted my share, my 50/50 split, but Mother was so concerned about poor helpless Ziza, who had run into such tough times after college, chasing after pretty men and idealistic wide-eyed save-the-raccoons causes that she needed a larger cut to keep up her lifestyle. Anita Enterprises cost me everything while all you ever did was chase your girlhood dreams of love and happy endings.

We were having such a great time. Your useless pet raccoons were recharging their solar batteries in your lap. Father told us stories of his childhood, how they didn’t even have a family shuttle when he grew up, and you could only sleep rough in wild places like Antarctica’s rocky plains. Mother held his hand and kissed him, love shining in her eyes. No matter how sick he got, he was still the dark-skinned 17-year-old godling she’d met on the road to Mount Kilimanjaro in their youth. We even tolerated a few of your puns.

It would not last. I volunteered to scrape the leftovers into the recycler at the service booth down the path. It was so close, I didn’t bother to bring a communication device. You deny it, but we both know you followed me. You used the Moon’s lower gravity to pile those rocks against the door while I did my chores inside. When I tried to leave, the door wouldn’t budge. I could only watch my family from the viewing port, my mother and sister and dying father laughing together, though I couldn’t hear them. I screamed and pounded the window, but nobody noticed from the picnic pop-up. No one could hear me through the vacuum of space.

How can I ever forgive you that prank, those precious minutes of our father’s health ticking away, and me unable to be there? How can I forgive that lost opportunity, those memories that should have been mine to cherish, to bear me up when I wake at night so desperate to feel his whiskered kiss on my forehead, his voice telling me he’s so proud of me, proud of everything I’ve done?

This is why I hate you, Ziza. This is why I can never stop hating you.

Reason #2: Those diamond drills in your robot raccoons weren’t just drills. That cornbread pan wasn’t just a pan. You know what, Ziza? In spite of everything else, I only sent you back to Earth with those fake videos to protect you from yourself, and keep you out of harm’s way. Because despite this whole list, part of me still loved you, stupid as it sounds. Maybe it’s because you’re named for Mother. But you tried to dump me into the vacuum of space, Sister Dearest. You tried to murder me in my sleep. You activated the wafer computer in the pan’s false bottom, hacked my defenses, and the drills turned my hull into cheese by the time I woke up. If I hadn’t mounted the terraforming nuke to the escape pod… but I did.

Reason #1: Did you ever love me? Ever, Ziza? I’m not filling this one out yet, because I don’t think I’ve yet hated you as much as a woman can hate her sister. Not yet. But I will.

So I’m going to tell you something else you don’t yet know: On the wreck of my shuttle, scraping by on the last of my life support, are a dozen rare raccoon specimens. I was going to release them on Mars after the terraforming ended so they could colonize a safe place far from any predators. My shuttle is set to self-destruct in two days’ time. If you leave your current course, you might just have time to save them. Let’s find out what you care more about: helpless garbatrites, or near-extinct raccoons.

The shuttle also contains an urn with Father’s ashes, wrapped in extra scarves in the top hatch in my quarters. Mother asked me to scatter them on the planet because Father had so many happy memories of camping there with his daughters. I didn’t have time to rescue it when I had to abandon ship a few days ago.

I don’t have that one on my list yet. Better go add it now.

Hate you always,

Anita

P.S. Why did Ziza fly across the solar system twice? Because she was a double crosser. Get it?

P.P.S. Happy New Year, by the way.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161/01/02

 

Anita,

By now you’ve probably realized that regardless of your efforts, your escape pod’s trajectory is no longer Mars. You are now on an intercept path with me. I know that you must be seething, cursing my name, praying for my damnation (you’ve always been so dramatic), but give me the opportunity to explain.

Your ship was never in danger. The plan was that once you entered in new coordinates to anyplace other than Mars, preferably home, the diamond drills would have set about repairing the holes they’d created in the hull of your ship. Genius ancillary programming, if I do say so myself. All you had to do was turn around. But you, with your flare for the dramatic and unwillingness to give up, even when you know you’ve lost, decided to jump ship and make the rest of the voyage via the escape pod.

The escape pod. The escape pod with only half the power you’ll need to complete the trip to Mars. At the rate you’re going you’ll be one hundred and three before you even break orbit. If you paid as much attention to the details as you do the drama, you might have remembered that.

Why couldn’t all your hot hate keep those poor raccoons warm as your abandoned ship plunges onward toward the cold outer depths of space, too long and too far for either of us to go? I won’t be able to save those raccoons, nor Father’s ashes, because I will be saving you.

You can thank me later.

Your last message, so thick with evil enmity for your only sibling in the galaxy, reminded me of Tariq, the only man I ever considered staying with for a lifetime. I’ve tried over the last forty-three years, without an iota of success, to tangle and finally lose my memory of him among the many others. He was brighter than Sirius and sweeter than lugduname, at least to me. I know that long-legged bird wasn’t perfect, he chewed with his mouth open and, truth be told, he wasn’t very bright but he loved me without reserve.

