by Maria Haskins
Alexander was running through the snow. The rifle, and the pack of squirrel-skins pounded against his back with every step. Realization seeped into him as he ran: he had shot a Metallic. Its shiny armor hadn’t protected it. After all these years of living in fear, it had been that easy to take one down: one shot, straight into its mid-section, and the hovering thing had cracked apart and fallen to the ground.
He’d peered inside the broken remains and seen nothing but metal and wires. Nothing living hid inside. Ajax dead beside it, a mess of black and grey fur and curled tail in the snow. So much blood. The torn ear, where the neighbor’s dog had ripped into him as a pup had been the only recognizable part of his head. Best damn squirrel-dog anyone had ever had. Best damn dog anyone had ever had. And that Metallic had fired like it meant nothing.
Alexander’s heart raced as he ran. Was this what rebellion and resistance tasted like: tears and bloodied iron on your tongue, the sting of gunpowder in your nostrils?
The squirrel-skins on his back tumbled loose. He scrambled to collect them. Added to the pile of skins at home, it would have been enough to keep them fed through the winter, maybe even get some new shoes. Thirty gråskinn, greyskins, squirrel winter-furs, two Swedish crowns a piece, money under the table, free and clear. Better pay than hauling logs, or working in the mines for the Metallics. Even with the bans on hunting and firearms, the money had been worth the risk. At least until today.
Hunting squirrels required not just skill with a rifle, but patience, and preferably a good dog, too. And he’d had Ajax who would sniff out a squirrel anywhere, then wait quietly as Alexander lay down on his back beneath the tree – silent minutes, muscles tight, breaths withheld – until he could take his shot: one bullet, right through the tip of the squirrel’s nose so as not to ruin the skin. As he ran, the first seek-and-destroy patrol shot overhead. The Metallics were fast, but not as fast as he’d feared. He’d somehow thought they would be there as soon as the shot fell, blasting him into oblivion from the sky. Like they’d done in Umeå, during the uprising of 1910. That had been only two years after the Metallics had invaded, when people didn’t know what would happen if you fought back.
Alexander knew. That’s why he ran, hoping the tall pines offered enough cover, knowing they probably didn’t. He wanted to run home, to Lappvattnet, to mother, to Katarina, but with the patrol overhead, the Metallics would surely know who he was and where he lived by now. If he could shake them off, he’d spend the night in some neighbor’s root cellar, then hop on the horse-coach going north in the morning. Hopefully, his friend Kurt would be driving and wouldn’t ask any questions. Not much of a plan, but it was all he had.
Katarina would tell him he was an idiot, that he’d be killed. That he’d be leaving her and mother to fend for themselves. She’d be right. He’d always kept away from the Resistance, not wanting Katarina or mother to have to pay for his convictions. Now they’d end up paying anyway.
The patrol shot overhead again, the oblong vessel skimming the treetops, the engine-sound sizzling in his ears as it passed. He prayed as he ran:
Don’t turn. Don’t turn.
Katarina would have laughed at that: him, praying. She was the one who’d quote preachers and scripture, while he’d preach revolution. “It’s 1929!” she’d say. “War and strife are banned, so what kind of revolution are you imagining?”
Don’t turn. Don’t turn.
The patrol turned.
Sometimes I dream of a different world. Different, yet always worse than the shithole we’re in now. How’s that for hope? How’s that for rebellion? 1987 is a bad year for hope and rebellion, even if you’re eighteen years old, have just wrapped a chunk of malleable bio-explosives in an old shirt, and placed it in your duffel-bag. The eightieth anniversary of the Metallics landing in Tunguska is still a year away, but the world is already being pulled between official celebration and futile protest. Not even the news coming from our government-issued radios and electro-pad newspapers can hide that. There’s unrest in the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian enclaves, and on the Korean peninsula. Feeble riots in the big cities. Metallics descending to punish and contain. There are group-suicides in far off jungles, and in basements down my street: three kids from my high school take poison together and die a week before graduation. “Life’s shit,” their note spells out.
