For the first thirteen years of her life, the planet was silent. No birdsong. No construction. Only the gentle sway of an ocean pushing and pulling against the aqueous humors of her left eye. Late at night, while her parents slept, she often lay awake and listened to the dense water solidify itself, the salts forming crystals, the crystals becoming pillars in a great, cavernous hall populated at first by no one, and then: music. A pure, high note so sudden it woke her from her slumber and conjured the image of a miniature flautist performing deep in the canal of her ear. Only the sound was part of her, she realized—the first beat in a rhythm she had been unknowingly teaching these crystals as they coalesced in the spaces between words and breaths. Her body was their language. Her heartbeats, her sneezes. Her haphazard attempts to mirror her mother’s Spanish. The crystals absorbed it all and played her life back to her to say: We’re here. We exist.
If she closed her eyes and listened, she could hear them communicate with each other. Mi nombre es Adagio. I’m Sharp. I’m Grave. I should eat. I must. I am. They fed on light through her pupil, synthesizing crystalline energies. Sunlight was best, then moonshine, then fluorescent, incandescent, and halogen. Only when starving would they eat the light from her phone, that pale ethereal glow providing no nutrients, no sustenance—just a desperate act of survival. Go outside, the crystals would shout when she stared at the screen too long, and once outside she would have to stay there an hour, maybe two, to feed them. Hungry crystals clamoring in the dark.
She hated to hear them shatter. All the little pieces lodging in the planet’s crust.
Her eye was becoming a graveyard.
Her crystals were outgrowing their castles. No one would say it out loud, but she knew. It was painfully obvious in the way their bodies hummed at night, that sullen way they poked at the crumbling pillars in the great halls, the way kids kick at pine cones, knowing how much potential for life they once held.
After so many years, she knew what they were thinking: More light.
I have to get out of here.
She didn’t know any ophthalmologists, nor any crystallographers, and when she thought of looking for one, the crystal bodies vibrated with panic, broken prisms in a microscopic lattice. No photographs, their humming said. No petri dishes, no tuning forks, no experiments. Through her, they had seen too many movies about encounters with extraterrestrial life; they knew that their sentience would be a death sentence. That in the absence of predators to keep it in line humanity viewed all other intelligence as an existential threat to its self-image. She could not allow scientists to poke and prod and strike a tuning fork to determine the exact frequency necessary to shatter the crystals from within and eliminate the enemy.
No, she would have to extract the planet on her own.
It should be simple enough. According to the internet, ophthalmologists routinely poked holes under patient eyelids to drain the eye of excess fluid and, thus, relieve the pressure that caused glaucoma. She could do much the same with only a hypodermic needle and the eye patch from last Halloween’s costume, which would help speed recovery.
While taping open her eyelids, she soothed the crystals with simple chatter. Did you know the human eye heals faster than almost any other part of the human body? An anatomical marvel produced by millions of years of evolution. Imagine the injuries my ancestors must have had and healed from; imagine their wonder in looking up into the mouth of a saber tooth tiger. The blood! The carnage! Just a little pinch. She slid the needle in so easily it frightened her. She thought the process would be more painful, the planet more difficult to extract from the universe of her body, but it just slipped out of her like a tear, all that salt whispering away before she could think to say wait.
How will I know if you survive this?
She felt the loss like a gulf opening between them. A great silence where once was music.
Is this death? She could not know. All she could do was inject the aqueous fluid from her eye into the tiny glass snow globe she had drained and refilled with saline. If the planet settled (if without the benefit of her gravity it careened through the snow globe, ricocheting off the walls as inertia drew it inexorably to the floor), she could not say. Its new container was still and quiet, no humming, no vibration. Just a pinprick, a miniscule glint of light, like a rainbow before it decides to form. Give it time, she told herself. Her planet might have survived and her crystals might well be growing in the happy medium of saline. She hoped so.
She set the snow globe down gently. Tucked it behind a potted plant on the windowsill so it would always get enough light.
And then she waited, dreaming of the day the crystals were big enough to say hi.
Author’s Note: To be perfectly honest, the title of the story comes from something my girlfriend said while we were cuddling: that a reflection in my glasses made it look like there was a planet in my eye. Obviously, I had to turn that phrase into a story! What would life be like for a girl with a planet in her eye? The story went through a couple false starts—a Star Trek: The Next Generation-inspired crystalline entity, a scary foray into the world of surveillance biometrics—before I landed on this more intimate, personal approach. Often, when we write about something growing inside us, it turns into a story of illness as invasion or pregnancy as body horror (see also: Alien). In this story, I wanted to counter that trend with something both haunting and fulfilling. Something, ultimately, hopeful.
Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Pleiades, khōréō, The Florida Review Online, Wigleaf, Baffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 & 2022, Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She co-organized the performance series Fight for Our Lives and served as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. In 2023, she will be a visiting writer at University of Washington Bothell.
The desert had been trying to kill her for two days. Gently. Lovingly.
Come drink. The water is cool and sweet. The desert’s voice sounded deep in her mind, deeper than the ocean.
Zazy tugged her hood forward to get a sliver more shade. Not today, my friend, she replied. She spotted the bonecrawler nest the desert wanted to convince her was a bubbling spring. Heat fatigue washed through her. For a moment, her eyes unfocused and the trickle of insects did resemble running water. Zazy closed her eyes. No, thank you.
Always be courteous to the desert, Grandmother had said, for it is very old. You had to deflect its entreaties softly, with just a puff of mental energy. A harsh response earned the desert’s rage. Instead of suggesting she scoop up the venomous insects, it would force her over there, and she’d waste energy resisting.
She didn’t have any energy to waste, not since the bandits shot her hat off. The bone-studded band had kept her safe, blocking the desert’s voice nicely. So nicely. Almost like being back home. But home was many miles and years away…
You are home, Izazyl.
Zazy started awake. Her head whacked the boulder she’d slumped against, and she nearly clunked her skull again with the pistol she’d drawn. Around her shimmered a mirage—a blue tiled courtyard, a golden door. Zazy focused on her mental shield, which was far too thin. It’d been strong, once. A glistening sphere around her mind, iridescent, blue and pink and violet and orange, the color of a desert sky at sunset. But it had worn away, losing its luster. And with her hat gone, she’d had it up constantly, and it had waned further. Now it was translucent, gray, and thin, thin, thin. She slid the deep voice out of her mind. You are my home, desert. She had nothing else, no one else.
