Genres: Science Fiction
The Last Love Letter
by Gretchen Tessmer
They want me to give your letters to the International Museum for safekeeping. They say the letters need to be preserved and the sooner the better. (Continue Reading…)
They want me to give your letters to the International Museum for safekeeping. They say the letters need to be preserved and the sooner the better. (Continue Reading…)
The last shop before the fog is my favourite shop of all. It has candy, which is best. It sells shrimp which never, ever goes off, krill, newspapers, mops and buckets, and air packets you can open that tickle your tentacles just like the popping candy, which Grandma lets me have even though she hates the sound of the air packs and the poppers. She likes the hardboiled sweets. They have what seems like endless rows of jars of those behind the counter. You can buy things for the house there, and things for dull days when the seas are hard and rough and you can’t go out, or when the fog’s so heavy it squashes you up so you can’t see above your parapet, and all you can do is draw yourself inside and listen to your mother muttering and feel the sway of Grandma moving underneath you both. (Continue Reading…)
I raced Cornelius home after school, through the corridors of the Platinum Phoenix. He took the right hand side, I took the left. The dents in stainless steel walls made our reflections wobble.
“I’ll beat you this time!” Cornelius called from behind. He was eleven — two years younger than me.
I laughed. “I doubt — ”
But my feet slipped out from under me. I skidded across the floor. Like all the other kids on this asteroid mining colony, my clothes were sewn from surplus mylar blankets — slick stuff. I crashed into a sealed-off door. There were plenty of unused corridors like that, leftover from better days when the Platinum Phoenix actually had passengers. (Continue Reading…)
After two hours of work, Daria got the space station’s recycler back online without Hugh there to help her. If he had just waited ten minutes while she tried resetting power. If he had let her double-check his gear before his spacewalk, like he was supposed to by all protocols.
If. If. If. (Continue Reading…)
• Narrated by Fonda Lee
• Audio production by Jeremy Carter
• Originally published in Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 73 (June 2016)
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S.B. Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. She is the new co-editor for Escape Pod, and her short stories have been published in various magazines, including Lightspeed and Tor.com. Her writing also appears in the indie game Rogue Wizards. Her debut science fiction novella, Runtime, is a finalist for the 2016 Nebula Award. You can find out more online or on Twitter.
Fonda Lee is the author of the award-winning young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer and Exo, and the forthcoming fantasy series for adults, Jade City. When she’s not writing she can be found training in martial arts or searching out tasty food in Portland, Oregon. You can learn more about her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
Dwanda watches her dad bound across the lunar landscape and shivers inside her jacket. The Moon lifts him higher than anyone on Earth could jump and sets him gently down again, a kangaroo in a space suit. Sunlight flashes bright white across his helmet. She chooses not to notice the ragged tear down the right side of his bulky suit, or the way she can see through him to the gray, airless expanse beyond.
The shuttleport crowd paces around the clear observation dome to make room for their excitement and boredom. They talk softly amongst themselves or watch the swarm of service bots making a final safety check on the shuttle Io. A few browse the souvenir stands for last minute gifts or keepsakes from their lunar vacation.
Her mom settles beside Dwanda on the couch. “Brought you some cocoa.”
You ever been to Upsilon Orionis? As far as asteroid belts go, that one’s pretty weird. Someone dragged every last asteroid in that system right up close to the star then built a temple to a different sun god on each one. How about Beta Pictoris? That solar system isn’t even properly formed yet and there’s already a golf course in its asteroid belt. It has fairways and sand traps and everything, with each and every hole on a different rock. So you could say I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff in asteroid belts. But the taxidermist was definitely the weirdest of them all.
The bell over the door jingled and Claire hastily tucked her book under the counter. It was one of her favorites and she’d just gotten to the best part. She didn’t want a customer to come in and claim it.