You didn’t like him at first. You called him a “pretty, useless thing”, because he didn’t have the same knack for business or driving ambition for more, that you did. He was an artist and liked to create beautiful things, to experience the delights of life with all of his senses exposed and ready.

It was through your senses that he finally won you over. So thoughtful was he, that knowing your dislike for him, he still surprised you with your favorite, hot homemade waffles, on your birthday.

When I broke off the engagement with him only a week later, you, who had hated him all along, refused to speak to me for months. You said I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. You called me a fool.

I never told you why I broke off the engagement. And I bet you never knew that even now, there are sleep cycles when instead of sleep, I lay awake imaging how happy I’d be today had I not broken poor Tariq’s heart.

I broke off our engagement because of your Reason #1. In answer to your question, I love you more than breath itself, baby sister.

Tariq said to me one day, as we lay beneath the sun in a field of cool holo-grass, “Any sister who would waste her dying father’s final hours arguing over an inheritance is surely too selfish to bear.” He took my foot in his hands and kneaded my heel expertly. “I’m willing to tolerate Anita, my love, because of you.”

I said nothing to this for a while, mostly because the foot massage was so exquisite that it stole my breath and crossed my eyes. But when he was done, I politely slipped on my shoes, clapped off the holo-vision, and asked him to leave.

“If you love me, you must love my sister too. Anything less is unacceptable,” I told him.

So you see, silly sister, you can hate me a million times, but no matter what, I’ll still love you, even though you don’t deserve it. God, you’re such a brat.

Ziza

P.S. Are you seriously pouting about your name? Mother should have named you Shakespeare because you’re nothing but drama.

P.P.S. I didn’t pile those rocks against the door. That was Bobo and Cow. They were just trying to play hide and seek with you. I guess my sweet raccoonie-woonies won that round.

P.P.P.S. Why did the raccoon cross the solar system? To keep her sister’s paw off Mars.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-11

 

Dear Ziza,

Greetings from Mars.

Don’t worry. Nothing has changed. I have regretfully failed to deploy the terraforming nuke. My mission has failed, for now.

Perhaps even before you read this message, GalactiPol will be taking you into custody. I called them when my escape pod veered off course, when the navigation stopped responding to my counter-hacks. You might have forgotten in your rashness that the Mumbai Council for Martian Development endorsed my plan for terraforming, and that I was their agent. Interfering with my mission meant meddling with the Coalition of Humankind itself.

I didn’t call GalactiPol sooner because I wanted to beat you at your own game. So few people in this huge, empty universe can even approach my creativity and intellect. You’ve always pushed me to the greatest apex of my brilliance. I’m never as inventive as when you’re scheming to ruin me. But the thought of losing Father’s ashes into the void of space… well, it gave me no rest. He doesn’t deserve that, not at our hands. I’d hoped you’d fetch the urn, but instead I’m calling an end to our battle of wits.

GalactiPol scooped up my escape pod and listened to my account of your wrongdoings. They have dispatched a salvage vessel to my wreck, and an armed cruiser to arrest you. Unfortunately, I made a fatal mistake: the raccoons. As you well know, I did not have authorization to remove these endangered creatures from Earth.

So they’ve arrested me too. I’ve been dropped on Mars for safekeeping while they run the raccoons back to Earth. They’ve dispatched another cruiser to your coordinates. Soon they will bring you here too, dear Ziza, and for the second time we’ll wander the sands together in this desert of red storms, with only wit and curiosity and mutual hatred to keep us alive until someone returns for us.

Did you know part of our old camp is still here? Somehow the shell of our mobile lab held up against the years. Probably because of the garbatrites. Remember we’d left the lab tucked in the shadow of their great stone. Apparently they liked it (perhaps for the way it holds warmth during the cold Martian nights) because they covered it in their tiny homes like a shipwreck bejeweled with coral and barnacles. When I turn on the lights at night, they dance along the seams in swirling shapes, carving microscopic paths through the dust coating, just as frail human biceps have pushed and moved the world until you can see their efforts from space. The Great Wall of China! The glittering glass megascrapers of Nigeria! How floating Melbourne glistens like a blue jewel in the dark, riding the waves forever, its flooded gondola channels sipping the ocean’s rise and fall! Our little lab is a world for these tiny creatures. They shout,  We are here. We exist.

But let’s talk about Tariq. Now there’s an unhealed wound running to our cores. It’s true, Ziza, that you were always the prettiest. I am a plain woman, an experience you can never understand. Your beauty is a passport into people’s best nature. Everyone sees in you the face of an angel, and they give you an angel’s due. Well, any plain woman knows the converse is true, that we have to prove again and again our worth and goodness to a world that mistakes the grotesque for evil, the ungroomed for lazy, the fat for stupid.