The bandits had caught up with them two days ago at twilight. One of them had been a strong duelist. He’d gotten her own mind to throw her body off her longscale mount—and into a ravine. It’d taken her all night to climb out. She shouldn’t be traveling during the day’s heat, but she wasn’t leaving her mount in their hands.
“I’m coming, Khoko,” she croaked.
Lurching forward, she crawled over baked white earth until she reached the lip of the gorge where the bandits were waiting out the day. Zazy dropped to her stomach and peered over the edge.
The gorge was deep. Bands of color striped the walls: indigo, violet, vermillion. Proof the desert had once been an ocean, its coral now buried.
From the shadowed depths, a legion of eyes stared upward. The bandits had put up their tents, emblazoned with wide eyes on a red background. These were the Bloody Eye Bandits. Twelve men with the light- or golden-brown skin of those native to the desert. No one with Zazy’s pale skin or pink hair, inherited from her foreign ancestors.
Khoko wasn’t among the bandits’ mounts. No flash of bright blue among the scaled backs and thick tails.
You’ll never lose track of him, Grandmother had chuckled. She’d given Khoko to her in a lush courtyard tiled in gold and pink. Grandmother had cooled her brown feet in the water channels while Zazy delighted in her new friend. And you’ll have to think of a name before his crest bone can be painted.
Khoko, Khoko, Khoko. The only one she had left.
Below, only one tent was big enough to hide a fully grown longscale. At the far end of the gorge. It bore golden-rimmed eyes. The leader’s tent.
She hit the bottom of the gorge and clapped a hand over her mouth to smother a shout. Pain flashed bright. She’d crawled along the edge of the gorge and begun the climb down, which had been going great until a bandit yelled at someone for being late for a perimeter scan. In an instant, they’d be searching for nearby minds. Without her hat, she’d had no choice but to drop and hope she landed inside the bandits’ protections.
Panting, Zazy craned her neck. Her breaths stirred the fabric of a tent—gold-rimmed eyes on red. And dangling from metal wire strung across the gorge were bare white rib bones. Zazy had fallen inside of the bone perimeter. Safe.
The bones of some desert creatures shielded their brains from telepathy. The bone perimeter kept any minds from reaching across it. No outside minds could affect anyone in the camp. It also meant the sentry had to step beyond the perimeter to scan their surroundings. Zazy’s mind was as shielded as the bandits’.
Stifling a groan, Zazy dug out her knife. It was a battered thing scavenged off a corpse, but it pierced the tent fabric. A peek revealed joyously blue scales—and no bandits. Her aches sang as she sawed a bigger gap.
Khoko’s tail began thumping on the blanket floor before she’d shimmied her hips in. He’d curled his lean, twelve-foot-long body tight around his strong, scaly legs and heavy paws, tipped in curved claws. His great square head lifted as she cupped his snout and kissed his scales, his nose, his boney brow ridge.
Then a glint of dark blue blood caught her eye.
“Oh no.” Zazy laid Khoko’s head down. A ring of blood encircled one of the bone knobs that ran under his jaw and down his deep chest. More blood rivered down his scales. The bandits had tried to cut out his crest bone, the biggest knob, permanently inked with his name and Zazy’s sigil. It was normally hidden by a saddle strap.
“I’m so sorry, Khoko.” Zazy kissed his brave face. She should’ve painted over the sigil. It didn’t mean anything anymore. “We’ll clean it later.” Who knew when the tent’s resident would return. Luckily, Khoko’s saddle lay in one corner, and there was water in leather bags.
But she didn’t see her hat, and the manacles on Khoko’s legs and neck were locked. Zazy searched the tent. No key. She knelt to wrap Khoko’s injury before saddling him. Could she go look for the key? It could be right outside.
Before she could decide, footsteps scuffed nearby.
Zazy drew her pistol as the flaps parted. A tall man strode in, dark hair in a short tail, head brushing the tent ceiling.
He didn’t seem surprised to see her. Maybe he’d sensed her mind. Maybe he’d expected her to come. Either way, he regarded her—and her pistol—with nothing more than a quirked brow. Gold glittered in that brow. Three gold studs. He was a skilled telepath, then, though not the duelist who’d bested her yesterday.
Zazy heightened her mental senses. A shimmering sphere surrounded his mind, his mental shield. But he hadn’t reached out to his companions. He wasn’t calling for help. He didn’t think she had strong telepathy, or any. The pink hair. It signaled foreigner. Even if her brows were just as thick as his own, her nose just as arched.
“Where did you find a royal longscale?” he asked, conversational. He gestured to the crest bone, now covered, and its sigil. The sigil of the Emprash, which named Izazyl, fifteenth generation of the royal line, as Khoko’s rider.
“He’s mine,” Zazy replied, stalling. If he thought she had no abilities, then maybe… She uncoiled a thread of mental energy. Her training had been interrupted by the coup. She knew the basics of telepathy, and then some tricks.
The bandit chuckled and bent to retrieve a fruit from his saddlebags. “He was yours,” he agreed. “But where did you steal him from? The palace?” His smile flashed bright as his knife as it cut into the fruit. A prickle pear.
“I got him at the palace.”
As she’d hoped, that made the bandit chuckle again. And he didn’t notice the brush against his shield. A little turn of it, not enough to make anything happen. Yet.
“From the Emprash herself, right?” The bandit chewed and grinned.
“That’s right.” This time, Zazy spun his shield, a full revolution of the sphere, smooth and undetected by his distracted mind.
“Then you’d be Izazyl, no?”
“That’s what it says.” Another easy spin. .
“People will pay a hefty sum for any piece of the Emprash, you know.”
“I know.” Spin.
“Well, then.” The bandit sketched a bow and stumbled. He had to catch himself on a tent pole. “Apologies for not recognizing you, Highness.”
“The Emprash did marry a foreign prince.” Spin.
The bandit nodded, wavering on his feet. Pear forgotten, he touched a hand to his forehead, closed his eyes.
Zazy clubbed him in the temple with her pistol. He thudded to the floor. Aunt Taza could have dealt the final blow telepathically, but she wasn’t here, and Zazy hadn’t gotten that far in training.