An older man, probably twice Claire’s age, entered the store. Actually, he really more danced his way in. The man turned this way and that, his eyes trained on the ground, all the while patting his pants, alternating front pockets and then back. Claire suppressed a giggle at the sight of his search dance – as it was fittingly known in the trade. The man gave up the floor and scanned the shelves by the door, muttering to himself while patting his breast pockets. “I swear I just had ’em. I was walking out the door…” He passed over boxes of buttons, jars full of jewelry, several large sacks stuffed with socks, and a pail packed with pocket watches before stopping in front of a particularly large crate nearly overflowing with keys. He gave a low whistle, eyeing the huge box with trepidation.
“Good morning Mr. Crowhurst,” Clair interrupted his search.
“Hm? Oh, yes. Hello.” Mr. Crowhurst wandered up to the counter, still patting. “I really hope you can help me. Do you happen to know where…” He trailed off, his eyes drifting to the shelves behind her. Claire felt the tingle of the there-it-is magic and the man’s patting finally stopped, his face lighting up. “There they are!”
On Pluto, there were pterodactyls that flew in V-flock formations. Sarah had never seen pterodactyls that flew in V-flock formations.
This was not demoted-to-dwarf-planet Pluto. This was a lush and fantastic Pluto, which Sarah and her companions discovered while returning from their discouraging voyage to the system of Poseidon. (Perks and promotions had been promised on their finding the fabled god’s trident. Alas, all they’d found were dusty moon rocks, and there were plenty of those next door to home.)
Daylan hurried along the edge of the crowd. He would violate the Heartcreed if he was late again.
As he approached the main wormhole gate, a new wave of arrivals washed over him. There should have been a few minutes grace. I’ve got the schedules wrong again, he thought, flicking his grimy pad into begging mode with an aching thumb.
“Help a poor orphan boy save for a ticket home,” Daylan called out to the kindliest-looking ones as he forged upstream, against the hectic flow of passengers, hunching to make himself shorter. He waved his pad, the large zero indicating his lack of credits. Most arrivees let their eyes pass over his ragged clothes and unblemished forehead, the lack of a visible brain implant labeling him idios.
Endless multitudes streamed by, a cacophony of colour and shapes: tall, elegant Naiphs; stocky Rassakits; right-sized Terrans. Humankind and the two known extraterrestrial species surged in a constant flux; arriving and departing ships determining the tidal ebb and flow of the spaceport.
“Take you two Naiph lifespans to save passage to Terra.” A teenaged Terran smirked at Daylan, nudging his grinning companion. Daylan almost snarled but a Heartcreed adage floated to the surface of his brain: Do not resent the rich. They suffer, albeit in different ways. The vacationing teen, with his expensive gold implant, had chatted just a bit too artificially to his travel mate as they headed for a connecting flight. Besides, the teen had been right–begging in the port could never result in any real money. These past seven years, Daylan considered it a good day if he ended it with a full belly and no deviation from the Heartcreed’s doctrines.
“Haven’t eaten in twelve hours,” he said loudly, this time aiming at a crowd of Terrans in formal dress. Something about his tone must have been wrong. The Terrans barely glanced at him, intent upon their display overlays and conversations.
A Terran boy, about four, in a blue-feathered shirt probably printed to match his eyes, halted and stared hard at Daylan’s forehead. Daylan might have been the first older idios the boy had ever seen. The boy’s curly hair framed an oval face, genetically enhanced to allow for a deluxe implant when he turned fourteen. To have a Terran life–some kids had all the good fortune.
Daylan winked at him, an action within the Heartcreed. The lad might be good for a tenth-credit or two. Now what? Perhaps an interactive pitch, like pulling a toy from the child’s ear the way the Reverend could. Would it amuse the parents enough? A tall Terran woman was pushing her way through the hordes, intent upon the boy. Daylan sauntered nearer the child.
“Mikos, let’s get away from the bad man.” The woman swept up the child against her gleaming ivory shirt. The child stared fixedly at Daylan from over her shoulder as she strode away.
Daylan cursed under his breath. She’d called him a man, not a boy. And there were no more likely targets.
Safe in a service alcove, he accessed the net with the last of his daily data allowance. Risky to run it to nil but a schedule change could push him over the edge into starvation.
The port schedules had undergone a slight shift. He downloaded them to his pad but simply storing them was no use—not with his bad memory. He mouthed the sequences of the shuttle landings several times and flagged his pad to blink the data back at him once an hour for the next twelve hours.
