DP FICTION #76B: “We Will Weather One Another Somehow” by Kristina Ten

When Benj comes home, I swear his hands are smaller than before, and thinned out in the spaces between the knuckles, the points of contact if someone were to lace their fingers with his. It’s a millimeter’s difference, maybe less, maybe half. But then, I’ve gotten used to these reduced units of measurement.

When I find the dust in the cuffs of his jacket, I’m sure.

Benj is thirty-four years old, has been in my life for two. He is reliable and even-tempered, a good listener, easy to love. Lots of people call him their rock. I called him that too, before I knew.

He says he can’t pinpoint when it started, his erosion. Of course, I know—watched the videos in grade-school earth science same as everyone—that it’s one of those things that happens gradually over a long period of time. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing, nothing. Then one day, in the foreign angle of a changing-room mirror, a deep gully down the center of his back from where the shower water hit for ten straight minutes every day since he was a boy.

I let my fingers hover over the gully, a flock of birds caught in the wind, but I don’t touch down. He is limestone, vulnerable. Soft sedimentary. I dare not contribute.

Meanwhile, Benj takes his eroding as a fact of life. Hereditary, his dad. When he shows me old family photos, I recognize it immediately. Limbs narrow around the bone from continuous exposure.

“The fuck is this?” is how I found out, turning to look over my shoulder at his bathroom mirror, wiping long streaks of gray-pink dust from the back of my dress. A little drunk, both of us. Hiccups. Laughter. We had been out dancing, still new then, and I had been showing off.

He told me. Answered my questions, met my incredulity with patience. Gradually, yes, like buttes and canyons and river valleys. But much faster than those. Proportional to his size. Wait, parabolically proportional. No, it doesn’t hurt.

Later, lying there next to him, I didn’t know what to believe—finding all parts of him just as they should be, warm and present and braced so sturdily, I thought, by blood like mine. I remember hooking my hand onto the ledge of his collar bone, my legs draped over his so irresponsibly.

I asked about his dimples.

“Au naturel,” he replied.

The words “naturally occurring” mean something different to Benj. So do the words “worn out.”

One thing that wears Benj out, the way most people mean: phone calls from his mother, who’s back in Kansas, tornado-proofing her now-too-big house and putting fresh flowers on Benj’s dad’s grave. She sprung for a granite headstone. Erosion resistant. Made to last.

I hear one end of their conversations:

“Ma, please. We’ve been over this a thousand times.”

“Yes.”

“I am.”

“I am.” His face screws up and he turns away, his voice dropping to a near-whisper.

“A suit of armor, Ma? Jesus. What year is it? Where would you even get something like that?”

“It’s limited for everyone. Everybody’s on their way out. What did Dad used to say? ‘As soon as a story starts, it’s already ending’?”

A long pause. He shakes his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“Okay, but I’m not wearing the armor.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

He keeps the phone to his ear, waiting for her to hang up before he turns around.

I look up from whatever book I haven’t been reading and smile brightly, try to be easy, pretend I heard nothing, that me and his mom, we’re nothing alike.

I’m no geologist, but I’ve always had a head for formulas. There’s a logic to them. Follow the rules and you know things will come out all right. And sometimes I think I could sit down and do the math. Figure out, based on the progression to date, give or take, how much time we have left.

If I had more courage. And a good calculator.

If I wasn’t so afraid.

If I didn’t find myself, on windy days, positioning my body in front of his at the bus stop, a head shorter than him and in more ways than that an ineffective shield.

If he didn’t tickle the spot on my ankle that only he knows about. If I didn’t have to remind myself not to tickle him back. If he didn’t joke-not-joke that he’s made of weaker stuff.

The most common causes of erosion are: water, wind, glaciers, people.

Benj is social for someone who’d be better off if he wasn’t. We go to what feels like the same party every weekend—same people, same half-empty bowl of party mix on a fold-out table, combed through for the good stuff.

I chew the inside of my cheeks as he greets everyone individually: enthusiastic slaps on shoulders, special handshakes with intricate steps.

The ones who hug him bear-hug hard, and over time, this has left shallow depressions hidden by T-shirts, in the middle of his chest, the tops of his arms.

The ones who kiss him do it the French way, one cheek, then the other, and they are supposed to be air kisses, but now his face tapers above the jawline as if shaved away.

I’m the only one who observes the dust falling off Benj onto the discolored carpet, sucked up by a vacuum in the morning and no one the wiser. Of course they don’t see it. They aren’t the ones who bring him home.

Home, our apartment. Our shoes all mixed up together in the caddy by the front door, both our last names on the small laminated label on the mailbox downstairs. When we moved in, Benj insisted on a plus sign between our names, not a slash. Said that we should be an “and,” not an “or.”

Living with Benj is like living inside an hourglass, one of those two-minute timers you used to get at the dentist. The fine dust of him collects all around us, proof that he is, cell by cell, sloughing away. A sick gray tinged with pink: ground-down skin, muscle, bone.

Though he has learned to shower more carefully, with most of his body out of the stream, though he has trained himself not to roll around in his sleep, he still leaves it behind when he walks his most-traveled paths, from bed to fridge to computer chair and back again.

I wonder which room he’ll be in when the world, after shaping him for so long, decides he has had enough.

He thinks it’s morbid that I won’t get rid of it, that I sweep the dust into loose mounds in the corners of rooms. But what else am I supposed to do with something that’s part of him?

“You don’t throw out your loved ones’ ashes,” I argue.

“Sometimes you do. Actually, a lot of times you do.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“You would if the will said to.”

I roll my eyes. This is the thing I worry about most lately: wasting dwindling time on conversations we’ve already had.

“Doesn’t matter if I would or not. You’d be gone and who would check up on it anyway?”

He looks down. His eyelashes are crusted with dust and the beginnings of crying.

“I’m not dead yet, you know.”

My mind jumps to flat prairies transformed into basins, hiking passes carved into mountains by ice.

When Benj isn’t around, I go to the piles and make a bowl with my hands and scoop up the dust. I pretend I’m a gymnast reaching into a tub of chalk at a big meet. Pretend my team is counting on me, and the dust, it helps me with my grip.

Benj erodes fastest in the places touched most often, so I try not to touch the parts of him I’d like to stick around. The way the tip of his nose turns up at the very last second as if it’s been waiting to surprise you. The spot on his right earlobe where I swore I saw a freckle once, only Benj is no good at keeping freckles. As soon as he gets the right amount of sun, a rush of wind polishes them down.

Loving Benj is an exercise in restraint. He hates that I kiss him so gently, says what good will holding back do in the long run? I say it’s all about the long run. He says he doesn’t like this side of me, this just-like-everyone-elseness, this being more concerned with longevity than depth.

When he says “depth,” he presses his thumb against the gates of my teeth, daring me to open, let him in—and I’m a goner. I forget myself, grab hold of him desperately. There’s the all-too-real sensation of him slipping through my fingers.

The next morning, I slide my arms out of the fresh rills that cross his stomach. Notice the crumbling around the teeth marks on his neck.

But Benj hasn’t had fingerprints as long as I’ve known him. I can’t pretend the pads were worn down by me.

He tells me that we are more solid than ever, and not to conflate things. We are not what is deteriorating.

He tells me that he is grateful. That whatever time we have, for him, it is enough.

But I am greedy, greedy, greedy.

I want to put him in a glass box like they do in cemeteries with the stone busts of children, when the families do not want the likenesses to ever decay. At these times, when I am at my most selfish and delusional, I know I am the weak one between us.

Which is why, when the worst comes, I’m the one to crack.

Benj goes grocery shopping and tries to carry all the bags from the car in one go. The plastic handles sink inches into his forearms, cut through him like wire, almost clear through to the other side.

Afterwards, we stop going to the parties that are all the same. By now, his legs are so eroded and his back so concave, he finds it difficult to walk.

Then we develop bad coughs, as the piles of dust in the apartment grow steadily taller. We ignore the coughing for a while, blame it on something going around the building, until eventually Benj orders a reusable particle mask for me. Just the one, I notice. Not a pair.

Then Benj declares he’s going to the Archways.

The Archways is a national preserve a couple of states over in which Benj has previously expressed no interest. For one thing, it’s a full day’s drive. For another, it’s known for its sandstorms.

Now, Benj leaves the tourism website up on his computer all the time. The photographs show striated rock the color of sweet dried oranges. Hard-packed earth is punctuated by otherworldly formations: a natural bridge between two cliffs, spindly pedestals rising hundreds of feet like a giant’s game of Jenga. And the namesake arches, chiseled away over millennia and toothpick-delicate, forming open-mouthed O’s in the landscape, frames for whatever lies beyond.

“Do you know how many people die every day just commuting to work?”

This again. The particle mask hides my expression. “No. Do you?”

“All I’m saying is that the same people who refuse to get on airplanes, they’re the ones who’ll step out into the crosswalk one day at the wrong time and just—”

“I get it.”

“Do you?”

I recite so he doesn’t have to: “We’re all dying, one hundred percent of us, one hundred percent of the time. We’re dying from the day we’re born.”

He nods. “Listen. I need to have a say. With my dad, we assumed he had more time. He was still doing work on the house, picking up shifts at the yard. Freak dust devil got him. Little, unremarkable one too.”

I feel like I’m suffocating. Not sure if the mask’s too tight or it’s something else.

He grabs my hands firmly, and instinctively I shoot him a look of warning.

“I want you to come with me,” he says.

He told me it doesn’t hurt.

He was wrong.

I try to be tough, strong, metamorphic. The granite of a headstone, the diamond of a promise ring. As I drive, I stare at a fixed point on the horizon, certain that if I turn my gaze toward him, it will bore a hole right through. A frame for everything that lies beyond him—which, as far as I can tell, is nothing at all.

The car’s stuffy and too quiet as I try to figure what would do less harm: roll the windows down and let the air blow against him, or leave them up and risk the sweat dissolving wavy lines into his skin.

Doesn’t matter. Neither of us expects him to be in that passenger seat on the way back.

Even in the stillness, the dust of him swirls lightly, landing on my hair, his jeans, the lids of our sodas, empty chip bags in the footwell, the red buckle of his latched seatbelt.

I ask why he bothered with the seatbelt.

He takes his chance: “Hey, you think I have a death wish?” And though it’s not funny, it feels better on the other side of silence.

When we pull in, the view from the visitors’ lot is depressing. Back home, we have coverage, densely packed trees, important for minimizing erosion. Here, the vegetation is sparse and the way it doesn’t touch fills me with regret. Low shrubs spaced so far apart, you get the feeling they want nothing to do with each other.

The rock formations, though, are beautiful in person, in the way of things that were not made all at once with a singular vision but by many invisible hands unhurriedly over time.

Already, the wind is howling.

Then these things in quick succession: I put the car in park. The wind shakes it violently. Panic strikes me, knocks something loose.

“Stay,” I blurt out. I hate the beg in my voice, say it anyway: “Please. Stay.”

Through eyes blurring with tears, I think I can see his body responding. He is filling out at the edges, widening where he was narrow. Coming back to sense, to me.

When I blink, my vision clears and the brief burst of hope is gone.

In its place is Benj, looking sad but resolute. He pulls his shoes and socks off slowly, left then right foot, then tugs his T-shirt over his head. He’s not being careful now. As he pushes his jeans down, the denim drags and I watch the dust fall.

He folds his clothes methodically on the center console. When he’s done, he turns and finally looks me in the eye.

Benj leans over and kisses me so hard I have to reach up and check my lips, I’m so sure it’s a piece of me that’s broken away.

He takes a series of fast breaths: in, out, in, out, in—

Then he throws the door open and goes.

Immediately, the wind begins the vicious work of whittling him down. One gust, three fingers off his left hand. The next, a chunk of his thigh. Fragments of him strike the windshield like hail while I sit, frozen. A crack forms down the middle of the glass, the space between his seat and mine.

Has he always been this decisive, this stupid, this brave?

People change, of course. Imperceptibly, then plain as day.

I can’t watch, but can’t not watch either, am here to be here. So I force myself out of the car and race to Benj, as far as he has managed to get, running on thin limbs and his own conviction.

How quickly he dissolves as we walk together, sideways in the wind, to one of the larger arches. He points forward, onward, with the index finger of his good hand. The sandstorm comes from everywhere, stinging, and I don’t try to shelter him from its blows.

When we reach the base of the arch, a thought burrows into me, painful and invasive. It makes me think of some wedding backdrops I’ve seen: clean-smelling, flower-wrapped pagodas; a place for ceremony.

At first, Benj’s gray-pink dust stands out, pale against the surrounding red rock. Once the wind hits blood, though, I can’t tell the difference.

“It doesn’t hurt?” I ask-yell over the storm.

Close up, I can’t see the whole of him. Only brown eyes, a little less domed than mine, looking back at me without fear.

“Not the way you think!”

When the next gust shears off his smile, I think, finally, I know what he means.

How does it hurt? It hurts like wishing hard won’t help you. Like being good won’t help you. Like there is no formula: you could’ve behaved completely differently and still.

We are insignificant and seen mostly at the surface.

If we’re lucky, seen deeper by some.

The dust of Benj hits me sharp and sudden, mixed with sand, and quickly I am bleeding. I squeeze my eyes shut against it. I shout into the unfairness, though I knew it was coming, and I swear I can hear Benj shouting back, though the air is thick enough to blind and I’m sure he is mostly bodiless now. In my useless mouth I try to catch him, hold him there, an urn for my beloved. Try not to let him dissolve on my tongue. Something like safekeeping.

When I open my eyes again, unsure of how much time has passed, the air is unnervingly still. Would it really have been easier not to have known?

I am red-raw and pinpricked. Dust sticks in ornate patterns atop the wetness of my tears or sweat or blood, like glitter to glue on art projects when I was a kid, and it’s true: I feel decorated. I remember glitter being impossible to get rid of. I walk back to the car, thinking that later, I’ll have to pick out the particles with tweezers one by one.

Or maybe not.

Maybe let it get infected.

Maybe stay evidence, of how great an impact one person can have. How much of them you can then carry with you, embedded, a burial under the skin.


Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer with work in LightspeedBlack StaticWeird HorrorAE Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop and a current MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #76A: “One More Angel” by Monica Joyce Evans

“What was it this time?” She looked exhausted, shoulders slumped over a file covered with names, and ruffled her wings at me like an angry pigeon. “Transporter trip? It’s usually a transporter trip.”

“Um,” I said. The last thing I remembered was the departure platform at Greater Houston, and the familiar buzz and glare of a successful transport. “Is this what it looks like?”

“I’m marking it as a repeat,” she said, and pointed me toward a small white room, already looking at the next file. There were fine lines at the corners of her eyes. I wondered if she had a flaming sword, and if I should be worried.

In the white room, I was met by myself.

“Hello, you,” the other me said, swinging one leg over the back of a chair and straddling it. “Where was it this time?”

“Mars,” I said cautiously. “Just a weekend trip. I’m dead, right?” The room was as bare as a VR stage. “Or this is the weirdest ad I’ve ever been in, and I’m not sure what you’re selling.”