Heart pounding, Zazy rifled through the man’s pockets, found the keys, and freed Khoko. She snagged all the water she could find before leading Khoko deeper into the gorge. If she remembered right, there had been a fortress nearby, built to watch the mountains. It would have protection bones in its walls. Maybe they could reach it.
Zazy’s throat ached, thick and swollen. The water had not lasted. The blazing sun sapped her strength, heavied her limbs. She alternated between riding Khoko and trudging alongside him. She stumbled when she didn’t remember to pick up her feet.
Zazy squinted at the hazy mountains. They seemed to undulate like the ancient sea creature legend said had died when the ocean dried up. Its bones supposedly formed the spine of the mountains. Some said the desert’s voice came from it. With the white ground shimmering, Zazy couldn’t estimate how far off the mountains were. Was there a fortress? A pale smudge wavering at their base?
She needed a sanctuary, somewhere with protection bones, like the bandit camp. Her mental shield was flickering as she walked. The desert’s voice slipped in and out of her mind, deep and soothing. Sit down, Izazyl. A pricker bush morphed into a chair. The desert wasn’t supposed to know your name, but her shields had been failing for years, wearing thinner and thinner. She didn’t know why. And without her hat…
Lie down and rest. Zazy spotted the snake burrows before the desert unrolled a beautiful woven carpet, stacked with plush pillows. Still, her legs wobbled. Only her hand on Khoko’s saddle kept her upright.
Have a drink at least, the desert said, and a pool appeared, clear as aquamarines. Zazy crashed to her knees and lifted a scoop to her lips before Khoko’s tail walloped her back. Zazy spilled forward, sprawling in hot sand. It coated her lips and soaked up valuable moisture.
She was going to die today. The thought flitted through her mind, too fast to stop. Only a nudge from a heavy nose got her back on her feet.
Zazy mounted Khoko. He carried her onward while the air began to sing. The merry splish-splash of a fountain met her ears. Zazy forced herself not to look for it, the fountain from her childhood, the one in the palace’s grandest courtyard. How many hours had she spent chasing the flashing golden fish? Zazy clapped her hot, swollen hands over her ears. It didn’t help. The splashing was in her mind.
Yellow flower petals twirled through the air at her side. Grandmother had tended her flowers so lovingly. She’d watered them by hand and gathered the fallen petals to toss over her children and grandchildren. Blessings upon blessings. Bless you, Izazyl. The petals twirled toward her, as if tossed by gentle hands.
Zazy threw herself off Khoko. She wouldn’t let those petals touch her. They weren’t real. None of this was real. Her family was gone and could not help her. Climbing to her feet, Zazy waved off a concerned Khoko and scanned the thrumming horizon. A pale protrusion rose from the ground. She could almost pick out walls and roofs. That had to be the fortress.
She took a step. Her foot landed on blue tiles, shiny and smooth. A golden door gleamed before her. It swung open to reveal that familiar violet-lacquered table, scarred from generations of family meals. A dozen people gathered around it, passing bowls and papers and books. Familiar jewels glinted on foreheads and throats.
Zazy spun on her heel. She would not go in there. It wasn’t real. That was not her Aunt Taza, her pink eyebrows studded with gold all the way across. And that was not her mother, dark haired and graceful, dodging around her father to reach the prickle pears. And that was not Grandmother, tossing petals at her cousins.
Zazy made it a few steps before a nudge came at her stomach, turning her around, pushing her toward that violet table. She distantly recognized Khoko’s bulk, but she was focused on covering her eyes, her ears. She didn’t want to see their faces, hear their voices. They called to her, as if she’d just woken for breakfast. Good morning, Zazy. Come have something to eat. How did you sleep?
I had terrible dreams, she wanted to say. One long nightmare. You were gone. You were all gone. They murdered you on the front steps. They cracked your skulls and let your blood run and run.
That sounds awful, her mother said. Come have some tea. Your favorite today.
Zazy shook her head. This wasn’t real. Her family couldn’t help her. She broke into a run. She flew by the violet table, shrugging off reaching hands. She burst onto the gold-columned terrace, ran down the steps, splashed through a shallow pool. Palace halls flashed by until she reached the grand front doors. She ran through them like they were made of mist, and there were the front steps, right where they were murdered. Her foot slipped.
But the ground that hit her was sloped and rough. She tumbled down a hill, dust flying. When she finally stopped, her vision was swimming. Even so, she could make out the smooth stone walls of a building. A square archway. Weathered doors hanging askew. The fortress.
She craned her neck, looking toward the insets beside the doors. Where long femur bones should have been, to protect any minds inside.
The insets were empty. The fortress had been pillaged. The protection bones had been stolen.
Zazy shut her eyes. Khoko’s padding footsteps caught up to her. His nose nudged her ribs, rocking her dry, empty body. No bones here. No protection.
In the distance, a longscale howl pierced the air. The bandits were coming for her as the day slipped toward twilight. She had to keep moving.
With effort, Zazy rolled to her front. A last burst of willpower got her to her knees. But no more. She was empty. She slumped forward, forehead resting on the hard ground, and felt the last tatters of her shield wink out.
Eventually, movement flickered in front of her. She didn’t lift her head. Khoko, probably. Or the first bandit. It didn’t matter. If the bandits didn’t kill her, the desert would.
Look at me, Izazyl. The voice sounded like Grandmother’s. Zazy’s eyes stung at the endearment humming through the words, like Grandmother was still here to love her, to find humor in Zazy’s plight, serious to Zazy but solvable to Grandmother.
This was what happened when you didn’t have good shields. The desert plundered your mind, your memories.
It does indeed, Grandmother said. But the desert is not why your shields are failing.
This was new. The desert never referenced itself. And it did not offer telepathy tips. Zazy mustered the strength to roll her head, gravel biting into her skin, so she could see the mirage. Grandmother knelt with her hands in her lap, the sun gleaming off her steel gray hair. Every strand of hair, every line in her face, the downward slope of her shoulders—it was just how Zazy remembered her.
Grandmother pressed her hands to Zazy’s forehead. Zazy gasped. Those hands were warm and dry and real. Zazy came to a kneeling position at the urging of those familiar hands. What is this?
Grandmother’s eyes twinkled. Your shields are failing because you haven’t taken care of your mind. You’ve let it unravel into despair because you think you have nothing.
It’s true. Zazy lifted a limp hand. I have Khoko but no home, no family. You’re all gone.
