Author : A. Katherine Black
Titanium corridors were empty, galleys and docking bays silent, save the faint echo of rodents scuttling about. Still the ship continued on.
At its center stood a tree, supported by a system set in motion centuries ago. Its enormous black trunk sprouted layers of spindling branches, its purple leaves bathed in ancient light. The old thing stretched, decade upon decade, limbs long since pierced the ceiling and curled into floors above.
A girl sat at its base among discarded leaves, tucked into a nook perfect for her never-changing size. She stroked a textured branch and spoke so quietly, so slowly, a human’s mind would make no sense of it. But humans were only ghosts now, occasionally floating through her memory banks.
“How many were here, before?” Time had broken her programming. Somewhere between then and now she’d lost her original purpose. She settled in and waited for its response to seep into her mind.
Thousands shifted through these walls in repetitive cycles. So many bodies, no collective intention.
She asked the questions again and again. “Where did they go?” Its predictable response comforted her.
They fell from this place like my leaves fall at your feet, until one day there were none left to replace the fallen.
Iridescent toes, long and delicate, strong and durable, slid through the cool blanket of leaves. “Will we go away, too?” She lifted a foot and inspected her toes, dulled from the dust of decaying grey leaves that hid under fresh cover.
No child. We are going toward.
Every time the girl trekked to the control room, she gazed out enormous triangle windows at the beyond, at the many dots of light, and she wondered what the trees were like, out there. But the thought of leaving here made her hands curl and her thoughts freeze. Wondering was enough.
“Why are we going toward?” She sparked with every asking, wondering if one day the answer might be different.
We seek my kin. I will mix with them and create offspring.
She stilled as always when she heard these words. The tree never asked why, because trees don’t ask questions. They see things exactly as they are, and so there is nothing left to wonder.
The girl loved stomping loudly through the corridors, and she always paused to survey her lovely dents. She started punching walls simply because she could, because people were no longer there to tell her not to. The dents were random at first, but then they became a picture. Of her tree. Massive and twisted and everywhere.
Every trip she made to push buttons for her friend, she’d enhance the picture. A strike here for contour, a hit there for depth. But she hadn’t put herself in the picture. Because she didn’t know if she belonged. Because she wondered, when the end came, if she’d still be sitting with her tree.
And so the next time the girl stomped up stairs and down corridors, punching touches into her picture before entering the ancient control room in this relic of a ship, she did as she had always done, since the tree had first given instructions. She pushed buttons, telling the station to move them away, in the direction opposite to where the tree’s kin stood in wait.
The never-changing android girl gazed at the stars before skipping back toward the center, toward her captive friend. What she didn’t notice, what she’d failed to notice thus far, was the slightest tip of a branch peeking out from the corner of a floor panel, a single purple leaf sprouting from its tip.
Author : A. Katherine Black
The bulkhead door’s round window slowly split in two as Clyde’s vision skewed. He continued pushing air from his lungs. That’s it, his lungs yelled, none left, but he knew they lied like everything did eventually, so he kept on blowing. Every bit of Earth air must be purged.
The computer chimed. “Please breathe in,” said a soft inhuman voice.
Tightening his lips around the wide tube, he breathed in, long and deep. Prickles burst in his chest. He’d felt worse. He held his breath while he stepped through the bulkhead. The heavy door thumped shut behind him. He breathed out.
No turning back now.
Clyde slipped into the last open seat and buckled, avoiding eye contact with the other twenty or so escapees. He was on his way. A brief elevator ride, a not-so-brief space jaunt, and he’d be back to repairing big rigs, like he’d always done. Just with a small change of scenery, is all.
He breathed in and winced at the pain.
“Hurts, don’t it?”
Duh. Clyde had no interest in acknowledging the face attached to that comment. He’d be stuck in conversation forever after that. Easiest way to get along with these people was to stay as far away from them as possible.
