For the ninth time today, Dyson glanced up from sweeping the facilities floors. He knew it was the ninth, because he’d been watching his bank account shrink with every confused teen who walked by, every school field trip who waltzed in and every curious observer who thought he could lend a hand. Who wouldn’t keep count?
“S’cuse me, sir? Where cans I finds the bathrooms?” It was a little boy this time, probably lost. He’d have to take care of that as well. He decided to delay the inevitable for a bit.
“Why, where are your mom and dad, little one?” He smiled underneath the rim of his cap as he leaned upon the broom and watched the blue-eyed boy. The banter wasn’t necessary, but he figured he might kill two birds with one stone.
“I uhmâ€¦ I can’t wememberâ€¦”
Of course he couldn’t. The boy reminded him of his grandson, however, so he sighed and gave an answer. “Bathrooms are two halls down, past the dinosaur sections and on the left.”
Picking up his broom, he moved over to the front desk and watched Shirley smile brilliantly at a group of students standing around her. She must have been rich, the way she spouted out the information like it was nothing. “In fifteen minutes, we will have our native peoples exhibit, and at 2:30 you will be breaking for lunchtime!”
He waited till she had finished her speech to the group and took in a deep breath as she turned to him. “In all my years, I ain’t never seen anyone remember stuff like you do. How do you do it, Shirley? Don’t you miss all the money from your account?”
Leaning forward, she got a very serious look on her face, “Well, if you really have to knowâ€¦” When she slid a small pad of paper from under the desk, Dyson stared blankly at her as if she’d pulled a gun.
“Shirley!” he started in a hushed whisper. “If the Memory Monitors catch you with that, it’s five to ten at the very least!”
She waved him off with a nonchalant gesture, “Dyson, Dysonâ€¦ don’t worry about it. I have it all under control. Besidesâ€¦ The Native Americans we teach about in this museum didn’t have to pay for their keepsakes. They drew pictures and told stories. We can’t be expected to work in a place like this and not learn that.”
Still watching her like a cautious hawk, Dyson muttered, “They didn’t have to pay? Youâ€¦ wrote that down to remember it, didn’t you?”
“What can I say? Some things should be remembered for free.” She leaned back in a way that almost made it seem like she would put her feet on the desk.
The restaurant still sold wine from when the meteor struck. The very year. Abigail said she could taste ash in every sip, though that didn’t stop her from drinking. I swirled my glass, looking for bits that might be floating about in the cold liquid, fragments of catastrophe sealed by glass and cork.
Abigail had ordered some human cheese for the both of us, to snack on while we decided on our orders. The waiter swore that the milk was all given voluntarily, but even his definitive nature couldn’t dispel images of captive women chained in the back. His assertion that the cheese was made on the premises didn’t help much.
“You’re so morbid,” Abigail said when I told her about the captives in my head. She dipped her slender fingers in her wine and flicked droplets at my face.
“You’re the one who chose this place.”
Abigail pouted. “I took you out to cheer you up.”
Fine place for it, I thought. I didn’t say it, though. Instead, I mentioned Oshiwara Gainsberg’s new film, Big Black Mariah, an animated fable about the legendary boarding-house owner here in Boston. Abigail turned up her lip in a sneer.
“God,” she said. “It’s about the meteor, isn’t it?”
“I don’t see how.”
“Wake up! Everything is about the meteor these days. This woman, she’s a force of nature, right? Nothing, no one, can stand against her? But she only harms the guilty? Propaganda!” Abigail threw her arms wide on that last word, flashing jazz-hands.
I thought of the still-frame I had seen on the feed, Mariah towering over the innocent and guilty alike, her ink-black dress the only thing separating the two. I remembered the sun was behind her, forced the ne’er-do-wells to shiver in her shadow. I shrugged. “It’s just the way things are now. It’s part of the human condition.”
Abigail grumbled and blew bubbles into her wine. “Whatever. People need to get over it.” Abigail wrapped her sweater tighter around her shoulders, as if she was cold. As the restaurant grew darker in the fading evening, Abigail took a big swig of her wine, and said again that she could taste ash in it.
It was only then that it hit me. Abigail had a girlfriend named Ashe, who was among those the meteor claimed.
I would have said something, if the waiter hadn’t returned with our cheese.
“Pure Mother’s cheese,” the waiter said. “A hundred years ago, such a thing would have been looked upon as immoral, or even illegal. Times have sure changed, eh?” He waited anxiously for us to try a piece.