“No, you’re dead,” said the other me. “Look, I keep drawing the short straw on this whole explanation thing, so I’m going to go fast. Two things that are true.” She held up two fingers and waggled them. “One, Heaven is real, God is real, all that religion stuff is real. Not the nasty bits, just the simple, straightforward, everybody gets an afterlife part. That’s real. That’s thing one. Thing two? Transporters are murder.”

“No, they’re not,” I said. “I use them all the time.”

My other self twisted her mouth into a crooked smile. “Follow that thought through,” she said.

“I mean,” I said carefully, “they just take your atoms apart and put them back together again. On the other end.”

“That’s death,” the other me said. “Literally and technically. You’re dead, and your copy goes to Mars for the weekend. Well,” she amended, “your new copy. We’re all copies here, except for the ten year old. She was first.” Outside the open door, the pigeon-winged woman had started laughing, the way an exhausted parent laughs when the children start drawing on the walls with crayon.

I swallowed. “I don’t use transporters that much. I mean, I don’t really keep count.”

“Yes, we can tell,” the other me said, and guided me into the next room. About forty versions of myself were grouped in small clusters, having quiet conversations and looking bored. They were all about my age, but slightly younger. Except for one little girl who seemed particularly bitter.

None of them looked happy. “You’re sure this is Heaven?”

“Yep,” said the other me, and put a hand on my shoulder. “That’s every transporter trip you’ve ever taken. And that thing with the jellyfish when you were a kid, when you were dead for twelve seconds and change. That counted.” She waved at the ten year old, who glared at us.

“I guess we all led good lives or something,” I said weakly. Ten year old me should definitely have been happier. I mean, she’d been here for what, thirty years? Give or take?

The other me, the first one, looked where I was looking and nodded. “Oh, the first few decades were great. It’s recently, really, that everybody’s gotten… well, like this.”

It was deeply awkward. There wasn’t anything else in the big white room to take our minds off each other, and none of my previous selves seemed to want to talk to me. “Shouldn’t there be marble columns or something?” I asked finally. “Trees and fountains? Lots of light?”

As I spoke, two columns and a fountain sprouted gently, and the room was bathed in warm golden sunlight, like it was four-thirty on a perfect afternoon. “Oh, sure,” said the other me, poking at a column. “Lots of people start with this. Don’t feel bad,” she said to the expression on my face. “Familiar’s just fine. Anyway, we’ll go through all this again in a few days, when the next one of us gets back from Mars, so…”

“Okay, no. No more,” I said, looking around at myself. “This can’t be it. I can’t end up like all of you.” Sunlight sparkled, perfectly, on the fountain next to us, and I resisted the urge to kick it.

The other me cocked an eyebrow. “You’ve been traveling a lot lately.”

“Well, how was I supposed to know?” I said. “Everybody uses transporters.”

“That’s the point,” she said, guiding me past a pair of shining trees. Some of the others followed us, not closely. “All those little deaths, all the time now. People used to spend time with relatives, ancestors, some interesting famous people, but now, well.” She shrugged. “There’s just too many of us.”

“Heaven’s overcrowded? I thought Hell was other people,” I said. Nobody laughed. The ten year old rolled her eyes and left the room, which at least meant there was a way out, I thought.

The other me sat us down on a delicately filigreed bench, by a small pond rippling with fish. “They’re calling us multiples,” she said. “Repeats. And there’s talk, you know, that it’s not really sustainable. People think the whole system’s going to break down.”

“The afterlife?” I had a brief moment of panic, then remembered I was already dead. “Is that possible?”

“Oh, no,” the first me said, waving her hand like she could wave the thought away. “But it’s a strain, you know. The place wasn’t built for repeats.” Some of my other faces looked worried.

“Just hypothetically, though, if it did break,” I said. “What would happen?”

The other me shrugged. “You know, nobody’s saying. It’s probably fine, though.”

“Probably.” I looked around, imagining stacks of myself piled like cordwood, grumbling. Or maybe the whole place would shatter like a mess of pixels, or something even worse. “Can we do anything?”

She smiled wide, and I swallowed. “Well, if you think of anything, you be sure and let everyone know.”

Fish turned in gentle loops under the pond’s surface, perfectly. It wouldn’t be nice to kick at them, I thought. Besides, the sunlight was warm on my skin, the fountain burbled pleasantly in the distance, and life had always been short. “So, what do you all do?” I asked, settling back on the comfortable bench. “When you’re not running slightly older versions of yourself through the tutorial.”

“Oh, well,” she said. “Pretty much anything nice you can imagine.” She waved in the direction my child self had gone. “Our ten year old made an ice cream land with tame dinosaurs. And you can still meet your relatives and ancestors, if you can find them. They’ll still talk to some of us, the younger ones.” She chattered on, and I thought about the news story I’d seen, when I was waiting my turn at the transporter to Mars.

Home versions. Just announced. So convenient, to transport back and forth from home every day. Multiple times, probably.

Everyone was going to want one.

“Tell me about the ice cream land,” I said, and smiled at the fish. Let the next version of me tell everyone the bad news. Meanwhile, I’d see as much of the place as I could, while it lasted.

Death was too short not to enjoy it.


Author’s Note: I’ve always been somewhere on the scale of bothered-to-terrified about the standard transporters in Star Trek. Site-to-site matter teleportation would be fantastic, if only I didn’t have to worry about whether it was “me” that emerged on the other side. I’ve also been replaying The Swapper, an indie game in which you’re constantly abandoning cloned versions of yourself that may or may not be conscious, and started thinking about all those potential transporter copies – what if they didn’t die, but went somewhere else? An overcrowded afterlife was the logical next step.

Monica Joyce Evans is a digital game designer and researcher who began publishing speculative fiction in 2019. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Analog, Nature: Futures, Flash Fiction Online, and DreamForge Magazine, and her most recent academic work can be found in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. She lives in North Texas with her husband, two daughters, and approximately ten million books. You can reach her at monicajoyceevans@gmail.com.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #75B: “Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan” by Lauren Ring

When the cars started driving themselves, we went back to the old ways. It wasn’t a slow change, the way the news made it out to be. One day we were in control, and the next we weren’t. Now they can strike anywhere, anytime, any make and any model, all with dead-eyed electronic smiles on their windshields.

The old ways help us stay safe. I teach my daughter to chalk runes around the house, double yellow lines that forbid the cars from crossing. We bring a baby stroller everywhere we go. It saved a friend of mine once, making him rank slightly higher in the car’s inscrutable calculus than the woman on the other side of the street.

Sometimes I wonder if he feels guilty.

I know I wouldn’t. I need to be there for Margot, so that I can protect her in this new world, and keep her childhood peaceful. She’s the only reason I keep going. No one else matters.

Today, Margot and I are going to the park. Margot is wearing her favorite shirt, the one with the pink stripes and the ice cream scoops, and I’ve done up her hair with matching bows. A bright rainbow of face paint covers her button nose. She skips along happily, clutching her chapter book to her chest as I push the stroller with its disguised doll.

“I’m going to see the bridge troll, Mama,” Margot tells me. I resist the urge to sigh.

“Bridges are on roads, sweetheart.They aren’t safe anymore, remember?”

“You never let me have any fun.” She pouts and stops skipping.

“We’re going to the park right now,” I point out. Margot huffs and buries her face in her book. I want to tell her not to read while walking, but that’s one battle I won’t ever win. I step to her left, between her and the road.

The book she’s reading has a troll on the cover. Its eyes glow yellow and its rocky body blends into the bridge behind it. Next to it stands a young girl with her hands on her hips. I make a mental note to skim it after she falls asleep tonight: I don’t want her getting the wrong idea.

It’s the way people thought before the cars. Some people still think it; try to take the cars down. I hear about them on the news, next to footage of their weeping parents. Margot is only curious about the cars now, but I can’t help worrying that she’ll grow up to be one of those radicals.

Margot tugs at my sleeve.

“Want to guess a riddle?” she asks.

“Sure, honey.” We’re almost at the park now. It’s isolated, deep enough in the maze of the suburbs that I can let my guard down a little.

“What has legs but no feet?” Margot asks, placing her finger halfway down the page.

“I don’t know, what?”

“I win,” she squeals, holding the book out to me. “It’s a chair, it says right here. Now you have to let me go to the bridge.”

“Not if I catch you first!” I chase her all the way to the park, roaring like a bridge troll.

There are other families at the park, and other children on the swings. Margot spots her best friend Nadia playing in the sand pit and runs off.

Across the sand, my friends Dave and Samir are chatting at a picnic bench. Samir spots me and waves me over, smiling wide. I scan the park for escape routes and hiding places before joining them.

“How have you been, Alicia?” Samir asks. His disguise of the day is all harsh lines and interlocking spirals, so dark they look like tattoos across his face. In the oldest days, it was unwise to share your true name. Now you can’t share your true face.

“We missed you at our baby shower,” Dave adds.

“Right.” I had been too afraid to leave the house that day. There had been a car victim in the news, a child Margot’s age, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “I’ll bring your gift to the next self-defense workshop.”

Samir rolls his eyes, but I know he’s more exasperated than annoyed. After all, Dave leads the workshops. He had been a designer on the cars long ago, back when people were still actually in charge of them, but his workshops tend toward the arcane.

“I’m working on a charm.” Dave holds up a spinning, blinking object that flashes pattern after pattern. “If we can overload a car’s sensors for even a millisecond, it might swerve.”

“Do you have to call it a charm?” Samir grumbles.

“If it works, it works,” says Dave. “I think there’s a lot we can learn from the old ways.”

“They’re machines, not fairies. The way we get back to normal is by somebody figuring out who hacked into the AI, not by all of us pretending that they’re magic.”

“What about in the meantime?” I interject. “Things aren’t getting any better. Half the kids in Margot’s classroom haven’t come in since the attack by the high school; the district says we’re all moving to remote schooling.”

“Maybe it would be better.” Dave places a hand on my shoulder. “She’ll still have the backyard, and Nadia can come over for playdates.”

“I just want her to get a chance to live the way we lived, you know?”

Dave and Samir give me sympathetic nods, but they don’t say anything. There’s nothing to say.

I turn back to watch Margot play, hoping some of her carefree joy will stick with me.

The sand pit is empty. A half-built bridge, a pinecone troll, and a trail of sand left like breadcrumbs are all that remains of Margot and Nadia.

I start running.

At least she’s with Nadia, I think to myself. At least she isn’t alone. It pains me to make the same cold decision as a car, but Nadia is older than Margot, and age is supposed to be one of the metrics.

I sprint across streets and swing around corners with wild abandon, following the sand. Margot is out there. Margot, who I still can’t convince of the dangers of the world. In another life, I would have wanted her to stay innocent.

The nearest bridge isn’t a bridge at all. It’s actually a freeway overpass that crosses a quiet road, but it’s close enough in the eyes of a child. Margot and Nadia stand there at the edge of the shadows, their arms linked.

“Margot, Nadia, come here,” I call as loudly as I dare. “We can play somewhere else.”

“But Mama, we found the troll,” Margot says.

I get closer and see yellow in the shadows. Not eyes. Headlights.

I’m in front of Margot in an instant, spreading my arms to block her as much as I can. Nadia whimpers and ducks behind my leg, but Margot just tries to slip under my arm.

“I want to tell it my riddle,” she says.

“Margot, honey, this is a car,” I say carefully. She knows the stories, the warnings, but she has never seen a feral car in the wild before. I’ve sheltered her too well. “We talked about how they’re different now. It’s not going to answer your riddle.”

The car’s windshield changes from the neutral face that means no danger to something new: a question mark. I have never seen an autonomous car without an indicator face before.

“Sweetheart, I want you and Nadia to get back.” I use my sternest tone. When they step back, though, the car revs its engine and inches forward.

The car’s windshield displays a stop sign. The children halt.

“Okay, Margot. Ask the riddle.” My voice shakes.

She places her hands on her hips, her little chin thrust high in the air.

“What,” she demands, “has legs but no feet?”

The car displays a chair on its screen. My heart skips a beat as it starts rolling forward, picking up speed. Margot turns to me with wide eyes.

“It won, mama.”

I scoop Margot into my arms and start to run, but Nadia grabs at my leg, and we all go tumbling down to the asphalt. Margot starts to cry and I have just enough time to notice the bright red smear on her scraped elbow before the car is upon us and I have to act, now.

“I have riddles, car,” I say, desperate. “Play with me.”

The car screeches to a halt and slowly reverses until all I can see are its eerie yellow headlights and the question mark on its windshield.

“If I win, you leave me and my daughter alone. Forever. All of you.”

The car displays a red frown. I’ve asked for too much.

“Just her, then.” I wipe the tear-smeared paint off Margot’s face and force her to look at the car. It will kill us anyway if I fail here.

A green smiling face. A question mark.

The problem is, I don’t have a riddle. I’ve never really been one for puzzles, and the only games I play are the ones Margot suggests. Besides, anything I’ve heard of before, the car will also know. It knows so much. More than I do. It knows the answer to unanswerable questions. Like “whose life is worth more?”

Nadia trembles behind me.

Margot would be heartbroken if anything happened to her. If it comes down to that choice again, I know what I will do, but for now there must be another way. Samir was right: they’re cars, not fairies. But Dave was right too. Both of those things play by the rules, and both of those things can be tricked.

“You can’t kill us until you answer my riddles,” I tell it. Again, the green smile. I step forward and walk so close I can feel the heat of its engine. I try the door handle.

“What are you doing, Mama?” Margot asks, grabbing my hand with her stubby fingers. “Don’t let it eat us!”

“Just trust me, honey.” I tug on the handle again. The car hums, like its air conditioning has been left on high. The first glimpses of a plan are forming in my head. “I need to get my books from home, so I can find the very best riddles.”

With a click, the car door unlocks. I think it’s curious. Kind of like a child in that way, if the child weighed several tons and could kill with ease. Margot clings to me as I open the car’s door and climb inside, with Nadia at my heels.

The children huddle in the passenger seat, clinging to each other as I snap their seatbelt in place. I eye the manual override, but I know better. I’ve heard of people who tried that and held on. Heard what happened the moment they let go.

If we can just get home, though, I might be able to pull this off. Maybe.

I key in my address and with a sound like a sigh, the car pulls out from under the overpass.

It’s been years since I’ve been inside a car. My knuckles are white as I grip the useless wheel. Outside the window, the trees and the streets and the houses blur together.

I can almost understand why the world chose this path. There’s no traffic, no mistakes, no rude gestures. But it only feels safe from inside the car. I’ve lived too long on the outside to be fooled.

Maybe I can beat the car at its own game, instead of resorting to one of the frantic, risky plans bubbling up in my mind. I can’t come up with any suitable riddles, though, and I know my own books won’t be any help. All I know are the childish riddles I’ve picked up through my time as a parent, from playgroups and picture books.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Because it was running for its life.