Grandmother tapped Zazy’s forehead, and the tap echoed in her mind, on the memories Zazy kept locked away. Not in here.
That’s not real.
Grandmother laughed. Not with that attitude.
This was no trick of the desert’s. If anything, it was one of Grandmother’s.
Real is a matter of perspective, Granddaughter. I may not be real enough for anyone else, but I can be real to you. As long as you’re not keeping me out with those shields of yours.
The gentle reprimand had Zazy opening her mouth to protest, but Grandmother continued,You weren’t old enough to understand back then, but listen: all telepathy springs from one principle—your mind determines its own reality. Your mind perceives the world only through the signals it creates. If the world seems bleak, it is because your mind has told itself so. Grandmother brushed her thumbs over Zazy’s brows. Your thoughts have been bleak for too long, Izazyl.
Zazy shook her head, dislodging Grandmother’s hands. My thoughts are bleak because things are bleak. I can’t control the world.
Grandmother smiled, understanding. Of course not. There are limits to a mind’s power. The desert exploits them—it convinces your mind that a rock is a pear, but it cannot make the rock into a pear.
But much of your life has no connection to the physical world. If a duelist convinces your mind that it’s flinging your body into a ravine, it is. If your mind thinks it has nothing, it does. And it will become nothing.
Was that true? Her own thoughts were eroding her shields?
We’re still with you, Izazyl, Grandmother said. We still love you just the same. We’re only a little farther away. Yellow flower petals appeared in her cupped hands. You haven’t lost us.
She tossed the petals, which whispered softly against her skin. Tears squeezed out of her eyes, and Zazy closed them. When they opened, Grandmother was gone.
Or was she?
In the distance, paws thundered and men shouted. They’d spotted her.
Zazy looked inward, to the memories she never touched. Her mother, her father, aunts, uncles, cousins. Smiling and arguing and loving her as they breathed. Passing her fruit without looking, pouring her favorite tea without asking. Her cousin tossing her on Khoko while her father held off attackers with his worn blue pistol. Aunt Taza slamming the fighters marching through the gates with telepathic blows so Khoko could race by. Her mother watching from the palace walls, distracting any minds who noticed Zazy.
A hand grabbed her arm, yanked her up. Zazy’s eyes flashed open.
The Bloody Eyes had arrived. They watched from their longscales, arranged in a semicircle, trapping her and Khoko against the fortress. The man holding her was the one from the tent. The leader.
Khoko lunged for him, but Zazy wrapped her free arm around his neck, holding him tight.
“Hello again, Highness.” The man’s mental shield radiated strong and firm—she wouldn’t be spinning it again. “Out of tricks?”
Zazy smiled, lips cracking. “Not quite.”
Reaching into her memories, she imagined Aunt Taza standing next to her. She manifested every detail, from her sunset pink hair to her fourteen gold studs to her uneven collarbones. The effort felt good, like the rush of using a healthy muscle.
She remembered how Aunt Taza’s lips twitched before she struck a blow. She remembered how the mental plane rippled, how her opponent’s shield would warp and buckle. She remembered.
Next to her, Aunt Taza’s lips twitched. A tremendous force struck the bandit’s shields. The man reeled backward, releasing Zazy before he keeled over. Blood dribbled from his nostrils.
Zazy turned to the rest of the bandits, who shifted on their longscales. She hadn’t displayed this kind of telepathy last time.
The duelist dismounted, his brows completely studded. He launched his first attack before his boots hit the ground. It glanced off her shield, off the memories Zazy had pulled into a golden wall around her mind. The duelist’s brows rose.
Zazy’s smile widened. She remembered her family members, standing in line with her. Her mother appeared next to Aunt Taza, her father on Zazy’s other side. Cousins and aunts and uncles appeared beside them. She remembered them so well. She remembered their telepathy, too.
Mental attacks rained down on the bandits. Aunt Taza crashed through shields. Zazy’s mother slipped mirages into minds, causing men to duck low or topple over. Uncle Raro sent strikes zinging with so much energy that shields shook themselves apart. Zazy thought back to all the times she’d seen her family practice their telepathy, the moves and countermoves, the lightning-like exchanges. The bandits shouted as they struggled to defend themselves, as they began to fall.
The duelist fought hardest to maintain his mental protections. He sent back blows that could’ve had Zazy throwing herself into the fortress’s walls. But Zazy remembered how Kila would shrug off such attacks. Her cousin stepped forward now, and Zazy heard the echo of her voice as Kila had led her patiently through the motions. Reach forward, hook the blow, and twirl to the side. The duelist’s strikes spun off course and hit other bandits.
Now to return the favor. A twitch of her lips, and Aunt Taza landed a hit so brutal the duelist stumbled. He grunted with the effort of keeping the shield together, but a crack appeared. Zazy pushed her own mind into the crack, bringing the duelist into her reality.
His eyes widened at the sight of the royal family. Zazy grinned and looked to her father. The duelist followed her gaze in time to see her father raise his blue pistol–and fire. The bullet wasn’t a physical one, but the duelist’s mind perceived it nonetheless. He flew backward into his longscale, and his mind blinked out. Not dead, but unconscious, convinced his heart had been pierced.
When all the bandits’ shields had cracked, Zazy remembered her grandmother, and she coalesced beside her, that twinkle in her eye. Gently, Zazy thought. Grandmother had always done things gently. With a flower-petal touch, Grandmother reached into the minds of the Bloody Eyes and pulled out any memory of Zazy. Gather your wounded and go. Do not look back.
The bandits did as ordered, slinging unconscious men over longscale saddles before riding off into the deepening dusk.
Zazy slumped against Khoko, steady at her side. She had not expended that much mental energy in a long while. Yet her shield buzzed stronger than ever, her mind lush with memories of love. Thank you, she said to her family. I’ll see you later.As she let the projections fade, she plodded with Khoko into the abandoned fortress. Sweet dreams, desert.
