The Machine

The Machine shone irritatingly from the garden.  The morning rays glinted off its copper and glass surface like a second sun, sending beams of light to swirl and dance across the far wall of the library.

“Draw the curtains, will you, darling?” the elderly woman said as she dramatically draped her arm across her eyes, sinking further into her plush chair.  “I cannot abide that monstrosity out there.”

From the corner, her husband gave a sympathetic smile and set his beaker down.

“Come now, my dear, come now,” he said as he shuffled across the room.  He had the air of one always on the verge of laughter, even when speaking of the most serious of matters.  He took his wife’s hand and patted it gently.  “The Machine is just doing its job.  No need for such distress.”

“Oh, Maltricus,” she bemoaned, “why must we bear it?”

“Drink your tea,” he encouraged, picking up the cup and saucer from the side table.  “You’ll feel better once you’ve had your tea.”

She waved the offering away and turned her eyes to the far wall, her voice taking on a far-off quality.  “I do not want tea; I want to be free of this place.”

He set the cup down again.  “In time, my dear.  In time.  Do you want to know what I am working on?  Would you like to see it?”  His eyes glinted excitement, the little wrinkles at their edges growing deeper.  Though his wife gave him no reply, he shuffled back to his desk again.

“This,” he said, bending over to gaze at the liquid inside his beaker which caught the light and set it to sparkle, “this will do the trick, I think.  Yes, I think it will.”

His wife gave a greatly exaggerated sigh.

“I have bridged the gap, you see?  Between the physical reality we live in and the quantum reality that hides beneath.”  He used his hands to illustrate, holding one over the other, about an inch apart. 

“There are all these realities, all around and under and over and beside us.  We cannot perceive them, generally.  But this…” he gave a giggle as he swirled the liquid around inside the glass. “this is the bridge.  Quite clever, don’t you think, Pari?”

She slowly rolled her head back the other direction and reached for her tea, having never understood anything her husband said.  He fussed and fiddled with his machines and his formulas, rambling on and on whether she answered him or not.

“Come, come,” he said, waving her over.  “Come and watch. You’ll see, you’ll see!”

Despite his supplications, he did not seem to even notice that she did not relent.  Instead she sipped her previously unwanted tea and made sure to give occasional tragic sighs.  He turned to open the window which overhung the Machine.

“Now, what I’ll do is- yes, what I’ll do, is pour this solution into the Machine-“

His wife began to hum to drown out his voice.  She was still humming as the Machine blew up, sending bits of her husband to swirl and dance across the walls.  She set down the teacup and rang the bell until her husband’s assistant arrived.

“Be a darling, mon cher, and fetch Maltricus’ next incarnation.  The Machine has blown him up again.”

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Neutral Giedian Solar Republic

The humanitarian effort on Cygnus Minor seemed to lose more ground every day.  Factions had risen out of the refugees there, possibly through deliberate efforts of one side or the other in the Trans-Galactic War in an attempt to draw Neutral Giedian Solar Republic into the fight or otherwise destabilize their footing in the sector.

Though only three planets, Giedia Prime, Geidia Proxima, and the latest to be colonized Cygnus Minor, NGSR held considerable political sway and controlled some very rich resources.  Cygnus Minor was mostly populated by refugees from the Trans-Galactic War which was now entering its hundredth year, and seemed to draw more and more planets in as it went.

Despite not being part of the voting membership of the NGSR, nor having a great amount of valuable resources on planet, Cygnus Minor was still a prime target both for terrorist activities and as a base for possible attacks against either of the main Giedia planets.  Both of which were of great concern to the paramilitary humanitarian corps stationed in the Northern hemisphere, where most of the attacks were concentrated.

Sergeant Kebede bent over the body of one of the latest victims, a woman.  She closed her hand around a stone pendant at her neck, and though the symbol was faded and half obscured by dirt and blood, she had known what it was the moment her eyes fell on it.  A symbol of protection from another country on another planet, and one she had first seen almost twenty years ago.  It now threatened to send her falling into memories of the past, but her moment of reverie was broken by the sound of a baby’s cry.  She moved around the toppled cart to find the babe among soft blankets, frightened but no apparent injuries as she lifted it into her arms.