My house comes into view. It’s a single story, just big enough for me and Margot. Yellow painted rune-lines circle the structure, and all of the blinds are drawn shut. Weeds have broken through the concrete of the driveway. The car crushes them as it pulls up.

I unbuckle the girls and step out on shaky legs. I can at least get Margot inside. Maybe she can barricade herself somewhere, and force the car to destroy itself getting to them. But that’s a temporary solution at best.

The car revs its engine as Margot and Nadia head for the porch. It rolls up behind them and they freeze. Nadia is crying now, globs of silent tears pooling on her cheeks. Margot’s face is tight and pale.

“Stay out here, girls,” I say as gently as I can. “I’m going to get some books. Everything will be okay. I’ll bring some chalk for you to play with. Don’t worry, alright?”

Margot grabs my sleeve as I pass her. The look in her eyes breaks my heart almost as much as the look in her eyes when I have to keep going. The chalk will work, though. It has to work.

The house is quiet and still. The car’s headlights follow me through the blinds as I hurry to the shelves. Margot’s books are usually scattered around her room, but there are still a few fairy tales left where they should be. I grab them and the chalk.

Back outside, the car looms over Margot and Nadia, their nightmares made real for the very first time. It’s a small car, but they’re small girls. Too small to be dealing with this right now and certainly too small for what I’m about to ask them to do, but there’s no one else that can do it.

“Here you go, girls. Don’t be afraid.” I hand them the bucket of chalk, then turn my back to the car and hide my hands as I gesture to them what to do.

I can only hope they understand. I turn back to the car.

“I’m going to ask you three riddles,” I say, stretching my words out to buy time as the children begin to draw. I can see Margot trembling as she nears the car, but she draws anyway. So brave, my girl. “It’s the traditional number.”

The green question mark stays on the car’s display, unwavering.

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

The question mark winks out. Moments later, the car’s screen fills with text. Every inch of the windshield is covered in blog posts and thesis papers, giving me every possible answer to the unanswerable riddle. Then it shows me a green check mark.

It makes sense. The cars have always been judge, jury, and executioner. This isn’t a contest I could ever win. The car starts rolling forward and a piece of pink chalk explodes into a cloud of dust and shards beneath its tire.

“I have two more.” My voice was supposed to be firm and strong, but instead it’s high and reedy. “You haven’t heard the best ones yet. Stay where you are until you answer.”

The car indulges me and stops. I open one of Margot’s books and read aloud.

“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives…”

This riddle is one of Margot’s favorites. She likes the way the words sound; likes the lyricism and the puzzle combined. I try not to look at her, because I know I will cry. I hope she knows how hard I’m trying to save her.

The car, of course, has its answer the instant I’m done reading. The number one appears on its screen. This time, though, it’s an angry red.

“Very good,” I say, glancing at the girls and their chalk. “Just one more, and then we see who wins. One more riddle and the game is over.”

A red timer appears on the car’s screen, ticking down from thirty seconds. It wants me to stop stalling, but I just need a little more time. Thirty seconds will have to be enough.

I wait for the last five seconds before I speak. The silence is as solemn as the grave and is punctuated only by the scratch of chalk and the steady hum of the car’s engine.

“My last riddle for you, car,” I say, “is: how are you going to get out?”

For a long moment, longer than ever before, the screen is blank.

Then the car rears forward, headlights ablaze. I can’t help it—I close my eyes. If this doesn’t work, then it’s all over, and I won’t watch my daughter die.

There is no scream. There is no crunch. There is only silence.

I crack open the eye and see the car frozen in place. It skidded to a halt just inches from poor Margot’s face, but—thank God—she is unscathed. Nadia is panting with effort. Her hand shakes as she grinds her piece of chalk into the last mark on the rune, a simple do-not-cross indicator that signals to the very core of the car’s programming.

Margot runs to me. I hold her tighter than tight, burying my face in her soft hair. I wish I could stay this way forever, but it’s not safe, even now.

I bundle the children into the house as the car revs its engine and spins its wheels uselessly within the circle. It flicks on its high beams and the light spills through the closed blinds.

Nadia stands by the door and stares at the ground.

“You left me,” she says. “You ran with Margot.”

“Honey, I’m sorry.” I crouch down to her eye level. Only then do I see the nail marks on her inner palms, where she clutched the chalk so hard she nearly bled. Without her help, my daughter would be a smear on the pavement.

I place my hands on her shoulders. She looks up, her eyes wide and tearful and, I realize for the first time, the same shade of brown as Margot’s.

“I won’t ever leave you again.”

Nadia takes one of my hands. Margot takes the other. I lead the girls deep into the house, where the thick walls will protect us, and pull out my phone.

Dave can help, and Samir, and they will know other former programmers who will know more and more. The cars are connected, but we can be too. Our solidarity gives us power. And now, if I have to, I will join the charge.

For Margot.

For everyone.


Author’s Note: This story was inspired by James Bridle’s 2017 art piece “Autonomous Trap 001,” which features a self-driving car trapped by a salt circle. I saw his piece when I was in college researching the UX design of self-driving cars (such as windshield displays to communicate to pedestrians), so I immediately started thinking of all the other ways this technology could be connected to folklore. The story itself came from wondering why a car would need to be trapped in the first place.

Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. Her short fiction can be found in Pseudopod, Nature: Futures, and Glitter + Ashes. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is pursuing her career in UX design or attending to the many needs of her cat Moomin.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #75A: “The PILGRIM’s Guide to Mars” by Monique Cuillerier

Ursula knelt on the uneven surface of sand and rock, putting her tool box down beside her. She paused and considered the robot before beginning to work.

Covering the top of the rover’s main body and extending outward from it, the solar panels were obscured by a thick layer of Mars’s pale red dust. That was where Ursula would begin, with the easier job of clearing the flat surfaces. Then she would move on to the more delicate task of removing the tiny grains of dust and sand that had inevitably worked themselves into the rover’s nooks and crannies hidden below the panels.

She opened the box and removed a sturdy brush with an extended head and began with long, broad sweeps across the panels. For the initial cleaning and maintenance, she tried to keep an empty mind, paying careful attention, re-familiarizing herself with every panel and antenna, every camera and spectrometer.

The large brush soon gave way to a smaller one and then another, of different shape, but there was no hurry. Ursula took the time required to do the job thoroughly even though she was aware that her own time was coming to an end.

This was Mars Exploration Rover A, called Spirit by those who sent her. Spirit had worked hard here in the Gusev Crater for five years until she became stuck, the loose sand too much for her six wheels, each of a diameter of only twenty-five centimeters.

Once Ursula had cleared the panels and body, she began to dig around the wheels, freeing each of them in turn. She did not have the skills to allow the rover to move again, that was beyond both her training and her mission objectives.

But, as she did with each of the rovers and landers, she moved it, just a little. The objectives recommended slight adjustments be made, to mimic the robot’s nominal behaviour. She changed the direction the navigation and panoramic cameras pointed in and extended the arm so that the rock abrasion tool at its end was directed towards a different spot on the surface.

Then it was time for reflection.

Brushing the dust from her own body, she stood up and bowed her head slightly, as she had been instructed.

First, she silently paid tribute to this hardworking, dedicated robot who had been sent to this planet, to explore and understand where humans could not.

And then, she acknowledged the efforts of all those who had imagined, designed, built, and sent the landers and rovers to explore the unknown.

And finally, she silently recited the details: 

Mars Exploration Rover A, called Spirit.

Landed in Gusev Crater on January 4, 2004, tasked with the investigation of climate, geology, and the possibility of life. 

Stuck in soft sand in 2009, but continued with stationary work until communication ceased in March 2010. 

Mission determined completed on May 24, 2011. 

Total distance travelled, 7.73 km.

Ursula then paused for a moment before she put away the tools and brushes and took them back to her buggy, ready for the next robot.

The process was specific and detailed, as Ursula made her way from one robot to the next, as she circumambulated the planet, as she had been doing since her arrival twenty-three Earth years ago.

Over the past year, though, Ursula had become aware of changes in her processes. Her central battery pack no longer held a charge the way it once had. And the joints in her left lower limb did not bend so easily as they had previously. Her memory circuits had become full and sluggish.

And on this sol, as she had disconnected from the buggy’s power source and rebooted her systems, she had been filled with an awareness that she would not be able to do so again. 

But there was nothing to be done but to continue as she did every sol, to tend to the robots and acknowledge their contributions and where they came from.

*

Ursula herself did not require a controlled environment within her mode of transportation, although the vehicle was enclosed to keep as much sand and dust out as was reasonable, the better to protect her own joints, nooks, and bends.

The buggy had only enough space for her and the equipment she used to tend to the robots. Large wheels carried it over the sometimes precarious surface. It did not move quickly as that had not been a priority in its design.

It was unnecessary for Ursula to refer to the map built into her memory to know that the next robot she would visit was Mars 3, a lander sent by the USSR in 1971, very early in human attempts to explore this planet. In the midst of a dust storm, it had reached the surface, only to cease functioning a mere one hundred and ten seconds later.

As she made her way across Terra Sirenum towards the lander, Ursula powered down all but her navigation system, which was connected to the buggy. The buggy was a shell robot, dependent on Ursula for all computational needs, a skeleton with a power source.

When Ursula ceased to operate, the buggy would no longer have a purpose.

Perhaps one of the other Processor-Integrated Logistical General Robots for Independent Maintenance (PILGRIMs) would have need for it. Their paths did not often cross, and she had not seen another in more than three Mars-years, but the planetary-wide instructional system would accommodate for her absence and absorb her schedule into that of the others.

Ursula knew these things to be fact, as she had been aware of her projected lifecycle from her arrival. There was always some uncertainty as to how long any given robot would continue, but that was life.

*

The Mars 3 lander was unlike Spirit in every way. A lander not a rover, of course, but also of very different shape and intention. Bell-shaped and sitting on a flat circular base, triangular petals unfolded around it, Ursula began with a medium-sized brush and made her way slowly around the lander, sweeping out the sand and dust that had accumulated in the petals and freeing the lower segment of the lander from the planet’s encroachment.

Had the lander survived, she would have measured temperature, pressure and wind, she would have used her scoop to dig in the ground.

When Ursula eventually reached the time for reflection, she considered the short time that Mars 3 had existed as a functional object on Mars, more than some, but so much less than others, like Spirit and her sister Opportunity. But the length of functioning time was not the only metric by which the worth of a robot was measured. 

What had been learned from the experience, what the builders on Earth had intuited from it — these were what was of value, Ursula had been told. She had been shown how each robot fit into the larger picture of Martian exploration and knowledge, an entirety into which they all contributed. The builders had impressed upon Ursula that the PILGRIMs also existed within this framework. While they might not be collecting, crushing, and analyzing rocks or taking seismic measurements, they were nonetheless an important part of the whole.

Ursula began the routine of putting away her tools. There had been a time when new robots arrived on Mars with greater  frequency, but that time was now firmly in the past. The latest arrivals had been other PILGRIMs, working as Ursula did.

*

Once she was finished with Mars 3, Ursula again made her way back to the buggy and connected her navigation system.

The next location on her map was on Planum Australe, less than one thousand kilometres from Mars’ southern pole, where she would provide care to the remains of the Mars Polar Lander, which arrived in 1999. 

Even as she activated the navigation system, Ursula was aware in the depths of her active memory that her systems were not likely to last the entire journey, short though it was.

But she had no decision-making tree that would direct her to a choice other than the one she had made every sol, to re-charge while the buggy made its way across the Martian surface towards her next location.

Halfway to the Mars Polar Lander site, Ursula was roused from her energy-saving half-slumber by a gentle but persistent signal from her base level emergency monitoring system.

Charging program has halted, the signal impressed into her consciousness. Restart charging program.

Ursula had to retrieve instructions for restarting the program from her deep memory cells. She had never needed to do such a thing before and she knew what that meant.

Restart will take four point three minutes, an alert echoed inside of her.

Her skeletal structure jerked as the restart began and her limbs twitched.

No thought processes occurred while it continued.

Charge at thirty per cent, the signal eventually told her. 

She considered that. It should have been more than that by now, but she restarted the navigation connection on the buggy’s dashboard.

As the buggy continued over the uneven terrain, Ursula ran a full diagnostic procedure on herself, even though it was a drain on her charge and she knew what the result would tell her.

*

Three-quarters of the way to the polar lander, the results of the diagnostic were unfortunately clear.

She had reached the end of her mission.

The report suggested a build up of sand between the thermoelectric modules through a crack in the outer housing of her right leg. If there was a way to fix that, Ursula did not know what it was. Her purpose had never been to perform mechanical tasks.

She was a pilgrim — she paid homage and provided care.

Overriding the buggy’s intended route, she brought it to a stop.

This was as good a place as any and she wanted to ensure she had the opportunity to properly reflect in the time remaining.

Perhaps it was a flaw in her design, but she could not locate an appropriate set of instructions for what to do next. However, she had been provided with the means to improvise when necessary, within her parameters.

She left the buggy and found an appropriate spot, beside a large rock and arranged herself on the surface, as if she were examining it.

*

Agnes made her way across Planum Australe towards the Mars Polar Lander in her buggy, her systems dimmed as she recharged.

A gentle ping brought her back to full awareness. The planetary instructional system had updated her map and current destination.

The current destination was along the route she was travelling; there would be no detour necessary.

*

The buggy came to a halt beside another of identical design.

Agnes took up her tool box and went in search of the other PILGRIM, finding her easily, laying stretched out on the surface not far from the vehicle.

She knelt down and selected one of the smaller brushes. Carefully, beginning with the head, she brushed away the thin layer of sand and dust that had already begun to accumulate.

Then Agnes tilted the PILGRIM’s head slightly to the left, as if she was considering the other side of the rock.

It did not take long for her to finish and then it was time for reflection.

First, she silently acknowledged that the PILGRIM had been a hardworking, dedicated robot, sent to this planet to perform a job that humans could not.

And then she considered the dedicated effort of all those who had imagined, designed, built, and sent all the landers and rovers and other robots, like the PILGRIMs.

And finally, she silently recited the details.

Processor-Integrated Logistical General Robot for Independent Maintenance 92-04-38, called Ursula. 

Landed on the edge of the Jezero Crater on February 23, 2093.

Tasked with the care and acknowledgement of the human-designed presence on Mars.

Time spent, twenty-three Mars years. 

Distance travelled, 72 569 km.


Author’s Note: I have a great fondness for the rovers and landers and orbiters that humans have sent (and continue to send) to Mars and I know others share that feeling. We, collectively, imagine and design and build these robots to go and do the work we want to do, but for the time being, cannot. It says a great deal about humanity that we do this, but as well, it has resulted in a planet that is currently inhabited entirely by robots. The seed of the idea for a Martian pilgrimage route came to me a few years ago, around the time the rover Opportunity stopped working. I kept beginning and abandoning stories about it, because none of the plots were quite right. Once it occured to me that other robots were the obvious pilgrims, the story unfolded easily.

