The Spirit of Song

As the red-hot brand touched his forehead, Bering did not stop singing; to do so would mean ejection from the pilgrimage, and an ignoble end to eight bone-wearying years of study, devotions and ceaseless deception. But the pain was incredible, like a lightning bolt from the hand of God, and involuntarily his deep baritone rose two octaves to a startling wail.

“Marked are you forever, forever are you marked,” intoned the preceptor, Marad, plunging the brand into the waiting bucket. Behind Bering, screened from the chancel, twelve other initiates still waited their turn, spared the sight of the pain that awaited them but not the smell, steam mingling with the potent scents of myrrh, hot metal, charcoal and charred flesh, a thick and heady miasma. Don’t pass out! Eight years you’ve spent!

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Jack Be Quick

Note: This story follows upon an earlier one, “Jack in the Box.” Read it here.

In those halcyon days before the world ended, Jack had only two speeds: dead asleep or running full tilt. Even compared to other little boys he ran a lot, and ran fast, whether in a school hallway or on a soccer field. Now, on his first day in Hawaii, he flew across the sand to where his father, Lew, reclined on the beach. “Dad! I think there’s turtles over here!”

Lew chuckled. “Well, why don’t you go look at them?”

“They’re in the water.”


“What if they bite me?”

“Sea turtles don’t bite.”

“You sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Okay, I’m going to go look at them!” And with that he ran back, kicking up sand behind him, a four-foot whirlwind of joie de vivre. He was eight years old. Lew’s eyes misted, thinking of what was coming. Continue reading

Delusion and Disintegration in Edgar John Pettegree’s Flat River

Among the fifty-three paintings bequeathed the world by artist and architect Edgar John Pettegree, one stands anomalous: Flat River, dated just weeks before his death in 1917. While nearly his whole oeuvre is infused with an architect’s eye for detail, Flat River appears to break with his previous work, eschewing realism for a hallucinatory, proto-Surrealist view of another world, often claimed to present a Blakeian vision of the voyage of the soul through the afterlife, painted in eerie premonition of his own death. However, as I will show, Pettegree himself regarded it as no mere visual metaphor, but a depiction of an actual repository of human souls, accessible via the occult powers of a former employer, silver baron Henry Magorian. That this indicated a precipitous collapse of Pettegree’s sanity cannot be doubted; but it is also true that far from sinking into a lax or vague imaginative effort, he applied the same rigor of craftsmanship to his final painting as in all his prior works. Continue reading

The Geneblaster Disaster

“Don’t mess with geneblasters,” repeated the captain as they scanned the wreckage of the fuel depot, the blue light of Kiki’s scanner fanning out sharply in the dust-heavy night, limning a profusion of broken struts and shattered steel-mesh platforms. “Isn’t that what I always say? Kiki, what do I always say about geneblasters?”

“Don’t mess with them, sir,” the robot repeated dolorously.

“It’s just obvious, right? You start –”

An enormous boom, felt as much as heard, the vibration actually visible as a shimmer in the dust, pounded through the darkened city, so they all three involuntarily ducked their heads. But it seemed distant enough, and after a considering pause, Hor pointed out a half-buried chunk of illuximite glowing under the scanner. “Here. Bring the dolly.” Illuximite was ten times as dense as gold – and ten times as valuable. “You start altering this, shifting that, introducing whatever crazy mutagen you found at the bottom of the ocean or whatever, and suddenly shit goes crazy. Flesh bubbling up like fucking chewing gum, mouths everywhere, probably acid for blood… shit could lead anywhere.”

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Jack in the Box

The doctor finally brought it over in what looked like a very sophisticated cat carrier. Of course, at first Lew had no idea what was in the grayish box with its LCD screen and blinking lights, and just stood frowning blearily at this unexpected morning visitor in his doorway. You’ve got the wrong apartment, he almost said, belatedly recognizing Dr. Velez from the accident. “How did you get in here?” he came out with instead.

“Your neighbor let me in,” she said, sounding almost apologetic. “I thought about buzzing up, but I knew it might just go to your phone again, and you never seem to answer that.”

“Sorry,” he muttered. He glanced down the hall as though he might find that easygoing neighbor there to accuse. “So what’s up?”

“Can I come in?”

He sighed, like he was in the middle of something, instead of sitting in front of his TV at ten in the morning. He looked briefly at the hallway behind him, and finally shook his head and stood aside.

It was then that he noticed the cat carrier, as she bent slightly at the knees to pick it up and pushed past him in the hall with the box balanced against her hips. It seemed, from her effort, to weigh a fair bit. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s why I’m here.”

