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Friday, March 01 2013 @ 12:00 AM EST
For Sabrina, to Her Guys.
Prana floated above the silty ocean bottom, shifting her skin color to match its color and visual texture. She spotted a shrimp scuttling along, but she didn't have time to stop for a snack. Her Teacher had sent for her.
She squeezed through the narrow opening to his cave and looked around. She couldn't see him. But then, she never could. She'd only glimpsed him once, as a flash of movement out of the corner of one eye.
His voice seemed to come from all around. "Good morning, Prana."
"Good morning, Teacher."
"You have proven yourself a worthy student, and I feel that it is time for me to give you your final test."
Fear flashed through her, and Prana fought to control her skin. "I don't know if I'm ready."
Prana shrunk around her cuttle bone and sank toward the floor of the cave. "I'm listening."
"Your final test is to survive a full sun cycle in open water."
Prana's first impulse was to squirt ink at him. Or at least in whatever general direction she guessed he was in. "How will getting eaten help me master my skin?"
"It won't. Staying alive will."
"That is wise. You came to me, Prana. If you wish to take what you've learned and leave, you are free to do so."
Prana remembered that fleeting glimpse of him. She had seen his striped limbs--that was how she was certain he was male. "What if I pass the test?" she asked.
"Then we will be equals."
"Would you mate with me?" Prana asked. Her Teacher was the only male she'd ever encountered who hadn't offered her his spermatophore, and she would gladly accept them.
"I would," he said.
She wanted to give her eggs the best chance she could. "I will try."
Prana floated toward the open water. Her skin rippled blue and green. She imagined herself growing transparent. She imagined a shark crushing her soft body in its jaws, grinding her cuttlebone to powdery fragments.
Schools of fish swam by, and she matched their silver flanks. The sun cycle crawled by. She focused on the tiny variations in the light, and matched them with her skin. The subtle work was draining.
A shark swam by.
It didn't even slow down, and she bobbed in its wake.
The light of the sun cycle finally faded, replaced by the silvery glow of the moon. She matched the patterns in the dark water almost effortlessly.
She floated back to her Teacher's cave. She squeezed inside, and showed him what she'd learned.
His striped arms appeared in front of her, and she reached for him.
Friday, February 01 2013 @ 12:00 AM EST
Ronnie took a deep breath. She reminded herself that she shouldn't be nervous. That Jim was her best friend. And that if she waited, stupid Kristen might ask him first and ruin everything. "So, prom."
Jim nodded. "The very first on Mars."
"Want to go with me?" Ronnie asked.
Jim laughed. "Isn't the guy supposed to ask the girl?"
"Maybe on Earth. This is Mars."
"Well, do you want to go with me or not?"
"Of course I do."
Ronnie grinned. Take that, Kristen.
Jim's mother pulled a box out from under their couch. "Your grandmother sent this from Earth. I gave her your measurements, so it should fit."
Jim pulled the box open and stared down at the fine black material. "What is it?"
"A tuxedo. For you to wear to prom."
"Mom, nobody else is going to be wearing a tuxedo."
"Then you'll look better than everyone else. A black tux never goes out of style. Go on, try it on."
Jim sighed, but figured it'd be best to humor her. He pulled on the black pants, buttoned up the white shirt and red vest, and pulled the jacket on. He grabbed the untied bow tie let his mom deal with. Everything fit. He checked his reflection.
"Huh." He looked pretty good.
He wondered what Ronnie would think.
Ronnie burst into her family's quarters. "Mom!" she shouted.
Her mother poked her head out of the kitchen. "What's wrong, sweetie?"
"Jim's grandma sent him a tux."
"That was sweet of her."
"No it wasn't! It was terrible! Now what am I going to wear?"
She'd been planning on wearing her best dress—the one she wore to greet new people when they arrived on Mars. But Jim had seen her in that dozens of times. She needed something new. Something special.
It was their very first real date, after all.
Her mother tapped her lips. "I see your point."
Ronnie threw herself onto the couch. "This sucks."
"I have an idea." Her mom disappeared into her bedroom and came out few minutes later with a large storage box. "I can make you a new dress. I used to sew my own dresses all of the time."
Hope stirred in Ronnie's chest. "Where will we get the fabric?"
Her mom pulled out a red satin dress trimmed with black ribbon out of the box. "I'll start with this."
Ronnie's hope faded. The dress was tiny. "I wore that when I was five."
"Yes, but the material is still good. I can reuse it."
"I can't wear a mini dress to prom. Dad would flip."
"Go see if anyone else has any old clothes that they wouldn't mind us repurposing."
Two hours and half the station later, Ronnie came back home loaded down with old clothes. She dumped them on the kitchen table. "Will any of this work?"
Her mom combed through the pile. She pulled out one deep red blouse and a black lace skirt. "These might."
Her mother sewed, and she refused to let Ronnie look at her handiwork.
"I want it to be a surprise," she said, closing the door in her face.