Suspendinox withdrawal and the resulting growth spurt burned like fire in his joints. He sunk to the floor and tried to ignore both his hunger and the frequent twinges in his knees and elbows.
His pad beeped a reminder. Time for a study session with the Reverend. Another aspirant, Hundera, hurried by, lurching on his bad leg, empty sleeve flapping. Daylan wasn’t the worst off, he needed to remember that. The Heartcreed maxim that seemed to apply was not very reassuring: Acceptance can come, however mileage may vary.
The Reverend was in his usual spot outside the Axis Bar entrance, under the flickering sign that advertised talleran and other evils. His old-fashioned long coat and wide-brimmed hat made him stand out from the Terrans passengers, despite the black rectangle on his forehead.
Jolo, another aspirant, had arrived and was handing over her offering– a drinktube that was almost half-full. A tiny orphaned Terran, her large eyes, pert nose, and thick black hair stood her in good stead when it came to begging. At age ten, no one would question her lack of an implant for several more years.
Daylan approached, feeling like a maintenance truck next to the graceful minibot-sized Jolo, and held out his empty hands toward the Reverend. “I have no offering. I’m sorry.”
“Hmph. I’ll let it go this time, boy, in expectation of double tomorrow.” The Reverend’s eyebrows were a deep V below his implant. As Daylan nodded in mute apology and shame, he could just make out the broken edges where the burnt-out plate met the skin.
The Reverend’s daily devotionals involved small sleight-of-hand magic tricks, begging psychology, and cultural practices. After seven years, Daylan had a good grasp of most of the techniques, but, without an implant, his memory of the finer points slipped and slid like melting ice crystals in a drinktube. He would start to enter notes on his pad after each session, only to find it already contained similar records.
“Rev, can you show us more juggling arts?” Jolo asked, jiggling from foot to foot with her usual delight at learning something, anything. Too young to know that puberty is inevitable and pain would dominate her future.
The Reverend grunted but didn’t reply. Something more than Daylan’s lack of oblation was bothering him.
The first twenty minutes of practice, the pretend-finding of drink tabs in each others’ cuffs, armpits, and shoes, went well. Jolo pulled it off cleanly just the once but Daylan earned several approving nods from the Reverend.
After the Reverend had dropped the tab twice, he stopped and put his trembling hands in his pockets. “Enough. Mathematics is next.”
Daylan joined in with Jolo’s groan. His brain was not designed that way; data had to be stored and manipulated via implants. Rote learning, number crunching, it was all water through a sieve. Without implants, there was no point in even trying.
“Jolo,” the Reverend said, as if reading Daylan’s thoughts, “How much does an implant cost?”
“Twenty thousand? No, two hundred thousand creds?” Jolo stammered, as always unsure of her decimal points. Daylan gave her a quick, reassuring nod at the second figure. That was one number he was certain of.
The Reverend turned to Daylan. “If I collected a credit a day, begging, how many port years would it take me to afford an ticket to Terra?”
“Um, that’s ninety-five hundred credits, so divided by three hundred days, let’s see…” Daylan said and resisted rubbing his forehead. “Can’t I use a pad?”
“Mind over matter, boy, mind over matter.”
For once, the Heartcreed phrase failed to warm Daylan. Last month, he had spent a whole week using his meager data quota to research the human brain. He’d stored huge quantities of information on his pad–words like amygdala, sulcus, and left middle temporal gyrus. Generations ago, unimplanted Terrans could hold facts and figures effortlessly, sometimes even for a hobby or entertainment. The last two hundred years of implanting at adulthood meant brain capacity had diminished in subsequent generations. A small price to pay for the wealthy who received implants at puberty, a routine process like vision tweaking or derma replacement. A huge consequence for an orphan stranded in a spaceport.
As Daylan mumbled numbers to himself, the Reverend frowned and glanced down the passageway. A noisy mob of Naiphs, mostly female, chatted by the nearby washroom doors, gliding in slow and circular undulations. “Jolo, go do a peripheral beg-and-smile to that crowd. And, in the lulls, recite this Heartcreed mantra: Piecemeal is as piecemeal does.”