It’s bad, but it doesn’t equal the purges in 1933 or 1942, the old folks say. Because no matter how bad you have it, old people can always one-up your misery. This is the perfect world the Metallics have given us. A world where every human life is kept small, hemmed in by regulations and restrictions. Safe and sound. Like it says on the sun-powered glitterbanners mounted on every public building: “Eight decades of peace, progress and prosperity!” The best of all possible worlds. Even Voltaire knew that was a joke, and he’s been dead for over two centuries.
I’m standing in my room on the second floor of my parents’ house in Skellefteå, Scandinavian enclave. All I’ve ever wanted is to leave this goddamn town, take the train, even a bicycle, or hitch a ride on a motorized transport on the Metallics’ express-roadway, though that would mean risking jail or worse. Never mind the travel permits. I want to see the Mediterranean, Egypt, Spain. I have visions of temples along the Nile, faded paint thousands of years old there for me to see and touch, gateways to a time when this world belonged to human beings, not metal husks.
Instead, I’ve been drafted. I’m going to Tunguska, the holy of holies, up the hind-end of the Russian enclave. “Selected for Advance Development Program” says the hand-delivered note I received yesterday – short notice so I won’t have time to run. Ink printed on real paper: a rare luxury. No mundane electro-voice transmissions for this message. Soon, I’ll be sitting in a flying ship for the first time in my life. I’ve hit the motherlode.
It’s June. Summer night. No real darkness in the sky this far north. And there it is. I see it: hull of steel and light, descending on the other side of the river, disappearing into the newly unfurled foliage of the birch trees. My ride. Onwards. Upwards. Anywhere but here.
I know it’s all wrong. It’s not supposed to be this way. Not my life, not this place, not this world. I can feel it, I’ve always felt it, every conscious moment of my life. It’s like a nightmare, but I was born dreaming it, born asleep. Maybe a massive explosion will wake me up. It’s worth a try.
Mom’s standing at the door. Dad is off in the ore-fields on his mandatory work-rotation. He won’t be home for another month. Not like he could do anything but say goodbye anyway. Grandpa isn’t here to say goodbye. His room downstairs has been empty for a year, but still smells of contraband tobacco, urine, and medicine. Proof that not even the all-powerful Metallics can prevent or cure all diseases. All grandpa can do is watch me from the photo on the wall: him and his sister Katarina in 1927, outside the old house in Lappvattnet. He’s wearing a suit that looks too big, she’s wearing a dress, a coat, and an old-fashioned fur-collar. Ajax the dog is sitting between them. The house and village were leveled in the 1950s to make room for a protein-manufacturing facility.
Grandpa is dead. Katarina and Ajax are long gone. He hardly ever talked about them, but then he rarely talked about anything at all. All those years when he lived with us after grandma passed away, he was more absence than presence. He spent his life doing carpentry and growing potatoes in our residential plot, and if you asked him anything beyond that, he’d say “let the world be”. Sorry, grandpa.
Before I leave, I check that the package is tucked safely in the middle of my bag. I’d carry it on me, close as skin on skin, but I’m afraid they’ll frisk me before takeoff. Mom hugs me, holding tight, not crying. Neither one of us is much for weeping.
She says my name as if to conjure, as if to summon, as if to protect. Just like grandpa said Katarina’s name just before he died. I heard it: a whisper, a breath. Later, perhaps, when I’m gone, mom will breathe my name like that into the empty rooms.
“I’ll be back,” I say. She nods.
We both know it’s not true.
The blast burned into the snow next to him, turning ice crystals to steam, knocking Alexander off his feet and into a gulley where a small creek wound its way through the forest in summer. He fell hard, snow in his mouth, and got up with his hand clamped down on the metal wire looped through the noses of the skins, holding them together. Not ready to let go of that money just yet.
He stumbled, rolled into the creek, felt ice and rocks crunch beneath him as he got up and kept running. Another blast hit the pines: a tree catching fire, flaring up with a crackle. Smell of smoke and sap. He’d seen the Metallics burn forest before, to flush out the Resistance. It was said that in Tunguska, they’d leveled and burnt a huge swath of forest when they arrived: an almighty blast of heat and sound. Just to show they could. The Czar had made obeisance within a week. Then Europe, North America, Africa, South America…the whole world toppling.
Another shot. Alexander was thrown off his feet again and felt his arm twist when he landed. Scramble. Up. Run.