The cheese was surprisingly sweet, a good compliment to the smoky wine. It felt very warm in my mouth, and I noticed it caused a faint smile on Abigail’s lips. I imagine a similar expression was on my own face.
“Thank you,” I said. “This is just what we needed.”
Today is an unofficial public holiday. Those people that can take a day off work do so, those that can’t call in sick. Today is The Burn. I don’t know who started the tradition (some people say that it was a group of Canadian activists, other claim that it was a collation of South African students) but it spread so fast that it doesn’t even matter where it came from.
It’s celebrated differently all over the world. In the old European Union, I hear they Burn effigies of dead celebrities like Elvis and Brad Pitt. The Europeans blame the Chinese for what happened, the Chinese blame the Indians and the Indians blame the Americans. Americans don’t burn any effigies; Americans break into cemeteries and steal corpses.
In North America they mostly just spit on graves stones, or sometimes even an open hole but in the Southwest, man, they do all sorts of shit. They steal bodies out of graveyards in poor neighborhoods and have giant tailgate parties where people shit on the corpses. A buddy of mine told me he went to a party in new Texas where people took drugs to induce vomiting so they can make a public display of puking on their ancestors. Of course, I’ve seen those corpses, and I don’t see why you would need to take drugs to puke, just smelling them usually does it on it’s own.
Near the equator, I heard that in some places they cook and eat the corpses. I can’t imagine what that old meat might smell like, smoking on a bonfire. Of course, that’s just a rumor, you hear all sorts of shit happening at the equator, the heat makes everybody crazy.
I was thinking about it though, waxing philosophical, you might say, and I think our ancestors got the better end of the deal. I wouldn’t want anyone to puke on me, of course, but they are dead and they don’t know what’s being done to them. I’ve seen the old movies, the flat screen pictures. They had lives without boils, without flaking red skin and the scarring, the flooding and the power failures, the plastic suits and stinking air. They had more metal and plastic than they knew what to do with. They had plenty, and they ate it up.
I get the boils, every day, a new one. I wear the suit, but I still get the boils.
You better believe I’ll be out there today. There’s a grave me and my boys got our eye on. The dead could have done something back in their time, but now it’s too late. They left us here on a world that’s broiling us. The Burn is the least we can do.
Jergan loved ships. Ever since he was a little mite he’d loved them, watched them, lusted over them–it was only natural that he become a pilot. He’d been a dock worker for years as a teenager, hauling and stacking crates, recalibrating spanners, and bugging any captains he could get a word with to take him into their crew. It never happened, of course. Everyone knew Jergan around the loading docks, knew that he cared more about the ships than about their cargo or crew. That was bad for business. Jergan was patient, though, and when he turned twenty-two he had finally made enough money to purchase his own ship.
Now it seemed like he might have to go back to hauling crates. Only a light-year from Borsen, Jergan’s baby had developed a shimmy, and halfway into the outer atmosphere sans attitude control, he was beginning to accept that it might be a lost cause. “I knew it would happen sometime,” Jergen said to his placidly plummeting ship, “But Borsa? Sweetheart, I thought I taught you class.” The ship wasn’t answering. Jergan went through the repair procedures a final time, but there was nothing to be done. The ship seemed determined to go to her death.
Jergan stood in the central cabin, one hand on the bulkhead. He’d raised this ship from a junkyard brat into a respectable salvage vehicle, but here she was, resigned to a fiery end. The atmosphere was beginning to redden outside the windows, and Jergan knew she wouldn’t last much longer. This was the moment all the captains had dreaded. This was the time when he’d have to choose.
“Well, babe, it’s been fun,” he said, moving to the hatch and fitting himself with an oxygen helmet. “You’re a beauty. I woulda loved you to the end. But I’m not gonna go down with you.” With a final pat, he moved through the hatch into the escape pod and jettisoned. Watching the ship explode as it careened into the atmosphere brought a pang to Jergan’s heart.
When he finally dragged himself into a port in Borsa, Jergan’s very first stop was the bar. He’d only gotten halfway through his third beer, however, when a tap on the shoulder brought him around. A man with hard eyes was peering down at him.
“Yeah?” Jergan slurred. “Whaddaya want?”
“You’re Jergan,” the man said. “Ship-lover who couldn’t get a job in Delwas, right? Went down over the Crater today?”
Jergan grunted and slumped over his beer. “Kinda busy right now, man,” he muttered. “Wanna take a hike?”
“Wanna take a hike, captain.”
Jergan turned his head and eyed the man in confusion.
“Captain Hennesey,” the man clarified. “It seems you’re out of work, and we’re a man short.”