Your Tariq, like all pretty men, suffered from the same assumptions. He was never as good to anyone as he was to you, Ziza Angel-faced. When he didn’t ignore me outright, he liked to pick on me for your amusement. He named me Yam Nose and Ogre Teeth, and when I protested, he laughed me off as too sensitive, as if I didn’t have a right to my dignity. People like him are cruel to girls like me in a thoughtless, automatic way, like they can’t imagine us having feelings any more complex than a dog’s. Yes, I detested him. But the day he made me waffles, throwing me one small, quiet kindness, I realized how happy he made you, that you intended to marry him. He’d be around our family a long, long time. I made my peace.

I am sorry you realized so late the flaw in him that was obvious to me from the first. But know, Ziza, that Tariq must accept responsibility for his own character. If you had married him, when you aged and your beauty began to fade, he surely would’ve turned that same cruelty on you. He may very well have been your soulmate, but take a hard look at your own soul, and ask whether you too mistake your angelic face for more than it is. You are merely human.

So come to Mars, Sister. Come to where this all started that summer our father wanted us to bond, back before we hated the taste of water, before we learned to despise each other in small ways and big. We cannot escape one another. Our hatred has been our brilliance, our secret genius, the harsh red desert that pushed and pinched and goaded us to build towers you can see from the Moon. Imagine what a lifetime of love might have accomplished

Come to Mars, Ziza. Scatter our father’s ashes with me. If we cannot make this place bloom with life, at least we can make it a little more dusty.

Anita

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161-01-11

 

Dearest Anita,

I can see the GalactiPol cruiser from my starboard viewport. Its black and gold stripes practically glow beneath the strobing orange beacon and make it look like a psychedelic bumblebee. Most people in my situation, facing detainment on Mars, endless expensive legal proceedings, possible time in prison, would be locked in the grips of fear and worry. Perhaps even shame. But not me. The one thought stuck in my mind, like a diptera fastened to sticky paper, is how beautiful that cruiser is and how excited I am to begin this second adventure.

It’s all about perception.

During that last picnic on the moon, when you were locked in the service booth, Father talked about perception. “Perception is everything. If you can project what you perceive it will become reality. You will believe it. More importantly, whether good or bad, everyone else will believe in your reality as well, and they will believe in you.” Not until I read your last letter did I realize how right Father was. And how wrong we have been.

In the mirror I’ve always seen the imperfect likeness of our mother, not quite as beautiful, not quite as kind, and with but a fraction of her intelligence. I have our father’s height and amber-flecked brown eyes, but none of his grace, strength, or athleticism. Yet, somehow you see in me the face of an angel.

In you I see the sharp mind and steady hands of a scientist. A fearless tenacious spirit intent on exploring all possibilities even at great cost, able to articulate your ideas, to change hearts and minds. You have boundless strength, so much so that you have been the central support for Mother and me since Father’s death. There is nothing plain about you, little sister, nothing wanting.

How is it that our perceptions have never aligned?

Be right back. GalactiPol is hailing me

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161-01-12

Sorry it has taken me so long to return to this letter, but I had a few calls to make. Officers Gavalia and Ambrose boarded my ship at 2315 and took me into custody. My detainment cell is surprisingly modish, with full amenities including a computer and personal uncensored communication device. I have even been given unrestricted access to their onboard digital library.

According to officer Gavalia, though entry into GalactiPol requires extensive training and a stringent vetting system, they have little opportunity to actually do the type of policing their organization exists to perform. I suppose there just aren’t that many galactic criminals to catch these days, besides you and me, that is.

Now where was I? Ah yes. Perceptions.

I’ve been mesmerized by the images you sent of the garbatrite homes, the bright multilayered encrusted structures in every shade of red, orange and pink, lambent lights beneath the gaze of the sun. They expound beauty and ingenuity and life and more than anything, a prescience greater than anything either of us could have conceived.

We’ve been darting back and forth through this solar system, in an effort to outdo one another, trying our damndest to affect the change of our choosing, thinking we are so smart and so in control, when in truth, we are no greater than those garbatrites, and perhaps we are even less wise than they.

Perhaps there is a way for us both to have what we wanted, to terraform Mars and to protect the garbatrites. They were always keen to share their world with us and seeing the ingenuity and beauty of their structures, perhaps we can convince them to help us transform the barren surface of Mars into one of cooperative beauty. We can provide the framework for our cities and homes, and they can build upon them, layering their coral-like exoteric structures, creating homes befitting us all, unlike anything in the entire solar system.

I called Tariq shortly after my detainment aboard the GalactiPol cruiser. Before you think me hopeless, let me explain. Besides being happily ensconced in a polyamorous relationship with two of the nicest men and woman I have ever met, he has long since given up on his art (he was never very good anyway) and has been the Chief GalactiPol Officer for several years. I was hoping that there was still enough lingering affection between us that he would agree to assist me in this difficult situation.

Unfortunately, he is unable, as I had hoped, to have the charges against us repealed, but we have been allowed to serve the entirety of our sentence on Mars. Together.

Shall we do this, sister? Shall we make our dreams come true?