The girl bowed and skipped off towards the women, mismatched shoes winking in the harsh light, tattered cloak swirling around her, her innocent happiness radiating off her.
Daylan could vaguely remember his childhood on Terra, some latent trace deep in his skull. Episodic memories were as hard to access as facts and figures, sometimes. He recalled, as if at a distance, thirteen years of hugs, schooling, and the warmth of a yellow sun. If he tried hard, he could almost smell the sweet golden scent of a dandelion. Jolo, in the port since age three, had none of those memories, although even she claimed to remember the Five-Second Massacre that had stranded them, and the other aspirants, there. He crossed his arms and hugged himself, ignoring the pain in his elbows.
The Reverend grasped Daylan’s arm. “Boy, we need to talk about Suspendinox and the lack of available–”
“Did you find another supplier? I’ll pay. I’ll find the money, no matter how much.” Daylan clutched the Reverend’s sleeve.
“Don’t interrupt, boy.” The Reverend held Daylan’s gaze until he dropped it.
“Sorry, sir. It’s just that I’ve grown five centimetres this month.” Over the past year, Daylan had been using the height scale at the security checkpoint gate as a guide and recording the numbers in his pad. He quickly referenced the file. “Twenty since my last dose. An average of a centimeter every week.”
The Reverend grimaced. “That is an increase.”
“Rev, if I can get some Suspendinox this week, I can retard the growth for another couple of months–buy me some time to find a steady source.”
The Reverend looked up into Daylan’s eyes. “I have talked to all my regular contacts. I have even offered to cut my commission. Quite simply, the manufacturers changed shipping routes. There are no supplies passing through the port. There is nothing to skim.”
“But nothing, boy. Reality is. We adapt.” This reminder of the Heartcreed settled Daylan’s ragged breathing although dozens of arguments raged through his head. There had to be a way to retard his growth. He would search it online next chance he had.
Or had he done that already?
And, could he adapt? He could clearly recall several adult idios being carted off by the port security cops right after the Massacre, presumably joining Daylan’s slaughtered parents in a mass cremation. The colonial adults, having survived the rebel Rassakit uprising, had not survived being unimplanted in Terran-Naiph territory, although vagrancy had been the official reason for their executions. Only the Reverend had succeeded as an adult living in the port. Only he managed to beg profitably, in spite of his grey hair, yellowing fingernails, and broken implant. The Heartcreed had made the difference.
“Yes, sir, thank you, sir.”
The Reverend wasn’t listening. He was thumbing through his facial recognition program between glances at a Naiph who was gliding down the corridor. Several large suitcases tagged behind like ducklings after their mother. “Until later, boy. I have some fish to catch.”
Daylan got the gist of the confusing phrase. He watched the Reverend’s battered hat grow smaller as he threaded through the crowd after the Naiph. Finally, that disappeared from view as well, leaving Daylan standing alone in the throng.
Daylan shoved half the soybao into his mouth.
“Thanks, Churl,” he said, chewing the oily pastry. The strong kulik spices seared his throat but his stomach growled, wanting more, needing more.
“Der is no need to dank me,” Churl said, touching his silver implant with a blunt, greasy hand in a quick salute, before turning away to supervise the serving bot plugged into the counter.
Daylan carefully tucked the remaining half-pastry in his pocket to give to the Reverend later and headed back into the melee surrounding the food kiosks. Churl was the best of the food vendors; often good for some scraps or stale buns. This time, it had only meant two hours of cleaning the grease traps, a job the bots never seemed to get done to Churl’s satisfaction.
He angled across the busy passageway, heading for the largest commercial hall, the Portico. He passed a row of upscale businesses: glidechair repair shops, a pharmacy advertising “implant tune-ups while you wait”, even a store where one credit would get you a ten-minute look at a real, live tree.
The small boy with the blue shirt stood stock-still, peering through the tightly packed crowds, tears running down his face. His mother was not in sight.