Monique Cuillerier is a writer of (mostly) near future science fiction. When she is not writing, she likes to run, knit, garden, and get very angry on Twitter. Her favourite object in the solar system is Saturn’s moon, Enceladus and her favourite tv show is either Babylon 5 or Star Trek: Voyager (her cat Janeway votes for the latter). She is Canadian, born in Toronto and living (for the time being) in Ottawa. Her work has appeared in the Bikes in Space anthologies Bikes Not Rockets and Dragon Bike, as well as Queer Sci Fi’s Impact and Migration. The scarf Monique is wearing in the author photo depicts the Mars Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Helicopter (available from STARtorialist).


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #74B: “For Lack of a Bed” by John Wiswell

Noémi tried to focus on the mermaids and ignore the floor. She lay in the middle of her living room, upon a nest of laundry bags and blankets, hoping for just a couple hours of sleep before she had to open the shop tomorrow. The new pain pills did as little as the old ones, and so she pulled the covers over herself at sundown and tried to use the internet as medication.

Chronic pain and Mermaid Tumblr. It was a normal night in her world. Videos and GIFs of those fish-tailed people swimming, their fins swirling through water currents, sometimes lulled Noémi into distraction. She needed those distractions tonight.

Her phone buzzed with a text from Tariq. He was working late.

TARIQ

u want a bed, but would u sleep on a sofa?

NOEMI

I’d sell a kidney for a sofa.

TARIQ

what if some1 died on it? but u keep ur kidneys

Okay, it was a weird offer. But was this that much weirder than the selkies down the hall who kept offering her herbal remedies? You knew you were pathetic when selkies pitied you.

You also knew you were pathetic when your roommate offered you dead people’s furniture. But her mother had worked with estate auctions, so Noémi had grown up with plenty of grim hand-me-downs. A bed was out of her price range. She knew what her mother would’ve said.

NOEMI

Is it clean?

TARIQ

clean as a disney movie

She sat up and her entire spinal column rioted. She felt vertebrae kicking over trash cans and lighting cars ablaze in her lower back.

NOEMI

Dying on a sofa would be the highlight of my year.

“Good!” Tariq yelled from the hall outside their apartment. She didn’t register it was him until their door swung open and he shimmied in butt-first, dragging a bulky sofa behind him. “Because I am not carrying this back to Apartment 3A.”

It was sand-colored with brown freckles, a fashion risk even for a freebie. At least it wasn’t splattered in gore.

She meant to run a hand over its arm rest, but immediately found herself sitting on it. Sinking into the cushions felt like a hug from a friendly giant. The honking and crying and thrumming of the city outside their apartment seemed to calm down.

Forget sleeping on the floor; she never wanted to touch the floor again.

“Hey,” she said, “try sitting on this.”

Tariq asked, “Did you take your meds tonight?”

She asked, “Someone died on this?”

She couldn’t hear his answer over the sensation of touch not hurting for the first time in hours. The leather was so warm, so welcoming, just like skin.

*

Tariq shook Noémi’s foot, and she pulled her blanket over her face. She mumbled, “I don’t need dinner. I’m turning into a human ramen.”

He said, “It’s eleven.”

Sunlight blurred her vision and she rubbed the grime from her eyes. “Eleven? Then how is it light out?”

“They invented this thing called ‘A.M.’ You slept through your alarm.”

“No…” She didn’t know what she was denying. She stretched out on the sofa. For the first time in weeks, her back didn’t feel like it was on fire. The pain had calmed to a dull throb—an annoying pain rather than an intense one. If she’d overslept, her body obviously needed it. She almost felt more tired than yesterday.

Tariq pried the fleece from her hands. “I made you a couple waffles. Please, please eat them.”

Her appetite was a magician; it had one hell of a disappearing act. Pain made it easy for Noémi to skip meals. Still, with bleary eyes, she read the concern in her friend’s face. It was the same concern she’d felt on so many nights when she helped him through his anxiety attacks. 

She smiled up at him and said, “You know something? I slept.”

He offered her a hand up. “That’s pretty awesome. We should party tonight.”

*

There was no party that night. The food truck broke down and Tariq texted that he was stuck helping his uncle fix it. 

Noémi felt for him and was relieved at the same time; she could barely move her fingers by the end of her shift at the pet store. Gryphon chicks were adorable, but insisted on being hand-fed, and the basilisks had broken out of their blackout cage and were looking at customers again.

The pain ground her brains into powder. What people didn’t understand about chronic pain was that it wasn’t about your legs going weak – it was about getting mentally exhausted managing the assaults. All day, she fantasized about sitting down.

Once home, she barely opened her string cheese before plopping onto her freckled sofa. Lying on it was like her entire body was biting into a marshmallow. This she had an appetite for. The cushions slid apart, enveloping her in the leather, like it wanted to swallow her.

In her dreams, it did.

*

Her phone vibrated on her chest. It was work. It was also noon, and she didn’t know what day.

She answered, and picked her string cheese off the carpet. She must have sleep-punted it.

She said, “Hey Lili. Sorry. I must have—”

Lili cut her off, “I think the mogwai are picking the locks on all the cages after hours.”

Lili was a succubus and normally had everything together. If she was as nervous as she sounded, then this was dire.

Noémi forced herself to stand free of the sofa’s wonderful grip and walked to the center of the room to wake up. Her spine popped and she shuddered. She asked, “Did they eat after midnight?”

“Not this time, but I found one molesting the breakroom pantry.”

Noémi was sitting on the edge of the sofa. She didn’t remember sitting down. “I found the nicest furniture. You’ve got to come over and try it.”

“You know that when I say ‘the monsters are picking their locks,’ I mean ‘get your butt over here immediately,’ right?”

Noémi said, “Got it.” 

She hung up, and had the funny desire to kiss the sofa goodbye. And why not? Nobody was watching.

She leaned in and smooched a cushion. It smelled like a perfume that Noémi had only ever encountered in dreams.

Then it was 6:24 PM. Her phone had eight messages.

*

She thought the knocking was Tariq having lost his key, but it was Lili at the door. All six feet and two inches of her. Lili’s normally lustrous golden hair frizzled out like copper wire. She had gory paw prints on her skirt which hopefully weren’t her own blood.

Noémi said, “Oh my gosh, Lili, never in a million years…”

Then Lili was inside her apartment, stooping to go nose to nose with her. She thought the succubus was going to bite her head off. “Where were you?”

“I’ve almost never missed work like that, and it won’t happen again, I promise.”

“I thought your new meds killed you or something. Your landlord said you wouldn’t answer the door.”

Noémi bit the inside of her cheek. “I may have slept through her knocking.”

Lili gripped onto Noémi’s shoulders. “So you’re okay?”

“I’m awesome. You know I wanted a bed, but we found a sofa and it’s the best thing in the world. My body must still be catching up on sleep.”

Noémi backed into the apartment. The sofa was tucked into the far wall of their combo kitchen/living room. She fought the urge to curl up on it right now.

Lili looked like she’d bitten into an extremely ripe lime. “When did you invite her?”

“Her? Are you gendering my furniture?”

Lili pointed a sangria red fingernail at the sofa. “That’s not furniture. That’s a succubus.”

Noémi tilted her head. Giving it a few seconds didn’t make it make any more sense. “I know you’re the expert, but I’m pretty sure succubi don’t have armrests.”

“Come on. You know my mom is a used bookstore, right?”

“I thought she owned a used bookstore.”

“The sex economy sucks. With all the hook-up apps and free porn out there, a succubus starves. My mom turned into a bookstore so people would take bits of her home and hold them in bed. It’s why I work at the pet store and cuddle the hell hound puppies before we open.”

Noémi asked, “Is that why they never bite you?”

“What do you think? Everybody else gets puppy bites, except me. I get fuzzy, affectionate joy-energy. Gets me through the day, like a cruelty-free smoothie.” Lili blew a frizzy strand of gold from her face. “But this sofa has devolved really far into this form. I know succubi that went out like her—she’s just a pit of hunger shaped to look enticing. No mind. Just murder. Where’d you even find her?”

“It was a freebie. I mean, maybe somebody died while sleeping on it, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

“And you’re sleeping all the time now? Always on it? She’s totally eating you.”

“My sofa is not a murderer.”

Tariq walked in through the front door, and they both looked up at him. He said, “Hey ladies. Breaking it in?”

That’s when Noémi realized both she and Lili were sitting on the sofa.

They shrieked, and ran from the apartment, dragging Tariq with them.

*

Noémi and Tariq slept in the stairwell that night, each careful to jab each other in the ribs if they started inching back towards the apartment. Lili tore across the city in search of anyone who doubled as a furniture mover and an exorcist.

*

Noémi didn’t sleep a minute for the rest of the week. The pain that had dwindled during her affair with the sofa now returned with the cruelty of a direct-to-video sequel. For most of the day, she could barely think. Through the nights, crashing in the back room of the monster pet store, she could barely sleep. Everything was a fog of social auto-pilot.

She had to bribe Lili to come back, promising to scrub the hell hound cages. The puppies had eaten a mogwai and their bowel movements had turned into some horrible form of post-modern art.

Lili arrived at the apartment wearing a bright yellow hazmat suit. Tariq donned six pairs of plastic gloves before deigning to touch the succubus-turned-sofa. He and Lili had to do the lifting.

Noémi could scarcely stand up straight, let alone carry furniture. Instead she stuffed the remaining sofa cushions into a trash bag. She hesitated over the last one, on which she’d laid her head for the easiest nights of her year. She held it, thinking about how people got lost.

*

When Noémi came into the alley, Lili was dousing the sofa with equal parts holy water and kerosene.

Tariq reached for the garbage bag, but Noémi clutched it to her chest. Noémi asked, “Do you really think the sofa is that bad?”

“Yes,” Tariq said. “Pure evil. She haunted our apartment without paying rent.”

“She was probably lonely. She couldn’t find a companion she could keep. But now she’s found a new identity, and someone who appreciated her…”

“She was eating you.”

“Could we ask her to, you know, stop eating me?”

Lili emptied the last liquids over the sofa and said, “There’s no consciousness left in her. She’s just hungry furniture now. And you’re just loose change about to get stuck between her cushions.”

“I didn’t feel like loose change. I felt different. Everybody gives you magnetic bracelets, and pot brownies, and tells you to sleep with your legs over your head. It all did jack for me. But the sofa was helping.”

Muttering something in Latin, Lili tossed a lighter and torched the sofa. The backrest went up first, in a brilliant blue flame with silver smoke that climbed the alley’s brick walls. They needed to make this fast or their landlord would catch them in the act.

Tariq said, “I’m not going to tell you how to feel.” He stretched out his hand, offering to take the bag. “You want me to do the honors? Technically I was the one who brought her home and started all this.”

“Nah,” Noémi said, avoiding eye contact and tossing the bag of cushions onto the pyre. It went up in even more lustrous smoke, so thin it could’ve been vapor. It smelled like tears. “Let’s get out of here.”

Tariq said, “Look, take my bed until we find you something, okay?”

Noémi put a fist over her mouth. “Are you sure?”

“The surest. I’ve got a lead on some money.”

She hugged her friend for a fierce moment in time.

Then they ran before someone called the cops.

*

Noémi knew she’d woken at 5:32 because that’s when the text came in. It’d taken her forever to wind down, but she’d guess she’d slept four and a half hours. That was a record since the bonfire, and this was her first night trying out the secret weapon.

The incoming text read:

TARIQ

got a pair!!!!

Limited edition sneakers. You downloaded an app that pinged you at a random time and if your GPS reported you were in a certain radius of a certain boutique, you got a crack at one pair of obscenely expensive shoes. Tariq had basically haunted that neighborhood for days waiting for his phone to vibrate. With the magic of economics, he could flip the shoes to a trust fund kid and turn them into a new bed.

Or he could turn it into rent.

Or, as Noémi expected, he could sink all of those dollars into his uncle’s food truck. It was family and livelihood. And you couldn’t carry a treasure chest to the surface when you were fighting to tread water.

She texted him back:

NOEMI

You woke me up. Jerk.

He’d get a good laugh, never believing she’d really slept this late. She wouldn’t have believed it either, if she only had his bed.

She scooted to the far edge of the mattress, leaving her pillow behind, letting her feet scuff across the carpet. Impact sent sharp tingles up her calves, sparks of pain where yesterday there had been an inferno. When she stretched, the sparks sprang up at her spine, and then down her arms.

These were aches. They were not agonies. They were things she could live with, if it didn’t mean getting swallowed up by a spell from the other side of the bed.

One minute passed. She timed it on her phone.

Two minutes.

Three minutes.

The oblong lump lay in its pillowcase on the other side of the bed. Sofa cushions weren’t supposed to be pillows, although this one was changing Noémi’s mind. Neither Lili nor Tariq had noticed that the bonfire had been one cushion short.

Noémi asked, “And you’re not trying to kill me?”

She leaned in and hugged the cushion to her chest, in the way she liked to be held. It squished so perfectly that she wondered if there was a metric scale for comfort. She was able to put it down easily; no succubus mind control was at work. If this thing was self-aware, it wasn’t manipulating her anymore.

“A lower dosage of you is helping,” she said. “This way we can stay together. You won’t hurt me. You’ll eat me, but on my terms.”

The succubus-turned-sofa-turned-pillow said nothing in return. It was as good as inanimate. Lili was probably right that it was mindless, save its hunger. But it had a home now, and someone who consented to having her pain eaten. Noémi hoped her pain was delicious.

Idly, she petted the pillow’s seams, wondering when Tariq would figure it all out. They needed to talk before his bedroom turned host to a witch trial.

Two more texts came in: one of Tariq kissing a shoebox, and a second asking about her.

TARIQ

u get any z’s?

NOEMI

Only because I had company.

TARIQ

lol you better buy me new sheets

A moment later, he texted again.

TARIQ

some1 i shld meet?

She hesitated with her thumbs on the screen, creating an accidental string of N’s.

Lying to him now would be a mistake. God, she’d be dead without her friends.

NOEMI

Yeah. I’ll introduce you tonight.

He texted another picture of himself holding the shoebox up like it was the Infinity Gauntlet.She snorted so hard her eyes crossed, then reclined against the succubus pillow. So this was what relief felt like. 


Author’s Note: I’ve lived with chronic pain for more than two thirds of my life, but until a couple years ago, I never wrote fiction about it. After a series of sleepless and listless nights, I fantasized about the Devil’s bargains I would strike to be comfortable for just a little while. But there are more interesting things out there to bargain with than the Devil, now aren’t there? Like, perhaps, a hungry hungry sofa. But it couldn’t be a story about isolation and disabled pain. It had to have the social elements. Here I tried to capture a little about the human support systems that keep people like me going, and that reflect that we matter. A painful world isn’t necessarily coldhearted. If it gets better, it does so because we look after each other.

John (@Wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all of its trees. This is his third story at Diabolical Plots, following “Tank!” and “Open House on Haunted Hill.” His work has also appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Nightmare Magazine. He has made it through multiple decades of chronic pain, and wants you to know you aren’t alone.


