Courtney was the leader: a petite woman in a well-tailored business suit and Italian leather shoes. Her straight blond hair was cropped at her chin and her blue eyes burned with determination behind silver-framed glasses. She walked with purpose, her heels clicking against the tile of the lobby, and she carried her bomb in an alligator briefcase.
Mike was first backup. He took the time to chain his silver bicycle to the rack in front of the office building, but he left his helmet unsecured in the metal basket. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of Chinatown Oakleys and his red hair was a clumsy masterpiece. He flashed a grin at the receptionist and unfolded his delivery papers with a wholly unnecessary flourish. He carried his bomb against his hip in a blue and red canvas messenger bag.
Adam had a different job. He walked down the sidewalk in an oasis of sound, his ears covered by headphones that were far too large to be missed, even in the tangled jungle of his dark brown curls. The headset cord trailed down his arm to connect with a large black boom box. The cuffs of Adamâ€™s jeans were frayed and torn from weeks of slipping between his Timberlands and the asphalt, and his hands were buried deep in the pockets of a nylon jacket bearing the name of his high schoolâ€™s football team. The apartment buildingâ€™s doorman didnâ€™t stop him as he walked to the elevator. Adam carried his bomb in a black Jansport book bag, which he wore slung over one shoulder.
â€œReport,â€ Courtney said when the elevator door closed and left her on the thirty-forth floor. Her voice was dissected and scrambled and thrown to the satellites by the small plastic headset attached to her ear.
â€œHere,â€ Mike said, kneeling on the roof of a building two blocks away.
â€œHere,â€ Adam said as he set up his bomb in a windowless, empty apartment.
â€œTarget lock?â€ she asked. She tested the positioning of her bomb with a pocket laser pointer, and a red dot appeared on the concrete face of the tunnel entrance over the stuttering stream of cars that would begin the deluge of rush hour.
â€œLock,â€ said Mike, and another dot met her own
â€œIâ€™m good,â€ said Adam. A low beep spilled from Courtneyâ€™s earphone, but it quickly dissipated.
The bombs were left in position and the three reconvened at a bar near the tunnel to begin countdown. Adam placed the stereo on the table between the three, then ejected a compact disc and fiddled with the archaic FM dial while Courtney ordered a wine for herself and draft beers for the others.
â€œFour fifty nine,â€ Courtney said, and Mike reached for the bucket of pretzels. The wall shimmered and gave way to numbers. 81.2 FM.
Courtney took a sip of her wine and watched from the window of the bar as the wall above the tunnel entrance went white. The flood of cars outside of the tunnel had fallen still, caught in the tension of endless traffic. Pedestrians halted, startled by the light.
The speakers exploded into sound.
â€œYes!â€ Mike cheered as the theme song began. Adam offered his hand and high-fives were exchanged as the bombs went off and the wall above the tunnel proudly displayed a white boat, topped by a smiling man. Adamâ€™s stereo continued, and a chorus of cheerful voices promised to deliver â€˜the tale of a fateful tripâ€™ to every person with a radio.
â€œFinally,â€ Courtney said with a smile as the opening of Gilliganâ€™s Island hung in thirty-foot shapes before them. â€œWe can watch something that isnâ€™t political.â€
The man with black teeth ripped at her plastic environ-suit. Beth didnâ€™t scream, it was a waste of energy and no one would hear her anyway.
He had no suit and his skin was bleached in some places, peeling and red in others. Sores covered his body and his hair was patchy on his head. Beth struggled to get out of his grip, but he pushed her down, and fumbled at the seals to her suit. He pulled down his pants and Beth saw he was bleeding there. She felt so tired. He ripped at her suit and she felt the hot, sour air invade. She screamed then, and the earth shook.
At first, Beth thought it was just in her head, that she was shaking, but then the tremor started again and the whole landscape shivered. The man looked away from her and Beth kicked up, right where he was bleeding, and he fell back, clutching himself. She scrambled upright and ran across the orange dirt, not looking back. The earth shook, and she fell and pulled herself up again, running. She ran farther than she ever had before, farther than her mother had ever let her go. She ran until she was lost and the midday heat was baking the earth until it shimmered.