Down the corridor in the middle of the aisle, an enormous Rassakit in a green stretchsuit rumbled in irritation to an equally large companion, gesturing rudely with an arm so muscled it could not touch his side. Several huge wheeled suitcases circled the two Rassakits like an archaic wagon train. A trouble spot, Daylan sensed. He double-checked his pad: sure enough, the combination of inattention and that brand of suitcase was a vortex of danger. He’d run into this six times before.
Upstream, towards the wormhole gate, a dozen Terrans, all in orange, milled around their tour guide, a short woman with a bright headband. The boy had disappeared. The tour group swept past, heading for the gates, a muddle of orange. Then—in their midst–a flash of soft blue.
Daylan hesitated. Helping lost children was solidly within the Heartcreed but the boy’s mother had already rejected him earlier.
A thin, high wail carried over the general din. Daylan charged toward the tour group, already queuing by the gates.
A dash of blue, far downstream, beside the two Rassakits who were still talking and waving their hands. A small pink hand protruding between two of the huge suitcases that now pressed tightly, crushingly, together.
His ankles screamed with pain as he dodged passengers. He didn’t slow as he approached the cases, using his momentum and weight to slam his feet into the bottom edge and tip the nearest case toward him. He felt his pad slip from his pocket. He scrambled to his feet and leaned across the case, grabbing the boy’s hands and pulling him into his arms. His chest heaved, lungs aching. The boy was mute and still in his lap. A long scratch on the child’s pale face beaded up with blood.
“Mikos? Where are you?” The anxious voice grew louder as the mother approached. She snatched the boy from Daylan and sat on the floor, oblivious to the crowds. During her long hug and a tearful murmuring from the child, Daylan grabbed his pad where it lay face down then wrapped his arms around his knees, trying to think himself smaller and younger.
The mother finally raised her head. “Greetings,” Daylan said, using the formal inflection etiquette expected by upper-class Terrans upon first meeting. To his alarm, it came out in a deep bass. He cleared his throat. “The child was pinched between the two cases. One guiding sensor was set in tighter circles than the other, so they eventually collided. I was glad I could…” He trailed off, his voice now squeaking on every word.
He held out his pad the appropriate distance from the woman, thumbing on the begging app to show the zero balance.
“Mikos, you must thank the man.” The woman reached into her shirt for her own pad, a sleek gold disc a quarter the size of Daylan’s unit. She tapped her disc against Daylan’s pad as he gravely went through the thanking ceremony with the child, trying to touch the child’s palm lightly, knowing his hands were blackened with floor grime. The credit chip chimed but the fresh scratches on his screen made it too blurry to read. He did the departure courtesies with her mechanically, making only three mistakes.
It was not until the woman and child disappeared into the crowd that he rose, enlarged the text, and saw the balance: 10,000.00 credits.
He shook the pad and wiped it with his dirty jacket cuff. No error message. The impossible amount didn’t change. His knees shook. It couldn’t be ten thousand! That was enough to buy a ticket to Terra! To freedom! His ears roared. It was more money than Daylan had ever seen in one place in his life. The irony flickered through his mind–to the woman, it was probably an afternoon of shopping or a week of good meals. She wouldn’t miss it.
The woman! By the very essence of the Heartcreed, he needed to thank her again.
He stood and craned his neck over the crowds. A pale-shirted woman and her blue-shirted child were past the first checkpoint, being scanned by security bots. As he rushed towards them, heedlessly pushing passengers aside, they disappeared through the next door, through the wormhole gate itself.
He stopped short, ignoring the swearing and bumping from behind. Too late, she was gone.
Now what? The ten thousand credits shone up at him, unwavering.
Daylan ignored the ache in his knees as he traversed the corridors near Food Court B-6 yet again.
He had to find the Reverend. He’d already checked the Axis bar entrance, the more popular washrooms, and two food courts with no success. He’d sent Jolo to search the service tunnels.
Now, standing outside the bar once more, he turned up his jacket collar, arranged his bangs to cover his forehead, and squared his shoulders. If the Reverend was inside, perhaps Daylan’s recent post-pubescent appearance could get him past the door bots.