No one but him had ever been inside the apartment, and with her entry he was forced to see it from her perspective. Kind of a shithole, or rather, a decent apartment occupied by a shitheel. A shitheel shithole. Flattened boxes behind the door in the hall, left from when he’d moved in six weeks ago. He kept meaning to take them out, but who gave a shit, right? More boxes, unpacked, in the living room. Bare beige walls. The steamer trunk that served as a coffee table overrun with dishes, beer cans, stacks of mail, including some of the preposterous medical bills for which Velez herself was partially responsible. Hopefully she wouldn’t look in the kitchen.

“New apartment?” she asked.

“Something like that.” He gestured toward the couch half-heartedly. Carefully she set down the carrier on the floor by the coffee table, turned and sat on the edge of the cushions.

“How’ve you been?”

Fucking awesome. Living that bachelor life. Now that my wife and son are dead, I party all night, sleep all day. Sometimes in between I dare myself to cut my wrists, but so far the beer’s keeping that in check. 

“Fine,” he said.


“What gave you that idea?” He went to the armchair that faced the couch, threw the dirty clothes off of it and onto the floor, and slumped down into its yellow embrace.

“Female intuition?”

“No, I’m not depressed. Everything’s fucking grand.” It was the worst year of his life, and not just the worst year so far. There would never be a worse year.

“Are you working?”


“You’re a … graphic designer, is that right?”

“Yep. My office, right there.” He waved at the computer on the desk.

“How’s business?”

“Keeps me going.” He rose. “You want a beer? I got Bud Light or Bud Light.”

She extended a hand to stop him on his way to the fridge. “Wait, please. Before you start drinking … there’s something you need to see.”

“Whatever’s in the cat carrier, I guess?” He frowned at the box by his feet. “What is in that thing? Is it actually a cat? Is that the idea here, like, get Lew something to take care of so he doesn’t off himself?” He nudged it with his toe. There were readouts on its screen, wave forms zigzagging in green light. “Is the cat sick or something?”

“It’s not a cat. Please, sit down and I’ll explain.” She gestured at the couch beside her. Inexplicably perturbed, Lew sat.

Velez began clearing space on the steamer trunk, transferring magazines to the floor, stacking dishes, pushing cans aside. Impatiently, Lew said, “Here,” and began helping her, taking the dishes to the kitchen, putting the cans in the recycling. Then he sat back down. She’d succeeded to that degree, he reflected. She’d made him clean up his living room.

“There. We good?”

“Can we turn off the TV, please?”

“All right, but you’re going to make me miss the second quarter of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Semifinal game. It’s on your head.”

In the ensuing silence he could hear someone talking on their phone in the parking lot and the hum of the swamp cooler in the hall. “I’m here to talk to you about your son. Jack.”

“I’m not looking for a counselor,” he said brusquely.

“Maybe you should be. But that’s not why I’m here.”

“What then? What is it, some kind of permission you need for his organs again? You need me to sign so you can sell off his heart or lungs or his little fucking toes?” Angry tears were in his eyes. “And what’s in the fucking box?”

Just an accident. One of thousands. A car gets a flat on the interstate, spins out of control. The cars around it try to avoid it, and they too collide. You wake up to your wife and son dead beside you, half the car crushed in the press. He squeezed his eyes shut tight, wishing he could shut his memory off the same way. Leila had died instantly of brain trauma, Jack on the way to the hospital.

“During the accident, Jack’s body was catastrophically injured.” God, what a phrase. “His rib cage was crushed, his limbs … irretrievably injured.”

“Why are you telling me this?” he groaned.

“With your permission, he was taken to surgery for organ donation.”

Velez herself would barely meet his eye, instead fixing her gaze on a readout on the carrier. “Here’s where it gets a bit complicated. The surgeon working on Jack was – is – something of a pioneer in cryogenics. He had been looking for a patient like Jack for some time. A infant, very newly deceased, with a specific grouping of injuries. He believed, on the basis of his research, that certain properties of an infant’s cells and brain would allow resuscitation of the brain, where it had failed on more mature specimens.”

Lew’s own brain seemed to be frozen. He just kept staring at her incredulously. “You’re saying … he’s not dead?”

Finally she met his eye. She looked frightened, and why? But then she nodded, once. “That’s correct.” When this met with a shocked silence, she went on, “Dr. Bettencourt was able to electrically restart Jack’s brain. He then placed him in a life-support system and nutrient bath, thereby keeping him alive. He is alive, Lew.”

“Where?” he whispered. “Where is he?”

Her eyes slid uneasily to the carrier on the table. He looked at it in confusion. “What are you saying? He’s inside this thing?”