Author’s Note: “The Desert’s Voice Is Sweet to Hear” has many things that I love to write about: close-knit family dynamics, beloved animal companions, and lush, colorful settings, to name a few. With this story in particular, I wanted to lure readers into a story about a desert that had more to it than hot sun and burning sand. Zazy’s desert boasts vibrant colors, an oceanic history, and creatures that have cleverly adapted to living in a place haunted by an ancient sea monster. If you had the proper tools, Zazy’s desert would be a gorgeous and thrilling place to live. (Please let me know if I succeeded as a tour guide!) My other goal with this story was to cheer myself up. At the time of its writing, I was living away from my family, and I missed them dearly. I wanted to write about the balance between the ache of missing your people and the fierce gladness that comes with having people to miss that much in the first place. To help illustrate that, I borrowed a few techniques from the “Once Upon a December” scene in Anastasia (1997). It’s one of my favorite scenes in any story, with the shimmering ghosts and the transformation of the shabby ballroom back to its former golden glory. I loved doing something similar with the hallucinations of Zazy’s family and their palace. Thank you for reading!
Carolina Valentine has never been lured to her death by any desert. In fact, she’s quite fond of the Arizona desert, with its tangerine-pink sunsets and coyotes who lounge in the yard like bunnies; she has only had to pull cactus prickers out of herself a few times. Carolina writes speculative fiction, usually when she’s supposed to be doing something else. Her work has also appeared in Strange Horizons. Find her on Instagram @valentine.deplume and on Twitter @carolinawrites.
The figure seated on the other side of the plain metal table has a blank look on its face, like its creator gave up halfway through forming its features. It is dressed in an orange jumpsuit, white socks, black slippers. The handcuff that secures it to the table cuts deeply into the waxy pale skin of its wrist.
You’ve handled plenty of robots and AIs, even species whose very existence Deep Thought has classified Top Secret, but a wax man is a first. Still, that’s why you’ve got protocol. You flip open the file. “We have you at the scene of the crime, we found the murder weapon. All we need from you is the names of your co-conspirators.”
The suspect lifts its hands, every movement deliberate and fluid, blood slower than honey. Its left hand jerks to a stop on the end of the handcuff chain and more waxy skin flakes drift onto the table. “You saw somebody who looked like us, perhaps. You have a murder weapon that certainly doesn’t have our fingerprints on it. And we have never conspired with anyone.” When it speaks, a breath of hot air washes over you. You start to sweat. “Also, no one is dead.”
It takes some gall to say that right when you’re laying out the autopsy pictures. The cross-section of the skull is mesmerizing—it’s filled with hexagonal honeycomb cells, some of which are the same pale empty color as its skin, others darkened with the husks of bees that had crawled in and died. With a red pen, you circle the darkest spot on the honeycomb.
“This was the point of death. It’s a hive, isn’t it? And here, at this point, a killer bee got inside, and caused a catastrophic cascade failure of the mind.”
The figure leans forward slightly and looks at the photo with polite interest. It leans back and looks at you. Something with very small, quick wings buzzes past behind its eyes.
Continuing, you say, “That killer bee was fired from this weapon.” Photo of a fat-barrelled pistol. “Just tell me why you did it. Who ordered you? Who hired you?” This is what you need to get out of it. It’s the first time Deep Thought has one of the wax men in custody. They have almost no identifying marks, no fingerprints, and they’ve been linked to four different contract killings. “And why have you murdered one of your own kind?”
“We are not murderers. We are messengers.” A honeybee crawls out of its ear, flits around the room, and lands on its cheek. Crawls back in through its nose. “Our brains are biological cellular automata. Our thoughts are encoded in a three-dimensional binary lattice according to whether or not the honeycomb cell is filled. Thoughts fly from our minds into the heads of our hive-siblings where they dance out their message and affect the inner workings of the recipient’s brain.”
You pause for a minute to absorb the implication. “All right, messengers. So you’ve got to have some kind of a dispatcher. Who is your leader? Who is the queen of the hivemind?”
“There is no leader. We are decentralized. Information spreads equally between us, though at different rates of speed, so we are not always entirely in sync. When one of us acts… out of character… correction is needed. If that one does not respond to the dances—” It indicates the picture of the gun.
“You kill it.”
“We merely destroy the container. We each contribute drones and other thoughts to the restructure. They eat the old waxwork and create a new one. Only the original queen survives, starts to build a new hive within it. That is how we reproduce. In fact,” its eyes defocus, “I’ve just had a new thought. It is almost ready to break free and find its own place to nest.” The persistent sound of buzzing that this whole time you’d thought was the noise of the overhead light increases sharply, and only now can you tell that it’s coming from the creature sitting in front of you.
“But then why kill species that aren’t part of your hive? What happens when….” Suddenly, you have a new thought. A frightening one. “…when you share your thoughts with a human?”
Bees fly from all its orifices and cover your face. You feel them poking at your nostrils and ears. You freeze in your seat, afraid of provoking them to sting you, but that’s not the real threat. They probe deeper and deeper until one of them breaks through the earwax barrier and fills your head with royal jelly dreams.
You have a fat-barrelled gun—the Deep Thought police gave it to you with your badge. The bullet inside it buzzes. You’re standing in the commissioner’s office, and he’s looking up at you from behind his desk with a puzzled look. He chairs the board that drafts all laws governing semi-sentients. He says, “Was there something you wanted?”
You want to share with him the new thought you’d had. All you have to do is release it from its six-chambered cell, and you can change his mind.
Author’s Note: This flash piece came from a combination of: the Biblical story of Samson finding a beehive in a lion’s corpse; the bee-firing rifle from Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles; adipocere (also known as corpse wax, or grave wax); cellular automata; and the idea that if there are laws of robotics, then there must also be law enforcers. This story ties in loosely with another of my flash fictions, “Further Laws of Robotics” in Nature, which introduced the Deep Thought Police.
Josh Pearce has stories and poetry in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Clarkesworld, IGMS, and Nature, and he frequently reviews films for Locus Magazine. Find more of his writing at fictionaljosh.com. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
You left town two months before graduation. It was just before the week of spring break when Kim got the bright idea to go on a road trip. “Everyone else is going to Cabo or Malibu or something! Let’s do something cool!” he had said, vibrating with excitement. “Something we’ll remember when we’re thirty!”
Kim was always having bright ideas. In sophomore year, he’d bought an honest to God stink bomb from the Internet and set it off in the math class hallway. A girl had an asthma attack, and Mr. Allen had to call an ambulance. You brought this up when Kim suggested driving up to Canada from San Diego and back in the span of a week. Kim laughed, and kissed your cheek. He told you that you didn’t need to worry so much about stuff that had happened so long ago. Besides, Evelyn had come back from the hospital with a brand new rescue inhaler.
