“There’s a storm coming,” Leaphorn said, and moved to close the shutters. Zhang removed his ear-buds and glanced up from his monitor, looking out the window. Beijing looked as clear as ever. He dismissed Leaphorn’s prediction with a wave of his hand, rose, and proceeded to make tea. Zhang had to navigate around the thrift-store cast-offs that Leaphorn called furniture in order to get to the hot-plate, which only made his mood worse.
Trouble was, Leaphorn hadn’t been wrong about the storms since he moved in four months ago. It was one of the many things about Leaphorn that quietly pecked at Zhang. His causal ease with Zhang’s native tongue was another. When he had first responded to Zhang’s “roommate wanted” ad, Leaphorn had spoken like those Indians in the old movies, with his Mandarin in harsh, broken sentences. That was part of the reason Zhang wanted him to move in. Now he spoke like he’d lived in Beijing all his life, and his ramshackle chairs were clashing with Zhang’s modernist decor.
“Keep the glass in,” Zhang said over his shoulder.
“You’re insane,” Leaphorn said. “The storm’ll tear up the glass.”
“The glass will be fine,” Zhang said. “Because there is no storm!”
Leaphorn didn’t press. He folded his arms and stood silent. So silent that Zhang could hear the wind picking up.
It started as a low whistle, and a fine yellow tint fell over the cityscape outside the window. Small specks of quartz smacked staccato against the glass pane. The wind’s howl split into two, and then three, whipping up and down the scale with dissonant savagery. The buildings outside were getting lost in the blanket of airborne sand.
Leaphorn raised his eyebrows and motioned to the shutters. Zhang shook his head. He was going to say something, but the machine-gun fire of pebbles on the window drowned him out.
The buildings across the street were now completely obscured. Instead, only ever-shifting patterns of gold and ochre could been seen. Despite his years in Beijing, Zhang had never actually seen a ruin storm before, only heard them from behind ceramic shutters. He has witnessed the damage afterwards, the steel and concrete shredded and worn by the repeated rage of sand and wind. But he had never seen one.
Zhang moved closer the window, shrugging off the hand Leaphorn placed on his shoulder. The chips of quartz had severely scarred the window, making it difficult to see the outside. But Zhang could see the shadows through the amber morass. Things that could be stray newspapers or bicycles or cars or uprooted trees. The window had started cracking, but Zhang didn’t notice. He was transfixed by a particularly bizarre shape tumbling through the sand. One that seemed to be growing bigger.
Zhang was so mesmerized by the chaotic choreography that he didn’t even notice that Leaphorn had tackled him until he was on the floor. The window exploded above them. Sand and glass and quartz spilled into the room like shouted curses. It took the two of them to close fast the ceramic shutters and keep the storm outside.
Zhang coughed and surveyed the devastation . Everything, the walls, the furniture, everything in the apartment was covered with a veneer of fine yellow sand. Everything seemed to be made of sand, all part of one homogenous sculpture. Everything was the same.
Except one thing. Half-submerged in his teapot, almost casually, rested a human hand. Scraped and leaking into the pot, its small, feminine fingers were clenched in a fist, save one. The middle finger remained stiff and erect, even at the cock-eyed angle its position in the teapot afforded it.
Leaphorn was the first to start giggling. It didn’t take long for Zhang to join in. Together, they drowned out the tempest.
“I just don’t see what’s stopping you, Raylan.” Piper adjusted her thick-framed glasses before jamming her fist back into the pocket of her hoodie. Raylan’s show at The Xanadu Carousel had been over for awhile, but the rain outside had only now just stopped. Piper and Raylan didn’t own cars, and this wasn’t the first time they had shared each other’s company after a show.
“It’s the knives, child. The knives,” Raylan said. Piper was always impressed by the way Raylan managed to navigate the slick pavement in his high-heeled boots. Even in puddles, he continued to gesticulate and sashay just like he was still on stage. “Besides, I have a fan-following to consider. Why, those little bald men who always sit in the front row would just be crushed!”
“I don’t see how. I mean, you totally look like a real girl alre–”
Raylan cut her off. “And you’re a sweet pea to say so, Piper. God willing, I hope I hope I never look like poor Belieze. I don’t care how much chiffon you put on a linebacker…takes all kinds, I suppose. But anyway, I enjoy a certain amount of sensual border straddling in my life. Plus, there’s the knife issue, darling.”
“They don’t use knives.”
“Lasers. Whatever. You what a laser is? It’s a knife made out of light. And I ain’t letting any doctor get all Obi-Wan Kenobi on my nethers. Not for nothing, child.”