She nodded. There was a sheen of sweat on her forehead, though it was cool in the apartment. “I came here to show him to you. I wasn’t positive you would come to the hospital, and I felt strongly you needed to see him for yourself. Dr. Bettencourt took some persuading, but he had this unit available for Jack’s life support, and finally –”

“Why would I not want to see him?” Lew exclaimed. “And how in the fuck did you not tell me before? He’s alive?! He’s been alive this whole time? That’s sick, that’s –”

“Sit down, please. Please, Lew.” Her hand was extended like a shield. “You don’t understand. He was catastrophically injured.”

“Show him to me,” he commanded. “Show him to me.”

She nodded, biting her lip. She turned the carrier slightly toward him and tapped some commands on the LCD screen. It flashed. The front of the box opened, each side sliding back from the center line smoothly and mechanically.

His first thought: It’s a doll’s head.

His second: Why is it upside down?

His third, repeating: It’s not a doll’s head, it’s not a doll’s head, it’s not a doll’s head…

No, it was not a doll’s head. It was Jack’s head, cradled upside-down in the box’s softly lit heart by a score of foam-padded struts, silvery screws and glinting needles. His little neck was mercifully encircled by a two-inch-wide silver collar, above which extended a wrist-thick chock of vined and multicolored tubes, wires and conduits. Utterly horrified, not thinking at all, Lew sank to his knees, until he could look at that darling, serene face in its monstrous container.

God, it was, it was him. Those big pink baby cheeks, that pouty mouth hanging open, his golden hair. His eyes were closed, but between his so-fine brows Lew could see that Jack had a bit of a rash, the skin raised pink against the pale. Lew watched closely, realized with numb horror that his son’s nostrils were flaring slightly with each breath.

“You may be wondering why he’s upside-down,” Velez was saying. “Basically it’s to relieve downward pressure on all the, uh, connectors, the veins, arteries, nerves and whatnot. You can understand, this is extremely fine work. In fact most of the connectors are designed by AIs and created at a nanomolecular scale, it has to be that precise…”

“What did you do?” he interrupted hoarsely, finally tearing his gaze from that hideous, adored visage hanging in its box like the world’s most perverse diorama. Slowly he stood up, hands at his sides.

Velez saw the look on his face. “Listen, Lew. Listen to me. He doesn’t know what’s happened to him. Bettencourt has created a direct interface with Jack’s spinal cord that simulates all the sensations of having a body, modeled after other infants. He thinks he’s in a cradle, wiggling his arms and legs around, getting stronger. As he grows – and he will grow, every nutrient and hormone he needs is provided for – those sensations will become more complex. Eventually, he can either be transplanted to a suitable body, when and if one becomes available, or outfitted with an android body for movement in the real world. Or he can continue living virtually, remaining in his cradle and experiencing the world virtually.

“But the point is, he is alive. He thinks and feels, and he’s going to need real human relationships. He’s going to need a father. He –”

“What did you do?!” he shouted. His rage exploded from him, white hot and blinding, uncontrollable. “You fucking monster! Jesus Christ, what did you do, I should cut off your head, you sadistic fuck, then burn your goddamn laboratory to the ground, I swear to God, I’ll –”

He stopped mid-sentence, hearing the thin wail just below him. He knew that cry, and it twisted around his heart like a thorny vine.

“You woke him,” Velez said quietly, reproachfully, coming around the couch to place a hand into the carrier. “Shhh, baby, it’s okay, it’s okay.”

Slowly, knowing he was defeated, he knelt again on the carpet. Jack was crying, tears streaming downward from his eyes across his forehead and into his hair. Velez was trying to offer him a pacifier, but he wasn’t taking it.

“Here. You try.”

Numbly Lew took the pacifier. After a moment he reached out with it and held it lightly at his son’s lips. “Jack,” he said. Jack looked at him, stopped screaming, and took the pacifier.

Did Jack recognize him? Lew thought he did. Gently he reached out a finger and touched his son’s cheek. It was as soft as the day he was born.

Calling Sheroy Brown

“Watch out for spiders,” Harry told him before he went out.

“Ha, ha,” Devin hefted his toolkit.

“I’m serious. Knew a guy one time, spider was hanging out on top of this old digger…”

“Tell you what, I’ll watch out for a fuel pump for a ’53 Nissan, since that’s what I’m looking for. But don’t worry, I’ll make sure it doesn’t bite.”

Actually there were eight items on his list. Hopefully it wouldn’t take him too long, because it was cold as fuck all outside. He let the door to the trailer slam shut and stepped out into the junkyard pulling on some insulated work gloves and putting up the leather-and-wool hood of his Carhartt jacket. Cheyenne winters were no joke.

