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]

Collision Course X

[previous]

Ella woke as she was flung from her bed.  She hit the floor and continued to roll to the opposite wall, then tucked herself up small as the bed came sliding after her.  She just fit in the space beneath it as it slammed over her, acting as a shield against the rest of her room’s contents.  A terrified cat scrambled in with her and she wrapped herself around Dean as the world began to shake itself apart.

She choked on the dust that poured in through the growing cracks in the walls, the roar of destruction drowning out all else.  Minutes passed like hours, and a half hour like eternity as the building shook and undulated.  Just when it seemed as if one second longer would destroy everything, the city gave a last rippling shudder before the momentum shifted back the other direction with a jerk and the city fell still.

Sounds carried through the infrastructure; the distant echo of booms and the screech of twisting steel gave the whole scenario an eerie, dream-like feeling; but this was no dream.  Ella stayed where she was, afraid to come out from under the shelter of her bed for a long while.  Not until she realized Tanner wasn’t there with her did she convince herself she had to do something.

“Tanner?”  Her voice was hoarse and it cracked as she called out for him.  “Tanner, can you hear me?  Anybody?”

When she did try to move, pain shot through her hips and shoulder, and her wrist felt twisted.  Holding back whimpers of pain, she pulled herself through the ruins of her room into the middle of the floor.  Her hands touched a metal cylinder, closing around it with a prayer as she felt for the switch.  The cover was cracked but the bulb intact, and beam of light that cut the darkness was a questionable blessing, allowing her to finally see the destruction.  The whole building was pitched at an angle and the dust made it too slick to get a good footing, but she sat up, taking stock of what remained of her surroundings.

The wall had cracked from the corner of the window; that was where most of the dust had blown in.  The thick pane of glass was intact, but the continued sounds of the city settling made it seem as if it might fall in and crush her.  She pushed herself back to the bed and sat up on the edge of it, sweeping the beam of light across the room.

From a pile at the foot of her bed where her bookcase and nightstand had been thrown together, she saw a tuft of orange fur.  With a cry, she pulled the nightstand away, shoving books aside to pull Sam’s broken body from the wreckage.  She clutched him to her chest, petting him, hoping he was only knocked out, but the way his neck hung it must have been broken.

Her body shook as she sobbed, grief overwhelming her.  She didn’t register the sound of voices; not until she felt hands on her did she realize Tanner was saying her name.  She blinked a few times, bringing his face into focus.  He had one hand on her cheek, the other smoothing her hair back out of her face.

“Ella?  Ella, come on, sweety, tell me you’re alright.”

“He’s dead,” she cried, hugging the lifeless form in her arms.  “He’s dead!”

“I know it hurts, I know; but you have to tell me if you’re injured.”

She choked on her tears but shook her head.

“Alright.”  He sighed, relieved for that.  “Come on, try to calm down.  Take some deep breaths.  I’m sorry about Sam.”  Her eyes closed and she sunk into his arms as he wrapped her in a hug.  He repeated how sorry he was and she nodded.  They sat for a time, silent but for her tears.

When she had managed to calm herself down a little, Tanner eased Sam’s body out of her arms and wrapped him in her pillow case.  He promised they’d bury him properly when this was all over.  That nice spot in the park she liked to go, near the bench under the maple tree; they’d bury him there.

Her heart ached like it hadn’t in years, but much as she wanted to retreat into herself, she knew this was not what she should be focusing on.  It took a while, but her mind at last moved to the bigger question.  She swallowed down the lump in her throat but couldn’t keep the waver from her voice.  “What happened?”

“We crashed.”  It wasn’t Tanner who answered, though.  She looked to where Amir was standing in the doorway, propped against the jamb to keep his feet.

“Crashed?” Ella echoed.  It wasn’t sinking in.  “Crashed into what?”

[next: The Exodus]

Collision Course IX

[previous]

Beside Tanner, there were a couple other serious injuries.  There was one other with burns, and one with a deep gash on her hand, but mostly it was a lot of coughing from the smoke and some very dry mouths.  Ella refused to leave Tanner’s side, but told Carol where the cups could be found.  Everyone shared in some water, draining most of the two gallons Tanner had brought down.  Ella didn’t mind, she knew he had more and would get it later.

For now, she asked Carol to set aside a glass for when he woke up, then looked around.

“Where is Bo?”  She wanted to ask when they would know if the plan had worked and the fire was out.  The silence was almost as bad as the alarm, now.

“I think he and a few others went up to let people know what’s going on,” Carol said.

Ella noticed there were only two left, now.  The rest had returned to their own apartments, Ella supposed; or perhaps to stay with others they knew.   Most of the first and second floor residents had evacuated to higher floors early on except for those who had stayed to help fight the fire.  These two looked a little lost now.

Ella figured they couldn’t just stand there awkwardly forever.  “You live downstairs?”

The man in his mid-thirties nodded, giving a mirthless laugh.  “Yeah, I moved in just last month.  Great timing.”

“Three months ago, here,” said the woman beside him.  “Apartment 103.  I only knew the old lady who… whose apartment caught fire.  Mrs. Moshenberg.”  She picked at a burnt area on her shirt.  “She was nice.”

It wasn’t until then Ella realized that the apartment hadn’t been empty when the fire happened.  Maybe it had been caused by a lit candle from the power outage?  She squeezed Tanner’s hand.  “So I guess you don’t really know anyone else yet, huh?”

She shook her head, as did he.