"I'd rather have some input!" Ronnie shouted through the door.
"You're just going to have to trust me!"
Jim shifted his corsage from one hand to the other, wiped his palms on his tuxedo pants, and knocked on Ronnie's door. Her dad answered. "Hey, Jim. Come on it. She's almost ready." He crossed his arms over his chest. "She's very... excited about this whole thing." He sighed. "We're very fond of you Jim, and I trust that you won't—disappoint her."
Jim gulped. "I—I wouldn't dream of it, sir."
"Where are my shoes?" Ronnie ran down the stairs. Her hair was pinned up on top of her head and her eyes looked different. Bigger, somehow. And she looked incredible in her dress. It was long, and red, with black lace accents and a black ribbon belt.
"Oh, Jim! You're here!" Ronnie froze on the stairs and blushed. "I didn't realize. Well, what do you think?" She twirled for him. Her long skirt flowed around her ankles, and the back of the dress swooped down to just above her hips.
Jim stared. "You look amazing. Like a princess."
Ronnie's mother came down the stairs. "Oh, look, you even match."
Ronnie grinned at him. "It was meant to be."
Jim held out the box of flowers. "My mom got us roses."
"Here, you wear this one on your wrist, and this one pins to me... somewhere."
"Let me help you with that," Ronnie's mom said.
"No, I can do it." Ronnie stepped close to him. She smelled different—like perfume and hairspray. Her breath was warm on his cheek. He wondered if she could feel his heart beating through his jacket.
Ronnie's mom turned to her dad. "What do you think of the dress?"
"Why doesn't it have a back?"
Ronnie finished pinning the rose to Jim's lapel. "Come on. Let's go."
Jim and Ronnie swayed together in the decorated cafeteria. "Are you having fun?" he asked.
Ronnie nodded. Jim looked so handsome, and she loved dancing. And she had to admit, her mom had done a great job on the dress.
Someone tapped on Ronnie's shoulder, and she looked back. Kristen smiled at her. "Can I cut in?"
Ronnie's stomach dropped. Jim was so polite, and Kristen was his friend. He'd have to dance with her.
But his arms tightened around her. "Sorry, Kristen. We're in the middle of something. Maybe later?"
Kristen blinked, and for a second, guilt warred with the joy in Ronnie's belly. But Kristen just nodded. "Okay. Maybe later."
Jim twined his fingers through Ronnie's. She liked his hands. She liked everything about him.
"What were we in the middle of?" she asked.
He kissed her. His lips were warm, and tasted like fruit punch.
"Oh," Ronnie said, after he pulled away.
"I couldn't let you do that first, too, even if we are on Mars," he said.
Ronnie laid her head on his chest and listened to his heartbeat, and they danced.
Tuesday, January 01 2013 @ 12:00 AM EST
Trina scraped the last can of beans into a pot and lit the sailboat's tiny antique stove. Alan came down the steps and shook his head. "No fish. Again." He sighed. "There should be fish."
He hung his fishing pole on its hook, under one of the harpoons that the ship's former owner had collected.
Trina stirred the beans. "We have to land for supplies."
"Starving might be better," Alan said.
"We can't just give up. What if we're the last ones? Maybe we'll get lucky. Maybe the zombies have moved on. Or eaten each other."
Alan sighed and pushed both hands through his hair. "You're right. I'm sorry."
Trina handed him a spoon, and they ate their beans in silence.
"I'll go get us turned around," Alan said.
Dinner was a can of peas and a chocolate bar that Trina had been saving for a special occasion. They sat on the deck, watching the sunset. It was a beautiful evening.
She ate her chocolate slowly, despite the empty ache in her belly.
"One of us has to stay with the boat," she said.
Alan shook his head. "Hell no. We're not splitting up. We only have one gun."
"You'll sail back out once I'm off, then come back for me when I've got the supplies."
"No. We stick together."
Trina knew he was thinking about his girlfriend--they'd been separated in the first wave, and he'd never seen her again.
Trina had watched her family torn apart. She'd seen her son's broken body stand back up. She thought Alan had it better.
"We have to be smart about this," she said.
"You need someone to watch your back."
"I need a guaranteed escape route."
"Fine. But you're going to stay on the boat. I'll go for supplies," Alan said.
"You're the better sailor." She'd never even been on a sailboat, before the zombies came.
Alan frowned and turned away. "I'm going to fish." He grabbed his pole and thumped over to the starboard bow.
Something slammed against the front of the boat, and the deck rocked beneath their feet. Alan stumbled, started to fall. Trina screamed his name.
A huge shark exploded out of the calm water. It lunged at the edge of the boat, and its huge mouth chewed at the wooden railing. Huge chunks of flesh were missing along its cheeks, exposing jagged rows of teeth that glistened red in the fading light. Its black eyes were dull, and oozing bite marks marred its silvery flank.
Alan threw himself back, away from the shark, and scrambled back to Trina's side. The shark splashed back into the water, then lunged out again. The railing splintered, but held.
