The Finite Magic of Little Monsters

Magic is not just a Gift, despite the commonly-used misnomer. To view it as such can lead to irresponsible delusions and wasteful practices. Rather, Magic as understood by the Guild is a limited resource that needs to be carefully controlled and allocated for peak societal impact. We take this duty seriously and strive to invite only the most visionary Witches and Warlocks into our ranks. In this way, we protect and cultivate the Coven of the Arts.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 1, article 2.1

#

Guildhall had been Hanna’s dream ever since she was old enough to understand what dreams meant. From the moment she registered the significance of that spiky black insignia, her life had been spent chasing it. She’d dragged her exasperated parents and disinterested brother into endless art stores and galleries, steering family vacations toward exhibitions of Magic or Coven signings. She’d spent long hours at the local mystic shop, eyes scraping over swirling orbs, singing statues, and tittering paintings of rosebud ladies, their smudged, impressionistic parasols spinning behind them. She’d read every book she could find on the Guild and watched countless interviews of new Witches and Warlocks, inhaling the minor details of their lives as if she could repeat their success by osmosis. Her childhood bedroom had a poster of Guildhall dominating one wall (which her mother called “nightmare fodder” and had promptly ripped down when Hanna moved into the city) and she’d worked herself to the bone developing her Gift, perfecting her Little Monsters, and applying every year for the chance to take the Exam. Her father wouldn’t talk about it and Cody didn’t understand. But, despite her mother’s nervous doubt and gentle suggestions to do something else, Hanna had blown on the coals of her dream with relentless ferocity.

Finally, finally, here she was.

Guildhall.

The mansion was huge and imposing, as mysterious as the power it represented. Innumerable windows glinted at her like so many eyes, eerie even in the bright midday sun. Ivy stretched long fingers up brick walls and curled around the top of a heavy wrought-iron fence. The flagstone path was hemmed in roses. On either side, bushes cut into sharp animal shapes prowled with silent grace, tethered by their roots but still roaring and swiping and howling at the clouds.

Magic.

It’s even more impressive in person, Hanna thought, tilting her head back to trace the spiral turrets that rose into the sky like smoke.

Even after a lifetime of envisioning herself in this exact place, Hanna still felt like an intruder. She was a mundane smear of gray on an otherwise beautiful painting, a pebble among gleaming gems. She shifted her weight, suddenly all too aware of how dull and unremarkable her jeans, Chucks, and ratty cotton pullover might seem.

It doesn’t matter, Hanna told herself sternly, trundling her enormous rollaboard down the path toward the great gilded doors. The Coven doesn’t care how you look. They sent the invitation. They wanted you to come.

Pulling her oversized suitcase up the age-warped stone stairs, Hanna paused. Took a deep breath. Lifted the knocker.

The door swung open, ripping the brass ring out of her fingers.

Hanna swallowed her surprised gasp, stuffing it back into her chest like a handkerchief as she faced the tall figure in in the now-open door. It was an elderly woman, forebodingly elegant, wiry gray hair pulled in a high bun. She wore a deep crimson turtleneck that hugged her bony frame like a bloodstain.

“Hanna Ramison, I presume?” said the woman in a voice that reminded Hanna of old church bells.

“Y-yes.” Hanna coughed, reining in her frayed nerves as she pulled the acceptance letter out of her back pocket. “Yes ma’am, I’m here for this month’s Exam.” She held out the crimped paper, worn soft by her endless, incredulous rereads.

When it had materialized on her tiny kitchen table, Hanna hadn’t believed it. At first she’d thought it was a hallucination. Or worse, a joke. But when she’d seen the invitation scrawling itself across the thick, cream-colored parchment as if by an invisible hand, she’d known. The spiky black cursive manifesting her dreams before her was the truest, strongest Magic Hanna had ever felt. It had to be real.

Now the acceptance letter looked small and mortal next to the majesty of Guildhall.

Like her.

The woman arched one brow, inscrutable eyes sweeping down. Hanna could almost read the thoughts on her forehead, written in the same barbed script. A video game T-shirt? Jeans? Sneakers? What kind of Witch do you think you are?

But Hanna didn’t flinch away. Instead, she hitched her expression into the warm Southern Belle smile her mother had taught her, clutching the suitcase handle that was her tether to the world.