Piper jammed her tiny fists deeper into her pockets. She had transitioned relatively recently, and was still getting used to being smaller. Her slight frame was overwhelmed by her sweatshirt; it had fit perfectly a few months back. “It’s gene therapy. They alter a few chromosomes and the–”
“Messing with far too much of the Lord’s handiwork, you ask me. Why be ashamed of the way God made you?”
Piper turned from Raylan and tried to hide even deeper in her hoodie. She started to run away, but didn’t get more than five steps before Raylan and his long legs overtook her. Piper felt swallowed in Raylan’s powerful embrace.
“Oh, honey, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean that. This mouth of mine just goes off on it’s own. You know that. You know that if I ever have a son, I’d want him to grow up into a beautiful young woman just like you.” Raylan removed Piper’s glasses and wiped off the moisture from their lenses. Raylan was taller than Piper even before the transition, and now with his height enhanced by six-inch heels, Piper felt extraordinarily vulnerable. Tears tumbled down her teenage cheeks.
“It’s just…it’s just you sounded like my–”
“Hush, honey. Hush. I know who I sounded like. And I am so sorry. God just made us different, is all. He made you able to change, and me perfectly content to wear a gaff for the rest of my life. It takes all kinds, All kinds.”
“Stupid hormones,” Piper said, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “I know I’m not a real girl…”
“Didn’t I just tell you hush?” Raylan petted Piper’s dark hair reassuringly with his painted nails, “You’re more of a girl than any of those painted tramps your age I see walking down the street, And you are my friend, which ought to make you real enough for anyone. Now, why don’t you dry those pretty blue eyes of yours and let me buy you a hot chocolate.”
Piper gave Raylan a weak grin. “Don’t try to butter me up.”
“Who said anything about butter?” Raylon said, hands on his hips. “You and I are going to get chocolated up, like real girls.”
With each stroke of the knife, I knew he loved me.
It started with my nipples, him telling me how much he loved me and how sexy I would look without them. He touched my face as he did it, cooing and kissing my forehead and telling me how much he loved me. He kissed away every one of my tears and held me within his powerful arms as I bled.
For six weeks there was no mention of knives. My heart leapt every time he looked at me, a joy and longing in his eyes. The six weeks after I gave up my nipples were quite possibly the happiest of my entire life.
But the seventh and eighth and ninth passed, and he grew distant, moody. He would spend nights away from the house and return drunken and grumbling. One night, I asked what was wrong, and what I could do to help him.
And so the knives came out again.
He shaved my head, including my eyebrows that night. Soon after, all of my hair from my body was removed through his amateur electrolysis. He took off my nose with one clean slice and, using a device I didn’t recognize, sealed up the wound and made it smooth to the touch, as if nothing had ever been there. I could only breathe through my mouth, and told him so, panicking. He just smiled, kissed the smoothness in the center of my face, and told me I was beautiful.
My toes and fingers took nearly two months, one joint at a time. He took similar relish with each of my teeth. He said he was sad when he went for my crotch, but I saw how happy his eyes were and how his hands shook with arousal as he smoothed out my groin.
He used that same device to seal off my sockets after he cut out my eyes. He also used it to fuse my ass cheeks, and later, my mouth leaving only a small hole in each case. I heard him laugh and tell me how sexy I looked. He kissed me all over, and made jokes about how easy it would now be to confuse my two ends. He sounded so happy.
One nightâ€”or what I assumed was night, at the very leastâ€”he drew a heart on my smooth chest with his finger. He told me it meant “I love you.” Then he cut off my ears.
Between long stretches of nothing, I would suck vitamin-enriched water from a straw he would press against lips and feel his strong fingers all over what was left of my naked body. I was too weak to react physically, but I reveled in his touch and the way traced that heart on my chest over and over. My life was spent this way, waiting for these moments.
It is difficult to love a being from another planet, but there are sacrifices to be made in every relationship. And now my alien lover will never leave me.
The walls of Maria Gracia Planaâ€™s prison had long since fallen, the building having crumbled along with the Empire that constructed it. The planetâ€™s wealth and populace have gone, leaving it boundless and bare, a relic of times long past. Maria Gracia Planaâ€™s guards have left her, after she broke the leg of the one who tried to rape her and the skull of the one who was going to watch. The walls were gone but she remained, writing letters to the outside worlds.
But they were no longer letters, not since the Blight. They were now nothing more than a series of apologies. Apologies to her people, who believed in her and her revolution. Apologies to her revolution, for not being strong enough to defend its ideals. Apologies to the dead.
In an open prison, Maria Gracia Plana wrote apologies those lost in the war that she started and the Blight that followed and hoped it would ease their weight off her shoulders.