Trina ran into the cabin, grabbed the gun, and sprinted back up the stairs.
The shark fell back into the water, and Trina waited for it to try again.
Instead, the deck shuddered under her feet. Wood creaked and groaned. "Can it break through the hull?" she asked.
"I don't know. I have no idea how much of this the ship can take," Alan said. "We need to outrun it. I hope we're faster than it, at least over distance. I'll adjust the sails."
Trina thought of him scrambling around on the deck, his eyes on the sails, exposed. She imagined him losing his footing, falling straight into the shark's waiting jaws. "Wait. I can do it."
He shook his head. "I'm the better sailor."
The pounding stopped as they picked up speed.
They sailed all night. They stayed as far away from the railings as possible, and neither of them slept. Trina kept the gun on her person. Alan grabbed a harpoon and strapped a second one to his back.
They caught sight of land as the sun rose behind them.
Trina looked back as Alan slowed the boat and scanned the shore. A flicker of motion caught her eye, and she watched in horror as a fin emerged from the water. "Alan! It followed us!" she shouted. She pulled the gun to her shoulder.
The shark swam toward them. Trina could see its huge, battered body through the clear water, then it was flying through the air, straight at Alan.
She didn't know where its brain was.
Alan spun, his harpoon braced in front of him.
The shark landed on the point with a wet thunk. Alan went sprawling, but he managed to keep the harpoon between his flesh and the shark's snapping jaws.
Trina aimed at one of its eyes.
Its tail slammed into her stomach, and she dropped the gun. A bullet bit uselessly into the shark's flank. It rolled from the impact, and the deck tilted. Trina grabbed the splintered railing to keep from falling into the shark, and the gun slid under its writhing body.
"Shoot it!" Alan screamed.
She couldn't get to the gun. But she could get to Alan. She ducked under the thrashing tail and pulled the extra harpoon off of Alan's back.
The shark smelled like seawater and decay.
She thrust the harpoon into its dead black eye with all of her strength.
It went limp.
Alan pulled himself from under it. He examined himself--he was covered in dark, angry bruises and bleeding from a dozen scratches, but there were no bite marks. "You--you saved us. Thank you." He ran his hands over his legs. "Are you okay?"
Trina nodded. Her stomach hurt, but it was bearable. "How are you?"
Alan pulled himself to his feet. "Surprised and relieved, I guess. Tired. Hungry. I guess we'd better put in so you can get the supplies."
Trina nodded. "You're okay with me going, now?"
He shrugged. "You killed a zombie shark with a harpoon. If that's not a sign that you can take care of yourself, I don't know what is."
Trina helped sail to shore. "I'll be back. I promise."
Alan kissed her cheek. "Be careful." He handed her a harpoon.
She watched him sail out toward the rising sun, then turned inland. She had work to do.
Saturday, December 01 2012 @ 12:00 AM EST
Angry, frozen snowflakes hissed against Derrick's window. Cold seeped through cracks in his Dad's stupid, sagging house and gathered around his ankles.
He pulled his afghan off the bed and pulled it to his chin. The scratchy yarn smelled like gingerbread and sage incense. Like Mom. Like home.
It masked the sawdust and paint smell of Dad's house and helped him to forget that this was the worst Christmas ever.
At least Santa should be able to find him here. That's why Mom had left him when she went away with Uncle Marty. She called every night, and Derrick tried to pretend he was happy. He tried not to feel a spiteful spike of happiness at the guilt in her voice. He tried to forget that none of his friends believed in Santa.
A dull red glow grew in the swirling snow.
"Rudolph!" Derrick whispered, his doubts forgotten. The light grew closer, brighter. He could almost see reindeer shapes. Was that shadow the sleigh?
The wind screamed, pushing the glow away, buffeting it down. The scream stretched, and the glow faltered, then flickered.
Derrick cried out, but his voice was lost beneath the wind's cruel laugh. He gathered his afghan around his shoulders, ran down the unfinished stairs, shoved his feet into his boots, and ran out into the storm.
He saw a glimmer of red, and pushed toward it.
Snow pelted his face, clung to his eyelashes, and weighted down his boots. The wind pushed him back and howled. It was a rough, animal sound, but Derrick heard words in it. "Unwanted. Unloved. Burden."
He pushed toward the glow.
He heard a wet coughing, then he found them.
The red light from Rudolph's nose cast hellish shadows over the crumpled reindeer bodies. The sleigh was already half buried, and presents lay scattered about, their glittering paper torn and wet, their ribbons crooked, their corners crushed.
Santa slumped in the sleigh. His blood was black in the red light, and it stained his beard and the white fur trim of his suit. Derrick rushed to his side and shook him. His skin was cold. "Santa, wake up!"
Santa's eyes opened, focused. "Hello, Derrick," he said, his voice ragged and thick. "You should get back inside."
"I want to help."
Santa shook his head. "The cost is too great."