He whistled for Sheroy Brown, but the damn dog didn’t come. Whistled again, waited. Nothing. Where was she? Devin stomped around to the dog house, wind nipping at his ass, the skies clouded. He ducked his head down, needlessly, because he could see that the German shepherd wasn’t in there. Well, where the hell was the bitch? She couldn’t have spent the night outside, and you would think with the weather she’d want to stay in her house, where it was warm.

So instead of heading out toward the north corner of the yard, where he knew there were a couple Nissans, he turned toward the fence and started walking the perimeter, calling and whistling. Jeez, he should have let her into the trailer at night. It was criminal to keep her out like this, even if they had run a vent right out to her house from the trailer. Only reason she didn’t sleep in the trailer was because of fucking Harry. Fat sonofabitch said she got hair over everything, made the office look bad for customers. As if anyone gave a flying fuck at a rat’s ass what a junkyard office looked like. After today he’d tell his uncle that Sheroy was sleeping in the trailer, and if Harry was still being a dick about it, she could just come home with Devin and stay in his apartment. Fuck what the landlord said.

On the eastern side the snow was drifted right up against the vehicles there. Chain link and barbed wire might keep out thieves, but it didn’t do shit for snow. His workboots were laced up tight, but even so by the time he got through it he could feel snow melting on his shins.

He’d made almost a complete circuit of the perimeter when he saw it: a spot where the chain link had been pulled out of the ground and pressed upward, leaving just enough room for a dog to wiggle through. Well, there was the answer. He was surprised Sheroy would try it, but apparently there’d been something out in the wide world she wanted to chase. He looked out at the hills, the irregular snow half-covering the blanched grasses, hearing the trucks dopplering past on the highway and the wind making static in his ears. “Fuck.”

Hopefully she would come home. Hopefully she wasn’t dead on the highway. He considered taking the Ford to go look for her, but… hell, she could still be in the junkyard somewhere.

So he went and looked over the Nissans, found what he wanted in a ’54 and worked at pulling it out. Then a left door from a Ford truck, and a side mirror from a Chevy sedan that he removed with just the Gerber multitool he always carried in his jeans pocket.

By now he really was freezing, but he thought he should get halfway through his list before going back in for lunch. Number four was a steering wheel from Toyota minivan. There was only one in the yard, and it hard probably been sitting there untouched for ten years now, but he thought the steering wheel was probably still in it.

Christ, they hadn’t made it easy to get to, though. Cars piled on all sides. Half of this stuff was just scrap, should have been cleared out of here ages ago. Not just cars, either – there were pallets of old generators, broken solar panels, a bunch of antique office computers. Sometimes Uncle Harry went to auctions and bid on lots, ended up with stuff like this. Then it sat there for twenty years. They should call the yard a museum and start selling tickets to come in and look.

You couldn’t even get to the van. Cars were piled right up against it, so you couldn’t open the doors. But one of the rear doors, maybe… He clambered right over the roof of a 2042 Ford Long Haul, a fucking antique, and finally hopped down from the hood onto honest ground again.  More litter scattered in the gravel and weeds, a soda can, a black power cord from who knows what.

Of course the rear doors were locked. He got out his jimmy bar, slid it down the window until he found the latch. Devin was a motherfucking expert at opening cars. He’d be a killer car thief, if he ever wanted to be. Instead you’re just a junkyard dealer. Not even that. Junkyard dealer’s assistant. But shit, he was young. Twenty-four was still young, right? So what if he’d never finished high school. He knew cars, and that was something. And he still got girls, or would, if he wasn’t with Lora. Lately she’d been talking about kids, which made Devin’s skin crawl. Maybe it was time to break it off with her, even if she didn’t mind blowing him when he asked. Things got stale, otherwise.

The lock gave with a gratifying click, and he stuffed the bar in his back pocket and hurried to put his gloves back on. His fingers were turning white. He opened the door, stuck his head inside, and froze.

The van wasn’t empty. Stretched out on the floor was a teenaged boy, shirtless and barefoot, bare white skin exposed to the cold, and Devin’s first thought was shit there’s a dead kid in here. He needed to call someone. Harry first, or the cops? Harry, get him out here. His gloved hand scrabbled for the phone in his pocket. Kid must have been the one to pull up the fence like that. Some runaway, looking for a place to chill for a bit. To chill, ha ha.