Beth hid in a cave. She had gone out in the morning searching for metal, just like all the other children in the village. They came back empty handed, or with a few grams, tiny pieces. Once someone came back with an old soda can. Her mother would sell whatever she scrounged for food. Mostly it was never enough, and half the time, big kids stole from smaller children. No metal, no food, and her village had been running out of both for some time.
The man, an outlander, had told Beth that if she followed him, he would give her metal, and he led her to a place far outside of town. She had been there before, and it had been picked over already. She told him this, and he hit her. Beth cried to think about it. She felt like a stupid girl, a radiation baby, a dullard.
When the midday heat subsided, Beth knew she had to try to find a way home. She pulled out her scanner, the instrument that helped her find metal, in hope that the little map inside would help her find a way home. When she switched it on, it screeched, itâ€™s little arrow waving wildly. There was metal close by! Beth ran out of the cave, following her reading. In the distance, there was a chasm in the earth, layers and layers of something she had only seen in pictures. A landfill, from the ancient days. She thought they had all been found and dug up, but maybe this one had stayed shielded by the layers on top of it.
Beth nearly choked. The earthquake must have opened it up. Layers of plastic and metal, dripping from the sides of the earth, revealed by the split in the earth. A treasure mine, more precious than gold.
Behind the wire, inside force fields and walls of concrete and steel, lays The Bomb Shelter. The Bomb Shelter is referred to as the warmest place on this side of the galaxy. In the Bomb Shelter, Captain Jaylean Rael tossed back his third Jack and Coke and continued to hold court within the Green Zone on Mahtomedi.
â€œTrouble with this war is,â€ he said, one finger upraised to indicate the importance of the pearl he was bestowing upon the barâ€™s patrons. â€œThat we cannot afford to lose.â€
â€œNo shit,â€ Arnie said. Arnie Boldizsar was not military; no one in The Bomb Shelter was, not even its proprietor, Captian Rael, despite his claims as a former commissioned officer in â€œHer Majestyâ€™s Royal Space Force.â€ Not that it mattered, even if anyone believed him; there hadnâ€™t been a RSF ever since Europe united with the rest of the world against the Knesek. But The Bomb Shelter was his bar, and the best place to get a drink in the GZ, so he could call himself whatever he liked.
â€œPiss off,â€ Captain Rael said, spitting whiskey and cola across the table at the diminutive bioware technician, staining eight of Arnieâ€™s sixteen security ID tags. â€œYouâ€™re just grumpy because that little tart Simona at the coffee bar still wonâ€™t got to Kaliszewskiâ€™s with you!â€
Kaliszewskiâ€™s was the only decent place to eat in the Green Zone that didnâ€™t ask you if you wanted French fries with your meal. Simona was not the only decent girl in the Green Zone, but the selection was certainly limited.
â€œEase up on the poor boy, Jaylean,â€ said Nelson Litsinger, nibbling on Captain Raelâ€™s left earlobe. â€œNot everyone enjoys the manflesh with your fervor.â€
â€œThat is a misfortune that I am keenly aware of,â€ said Captain Rael. â€œNow, back to what I was saying, if you lot wouldnâ€™t mind?â€
The entire bar encouraged Captain Rael to continue. No one wanted to be kicked out and forced to drink at The Watering Hole.
â€œHave any of you seen the inside of a Knesek ship? I donâ€™t mean the gutted transport they have in that museum in Pittsburgh. I mean one of their fighters.â€
â€œOf course not!â€ Shurvo Chose said. Shurvo worked security in the Green Zone, since soliders were needed for actual fighting. This meant he could drink and order people around. â€œNo oneâ€™s seen the inside of one! Though I suppose you want us to believe that you have.â€
â€œOnly because it is true,â€ said Captain Rael, stroking his gigantic white mustache. â€œI was seeing a rather handsome member of the uppity-up at the timeâ€”this was before I met you, Nelson, darlingâ€”lovely fellow. Young, but driven. You know the type. And he showed me the inside of a Knesek fighter.
â€œNow, when one of our boys gets into a fighter, heâ€™s all balled up in safety equipment. Helmets, airbags and the like. Safety of the pilot is paramount. You know what the Knesek have?â€ Here, Captain Rael paused for dramatic emphasis. The entire bar was silent.