Tears burned down Derrick's cheeks. He could never help. He remembered holding his parents hands, trying to pull them back together.
The wind laughed.
"Please," Derrick said. "Let me help. I can do it."
The wind cackled and swirled around him, covering him in stinging snow. Ice crackled across his eyes, and he saw his mother.
She laughed and ran into the bright blue ocean. Uncle Marty followed, and they kissed.
Derrick wanted to look away, but he couldn't.
"I wish we could stay here forever," his mother said.
"We could, you know," Uncle Marty said. "I can work from anywhere."
Derrick's mother shook her head. "I can't."
"You know why."
Uncle Marty kissed her again. "The kid would be fine without you. Why not live for yourself for a while?"
His mother shook her head. Derrick waited for her to get mad, to tell him that she'd never leave her son--that she didn't want to leave him, that he wasn't a burden. "I never even wanted kids," she whispered.
The ice on Derrick's eyes shattered, and he fell to his knees. The wind whispered one last word in his ear, then faded. The sky cleared.
Santa stood before him, his face sad and his beard whiter than the glistening snow. "Thank you, Derrick." He handed Derrick a present. "I hope this helps."
Then he was gone, and Derrick was alone with his tiny present. Penguins danced on the wrapping paper. He wanted to throw it into a snowbank.
He wiped his aching eyes and opened it.
Another vision appeared before him. His father, holding him as a baby, cooing. Then his father standing in a store dithering between two small bikes. The blue one had been Derrick's favorite birthday present ever.
His father, sitting in his new house alone, holding Derrick's old baseball glove and crying.
Then his mother, on the beach. "But I can't imagine my life without him, now. I couldn't leave him."
The vision faded as Derrick's father ran through the snow. He still smelled like sawdust and paint. "What the hell are you doing out here?"
"I was looking for Christmas," Derrick said. He took his father's warm hand between his.
His dad stared at Derrick for a long moment, then picked him up, even though he was really too big to carry anymore. "Did you find it?"
He smiled up at his Dad and breathed in the scent of home. "I think so."
Thursday, November 01 2012 @ 12:00 AM EDT
The adults all succumb to the sleep at the same time. Our parents slump, boneless, to the floor. Teachers sag onto their desks, cashiers fall next to their registers, bike couriers tumble sideways and roll. The smallest children sleep as well. Babies curl on their mothers' breasts, soft and warm and quiet.
We shake them. We scream. We cry. They do not wake, do not stir. Their injuries heal quickly.
We pour careful sips of water down still throats, but they do not seem to need it. We cannot feed them, but they do not grow thin. Their chests rise and fall. We drag them to hospitals, roll them to prevent bedsores that never threaten to form.
We do not know what else to do.
We turn to the internet.
The sleep is global, as far as we can tell. We begin to worry about the others—the ones without canned food lined on shelf after shelf. We find pilots among our oldest, with fresh licenses and butterfly-filled stomachs. We fly planes around the world to share cell phones that we dig from adult pockets.
Our numbers swell.
One of us blames a rival nation—he claims their adults are faking sleep. He threatens violence. Then his voice falls silent. The sleep takes him. Some of us feel fear, others hope and relief.
We put him in a hospital bed with the others.
We distribute food as evenly as we can. Our systems grow streamlined, efficient. Our supplies do not dwindle. It is suspiciously easy.
We debate on what is happening. Our phones never lose power, the internet never falters. We no longer get sick. Our adults do not wake.
We wonder who is really asleep—are we the ones dreaming?
Some of us become farmers, and dirt darkens our fingernails. Others are pilots, boat captains, teachers, artists. We all vote when choices must be made. We all communicate with each other. Our voices are all equal. We are proud of ourselves.
Some of us hope this is some kind of test—that we will pass it eventually. Some blame aliens, others God. Others are thankful and try to live in the series of peaceful moments, without too much worry for the future.
We feed ourselves, we live our lives.
Time passes. The sleeping do not age. We fall in love. We start families. A few of us look older than our mothers.
Some of us still cry for them. Some of us don't.
We wait, and work to understand.
We wait, and watch for signs of waking.
We wait, and we hope.
Monday, October 01 2012 @ 12:00 AM EDT
Stanley initiated a standard scan and watched the numbers scroll across his screen. "That's not right," he muttered. He stopped the test and restarted it. He stared at the image on the screen. His mind drifted. He reached forward, and jumped when his fingers hit smooth plastic.
He shook himself.
"Captain, I'm getting abnormal readings," Stanley said. "These are not indicative of a black hole at all."
The captain glanced over. "What are they indicative of?"
Stanley tapped his screen and scowled. "I have no idea, ma'am."
"Let's send a probe."
The probe passed what appeared to be an event horizon and continued toward the anomaly. Its readings cut off just before it made contact. Its readings matched Stanley's, but didn't offer any additional insight.
"This is all very unusual," the first officer muttered. "We've never seen—"
The ship lurched forward violently.