It continued to cry until she started to rock back and forth, bouncing gently.  She pulled one glove off with her teeth and rested her hand on its body.  A tiny hand wrapped around her finger, pulling it into its mouth like a pacifier.

Looking back at the broken bodies around the cart, likely the parents, she ordered her squad to collect them.  They would need genetic ID to ensure the child belonged to the deceased. Protocol required it for proper disposition of those displaced and orphaned, as children this young had often not been officially identified by the government, though the parents almost certainly would have been.

That meant the bodies would not be collected and put into cold storage with the others from the attack, likely not to be identified for up to a year with the current back-log.  Instead they would have to be logged, stored, and tracked separately.  Because of that it was a protocol generally ignored in the field, but she insisted, ignoring the few protests.

With too much work left to be done, she could not devote any time to the child yet, instead giving it over to the medic for a full evaluation but tagging it with her ID.  She would be checking up.

After there had been an accounting of the attack: the number dead, the types of weapons that had been employed – all of which pointed to an operation by the Laran Resistance which the media would no doubt play off as speculation and unverified accounts – there were finally a few hours of down-time.  Sgt. Kebede sat on her bunk and pulled the stone out of her pocket, drawing a matching one from beneath her shirt and holding them side-by-side.

***

Aliya felt her mother’s grip tighten and looked up.  Her lips – usually so full of smiles and laughter – were drawn tight, pressed together to prevent the words she so dearly wished to send flying at the man behind the counter from slipping out.  She chose her words with care, tone kept as neutral as she could manage.

“My husband is already on Giedia Prime,” she repeated.  “These are his embassy papers and our immigration visas,” she said, holding them out again for the man.  He did not look at them.

“No new visas are being issued to residents of this sector,” he said, not looking up from his screen.  “Please contact your local embassy if you wish to apply for refugee status.”

“We are not refugees, sir, I have our visas already!”  She pulled Aliya closer.  “Please, just look at my documents!”

Aliya’s gaze moved from her mother to the man in question.  His dark grey uniform was buttoned up tight to his throat, giving him an appearance of being strangled, helped along by his fat, red cheeks.  His hand at last moved to snatch the offending papers from her mother’s grip and look them over with no attempt to veil his disdain.

“These are dated from three standard months ago,” he said, tossing them back at her, dismissive of their content.

“They document our travel window as open now,” she insisted, pointing to the range of dates at the bottom.

The man yawned and finally spoke into his head piece.  “Sir, this is Kelt at desk two.  I’ve got a… Delta Cygni here and her kid, claims she’s got visas to Giedia Prime.  No, sir, no husband.”

Aliya’s mother stood stone silent but her grip got tighter again.  Finally the man turned back to them, gesturing vaguely as he gave directions with little care whether they were understood or remembered.

“Take your papers and effects, go to the second lift, up six flights, first right, then second left down the hall till you see refugee processing.  They’ll evaluate your case.”  Barely pausing for breath he looked around them and called out, “NEXT!”

Aliya’s mother picked up her papers and they both took their bags and left the desk without comment.  She didn’t speak again until they were in the lift and Aliya tugged her shirtsleeve.

“It’ll be alright, dear,” her mother said, lacking any hint of conviction to her words.  “This next place will help us.”  Unlike the three places before it.

“But we aren’t refugees,” Aliya whispered.

Her mother’s face flinched momentarily and she nodded.  “No, dear.  We aren’t refugees.  Except perhaps from that man.”

She tried to give a smile, but Aliya could tell it wasn’t genuine.  She rested her head against her mother’s stomach until they reached their floor.  Mumbling under her breath, her mother recalled the directions.

“First right… second left.”

They followed the curve of the hall, and Aliya wondered if that was meant to be the second left or if the next hallway to their left was it.  Thankfully a sign reading REFUGEE PROCESSING guided them the rest of the way, and not exactly to the letter of the directions they had been given.  Even had it not, though, the sound of the waiting room would have drawn them to the correct location.