I envision us making a home from our old pod quarters. Perhaps we can build on an extra room and invite Mother. We can even build a special corral for Bobo and Cow, where they can play happily and where they won’t be able to disturb you as you work on your next great experiment. With the help of the garbatrites we can build a greenhouse. We’ll grow corn and tomatoes in soil fertilized with the ashes of our father. We will create a real home, a life. And we will relearn one another, our strengths and weakness, our mutual love for each other. One day other Earthers will join us on our red planet and find a world of wonder encased in garbatrite domes. A home.

Can you see it, sister? Good. Now hold that thought in your mind until we are reunited.

With all my love,

Ziza

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-13

 

Dear Ziza,

Why did the sisters cross the solar system? To get to the other’s side.

See you soon,

Anita

 


© 2017 by Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

 

Author’s Note (Khaalidah): When I met Rachael about three years ago, I experienced an instant and sincere affection for her. We toyed with the idea of a collaboration for awhile before we finally dove in. We didn’t outline this story beforehand and had no clear idea where it would go. It took us across the galaxy, with great food, adventure, and lots of laughter. Collaborating with someone as talented and easy-going as Rachael was a joy for me. She charged my imagination. I am pleased to be able to share the results with everyone else.  In many ways the end result reflects how I feel about Rachael. She is a sister in my heart and a dear friend.

Author’s Note (Rachael): Khaalidah is my dear friend, my comrade-in-arms, probably a time traveler, and everything I want to be when I grow up. So when we started kicking around the idea of doing a collaboration, I jumped on the opportunity. Writing this story with her was immensely fun, often hilarious, and always surprising. While working on “Regarding the Robot Raccoons,” we eventually realized that although we each controlled a single character’s voice, we were actually writing each other’s characters via our reactions to one another, creating a more complex and nuanced view of Anita and Ziza that you get through just one perspective. I think this phenomenon also exists in all good friendships: in seeing yourself reflected through another’s eyes, you’re inspired to push harder, reach higher, and go farther in life than you ever would on your own. Khaalidah’s friendship makes me a better person, just as collaborating with her makes me a better writer. I hope our readers, in turn, will enjoy the results.

 

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Athens, Georgia. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael’s fiction has appeared in dozens of venues, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and PodCastle. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

 

 

 

 

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published at Escape Pod , Strange Horizons, and Fiyah!.  Khaalidah is also co-editor at Podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to immortality.

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #27A: “The Things You Should Have Been” by Andrea G. Stewart

“You should have been a doctor,” my mother said. She squinted at me through the screen, as though the new computer I’d bought her had some secret flaw. She never quite trusted that it was better than her old one. “You always liked stitching when you were small. Remember that shirt you made? So many compliments!”

“Mom, it’s a little late for that. I’m thirty-three.” I tugged at the hem of my jacket, my elbows rubbing against the chair’s metal armrests. Fidgeting usually helped me calm my nerves. It didn’t help now. It had seemed simple on paper: five years away from home. Now the only thing I could think of was the blackness of space beyond these metal walls.

“Never too late.” Wisps of gray hair escaped from her bun, brushing the sides of her cheeks. She turned back to the pan on the stove. “You put your mind to something, you can do it. All my children—very capable.”

I could almost smell the soy sauce and chives, the sesame oil on the edge of burning. It made me miss home, more than just a little. “Stitching isn’t the only prerequisite to become a doctor.”

She sliced the air with her chopsticks. “But you’re good at memorizing.”

I focused on the soft glow of the LED lights above my head. “Stitching and memorizing–I’ll be sure to put that on my application. Lei Wong: he once stitched his own shirt.”

“Lei,” she said, “I’m serious.” She disappeared from view and I heard the clink of bottles as she rummaged through the cupboards. I was pretty sure my colleagues’ mothers didn’t cook while they were on vid calls.

“I’m serious too. I’ll update my resume. First thing when I get back.”

She popped into view once more, her face taking up the entire screen. “A lawyer, then. You’re good at arguing. Also good at making your mother feel bad.”

“Do lawyers make their mothers feel bad?”

“The ones who don’t listen do.”

I sighed and shifted in my seat. The cushion was thin, and I could feel the cold metal beneath it. No luxury, here. “I’m trying to listen.”

“Who said I was talking about you? I was talking about lawyers.” She gave a triumphant shrug and lifted the pan, shoveling greens onto a plate. When she was finished, she leaned on the counter, her face in profile. The sunlight from the window trickled into the creases on her temples, highlighted the places on the counter where the laminate had begun to wear away.

A knock sounded on the door behind me. “Two minutes.”

My mother gave me a sideways look. She’d heard it too. Her lips pressed together; her fingers curled around the edge of the countertop. “You could have been a comedian. Just making jokes. All the time. Taking nothing seriously.”

“Mom…”

She pushed away from the counter. “You can still do something else. Anything else.”

“I’ve got two minutes before we leave.”

She shook her head, her brow furrowed. Her hands wove through the air, wildly, like broken-winged birds. “Still enough time! Tell them you changed your mind. They can bring you back.”

