On rainy days, on days when the air smelled like ozone and soot and water fell swollen with chronoradiation, Anton climbed to the roof of the tallest building in Pripyat to watch the sun peel the clouds from the horizon at sunset. The first nine blocks were easy: he pushed the girl ahead of him in a rusted shopping cart. The stairs were more difficult, but heâ€™d fashioned a sling out of an old backpack to secure the girl to his back. The whole ordeal took nearly three hours, so he always started early. Unfortunately, because the stairwell was windowless and he had no way to measure time, sometimes the sky was already dark when he opened the door to the roof.
Anton thought of the girl as Antonina, though heâ€™d never learned her name. Like most of the shadow children, her metabolism had slowed after the incident, and any physical aging in the last decade was negligible. Her body was eighteen months old, he estimated. There was no way to know if her brain grew in body time or thought time, but he fancied that she was nearly eleven behind those dark eyes. That was how old his daughter had been.
The front left wheel of the cart screeched with every revolution. Anton used it to keep his footsteps in rhythm. Every three shrieks, he leaned hard against the plastic rail to shift his weight from his leg. It was two thousand and twenty six steps to the building, but only one thousand and thirteen of them were painful. The injury was relatively minorâ€”a ligament torn during a game of tag with his daughterâ€”but, like Antonina, his body moved in Pripyat time and it could take decades for the tissue to knit.
Above them, the dim patch of light inched towards the horizon and the first shade of smog-soaked red spilled over the empty village. Anton estimated it would take another hour to make it to the roof, which put them perfectly on schedule with the darkening sky.
As he walked, Anton hummed a song heâ€™d picked up in the university pubs of Moscow back when his wife had been his girlfriend and his daughter had been a laughable impossibility. When Antonina’s chubby face opened into a broad grin, Anton tried to sing the chorus. Most of the words had been forgotten, and his syllables washed ahead like echoes swirling over the sooty streets.
“Did you hear about the breakout on the southside?” Alison twisted her head around to watch Misty pulling off her decontamination helmet, which emitted a soft suction sound as her head popped out of the air-tight seal.
“What? I couldn’t hear you through this. You know I hate it when you do that.” Misty shook out her brown hair and went to sit at the kitchen bar, taking a deep breath, breathing in the viral air. She felt it take effect as her hands lay palm-flat on the surface, feeling the sticky texture of the unwashed counter top.
“I said, did you hear about the breakout? The Government is all over it. They brought a tankard of Influenza.” Alison said it matter-of-factly, but in reality she was scared of whatever would take a tankard of Influenza to get rid of. Her hands fidgeted in her lap as she looked at the dull glow of the television.
Misty was getting used to her new disease. She bit her lip as she tried to pour herself some bacteria, her breath a bit broken by the viruses running through her system. “S-so what did they say about us? What about East Town? Are there any left?”
“Antibiotics? No. They found a case of Vioxx and two or three instances of Prozac, but nothing to be scared of, hon.”
Misty was relaxed now, allowing her body to give way, and she just smiled at the knowledge that outside was going to be safe soon. Her fingers tugged the cup of soiled water towards her and she sipped it, tasting the tangy, bitter fluid.
She sighed at the taste and opened her clear blue eyes. “You need to get some more Flu tonight. We’re all out and you know how I hate going to work without Flu. I get all shaky and shit…”
Alison was paying attention to the sore on her arm where the flesh-eating virus had been working, and she picked at it once or twice. She was barely able to hear that Misty had spoken, she was so transfixed. “Huh? Yeah, yeah… look, I’m trying to save up to get us some new Pox. You know the news said that Pox is curing Zantac and Antibiotics on the East coast. I wanna try it out.”
Misty coughed and then felt her lungs get tight. It was a good sign. “Okay, I’ll see what I can find on my way to work tomorrow.”
Carol laughed, her plump cheeks rising over tiny eyes. “Admit it, you’re a genius.”
Jude shook his head and his dark silky hair slipped over his pale face. “I do okay, but I wouldn’t say I’m a genius.”
Carol smirked and put her hands on her fleshy hips. “How about Renaissance man? Come on! When you were seventeen you conducted experiments on global warming with Nobel Prize winners.”
He smiled rakishly. “It wasn’t just global warming. The simulations were dealing with the negative environmental effects of mankind on the planet. There were hundreds of variables involved; global warming was just one of them.”
Carol leaned on the bar. “Right, then you decided that wasn’t enough and you switched to medicine.”