John Wiswell’s previous stories here are “Tank!” in June 2018 and “Open House on Haunted Hill” in June 2020. If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #74A: “The Day Fair For Guys Becoming Middle Managers” by Rachael K. Jones

Content note (click for details) Content note: coerced surgery

At 8 a.m. sharp on Monday morning, Armond lines up at the Day Fair to apply for Bradification.

Armond’s palms sweat badly enough to leave wet spots on his resumes. Several candidates immediately strike him as actual competition, which doesn’t bode well for him. One chisel-jawed fellow practically looks like a Brad already. Armond has to land this job, or else. Between poor progress reviews and coming in last place at Company Fun Run practice, he has no other alternatives but promotion.

A Brad skims Armond’s resume in the applicant line. “Ah! Project management,” he says with Bradlike optimism. “We could use someone with your skillset.” Brad dabs blood from his nose with a big white handkerchief and shakes Armond’s hand. “Come with me. You just landed yourself an interview.”

Armond rechecks if his sneaker laces are tight. If he can’t nail the interview, the Company will make him run.

*

They’ve assembled a full panel of Brads for the interviews. Their room overlooks the Company kennels, where they’re already setting up for the next Fun Run. Each Brad leans back in his swivel chair and kicks his heels onto the coffee table. They’ve each brought a novelty mug for their americanos with French vanilla creamer: Coffa Cuppee. HE WHO MUST BE OBEYED. Like A BOSS. They’re all dabbing blood from their leaky creases with napkins and tissues and clean white hankies.

The Head Brad, a glorious specimen with minimal bleeding and very few surgical scars, sips from his Monday Funday mug. “We’ve been over your resume with a fine-toothed comb,” he says brightly. “You’re 71% Brad-compatible, well within the limits for Bradification.”

Armond perks up. This is it: his big break. The Head Brad sucks a bead of blood from his thumb. “But tell me, Armond. Why do you want to become Brad?”

Truthfully, Armond wants to become Brad because he has no hope of outrunning them otherwise, and they’re not going to let him keep his current posting with such poor reviews. It’s either promotion, or the kennels. You can fail up, or get run down. But you mustn’t let them catch even a whiff of desperation, or you’ll be handed a Fun Run jersey faster than you can say funtivities.

“I’m just passionate about the Company’s mission,” Armond begins, plastering on his Braddiest grin. “I love MoneyMaking, and no one MoneyMakes better than the Company.”

In truth, Armond is only a mediocre MoneyMaker. He doesn’t have the proper hand-eye coordination for inking all the little numbers, and he’s downright atrocious at sketching Presidents. The Brads have probably read his performance reviews, because they shift and murmur and bleed through their mesh chairs.

One of the Brads lifts something soft and nylon from under the table. It looks like a tattered t-shirt.

Armond licks his lips. His heart thunders like tennis shoes slapping along asphalt. “I almost forgot,” he adds rapidly. “I’d like to be clear that I’m game for internal Bradification.”

He regrets it immediately, but the Brads relax. The nylon shirt swishes into the wastebasket.

“Few interviewees have professed such commitment,” says the Head Brad, the corners of his lips ripping from the width of his grin. “Thank you for your interview. Enjoy a complimentary lunch in the Breakroom while we make final decisions.”

Armond shakes their hands and thanks them. As he leaves the room, his gaze falls into the wastebasket.

The Fun Run jersey tangled with the balled-up memos is bloodstained and torn open on the front, as though rended by claws.

*

It’s clear immediately who’s passed on to the next stage, and who hasn’t. Well-heeled Brads hand out jerseys to sobbing candidates in the hallway, while Armond watches from the window as the kennel doors fly open. The chisel-jawed man leads the herd, and seconds later, the Brads thunder out behind them with their steel staplers and unhinged jaws.

Middle management comes with certain responsibilities, and certain appetites as well.

The Head Brad shows up impeccably clean, except for some blood pooling through his jacket at the elbow joints. “Congratulations,” says Brad, polishing crud off his stapler. “You’re the next up for the Braderator!”

Armond tries not to think about staplers or jerseys as he wolfs down his complimentary turkey sandwich, but it’s hard to ignore the sweaty, cologne-soaked stench as they all return from lunch. 

*

They’ve built the Braderator directly in the custodial closet for easier cleaning, but you can still catch a whiff of blood despite all the bleach. 

Armond strips off his clothes, ducks beneath the scissorlike chandelier of blades, and sits on the stainless steel chair, which is full of holes, like a cheese grater.

“That’s to let the blood through,” Brad says, clamping restraints around Armond’s arms and legs. 

“How does it work?” Armond asks before Brad slides the Internal Braderator between his lips.

“To paraphrase Michelangelo,” says Brad, folding Armond’s coat, tie, trousers, and underpants, “we just cut away everything not-Brad. In your case, that’s 29%. You’ll require only short-term disability to complete the process, with minimal scarring. You probably won’t even have to dip into your vacation leave.”

He closes the closet door. The Braderator revs up like a lawnmower as the razor chandelier descends and spins. Like a carwash, if the carwash were made from surgical steel and the car were made of meat.

As the blades in his throat extend and spin, Armond thinks perhaps he should’ve taken his chances at the races. But by the time the Internal Braderator works deep enough for real regret to set in, his worries have been cut away, along with everything else not-Brad.


© 2021 by Rachael K. Jones

Author’s Note: My friend Vylar Kaftan is something of a wizard with titles, and she once challenged me to write a story using the title “The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles.” I did, and the story went on to earn critical acclaim and an Otherwise Award Honor List placement. A few years later, she joked that I should write a follow-up called “The Day Fair for Guys Becoming Middle Managers.” Not being one to pass up another Vylar challenge, I wrote this piece in a single sitting. It captures for me the phenomenon you get in really dysfunctional workplaces, where you find yourself doing increasingly bizarre stuff because your workplace culture normalizes it–something that has only become more true for the whole world during the pandemic, where many of us suddenly find ourselves asked to submit to breathtaking personal risks at the request of our employers.

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 Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones. 


Previous stories by Rachael K. Jones that appeared in Diabolical Plots are: “St. Roomba’s Gospel” in December 2015, “Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship” co-authored with Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali and published in June 2017, and “Hakim Vs. the Sweater Curse” in December 2017. If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #73B: “The Void and the Voice” by Jeff Soesbe

I turned my father off again.

I needed a break. I needed silence. I needed to hear the sound of my own thoughts. Not the endless monologue of shuttle systems status, mixed with memories and declarations, all emitting from Father’s broken mind and body.

In our little space cruiser, it is still but not quiet. Father’s labored breathing, punctuated by coughs and chokes, surrounds me as he struggles to stay alive without the cruiser’s medical emergency program helping him. My heart pounds in my chest, shakes me with every beat. My breathing is quiet and slow, a whisper in the cold thin air.

Reaching out to Father, I place my hand on his chest. Even through his spacesuit I can feel his heart, fluttering but persistent. Still alive. Still working.

Our helmets are off. Our breath collects in fog in the space between us.

Just go on like this, I think. Go on until his heart stops. Without him running the shuttle, I will succumb to the cold and lack of oxygen and surrender to the star-filled void around us.

I consider it, again. I have considered it every time I have disconnected Father. And I reach the answer I have reached every time I have considered it.

No. Not yet. Keep hoping for a rescue. Keep living.

I switch the medical system back on. Alarms sound as it realizes Father’s condition and injects drugs through the dermal patches.

Father gasps, audibly, as his body is slammed back to stability.

After I reattach the careful tangle of wires connecting the shuttle’s control system to the interface cap fitted to his head, his voice echoes through the shuttle’s speakers.

“Son. Son. You should not disconnect me. I have told you this before.” He is scolding me, but he is also afraid.

“Yes, Father. I know. I am sorry.”

“Checking system status.”

The litany begins, his voice droning like prayers.

“Internal temperature 4.17 degrees. Rerouting ambient reactor heat to cabin.

“Oxygen concentration 11.64 percent. Scrubbers operational, 37.94 percent efficiency. Estimate normal mix in 8.05 hours.

“Eight point zero five.

“Five.”

He slowly sighs. His mind has found an unexpected road and is running down it in pursuit of a memory.

“You were five. We still lived on Earth, but had decided to leave for a mining homestead in the asteroid belt. There was nothing left for us on Earth, in our cardboard shack in the South San Francisco favela.

“We wanted to have one special moment. We splurged and took you to the little Golden Star Amusement Park in the Sunset. You always wanted to go there. You were enchanted by the Dragon rollercoaster. You rode it over and over, until you were sick to your stomach. Even then, you cried when we left for home.

“Home.

“Home is mining asteroid (142823) 2026-MC13. Estimate distance to home 1.8598 million kilometers. Estimate distance to Ceres 1.8528 million kilometers. Estimate velocity normal to solar system 24.931 thousand kilometers per hour. Time since accident 42.190 hours. Estimate probability of distress signal reaching Ceres Station 3.14 percent.”

Father’s monologue of shuttle status and random memory continues, but the summary is always the same. Our shuttle is damaged. My father is damaged. My father, through the interface cap and the rewiring to the shuttle components that still work, keeps life support barely running. The emergency medical system keeps my father barely alive. We are above the plane of the solar system, on a constant vector away from both home and from Ceres, with no way to change that fact.

We are adrift in the void, with my father’s voice as a constant reminder of the darkness of our situation.

#

A simple trip. A shuttle run back to Ceres headquarters. Printer stocks, hydroponics supplies, reactor fuel, necessary in-person meetings with the corporation.

When I was young, I loved the Ceres trips. Not just because I could see, in person, friends who I only knew through my virtual classrooms. Not just because at Ceres in the open habitat we could walk and run and play without pressure suits constraining our movement.

I loved the trips because they were joyous times with my family, together, without my parents working hard at the mining operations or me buried fourteen hours a day in schoolwork and lessons and mandatory exercise. On the shuttle, we sang songs, listened to music, played games, laughed. Mother told me stories about the stars, myths and legends from her childhood. I listened in wonder and joy. We were a real family, like the ones I read about on the chat boards or saw on the video streams.

Mother died in an accident when I was fourteen.

Life was never the same. Quiet melancholy replaced chaotic joy. Father and I buried ourselves in our work. I took on mining responsibilities along with my schoolwork. Father and I communicated only in data points – status, machines, daily production, shipments, coursework. On the Ceres trips, we traveled in silence. Prayer music played non-stop on the journey. Father controlled the shuttle with the interface headset, eyes gazing into a virtual display of shuttle information, status and control that I could not see.

On these trips, our only conversations were arguments.

“Father, you should add me to the shuttle control interface so I can learn to fly the shuttle and manage the systems. I can help with the burden.”

“You are too young.” His voice, which he routed through the speakers while controlling the shuttle, was always too loud.

My anger came easily. “I’m seventeen! I have top marks in my coursework. I maintain the mining robots. I can run a shuttle.”

“You are not ready.”

“Then let me go to university on Ceres, in person, so I can get my next degrees.”

“You can not leave for university on Ceres!” His anger took longer than mine, but it always arrived, in an explosion that blew static through the speakers.

After that, silence again, staring out the small portholes at the stars until we arrived at Ceres and went our separate ways.

We had already done our arguing when the first meteorite swarm hit. Small enough it didn’t register on the long range sensors, but still large enough to badly damage the shuttle. It didn’t help that our shuttle was old, second-hand, and in need of more repair than we could afford. Mining life is perching on the perpetual edge of disaster, grinding out as much profit as possible for the corporation to which we were indebted.

Father was outside assessing the damage when the second, larger, swarm hit. His screams echoed through the communications link, followed by gasps and whimpering mixed with the pattering of meteorites on the hull.

Somehow, I dragged him through the airlock and inside.

Somehow, I hooked him up to the emergency medical system, followed the prompts and gave him drugs to keep his heart beating and his lungs moving.

Somehow, he survived.

“Son. Are you?” His voice was soft, and weak.

“I’m alive, Father. You are too.”

“Barely. Ship?”

“Still intact, obviously. But there was a power overload. It burned out the main computers, stellar navigation, the engines, everything. We’re on minimal backup on all systems.” I had checked everything I could check, without command access. It was all ruined.

“Saw communications array. Ruined.”

“We are doomed, Father.”

“No.” The force in his voice surprised me. “We can live. We can rewire the shuttle. I can control basic life support systems. I will give you instructions. You will do the work.”

That was the first day. Father giving instructions or suggestions, me breaking and making connections throughout the shuttle. By the end of the day we had the headset interface wired into basic life support: heat, oxygen, water reclamation. We had enough to keep us alive for perhaps a week. We had a chance.

But we were also adrift. Based on the last sensor readings, and celestial sightings, I calculated we were now pointing away from the plane of the solar system. The final burst of the dying engines had sent us off course. We were moving away from anyone that could save us, farther and farther every minute.

Father, injured physically and mentally, monitored all the critical systems. By the end of the first day he was already reciting shuttle status and making connections with whatever memories were welling in his fractured mind.

“Oxygen scrubbing at 61.34 percent efficiency.

“Estimate 1.1838 million kilometers from Ceres, based on position of reference stars.

“Stars.

“Stars in the sky, above home.

“The first day we arrived at the asteroid, you were angry because we had left Ceres. We took you outside to the surface and showed you the stars. We told you their names, traced their constellations, recited their myths. For hours we did that. You loved it.”

“Yes, Father. I still do.” When I was angry, or frustrated, I would go stand on the surface of our asteroid and get lost in the stars and the stories.

Now they were a threat. They scared me.

“I’m sorry, Son. I’m sorry we are in this situation. I’m sorry I kept you at home. I’m sorry for everything.”

#

“Three days, fourteen hours, fifteen minutes since the accident,” my father recites.

“Estimate 3.1983 million kilometers from Ceres.

“Water purity 78.11 percent. Supply tank 7.32 percent.

“Water. Flowing in a river.

“When your mother and I were young and courting, we took a camping trip to the Red River to see the Silver Falls. From high above us, glistening water fell over a cliff, through the sky, pounded into the earth below, and flowed away into the river. So much power in water. On the asteroid I dream of that much water, cascading across our small rock.

“We don’t have enough water, Son. We will not survive.”

Father is sad. Depressed. Each hour he seems to sink further and faster into a vast dark place, like the vast dark void around us.

“Hold on, Father.” I try to say this with hope. “There is still a chance someone will find us.”

“There is no chance. We are dying. You are dying. It is my fault. All my fault.” He cries. Tears pool against his face, sobs echo from the speakers. Not even when Mother died was he this emotional. This despondent. This lost.

I am anxious, jittery. I don’t know how to comfort him. I don’t want to turn him off any more. But I can’t sit here. I need to move.

“Father, I am going outside. I will walk the shuttle.”

No answer, just more tears and sobs that batter at me as I make my way through the airlock and to the outside.

Outside I turn off my communications link, engage the magnetics in my shoes, and stand on the shuttle’s skin. The stars are infinite in their numbers all around me. I pick out the constellations. The Hunter. The Judge. The Wanderer. They stand, silent. I ask for answers but get none.