To Aliya it looked like a hundred people were there, the sound filling the small space, and the smell of that many bodies having gone who-knew-how-long without baths overwhelmed her at first.  She pushed her face into her mother’s skirt as they approached the counter.

In the next line was a family of five children and their beleaguered father, all dressed in what were likely their best clothes, yet old and worn.   Each clutched a bag, and the smallest child had a doll pinched under his arm.

One girl, the closest to her, returned her gaze and their eyes met, a shared tiredness reflected between them.  But Aliya lacked the hopeless edge the other girl had; she was not a refugee, they had visas.  Her mother had assured her they would get through, they just needed to go through the proper channels.

Aliya gave the girl a smile.  The girl looked at her father, but he was distracted with paperwork.  She let go of her brother’s hand and came closer.

“Hello,” Aliya said.

“Hello,” the girl replied.

“I’m Aliya.”

She hesitated before saying, “Ebhiante.”

Her accent was heavy and Aliya had trouble making out all the sounds, asking her to repeat it before trying it herself.

“Where are you going?” Ebhiante asked, looking between Aliya and her mother in a way which said they didn’t look like refugees.  Not like the others here.

“Giedia Prime.  My father is there.”

“Oh.”  Ebhiante looked down at her bag.  “Where are you from?”

Before Aliya could answer, though, her mother gave her a tug and hushed her.  Ebhiante started to retreat back to her family, but suddenly turned and grabbed Aliya’s wrist.  She pulled a stone amulet from around her neck and pressed it into Aliya’s hand.

“Imha keep you safe,” Ebhiante breathed.

Aliya felt another tug behind her, pulling her apart from Ebhiante.  She turned to see the two armed soldiers who had approached her mother.

“Kebede, Siria and Aliya,” one said, reading the papers.

“Yes,” her mother said, showing no hint of fear at them or their weapons.

“Right,” the one said, pushing the papers back at her.  “This way.”

“Where are we going?” her mother asked, not willing to follow them blindly, but the other soldier took her by the arm and pulled her along.  Aliya looked back to see Ebhiante, hand still out as if she could reach her.  Then they were gone, escorted past the counter and down a long hallway with many doors.  They did not take any of the doors, but the hallway at last emptied out into another room, larger than what they had left, and divided in half by a thick glass wall with a set of double doors like an air-lock.  There were soldiers with guns everywhere Aliya looked.

Leading up to the wall on both sides were narrow walkways, turning back and forth like a maze, and cut off at waist height.  They were escorted down one of these passages to the doors on their side of the glass wall.  The soldier who had spoken handed their papers to one of the guards at the door who looked it over carefully.

“Siria Kebede,” she said.

She nodded.

“Aliya Kebede,” she said, looking now at Aliya.

Aliya nodded, and the guard handed the papers back to her mother.  Addressing the soldiers who had escorted them here, she said, “Thank you, we’ll take them from here.”

The doors opened and the guard motioned for them to pass.  “Go straight toward the far doors.  Do not stop.  Present your papers at the window, they will ensure you are directed to your transport.”

Aliya’s mother looked at the guard, letting a moment of weakness show as she pleaded, “Tell me where we are being sent.”

The guard gave her a sympathetic look. “You are going to join your husband, Ma’am.  This is the check-point for travel to NGSR.”

Aliya had never seen her mother cry before that moment, and yet it seemed only to increase her strength.  Standing straight and tall, she did not even bother to wipe the tears from her cheeks as she picked up her bag in one hand, gripped Aliya’s hand tight with her other, and nodded.

“Thank you.”

The guard gave a nod.  Aliya wasn’t sure whether she should be relieved or afraid, but together she and her mother walked from war to freedom in thirty feet.

***

Boots stopped outside her tent and a voice soon followed.  “Sergeant Kebede.”

She rubbed her nose between her thumb and forefinger, trying to fight off the headache threatening.  “What is it, McKay?”

“You wanted to be notified about the child?”

She got up quickly at that and pushed back the flap to her tent.  “Yes?”