"Diane! What are you doing?" the first officer shouted at the pilot.
The pilot shook herself, then yelped and pulled her hand off of the accelerator. "I don't know what happened," she said. "My hand must have slipped."
"It was a poorly timed slip," the captain said, her voice grim. "We've passed the event horizon."
The shift changed, and Stanley went to his quarters while the senior staff wrestled with saving their lives.
He felt odd. A strange anticipation danced in his belly. He remembered his strange spell earlier, wondered if the pilot, Diane, had felt something similar.
He went to bed, and dreamed of white creatures that skittered on their bellies, and of a dark, all-seeing lord.
It was an oddly pleasant dream.
The ship continued to fall toward the anomaly. Stanley fought against excitement swirling in his belly. He shouldn't be excited. He should be terrified.
But the excitement wouldn't go away. He felt giddy—couldn't concentrate. He fought to keep his hands away from his instruments—he didn't trust them anymore.
He noticed that Diane was actually sitting on her hands.
The head engineer finished tapping something into the computer. "Okay, captain, the engines are ready. This should work."
"Let's get out of here," the captain said.
The engineer pushed a final button.
Stanly and Diane were both touching their screens.
The rest of the bridge crew stared at them. Both stepped back. Diane started crying. "I don't know what happened!"
Stanly didn't remember moving his hands. He had no idea what he'd done. "I—I think we should be locked up," he said.
The first officer nodded to the security officers. "I agree."
Stanley buried his face in his hands. Diane was still crying. He searched his mind for what he'd done, but his memory was blank.
He should be feeling shame. He should be horrified that something had gotten into his body and moved him like a puppet. He should be afraid for his life.
Instead, all he felt was that same, mounting excitement.
He wondered if Diane's tears were real.
As they fell, gravity grew. Whatever the anomaly was, it had incredible mass, and moving became more and more difficult. Stanley was pinned to his cot in the brig, like a bug on a corkboard. He wondered how long until he was crushed.
He still wasn't afraid.
They hit the anomaly with a dull thunk that reverberated through the whole ship. The lights sputtered and died. Dim emergency lights pulsed, giving eerie, displaced flashes of vision.
Stanley understood how he needed to move. Rolling was hard, but then he landed on the floor. His wrists and ankles were wrong when he looked at them, so he turned his eyes away. The lights pulsed, and he saw that Diane was on the floor, too. Her hands and feet were all flat on the floor.
"There's something wrong with us," she said. But there was joy in her voice.
Stanley skittered forward. The energy field that held them in their cells had failed. Life support would soon follow. His elbows and knees burned at first, then the sensation faded. "Our master is waiting," he said. He didn't know where the words came from, but they were true.
Diane grinned. "Our master," she repeated, savoring the words. "Yes."
The lifts weren't working, but they wrenched the doors open and scrambled up the elevator shaft. They slipped into the bridge.
The lights pulsed, and he saw that the others were pinned to their seats, or on the floor where they'd fallen. The captain tried to lift her head. "What are you doing?" she asked. Her voice was weak—the gravity would soon be too much for her lungs.
"We must feed," Diane said.
Revulsion spiked through Stanley's gut, followed by glee. She was right. They needed to feed, so that their master could feed. So that he could escape the prison he'd been locked in for so long.
Diane skittered over to the first officer. He managed to cry out as she sank her teeth into his leg. But he could not thrash, could not fight her.
Stanley went to the captain. The terror in her eyes didn't please Stanley. But his master hungered.
He started at the captain's throat. There was no reason not to make it quick—she'd always been a strong leader, and a kind woman.
Her blood was hot on Stanley's tongue. It slid down his throat like water.
His master needed more.
But there were enough people on board. They would feast, and then their master would gather them to himself and fly through the stars, looking for new prey.
Diane cackled with joy, and Stanley joined in.
Saturday, September 01 2012 @ 12:00 AM EDT
For Dylan, Kiefer and Lleyton
I spun in a fast, uncontrolled circle, my mouth guard half-out, my visor cracked, and my own blood floating in front of me in a spray of perfectly round orbs.
Gloved hands pulled the heavy, black rubber ball out of my grip, and the other player pushed off of me, turning my spin into a plummet, straight toward the curved ice wall.
I blinked away the haze and disorientation that follows any good hit, and the roar of the crowd—piped in from stadiums across the galaxy where fans watched us on screens taller than houses—hit my ears like a hammer.
They were chanting my name.
I kicked hard, reigniting the rockets on my skates. It would be too late to avoid colliding with the wall, but maybe I could keep from breaking my legs.
I hit with a crunch, and impact screamed up my bones. My skates shrieked across the ice. I pushed off, aimed directly back toward the action. My knees would punish me later, but the crowd loved it.
My uniform had sealed over the worst of the slash across my shoulder, but my forehead was still leaking blood in a trail of red blobs. The crowd loved that, too.