In that suitcase were her tools, her clay, her paints.

Everything she needed to make her Little Monsters.

Give me a chance, Hanna tried to say with her smile. I’ll show you what I’ve got. Let me prove you wrong.

After a long, breathless moment, the old woman stepped aside to let Hanna in, turning away in half dismissal as the door crashed shut behind them.

“I am Headmistress Oswall.” She clicked into the entrance, Hanna jogging to keep up. “I will be overseeing your efforts for the next month and conveying my…” she flicked a glance back, “thoughts to the rest of the Coven. Our final evaluation will take place on the last day of the lunar cycle, in the gardens.”

Hanna swallowed, eyes still adjusting to the sudden darkness. She already knew that. She knew everything there was to know about the Exam.

Including what happened to those who failed.

“You are not committed to anything until you step onto one of the Reservoir crystals,” the woman continued as Hanna blinked, taking in the akimbo arms of the master staircase, the cavernous entrance hall, the rows and rows of portraits around her, half of them familiar, all of them famous. “Until then, you have the option to leave at any time. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hanna said, hating the drawl that came out when she was nervous. She wondered if Headmistress Oswall could hear it.

“You’ve been assigned a room on the third floor. Do not leave the Guildhall grounds. Do not attempt to go through the GuildGate or access the Reservoir. Do not speak to any Coven member or associate. You will fraternize only with the other aspirants until you have either passed your exam or returned to the common population.”

Headmistress Oswall swung around, a key dangling from one finger and glinting like a knife.

“Any questions?” she snapped.

Hanna swallowed again and it felt nauseatingly like a rodent was trying to burrow into her chest.

Be brave, she thought. For Cody.

She accepted the key, clutching it tight enough to leave teeth marks on the flesh of her thumb.

“No ma’am.”

“Then good luck,” Headmistress Oswall said without emotion. “I’ll be watching.”

#

Should aspirants prove themselves worthy conduits of Magic, they will be allowed to keep their Gift and be granted full support and exposure. They will never want for supplies or mystical assistance. Their work will be featured in our galleries and distributed by our infrastructure, and they will be guaranteed a position of honor among the Magical elite.

Those who fail to prove themselves at Guildhall will offer their Magic to the Reservoir, to be redeployed as the Guild sees fit.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 2, article 5.6

#

Hanna was surprised to find someone already in her room, a wild-haired girl with perfectly round glasses and baggy harem pants who introduced herself as Deja Bisset.

“I’m from Quebec,” said the girl in a thick accent, rising from the nest of her paint-splattered sheets.

“Roanoke,” Hanna said, hefting her suitcase onto her thin, plastic-coated mattress. “Virginia,” she clarified when the girl’s eyebrows puckered.

“That’s a big suitcase for just a month, no?” Hanna could feel Deja’s breath on her neck as the other girl leaned in close. “I brought only one change of clothes. You seem to have many.”

“It’s my supplies.”

Hanna edged away just enough not to seem rude. But Deja didn’t seem to notice. She only frowned, strangely cat-like as she cocked her head. “But they are providing everything we need, are they not?”

A flush rose up Hanna’s neck. Her mother had said the same thing.

Honey, if they don’t have the right supplies that might mean they aren’t interested in this, er, kind of work.  

Hanna shoved the voice to the back of her mind, to the bleak grayness that existed at the edges of her ambition.

“Just wanted to be safe,” she said to Deja instead, stretching her back and peering around her new room. “Woah… are these yours?”

Hanna leaned in to examine a beautiful painting of the sea, one of several hanging on the wall over her new roommate’s bed. They were majestic, the paint actively crashing and blending with so much force that Hanna found herself wondering how they didn’t fall off the wall. Deja’s work was silent, of course. Like the hedges outside. And yet still gorgeously kinetic, alive, pulsing with Magic.

“Yes,” Deja answered in an unsure voice. “My Gift manifests as ocean landscapes.” The other girl scratched her blue-splattered arm, eyes bug-like and magnified by her thick glasses. “I hope that Headmistress woman likes them.”

“She’d be an idiot not to,” Hanna said, unable to tear her eyes away from the azure progression of sea, the snowcap crest of foam punching into raw sand. The closest painting seemed to gain force as she watched, waves pumping faster, wilder, in rhythm with her heartbeat. Somehow channeling Hanna’s tension into each violent surge.