“We have a local acting as a wet-nurse,” McKay said.  “They’re in recovery.”

Sgt. Kebede nodded and holstered her pistol, then followed him toward the medical tents.  “Wet-nurse?  Is she pregnant?”

McKay shook his head.  “She lost hers, I think.”

That stopped her up short.  “You think!?”

“Sorry, Sgt.  We’re having trouble finding a translator.  We’ve gotten a few words but…”  Then he dropped his voice and added, “Not sure how long we’ll have her around, to be honest.”

They started walking again, and she followed quietly for a minute before she put a hand on his arm and asked, “The baby… is it a boy or a girl?”

“Girl,” he murmured.

There were too few patients in the field hospital for the population this town had on register; far too few.  There was no thinking that it was from lack of injured, rather from lack of survivors to be treated.  She pushed that thought aside for now as they approached the woman, part of an arm missing and bandages on her face red from the injuries beneath, and yet against her breast lay the child, sleeping peacefully.

Sgt. Kebede stood a short distance away and watched.  The woman lifted her head to meet her gaze with only one blood-shot eye visible from beneath her bandages.  What she could see of her face was no older than she was, thirty at most though of a much harder life.

McKay spoke softly, “Internal bleeding.  We tried to give her an IV for the pain but she refused because of the child.”

“McKay, what the hell are you using her as a wet-nurse for?  She’s in no condition-”

“Sergeant, she heard the child crying and the nurses couldn’t keep her in bed.  She tore a few stitches out in the struggle, and only calmed down when we gave it to her.”  He scratched his arm and reluctantly added, “I think she might think it’s hers.”

Sgt. Kebede took the stone from her pocket and  ran her thumb over the symbol of the Goddess, recalling the face of the woman from whose neck she had taken it.  There was little chance of it being that same girl from all those years ago, but she couldn’t help feeling as if she owed something to the past.

She drew up a stool and sat beside the woman and child, holding up the amulet.  The woman seemed to recognize it, and made no objection when she tied it through a grommet in the child’s medical blanket.  The woman patted her hand and gave what might have been a smile.  With a rough voice and thick accent, she spoke a few words.

Sgt. Kebede looked back at McKay, but he only shrugged.  The woman frowned slightly, then pointed to the medic,  “McKay,” pointed to herself, “Thella,” then pointed to the child and looked at the Sergeant to fill in the unspoken blank.

She was about to shake her head, she didn’t know, but instead found herself saying, “Ebhiante.  Her name is Ebhiante.”

The woman thought for a moment, then nodded, leaning back into the bed and closing her eye.  Sgt. Kebede got up and left them to rest, pulling McKay into an area cordoned into an office.
“Find a translator, McKay,” she snapped.  “We have to have someone in this dishat army who understands her.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“And keep me informed of their conditions.  Both of them.  I don’t want them to sneeze without me knowing.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

She picked up a file on his desk, flipping through some of the reports inside.  “And I want an ID on those two bodies, PDQ*, you understand? I want to know who that child is!”

“Sergeant?”

She dropped the folder and raked her fingers through what little hair she bothered to keep on her head.  “What is it, McKay?”

“Who is Ebhiante?”

She opened her mouth, then shut it and turned around.  “You’ve got patients to see to, Corporal,” she said on her way out.

He shook his head.  “Yes, Sergeant,” he sighed after she was gone.

***

It took two days for a positive ID to be made.  Of the two bodies, the woman was related, but not as a mother.  An aunt was more likely, though there was a chance she was an elder cousin.  The man was registered as the woman’s husband, and so was unrelated by blood.  They would have to search the government registration database for likely relatives, and then compare their DNA to the child’s.  Because children had up to a year to be registered and there was no file on her, there was little hope of a quick resolution to the case.

The wet-nurse, Thella, had beaten McKay’s odds and survived her injuries after another round of surgery.  It took another week to get a translator transferred since no one was sure exactly which language the woman was speaking.   McKay had been partly right, it seemed; Thella had thought the child was hers, but only at first.