â€œNothing,â€ he continued. â€œNothing at all. Their carapaces are welded directly to the vessel. They are merely a part of the ship, from the moment they get in until the day they die.
â€œThat is why we cannot lose. Right now, we are within a fortress within a fortress, but that fortress is on an alien planet and the inhabitants of that planet have no problem turning their best and brightest into mere tools for destruction. What do you think they are going to do with us?â€
No answer was spoken from the patrons of The Bomb Shelter, though a great many more drinks were ordered. And that particular corner of the galaxy got a great deal colder.
The teacher tapped her wrist twice, and the drugs started streaming from the plastic tubes embedded in the studentsâ€™ desk into their soft little arms. Within moments, she had their undivided attention. The yellow design on her dress to moved in a soothing pattern, giving her students a visual point to focus on.
â€œToday,â€ she said slowly, â€œwe are going to learn about the sentient species that are currently known to mankind.â€ She tapped her eyelid three times, initiating the Note Taker program, which would stream an abbreviated version of her lecture into the studentsâ€™ memory chips.
â€œWho can, without network, identify the five known sentient species in the universe?â€ She shut down the network connection to the classroom by touching the back of her neck. Someone in the room sighed.
â€œHumans.â€ said Bei, in the front row.
â€œHumans are one.â€ said the teacher. She looked around the bright classroom, where licensed educational cartoons frolicked along the walls, displaying friendly attentiveness towards the teacher.
Purple-eyed Mary raised her hand. â€œYannoi, Gâ€™tharn, The Ones Without Names, and the Silicates.â€ Teacher had long suspected Mary of having a pirate network connection through some kind of organic implant. Her parents wouldnâ€™t say.
â€œThat is correct Mary. Recently in the news, the Yannoi have initiated hostile actions toward Humans, trying to use their transmissions to break into our computer systems. They have yet to cause any damage, as communication across that much space is very slow. Our scientists say that they have recently launched a fleet towards our home worlds.â€
â€œWhy havenâ€™t we taken action?â€ asked little Mary
Teacher opened the network connection again. Immediately she could sense the downloads and searches begin. Children were only allowed classroom related searches during school hours. â€œAlthough the Yannoi seem intent on harming humanity, our scientists predict that they only have a four percent chance of surviving the journey. Although we can bend sensitive areas of space to transmit small messages, larger areas carrying a heavy matter burden are impossible to transmit. Only light can be transported in this way, the light we use to carry messages. The Yannoi fleet, if they are successful, will take seven thousand years to reach earth.â€
â€œWe could all be dead by then,â€ said little Mary.
â€œOnly if you donâ€™t take your medication,â€ said teacher, tapping her wrist once. In unison, the whole class smiled.
Hijet dreamed of breasts, as he did every night. And once again he awoke with his sheet stained. Once more he would endure the sharp tongue of his mother holding the stained sheet as evidence of Hijetâ€™s unclean body, and crying to the gods why she was cursed with a son.
Hijet endured this as he always did, with his head down.
Hijet was of the age most boys apprenticed themselves to their fatherâ€™s trade. But Hijet had no father, so he sat by the village fountain in voluminous robes and head-covering with the other men who had no trade to speak of. There were more begging for work than usual; most construction work was now done by the new mult-limbed robots from Betleguese Prime. Only the soon-to-be completed temple required non-steel hands, but the temple could only afford a handful of workers. The rest of the men stood by the fountain, waiting to be told to work.
By noon, two dozen men were still waiting by the fountain, and it was looking like Hijet was going to face another day of no work and another night of curses and beratements. The square was already filled with merchants and businesswomen, and Hijet resigned himself to staring through the eye-slits on his head-covering at the short skirts and ample cleavage on display. He was so intent on a fruit merchant and her tight pants across the square that he didnâ€™t notice the woman standing in front of him until she tapped him on the shoulder.