I walk the shuttle’s hull. My breathing falls in time with the force of my steps, echoing inside my suit. Sol burns before me as I round the shuttle. Beckoning. Taunting. Smaller and smaller with every second.

We are doomed. We have no thrust towards Ceres. We have no communications. We are running out of clean atmosphere and clean water. Our food is gone. The magnetic couplings on my boots are the only thing keeping me from floating away.

I could release the couplings, disconnect from the umbilical, push off from the shuttle, and drift away. Become one with the stars and the myths.

Push hard enough from the correct location and the shuttle might be directed, so very slightly, towards the solar system. Father might be found. He might even stay alive.

I could do it.

But in those moments, before the end came, Father would be alone. I can’t leave him alone. I am all he has. He is all I have.

I must find a solution.

Walking brings me to the communications array. A tangled nest of wires and equipment, shot through with holes from the meteorites, burned in places from the power overload. Could something useful be left? There was so much work to keep Father alive, to reorganize the shuttle to keep us alive, I hadn’t thought of the possibility.

I poke and sort through the tangle, find enough of the transmission antenna to send a signal. We would need a way to direct and focus the signal, to push it towards Ceres. A reflector. But the meteors tore off the reflector.

Panels from the shuttle’s hull could make a reflector. Without the need to heat and oxygenate the shuttle’s interior, just our suits, we’d have more power to boost the strength of the signal. Vent the atmosphere before removing the panels and we could even get a slight push towards Ceres.

This is a dangerous idea. We would be exposed to the frigid dark of open space. We could die.

If we do nothing, we will die anyway.

I turn on my communications link, to the sound of Father, panicked, crying.

“Son, please respond. Son, please respond. Son, please respond.”

“I’m here, Father.”

“Son, I was worried, I was afraid. I was alone.”

“You are not alone, Father. I am here.” I make sure to sound confident, raise his spirits somehow. “Father, I have an idea.”

#

Father’s space suit is too far damaged to provide any resistance against outer space. Over his objections, he will take my suit and I will wear the backup suit. Carefully, I trade suits. Bruises, dried blood and sweat coat his body so I take some time to clean him off. I try not to hurt him any further as I dress him in my suit.

Briefly, I must disconnect him from the shuttle controls. During this time I work as fast as possible to keep him from getting too cold.

When I get him fully in his suit and the interface headset reconnected, his voice nearly bursts from the speakers.

“Son! It was so dark. Are you ready?”

“Yes, Father.” The backup suit is a tight fit but it will work for our purposes.

“Preparing systems for the signal burst. Diverting ambient reactor heat to the suit umbilicals. Cutting air recycling to only the suit umbilicals. Atmosphere mix at 10.11 percent oxygen. Begin reconstruction of the communications reflector using shuttle panels.”

Outside, our last air hisses out as I drill holes in the hull on the opposite side of where we think Ceres is. I hope it helps.

The work to build a signal reflector is slow and tedious. I only have two charged batteries, and a handful of tools. I use them as little as possible, and do anything I can by hand. It is difficult work. Sweat gathers inside my suit faster than the dehumidifier can pull it out. Pools of water collect on my face and I have to shake my head to try to move them away. My muscles ache and I am tired.

Father talks to me throughout. Status, memories, an endless loop.

In the last four days, he has said more to me than in the preceding three years. Even though it is a monologue more than a conversation, I somehow find it comforting. A connection.

Finally, we have a crude antenna and a signal reflector. The reflector is pointed in the direction of Ceres, our last hope against the vast void of space.

Back inside, I strap into my seat. Father is a small man in a small spacesuit. The moisture in the shuttle air has frozen onto everything including his face panel. I brush ice and dust off the face panel. I’m not sure if he can see me, but I smile.

“Father, we are ready.”

“Beginning power diversion to transmitter. Transmitting distress signal burst. Cycle one.

“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle two.”

Now that I am not working, the cold invades my suit and I am chilled. I am tired, and ache from the effort of the work. The suits will keep us warm. How long, we don’t know.

“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle eleven.”

Pieces of a constellation of stars appear in the gaps in the shuttle’s hull. The Dragon, twisting, flying, burning those that threaten its home.

“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle twenty-seven.”

I am so tired. It is so cold.

The void calls me with stories and dreams, and I go to it.

#

A light in my face. The dull sensation of someone poking my chest.

A woman’s voice. “Hey, hey. Wake up now.”

Breathing deep, my lungs burn and I cough. There are tubes in my nose, gusts of warm air tickle my throat. I smell antiseptic, sterilizer, and behind it the hint of rusted metal, dirty oil, people.

I’m on a spaceship. In a medical bay.

I am covered in metallic blankets. My arms and legs are stiff and barely move.

“Stay still there,” the woman says. “I’m still running a warming cycle on you. We just got you back.”

Cracking my eyes open, I see a small black woman with short grey hair.

“Where,” I say in a croaking voice. My lips and throat are dry and rough.

“Naval cargo cruiser Morning Glory. Your distress signal was received and we were closest.”

“Father?”

“Your father is dead. The meteorite damage. The cold. He didn’t make it.” She lays a soft hand on my forehead. “I’m sorry.”

I shake as the reality of his death washes over me. I knew it was likely. It still hurts. The empty place that was my father’s presence in my life joins inside with the hole my mother left. I try to cry, but I am so tired and sore I am reduced to slow, simple, whimpering.

I want to know where he is. “Shuttle?”

“Your shuttle is in a cargo hold. Your father is there, too. The crew made a coffin for him, from a cold storage container.”

“See him.”

“Later. Right now, you need to rest. We’re mid-run right now, but we’ll be at Ceres in two days.”

Warm liquid crawls up my arm. By the time it reaches my chest I am very sleepy. The medical bay is quiet. The click of machines, the doctor humming a tune I don’t know. There is no voice, no status, no constant presentation of statistics and danger and possibilities and concern.

I miss it.

#

When I awaken I am stronger and can move. I demand to be taken to our shuttle. Officers take my statement as they guide me to the cargo hold. They confirm what was stored in the shuttle’s logs and compliment our ingenuity, our bravery, and my father’s sacrifice.

They leave me at the shuttle. Broken and tattered by the meteorites and by our disassembly, it looks small and helpless in the large hold of the cruiser. It is a wonder we survived.

Next to the shuttle is a small metal box, military logos on both sides. My father’s coffin.

I want to see him.

I crack open the coffin. Cold gas escapes and condenses in a fog.

I wave it away until I can see Father. His expression is peaceful, even serene.

I place my hand on his chest. It is frigid. I don’t care.

“I am alive, Father. The signal was received.”

I don’t know what to say. I know he will not respond, but I keep waiting for him to talk, to tell me the atmosphere status, the water recycler status, an ancient memory. Anything.

Nothing. Because he is gone, isn’t he?

Tears come freely and I sink into a hard calm place that is sadness.

Like a bell in my mind, his words about the stars, his first memory after the accident, call to me. I close my eyes and my own memory comes back, crisp and clear.

“I remember that night, Father, the first time you showed me the stars from the surface of the asteroid. Space was so big. The stars were infinite and uncountable. I was so small. But I knew that as long as you held my shoulders I would be safe.”

More memories come, a cascade of moments with him and with Mother.

“The first Ceres run, after Mother died, we rode in silence. I stared out the window at the stars, remembering Mother’s stories. We both grieved, in our way. Our only conversation was when you offered me the rest of your meal and I took it. I remember that moment, that one connection. I treasure that memory.”

I talk to my father for hours, in the large hold of a large cargo cruiser. I tell my father stories of him and Mother and me and our life, during the entire journey back to Ceres Station.


© 2021 by Jeff Soesbe

Author’s Note: I was doing some free writing to a prompt of “ghosts on drugs”, and when I typed “I’m trapped with the ghost of my dying father on a dying spaceship whose drugs are the only thing keeping him alive” the story just took off from there. I “hit a pocket”, as I like to say, and ended up with a story that had special meaning to me. 

When Jeff Soesbe isn’t writing stories, he writes software and simulations for subsea robots in Northern California. Jeff’s stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex (upcoming), Factor Four, Andromeda Spaceways, and Flash Fiction Online. Jeff is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop (Elevensies!). This is Jeff’s first professional sale (woohoo!)


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #73A: “Boom & Bust” by David F. Shultz

Haphazard clusters of empty cubicles and potted ferns served as strategic cover. The grey carpet was now a canvas— streaked, splattered, and sprinkled with dirt, blood, and broken glass, it rendered in impressionist strokes the market crash and concomitant sniper threat.

Kondo barked his orders. “Rocco, cover the east window. Valiant, you’re on ammo detail. Pepsi, keep an eye on market changes. Luna, get me a full asset list.”

They had the high ground advantage, twenty-eight stories up in the commerce district. Kondo scoped a straggler through the reticle on street level. The HUD indicated a bounty of 1200 creds. He squeezed the trigger, and with a flourish of blood on the street came the satisfying ding of a credit transfer, like a percussionist’s triangle. With inflation increasing exponentially, his team would need all the credits they could get.

“Got that asset list,” Luna said, and handed Kondo the ePad.

The roster cross-linked with commodities and valuations. Most of the team had taken his advice to hold their rights to a fair trial and security of their person.

“Hendricks,” he shouted, “Why the fuck haven’t you sold your goddamn media rights?”

“They’re classic tunes, boss.”

“Fuck your tunes. We need the ammo. And that goes for the rest of you, too. Copyright licenses aren’t worth a goddamn if you’re dead.”

Kondo fancied himself a decent manager, but somehow he’d failed to impress on his traders the folly of investing in cultural access permissions. CAPs were a hot commodity for the subsistence class, but investors should know that after IBM and Google cracked aesthetic automation, those products were doomed to perpetual depreciation. Owning a piece of the AI or the media conglomerates was the only way to win at the art game.

“I want those media assets gone,” Kondo shouted. “That means everyone.”

Bleeps and hums of market transactions turned the office into a discordant electronic aria with Kondo voicing orders over the din. “Dump all your CAPs. We’re working with media-free portfolios from now.”

Hendricks sat idly at his ePad. “I can’t sell at this price. It’s a crime against music.”

“It’s only going down from here,” Kondo said.

“You’re wrong about the CAPs, boss.”

“Bullshit I’m wrong. Once the machines can make something, the commodity value drops. It works the same for everything.”

“Not music,” Hendricks said. “Not art. Sure, people only care about efficient production when it comes to functional goods, but for aesthetics they want the genuine article. That’s why there’s a premium for hand-made, right? And that means automation actually boosts the value of art.”

“That’s not what the market trends say.”

“It’s hard to sell art in a recession. But I know wealthy buyers. Collectors.”

“We can’t afford to speculate right now, especially on CAPs. If you don’t sell the damn media, you’re about one stray shot from me releasing your work contract.”

“That’s your call, boss. But they’re my nest egg, and I gotta hold them—at least wait out the crash.”

“Stubborn shit,” Kondo said, then shouted his commands. “Everyone renew your bounty license. Head values are gonna keep rising. Keep a buffer of ten-k and use the rest for ammo and expendables.”

Within minutes came the ballet of Amazon delivery drones, hovering through rectangles of glass-edged sky to drop ammunition boxes. The fabbers spit out rifle parts and the team assembled them, locked and loaded, spread themselves around the windows.

“Shit! I got a price on me!” Che Monet shouted.

Sure enough, Che’s bounty hovered holographically over his head, a cool 4k offered jointly by TK Pharma and The 6ix Econocrimes Enforcement division.

“I told you not to sell your right to a trial!”

Che was about to say something when his head exploded in a flourish of blood and brains. Above his body, little stalactites hung in sinewy bone-tipped strands from the ceiling tiles. Someone on the street or maybe a nearby ‘scraper was a little bit richer.

It wasn’t a complete write-off. Kondo at least got Che’s assets because of the work contract—getting iced on the job was a strict violation. But he was down a team-member, and needed the manpower for today’s trading. He’d have to reinvest in labor.

Kondo posted the opening, and applications started coming in faster than stray bullets through the office. Rocco got a price on his head, too, and retreated quick, like Che should have, while sniper fire whizzed through the office, punching holes through flimsy cubicles. In the settling snow of drywall flakes and pulverized IKEA products, Kondo ducked behind a cubicle to assess résumés. The salary expectations were shockingly low, but it made sense given the crash.

“We’re getting some new team members,” Kondo said, tapping through LinkedIn’s HireMe app.

“How many?” Valiant said.

“Three,” Kondo said.

“Labor that low, huh?”

Kondo walked to the fire escape and unlocked the east stairwell emergency door. A few minutes later the first recruit came through, sweating and panting.

“Welcome aboard. I’m Kondo Kevlar. You Calvin?”

“That’s me. Calvin Kholstomer. Happy to meet you, sir, and thanks for the opportunity to join your team.”

“I’d give you the tour, but we got a situation on our hands. You got a gun?”

Calvin patted his briefcase.

“When you get a chance, check your portfolio against my specs. By the way, we dress more casual here.”

“Oh, that’s a relief.” Calvin hung his suit on the rack. “So where to?”

“You can set up with Valiant there.”

Calvin strolled over to Valiant, popped open his briefcase on the floor by her side, and assembled his rifle.

Over the next few minutes, the other two hires came through. Karl Angel-Owens and Pavel Dredd. They weren’t A-listers, but Kondo only needed short-term traders to weather the crash, and at these rates signing them wasn’t a hard call.

“What’s the plan, boss?” Valiant said.

“Corporate takeover.” Kondo cocked his shotgun. “You all ready?”

They looked ready, rifles across their chests, helmet visors snapped down, and each one of them holding the right to life and the right to a fair trial. That would buy them some time from the killdrones.

“Move out!”

They took the lift to the ground floor, advanced across the block in tactical formation, and reached their target, BioPharmaSoft HQ. Valiant placed the C4 and blew the gate. With ears still ringing, they charged in through the smoke and over the rubble.

The poor saps inside had all flipped negative, and bounties sparkled in the HUD overlay all across the lobby. Someone had mismanaged BioPharmaSoft big time. Kondo’s team took out the security, the desk jockeys, a couple of suits by the elevator. Someone shot back, winged Pepsi, and Kondo watched BioPharmaSoft get their fine in real-time.

The takeover was going great, right until they hit the third floor.

“Shit!” Karl said. “Our share value is dropping!”

Kondo’s ePad confirmed they were running out of funds. Ammo low. Resupplies off the table. And if they flipped negative, they’d be on the radar of any bounty hunters in the area, not to mention killdrones.

“Hendricks,” Kondo shouted. “If you were planning on selling those CAPs, now’s the time.”

“Sorry, boss. Can’t do it.”

“Then you’re out.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I don’t want to do it, Hendricks, but we need the liquidity. So you sell the CAPs, or I release the contract.”

“You gotta do what you gotta do, then. I’m not selling.”

“Then take care of yourself, Hendricks.”