Now, Sergeant Kebede was using all her connections, some of questionable legality, in order to push through paperwork to adopt Ebhiante and to sponsor Thella as a domestic worker so she could bring them to Giedia Prime.  Even twenty years later, it still took a mountain of paperwork to get onto the two main planets.

So when, a month later, she had a civilian messenger come up with an encrypted communique and ask for Sergeant Aliya Kebede, it was the second time in her life she wasn’t sure whether she should be relieved at having an answer at last or afraid of what that answer might be.

***

A hush fell over the Assembly as the First Consul entered and stood at the podium.  She cleared her throat and began to speak.

“For one hundred and fifty-three years, our galaxy has been consumed by war.  A war which has laid waste our most precious resource, the lives of billions; the only cost worth considering, and one which must temper our joy at the news that this war is now over.”

The speech was brought to a halt as the entire Assembly erupted in cheers which lasted a good several minutes.  As it died down, she continued.

“Treaties were signed by all parties to bring an immediate end to all hostilities and all future claims of right to territories beyond the agreed upon borders.  These treaties are set to go into effect on twelve-point-oh-nine of Galactic Year one thousand and three, at ten o’clock Giedian Standard Time; which is just two minutes from now.”

Another round of applause filled the room.

“May our children remember this day, may we remember our fore-bearers, and may we endeavor to be worthy of the lives we have.  Please join me in silence as the Giedian Galactic Peace Treaty goes into effect.”

Silence washed through the room, broken by a canon which signaled the moment.  Cheers followed, and for a good ten minutes there was no bringing the room back to attention.  Slowly the celebration of the moment died down and the First Consul was able to continue again.

“I would like to now call forth the woman who was most instrumental in crafting this treaty, whose tireless efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table have brought us to where we are today.  Please welcome Ambassador Ebhiante Kebede.”

 

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The Hunted

Two years he had been searching.  Whispered rumours had finally brought him here, a town on the edge of nowhere that most folks called Methelis, but those who lived here called it Hell, and for good reason.  The smell of sulphur was never far away, a dim yellow stain which clung to every surface and left every meal tasting of bad eggs.  It was always strongest when the miners passed by, when it billowed from their clothes and hung thick in the stale air.

It was not the mining of it that burned the lungs and left the landscape around Methelis barren, however, but the refinery five miles away where plumes of the smoke filled the air and rained down acid.  Everyone who lived here wore respirators and goggles.  Everyone who lived here was looking to escape somewhere, though some believed whatever it was you were running from wasn’t nearly as bad as living here.

Running from something, that was the only reasons someone would come here willingly.  That, or a nice, fat bounty.

It was her eyes, gold with brown flecks, which drew his immediate attention, marking her as one of the few remaining GCs, genetic-cyborg hybrids.  He caught sight of them for barely a second when she pushed her goggles up to wipe mud and sweat from her face.  Then she was gone, disappeared into the sea of rags and respirators; miners just getting off shift.

Carin Lan left a few bills on the counter beside his empty plate, calibrated his gun, and slid into the crowded street.  Two years of hunting were going to pay off at last.

He followed from a distance, more because the crowd was too thick than because he wanted to.  He would have to get her alone before he made a move, last thing he needed was to draw too much attention to either of them.

The group of miners split, some heading toward the barracks, some to the best place to get the cheap RED liquor that was as likely to blind you as it was paralyze you, but absolutely guaranteed to get you piss-ass drunk for as little money as possible.  Carin followed those going to the barracks; no GC would touch RED, played hell with their cyborg components.

He eased his gun into his hand as he pushed forward, the crowd thinning once they were on the side street.   A scrap of cloth was tied around her wrist, he had seen it when she wiped her face.   He just needed to find it again and he’d have her.

One of the miners moved away from the others, toward a run-down old shack with a sign outside that read simply “Repairs”.  He caught sight of the fabric at her wrist.  Carin quickened his pace, catching up to her just as she reached the door and pressing the gun to her back.

“You know what this is,” he said, voice muffled by the apparatus covering his mouth.  She nodded once.  “Come with me.”