â€œYou. Boy-Eyes. Turn around.â€ She was tall and strong, and her tank-top was stretched tight over her proud breasts and muscular stomach. The veins on her hands stood out blue against her tanned skin. â€œYou deaf, Boy-Eyes? Turn around.â€
The other men turned away, their own eye-slits finding purchase elsewhere. Hijet, cowed by this womanâ€™s forcefulness, hung his head and turned. He had no idea what she wanted, and a he let out a gasp behind his head-covering when she did something he never in a million years would have expected.
The womanâ€™s strong hands found Hijetâ€™s rear through his robes and were feeling it. Evaluating it.
â€œYouâ€™ll do,â€ she said. â€œCome with me, Boy-Eyes, and Iâ€™ll pay you twice what youâ€™d get shoveling dirt or pulling weeds.â€
Hijet looked at the other men for advice, but he only received the blank silence of heavy robes and slitted hoods.
The womanâ€™s house was as bright as the square; it seemed to Hijet that there she owned no walls, only windows. Even deep within his robes, Hijet felt exposed.
â€œTake your robes off.â€
â€œButâ€¦I am male,â€ Hijet said.
â€œThatâ€™s why I brought you here. You want the money? Off with the robes.â€
â€œIâ€¦I am a man.â€
â€œDonâ€™t flatter yourself, Boy-Eyes.â€
â€œThatâ€™s why Iâ€™m using mud,â€ the woman said, unwrapping plastic sheets from around am immense amount of clay. â€œLook, I canâ€™t sculpt you if you donâ€™t take the robes off. You can leave the head-cloth on, if you like. I just need your torso.â€
Hijet relented and removed the heavy robes, but left the head covering. The light streamed through the many windows, hitting his body at every possible angle. Hijet had never felt the sun on his bare skin before. And yet, it didnâ€™t feel near as hot as the womanâ€™s eyes. Hijet felt her gaze on his rear, on his stomach, on his chest.
â€œI think,â€ Hijet said, raising his chin, â€œIâ€™m going to take my head-covering off.â€
The catwalk was narrow, rusty, and in violation of at least four safety codes, but Juan didn’t care. When he stepped from the concrete landing by the elevator onto the precarious metal walkway, he grinned. It was a good day.
“Eight pounds seven ounces,” he told his coworker for the sixth time. Still, Jamal afforded him a hearty chuckle as he dragged the heavy light-box from the elevator. “Juanita. I like the sound of that. It’s a good, solid name, right?”
Jamal grunted an affirmation. “Get the other end of this, would you?”
Juan returned to the landing and grabbed the handle without breaking from his train of thought. Together, they hauled the metal crate onto the catwalk. Nine thousand feet beneath them, the light-studded skeleton of San Diego was recumbent with sleep, twinkling lazily in the hours before artificial dawn. Somewhere, in the more twilit area to the south, Carmen and Juanita were sound asleep in the concrete cradle of their home.
“She’s smart, you can tell already. Her eyes are all open and she keeps looking at stuff. She’ll be a city planner, I bet, if I can get the money for taxes. Or a doctor. Doctor Juanita Del Rosa. She’ll live on the upside.”
Again, Jamal grunted. “How much was the hospital bill?”
“Four thousand,” Juan said. “That included registration, though. And taxes aren’t due for a month. If we sell the car, we’ll be class A next year and everything’ll be covered.”
“We’ve been planning for years,” he said. Juan swung his end of the light box over the edge of the railing and hopped down to the broad, flat surface of the sun panel. Jamal lowered his end slowly, but it still fell the last six inches with a shuddering clatter.
“Christ!” Jamal yelled. “Pay attention!”
Juan dragged the crate to section 34-b, where the carbon-copied orders directed him. “Doctor Juanita Del Rosa,” he repeated with a smile.
“Ain’t no maintenance-worker’s kid gonna be a doctor,” Jamal snapped, now irritated at his partner’s lack of focus. Juan was unfazed. He popped the latch of the light box and Jamal leaned in, checking the massive LED panel for cracks.
“She will. You watch.”
“So what are you going to tell her, then, when she comes home crying because all the scientists’ kids are making fun of her? Daddy’s an ‘illumination technology specialist?'”
“I’ll tell her the truth,” Juan said as he slid the black and silver pane into its slot. “I’ll tell her I keep the sun from burning out.”