He pulled off a glove with his teeth, let it drop to the ground, thumbing the menu. Kept looking at the body. It occupied only a narrow space in the van. The rest of the interior was filled with… he didn’t even know, looked like weird electronics, wires everywhere, computer parts, pinned to the walls, extending right into the cab, and was it just him, or was it actually humming, kind of loudly, actually, this stuff was on.

The wires. The power cords. It wasn’t just scrap. It was plugged into the grid, or maybe to those old solar panels he’d seen.

What was worse, some wires didn’t go to the machinery. They went to the kid. They went right into his arms, like IVs.

And squinting into the darkness, he saw another body with wires running into it, lying there in the cab: his poor dog, Sheroy Brown. She hadn’t run away. She’d been caught.

His uncle’s voice squawked on the phone. “You need something, Devin?” Devin looked down at it, and that was when he felt something drop onto his neck from above.

He yelped and jerked backwards, hands flailing. He grabbed at his neck with his right, felt plastic and metal and tried to tear it away, but the thing had already wrapped four wire-strong limbs around his neck. He felt a pinch at the back of his head where the skull met the spine, realized the thing was trying to hit him with its stinger, but the leather hood of the Carhartt was preventing it.
Spider spider holy fuck it’s a spider!

He kept trying to pull it off, but it only tightened its grip around his throat. He couldn’t breathe. Fuck, he couldn’t breathe, in a second he’d pass out, and the spider would pull down his hood and stick its stinger in his spine and then he’d join the kid in the van.

Suddenly he remembered the Gerber multitool in his pocket. The multitool with wire cutters on it. He got it out, fumbled it open while his throat convulsed. With difficulty he slipped it under one of the spider’s legs, scraped his neck, while stars lit in his vision. With both hands, he clenched the grips together. And again.

The leg parted, its loose end flapped against his hood. One more. He had to dig the multitool right into the flesh of his neck to do it, he might hit a fucking artery, but it was that or be a slave to this bastard freak machine, so he jammed it up there and clenched for all he was worth.

In an instant the spider fell away, wire limbs flailing at the ground, trying to flee under the van, now that it was wounded, but with half its legs cut it was too slow, and Devin stomped on its body with his workboots with a triumphant curse. He kept stomping until it was just little pieces of metal crushed in the gravel.

Who knew what twisted fuck had designed the things, but someone had, a couple decades ago. They’d become a minor danger in junkyards and cities, anywhere with a lot of electronic and mechanical trash. The spiders gathered parts until they could replicate, and if they could, they’d punch into a human, using the body as a trash-gathering agent that wouldn’t be challenged by other humans, and the brain as a biological supercomputer.

Here he’d discovered a nest. There would be at least one spider on the unlucky boy, and another on Sheroy, but with luck and good medical attention they’d both be okay. He picked up the phone, got his uncle on the line again. “Call an ambulance. And a vet. And an exterminator.” He paused. “And from now on, Sheroy’s sleeping inside.”

The Ant Farm

When Haden had been missing for three days Anna’s mother said Anna had to go find him and bring him back. “It’s not good for him to be alone so long,” she said. Anna didn’t bother to point out that Haden would never be alone so long as he was on the ship, or anywhere within a thousand miles of another Node. Even now, if she focused, she could sense his troubled thoughts, not far away.  “I’ll find him,” she promised.

Of course, knowing he was there and pinpointing his physical location were two different things. First she tried asking him, broadcasting her silent appeal through the aether in the way her own mother would never be capable of: Haden come home people are worried.

There was no verbal reply, which didn’t surprise her, just a sullen resentment backed by a slow-burning rage. She caught an image of a insect trapped in the wrong hive, trying to escape only to find the hive was held inside a glass box. Then even that withdrew, as Haden quieted his thoughts.

She would have to do it the hard way. That was fine. Haden was right: they were bound in glass. But that also meant there were only so many places he could go, and Anna was good at empathy, at imagining the feelings of others, human and nonhuman alike.

She might have started at the Sarasohn’s house, over on Ash Street, but Teresa Sarasohn, Haden’s mother, was the one wailing about his absence so vociferously, and Teresa had long ago crossed that twilight border into insanity. In any case it seemed unlikely Haden was just holed up in a closet there for three days.

Where would he go? If Anna were to hide somewhere, she would go to the public library. There were only occasionally people there – Miss Tangier, the librarian, had moved to the other side of town to be with Henry Reeve, and only came in once a week to tidy things up a bit – and there was a little back room with a door that would lock, where Anna liked to go to read.

But that was Anna, not Haden. She wasn’t sure Haden had ever even learned to read. What was the point? She could imagine his thought-stream: primitive scratches like claw-marks of predator on tree marking territory if one wants knowledge just dive into the hive memory-mind.