I was moving fast—faster than was safe, faster than most players could manage. I stripped the ball from the desperately thin, clumsy-handed rookie who'd stolen it from me, turned in midflight—a move no fresh-from-planetside twerp would dare—and raced back toward the other team's goalie.
Amanda Burgess glared up at me. She was one of the only players who'd been up here longer than me. She was good. A grin stretched across my face. I'd left the rest of both of our teams behind. It was between her and me.
She grinned back. Like a wolf. Or a shark. I feinted left, moved right, kicked my left leg to flare its rocket to full power, and spun around her. Pain flared in my injured shoulder. Amanda slammed into me, but it was too late. The ball was away, flying straight toward the hoop that she'd been guarding.
She swore, and I whooped in triumph as the ball sailed straight through. The lights flashed, then went out. The crowd was cut off in mid-roar. We floated in perfect darkness, perfect silence. Till Amanda muttered, "Nice shot, Perez. But you know, that kid's probably gonna starve, now."
The team nurse scowled as she sewed me up. "Two inches to the right, and you'd have bled out in there."
I shrugged, and she growled at me to keep still. Two inches wasn't the closest it'd ever been.
I tried not to see the rookie's face behind my eyelids. Where did Amanda get off, spouting crap like that?
The nurse washed and bandaged my forehead.
And where did I get off, feeling sympathy for the kid? He'd almost killed me out there.
I'd come up here over a decade ago, an undercover reporter looking for an exposé about the dangers of extreme space-based sport. And I'd fallen in love with it. Sure, things were crooked. If you didn't win, didn't get the fans' notice, you had a hard time getting access to medical aid, decent equipment, and food.
But I almost always won, even in the beginning. I'd never been as hungry as the kid looked.
The perks of being a star are nice. Private room in the spinning section, private shower that never runs out of hot water. Millions of adoring fans, plenty of them women willing to pay to hook up with me on virtual. One even came to visit once, for the "full zero-G experience."
But that's not why I stayed, why I dropped contact with my editor and my family.
I stayed for the game.
I'd never felt alive, living the life I left behind. That life had been about striving—always reaching for the dreams that stayed just out of reach. Here, on the station—and in the game—I do what I want. Take the things I want. And I keep them. Because I can.
"Sooner or later, this game is going to kill you," the nurse said. "You know that, right?"
I nodded. Of course I knew. It killed all of us, eventually.
But it was better than retiring.
I sent the losing team food. Dehydrated shit, nothing great. I could have afforded better. But doing it made me feel good.
Amanda came to my door the next day. She looked strange without her uniform and pads. I wondered if she had as many scars as I did.
"That was unexpected," she said.
I shrugged. "They'll still die if they can't make it on their own."
She shrugged. "Still, it was good of you. A kindness. I wanted to say thanks. Most of them are sweet kids."
"Why not thank me by doing it yourself next time? I'm sure you can afford it."
She laughed. "I can afford better. And you could have, too."
I shrugged. "Don't want to spoil them."
She nodded, slowly. "Maybe I will. Maybe it'll be your team, next time."
"Want to come in?" I asked. "Have a drink or two?"
She looked startled for a second, then her shark grin spread across her face. "Sure. Why not?"
I led her inside. Maybe we'd end up comparing scars.
It was nice to win without anyone else losing.
Wednesday, August 01 2012 @ 12:00 AM EDT
For Daksha and Eesha
Maya clutched her father's hand as he wandered through the fair. New sights, sounds, and smells bombarded her. The scents of fried dough, powdered sugar, hot sausage, and cotton candy warred with manure, sweat, and machine oil. All around, people barked about games, shrieked on rides, and greeted one another in booming voices. The carnival rides creaked and groaned. When she could see past the sea of legs around her, she caught glimpses of bright plastic jewelry, discarded food, painted trailers, and stuffed animals.
Her father's hand was the only thing that seemed real.
Then, she saw the ducks.
Tiny plastic ducks bobbed around a watery track. A pale young woman with too-black hair and crooked teeth beckoned Maya over. "Come play the Duck Game!" she called. "Everyone's a winner!"
Maya tugged on her father's hands. "I want to play with the ducks!" she said.
He smiled down at her and let her drag him over. He peeled limp dollar bills out of his wallet and passed them to the Duck Girl.
Maya stared at the ducks as they floated by. They came in more colors than she'd expected—yellow, red, blue, green, and purple ducks competed for her attention.
It was important to pick the right one.
Finally, her hand darted forward, and she snatched a green duck. She held it between her hands and kissed its bright orange bill.
"Maya," her father said, his voice full of warning.
Maya ignored him. The hard plastic softened under her fingers, transforming to downy green feathers. Its tiny feet kicked, and its tiny heart fluttered.
The Duck Girl held out a small stuffed animal. "Here's your prize!" she said.
Maya ignored her. She had to focus on her duck, or something might go wrong.
"Stop it, Maya," her father said.
Maya's duck quacked, and Maya laughed. The Duck Girl stared. She reached out and touched the green duckling's bill. It snapped at her.