He put a hand on her arm and steered her toward the alley.  Her body was stiff but she did not resist.  Down between the repair shop and an abandoned warehouse was a door that lead down to a dry cellar.  He pushed her down first in front of him.

“Word is, the going rate for a GC is 20k.”  She wasn’t stupid, that was certain enough, not if she’d managed to live this long.  But she’d gotten careless.  The glimpse of her eyes – she should have known better.  “Man could live easy on a bounty like that; not many would be likely to turn down the opportunity to bag one.”

She had stopped at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for him to descend as well.  When he put a hand on her shoulder to get her moving again, he realized his mistake.

She dropped out from under his touch fast as a bucket full of ore down a mine shaft.  Before he could even put his finger on the trigger, she had brought a leg up, foot catching him full in the groin.

He doubled over, gasping for air that refused to be rushed through the dirty filter of his respirator.  She arched her back up, getting her feet under her again and shoving off the floor.  With no time to dodge, he took the back of her fist full-on to the side of the head as she spun around to face him.  That dropped him to his knees.

With a fist in his hair, she brought his face down to meet her knee twice, cracking his goggles.  He hadn’t realized he had let go of the gun until he saw her pick it up and train it on him.

“Give me one reason,” she said.

He sat back on his feet, panting heavily and bleeding from where the rims had cut above his eye.  With both hands, he slid his goggles up.

“Folk like us,” he said, struggling to raise his eyes enough to be seen, eyes which looked just like hers. “We can’t be too careful.”

She lowered the gun.  “You need to take your own advice.”  A roundhouse kick to the head knocked him out cold.

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Tomorrow’s News Pt III

[previous]

The next morning I had essentially forgotten about the newspaper.  I whipped myself up a nice ‘sore throat’ sounding voice and called into work.  After I had assured them that I would take care of myself and try to be in tomorrow, I took my shower.  When I got out, I saw she had texted me.  I toweled off quickly, and picked up my phone, but the color drained from my face as I read her message.

Her car wouldn’t start and she was waiting for the AAA guy to arrive.  She’d try to be over in an hour or so, but if the car had to be towed to the mechanic, I might have to come get her.

All I could think of was the AAA guy doing something horrible to her, too horrible for words, too horrible to print in the newspaper!  I replied I was coming right over so she wouldn’t have to wait alone.  That didn’t sound paranoid at all, right?

It still took me half an hour to dress and do my hair, and by then the coffee was done.  I grabbed my purse and double-checked that I had my keys before locking the door.

The speed limit through town was twenty-five. I did forty, except along that one stretch where I knew the cop always waited.   I was almost to her house when I realized I hadn’t put any make up on, and it was unthinkable to be found outside the house without a touch of make-up.  I dug the lipstick out of my purse and pulled down the sun visor with the mirror on the back.

My sister used to always criticise me for putting lipstick on while I was driving, but it wasn’t like it took all that much concentration.  I had been doing it for years.  The hint of red made me look more normal again, and I put the visor up and turned into her driveway as I tried to put the lipstick back into my purse.

It missed the pocket and fell to the floor.  I reached down quickly to snatch it before it rolled under the seat, only to sit back up and realize there was no time to stop before I slammed into the back of her stalled car in the middle of the driveway.

Her car lurched forward, and I heard a scream.   I had to fight with my seatbelt before I managed to get out of my car and run to see what had happened.

She was crushed between her front bumper and the edge of the garage.  I pushed with all my might, and her car rolled back, bumping into mine again as her body crumpled to the concrete.  A thousand years passed in that moment, each second longer than the last.  My hands were shaking as I dialed 911, somehow managing to make the person who answered understand through my screams about ‘she needs an ambulance’, and ‘I hadn’t seen her!’

A minute later, the tow truck pulled into the driveway, slammed into the back of my car, pushing hers forward again.  Her bumper clipped me as I fell back out of the way, and all I could think of in that moment was how it wasn’t meant to be me – words which haunted me through the manslaughter trial as I was forced to stare into the face of her fiance and four year old daughter and explain why I was trying to pick my lipstick off the floor.