They could. They’d never let me leave Earth again, but they could. I thought of returning to California, having my feet on real, solid ground again, standing in my mother’s kitchen and pleating dumplings, the smell of pork and cooked cabbage thick in the air. I couldn’t say it didn’t tempt me.

I checked the clock in the corner of my screen. A little over a minute before we began preparations to initiate the warp drive, before we left the solar system and ventured into the unknown. “But this is what I want to do. I’ve worked my whole life for this.” Hours of study, of physical preparations, of navigating paperwork and interpersonal relationships. “I’ll stay safe.”

My mother closed her eyes. “Always higher, always further, ever since you were a boy. You never knew how to stay safe. You’re thousands of miles away from safe.” Her shoulders hunched. She set the chopsticks down and lined them up until they were parallel, a small space in between. “I know you want to do this, and I’m proud of you, I really am. I’m just not ready.” A wan smile flitted across her face. “Lei Wong: space pilot.”

I gave her a return smile–one I hoped was reassuring despite the flicker of fear in my chest. “I’ll come home.”

She jabbed a finger at the screen. “Good. Maybe then you can try stitching again, instead.”

“I can try. Bye, mom. Love you. Catch you on the flip side.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Probably not a comedian. Not very funny.”

The screen went black.

“Ready?” Susan, my copilot, peeked inside the door.

I put my hands to the armrests, rose to my feet, and took a deep breath, the anxiety in my chest finally easing. “I think so.”

I could have sworn the air smelled of sesame oil.


© 2017 by Andrea G. Stewart

 

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my mom, who can be alternately critical and alternately amazed at what I’ve accomplished–and sometimes both at the same time! I think, for her, my life will always be one of possibilities, even if I’ve set my feet firmly on one path.

 

10981917_10155292391580397_7630903974659219700_nAndrea Stewart was born in Canada and raised in a number of places across the United States. She spent her childhood immersed in Star Trek and odd-smelling library books. When her dreams of becoming a dragon slayer didn’t pan out, she instead turned to writing. Her work has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #16: “The Weight of Kanzashi” by Joshua Gage

In order to prevent contamination on the space station, all the members of the shuttle crew have to be thoroughly sterilized. This means systematically cleansing themselves and their skin of all potential contaminates, including their hair. All crew members have to be completely shaved and waxed before launch. Despite this being her seventeenth mission, Yukino Kojima is always stunned at how easily her hair falls away beneath the barber’s clippers, gathering around her ankles like strands of silver fog and leaving a gray fuzz to be waxed off.

The launch is scheduled for her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, so she gathers a lock of the shorn hair and places it in a black lacquered inro with a sprinkled gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl design as a present for her husband. He insists that the launch day is auspicious, and will tell anyone who would listen how honored he is that his wife, the renowned solid-state physicist, will soon hold the record for most recorded flights and for being the oldest astronaut in Japanese history.

To fill their personal preference kit, each crew member is allowed to choose up to 650 grams of personal items. Most of the crew choose less than this–a tablet computer and a few pieces of jewelry or other mementos. Some crew members take a good luck charm, a kotsu anzen or Daruma doll. Kenta Fujioka, the pilot, jokes that he could smuggle a carton and a half of cigarettes on board. Nobuyuki Koizumi, commander of the mission, laughs, and asks what Kenta will smoke the other 340 days they are on the space station. Yukino’s tablet is loaded with not just the usual books and music, but also with photos of her and her husband together. This being her seventeenth flight, she has little else that she needs in the way of luck or privacy.

Therefore, she is surprised to find a package wrapped in red tissue paper floating weightlessly up from the nylon bag of her kit after the shuttle docks with the space station when the crew has time to settle in before getting to work. She finds out later that Kenta and Nobuyuki gave up some of their kit weight to smuggle in a present from her husband for their anniversary. With tears in her eyes, Yukino unfolds the paper, and finds a deep mahogany kimono of the lightest, most ethereal silk with a shochikubai design embroidered upon it. Yukino fingers the delicate pattern, the dark viridian swirls of the pine trees, the slender stalks of the bamboo, and the blushing blossoms of the plum. Along with the kimono is a lacquered kushi, a hair comb, along with a matching hana kanzashi in the shape of a deep pink plum blossom.

Yukino presses the silk of the kimono against her lips, feels its cool weft. Holding the kushi to her head, she opens her locker and looks in the small mirror on the back of the door. The comb’s smooth shell and the variegations of its teeth are cold and scratch the stubble that is already growing back on her scalp. She puts it back gently, then holds the hana kanzashi above her temple. The soft fabric of its petals is like wind against her skin, and she weeps, remembering the smell of the ocean, the warmth of her husband’s hand in her own.


© 2016 by Joshua Gage

 

Author’s Note: I was inspired to write this story when I learned about Kishotenketsu plots via the StillEatingOranges blog. I was intrigued by the idea of a plot without conflict, and wrote a few stories to attempt that. This was one of them. I love the idea that a story can move forward merely by juxtaposing two things against each other, as opposed to having them in conflict with each other. I think that idea really appeals to my poetry sensibilities.