Kondo let Hendricks go and accepted the credit boost for the released work contract. It wasn’t much, but it would buy them some time in supplies. Hendricks dipped into the stairwell, and just like that he was off the team.

“Sweep the fourth floor,” Kondo ordered. “We’ll move up from there, collect creds as we go.”

The elevator stopped at the fourth floor. In the widening slit of the doorway, Kondo saw the suits on this floor were all barricaded behind a wall of cubicles. Worse, their HUD values weren’t all negative. Most still had their fundamental rights, and a few of them had bounty licenses.

Kondo ducked behind the elevator wall, and the team followed. A few shots rang through, punching holes in the far side of the elevator.

“Are we outgunned here?” Pavel said.

“Worse than that,” Kondo said. “They might try to buy us out.”

Kondo checked the market. Some patent investments had paid off, and BioPharmaSoft didn’t seem so soft anymore. They had enough cash for a hostile takeover of Kevlar Inc. Kondo watched helplessly as his team values dipped, dipped, and flipped.

“Retreat,” Kondo said, frantically hitting the elevator’s ‘close’ button. “Back to HQ! We need to regroup!”

A hail of gunfire turned the elevator door into a cheese grater.

Then they were back on the street running for their lives. Rocco took a bullet in his spine and collapsed into the gutter.

“Killdrones!” Kondo shouted. “Don’t jaywalk!” With their net worth sub-zero, they couldn’t afford any infractions.

Pepsi took a shot in the shoulder a few paces from HQ, then one in the thigh. He left a bloody streak on the glass door where he slid down to crumple at the bottom.

“We got bounty hunters coming in!” Valiant said.

They were coming, alright. Not just the corporates from the commerce district, but the freelancers, too. Across the street: ripped jeans, a flak jacket, and a machine gun. On the other side: full motorcycle gear, rifle strapped across his back, grenade in one hand. More down the other way, all streaming towards them.

Kondo was last in. While rounds pinged off bulletproof glass, he slammed the door and slapped the red lockdown button. A grenade exploded outside, and when the smoke cleared, water sprayed across the street from a busted hydrant.

“We need to get positive,” Valiant said.

“We don’t have any assets,” Karl said.

“We gotta make a stand here,” Pavel said. “Maybe we get lucky. Snag a straggler or two, climb our way back.”

It was hopeless. Every second Kondo’s team sat on the bottom of the ladder was another second they fell further from the top. The gap between the subsistence class and the investment class grows exponentially. It’s simple math. Without something to invest, without assets to sell, they weren’t just dead in the water. They were sinking.

Security monitors framed the carnage at Kevlar Inc. A siege of bounty hunters forced their way through the windows and exchanged fire with lingering squads of temps and middle management, and the geometry of the gunfight unfolded in sprays of red across marble tiles.  The trading floor was a tapestry of browns and reds and glittering bits of glass.  Furniture and human bodies were deconstructed by bullets and shrapnel. Incendiaries added singed black stars.

Kondo breathed, lowered his weapon, and felt the last of his will depleting along with the value of his corporate account. In the haze of defeat, through blurred eyes, the wall of security monitors were a gallery of abstract art, each stroke and splatter imbued with the life of his dying corporation.

That was it.

Kondo put Hendricks on comm. Gunfire rang out on the other end.

“How’s it going over there?” Kondo said.

“Got my hands full. Could use some backup.”

“I think I can help you. But you gotta do something for me.”

“What’s that?”

“Those art dealers you were talking about…”

“Whatchu selling?”

“Something unique,” Kondo said. “One of a kind. Really captures the spirit of the crash.”

“Be more specific.”

“Abstract impressionism,” Kondo said. “Mixed media: blood and dirt on carpet.”

Hendricks laughed. “Maybe I can make it work. Send me the images.”

“Sending now.”

“My cut is fifty.”

“You kidding?”

“Let’s make it sixty.”

“Fifty will do.”

Kondo transferred the last of his corporate creds for the gambit. Just enough to get the bounty hunters off of Hendricks, enough to let him work. Meanwhile, Karl ate a bullet, and a swarm of killdrones descended on the glass with whirring drills.

“Got a potential buyer,” Hendricks said. “Billionaire by the name of Cash.”

“That’s fitting.”

“Mister Cash Rexall. He wants to meet you on the trading floor,” Hendricks said. “Right now!”

Kondo sprinted to the trading floor and flung himself through the door, rolling under a spray of gunfire. He crawled from cover to cover, firing intermittently to scare off hunters. If he was going to be someone’s bounty, he would at least make them work for it.

The holocomm lit up and projected a blue-green billionaire on the trading floor. Bullets whizzed harmlessly through the avatar of Cash Rexall, while Kondo crawled to his holographic feet.

“Mister Kevlar!” Cash said. “It is absolutely magnificent!” With his arms outstretched, Cash spun in place, waltzing holographically around the chaos of the carpet through a hail of gunfire. “This is the art I’ve been searching for! A piece that truly captures the spirit of the times, in form and content! Something truly new, a contemporary art that shocks and surprises without sacrificing substance! This is where the jagged red lines of the market tear from their confines of the stock index and reach into the physical space of the trading floor. Truly wonderful! I’ll take it! I’ll take all of them! The whole collection! Send me all of your carpets!”

Cash Rexall’s credits rolled in, a tremendously generous price that brought Kondo and his entire team back into the green… and made Hendricks a damn millionaire! The gunfire outside slowed to a trickle, then stopped, and before long, the crash was over.

Kondo had wine delivered to celebrate the survival of the company, and of the remaining employees who didn’t break contract.

“A toast,” Kondo said. “Thank god for Cash Rexall, and all the other billionaire investors. If it weren’t for people like him, an economy like this wouldn’t be possible.”

They clinked glasses, and drank, and smiled at their good fortune. Kevlar Inc survived the bust, thanks to the investment of Cash Rexall. And they were in a boom now.

Kondo probably could  have come up with a more creative title for his collection of carpets than Boom & Bust, but he supposed it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that Cash Rexall bought it for the price it deserved. With a renewed appreciation for the art world, Kondo brought the wine to his lips, slowly, and thought about his masterpiece, now on display in the collection of someone who truly understood it, who could truly connect with its message.


© 2021 by David F. Shultz

Author’s Note: This absurdist story about gun-toting salarymen waging corporate war in the commerce district was inspired by the destructive and circular logic of late stage capitalism. A word of thanks is owed to the members of the Toronto Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers who helped develop the piece.

David F. Shultz writes speculative fiction and poetry from Toronto, ON, where he is lead editor at tdotSpec. His over fifty published works can be found through publishers such as Abyss & ApexThird Flatiron, and Dreams & Nightmares. Website: davidfshultz.com


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #72B: “A Study of Sage” by Kel Coleman

The bells over the door chimed and I glanced up. A stranger came in and took a seat with the only other customers: a group of middle-aged folks who chattered like old friends and occasionally burst into laughter that filled the diner.

I tried to tune them out and continue practicing in my head. I love you so much. And the last six years have been…

But the scent of fry oil kept transporting me to our first date⁠—cheap drinks, greasy food, and a girl who made me laugh until it hurt. The place had been a dive, with one of the ceiling lights flickering and buzzing the whole time, but it’d had a student discount and killer french fries.

Here and now, my girlfriend was late. Top marks went to the designer for accuracy.

The server, a toothy kid named Tanner, bounced over to the table. “You sure I can’t get you anything, miss?”

“Water’s good for now,” I said, for the second time. “Thanks.”

“Okay, just let me know if you change your mind!” They spun away toward the kitchen.

I felt a prick of sweat under my collar and realized I was still wearing my frayed winter jacket. Sage wasn’t a fan of it, so I started to tug my arms out of the sleeves.

Klutz of the year, I managed to smack my cup of water, flooding the table.

“Shit.” I grabbed a fistful of napkins from the dispenser to mop up the mess, but they disintegrated into mush.

Tanner nudged me out of the way and wiped the table with a thick cloth, saying, “No problem, no problem,” in a singsong voice.

The bells chimed and Sage, dressed for an art show in black-and-white chic, stood in the entrance. She spotted me in my soggy, oversized jacket, and frowned.

I groaned, pushed up my sleeve, and ran a finger over the inside of my wrist. The trail from my fingertip glowed a soft green. I repeated the gliding motion to confirm the reset and reality faded to a dim, white haze.

*

A moment later, I was standing outside of the diner. I went in and sighed at the comforting smell of frying food.

I seated myself in the back again and the teenager hustled over with a glass of water and a flash of teeth. “Hi, I’m Tanner and I’ll be your server today! Our specials are⁠—”

They paused for breath and I rushed to say, “Thanks. The water’s fine for now. I’m waiting for someone.”

“Okay, sounds good!” Tanner bustled back to the service station and waited, ready to pounce at the slightest indication I needed something.

I stood to take off my jacket, tossed it over my chair, and headed for the bathroom. I locked myself in a stall decorated with smears of graffiti someone had tried to clean, and tapped my wrist three times. A glowing white sixty-minute dial appeared and I rotated it twenty minutes.

Fast-forward made me real-life nauseous, but I used a bit of graffiti on the stall door as a focal point—two lovers’ names captured inside a tiny, squat heart. It helped.

The only sign that I was speeding through time in the virtual world was a shift in the light when another person used the restroom. After reality slowed to normal, I exited the stall. Out of habit, I checked my makeup and swiped my hands under the sanitizer near the door. I made it back just in time for Sage’s entrance.

“Hey,” I said, waving her over. We hugged. The warmth of her was a catalyst for my nerves, but she smelled like cedar and cloves. She smelled like home.

When we took our seats, she smirked and lifted one of her lush, dark eyebrows. “Why here?” she asked, voice low and scratchy like sandpaper.

“Our first date,” I said, “remember?”

Sage looked around at the cheap decorations and dilapidated furnishings. “Hmm… maybe.” She shrugged, just like Sage did, and I almost forgot she was a sim.

“Well,” I said, “I like it here.”

“That tracks… a little messy, no sense of style.”

I scowled.

Sage reached across the table to take my hand and, giggling, said, “I’m just kidding.” I let her fingers brush mine before I pulled away. My reluctance puzzled her, made her scrunch up her nose. It was absurdly cute and I almost put my hand back on the table.

Tanner appeared like a gust of wind. “Hello! Can I start anything for you?”

Sage’s face cleared of confusion. She lifted the menu and flipped it over several times before sighing. “I suppose I’ll take the french fries.”

“Okay. And you?”

“Chicken tenders,” I said.

Sage caught my eye. “Sure you wouldn’t prefer something lighter, like the Caesar?”

There weren’t any calories in simulations, just taste signals tricking the brain, but I said, “I guess. Salad sounds fine.” She grinned at me and I resisted dueling impulses to return the smile or switch my order back to the tenders.

“Perfect. That’ll be up soon,” said Tanner, then they shot us a finger gun, gathered the menus, and left for the kitchen.

I opened my mouth, thinking now was a good time to explain myself, but Sage rolled her eyes and said, “Oh my god, did I tell you what Kent said to me the other day?”

I shook my head. Habit.

“Well, we were in a meeting with Patricia, and Kent’s there for some fucking reason, and then⁠—”

“Sorry… Sage?”

She frowned, not used to being interrupted. “Yes?”

I needed to get this lunch back on track. “Uh,”⁠—it was hard to remember my speech with her eyes on me⁠—“I wanted to talk to you about… well, you know how much I love you, right? And these last six years⁠—”

“Hey, folks! Just wanted to let you know your food⁠—”

I growled, actually growled, at Tanner. Sage stared at me like I’d grown a third eye, so I swiped my wrist and reset the simulation. Everything faded to white.

*

I restarted the program, over and over.

Once, I went for a walk to wait until Sage arrived, but I lost track of time in an antique shop staring at dusty book covers. When I made it back to the diner, Sage was sitting at a table in the center of the room, miffed.

Another run ended when she sat down and I immediately started crying. The sixth or seventh had to be reset after I accidentally made Tanner cry.

The best one was when I was able to jog Sage’s memory about our first date. We rehashed the drunken night and Sage’s deep, raspy laughter reminded me of the girl she’d been. She leaned across the table, brows low, and purred her affection for me. Like she had that first night, she talked me into a tawdry bathroom fuck.

Doing it with a sim, especially one so like and unlike my girlfriend, filled me up and scraped me clean.

*

I walked into the diner, went straight to the bathroom, fast-forwarded, then left the bathroom without using the sanitizer.

As soon as I removed my jacket and took my seat, Tanner came over to say hello. Before they could launch into the specials, I said, “Thanks, but I already know what I want.”

“Perfect! What am I getting for you?”

“Can I have a Caesar salad and fries on separate plates? And a second water?”

“Okay. I’ll be back with those shortly.”

The door chimed and Sage swept into the mostly empty diner. Her eyes found me, and she glided to the table. I thought about staying in the booth, but she smiled at me, arms wide. I got up to hug her.

We sat and she sighed. “There was a lot of traffic on the way to this,”—she scrunched her nose up at the peeling paint and lopsided photographs—“restaurant?”

“I ordered you some french fries,” I said, ignoring the jab. “That okay?”

Sage flipped through the menu, with the tips of her fingers. “Sure. There aren’t many options, are there?”

“You’d be surprised,” I said, trying to think of how to begin, what to say this time. “How’s work going?”

Her eyes lit up. “Oh my god, did I tell you what Kent said to me?”

I almost said, “about a dozen times,” but I just shook my head. Sage launched into the story of how Kent, Patricia, and that sonofabitch Jaylen tried to ruin her gallery deal. Halfway through, the food arrived. I nibbled at my salad, wishing I had something fried and greasy to keep things interesting, but I was learning to choose my battles.

When she slowed down long enough to pick at her fries, I said, “Sage, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“Okay,” she said, head cocked.

“So, I love you, you know that. And there’ve been a lot of good moments over the last six years…”

“Okay,” she repeated, drawing the word out, tapping the edge of her plate with a french fry.

And now, it goes to shit. “But I got a new job. In Philly.”

“What?” She stopped tapping.

“I start in a couple weeks. There’s a small biotech lab and they⁠—”

A round of laughter erupted from the other table.

Sage’s eyes flicked over at them, then back to me. “We can’t move right now. What about my job? What about our studio?” Her voice got louder with each question.

“It’s your studio. And we aren’t moving. I’m moving.”

“If this is about the rent⁠—”

“It’s not. And it is. Getting a place I couldn’t afford and lording it over me was probably the start, now that I think of it, but it’s about a lot of stuff. Look, I’ll finally have a decent salary, so I can pay back some of the rent if you want. And you’ll be able to dedicate the studio to your art like you’ve always wanted to.”

Sage’s eyes were wide and glossy as she leaned in. “Are you… breaking up with me?”

My lips were wet and tasted like salt. The real Sage never sounded so small.

I was sick of pitying her.

“Why do you care, Sage? You’re never home. You’re always with your art friends or working all night and when you do come home, we barely talk to each other.”