Her fists clenched.

Doubt — that old, malevolent friend — slinked into her mind, tried to sink its fishhook claws into her certainty. Can my Gift really compete with this? Will they choose her instead of me? Maybe I should leave, keep what I have, return to my studio and the small life of a local magician?

But she forced herself to take a deep, calming breath, lifting that well-worn memory of her brother’s gleeful laugh as a shield.

If her work could delight a lonely boy with autism, surely the Guild would recognize how much good her Little Monsters could do.

Hanna took a deep breath, swinging to face Deja.

“So,” she said, offering her best lets-be-friends smile, “where do we eat in this place?”

#

While it is a common, pedestrian idea that there is ‘enough space for all kinds of Magic’, the reverse is actually true. Not only is Magic limited, but there is only so much space for it in the market. Imagine if any enchanted bauble or sketch were given the Guild’s stamp? It would be chaos. There would be no way for the Giftless to be guaranteed quality Magic. And worse, if the Coven couldn’t depend on support from the Reservoir, then standards would drop even lower. Therefore, it is for the consumer’s benefit that we curate what falls under the Guild’s stamp, so it can always be trusted.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 3, article 9.11

#

Over the next few days, Hanna met the other aspirants. Besides Deja and herself, there was Tommy Holt with his black-and-white Emotographs that could make any of them cry or laugh or tremble with fear. Giorgio Yang, with his mosaics that would shudder with lightning or waver like a summer haze, depending on the mood of the observer. Mildred Parks, whose films would saturate the room, the ghostly shapes of actors walking off the screen to wave and strut and dance in the real world with the conviction of more than mere projections. And Jemma Juarez, whose colorful skirts and frothy tops were as expressive as hackles, rising and ruffling with her erratic moods.

It was enough to make Hanna sleepless.

Not that any of them slept much. They had a month — a mere month — to bet against their futures. So Hanna was far from the only one spending every waking hour in the studio rooms. Mildred ate lunch in front of her computer as she edited; Jemma could be found bent over a sewing machine until well after dusk; Deja’s hands were always layered with paint. Even aloof Giorgio had a goggle-burn from spending so much time hovering over the furnace to bend and warp his glass.

But all that went away every time one of Hanna’s Little Monsters came to life.

With meticulous care, she carved and painted each one, setting them on the table to dry. When they were ready, she would breathe her Gift into them gently, maternally, seeding each one with its precious core of Magic. It felt like holding a hot cup of tea in her hands, or maybe a beating heart. Her palms would glow and her face would flush and suddenly the tiny figurine would come to life.

When she set them down, the Little Monster would salute her or dance or sing a ludicrous yodel. Each one was as different as a new alien species. Some had antennae or fur, others eccentric but harmless spines. There were bright feathers and dull horns and tombstone teeth and baggy coveralls. But no matter how strange they looked, all of them were cheerful and wild, radiating a larger-than-life silliness that warmed Hanna’s heart.

Even in the cutthroat miasma of the studio rooms, her Monsters managed to make her laugh.

Unless Headmistress Oswall was around, of course.

“That woman feels like the personification of a raincloud,” Tommy complained one night when they were sprawled around the garden, all of them trying not to look at the heavy stone arch that represented everything the aspirants wanted. They’d spent two weeks living under its shadow and the strain was beginning to show.

“I wonder if she ever smiles,” Jemma said, offering one of her own as she passed the flask to Deja.

“I think she does not,” Deja answered after a heavy gulp of the harsh gin Giorgio had smuggled into Guildhall and shared without explanation. “But perhaps she would with the right… incentive.”

At that point, they all knew what kinds of lurid incentives Deja meant.

“Too bad you don’t do portraits,” Tommy said with a wink.

“Alas, the Gift comes in its own way.” Deja toppled back on the grass with a dramatic flourish.

Hanna giggled, watching one of her Little Monsters do cartwheels on the flowerbed beside her. Mildred and Giorgio watched emotionlessly, as dour and serious as ever.

“What do you think it feels like?” Tommy asked after a silent moment as Giorgio took back his flask and finished it. “To stand on those?”