Jude shrugged. “No one cares about the environment. It was too depressing to watch simulations of humanity killing itself.” Jude scowled, imagining his great grandchildren burning. “Besides, there is more money in viral research.”
Carol wiped her sweaty hands on her square skirt, a piece of clothing that looked like it was pulled from her grandmother’s closet. “Sure, yeah, you’re curing the worlds illnesses for the money.” Carol put her wide hand on Jude’s shoulder. He smiled flatly and pulled away. Carol grinned back at him, freckles stretching on her cheeks. “On top of all this professional stuff, you conduct those martial arts and survival skills workshops on weekends.”
Jude put down his beer. “That’s just for friends, it’s nothing big.”
“Right. Nothing.” Carol looked at their friends, smoking and drinking around the bar. “If I didn’t know any better Jude, I would say you were building an army.” Carol giggled, and Jude’s face went blank and grey, like a shut off television screen. He laughed a moment later, a hollow, dark sound. Carol’s eyes widened. She knew, and it was his fault.
Later that night, Jude went to see her, holding a bottle of old red wine in his hands. Carol’s house was cluttered, dried paint stains, magazine clippings and fabric in piles around the floor. It was two AM and she was drowsy, her eyes puffed and sleepy. She let him in and asked him what was wrong.
Jude had been crying.
He opened and poured the wine without asking. They drank as he told her everything she wanted to hear. Her face beamed, suddenly and unexpectedly pretty. Then she sputtered, wine dripping down her chin as she tumbled out of her chair and landed heavily on the carpet. Her body was heavy and soft, her nails trimmed and painted. Jude ran the tub and set her inside, gently laying her head on the ceramic. He hoped that Carol had drunk enough of the sedative that she would stay under.
Jude told himself that when they rebuilt the world, he will tell them about her, how she died to protect the secret of his plan. They would erect monuments in her name; he would see to that. After the plague his handpicked civilization would all know the truth. They would call her the mother of peace. The children might not know her face, but they would appeal to her as a saint. He told her this in the bathroom, her body slipping again and again under the warm water.
It surprised him how much it took to cut her flesh. It bent like rubber wrinkles around the razorblade. He had to try over and over before he punctured the skin, pressing hard against freckled meat. Blood slipped over her arm and under his fingernails. His hands were shaking. Jude sawed against the skin, grinding his teeth. This was for everyone.
In the evenings I would go into the studio, tablet in hand, and sit there for hours, just sketching. My husband had bought me a full-wall screen for our last anniversary, finally giving in to the idea that without my art, we wouldn’t have had a marriage. After twenty-two years, it was an admirable concession to make. I would turn the lights down low and let the soft light of the screen illuminate my face as I sketched. I liked the way the color of the room changed as I painted, bathing me in whatever mood I wanted to create. The big screen was the best present anyone had ever given me, though I’m sure my husband regretted it more than once when I spent sleepless nights in the studio. He never complained, though, and I appreciated that.
My gallery was on 23rd and Spruce, in the New City, with some of the highest resolution displays in the business. Naturally it wasn’t an exclusive gallery, but since my pieces sold better than anyone else’s they tended to give me most of the showings. I sold some prints, but only on rare occasions; for the most part, I sold chips, compatible with any screen of appropriate quality and etched for uniqueness. My husband used to grumble that I made more in a day than he did in a week, but since I only sold pieces once or twice a fortnight I considered us even.
It was late January when I saw the painting. It was at a hanging in one of the offshoot galleries, one that I had stopped into on a whim on a cold, dirty-snow afternoon. The room was small and subtly lit. The first thing I noticed was that the screens the paintings were on hadn’t been coordinated to illuminate the works. I frowned and stepped closer, meaning to take a better look before going to the gallery manager to expose such an appalling lack of foresight, but gasped instead. The paintings weren’t displayed on screens. The texture on them was real, not a clever illusion. At first I was appalled. How dare someone hang paintings that were made with real paint? That didn’t take talent! It was like cheating. I opened my mouth to tell someone, anyone, of this terrible deception, but she spoke and my words went unvoiced.
“Would you like to touch it?”
I gaped at the woman behind me, open-mouthed. She was small, thinner than I was, with square glasses and a little button nose and a round face ringed by hair that was dyed a quiet silver. Her smile was as small as her frame. “Go ahead, Lily. That’s what it’s there for.”
My mind reeled at the fact that she knew my name, forgetting that everybody knew my name in the art scene, but I reached out all the same, running my fingertips over the canvas. I could feel every smoothness and every imperfection. I could feel the texture of the canvas where the color was thin and the thickness of the paint where she had gone over something more than once. It was dynamic, breathtaking; a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional frame. I’m not sure when she left, but when I finally lifted my fingers, I was alone in the gallery.