“Why did you shoot?” Katarina would have asked him that. After all, the Metallics were only working for the betterment of humanity. That’s what the preacher told them from the pulpit every Sunday, that’s what kids were taught in school. And he knew Katarina at least half believed it.
He was thrown off his feet once more, felt the heat of the hit singe his cheek. This time he stayed down. He tried to get up, but his boots felt like lead and rocks, his sweater was almost ripped off his body, he smelled wet wool and sweat and tasted his own blood. It was hard to see through the mist of smoke and pain.
There is no need for revolutions. So he had been told. No need for war and struggle. No need to change the world.
He tried to get up again. Failed. He rolled over on his back. Above, so close it was almost touching the trees, the patrol-ship hovered – hull of steel and light. He expected another blast to finish him, but instead the round, shiny head of a two-legged Metallic bent over him, blue glow-eyes staring down. A second patrol must have landed nearby. Like one wasn’t enough. He tried to see what was happening to his body – saw the blood in the snow, dark and plentiful, and knew he wouldn’t live. Then he died.
The six-horse wagon picking me up is transporting high-tech parts to some place up the coast, but making a detour for me doesn’t seem to bother the driver. She clicks her tongue and snaps the reins to get the horses moving. Mom is standing in the summer twilight on the porch. I turn away: I don’t want to see if she’s crying. Instead I peek into the wagon behind the seat: shiny metal, colored wires.
“What is this stuff?”
“Who knows? It’s high-tech. Mechanical electro…, you know.”
Meaning: it’s restricted. Meaning no ordinary human peon gets to find out what it is, except, perhaps, the ones who are drafted for the Advanced Development Program. Like me. Like two other teens from our town who were taken five years ago. Your family is treated special if you’re taken: better accommodation, better food, better pay, some groveling from the local politicos at special occasions. Everyone else just hates your guts. At least I’m leaving town.
“Your grandpa killed a Metallic, right?” The driver glances at me as we pull in near the Port.
My family’s claim to fame.
“Yes. Otherwise, I sure as hell wouldn’t be around.”
She doesn’t even crack a smile.
“Do you know why they spared him?”
That’s always the question, but who knows why Metallics do anything? It was 1929, and the Metallics were busy tightening the screws of domination, turning the world into a secure cage. A cage for pets, or cattle? No one really knew the answer then, or now. They spread across the globe: punishing disobedience, stomping out insurrection, yet curing children, and handing out new technology. Mercy or annihilation? You never know with Metallics.
The driver is still looking at me. She thinks I have an answer. I shrug.
I jump off the wagon holding my bag close. The driver sniffs, disappointed, and is off, hooves clopping in the gravel. In front of me, the entrance to the Port building slides open. I try not to think of the package in my bag when I stop for the obligatory body-scan, passing between two heavily armed Metallics hovering on either side of the door. They do not stop me.
“What did you do?”
Katarina’s voice. It was the first thing he heard when he came back to life. He was lying on a table. The room was dimly lit, but he knew he was home. A two-legged Metallic was in the room with them: blue glow-eyes turned on him, chest-piece blinking slowly – yellow, red, white – its six extendable extremities hanging limp. Katarina was standing by the window, lips moving silently as if in prayer, holding the fresh bundle of greyskins. She had always loved the feel of that soft fur. The first skins he ever got, she had sewed into a neck-piece for herself. She still wore it to church every winter Sunday.
The Metallic remained silent and still. No blaster at the ready, no warning message being broadcast. Looking closer, he realized that the tips of its upper metal limbs were bloodied.
“It saved your life,” Katarina said, staring at the Metallic. “Stitched you up. And it did something to your heart, I think, and you came back. You were dead when that Metallic carried you in here. When it laid you down, I thought I saw…” Her voice faded.
“I couldn’t have been dead if I’m alive now.”
“Why would a Metallic save me? I just shot one of them. One of them killed Ajax. I couldn’t…” This time, his voice faded.
Katarina trembled, shoulders hunched, hugging the bundle of skins tight. Alexander heard the sobs, ripping through her. His sister, the one who never cried. He closed his eyes, thought of her playing with Ajax in the yard, thought of her saving the beef bones when she made soup, thought of the way she’d bandaged the puppy’s torn ear.