He walked in slowly, hoping he appeared confident but tensed to run. One meter in. Two. The door bot didn’t even flicker as he passed it. The room smelled of lemons, spilled talleran, and stale food. Daylan edged towards the nearest tables, empty of customers. He squinted in the unaccustomed dimness, so unlike the bright lighting in the rest of the port.
The Reverend rose from a table near the back. The other occupants, all Naiph, were unhooking their glidechairs from the table brackets.
Daylan raised a hand in greeting but the Reverend pushed right past him out the door.
“Run, boy, run!” The Reverend headed for nearest service tunnel. Shouts followed, along with the whine of glidechairs, but soon faded as Daylan followed the Reverend, weaving through maintenance doorways.
Daylan waited until they halted by a cleaning bot station before speaking. “What was it? Transit cops?” Naiphs and Terrans jointly owned the port in an uneasy truce. These Naiphs had clearly been tourists, though, and the shouting sounded angry rather than authoritative.
“Indeed…cops.” The Reverend was panting and gray-faced. He leaned against the wall, nearly knocking over an inactive broom which flashed a warning at him and released a smell of bleach. The Reverend took his pad out of his jacket and faded the screen, but not before Daylan glimpsed the sunburst symbol of Hotfuse, a popular gambling game. Could the Reverend have been betting with the bar customers? No, that was emphatically against the Heartcreed. A creed the Reverend had spent a lifetime creating, he’d said, combining mysterious things like the eight-fold path, the noahide law, and ten commandments of some sort.
“Rev, Rev, listen.” Daylan was stumbling over his words. “I can leave the port. I’ve got money. Ten thousand creds!”
The explanation spilled out of him, his voice jerky and rough. The Reverend continued to wheeze, sliding down the wall until he was sitting with his legs splayed out.
“Show me,” the Reverend demanded, holding out a shaky hand. Daylan indicated the balance on his screen silently.
“It’s my ticket out. I can go to back to Terra! Have a Terran life!” Daylan couldn’t stop grinning.
The Reverend had steadied his breathing but was still very pale. “Terra does not want you, boy, not unless you can buy an implant along with your ticket. Idios are even less regarded there than on Rassakit. You know that.”
Daylan did know that but, well, it was ten thousand credits. It wouldn’t buy an implant, not even close, but it should change his life. The bleach smell stung his eyes.
“I guess…I guess I can stay here. I’ll bribe someone for Suspendinox. I can pay for it forever. I can stay pre-pubescent,” Daylan said, giving the wall a gentle kick. He ached to go home. To sunshine and grass. To spread the wonder of the Heartcreed on Terra!
“You are lucky to have stalled puberty to the age of twenty.” The Reverend held Daylan’s eyes. “Perhaps your newfound wealth can serve the Creed. Perhaps I, as the sole adept, can form a parochial school–”
“I’ll stay here as an adult, then,” Daylan interrupted. “Hide in the service tunnels. Churl will sell me food. At one credit a day, I can live for, um, well, decades before I have to beg again.”
“Those who follow the Heartcreed have a higher purp–” The Reverend frowned, swallowed, and put a hand inside his jacket against his chest.
“Are you all right?” Daylan knelt beside him. “Sir?”
“Boy,” the Reverend mumbled. “My chest. I have…” He gulped and winced. “I have a faulty heart valve. An arrhythmia that is worsening. A quick fix on Terra but impossible here. ”
Daylan frowned. “You never said. You never told us.”
“And if I had?” The Reverend gave a half-smile. “Could you have saved me? I won’t be coddled. I’ll die here and that’s the end of it. Shit happens, boy.” He snorted. “A truth I never did manage to work into the Heartcreed.”
“There must be something I can do?” Daylan’s throat was suddenly raw.
He had to lean closer to hear the Reverend’s next faint words. “Find your balance, boy.”
He wanted to shout that he didn’t even know what that meant. He ran a hand over his clammy forehead.
The Reverend touched his shoulder with a claw-like hand. “Your heart will show you the way. For now, go to the pharmacy by the gates. Get two milligrams of Glyceryl trinitrate. A pulse dose in a sprayer.”