 

medium_Joshua_GageJoshua Gage is an ornery curmudgeon from Cleveland. His first full-length collection, breaths, is available from VanZeno Press. Intrinsic Night, a collaborative project he wrote with J. E. Stanley, was published by Sam’s Dot Publishing. His most recent collection, Inhuman: Haiku from the Zombie Apocalypse, is available on Poet’s Haven Press. He is a graduate of the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Naropa University. He has a penchant for Pendleton shirts, rye whiskey and any poem strong enough to yank the breath out of his lungs.

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #12: “May Dreams Shelter Us” by Kate O’Connor

The air screams around their ship, the atmosphere burning and clawing at the heat shield. The cabin is dark and too hot after the long, cold quiet of space. Their hands find each other and twine together. I’m here, their interlaced fingers say. I’m with you. It doesn’t matter if they make it through. That they have come this far is victory enough.

***

Raia let go of the controls. The radiation storm had passed. Her hands ached and her eyes burned. The images were already fading from her mind. She scrubbed at her forehead, dislodging the webbed crown of sensors. Her skin tingled and flamed as though she herself had been the ship, slicing through the thickening atmosphere as she hurtled down towards a new world.

She staggered to her feet, drowning in the quiet emptiness of the med bay. Around her, the children slept. Bone weary, she checked the displays. All was well. They had heard her and calmed. No more would be lost today. She sent Jessi the all clear.

She padded down the corridor towards her bunk. She counted hatches, stopped at the fourth on the left. Raia reached for the palm pad. The wall in front of her tilted alarmingly. She flailed for a handhold, wondering frantically if the ship had sustained damage in the storm. Would life support go next? How long could they function in zero-g?

Raia found herself on the floor, not quite sure how she had gotten there. The artificial gravity was obviously still functioning. The corridor was silent. No alarms blared. She closed her eyes for a moment.

“Overdid it again, huh?” Jessi stood above her, arms folded.

“Aren’t you supposed to be flying the ship?” Raia reached her hands up towards her captain.

Jessi took hold of her arms and heaved her to her feet. “You know as well as I do that she flies herself most of the time.” She held Raia steady and looked her up and down. “How scrambled is your head?”

Raia shrugged. “I think I skipped any permanent brain damage.” For now. The energy necessary to connect the link was scorching away her mind every time she used it. The time was quickly coming when the damage wouldn’t be reversible.

“Take turns.” Jessi frowned and palmed open Raia’s door. “Some of the others will help.”

“It has to be me. They don’t settle for anyone else.” If the children woke up too soon, there would be no way to sustain them. Even if they survived being born without the proper procedure to wake them, the ship barely had enough resources to support the twenty-six crew members onboard. It had never been intended for interstellar travel. It was only Jessi’s quick thinking and Raia’s medical knowledge that had turned it into a viable life boat.

“We need you.” Jessi said softly, tucking her into bed. “Maybe even more than we need them.”

***

The ramp opens with a hiss. All they see at first is dust rising in the air like smoke. Smoke is the enemy in a spaceship. Smoke kills. They are afraid.

Then sunlight splits the dark plumes. The air turns to gold, warm and sparkling. Tentatively, they go forward through the dust. The ramp clangs beneath their feet. For a moment, they are blinded by the light of this new sun.

When their eyes clear, there is a field before them. A warm, sweet-scented breeze sings through slender stalks of blue grass. There are trees in the distance, reaching straight and tall towards the golden sky. It is not like the home they left, but it is beautiful all the same. Even more so because of what they have lost.

They go slowly, scanners clutched in trembling hands. In the shuttle, they were ready to die trying. Now that they see the future ahead of them, they are not willing to let it fade so easily.

***

“How much longer?” Raia asked, leaning over Jessi’s shoulder as the other woman flipped through holo-maps of their route.

“A month, maybe two. How many times are you going to ask me?” Jessi grinned, her tone light and teasing.

Raia’s smile faltered. She couldn’t remember having asked before. She pulled away, moving to the dispenser and filling a cup with water. If Jessi saw her face, there would be questions. Raia was a scientist. The truth had always been too important for her to be a good liar. If she started talking, she would tell Jessi about the brain scans she had done on herself this morning. Her fear would spill out and then they would have to make a choice between Raia’s mind and their future.

“I’m worried about the kids.” Raia said instead. She had never wanted children. She had lived for her lab and the research that had taken up her days and nights far more fully than any lover ever could. But the three hundred and seventy-two little lives in the med bay had become everything.

“Something wrong?” Jessi shut down the map and swiveled her chair around.

“Nothing new. It’s just… they’ve been exposed to a lot.” They had started with four hundred. Four hundred artificially fertilized eggs meant for Raia’s experiments.

One hundred and fifty of them had been brought from the moon at nearly seven months along. She had wanted to know what effects gestation in lower gravity would have. Those had done better than the Earth grown children. Only two of that group had been lost.