As if pulled by a gravity stronger than Earth’s, six faces turned to stare at the crystal circles embedded in the center of the garden, bright against the smooth lawn of grass. There were ten in all — the largest class Guildhall could accommodate. Perfectly round, smooth, and glowing with an inner energy that reminded Hanna of those deep-sea plankton that created their own bioluminescence, the stones pulsed with a deeper, more ancient power than any of them could possibly channel.

The Reservoir.

“I’ve read that they hold you there,” Hanna said, her voice cracking on the last word. She cleared her throat. “Frozen. Until you pass, of course.”

“And then you go through the gate,” Tommy said brightly.

Jemma scoffed. “If you’re lucky.”

That was enough to make them fall silent again. It was easy, under a blanket of stars and shared exhaustion, to believe they were friends. But a sinister groundwater ran beneath them, the looming scepter of rivalry.

Because the coven had never, in the entire history of Guildhall, passed an entire class.

“We can do it,” Hanna said, grinning as her Little Monster began to toss handfuls of mulch in the air and watch delightedly as it rained down like autumn leaves. “You guys are all such amazing artists, I’m sure we can make it.”

Mildred rolled her eyes. Giorgio remained silent. But Jemma, bless her, laughed.

“That’s the spirit, Hanna.”

Hanna helped a drunk Deja stumble to their room that night, tucking her roommate into bed and almost believing they could care about each other, that they could do more than just survive the Exam.

It would be the last time any of them would take a break.

#

The Guild recognizes the freedom of small-time magicians to practice outside the jurisdiction of the Coven. That cannot be helped. But the Witches and Warlocks we select are the true pillars of Magic, the mystical voices of our world. It is through their leadership that we glimpse the great power and majesty of the beyond. It is under their guidance that we see into the soul of existence. There is no greater calling than that.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 13, article 1

#

When the man walked in, Hanna wondered if her eyes had stopped working. It wouldn’t be the first time that her feverish exhaustion had blurred the lines of reality in the studio room. But no, the figure striding across the wide workshop was real, tangible, his cape flapping behind him.

Warlock Benedict Yosef.

Hanna blinked, looking up from the Little Monster she’d just finished. The figurine was tilting at her thumb with a floppy, harmless lance, but she ignored it. Warlock Yosef was the man responsible for the trimmed bushes in front of Guildhall, the leafy panthers and leggy green giraffes. His work was coveted by every wealthy family from here to Vermont. An original Yosef could elevate any common estate to one of taste and elegance. When she was thirteen, Hanna had spent a whole summer begging and cajoling her parents to take her to the Richmond Botanical Gardens to see a full exhibition of Yosef’s work. When they’d finally relented, the pure bliss of the experience had sustained her for half the schoolyear.

Now Hanna gaped as one of her childhood heroes marched through the flurry of Jemma’s fabric trimmings, the steady rumble of the sewing machine covering up the click of his boot heels.

Hanna rose, drifting over to Jemma. Tapped her on the shoulder.

The sewing machine fell silent.

“What do you —?”

Jemma’s irritable question died as her eyes found the newcomer.

Warlock Yosef ignored them, striding up to Headmistress Oswall as if the aspirants weren’t even there.

“I need to access the Reservoir,” he said without preamble. “I’ve been commissioned for a project in D.C. that requires a bit more… oomph.”

Headmistress Oswall’s lemon-pinched mouth didn’t slacken, but she bowed her head.

“Of course, if you’ll follow me to the garden…”

The Headmistress’s voice faded as she turned to leave. But as Hanna and Jemma stared, Warlock Yosef hesitated. Glanced back.

And caught their gaze.

It was a split-second acknowledgement of their existence, a dismissive heartbeat of a look. But did Hanna imagine the pity in his eyes? The jaded acceptance that some of them would have to sacrifice on the altar of his success?

Before Hanna could puzzle out his frown, Yosef turned away, disappearing down the corridor after Headmistress Oswall.

“Asshole,” Jemma said, bending back over the sewing machine.

“I mean, he’s not allowed to speak to us.” Hanna massaged her sore fingers, cramped from the long hours of carving and painting.

“No.” Jemma’s voice was rough with sleep deprivation and determined rage. “We’re not allowed to speak to him. There’s a difference.”

The ruffle that ran down the spine of Jemma’s blouse began to sharpen into a ridgeline of spikes. Hanna recognized the dismissal.