Of course, once Simon got wind of it a couple days later, he invited himself along. He’d suggested he’d be the “designated driver”, as the only legal adult among you. Secretly, you had been relieved. Simon was a real adult now—he lived in his own dorm and paid his own car payments. He would keep Kim on rails. And it would be nice to see him again. He was always online, but you hadn’t seen him since he graduated. No one had.
You told your mother you were going to drive up to Lake Tahoe that Saturday. You didn’t like lying to your mother; but she always asked so many questions. It was easier to tell her something that wouldn’t make her worry. You’d be back before the week was up, anyway—that was how Kim had put it.
“I wish you wouldn’t spend so much time with him, Natasha,” she had said when you told her where you were going. She had been cleaning the oven grates, and her hand had frozen on the rag with a weary sigh. “He’s going to get you in trouble one of these days.”
You expected that from her. At least she used the right pronouns for Kim and never forgot his name. Kim’s dad wasn’t like that—it was all shes and hers, all cruel comments about his height and his high voice. Your mother hadn’t tried to stop you from leaving, but she cared that you were going. Kim’s dad barely noticed if he didn’t go to school.
The day you left was one of the very last nice days of spring. It had rained the day before, and hazy gray clouds still blanketed the sky. Rain stayed stuck in the air, despite the whipping sea breeze. This was the weather you were born to be in, and you smiled when you got out of bed that morning and packed your backpack with the essentials—kale chips, chickpea puffs, medication, and a week’s worth of clothes. You cracked open the window to get a good whiff of petrichor, only to smell something like distant fireworks and barbecue. It was a little early in the year for that. And there was Simon’s tan Cutlass, creeping up the street.
You tried to channel Kim’s boundless optimism as you swept out of your room, kissing your mother on the cheek as you passed. Your mother was worrying a thumbnail, tearing a pale crescent from it as she watched you. “You’ll call me if you get in trouble. Okay, Natasha?”
“I promise, mom. But I’m not going to get in trouble.” You opened the front door. Kim poked his whole torso out the passenger’s side window and waved to you from the sidewalk. You could see Simon’s profile; his dark hair reaching his shoulders. Up until this moment, you hadn’t been sure. Now, though, so close to them – your heart swells. Just a few feet from freedom!
“Okay. But just in case. I won’t be mad. I promise.”
You didn’t know about that. She usually did get mad. “Okay.”
She leaned forward, awkwardly raising her arms around you before you could turn to leave. “I love you, bubalah. You know that, don’t you?”
You patted her back, nonplussed. “I love you too, mom. Don’t worry, okay?”
Then, she let you go.
“This is gonna be so great, Nat—we’re never gonna forget this as long as we live!” Kim was spilling out of the car, waving to you like a little kid who saw his teacher at the supermarket. He always got like this before a caper.
You never came back to that house.
By Sunday, you know that you should have turned back.
The three of you spend the night in Simon’s ancient Cutlass. None of you have enough money for a hotel. You hadn’t realized when you’d agreed to go with them. Simon rolls down the seats so that you all have room to lay down, but it’s still a cramped midsize shared by three people. Kim and Simon sleep—or seem to sleep—through the night. You lay between them, your arms pinned awkwardly to your sides, staring up at the car’s ceiling. A thick, meaty smell lingers that you can’t place; like some long forgotten ancient school lunch. You don’t sleep. You stare at the cabin light, your legs numb.
You’re a bad sleeper even at home. Everything has to be exactly right, or you won’t sleep. It isn’t optional. On your nightstand you’ve got a desk fan always blowing on you, even in winter. You surround yourself with pillows. You love Kim and Simon—but pillows they’re not.
So you stare at the cabin light, and you wait for the sun to rise.
Why are you there? What are you trying to prove? Why don’t you call your mother?
When Kim finally stirs beside you, you bite your tongue. You have the urge to pour all your questions out on him, make him give you answers. What are we trying to prove?
Kim yawns and rubs his eyes. “Mm. Nat?”
“I dreamed about you.”
He can always fluster you, without even trying. “Oh. Y-yeah? Was it nice?”
“Weird… déjà vu kinda dream. I dreamed you were upset with me. You’re not upset, right? Everything’s okay?”
Your stomach lurches. “Yeah. Everything’s okay, baby. I love you.”
His eyes are still closed, but his face splits into a wide, sleepy smile. “That’s good. I love you too. It was just a dream. S’not real.” He says it like a command.
You leave two little crescents on your bottom lip. “Let’s wake up Simon and get breakfast.”
Kim’s eyes opened. “About that?”
“I’m sorta… short on money for food.”
You sit up. Simon mutters a protest beside you, and rolls over onto his side. “How much money do you have?” you ask, slowly. What you’ve got might stretch, but not far. Not for a whole other person.
Kim ducks down, smiling. You’ve seen him make that smile at teachers hundreds of times. It’d been cute then. “Twenty bucks?”
Twenty dollars to feed him between there and Canada. You stare at him. “We have to go back.”
“No!” He lunged forward, grabbing your arms. “No! We’re not going back. Not until we’ve had a good time. Okay? It’s gonna be fine, okay? I’ve got snacks in my bag. You’ve got snacks in your bag. It’ll all work itself out.”
His grip on your arms hurts.
“It’s just gonna… work itself out?” you repeat.
“It always does!” Like an afterthought, he notices you wincing, and his grip loosens. “You trust me, right? This is what we gotta do.”
Turn back. Turn back.
“We can’t turn back.”
You were never good at saying no to Kim.
You’re at a gas station on Route 66 when it happens the next day.
Simon is gassing up the car. Kim is up front getting the three of you a discount. It isn’t going well. He’s already arguing with the cashier. You’re trying to be careful what you buy. Everything on the shelves looks repellent to you. Plastic within plastic. Neon orange powders. Ancient frosting like a cracked, dry riverbed.
Unbidden, you remember that thing you saw on TikTok that suggested that every human on earth consumes a tablespoon of microplastics in a year. That they don’t just pass through you, but lodge within. They sink into your tissue. They pass the blood-brain barrier. How much plastic is stuck in the meat of your braincase?