If Jessi hadn’t been dropping off the embryos when the Earth died, none of them would have made it. The sky had gone dark, then red. The ground had trembled without ceasing. Communications were shattered. Raia had loaded her Earth-grown embryos and what equipment she could onto Jessi’s ship and they had taken off.

They still didn’t know what had happened. It could have been the first and final act of a new war. It could have been an untracked meteor or a natural disaster. In the end, it didn’t matter. They had hung in the asteroid belt and watched while the planet came apart. Then they had taken Raia’s experiments and run for the stars.

Jessi waved a hand in front of her face. “Where’d you go?”

“Same place as always.” Raia gripped Jessi’s shoulder. They didn’t have to talk about that day. It was always with them.

***

Raia walked through the med bay. They were stacked row on row in their improvised life support units, little faces sleeping behind translucent glass. She had slowed their growth as much as she could, but it was a long journey to the nearest habitable world. Most were well past the stage when they should have been born.

It had been desperation that made her link them all together so they wouldn’t be alone while they waited, so their minds wouldn’t stagnate and fail. It had been raw hope that made her plug herself in and tell them the first story to keep them asleep and help them learn. A neural link like the one she had created hadn’t really been tried before and the only equipment she had to use was salvaged from spare parts meant for other things. She had known there was risk. She hadn’t expected it to burn through her like it had. Certainly not so quickly.

She sat at her desk. Atmospheric disturbances made them restless. Anything the ship’s shields couldn’t blot out set them off. It was getting worse as they were getting older. Raia pinched the bridge of her nose. She was losing things. There were more and more holes in her days. Jessi and some of the crew were starting to notice.

They would be good parents. Jessi’s people were disciplined and steady. Most of them were kind. All of them were decent and used to working together. Jessi wouldn’t have kept them on otherwise. They would make good colonists, too.

Raia buckled her restraints with shaking hands. She hadn’t been able to feel her fingers for two weeks. It took three tries to get the sensor net settled over her head. Re-entry would be difficult on the kids, but it was their last major hurdle.

Numbers flashed on her screen, counting down the time to contact with the atmosphere. When she had realized what was happening to her, she had left written instructions on how to wake the children up and remove them from their units. She had stacked them by age. As long as the ship had power, they could wake the kids in batches. Hopefully when they were on the ground and the ship was settled, the children would stabilize as well.

The ship shuddered as the countdown reached zero. The planet had looked so small on the screen, green and blue and white and so far away. It had seemed farther once she could actually see it spinning below them. She hoped there was enough of her left when this was done to see it up close.

The ship shook again. She keyed the controls. It was time.

***

They build houses. It is hard work. It takes sweat and tears, sometimes blood, but it is done. They plant gardens and grow food. They are together. They are a family. Sometimes they fight and bicker. They learn to compromise, to listen to what is needed and learn what makes this world thrive. It isn’t the same as the one they left. The stories of what was are just memories, warnings, and hopes.

But they live. They live well. And humankind lives in them.

***

It wasn’t until the ship was secured that Jessi thought to wonder where Raia had gotten to. The other woman would be with the children, of course, but Jessi expected to have heard from her by now. Unless something had gone wrong.

She didn’t run, though she wanted to. The corridors got emptier and emptier as she approached the med bay. The crew was running scans, making plans for exploring the surface. So far everything looked good, better than they could have hoped for with only some spotty long-range survey records and outdated nav holos to guide them.

Her boots echoed in the deserted hallway. She took a breath and held it, working to slow her racing heart. She palmed open the door.

The familiar buzz and hiss of machinery greeted her. It was a good sound. The floor was clean. None of the spilled fluid and shattered glass that marked a failed attempt to save a waking child was in evidence. “Raia?” Jessi called, rounding the corner towards the control desk.

The other woman lay back in her chair, her hands limp and broken-looking on the controls. Jessi’s feet carried her forward.

Raia’s chest rose and Jessi let out the breath she’d been holding. “Raia?” She asked again. She hated the hope in her voice. She knew better. She reached the chair. Raia stared upwards, her eyes fixed far away. The sensor web was still attached. Jessi removed it, checking to see that the program had shut off. It had. Jessi blew in Raia’s face, pinched her arm. She didn’t even blink.

“Captain?” Her comm beeped. “The air’s clear. We can go outside.” Her first officer’s voice bubbled with suppressed excitement.

“Understood.” The word caught in Jessi’s throat. She coughed and forced this latest grief down with all the rest. “I’m on my way.”

She looked around the room. The little ones were sleeping peacefully. She was grateful, so grateful and so shattered. They would have a life on this new world. Humanity had a chance, even if there was no one else out there. Jessi hoped it would be enough.

She scooped Raia’s vacant-eyed shell into her arms. “C’mon.” She whispered, tears running down her cheeks. “We’ll go together.”


© 2016 by Kate O’Connor

 

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. When I heard the story as a child, I really just wanted to get a hold of some matches that let me make my dreams real. When I heard it again as an adult, I was reminded of how our hopes and wishes can create a better world in even the most desperate situations. Wondering about what those magic matches would show at the end of the world led to “May Dreams Shelter Us.”