“I’m gonna go tell Deja,” she said.

Jemma didn’t respond, so Hanna made her way into the great hall and up the staircase, thinking about Warlock Yosef.

Would she be like that, as a registered Witch? Would she offer only vague, skeptical pity to the aspirants she met in the future? Maybe she would. Maybe after years of watching faceless youths try and hope and fail, she would harden to protect herself from the onslaught of pain and rejection, stride past as if it didn’t, couldn’t touch her.

No, Hanna vowed as she stepped into the third-floor corridor. I won’t be like that. I’ll support every aspirant’s dreams, no matter how unlikely. I’ll inspire the Coven to be better. Do better.

A small, unwelcome voice echoed up from the chasm of her doubt.

If you get the chance.

She shook away the thought, throwing open their door.

“Deja, you aren’t going to believe —”

But Hanna fell silent as the wild-haired girl swung around, her eyes even rounder and more manic than usual.

Deja was sobbing.

“W-what is it?” Hanna stammered, stepping inside and closing the door softly behind her. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t… do this,” Deja wailed, falling into Hanna’s arms. “I’m going… to fail.”

Hanna stroked Deja’s hard spine and held her close, closer than she was strictly comfortable with.

“Of course you won’t, you’re doing great,” Hanna whispered. “You’ve worked so hard. Look at your new paintings, they’re better than ever.”

“It’s not… enough,” Deja gasped, collapsing to the floor. “I know it’s not… enough.”

Squatting next to her roommate and the closest thing she had to a friend in Guildhall, Hanna stroked and whispered and did her best. But nothing she said could console Deja. The frenzied, desperate, exhausted push had worn the already-eccentric girl so thin that she was bending, a tree in the wind, an old bridge about to snap. Hanna felt it too. All the aspirants did. There were only a handful of days left until their Exam, a deadline of hours to prove their worth. Every one of them was giving their all to convince Headmistress Oswall they were worthy.

Statistically, only a few of them would.

“You’re okay,” Hanna said, fighting the urge to retreat into her own space, her own mind. “You’re going to be fine.”

Warlock Yosef’s face swam back to her as Deja continued to weep and shudder, his faint pity as sharp as ever.

Maybe this was why he didn’t speak to them. Because the memory of his own Exam was still raw enough to bleed.

#

Guild-certified Magic goes beyond mere entertainment. It’s deeper and richer, at once reactive and resonant. Its value cannot be classified by the difficulty of spells or its effects on the Giftless. Rather, it must channel that indescribable other, breathe fully-formed mystery into the world. Because of that, Witches and Warlocks themselves must be more than mere practitioners. The aspirants we choose to join the Guild must embody Magic in every element of their being and present themselves to the world as accurate representations of the Coven. Our time-honed craft of recognizing such outstanding individuals is what sets the Guild apart.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 15, article 3

#

Hanna had never been so frightened in her life.

As she followed her fellow aspirants into the garden, she wondered if her shaking legs were strong enough to keep her standing. All around her was evidence of the Reservoir’s power, throbbing with the tidal pull of moonlight. The night air itself seemed to glitter like fresh frost, moving around them with a strange, prodding intelligence that made the hair on Hanna’s arms stand on end.

“Jesus, fuck…” Jemma whispered, fists clenched.

Hanna’s mouth was too dry to respond. She imagined the others remained silent for the same reason. Even Giorgio looked like he was about to vomit all over the softly lit grass.

Headmistress Oswall stepped onto the dais where the GuildGate waited, the air inside it glistening like an oil slick. Lined up on either side were draped, hooded figures, their faces lost in shadow, their hands tucked into heavy sleeves.

The Tribunal of the Guild.

Hanna tried to imagine herself striding past them, disappearing through the arch and claiming her Gift once and for all. But the image in her mind warbled, rippling in the earthquake of her terror.

She swallowed.

“Aspirants,” Headmistress Oswall said in a carrying voice. “We have reached our verdict and now so must you. Should you choose to leave, there will be no punishment. You will be allowed to keep your Gift and do with it what you will.”

The Headmistress paused, her raptor eyes darting from face to blanched face. But no one moved. Hanna met the old woman’s gaze with her own determination. She was here for Cody, and for all the little girls and boys like him. She planned to finish what she’d started.