Diving made her think of swimming. Haden did like to swim. Maybe he was at the rec center. So she made up a PB-and-J sandwich and put it and a water bottle into her backpack and set off on her bicycle.

A number of people were out. Mr. Selwood was mowing his lawn, which was silly since everyone knew the town grass wouldn’t grow higher than four inches anyway, but it provided him with a sense of ritual. He raised a hand in greeting as she passed, and it made her think that this must be how it felt on Earth. The (false) sun was shining and the (reengineered) grass particles glittered in the air around the old man (who would die onboard). Harv Michelsen sat drinking on his porch, watching her with dull eyes. Lucy and Ian were playing in their yard, doing two-person acrobatics, and she sent them a flash image: monkeys swinging through trees. Not that she’d ever seen a real monkey. Together the twins laughed and dropped from their handstands to scratch their armpits and make primate noises.

When she reached the rec center she set the bike outside the door and went in. When Haden was three he’d made himself a breather-mask and a weight-belt, and with them he spent hours submerged at the bottom of the rec center’s swimming pool.

He wasn’t there now. Nor was he hiding in the change rooms, or broom closets, or the sound booth above the roller skating rink.

She went back outside, thinking as she rode. Haden had always been troubled. Of all the town’s progeny, he was the one who seemed closest to the Hive. Nearly all of them had the full-black eyes of their creators, but the other features varied. Some were smaller than usual (like Demitri, who would never grow taller than three feet), some were taller (she thought the near-Earth gravity on the ship couldn’t possibly be good for Ellen’s long, spindly limbs), some had visible luminophores on their faces and bodies. Haden didn’t look as nonhuman as some of the others, but his mind was more Hive than human.

Thinking of the Hive made her think of small, comfortable arrangements, which made her think of the Marron Apartments. Lots of little boxes, most of them unoccupied, now. Maybe he was there.

The apartments were a little spooky, even in the day. The hallways were dirty, unvacuumed. She knocked on each door before entering. Number 404 was locked, but she didn’t try to go in. Matty Klein lived there, and she didn’t care for visitors much.

When she reached the last unit, 408, she paused, chewing a little on her lip. She hadn’t had a glimmer of Haden in the building, but she thought she was getting closer. She saw the staircase to the roof and went up it.

The Marron was one of the tallest buildings in town, situated near its eastern edge. She padded across the tarpaper roof, looking in each direction. The town had four hundred and fifteen residents, one hundred and two of them eight-year-old children. It was about one thousand nine hundred meters in radius, with a generous boundary of Wyoming grassland and cottonwood trees along the river. Early on several people had reasoned that there must be a gap in the wall to let the river run through, but of course the Hive had expected that, and the divers were repelled as though they’d reached a brick wall.

That river boundary wasn’t far from here. Anna looked and saw the trees, some of them right against the wall. A hive in glass, she thought. Alisha Giardano had one like that, though its inhabitants were long dead: an ant farm, she called it.

There was a path along the river, of packed dirt, with a bench along the way. After a while she had to dismount from her bike and walk it, because of the tree roots. There were sparrows in the trees, and she heard a crow cawing, some of the few animals allowed in the Habitat.

She found Haden right at the Habitat boundary, where a big cottonwood pressed against the wall, its branches curved and twisted by its limits. He had built a little platform up there out of scrap wood and nails, nestled in a high branch, not against the trunk but out a little ways. Haden? she sent.

Go away, came the thought, not in English but in the nonverbal communication of the Hive.

I’m coming up.

She clambered up, panting. When she reached the branch of the tree house, she could see Haden sitting with his back turned. The platform was barely three feet on a side, and she only hoped it would hold them both. The last few steps were tricky, too, since you had to go right out on the branch. She gathered her courage and stepped forward in a half-crouch, dropped to her knees as soon as she reached the platform, frightened. What would Haden even do, if she fell?

Nothing, came the answer. But don’t worry, the Hive won’t let you die by accident.

Of course not: there was too much invested in them. Decades of subjective time, a century of planetside years, vast resources, all dedicated to the project of bringing humanity into the Hive. And central to that project were the hybrid children, living bridges between species.

Your mother is worried, Anna sent.

Is she really my mother? Haden replied, still not looking at her. She doesn’t feel like it.

She gave birth to you.

The Hive gave birth to me.

She cares for you.

She hates me. She thinks I’m a monster. Maybe I am, to her. Maybe I am, to all humans.

Now he turned to her. Look. Look at me like a human would look.