Your hand snaps back from the Nature Valley display. You don’t want to even touch these. You’d rather chew off your own leg. You take a deep, deep breath. There’s an acrid stink that makes you think of a rat in a trap, its leg gnawed off and blood oozing from the stump. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. You hold it for four seconds. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Repeat. Repeat. Staying alive will kill you. Repea—
There’s a shattering sound. Glass explodes out, shredding the air, everywhere, shredding you like the microplastics shredding your brain. You’re exploding. One, two, three, four—you register the yells, the man keening in pain. You’re going to die. This is when it happens. You hit the ground; your breath staccato. You knew it was coming. You’ve fucked up this time. You see the gun flash in your mind.
It’s only seconds later that someone has grasped your wrist. At first you push them away, rat brain engaged. But they grab you again, and pull you down the aisle. It’s Kim—Kim is getting you out. Your frazzled senses register, dimly, the missing glass window of the convenience store. All that’s left is ragged glass edges, and a pile of shards on the floor. It looks like it exploded.
The dead rat smell follows you all the way to the car. When you reach it he tosses you inside, then bundles and bundles of bright colors from the crook of his left arm. It’s all things from the convenience store; mountains and mountains of junk food.
“Whoa, whoa! What the hell’s going on?” You can hear Simon’s voice outside.
“Drive! Fucking drive!”
They both hop in, and you’re speeding off down Route 66.
You push the Cheetos off you, and they tumble to the floor. “What just happened?”
Kim slumps forward. “I grabbed some stuff. He wasn’t gonna let me have it all. ‘Cause I didn’t have enough money. He wasn’t listening to me.”
“So— what, you— you shattered the window?” Simon asks.
“NO!” Kim shouts, and you recoil. “I didn’t fucking do anything! It broke on its own! I just— took advantage, okay? Just fucking focus on the road. We needed the food, and he wasn’t gonna give it to us. We’ll never come back here again. It doesn’t matter.”
Nothing Kim says puts you at ease. If anything, your stomach lurches. You wonder if you’re going to throw up. “What if they called the cops?”
“And tell them what? Their window randomly exploded, and some teenagers ran off with a bunch of Pop Tarts? Don’t act stupid, Nat. That’s not a crime. That’s an opportunity. It’s their fault. Shouldn’t have let their window explode!” He barks with laughter, suddenly. “And now we have food!”
And now, you have food. The car goes silent. All that you can hear is the engine. The dead rat smell clings.
Out loud, you begin to speak. “Before it exploded… I thought I smelled this…”
“God, can you just drop it already? Nothing even happened,” Kim snaps.
You sink backwards, falling silent.
He’s angry. But not just that—he’s scared. He’s sick with fear that maybe he made a mistake. But he can’t go back. There’s no “back” to go back to. They have to drive, and never, ever stop. There’s a whole world out there, and he won’t ever see it if they ever go south again.
It feels so normal, to know what Kim knows.
After you’ve driven to the next town over, the three of you make the executive decision to spend money on a hotel room for the night. Simon is exhausted, and all three of you are tense and raw from your flight from the gas station. You’re forced to use the credit card your mother gave you—the one she told you, over and over, was for emergencies only. You think of the line that will pop up on her bill in a month, telling her where you’ve been.
Kim quietly munches on a bag of Cheetos while Simon checks in. You don’t want to touch the food; it’s disgusting, and it’s stolen. So you just sit there, and you wait.
Half an hour slips by. Should this be taking so long?
Kim seems to know what you’re thinking. “Um. Maybe go check on him?”
“Yeah.” You have a feeling you know what happened.
You’re proven right when you see him in the vestibule, standing in the corner, his hands vibrating with anxiety he can’t shake off. You touch your hand to his shoulder, and you feel the anxiety melt off in rivulets. You shouldn’t have made him do this alone.
The price the concierge gives makes your eyes water, but you’d rather sleep in a bed tonight. The next day, you’ll convince Kim the three of you need to turn around. After all, he hasn’t factored in how long it’s going to drive back. That’s what you’ll tell him. If you turn back now, you’ll get home without much fuss. You’ll be able to laugh it all off.
Kim, uncharacteristically, banishes the two of you to the pool after you’ve unloaded what little belongings you have. Arguing seems pointless—and you’d rather leave him be. So that leaves you with Simon, at the pool.
You aren’t usually alone with Simon. He draws his index finger through the water, spawning ripples in the disgusting water.
You remember freshman year, when Simon was a sophomore and when the two of you had pre-calc together. There had been a substitute one day. Simon had a panic attack, and had to stand in the corner of the classroom to get his breathing under control.
The substitute got mad; the other kids laughed. Only you had tried to bring him back to Earth.
Your first panic attack happened when you were seven years old. It had been just a few months after your dad’s funeral, you think. You convinced yourself that you really did need to avoid every crack in the sidewalk; that if you didn’t, your mother’s spine would snap like a piece of balsa wood.
Inevitably, you failed. You didn’t like to think about it. What followed was months of therapy, years of medication and IEPs and daily affirmations that everything was going to be okay that day. When you saw Simon go to pieces, you had wanted to put him back together again—if only to prove to yourself it was possible.
Kim hadn’t been in the same class. He wasn’t especially good at math.
“I wish…” Simon starts.
“… they understood?” you finish, as if his thought was your own. And maybe it is.
“… Yeah. But they never will. It’s why I left school,” he murmurs. “My parents don’t know yet. I just… I can’t. I can’t do it. I feel so alone there.”
“You’re not alone. You have me. And Kim, too. And we’ve got you. And that’s all we need, right?” You don’t know. You don’t know what to say. You want it to be true. Your hands clench into fists. Your nails dig into your palms. It’s all you need.
You imagine kissing him, just then—not just imagine, but vividly conjure it in your mind. You don’t do it, of course. But despite that, Simon spins around and stares at you, like a slapped puppy.
Does he know?
The silence stretches on, filling the space between you and expanding like ballast. Simon stares ahead at the surface of the pool. Minutes drag on. He gets to his feet, and looks away from you. “I’m gonna go back. Check on Kim.”
“I’ll be up in a minute,” you hear yourself saying. “Leave the door unlocked, okay?”
“Okay.” And he’s gone. You stare at the water.
God, how are you going to face him again? How are you going to face Kim, after imagining that? What’s wrong with you? Did you lose your mind?
You take a deep, deep breath—seven in, hold for four, ten out, repeat. Simon wouldn’t say anything to Kim. He’s not like that. You and he will forget it ever happened, and the three of you will continue on. It’ll be okay.