“However,” Headmistress Oswall continued, “If you wish to stand trial for the chance to join our ranks, take your place in sacred covenant to accept the decision we have made.”

Quivering like a plucked guitar string, Hanna offered Deja a small smile.

We’ve got this, she tried to say with her eyes, but Deja only clutched herself, stepping onto her own lustrous stone. Hanna followed, choosing a blue-tinted circle at the edge of the group. She planted her feet and clenched her fists, raising her chin to face what was coming.

The Reservoir’s glow deepened, darkened, pulsed. The air itself seemed to rumble as if lighting had just struck nearby.

And then Hanna felt every muscle in her body freeze.

Her fear mutated into panic, into feral regret.

I shouldn’t have done this. This was a mistake. Oh god, what have I done?

Struggling to control a violent cascade of warring instincts, she focused her unblinking eyes on Headmistress Oswall as the old woman pulled out a long sheaf of snowy parchment, tracked with names.

Hanna was too far away to read them.

My name is on it, she told herself, trying to believe it. I’m on that list.

“First of all,” Headmistress Oswall said to the frozen statues of the aspirants. “I want to thank you all for coming to Guildhall. We depend on young magicians like yourselves to keep the Coven supplied with fresh Magic, whatever form it takes. So well done, all of you, for supporting the important work we do.”

The old woman’s face remained pinched, emotionless, only half sincere. But Hanna didn’t care.

Just read the list, she thought desperately. Please, just tell us. Get it over with.

“You should also know that your class had an unusually high success rate. Previously, fewer than one in four aspirants are welcomed through the GuildGate, but this month a full half of you were deemed worthy of the passage.”

Three people. That’s three people. Hanna wished she could look around, but her head was locked in place, wide eyes drying as Headmistress Oswall consulted her list.

“The new initiates are,” she began, squinting at the parchment. “Jemma Juarez.”

Hanna watched as a weak-kneed Jemma stumbled up the stairs. The hooded figures on either side of the gate clapped politely as she all but tumbled through the purplish surface of the GuildGate and wavered into the grounds beyond.

Two more names, there are still two more names.

“Giorgio Yang.”

Hanna’s breath would have caught if it could have. A sob of desperation ricocheted around her belly like a loose projectile with nowhere to go. She watched Giorgio stride up the stairs as if he was born to it, showing none of the nervousness that had stained his features just moments ago.

One more. That’s going to be me. Hanna Ramison. Read the name. Hanna Ramison.

“And our last initiate to the Coven of the Arts,” Headmistress Oswall said as Giorgio disappeared through the gate, “is Deja Bisset.”

It was perhaps lucky that she couldn’t move, because Hanna had no idea how she would have reacted. A scream of agony ripped at her throat, clawed at the cage of her ribs, but she was locked, trapped, helpless as Deja stepped off her circle.

Deja glanced at Hanna. In the other girl’s enormous, magnified eyes was a mirror-image storm, Hanna’s pain reflected back as tentative excitement, guilt, horror.

Pity.

“I’m sorry,” Deja whispered.

“Quickly now, we don’t have all night,” Headmistress Oswall said, rolling the parchment back up.

Deja turned away, toward the dais and the GuildGate and her future.

Hanna’s legs were going numb, her hands tingling with all the pent-up horror she wasn’t able to express. Headmistress Oswall stepped forward, blocking their view of Deja disappearing through the Gate. The Tribunal’s polite, almost bored applause died away as the Headmistress addressed them.

“I’m afraid to say that the rest of your Magic has not manifested quite in the way we’re looking for. However, your Gifts will still be useful in augmenting the Coven’s work. Take heart in the knowledge that your Magic will make the world better, if not directly by you.”

Hanna realized with suffocating dread that it wasn’t horror making her legs go numb. It was a chill creeping up from the stone, inching up her legs and spine, leeching away something she hadn’t even known was there.

“You three will gather your things and leave Guildhall as soon as possible. Should you still wish to pursue careers associated with the Guild, there are plenty of supporting positions you may choose from. We welcome your assistance and hope you will do what you can to help the Giftless appreciate Magic the way you once did. Thank you again and goodnight.”