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The Exodus III

[previous]

She hadn’t intended to sleep again, not after the way she had woken up last time, but sleep took her regardless.  When she did open her eyes, light was filtering through the window, bringing vision back to her broken world.

Tanner was gone, but Dean was still curled tight beside her, and much as she didn’t want to disturb him she had to see reality for herself.  Easing herself from the bed, she carefully put her feet on the floor, avoiding as best she could the broken bits that might poke her feet.  Once she was certain she wouldn’t slip in the dust, she worked her way over to the window and looked out.  What she saw was beyond even what her mind could imagine.

The air was heavy with black smoke and red dust.  Though she could not see where the fire was, it was clear something large was still burning.  Being on only the third floor, her field of view was quite narrow, and what she could see was mostly the cars and buses, thrown off their tracks and laying crumpled or tossed in the streets, leaning against buildings, or piled on top of one another.

Tanner had been right about the air, as she could make out some movement below.  The window was too dirty to make out detail, but it was a person, at least.  She didn’t have much optimism for this plan of his to get out of the city.  Even if they were on the planet, that didn’t mean there was anywhere else for them to go, but she reminded herself it was still better than staying here, so she began to search around for a bag or tote or anything she could carry things in.

She opened the closet door with not unwarranted caution, as things began to fall out as she did so.  Trying to think of what would be the most useful things to have, she grabbed her warmest sweatshirt, a light jacket, another pair of pants, and a handful of underwear.  She didn’t think about how she’d clean anything, that was the furthest from her mind.  She put the clothes on the bed until she could find something to put them in, then took the one book she was certain she could not bear to live without.

It was more difficult to make it down the hallway, the light didn’t hit this area as well, but she got a tote bag and a backpack she had forgotten about out of the hall closet, conveniently having fallen off the shelf.  That’s when she realized that no one was in the living room, either.

“Tanner?”  He wouldn’t have left her, surely.  But there was no answer to her repeated calls, and her mind started taunting her with thoughts of being alone, truly alone.  She wondered where he could have gone, or why he wouldn’t have taken her, or whether that blow he took to the head had been worse than he thought and-

She shook her head firmly, refusing to let herself go down that line of thinking, at least voluntarily.  She picked her way into the living room where there was more light and found a dead body on the floor.  A cry of surprise escaped her lips before she could stop it and she turned away quickly, trying to catch her breath that had suddenly gotten away from her.

After a moment, she turned back again and made herself look.  If there was a dead body in her living room she was damn well going to find out who it was and why.  Taking a few steps closer, she saw it was the girl she had invited to stay after the fire.  The floor under her head now had a dark stain, and Ella realized she must have been killed in the crash.

Her hands trembled and she felt a little sick, but she couldn’t just leave her there, so she got a clean sheet and laid it over her, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath before rolling the body over so she could wrap her fully.  There would be no carrying her out to be buried, but she would give her what little dignity she could here.

[next]

The Exodus II

[previous]

Ella was dubious about what Tanner was suggesting, but she had to admit, she had no better ideas herself.  Without even basic necessities, staying put was not a wise decision.  What she really wanted to do, though, was just curl up and sleep until all this was over; sleep until she had forgotten how bad her heart hurt.  She kicked the largest chunks of debris off her bed and curled up with Dean.

Tanner agreed that until the sun came up, they could not do much but plan.   He didn’t want to leave so he settled himself on the floor, leaning against the edge of her bed and just staring at nothing through the window.

“Ella?”

She gave a hum of acknowledgement but didn’t reply otherwise.

“What made you come?  I mean, why did you decide to be part of the city?”

She shifted a little, thinking about that question.  After a long pause, she said, “I guess I just wanted my own life.  Y’know?  Not just an extension of my parents and their farm.  I guess I just wanted off Nerius, see another world for a change.”

He nodded, the movement just visible in the near-blackness.  Ella was quiet for a bit again, her fingers moving in Dean’s fur softly, though he didn’t relax yet.  She sighed and nuzzled her face against him.  “What about you?”

“I don’t know.  It just seemed like something to do.”  A soft laugh passed his lips.  “Didn’t exactly think things through.  Certainly never saw this coming.”