So he grunted, eyes on the floor, pretending to be interested in the beige tile design. No doubt a subtle attempt at soothing the passengers, who could freak out at the realization they were leaving everyone they’ve ever known forever, who might scream at the thought of microscopic robots reconstructing their lungs to breathe fake air on some frozen asteroid hurling toward deep space at a gazillion miles per second or whatever.
Clyde decided the soothing tile patterns were a brilliant idea.
Sweat rolled down his cheeks. It felt like his lungs and his heart were in a fight to the death. Either way, he suspected he was on the losing end.
A throat cleared next to him. Clyde finally looked the guy’s way, suddenly wanting the distraction. Maybe the guy would be a world-class jerk, and Clyde would hate him more than the bleeping nanos tearing his insides apart.
“My brother said it’s normal,” the guy said. His long black beard shimmered as he coughed. “Feels like World War Six just started in your gut, eh?”
Clyde looked away and grunted again. No point in conversation. He and Joe started with innocent chats on the bus to work, and six years later Joe moved out of their apartment while Clyde was on shift, ruining a perfect run for no good reason. Commitment? Sharing a lease and a bed every night isn’t commitment enough? Well, yesterday he’d signed his life away, and now he’d be tethered to an asteroid ‘til death do they part. If that wasn’t commitment, Clyde didn’t know what was.
Engines powered up as the room lighting faded to blue. Soft computer voices instructed them to hold on, don’t worry, they’ll only feel the crush of a few g’s after a small explosion underfoot.
Then everything shut down. Overhead lights turned searing white. The engine cut, giving way to a whining ring in Clyde’s ears.
Some lady’s voice on the com. “We have an emergency call for Claudius Rain.”
The activity in Clyde’s chest doubled. He was near vomiting.
“Mr. Rain, will you take the call?”
He opened his mouth. Nothing came out. So he shook his head.
“That’s a no?”
Tears mixed with sweat, indistinguishable. “I’m already gone.” His chest burned.
“Okay then.” A pause on the com. “We’re off, people.”
And the engines roared.
Author : A. Katherine Black
Green paint peeled uniformly across the surface of the only door in the dark hallway, revealing a dirty brown history. Bastian slowed as he neared it. His partner walked around him and opened the door, entering the room without hesitation.
Bastian held back, scanning the hallway, wondering where the medics hid after prepping the space. Then he stepped into the small room, stopping when he saw the figure lying on the table.
“Jesus, Stewart.” He closed his eyes for a long blink. “This is a kid.”
Scents of salt and burnt rubber filled the room and made him nauseous.
“Oh, come on, Bas. You know what this is.” Stewart’s head craned forward in exasperation. “Unofficial. Under the goddam table. We can’t use a regular for this.” He reached behind Bastian to shut the door and turn the lock.
Bastian exhaled deeply as he sat in one of the two chairs at the head of the table. “Have you ever seen one this young before? What, is he six or something? Is it safe at that age?” He silently thanked his bad luck he wasn’t a parent himself. He couldn’t stand the weight of this if he was.
Sickly yellow lights hummed above the peaceful slack face on the table. The boy’s body was thin, his legs withered. A red cap dotted with metal beads attached to his head like a giant suction cup. Multicolored wires sprouted from spaces between the beads like roots dangling from a roughly extracted plant. Bastian was glad the kid, however old he was, slept like a baby. Christ, a baby.
He turned to the equipment between the recliners, trying to refocus. Movement flashed in his peripheral vision, pulling his eyes back to the kid, who laid still as stone. He must’ve imagined it.
He rubbed sweaty palms on his jeans and reclined his chair, taking one of the headsets and strapping it on. The metal was cold on his forehead. He pulled the pad from his front pocket and prepared to take notes. Stewart was right. This damned dictator was guarded better than their own effing Minister. They’d need this space if they were going to map out a plan solid enough to take the guy down.
Stewart took the other chair and bounced on it a few times with a satisfied smile before reaching for his headset. His face soured when he regarded Bastian.