“Well, I’m Ella-”

“Carol,” she offered.

“And this is Tanner,” Ella said, holding his hand up briefly.

He introduced himself as Amir, and she gave her name as Mila.  Ella invited them to stay, and they both thanked her, grateful for the hospitality.  Ella jokingly apologized she couldn’t offer them a shower, but she’d get more water later, and they were all welcome to have a bite to eat if they were hungry.

Ella decided that if Tanner was going to be out for any length of time, he might be more comfortable on the bed rather than the floor, so Amir helped to move him into her bedroom.  In doing so, they found poor Sam who was burrowed under the covers, frightened near to death.  Ella let him stay in his burrow, but scooted him just enough so Tanner could fit beside him.

Figuring he would be okay for a moment on his own, she helped her three guests get settled in the living room, lighting the candles again, though they all looked at one another in understanding that these could not be allowed to be unattended for even a moment.  Ella dug out a pack of cards and some chips and left them to a game of poker before she went back to keep an eye on Tanner.

She closed the door, but did not latch it, and sat on the edge of the bed, wondering how bad his injury really was and when he would take up.  Dean gave a pathetic mewl and crept out from under the bed to rub against her.  She pulled him into her arms and nuzzled his head, fighting the tears that were beginning to sting her eyes.

Maybe she couldn’t offer her other guests a bath, but she left to retrieve the bit of tap water from earlier and a cloth.  Then she set to washing away the white powder that covered him head to toe, revealing Tanner’s beautiful black skin beneath.  She avoided his bandages and the burn, but was able to clean much of it away from his eyes and mouth, then wiped down his hands.

When she had cleaned what she could, she looked to her phone to see how much time had passed, but there was no signal and the time was not registering.  It could have been noon or midnight and either seemed just as likely to be true.  She couldn’t even begin to guess at how much time had really passed, only that she was very tired, so she kicked off her shoes and laid on the bed beside him.  Dean snuggled himself between them and Sam curled up against her legs.  A few minutes later, Ella was fast asleep.

[next]

Collision Course VIII

[previous]

They were losing the battle with the fire.  Their efforts were just enough to keep it from raging out of control, but not enough to put it out.   It was growing, and they were running out of extinguishers.  Bo had called a few of them around and were discussing ideas, what options they might have.  Already the volunteers were coughing from smoke, growing dizzy as the air heated and the oxygen burned.

It seemed a ridiculous thought, but all Ella wished for right now was to turn off that damn alarm so she could die in peace.  It was no use, though.  The alarm would continue unless they cut power from the emergency battery it was hard-wired into, and they couldn’t do that, that would cut the life support as well.

“Wait-” Could it be that simple?  “Bo?  Bo!”  Ella got to her feet and ran over, tugging his shirt eagerly.  “The life support!  If we cut the back-up power-” she began.

“The fire might burn itself out before the rest of the building,” he finished as he caught her meaning.  “But do we all suffocate in the attempt?”

He didn’t wait for an answer as he wasn’t really asking her.  He hollered to get everyone back and into the stairwell, and not leave a single soul behind.  It was a fool’s hope, but it was hope.  As the dozen volunteers edged back into the hallway and toward the stairs, there was a great cracking sound from the apartment, a cry following close after, as part of an interior wall collapsed.

A few men rushed back inside, and Ella held back a cry of her own as they emerged again, carrying Tanner between them.  Once everyone was into the stairwell, Bo told them to get up to the second floor at least, there was no telling exactly how this was going to play out.  The fire might be smothered quickly or it might suck all the oxygen out of the lower part of the building before it was out.

As they filed through the doorway and out of the hall, a young man, barely eighteen, came up to Bo.  “Sir?  I’ve worked maintenance in these kinds of buildings before, I know where the battery overrides are-”

“Go,” Bo said, not even waiting for him to finish.

Ella balked at the idea of sending a kid to what was, in all likelihood, his death.  By the look on Bo’s face, he didn’t like it much himself, but it was the death of all of them if it didn’t work.  The kid ran off, and Ella wanted to protest but Bo waved her over and  got a roll of gauze out of the bag of supplies she was still clutching.  Then, with her help, they shut it between the doors in an attempt to seal what they could of the small gap.

“Will it be enough?” Carol asked, looking uncertain.

“It’ll have to be,” Bo said.  “Come on.”

They followed the hot and tired crew as they stumbled up the stairs as fast as they could.  The two men carrying Tanner were at the back, and Ella said to take him back to her apartment, and anyone else who needed medical attention, what little they could offer.  They laid Tanner on the floor and Ella held a flashlight up for Carol as she looked him over.

He had a gash on his head which was bleeding, and his hair and left arm were badly burned.  There were a few spots where his shirt had tried to catch fire but the skin beneath was unharmed, so Carol focused on his head as the major concern.  What Ella noticed most was how the powder from the extinguisher covered his body with a white film and made him look unnatural, like a ghost.

Carol worked quickly to staunch the bleeding with what they had, and it wasn’t long before she had him wrapped up.  She gave Ella a reassuring smile and said he should be fine, then dabbed some of the burn gel on his arm.  Ella held his hand, giving over the flashlight to one of the others as Carol moved on to treat a few more burns and injuries.

When the sound of the alarm faltered and stopped, the silence left in its wake made everyone hold their breath for a moment.  The subtle movement of air from the ventilation system stopped.  Now it was a waiting game; the fire or the people, who would run out of air first?

[next]