How they had crashed was still a jumble of questions and denial in Ella’s mind and it just made her head hurt to try to think about it, or maybe she had hit her head in the crash, but either way she didn’t want to think about it too much.  “What did you think it would be like?”

“Hm?  I guess- I don’t know.” He turned toward Ella.  “I figured in a few years when the planet was ready I’d just be part of it.  Go to work, build a house, get married and have kids.  Just be part of a new life.”

“You wanted to get married?”  The question sounded nothing like how she had meant to ask it, but it was too late now.

“Well, yeah.  Sure.”  He sounded confused, like it was an obvious answer.  “Don’t you?”

“Yeah.  I mean, yes of course.  We’d all have to, wouldn’t we?  To build the population.”  Her voice trailed off, too many thoughts and feelings all trying to crowd into her mind, but Tanner’s laugh cut right through them.

“You do know people wouldn’t have to get married to make babies, right?”

She was just lucky he couldn’t see her blush. “No, I know that.  That’s-” That was why she hadn’t really expected him to want to get married.  “I guess I just didn’t think you’d want to settle down.”

“Ella, we’re settlers by definition,” he said, still chuckling.  “I don’t think we have much choice!”

No, they didn’t.  Especially not now.  “Tanner?”

“Hm?”

She took a deep breath before asking, “Will we at least be neighbors still?”

It was his turn to go quiet, and Ella did not press for an answer.  The longest night of their lives ticked steadily on.

[next]

The Exodus (Part II of Collision Course)

[Collision Course]

Tanner glanced at Amir, then back to Ella.  “We’re on Thelmis II.”

Ella understood the words he was saying but she struggled to make sense of them, only because taking them at face value seemed so very impossible that he must mean something else by it.  “But what did we crash into?” she repeated, hoping for a sensible answer this time.

Amir gave a snort and Tanner shot him an irritated look.  Ella glanced between them, picking up on their silent disagreement; the tension was obvious even if its source was not.  Amir left the doorway, heading back to the living room.  Tanner huffed and turned his attention back to Ella.

“The city went down, Ella.  At least, that’s what it looks like.  We’re on the surface of the planet.”

She blinked and looked toward the window, but it was still too dark to see anything.  “That’s impossible.”

“Well, apparently not.”  He wiped a fresh tear from her cheek and tried to give her a reassuring smile.
In response to her still puzzled look, he added, “I don’t know what happened, either, but I don’t think we have much choice but to accept we went down.”

She nodded at that.  Reality was finally settling into a more comprehensible form around her as the shock started to recede.  Looking at Tanner, she frowned and touched the side of his face, her fingers coming away red.  “You’re bleeding again.”

He took her hand and wiped the blood away.  “Yeah, knocked my head against the counter when the first jolt hit.  It isn’t bad, don’t worry.”

Tears began to flow again as the grief of losing Sam tried to once more take over.  Dean was still cowering under the bed and she worked her way under, pulling him into her arms and speaking softly to calm him.  He burrowed into her shirt, forming a frightened lump.  Tanner helped her back out, the angle of the floor being a bit harder to overcome with only one hand.

“So what do we do?” She looked to Tanner, expecting him to have the answer.  He always seemed to have the answer.  But this time he only shook his head.

“I don’t know.”  After a long pause, he continued.  “I think we’d better get out of here, though.  Get some warm clothes, whatever food we can carry…  You still have that backpack?”

“Leave?”  Isn’t that always what you aren’t supposed to do?  “But isn’t the whole city going to be a mess?  Where would we go?”

His frown deepened.  “There are going to be some very not good smells soon, not to mention other unpleasant side effects of having no sanitation and – I hate to be the one to point it out – but people will have died.  It’s not just this building, we need to get out of the city.”

It finally sunk in, his full meaning, and she stammered out an objection.  “But the planet wasn’t supposed to be ready for another two years!  How will we even survive?”

He pointed to the cracks in the wall.  “Well, we know there’s air.  Everything else, we’ll just have to wing it.”

[next]