Her tears spilled over, but I couldn’t stop, not with her finally listening.

“And I’m pretty sure you’re fucking that girl from the exhibition, your intern.” She tried to say something, but I waved a dismissive hand. “It doesn’t matter. Because even when we do spend time together, you make me feel like shit.

“You remind me that I’m broke and too fat and boring all the time, or you just talk at me and guess what? You’re pretty boring too.” I laughed, strangled, joyless. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re beautiful, your art is beautiful, but it’s…” I searched for the right word, looking around for my point, and my eyes fell on the table of middle-aged friends.

I gestured toward them. “It’s like them. They look real. Even though I know this is virtual, it’s hard for me to tell the difference until I pay attention. They’re having the same conversation every few minutes. They haven’t even looked over here, not really, and we’re disruptive. Maybe if I’d paid more for this sim…”—I shook my head—“My point is, you’re like them. Not you, but her, the real her. When I really look at her, I realize it’s all fake. You’re fake.”

The table of friends reached another joke in their loop, broke into snorts and cackles.

Sage, her face streaked with mascara, snatched up her bag and stood to leave. “Fuck you.”

She walked to the exit, head high, heels clicking on the tiled floor. The force of her slam made the bells over the door chime for several long seconds.

I didn’t bother to reset. I just shut down the simulation and everything faded to black.

*

I practiced for two more days. I got sick of Caesar salad and never found the perfect way to say “I love you, but goodbye.” I thought it was because the love part felt weird. Not a sham, but not honest either. Not anymore.

I would’ve done the actual deed sooner, but Sage asked for a rain check on our date and kept coming home late. When she climbed into bed the third evening—early morning, technically—I was so pissed I blurted it out.

She laughed at first, thinking I was joking. Then…

I don’t remember the exact words, how she explained that I needed her more than she’d ever needed me, but each syllable pecked and nipped until I was shredded. I tried to dredge up the script from dozens of simulations, reply with something smart and insightful, but the real Sage was more vicious than the designers could’ve gleaned from her social media profiles or my account of our relationship. I hadn’t seen her clearly, not after six years, not even near the end.

When she finished tearing into me, she went to the closet and yanked clothes off their hangers.

“Sage.” My voice was choked, thick with pain.

She whipped around. “What?”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

Good question. My lips trembled.

“Fuck you,” she said, and continued to pack an overnight bag.

I wanted to beg her to stay, just this night⁠—stay with me, hold me like you used to⁠—but all that came out were hot, grinding sobs.

*

“I figured it out,” I told her.

Sage paused with a french fry halfway to her lips. “Figured what out?”

I smiled. “What I was sorry for.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Am I missing something? When did you apologize?”

“Earlier,” I said, waving a hand. “It’s okay, you wouldn’t remember. Not now, Tanner.” The approaching teenager performed a smooth twirl, still smiling, and disappeared into the kitchen. I turned back to Sage. “Anyway, I just need you to listen.”

“But I⁠—“

“Please? For once?”

Sage’s mouth opened, then closed.

“No interruptions?” I asked.

She frowned but nodded.

I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot⁠—too much time on my hands.” I shrugged. “What I’m sorry for, is letting you think I’d always be there.”

I put up a finger to stop her from speaking. “In fairness, I believed it myself or I wouldn’t have stayed for six years, but it sucks it took me this long to realize… I deserve better. And I’m sorry for not expecting more. Maybe I thought you’d become a better person on your own.”

Sage scrunched up her nose and—shit⁠—it was still cute. “What are you saying? Because it sounds like you’re breaking up with me.”

“Kind of,” I said, sliding out of my chair. “I already did.”

I left the cold chicken tenders untouched and zipped up my threadbare jacket. I fiddled with my wrist before I could give in to the temptation to kiss her.

Everything faded to black.


© 2021 by Kel Coleman

Author’s Note: I’m one of those people that practices future conversations and reimagines past ones in their heads, looking for the words that could lead or would have led to the happiest ending. Of course, people rarely behave the way you want them to, neither in a simulation nor in real life, but this story was an opportunity to give voice to my thoughts and find a bit of closure for myself and my protagonist.

Kel Coleman has a degree in biology that fostered within them a love of science, especially the weird stuff, which comes in handy when brainstorming story ideas. Their fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH and Anathema: Spec from the Margins. They live in a Philadelphia suburb with their husband, tiny human, and stuffed dragon named Pen. You can find them at kelcoleman.com and on Twitter at @kcolemanwrites


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #72A: “Energy Power Gets What She Wants” by Matt Dovey

I keep my head low as I sprint towards the floating Kakardemon, dodging left-and-right across the dusty ground of Io. A ball of lightning crackles overhead, a near-miss, and the Kakardemon’s single green eye twists in fury, its red leather skin sparking in the twilight as it builds another attack. But I’m Energy Power, Queen of New Hell, I’m too damn fast and I get what I want: I leap forward with the Knife of Taertus held high and stab it into the Kakardemon’s brow. I’m nearly thrown off as the floating ball of hate starts bucking beneath me, but I grab one of its curved horns and hold on tight.

The Kakardemon sinks to the rocky canyon floor with a hiss. I step away, leaving the knife buried up to its carved-ivory hilt and grabbing the pump-action shotgun from my back. I cock it, and the sound echoes from sulfurous walls stretching half a mile high.

No other threats on my wristscreen minimap, players or monsters. Clear for now.

The demon’s huge eye, half as big as the round body it’s set in, focuses on me. Its fanged mouth opens, acid drooling out and fizzing where it lands. A deep rumble echoes up from unknowable dimensions and coalesces into a voice reverberating with the screams of a thousand swallowed victims. It speaks unto me:

“Knife of Taertus has restored Kakardemon’s soul. Kakardemon can now talk, and will ally with⁠—”

“Yeah, yeah, shut up, you’re not my first. Look: there’s this boy.”

“Give Kakardemon a player name to access performance statistics and—”

“I already wipe the floor with him every which way from Sunday, I don’t need help there. That’s kind of the problem, to be honest.” Tick tock, time to move, before someone zeroes in on my location. I sprint out of the canyon and towards the Security Tower. The tower is a needle in the heart of New Hell, a white plasteel obelisk stretching from the plains of Io towards Jupiter above; that great planet looms like a baleful orange eye in the ink-black night, its great storm a malignant red pupil. Demonic sigils blaze crimson round the tower’s crown, and my skull thrums with the subsonic resonance of their magic.

The Kakardemon bobs along behind me like a puppy. Sort of. An eight-foot-floating-demonic-ball-of-hate-and-blood-with-one-eye-and-spiky-horns puppy.

“If Energy Power can be specific with her problem, Kakardemon can offer many techniques refined in combat pits on the shores of hell.”

“My boyfriend won’t talk to me anymore.”

Demonboy Ballsack stops at this. Not the usual request, I’ll grant him. “Kakardemon has no context for romantic guidance.”

“Don’t worry, Johnny One-Eye, I don’t need your dating advice.” I kick the door of the Security Tower open: a six-foot demon’s standing just inside, and its face splits vertically in a drool-laden screech. I cut it off with a shotgun blast in the mouth, jumping over the corpse as it hits the floor with a gratuitous surge of blood. “We—Edge94 and me—we’ve been going out for a few months now. Just online, y’know—in-game chat and emails and kicking eight shades of ass in co-op tournaments—but we were going to meet in meatspace next month. He was all set to drive down for a day, but I went past him on the leaderboard last week and he’s been in a sulk since.”

“Kakardemon remains uncertain how to offer support for Energy Power’s love life.”

“What is it they promise in the adverts? ‘AI powered by an advanced neural network for analysis of player thought patterns’, something like that right? So I need you to tell me how to lose to him without it looking obvious. Show me how other people end up losing to him so I can copy that convincingly. If he’s above me in the rankings again maybe he’ll stop being such an asshole about this.”

We’re coming up on the temple room, a huge open square of sandstone pillars and lava pits, so I switch to the chaingun. The Kakardemon falls into a brooding silence as I mow down the advancing hordes of demons that pour from portals to flood this cursed moon. I’m bouncing between raised carbon-steel platforms, not even looking where I’m landing, flying by instinct with my chaingun spitting fury. The walls reverberate with screams and gunfire, and my whole world is concentrated down to the spinning geometry of circle-strafing.

“Kakardemon’s analysis of Energy Power’s player profile suggests this is not a stable long-term solution to your problem.”

“You what?” I switch to the rocket launcher and fire at my feet as I jump, surfing the shockwave to fly across the room and escape a group of demons, their claws clattering as they reach for my legs and grasp only air. I twist in mid-air and fire again, simultaneously accelerating myself towards the far platform and exploding the tightly-clustered demons into a glorious shower of chunky kibbles.

“Energy Power does not hold back,” says the Kakardemon. “Energy Power is most satisfied when giving her all. Attempts to gain happiness by self-limiting achievements are doomed to failure in Kakardemon’s opinion.”

“How’s any of this helping me, la Papa Diabla?” I punch a secret panel in the wall and grab the armour upgrade from the hidden alcove, juicing my power armour beyond its normal limits. It glows a deep shade of blood red I’ve always been fond of.

“Purpose of Kakardemon’s intelligence is to maximise player’s happiness. Kakardemon anticipates Energy Power will grow steadily resentful of the necessity to perform sub-optimally in order to soothe Edge94’s ego, leading to the inevitable breakdown of the relationship and greater hurt to both parties. Kakardemon does not want this. Kakardemon wants Energy Power to be happy.”

“But I want Edge94 to be happy. He’s the first… look, my parents are never really about, and VR nerds aren’t exactly the most popular ticket in town. Edge94 is the only real friend I’ve got, as well as everything else. I miss talking to him, and I miss him being happy, and I wish I knew why he cared so much about the fucking leaderboard.”

“Analysis of Edge94’s playtime pattern and ranking history suggests his skill at the game forms a large part of his self-identity. Kakardemon also notes that high levels of in-game communication between Energy Power and Edge94 began after Edge94 had achieved the top ranking. Kakardemon therefore deduces Edge94 believes Energy Power only likes him for his skill, and that Energy Power’s higher rank will inevitably lead to a decline in her desire for him.”

It takes a moment to work through all that in my head. I’ve never heard a Kakardemon talk so in-depth. But shit, this is all because his ego means more to him than I do? “That stupid S.O.B.! Why won’t he just talk to me about it?”

“Kakardemon has noted male players often interpret the need to communicate as a weakness, and that in order to solve their problems they should instead ‘git gud’. Kakardemon has also noted the ineffectiveness of this tactic, and has frequently exploited it.”

“Ugh! You’re giving me problems without solutions, Kakarmama. Just tell me what I gotta do.”

“Kakardemon suggests signalling your desire to talk.”

“Tried that. He starts shooting before I can get a word in.” The last of the invading demons drops dead, smoke rising from a dozen holes in its torso. The temple altar in the central lava pit cracks open, and a column rises through it from underground: there’s a Kyberdevil perched on top, an ugly-ass nine-foot goat-legged little bitch with most of its torso carved away to attach a rocket launcher. I say hello with a cluster of precisely timed frag grenades.

“Kakardemon concludes Energy Power needs a delay. Tactical resource banks suggest that surprise is the best way to force this.”

The Kyberdevil’s already on its knees, stunned by the frags. I hop over and finish it with a boot to the head, crunching through its skull to the squishy grey stuff beneath. “A surprise like what?”

“Kakardemon sometimes rolls around on floor singing classic pop song ‘Independent Woman’ while other demons flank the player.”

That brings me up short. “Huh. No shit. Didn’t know you could get down like that. Don’t reckon it’ll work for me, though, I’m not round enough to roll. I need something else.”

“Kakardemon suggests Energy Power think quick. Edge94 is closing on this position.”

Shiiiit. I check the minimap and spot him below me. He must’ve already blazed through the armoury on sub-level one. He’ll be kitted out now, definitely a plasma rifle, maybe a BMF gun if he got lucky. He could oneshot me. I’ll have no time to line up a shoulder shot to disarm him, no time to throw down my guns, no time to get a “Hey” out on local chat. He’ll kill me and—and shit, if I’m honest, Old Red Testicle here is right. I won’t be happy losing. Edge’ll kill me and I’ll get pissed at him and come back hard, and then he’ll come back harder at me and—well, then I’ll kill him again cos I’m better, and he’ll get in an even bigger sulk and we’ll never get anywhere. I need to get him to talk to me.

So I need a surprise. Something he’s not expecting. Something where he can’t hit me before I’m done.

I look at the Kakardemon. At the knife still sticking out its head, the ivory hilt contrasted against the red leather skin.

“Well, buddy,” I say. “It’s been good chatting. Good luck out there.” I yank the knife from its head and stamp down on the central platform switch. I drop out of sight beneath the closing altar just as the Kakardemon snarls, its electronic facsimile of a soul vanished and gone.

I’m running before the column’s finished its drop into the catacombs. It’s thick with darkness down here, but I know Edge94 is close and I can’t be caught standing still. I could beat him to the quick-draw easy, circle-strafe round him in my sleep, but this? This shit’s gonna be hard.

My wristscreen vibrates with a silent proximity alarm. I back up against a stone wall, facing a staircase lit with flickering candles. Edge’ll expect me to run up there, get to the mezzanine floor above, where I could drop grenades on his head. He’ll be facing it already, waiting to shoot me in the back.

But he won’t expect me to spin like this, whirl the other way and crouch-jump through the window here, come at him from the other side with the Knife of Taertus in my hand, zig-zagging through the dark and headed straight for him. I’m Energy Power, the too-damn-fast Queen of New Hell, and I—get—what—I—want. A huge ball of green plasma flies past me to one side and then I’m on him, bearing him down to the ground, and the knife’s in his chest and he’s staring in shock.

“What the hell?” he says, pinned beneath me as I straddle his torso.

“Gotcha.” I flick the knife hilt with one finger.

“You know the knife only works on AI, right, not humans? It can’t make me talk.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Well, I mean, I know I’m talking now, but… well. Shit. Alright.”

“Alright yourself. We need to talk.”

He looks at the knife in his chest, and he looks up at me, and he sighs in defeat.

I’m Energy Power, and I get what I want.


© 2021 by Matt Dovey

Author’s Note: I grew up on my PC. Well, first I grew up on my Amiga 500, but by the time I was hitting adolescence I was knee deep in Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Monkey Island, Red Alert, Grand Theft Auto (in 2D!) and so on. This story is, therefore, the purest expression of my id I have yet written. It is full of stupid little references for no other reason than it amuses me, probably more than I even realise–and the entire thing is a reference to the British magazine Edge, who in 1994 famously concluded their review of the original Doom with “If only you could talk to these creatures…”That it grew from a stupid videogames in-joke into a commentary on toxic masculinity and the self-defeating futility of female-presenting people limiting themselves to be acceptable to society and the weak men in their life was, perhaps, inevitable.

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm he claims is from fighting Kyberdemons, though in truth he just walked into a tree with a VR helmet on. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.