Jergan blinked. “But… Delwas. I thought you said…”
Hennesey waved a dismissive hand. “If you want work, you’re hired,” he said simply. He glanced at Jergan’s beer and smirked, just a little. “We could use a pragmatist like you.”
“You just need to get your priorities in order,” Pern said as he plunked the ripe wikifruit onto the table. Courtney watched with dismay, her eyes wide as she watched the young man end drive a long knife through the product of her months of gardening. “Food is all fine and good, but we already have food. We’ve got over a hundred rations to get through before the supply ship comes. This,” he said, indicating the smooth, pink outer shell of the fruit, “is for something better than eating.”
“The only thing better than eating is breathing,” Courtney said, reciting one of the three principles that had been drilled into her during pioneer orientation. Pern laughed.
“You haven’t been here for long, have you?” he asked. He moved the blade around the thick stem of the wikifruit until a circle the side of his palm could be lifted from the foot-long purple shape. Pern reached for the next instrument, a long-necked spoon, which he stabbed deep into the fruit’s body.
“Iâ€¦” Courtney began, but her shock quickly overcame her dedication to the pioneer ideals. Pern looked up to her with a warm smile, then twisted the spoon and lifted a clump of soggy pink from the inside of the wikifruit before dumping it into a bowl. He repeated the motion several times, and the rose-colored heap grew larger and larger until it seemed that so much mass could not have been contained within the now-hollowed fruit. Pern ripped the corner from a bag of sugar with his teeth, then poured it into the bowl in an avalanche of white.
“Get me the riser,” he told her. Courtney stared at the fruit, her horrified expression similar to the one she’d worn when she heard about the great wagon incident. She had no choice but to obey, though, and he knew it. When she returned with one of the small packets she used to bake bread, he tore the top away and emptied the paper envelope over the white and pink heap. Pern stirred the pile with his spoon until the wikifruit meat was a squishy, sugar-embedded glob. He lifted a spoonful, offering it to Courtney. “Wanna taste?” he asked.
“You monster!” she whimpered. He shrugged, and shoveled the bowl’s contents back into the purple rind.
“You’ll thank me in a month or two,” he told her with a knowing smile as he sealed the wikifruit with the circle he’d first carved away. “Everyone always does.”
There was frost on the window. It was supposed to be summer, but since the last conflict began, every season had been extended. A fleet of enemy carriers lay still in orbit just outside of normal battalion fire, visible through the large viewscreen window, but they did not move. General Dana Blain looked out over the debris of thousands of warships as it floating up above the atmosphere in the night sky, watching as some succumbed to the gravity of the planet and became shooting stars in reentry.
Her blue eyes stared into the stars as her hands found each other behind her back. “Ensign, I need a status report of the orbit.”
Red lights flashed for days, and the people felt it all over the globe. Ensign Webber punched in the codes and looked upon the glowing screen as he read the statistics to the General. “General, the report from the Scientific Data Association reads us at an orbit increase of twelve days, sixteen hours, forty-three minutes and fifteen seconds.” The ensign paused while a droplet of sweat moved down his temple. “That’sâ€¦”
“An increase of almost double over last time. Yes, I know.” General Blain walked over to the console and punched in a few numbers to see for herself. Her expression was blank and disaffected, as it had been since the third conflict of the war.
A screen to the right of the panoramic view blinked on, displaying the features of a man nearly as stoic as the General. “General Blain, this is Senator Ruger! Peace negotiations are beginning with the Dek’a. You are to cease military advancement immediately. This planet cannot take another blast. Do you-”
He hadn’t finished before the General’s finger flicked over the console button and cut off power to the screen. Everyone in the room turned to her, their faces glazed with astonishment. “Ready the cannon, Ensign Webber,” she said as the eyes of every person in the room focused on her with undisguised astonishment.
“But-” the ensign protested with what the last remnants of his confidence.
“Do it!” As she snapped, she fixed him with a glare more potent than any weapon’s force. Ensign Webber nodded. It wouldn’t be long before they would hear the rumble of the weapon rising to the surface. The cannon was the most deadly weapon in their arsenal.
A science expert’s voice finally broke through the silence. “General, another blast from the cannon will push us out of orbit,” she said quietly
While the scientist stood in defiance, the General waved a hand to have her escorted off the bridge. In that same moment, she watched the planet, her planet, shine its weapon of destruction towards the helpless fleet of carriers. It was that stone cold look that now filled her being and pushed fear like a drug onto her crew.
“This is for John,” whispered the woman, as she avenged one man with the motion to fire.