 

Profile PicAfter graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kate O’Connor took up writing science fiction and fantasy. Her short fiction has most recently appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, StarShipSofa, and Escape Pod. In between telling stories, she flies airplanes, digs up artifacts, and manages a dog kennel. Her website can be found at kateoconnor3.wordpress.com.

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #3: “In Memoriam” by Rachel Reddick

I go by the cemetery every day on the way to work.

It’s not really a cemetery so much as a memorial. We don’t have the space for old-school burials like they did back on Earth. We don’t have the dirt to spare. We can’t spare the organs or nutrients left in the bodies, either. Anything that can be kept for later medical needs is preserved, and the rest is returned to the hydroponics and organics cycle.

We just have the memorial, which is between the main engineering section and my place in the habitation level. It’s a major intersection of corridors, and one of the largest open spaces that’s pressurized. It’s also the one small area where a few ornamental plants are grown, roses cared for inside their own boxes. The patch with plastic strands of grass always seemed strange to me, but perhaps they comforted those who came before. Their names are listed, starting in one corner and working their way down and across in steady columns. Names and dates, names and dates. People proceeding from life, into space, and into death.

I wish I could have met some of them. These were people who had known life on a living planet, and had chosen to leave it all behind. They committed themselves and their descendants to life as travelers through an empty desert, unto the seventh generation. Did they ever dream of finding a shortcut, and breathing the fresh air of the green world that we are chasing?

We never found a shortcut. If someone else found one, they have long since passed us by. The speed of light still stands as the ultimate limit, and we can only travel at a fraction of it. There isn’t even the option of sleeping through the long trip. We can store seeds and germ cells for centuries, but safely freezing a human brain and body has proven impossible. There are no non-toxic chemicals to prevent ice crystals from forming and shredding every tissue, severing the connections between neurons. Destroying what we sought to preserve. Thus, we end up taking the trip the long way.

For the most part, it’s a pleasant enough life. But I find myself wondering what it would be like, to live on a planet, where the gravity doesn’t vary so much from one level to another. Where the Coriolis effect from our spinning ship doesn’t send every thrown object a little bit sideways. Where we don’t have to keep track of just about every molecule and waste nothing. Where the sky outside the windows could be blue or cloudy, not always black with pinpricks of light. Where the arts of geology and meteorology are actually practiced, and not merely passed down from one generation to the next so that the knowledge is not lost. Where I am not a tech, and poetry can be something more than a frivolous hobby in between repair jobs.

Something different from here, where the dead are nothing more than names etched on a metal plate, and records stored in computer memory.

But then, ultimately, that is also true on a planet. Buried bones join the earth, only more slowly than our recycled ones do. After a few generations, all the personal details are lost. There is no one left who knows the stories behind the names and numbers.

The computers remember what people bothered to record. There are images of the celebrations of departure, and fewer of the settling into routine thereafter. We receive transmissions from Earth, too, but the increasingly distant news about cousins many times removed provides little comfort.

So I write when all the ship’s systems are running smoothly. I want to make sure that at least some stories are not forgotten. Not the grand stories, the sweeping tales of courageous repair of the hull or rescue from an engineering test gone awry. The little ones, about watching a child learning to walk at 0.5 g or the jokes told while on plumbing duty.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder what it will be like when we arrive. I have seen all the simulations of the sails unfurling. I have done some of the work on them myself, ensuring that they will be ready at the proper time. But the schematic of what it will do is less than what it is. The great sail will be a wing glittering ever brighter as the ship approaches its place of rest.

I will never see the sails open, or the blue-green oasis at our destination. There is a large blank space on the memorial, and one day, my name will be added to it.

I will never see the sails, but perhaps my children will. And I want them to know how much I longed for this, and remember our lost generations spent waiting in the desert.

So I walk by the cemetery every day. I read the names etched into the wall and try to imagine what the people must have been like. I try to remember the stories I hear about them and what is recorded of what they did. I spend a little more time on the more recent names. These were people I knew. My grandfather, who could make anything you want out of tofu and some mysterious secret ingredient. My grandmother, who could tell you where the stars were without even looking so long as she knew the time. My old friend, who died young in an awkward fall while goofing off like we all did. Now they are nothing but names and memories, and each of them is a small part of what sustains those of us who remain. I hold on to that hope, knowing that I will always be a part of those who follow after me.

The visit to the cemetery doesn’t last long. If I take a small detour, it’s on the way to work.


© 2015 by Rachel Reddick

 

Author’s Note:  The main idea behind the story was to answer one question: what would the passengers on a generation ship think in the middle of the journey?  They have never lived on a planet, and never will.  How do they keep going?

 

ReddickRachel Reddick followed a passion for space through an astrophysics PhD at Stanford University.  She is currently participating in the Insight Data Science program, to work on more down-to-Earth problems.  Nonetheless, she enjoys Star Trek, as well as speculative fiction of all flavors.

 

 

 


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