The anxiety leaves your body, inch by inch. Warmth builds inside you—hope? You shift your weight back on your hand, and get to your feet. You can’t forget that tomorrow, you have to explain to Kim that it’s time to go home.
The night is getting hotter as you approach the hotel room. It’s a good thing you’re going inside—you’re ready to strip off your clothes and take an ice-cold shower, and then crawl into bed and forget this whole horrible trip ever happened.
You open the door, and you see it before you see it. You stare at Kim and Simon, their limbs tangled together. You take a step back.
You turn, and you walk away.
All the blood in your body is rushing in your ears, in your throat, in your eyes. You stagger down the wrought iron stairs. Far away, you can hear Kim crying out for you to stop, slow down. You don’t.
You keep walking, toward the road. You stick your thumb out. This time of night, the road is quiet. What few cars are on the road zoom past without noticing you. You can barely make them out through the tears. They’re just blurry red spots, trailing into the night without you.
You scream, and you stomp your feet. You’ve never screamed this loud and this long before. You scream and you scream until the sound shreds your throat on the way out. You scream at every car that passes you by without picking you up. You scream at the empty road ahead of you. You scream at Kim and Simon for putting you on this roadside. You scream until the scream is out of you.
You sink down into the dirt. Seven in, hold for four, ten out. You can’t do it. You keep hiccupping.
You don’t know how long you sit there, in the dirt. Eventually, you hear footsteps behind you, and feel the body flop down behind you. You don’t turn to look. You would know Kim’s steps anywhere.
“Get away from me,” you croak, wiping your nose on your sleeve.
He doesn’t. He sinks down behind you, encircling your waist with his arms. He used to always do that during lunch—tethering you to him, his buoy in the waves.
“I thought you wanted that,” Kim murmurs into your shoulder. “I thought… I felt you wanting it. I don’t know. It was like this… urge that came over me. Like you climbed inside me and started workin’ the controls. Does that make sense?”
Oh, you want so badly to be angry. But it does. You sniff, hard. “I… w-wanted to kiss him. But I’m with you. You’re with me.”
“He’s with us too, Nat. We’re all together. You feel it too, don’t you?”
You stare at the hard dirt. You turn around. “Tell me why we can’t go home. Now.”
Before he can, you see it.
You see Kim standing in his bedroom—your bedroom? You feel the heavy, cool metal in your hand. Is that smell here, too? It’s like fireworks and a fog machine, sickly sweet mixed with ozone. You walk down the hall, backpack on your back. It doesn’t matter. You’re leaving. You’ll never smell this smell again. It’s someone else’s problem, now. The sweet smell overwhelms the kitchen. You approach the lump of meat on the floor, and tuck the pistol into its left hand. You give its side a good, sharp kick. You turn your back, open the front door. You slip outside, making sure to lock it behind you. By the time they find him, you’ll be long gone. They’ll never see you again.
You reel back as you come back to yourself. Your stomach heaves, and suddenly you throw up on the ground ahead of you. Nothing but bile comes up, bitter and burning, the consequences of not eating for two days in a row. Even after, you keep retching. Kim shakes, his shoulders slumping. He lets out a sob. You’re back to now—back to the sand and the heat and the dim stars above. You take him into your arms, and he melts into you.
You know what you have to do. “We’re gonna keep driving.”
The three of you keep driving.
Money disappears fast. Gas isn’t cheap. You have to do things you aren’t proud of.
But together, you can accomplish anything.
This turns out to be more than you thought “anything” could be.
Weeks stretch into months. You start to forget what your childhood bedroom looked like—if it was really yours, or if it was Kim’s, or perhaps Simon’s old dorm. Simon brings you a newspaper one day at some shithole diner with bad coffee and worse eggs. Your faces are in it. The three of you laugh and laugh.
You can see through each other’s eyes sometimes, when you really focus. Finally, you have room to put all those awful feelings that always seemed to be spilling out of you.
At night, the three of you sleep in one bed, limbs tangled together. It’s as close as you can come. This is how the police find you, when they finally catch up to you.
You look up at the police’s flashlight, your six eyes shining in the darkness.
Jenova Edenson is a speculative fiction writer and video game designer in Phoenix, Arizona. She once knew a girl in high school who wanted to go on a road trip across the country during spring break, and she was once a girl in high school with high school friends. She has two cats and zero husbands.
For one thing, it doesn’t work very well. Most of us pretty much get by, but it’s hard to really rely on a human brain, isn’t it? You’re always liable to stumble into some unexpected issue, a difficulty, an “undocumented feature.” Maybe your brain nudges you into unconscious habits, or traps you in strange, interminable loops. There’s no telling what you’ll get, with a human brain.
But the other thing is, interoperability is just terrible.
Whoever designed these things clearly didn’t have communication in mind. Didn’t trouble to put in some sort of sensible protocol for brain-to-brain messaging, or at least transmitting internal state, no. Instead, the best we can manage is for our semi-functional brain to try and translate its semi-functional internal workings into wholly inadequate representations as words and sounds. And then other brains, themselves with all their own issues and idiosyncrasies and incidentally each running on an entirely different operating system, need to translate all that back and try and make some sense out of it.
Honestly, I feel maybe the original plan was to only have one brain, anywhere, ever. Having more than one just wasn’t in the spec; came as a bit of a surprise. Communication? Collaboration? Maintaining some kind of consistency or shared agreement between different brains? Oh, we didn’t plan for any of that. There was only supposed to be one of ‘em.
So what we actually got is that every human brain is like a vast, uncharted jungle. Well, some are jungles; others might be spaceships, or coral reefs, or warehouses. There’s no telling what you’ll get, with a human brain. Most of them have just the one native resident—the one who’s lived there forever, and at least gotten to know the lay of the land. And they can talk to each other, sure, but only by carrier pigeon.
Every person is a kind of pocket universe. Communication is a kind of impossibility. Being understood—being seen—is a kind of miracle.
* * *
Fiction is a form of telepathy, too.
It’s one of the workarounds we’ve found. A way to let somebody inside your head. Or to get inside of somebody else’s.
Our mind to your mind; our thoughts to your thoughts.
Here are four stories imagining those barriers being bent, or broken, or reshaped into something entirely new.
We’re reaching out across the void, all of us. Let’s see where we touch.