She was engaged in this activity when the spaceman arrived. His Imperial uniform was disheveled and torn, but his bearing and movements betrayed a life spent in space, a life used to conserving everything.
â€œMaria Gracia Plana,â€ he said. â€œStill here?â€
â€œThere is a war on. I am a prisoner of war.â€ Maria did not look up from her tablet; she had apologies to write.
â€œWarâ€™s over. You won.â€
â€œI did not! I never wanted the Blight. I never asked for it. If I wasnâ€™t here, it would never have been used! Mass murder was never what I wanted.â€
â€œKnow. Read your letters.â€
â€œYou read myâ€¦â€ Maria managed to tear her eyes away from her tablet. â€œWho are you?â€
â€œNadir Faruqi. Captain, Galactic Imperial Fleet. Only, Empire done gone. Just Captain, â€˜spose.â€
â€œAnd you, no doubt a romantic, have come to rescue me, is that right? Well, I am dreadfully sorry, Captain Faruqi, but I have no desire to be saved.â€ Maria returned her attention to her tablet, and the apologies it contained. The spaceman merely stood stock still, another rock amid the ruins of Mariaâ€™s prison.
â€œNot here to save you. Here to save worlds. Empire done gone. Chaos, now. Blight done that. But so did you. So did I.â€ The spaceman touched the grip of the blaster that was strapped to his hip. He shifted his weight as he did so, as if the weapon had suddenly grown heavier.
â€œYouâ€™re here to remind me that Iâ€™ve failed, is that it? I donâ€™t need you to tell me that! I thought I was being a martyr when I was arrested. I didnâ€™t know then that martyrs are dead, and the dead canâ€™t speak. So when the people you trusted decide to release a devastatingly lethal on the enemy, no one will hear you cry â€˜no.â€™â€
â€œThatâ€™s gone. Canâ€™t change, so let go. Worlds need you.â€
â€œI am dead! Donâ€™t you understand? I am dead! No one will hear me except the dead, and all I can do is apologize to them! Thatâ€™s all I can do! I am dead! Can you hear me? I AM DEAâ€”â€
The spaceman placed his hand over Mariaâ€™s mouth. It was not an act of violence or anger. Merely frustration, which was echoed in his eyes, black as space itself.
â€œNot dead. The dead done gone. Youâ€™re here. Worlds need you. Was an Imperial Captain. Fought and killed for Empire. But never believed in. Saw much Empire as Captain. Nothing to believe in. Until you. You had a better way. Empire mighty, but not in your eyes. Your passionâ€¦your grace. Believed in that. Worldsâ€¦Iâ€¦need you to be worth your name.â€
The spaceman withdrew his had from Mariaâ€™s mouth, and held it in front of her, ready to lift her up out of the dust.
The walls of Maria Gracia Planaâ€™s prison had long since fallen, the building having crumbled along with the Empire that constructed it. The planetâ€™s wealth and populace have gone, leaving it boundless and bare, a relic of times long past. All that remains are her apologies, and the dead.
We think large. We may be small creatures to you, but our lives extend far beyond the miniscule moments you possess. We think large, and we think long.
Have you ever looked at a mosquito, closely? It’s a strange shape, all hunched over and crooked. Even by your insect standards, it is a bizarre creature. And you never realized. It’s one of the few insects that survive your winters. Did you ever wonder why?
It was us, of course. We didn’t have to do much; it was already such a glorious creature. And what with that penetrating…what’s the word? Oh, there it is. Proboscis. Lovely word. Proboscis. What with that proboscis, we had the perfect conveyance.
Naturally, you were still too great in number, so a certain degree of population destruction, a bit of “shock and awe,” if you will, was necessary. What was it you called it? Malaria? How…quaint. If the boys in the infantry don’t already know what you call them, I’ll have to tell them. Sounds like a girl you used to have sex with, doesn’t it? “I just met a girl named Malaria…” The things you people think up.
And all this time, you blamed the mosquitoes! Not totally, I see. You called them â€œcarriers.â€ Too true. What does that make you then, I wonder?
I do apologize for all the mucous that clogged your throat and sinuses, the aching of your muscles, your general weakness for the past few days. I can see that you thought it was a just a cold, but I feel the need to own up. We’ve become so close, after all. It was me. Your nervous system is surprisingly hard to operate.
Tell you what, before we meet up with the rest of the invasion fleet, let’s go find a girl that arouses you and have sex with it. First one we find, huh? You’d like that, wouldn’t you, boy?
Look, I’m trying to be nice, here. I don’t have to be.
After all, your world is ours. From the first time you coughed, you had already lost.