Daylan’s head spun. He reflexively reached for his pad to record the information but the Reverend shook his head.
“No time for that, boy. Just remember the word ‘nitroglycerine’. Now go! Time is muscle!” The Reverend’s breathing grew shallower and his eyes closed.
The pharmacy was a good 15-minute hike away.
Daylan ran it in five.
The Reverend’s body hit the bottom of the shipping crate with a thud.
Churl looked down into the crate and raised the bristles that ran across his nose. “Yeah, dat will do. I can ship it to my buddy on Naipha. He will handle it at de other end.”
Daylan nodded his thanks. At least, the Reverend’s corpse wouldn’t have to thrown down a trash chute. The Naiph had some good funeral traditions, according to rumor. And the Heartcreed did say there was kindness in everyone. Daylan rearranged the Reverend’s body, now cold and stiffening, as best he could while Churl stuffed empty soup containers around it.
Boxes, cans, and old machinery littered the back of Churl’s food stall. Daylan slumped against a worn-out mixer and kicked a toe over and over against the luggage cart he’d pirated to carry the body here.
Churl labeled the crate “Terran Mushroom Broth” and sealed it. “Dat medicine was just to distract you. You know dat, right? It wouldn’t have fixed him.” Churl scratched his oily head with a massive hand.
Daylan suddenly realized Churl was a good guy. He hoped he’d remember.
Daylan squeezed his eyes shut against a wash of tears. The medicine had cost twenty-five credits; a fortune just a few hours ago, now a petty, meaningless sum. He would have spent all his pad held to save the Reverend.
It hurt to look at the crate, squatting so solid and final amid the clutter. He pulled out his pad but its screen was almost unreadable. He thumbed on the Reverend’s pad and started scrolling. After a minute, he looked up at Churl who was checking the tightness of the seals one more time.
“Did you know that the Reverend was taking bets at Axis?” Daylan demanded. “He was giving odds on everything from football to creamcars.”
“Ya, de man was great off-line entertainment, dat’s truth.” Churl’s greasy face furrowed into a smile. “All the flight crews knew dat. And, if a passenger made a bet, de Reverend made sure dey at least got to keep der luggage.” He chuckled at his own joke.
Daylan rubbed his temples. His ears rang. It was all a fraud. The Reverend didn’t make a living begging. He didn’t follow the Heartcreed. He was an idios loser, no better than the worst Rassakit gangster.
His brain felt empty. A gaping, hollow husk where the Heartcreed had been. He’d lost the Reverend and now he’d lost his faith, his religion, his whole world.
He forced himself to thank Churl again before he left. Out in the main corridor, he stuffed the nitroglycerine pack into the nearest garbage chute, banging the lid so hard he startled an elderly Naiph seated close by.
He needed air and space. Ten minutes of blind stumbling through the crowds brought him to the entrance of the Portico. The mirrored walls gave it a cavernous feel and there was always a welcoming current of air. He lurched through some Terran school children in identical uniforms playing some kind of game. The smallest one was trying to put a multi-coloured sticker on another’s forehead in a childish imitation of an implant. The sticker floated to the floor and Daylan ignored their cries as he trod on it, heading for the edges of the Portico where it was less congested. The buzz in his head rose to almost unbearable volume.
The mirrored wall reflected his approach. His hair needed a trim, his pants were too short, and his upper lip sported a distinct line of dirt. He rubbed below his nose in despair. Cleanliness helped in begging but, anyhow, it was part of the Heartcreed the Reverend taught.
Would never teach again.
Had only pretended to teach.
Nothing could be worse than this. Nothing.
The smudge remained no matter how he scrubbed above his lip. He reached the mirror and leaned into it until his forehead touched the cool surface.
Things had gotten worse.
He was growing a moustache.
The Terran oak was a sturdy coffee-coloured plant just a bit taller than Daylan. He studied the smooth geometry of the budding green leaves and tiny twigs. He could almost feel a sweet, humid breeze on his face. He sighed in pleasure. Terra lifeforms had to be so amazing.