"Be nice, Ducky," Maya whispered.
Maya's father gripped her shoulder. He was ready to run if the Duck Girl started screaming.
Maya didn't think she would.
The Duck Girl stared at the duck for another long moment. Maya's father stood very still.
Then, the Duck Girl pulled another stuffed animal—a pink unicorn—from the shelf behind her. "Can you—can you do that again?" she asked.
Maya's father frowned at both of them. Maya gave him her best pleading expression. The Duck Girl's eyes darted between them. "Please?" she said.
Maya's father sighed. "Don't tell anyone where you got it."
The Duck Girl squealed in delight. Maya's father took her duckling from her, gently, and let Maya take the unicorn.
Changing it was easier—it wasn't made of plastic.
When she was done, the Duck Girl handed her the first stuffed animal. It was a tiny bear wearing a black bow tie. "This is yours," she said, her voice soft. "Everyone's a winner."
Maya's father picked her up. "We should go," he said.
Maya waved at the Duck Girl.
The Duck Girl held her tiny unicorn close to her chest, and waved back.
Sunday, July 15 2012 @ 12:00 AM EDT
Talia picked her way through the shattered revolving door. Singed bills fluttered in the pre-storm breeze as she ducked beneath police tape and took in the scene.
The bomb had taken out the vault door and blown half the back wall away.
It was impressive work.
She weaved between uniforms until she spotted Detective Summers kneeling next to one of the still-smoking bodies.
Summers looked up from the corpse and their eyes met.
Talia could read Summers' slightest reactions--one of her implants translated microexpressions. Surprise, followed by hurt, then relief flashed across Summers face.
The relief was a surprise.
Things must be bad.
Summers stood and walked over. "What are you doing here?"
No smile, no secret welcome wink. And her voice sent a spike of longing through her heart. Talia was glad that Summers didn't go for implants. She crossed her arms. "I heard the explosion. Thought maybe I could help."
Summers shrugged. "Bank job gone bad. Not your normal gig."
Talia's normal gig was cheating spouses. But she'd helped out on dozens of cases. Before.
Summers' cell phone buzzed, and she pulled it out of her pocket. "I should take this."
Talia's phone was wired into her skull. So was her signal interceptor.
She hesitated for a second, then hacked into Summers' feed. It was simple. She'd told Summers to update her hardware a million times.
"But we've had these tickets for weeks!"
An unfamiliar female voice. Unwelcome jealousy curled in Talia's belly.
"I warned you about making plans." Summers was using her placating tone. Soft. Loving. Wrenchingly familiar.
She'd moved on.
Which, Talia reminded herself, was what she wanted. She tuned the call out, downloaded the surveillance video, and turned back to the crime scene. She scanned for things that unaugmented eyes might miss. She scanned the blast pattern, the floating bills, the mop abandoned in a spreading pool of tepid water.
The pieces fell into place.
After a few minutes, Summers wandered back over. "See anything?"
Talia shrugged. "Seems simple enough."
"My boys think they were set to blow the safe, got suspicious of each other, started shooting, and lost track of time."
Talia arched an eyebrow. "Do you buy that?"
"No. And neither do you. No one just forgot about a bomb. And the surveillance feeds cut out too conveniently."
A year ago, Summers would have needed Talia to tell her that.
"What's your theory, then?" Talia asked.
Summers shrugged. "Don't have one yet."
"You'll get there," Talia said. She walked out of the bank.
Summers didn't call her back.
It started to rain.
She stood on a bridge, her face bare to the thunderstorm. The swollen, gray river rolled on under her feet.
She didn't know why she'd gone to the bank in the first place. She'd called things off. She didn't want to be tied down. Didn't want to be needed.
She didn't know what she wanted.
Summers approached, wrapped in a sensible coat and clutching a bright red umbrella.
She stood shoulder to shoulder with Talia. Rain drummed on the umbrella.
Talia missed the rain on her face, but the feel of Summers shoulder against hers was worth it.
"Tell me what happened," Summers said.
"You'll figure it out. Maybe you have already."
Summers' shoulder shifted in a shrug. "Maybe. Tell me anyway."
"Your corpses didn't know about the bomb. Someone else planted it. It was in the wall. Buried deep. Whoever planted that bomb--that's who cut the vid feeds, tricked the robbers into turning on each other, and took your missing money."
"How did you know about the money?"
It was Talia's turn to shrug. "You're looking for the janitor. Used to work nights, got promoted to dayshift. Got the money out in a bucket."
They stood together for a while, listening to the rain.
"It's not serious," Summers said.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Summers laughed. "Why do you think I keep that old phone?"
"You knew I'd listen."
Talia's heart ached. "You're better off without me."
Rain fell. Cars hissed by.
"Maybe someday I'll get tired of waiting for you." Summers pulled a second umbrella out of her pocked and pressed the first into Talia's hand. "Or maybe someday you'll have enough sense to come in out of the rain."