She tried. At first she saw only Haden, but she tried to divorce herself from his thought, tried to think like a human would think. His eyes, like hers, were black, but they were very large, and looking close you could see tiny internal facets within them, like an insect’s. He never blinked, because he didn’t need to. He was completely hairless, his nose tiny, his mouth and lips small, and he had not teeth but only two bony plates, top and bottom, the color of black ivory. All across his cheeks and forehead were the tiny silver patterns of luminophores, that even in the sunlight sparkled and flared with meaning.

I’ll never be human. They hate me and I hate them.

He reached out a long-fingered hand past the edge of the platform, and touched the wall of the Habitat. It looked like nothing, like the horizon, but that was just an illusion. Around the whole two-kilometer circle of the town was a dome as hard and impenetrable as diamond, which projected a holographic image of the world around it.

But outside that wall, Anna knew, wasn’t grassland or the highway to Casper, but the almost incomprehensibly vast bulk of the ship, upon whose surface the town, the Habitat, was an enormous bubble. And outside that bubble was the limitless expanse of interstellar space.

Someday soon the ship would reach its destination. Until then, they had to be children, and try to understand. Humans can love at the same time as they hate, she told him. They’re different from the Hive that way. You must look for that love. 

She could tell that he didn’t understand. She reached out and touched his arm and said it again. When they touched, their inhumanly complex nervous systems joined and fused and they felt each other’s bodies and thoughts as one. For just that moment, he believed her. “Come back,” she said.

“Okay,” he answered aloud, in English. Slowly, carefully, they descended the tree.

Tara Mahoney and the Galactic Space Monkeys

At the end of her shift Tara Mahoney went into Sauce Boss’s tiny office to tell her GM she was clocking out. “Hold on, I want to talk to you,” Micky said, and shut the door.

Tara raised a pierced eyebrow. “Well, this is going to be some bullshit. Unless you’re giving me a raise.”

“Yeah, no. Sit down.”

“Rather not.”

“See, this is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. I’ve noticed you seem to have a problem with authority.”

She rolled her eyes. “You say authority, I say meaningless and unnecessary hierarchy. You say tomato, I say stop using your tomato to oppress the poor.”

Micky sighed, looking discouraged. His problem was, he thought he actually needed his shitty job. And that’s why you should never have children, Tara reminded herself. “How am I even supposed to respond to that?” he said.

“You could say, ‘Thanks for the great work today, Tara, see you tomorrow! You’re awesome at your job! Bye!’ That would work.”

He leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. He was defeated and he knew it. “How do you talk to your manager like this?”

“Easy. I’m your best cook, I’m easily your fastest cook, and I show up more or less on time every day. Fire me, and you’ll probably end up with someone who sucks, and I’ll have a new job by the end of the week. Called job security, son.”

“Okay, fine. But look, when a server tells you they need a refire, please stop arguing with them. It’s not really them asking. It’s the customer.”

“Customers are idiots.”

“It doesn’t matter. Customers pay our bills. And when you argue with servers, it just slows everything down. They need a refire, just make it. Okay?”

“Fine.” She wasn’t about to say it aloud, but she knew inside the justice of his complaint. Why hadn’t he just opened with that? “I got a show to go to. See you tomorrow.”

Her friend Nick’s band, the Groans, were playing at the Lion’s Lair. They were pretty awesome, or at least really fucking loud, which was nearly the same thing. About thirty people showed up to watch, and about fifteen of them formed a loose, swirling pit, including Tara. It seemed like a lot of the guys in the pit kept avoiding her a little, though, presumably because she was a girl, which kind of pissed her off. What was the point of a pit if no one ran into you?

She’d slammed a couple of PBRs and followed it up with a couple shots, but the activity seemed to sweat it out of her and she wasn’t even that tipsy by the time the band finished. When she faded toward the door, she was stopped by someone she recognized. “Tara! What’s up?”

Big purple mohawk, glasses with an athletic band, big smile with missing teeth. Couldn’t forget that face. “T-Bone! Wow. What’s up?”

She’d worked with him a year or two back. He was what you’d call a professional dishwasher, which you could also call a lifelong weirdo. He’d once confided in her that he’d been to outer space. Said there were dozens of species, faster than light travel, all that jazz. In his defense, they’d both been high as shit at the time.

He asked about her and she told him about Sauce Boss, including her recent minor tiff with Micky. “You want a new job?” he asked, to her surprise.

“Where at?”

“Cruise ship.” She looked at him skeptically and he laughed. “I’m serious. I’ve been on a ship the last three months. Doing dishes like always, but now I get paid good to do it, and there’s nowhere to spend it anyway. What do you say?”