“Sometimes I dream of a different world, just like you do,” Katarina whispered. “A world without Metallics. But it’s just a different version of hell. In my dreams, I see dead bodies piled high, like firewood. Pyramids of skulls and bones, neatly stacked. Children scrounging for scraps in ruins. Fields turned to mud beneath booted feet.”
She had that same hunted look as always when she spoke of her night-terrors.
“Those are just nightmares. You know that.”
“Maybe. But they feel real. Like they should have happened. Like they might happen.”
“That’s your fear talking. You know there must be better ways to live than this.”
Katarina shook her head, unconvinced.
“They’re taking me away,” she said.
The pain of that was almost like dying again.
The windows on the ship are small and round. I can barely see anything through them, but then there’s not much to see: miniature houses, small lakes, tiny trees, and more tiny trees. There are solar panels everywhere down there: on roofs and hilltops, glinting in the first shreds of dawn. “Global solar power goal achieved!” That was the good news headline about a decade ago. Because peace and prosperity is all the Metallics want for us. Fairness. Equality. Sustainable development. Catchwords hammered into us with metal fists.
In my dreams, the world is different. There, I see this world through a glass darkly, unfamiliar shadows moving across familiar landscapes. When we studied history in school, I felt a whisper of it as I scrolled through the decades on my electro-pad. Something missing. Excised. Scrubbed away. No stain to mar the Metallics’ world and its predetermined, prefabricated perfection.
The world cracked in 1908, said the first Resistance flier I found slipped into my high school locker. I used to think it was a figure of speech, but sometimes I can almost feel the crack that winds through the world, can almost run my fingertips over it: a seam, a scar, a lie. Chafing, wrong.
I’m not alone on the ship. Three of us got on board in Skellefteå and we’ve landed twice, picking up passengers in Sundsvall and Vasa. Twelve of us now, strapped into our seats behind the robo-pilot. There are ten seats on either side of the center aisle, facing each other, the curved hull behind our backs. All of us just out of high school.
The others are talking. They’re like me: scared and insecure, arrogant and intelligent, conceited and stupid. Watching them, listening to them make awkward conversation, I already know what they’re feeling because I feel it too. That ever-present yearning for love and sex and understanding. That ache to get somewhere where we’re not told what to do and who to be every single day. That longing for new places where we can become someone else: someone unknown, someone unseen, someone unheard of.
Vain hopes. We’re all stuck in a world where everything is as it should be. Nothing to fight, nothing to change. No one to become except what the Metallics wish us to be: peaceful, prosperous, safe. It’s enough to make you scream, or kill yourself. Or kill someone else. Life is a pointless, worthless pile of refuse, and I have the explosives to prove it, provided by the Resistance. The local group was only too happy to recruit me: thanks to you, grandpa.
“I heard they landed on the Moon. And Mars.”
“No it’s not! Metallics can go anywhere. For all we know, they came from Mars.”
“There are human-shaped Metallics,” one of the boys says. “The two-legged ones. I think it’s a suit, not a machine.”
“You don’t know that.” The girl next to him shifts nervously and changes the subject. “I’ll probably be doing physics. Supposedly they have some of the world’s best physicists at Tunguska. Some have been holed up there since the beginning.”
“My parents think they’re going to kill us.”
One of the girls laughs at that, a sound sharp and unexpected enough to jar all of us.
“They can kill us anywhere. They don’t need to put us on a flying ship to do that.”
Her Global has a Finnish lilt. I look at her: dark braids, dark eyes, shadows beneath the cheekbones like hunger, like someone who also feels the chafing of that crack, that seam, that lie running through the world. I like her already.
“I wonder if we’ll get to see them,” she adds. “You know, the real Metallics. The aliens.”
Everyone goes quiet so suddenly that I have to stifle a nervous giggle. It’s been a while since I’ve heard someone willfully “spreading disinformation and fomenting unrest”. We all wait for someone to come and shut her up. No one does.