That night I smashed my screen. I threw a vase into itsomething antique, I thinkand smiled with satisfaction. I’d changed my mind. The vase was the best present anyone had ever given me.
Jemai’s skin was the color of water, which is to say it was hardly a color at all. Her body was a milky grey that took on a blue or green tint in certain lights, and when Thomas’s warm fingers traced her hip bones they left a trail of amber in their wake. He loved the way her skin reacted to heat. If he moved his finger slowly enough he could trace words across her stomach, and when he couldn’t sleep he wrote love songs into her one letter at a time.
Jemai read them, but she never replied.
As Thomas touched her she stared at the ceiling, her dark eyes searching out the darkest corners as if she had left something in their depths. She inhaled once for every five of his breaths, and the oxygen-drenched air forced its fingers into her lungs the same way his fingers forced their way into her stomach. Everything on Earth left a heavy residue, she’d learned. When she watched her skin change color beneath his fingertips, she imagined that her body was rubbing away. If he kept at it she might disappear. Sometimes she wished that she would.
On Ayta, the dark sky danced with the colors of a healing bruise when solar flares licked its heights. Behind them stars poured out across the thin atmosphere like beads of oil on water, and some days she slept outside to keep watch, as if all of it might be gone the next morning. “Don’t be silly,” Daik used to tell her as he pulled her body against his and stroked her forehead with his slender thumb. Her skin hadn’t changed at her lover’s warmth. Their bodies had been the same temperature.
When the Terrans came for Ayta’s fuel, Daik had been among the first recruited to defend their resources. He left without ceremony, smiling his usual knowing half-grin. “Keep safe for me,” he’d said.
Shifts changed, but Daik never came home. Three years later, the ceiling of Thomas’s room was starless and still, the room’s silence broken only by the sound of his rapid Terran breathing. She’d been saved from the fuel mines, she told herself, and repeated it like a mantra as his fingers traced their usual path around her navel. She was safe. She was safe.
Thomas sighed blissfully and settled his body against hers as he prepared for sleep. Jemai exhaled for as long as she could, forcing every atom of the thick Earth air from her lungs. She was safe. Thomas’s room had no windows, but in the darkest shadows she pretended she could see Ayta’s sun shimmer like a pearl in an oily sea.
“I don’t understand you Earthans at all,” Jaeg said, inflating a third bladder in order to rise up to the spaceship window. Earth was still in view, though it was slowly shrinking amongst the black. “You have one of the most gorgeous planets in the galaxy, yet you all are constantly wandering away from it.”
Lucky allowed himself a chuckle and stepped closer to the bundle of flesh and tentacles that was his co-pilot. He placed what he hoped was a comforting hand on Jaeg and watched her soft flesh change color at his touch. “We often don’t understand ourselves. You’re one to talk. I hear the Ithilpods are notoriously agoraphobic. Hardly the stock I would expect the best co-pilot in the sky would spawn from.”
The viscous outer skin on Jaeg’s face took on a purplish hue, which was the closest she ever came to a blush. “What can I say? I’m exceptional.” A balloon of skin billowed out from a crevice in her side, and she was looking Lucky directly in the face. “You, however, are not answering my question.”
Lucky could see himself mirrored in Jaeg’s multiple eyes. Each one was about the size of his head, and the collection dwarfed the body behind them. “You don’t get a lot of light from your sun, do you, Jaeg?”
“No. And you’re stalling.”
Lucky watched several copies of himself look incredulous. “I am not. There’s a point here. See, our sun’s only medium-sized, but we’re close to it. It provides us with a lot of light, so much so that we’re lit longer than we aren’t.” Jaeg cricked her neck; Lucky was used to reading that as a nod. She wasn’t so fond of the tinted suit she wore on Earth’s surface that she forgot why she put it on. The ship was no longer lit with light in the UV spectrum so that she wouldn’t have to wear it while on board, either. “So, darkness, darkness is unusual. And most of us, well, we feel the need to go into darkness, to find out what’s in there. Space is the largest patch of darkness we’ve ever seen. So naturally, we have to go see what’s out there.”
“Even if you don’t know what could be out there?”
“Especially if we don’t know what’s out there.” Lucky shrugged, and wondered if his movements translated as easily as hers. “That may not make much sense…”
“No, it does. I understand completely, Lucky,” Jaeg turned away from the rear window and floated toward the cockpit. “I’m a romantic myself.”