“Free looks are over, buddy. Get away from der.” The brawny Rassakit storeowner shooed him away from the caged tree. Daylan winked at the owner and ambled back into the main passageway of the port.
A boisterous Naiph sports team, their crimson-and-burgundy jerseys flashing a message too quick to read, jounced along in glidechairs, chanting and shouting slogans. Daylan quickened his pace until he was beside them.
“I’d be happy to show you an undocumented shortcut to Bay 87. You can make flight 814 and still have ten minutes grace to get a snack,” Daylan said, smoothly putting a hand under the leading Naiph’s elbow. He stroked his new moustache, now a brown luxurious centimetre that went well with the stylish silver-edged rectangle that gleamed on his forehead. If he carefully peeled it off each night, the fake implant could last for months.
“The best goal keeper in the Tri-galaxy leagues shouldn’t have to wait, don’t you think?” he continued, as the rest of the team, half drunk on talleran, followed his pointing arm. He drew on the information and scripting that popped readily into his head; appreciating the cleverness of his patter even as he spoke. Smooth phrases, facial recognition, obscure statistics; the sheer effortlessness of the recall continued to astonish him. The best five thousand credits he’d ever spent, he thought wryly.
He guided the team down a service corridor and through a broken doorway, its servos wheezing in protest.
One of the Reverend’s better mantras floated into his mind: Living is asymptotic to the axis of perfection. The Heartcreed was something he would always strive toward. In time, perhaps, he would get over his anger at the Reverend’s lapses.
He was still pleased that just half the money had been enough to tweak his brain. The pharmacy had done a minor adjustment, expanding his right entorhinal cortex. That served to increase his associative memory, making it fully as large as unimplanted Terrans had enjoyed, generations ago. Made it easy to put a name to a face, a uniform to a team, a definition to a word. If this goal keeper ever came back to the port in Daylan’s lifetime, he’d recognize him.
He bowed goodbye to the smiling team and strode off, whistling. Stuffing the Reverend’s worn pad back in his too-small jacket, Daylan happily imagined he could feel the three-credit tip bulging out.
He’d spent another thousand credits on a one-year data contract for the Reverend’s pad, expanding his info allowance a hundredfold. That, combined with the brain tweak, was like a window opening in his mind–a clean, clear window on the world.
Day by day, he was reinventing himself, piecing together a whole person. Setting up a curriculum to teach Jolo, Hundera, and the other aspirants basic survival skills was surprisingly rewarding. Having four thousand credits on hand reduced the terror of starvation; he would decide later how it was best spent.
He settled on a bench and started tapping away on the Reverend’s pad. Developing a Heartcreed–simple wording for a life worth living–gave him the most pleasure of all.
There was a Terran life to be had.
And it was right here.
Today we present Vajra Chandrasekera’s story, Perihelion.
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Hold on tight, we’re coming around again.
Now Cydonia ran as Episode 71 back in March of last year. One reason I’m personally so proud of our win is the story’s author, Rick Kennett. Although I’ve never met him, he’s from my home town of Melbourne, Australia and I love that a fellow countryman writes such kick-arse stuff. I narrated one of his ghost stories for Pseudopod, the immensely creepy The Dark and What It Said which is flat-out the best evocation of how spooky and lonely the Australian bush can be. Rick is a talented writer and I’m always happy to hear his stories when they appear in the pod-o-sphere.
Cadet Cy De Gerch bounced forward into the desert darkness, raised her arms in a defensive posture and, as best as a fourteen year could, barked, “Halt! Who goes there!”
There was no one there. There never was.
Cy jumped back, a slow leap in the low gravity, to her original position on the perimeter, her vacsuit moving easy like a second skin, to watch and wait and break the boredom as best she could until relieved. Out there was the desert she had trekked the past two years with her section of Martian Star Corps cadets. Out there was the countryside of Mars – cold and red and a billion years dead, littered with rocks, pocked with craters, filled with myths and ghost stories, most of which Cy didn’t really believe. Sergeant Kreeng – Old Get-It-Right – had known what he was doing when he’d set them perimeter guard duty consisting mostly of doing nothing. It was, she knew, a discipline of the mind.