Katarina put the bundle of greyskins on the table. He remembered the crunching of the bones when he cut the feet off the last squirrel and skinned it, turning it inside out to dry, feeding Ajax the innards. Him and Ajax. Just a few hours ago. The silence beneath the pines, a day like any other. And then the unexpected whir of the Metallic approaching, Ajax barking, snapping at metal limbs. The blast. Ajax never liked Metallics. Most dogs didn’t. Father’s old army rifle from 1875 was already in his hands: bullet at the ready, no chance to miss at that range.
“Are they taking you because of what I did?”
“No. I got the note yesterday. I just didn’t tell you.”
“When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow. Early. Soon. Mother already knows.”
“No one ever comes back once they’re taken.”
Alexander thought of Ajax dying in the snow. Thought of himself, dying in the snow. He thought of the brief taste of revolution and freedom, already gone stale and bitter.
“What will they do to me?”
Katarina eyes glimmered.
“They let you live. What else can they do?”
It’s dusk when we get to Tunguska, sunset shaded by cloud as we follow a small, wheeled Metallic across the landing field to our quarters. Everyone is bunking together – narrow beds, stacked three high – bathrooms and showers in an adjoining building.
“Official welcome ceremony in one hour.” The electro-voice message comes from a tiny radio-device in the corner. We can see it already: the holy of holies. It seems to cover half the world, rising out of the ground, spreading towards the horizon. A vast complex of metal and concrete: domes and antennae, towers and pinnacles. And it’s even bigger below ground, if the rumors are true.
“I can’t believe we’re here.”
“It’s still in there, you know.”
“The ship, the one they came in.”
“I heard there was more than one. An armada.”
“Everyone knows that. They were landing everywhere within a month. All over the world. Obviously they had more than one ship.”
“Yeah, but the first one, it’s still in there.”
While everyone is talking, I remove the package from my bag and slip it in inside my shirt, stuffing it into the waistband of my pants. I want to blow up whatever it is they treasure in there. I want to punch a hole in this worthless world and let in the light and air so I can finally breathe. I want to be free – free from the Metallics, free from the cage – even if it’s just for a brief moment.
We’re brought to a meeting room. A man talks for a long time. He’s the first human we’ve seen so far. No sign of any other beings, though I can tell the girl with the dark braids is expecting them. The man speaks the usual nonsense: world government, peace and prosperity, using human and natural resources efficiently. Finally, the punchline:
“You will become a permanent part of this astonishing machinery for progress.”
And by the way, no one gives a damn about you and your human desire to be free.
When the man leaves, a woman enters the room. She is old. Silver hair cropped close. Dressed in a standard-issue work outfit: blue denim coveralls, orange seams. But around her neck lays a soft garland of grey fur. And walking beside her is a grey and black dog, tail curled on its back, one ear torn. Something catches in my throat when I see them, and the wrapped package feels like it’s burning through my skin. She is looking only at me – at least that’s what it feels like – and there is something about her: an ease, a presence, like nothing I have ever encountered before.
She is free, I think, watching her. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a free person before, and I’m not even sure what it means that she is free.
“Two things.” She speaks Global with a barely noticeable Swedish accent. “One. None of you will go back to your lives as you know them. If you try to leave without permission, you will be killed. Please don’t. Two. You will learn many things here that will seem strange to you. But perhaps the strangest thing you will learn is that there are no Metallics.”
She lets that sink in, then repeats it.
“There are no Metallics. No one landed here in 1908: no ships, no…aliens.” Her eyes rest a moment on the girl with the braids, amused. “Best way I can explain it to you right now is that a gateway opened, and a group of people came through. Human beings, like you and me.”
We breathe that in, suddenly cut adrift.
“They changed the world. They have saved millions of lives since 1908. That’s not propaganda, that’s fact. They are the reason we are here, the reason you are here. As you will learn, there is a plan for mankind, and our task is to implement it. It is not without cost. Humanity has had to sacrifice many things in order to guarantee long-term survival. You have all been chosen to come here because you are special, and because we need you.”
We are confused as hell, but we all like the sound of that, much as we might pretend we don’t.
“Some of you are here because of your considerable scientific talents. And some of you are here for the same reason I was brought here: because you have an unusually high sensitivity to the distortions caused by the temporal adjustments implemented since 1908.”
That last sentence hangs in the air: rippling, bewildering.
“Are you saying…Metallics…time travel?” It’s a whisper from the back of the room.