“Where’s it go?”

He gestured broadly and said vaguely, “Faraway lands, distant seas, glorious vistas. You should apply.”

“Sure, maybe I will.”

He gave her a number and that was that. Or so she thought, until the spaceship abducted her half an hour later over on 28th Avenue.


She woke up feeling like something had torn her whole body apart molecule by molecule and put her back together in only roughly similar order, which wasn’t surprising, because that’s exactly what happened. She didn’t know that, though. She assumed she had just had too much to drink at the Lion’s Lair. Her memories were all fucked.

And gods, whose place was this? Obviously she’d crashed here. Felt like she’d literally crashed. She felt light-headed, woozy, her limbs nearly floating. And was she in a hammock right now?

She struggled out of the netting and that’s when she knew something was seriously wrong. Normally, such a clumsy escape from a hammock would have dumped her on the floor. This time, even more unfortunately, she just floated there, slowly drifting down and out.

“Oh, fuck.” She shut her eyes. Maybe she had taken something. That would explain it. She opened them. Still floating. Her heart started racing, light and fast, and then she threw up.

Most of the vomit splashed against the far wall, which, she noted, had a Ramones poster on it, while some of it formed irregular greenish bubbles that floated around her. She wasn’t paying too much attention to them, though, because she was busy throwing up some more. This could go on a while, she knew, and if it did, this room was going to get really messy.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” someone cried nearby. She opened up her eyes and saw a large monkey flying in through a round portal. She gasped and flailed away, managing to touch one toe to the floor, or what she was still thinking of as the floor, though the room was actually hexagonal and made of some whitish-yellow plasticky stuff.

In any case the monkey looked pissed. “You fucking punks,” it yelled angrily, using its tail to anchor itself on a handle in the wall, opening a storage unit there. “You ever think, maybe I just shouldn’t have that eighth drink? Like, maybe seven PBRs is enough? Here.” It reached out one long arm and shoved something in her face. It had a black circular opening attached to and some pliable material that looked like intestine. When her gorge rose and she instinctively put her face to it, she realized it was, in fact, a barf bag.

Meanwhile the monkey had let loose a a dozen large yellow moths in the room. They floated over to the vomit and wrapped their wings around it, forming little yellow balls, and layered themselves on puke on the wall, wings touching. “You owe me for that poster,” the monkey said. “Like, who even knows when we’ll be coming back to Earth again?”

“What–?” she began, and stopped. “Where–?” Try again. “Who–?”

The monkey sighed. Wiping the puke-tears from her eyes, she saw that it was odd-looking even for a monkey. No fur, for one thing. Nasty gray skin, curious pot belly, long arms with four-fingered hands and long thumbs, a skinny pointed tail like a rat’s. Its ears were big as a fox’s, its nose was black, its teeth were small and pointed, and its eyes were a vile bloodshot yellow. Its privates were hidden by a pair of green cargo shorts, which is all it wore.

“Okay,” it said. “I know we haven’t met. Sorry. No one likes waking up to the sound of someone puking all over their apartment. I’m Farxis, T-Bone’s roommate. Welcome. Can I get you anything? Some water, some painkillers?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Will do.”

By the time he came back, she was back by the alcove with the hammock, doing her best to curl into a fetal position. “Where am I?”

Farxis raised a brow. “I told you. You’re in my and T-Bone’s place. Fuck, how much did you guys drink last night?”

“I mean, WHY AM I FLOATING?!” She hadn’t meant to scream it, but once she started it was hard to stop. “AND WHY ARE YOU A DEFORMED FUCKING MONKEY? AND WHERE IS FUCKING T-BONE!

Understanding bloomed on Farxis’ face, with pissiness close on its heels. “Oh, I get it now. I fucking get it. Goddamn T-bone, that asshole. And then he leaves me to do the explaining. What are you, like a short order cook or something?”

“Yes,” she allowed, puzzled.

He sighed in exasperation. “He tell you he worked on a cruise ship, asked if you wanted a job? And you kinda sorta agreed?”

“Kinda sorta…”

“Okay. Here’s the deal. You are on a cruise ship, sort of. You’re floating because you’re in space and there’s obviously no gravity here. I –” – he jerked a long thumb at his chest – “– am in no way deformed, thank you very much for that insult, but am a perfectly handsome Trathian, so you can leave your prejudices at the door, please. Any other questions?”

“One more,” she said, forcing herself to calmness. “Why am I here?”

“You mean like, existentially?”


“Oh. Well, I assume to work in the kitchen.” He saw her contorted expression of outrage and added, “In his defense, it is really hard to find good cooks these days.”