“The kid’s older than he looks,” Stewart said. “The crippled legs just make him look shorter.” He looked squarely at Bastian, daring him to disagree. “Man, you know we need this space.” He reclined his own chair. “Don’t worry, these undocumented jobs pay way better than licensed ones. We’re helping his family.” He squinted at moldy spots on the ceiling. “I mean, look at those legs. He needs the money for medical bills.”
Bastian looked toward the boy once more. From his reclined position, all he could see were wires. He almost said something else, but then Stewart pressed the button to activate the session. They both inhaled sharply.
Bastian’s mind was a cavern. So much space waiting to be filled. Suddenly everything was crisp and obvious, from the sound of air hissing through the vents to the metallic taste in his mouth. It all made sense.
They discussed assets, intel. They planned. Bastian’s hand danced over his pad as the path unfolded before them. He laughed at the simplicity, the clarity of it all.
Every now and then, he couldn’t help glancing over his shoulder. No one was there, of course, but the feeling of being watched lingered.
Author : A. Katherine Black
Sweetie sat rigid with revulsion. Wet lumpy kale dotted with soft pine nuts lay rejected on her plate. She stared at the thickly curtained window, denied the right to watch the normal world go by. Relentless ticking of the grandfather clock echoed through the dining room and clashed against the slurping sounds of her parents devouring their dinner.
Sophie didn’t even seem to notice anything unusual. And why would she? Her toddler world spanned the length of this stupid ranch house and went as deep as the swing set out back. But someday she’d understand. Poor thing.
Sweetie pointedly avoided looking toward the head of the elegantly set table, where Dad’s lips curled outward and stretched as his jaw unhinged. Webbed fingers shoved a flopping, stark-eyed fish down his gullet with a slurp.
“Sweetie, hon,” Mom said in her wet bubbling voice, “you okay?” Her cold webbed hand moved to touch Sweetie’s pink forehead. “You feel hot and clammy.”
Sweetie rolled her eyes away. “Of course I do, Mom. That’s what people feel like all the time.” She shoved her chair back with a start and stomped away.
Dad’s gurgle followed her down the hall. “We’re people, too, Sweetie.”
She slammed the door.
She waited for hours, until the house was silent, until Sophie curled into a ball under her covers with about ten stuffed animals, until her parents rolled around doing gross stuff she tried hard not to think about while they swam around the mossy indoor pool at the back of the house. Why hadn’t they just disappeared on a fishing trip like everyone else did? Sticking it out for the kids’ sake, really. She’d rather be in a foster home.
Sweetie pushed up her window, climbed over her desk and slipped outside. She reached in for her flashlight, but somehow she was able to see better tonight than usual, so she left it on the desk. She ran across several backyards, fast and light on her feet. Daren was just where he always was, waiting under a tree.
They didn’t talk much, which was just fine with Sweetie. What the hell was she supposed to say, anyway? Uh, my dad’s a mackerel and my mom’s a trout?
So they made out. He was one of the best kissers she’d found so far. His lips were soft and forceful at once. And tonight they were… salty. Had he eaten nuts for dinner? Popcorn? Something.
She pulled him to the ground, giggling. His mouth was so moist. She kissed him hard, tugging on his bottom lip, sucking it in, relishing the fullness, the flavor.
“Ow!” Daren pushed her away. She could see him as clearly as if it was high noon. His bottom lip hung, stretched and swollen. His words were clumsy, his voice high. “Whah dah heah?”
But she didn’t want it to stop. Just a little more. This was good.
Sweetie’s parents felt the tremor in the water and swam quickly from their cave to the pool’s surface, popping their heads above water where Sweetie’s feet dangled at the edge. Tears poured down her cheeks, already washing away the blood.
Mom’s hand went to Sweetie’s knee, cool and reassuring. “It’s alright Sweetie,” she gurgled softly. “Mom and Dad are here.”