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
Her gaze is on me: sees me, sees my hand on my shirt where the package is still burning through my skin.
“A sensitivity to temporal distortion is a useful skill in our work here, but not always easy to live with elsewhere. Some of you might have spent your whole lives thinking something was wrong with the world. Most people do. You might even have felt the need to right those perceived wrongs. But trust me, there are no Utopias to be had. The alternatives have been explored and rejected.” She searches our faces, and I wonder what she finds in mine. “Our work requires skill and patience. While the technology here makes many things possible, its use is severely restricted. Even changing one detail, saving one life, correcting one mistake, preventing one death, altering the course of one day,” the blue gaze pierces me, “can have significant repercussions that may take years, even decades, to be fully realized.”
Her hand rests on the dog’s head, but her eyes are still resting on me. The words are saying one thing, but her face is saying something else. It is saying: listen to me, hear the spaces between my words, the gaps between the things I’ve said.
Katarina was standing on the porch. She’d already said goodbye to mother upstairs. He hadn’t wanted to be there for that. Now he was leaning on the doorframe, too weak to stop her, too weak to help, too weak to change anything.
“Anything I have from now on is owed to them,” he had told her last night. “But I’ve paid, too. They took Ajax, and now they take you.”
The sleigh was waiting on the road, horses steaming in the cold.
“I saw something,” she whispered when he hugged her. “Last night, when that Metallic brought you home.”
He turned and looked at the Metallic standing by the road, maybe waiting to see Katarina off, maybe set to accompany her wherever she was going.
“I saw… I saw it…saw inside… I’m not sure. I can’t figure out what it means yet.”
The Metallic watched Katarina get on the wagon. It turned as the sleigh pulled past, and for a moment Alexander thought its posture and bearing seemed familiar, like a reflection or an echo of something else. Katarina waved. Then she was gone. He never really saw her or the Metallic leave because of the way the blinding sunlight flickered in the snow.
Sometimes, at night, I dream of a different world. Millions of dead, bodies piled like firewood. Skulls and bones neatly stacked. The shadows of children burned into walls by an unknown conflagration. Countries turned to mud beneath booted feet. The oceans dying. The air killing us. Death and destruction stalking us. I know it’s the truth. I know it happened. But not to me, not in this iteration of the world.
We’re the plan’s newest acolytes, its chosen, its latest prisoners: not yet wise or trusted enough to be brought before the gateway hidden deep within this hold of concrete and steel, but we are learning. Multi-branch history. Temporal distortion analysis. Mass-psychology in a controlled society. Astrophysics. Quantum theory. Temporal mechanics. How to design artificial, mechanized intelligences for enforcement and communication. How to use and maintain bio-enhancement suits. We are taught that while the universe might appear infinite to those who study space and time, it is not. For us, there is only this world; the best of all hells, designed by those who escaped the wreckage of the future to save the human race from self-destructing.
But Katarina’s presence tells me something else. The grey squirrel-skins around her neck whisper of resistance. The dog by her side is a murmur of revolution. There is a crack in the world, and she has gone through it, letting in a glimmer of light. I can feel that light, the warmth of it, the possibility of change and freedom, whenever I bury my hands and face in Ajax’s fur.
“Was it you?” I’ve wanted to ask her. “Was it you who dragged grandpa home through the snow, that time he died and lived again? Did he understand that, in the end? Is that why your name was his last breath? Did you go through the gateway to save him, like you went back and saved Ajax, bringing a dead dog with you to the here and now?”
I still haven’t asked her. Maybe because I don’t really need to hear the answers anymore.
Every day I think of the package stashed under my mattress, still wrapped up in an old shirt. But I can wait. I am awake now, and I am patient. And maybe, just maybe, there’s something better in store for me.
About the Author
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction, and also writes reviews and roundups for the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog. Currently, she lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog.
Her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Flash Fiction Online, Shimmer, all four Escape Artists podcasts, and elsewhere.
About the Narrator
Ville Meriläinen is a Finnish university student, author, and Death Metal vocalist. His horror and fantasy short fiction has appeared in various venues online and in print, including Intergalactic Medicine Show, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. His musical fantasy novel, Ghost Notes, is available on Amazon.