Summers walked away.
Talia stayed and watched the river rolling by.
Sunday, July 01 2012 @ 12:00 AM EDT
Sosondowah stood by the entrance to the Goddess of Dawn's lodge and kept watch. He watched the stars wheel overhead. He watched the owls fly silently through the night air. He watched for foes that he knew would never come. The only thing he truly guarded was Dawn's vanity.
But she was as powerful as she was vain, and his punishment would be severe if he displeased her.
He watched as a woman crept out of her longhouse and slipped through the forest.
His attention sharpened.
The woman stopped in a clearing. She glanced around, making certain that she was alone. Then she started to sing in a voice so pure it reached the heavens.
She turned her face to the moonlight. Her voice held Sosondowah's heart, and her beauty pierced it. Then her song faltered. She looked around again. "Hello?" She glanced around again, then up at the sky, once. She rubbed her arms, as if chilled, then hurried back to her home.
Gendewitha and her sisters helped their mother plant corn. Spring birds flitted from tree to tree, singing their sweet songs. Gendewitha tried not to envy them as she trudged through the field.
At least the feeling of being watched had finally passed.
A bluebird landed on her arm, and she dropped her bag of corn. The bird stared at her, its black eyes uncommonly intense. It sang a few notes, then flew away.
Gendewitha stared after it. How did it know her song? Who had been watching her last night?
Sosondowah stood at his post. He hoped that his turmoil didn't show on his face. Spring had stretched into summer, and he had only dared to slip away once. At least he had managed to overhear her name.
He watched Gendewitha whenever he could, but he longed to do more. He wanted to speak with her, to woo her, to marry her. If anyone had tried to invade Dawn's lodge while she was within view, he would never have noticed them.
Dawn was within now, asleep. She could wake at any moment. But she usually slept through the day.
Gendewitha was alone, fetching water for their crops.
He couldn't wait any longer. He transformed into a blackbird and flew to her.
A blackbird landed on Gendewitha's water pot and stared at her with the same intense eyes that the bluebird had. Shivers ran down her spine. "What are you?" she whispered.
In response, the blackbird sang her a song.
It was the song she sang to the moon, subtly altered, edged with longing and magic.
Then the bird flew away.
"Wait!" she reached out for its black wing, but it was gone.
She stood in the moonlight for a long time before she sang that night. But when she sang, she sang the bird's song.
Sosondowah could hear Dawn tossing and turning inside her lodge, but he couldn't wait any longer. Summer had deepened to autumn. Gendewitha still sang his song every night, but by day her father was entertaining suitors for her hand.
If he didn't act now, he might lose her forever. With one final glance back, he transformed into a hawk and flew down to her.
Gendewitha stood next to her father, looking modestly at the ground while men argued about her worth. She fought against resentment--against a feeling that something greater was being stolen from her.
Where was her bird? She could still sense him watching her while she sang--why didn't he come to her?
Then she heard wingbeats, and great talons wrapped around her arms and lifted her into the air.
She looked up at the giant hawk, and it looked back at her with intense black eyes.
Joy spiked through Gendewitha's heart, and she sang.
Sosondowah landed outside of Dawn's lodge and transformed into his true shape. "I am Sosondowah," he said.
Gendewitha's eyes widened--she recognized the name. "Why have you brought me here?" she asked.
"I would wed you, if you would have me," he said.
She looked him up and down, then nodded. "I would."
Dawn swept out of her lodge, her eyes dark with rage. "How dare you!" She slapped Sosondowah hard across the face, knocking him off of his feet. A great weight pinned him down.
She turned to Gendewitha. "You do not belong here, woman."
Gendewitha raised her chin. "Perhaps not. But I was invited."
Sosondowah struggled against Dawn's hold. He had to protect Gendewitha.
A slow smile spread across Dawn's face. "I suppose you were. But inviting you was not his place. It is mine."
She grabbed Gendewitha's arm. Pure white light spread from her hand, turning skin and flesh to shimmering fire. Gendewitha screamed as Dawn transformed her into a star. "It would be rude to turn you away," Dawn said.
Dawn threw Gendewitha high into the eastern sky. The new star flew away, growing smaller and smaller, until she was a twinkling point of light. For a moment, she hung high overhead. Then she fell. Sosondowah screamed her name, and she froze just above the horizon.
"She will herald my approach, be my Dawn Star." Dawn smirked at Sosondowah. "And you will forever be able to watch her without having her."
Dawn let him go and reentered her lodge.
Sosondowah stared at the door for a long moment, then at the bright star in the east. He imagined watching her for the rest of time. He wondered if she could see him, if stars could yearn for their lover or cry from loneliness.
He wondered if she could still sing.
He transformed into his hawk shape. He made his wings wide, for his journey would be long. He darkened his feathers, to hide better from Dawn, and grew his downy layer thick, for the space between stars was colder than any winter.
He left Dawn's door unguarded, and flew into the sky.
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