Headmistress Oswall was turning away and Hanna wanted to scream and thrash and claw the woman’s ice-cold eyes out of their sockets. She wanted to sprint for the Gate, break into the grounds beyond, force them to accept her or even just give back her Gift. But as the glowing Reservoir stone released her, Hanna found her strength gone, as if it was Magic and not muscle that had kept her aloft all these years. She collapsed to her knees, accompanied by twin thumps on either side.

“Come… back…” Hanna whispered as she struggled to lift her head.

But the dais was already empty, the Headmistress and the draped figures of the Tribunal disappearing through the Gate and leaving behind the three who could not follow.

#

While not everyone can be a practitioner of Magic, we must value and support those who have spent their lives cultivating an appreciation for it. Those who fail the Guildhall Exam will be welcomed as Official Distributors and granted the solemn duty of marketing and distributing the Coven’s work. We hope they will find fulfillment supplementing the mystic work of the Guild.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 9, article 7.1

#

It had been two years since Hanna lost her Gift, but she still sometimes felt the undertow-pull of Magic or the vague, distorted craving to pick up her tools. Her boss at the gallery said it was like a phantom limb, that it would never really go away. And he should know, having failed out of Guildhall more than a decade ago.

Hanna tried not to think about it.

Selling and stacking and organizing all the Guild-stamped examples of real Magic, Hanna found herself wondering what happened to the others. What did Tommy do, without his gut-wrenching photographs? What about Mildred, who would never make the grinning actors walk off the screen and drift around the cinema again? Did they still dream of their work, like she did? Or had they moved on with their lives to do… something else.

She probably should too, but Magic still drew her like a moth to the flame. It might kill her eventually, but at least it would be warm.

Hanna sighed, straightening a colorful, abstract painting that tugged at the corner of her mind, inviting her to see the world in technicolor splatters. She glanced at the name. No one she knew.

“Hey there!”

Hanna spun around to find the large, burly shape of her boss hauling in a crate stamped with that spiky black insignia.

“Help me with this, would you?” Sander said, a bead of sweat dripping into his beard.

She grabbed a crowbar off the counter.

“Do you think they use these huge wood boxes just to torment us even more,” Hanna said with a halfhearted grin, jamming the crowbar’s teeth under the lid and hauling back.

Sander snorted.

“Honey, they don’t give that many shits.”

Together, they managed to pop the lid off in a few seconds. Wood shavings burst out with the rush of air, scattering like petals across the shop floor.

“Damnit,” Hanna muttered. “I just mopped.”

“What have we here?” Sander said to himself, grabbing the descriptor card. “Oh, it’s a new line of figurines. Apparently, they’re supposed to be funny.”

Hanna froze in the act of gathering corkscrew curls.

“They’re calling them Little Monst — hey!”

Hanna didn’t hear him. She was like a woman possessed, diving into the crate, ripping through the packaging like a child digging into a snowbank. But there was no joy here. Just the choking, claustrophobic feeling of sinking into quicksand.

“No, no, no.”

Her fingers found something. Clutched it too tight, too hard.

It wriggled in her hand.

Staggering backwards and almost toppling to the ground, Hanna gaped stupidly at the thing in her palm. It was short, colorful, feathered. Not one she’d made, but she could have. Months ago, she could have.

The Little Monster grinned at her with benign fangs, cocking its head like a puppy ready to play. Turning the figurine upside down, Hanna blinked away tears to read the sharp script beneath the black Guild emblem.

A hand-carved original by Deja Bisset.

 

The End

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Cloudy with a Chance of Eldrich Horror [Flash Fiction]

It was surprising the email even got there, what with all the electromagnetic disruptions that came with the apocalypse. But there it was, blinking in Elana’s inbox like a star in a world that no longer had them. She shrieked, leaping up from the vintage laptop her father had jury-rigged to charge with AA batteries, dancing on her threadbare carpet.

“I’m going to college! I’m going to college!”

Elana knew she should keep her celebrations more subdued so as not to attract the wrong attention. But how could she hold it in when she was just so excited?

She burst out of her room, half-tumbling down the stairs.

“Mom, Dad! I got accepted! I’m officially a college student!”

Elana skidded into the dining room at top speed, almost laughing at the way her mother’s soup spoon hovered frozen in midair, the canned tomato slop they’d lived on for the past three weeks dribbling over its edge.

For once, the sight didn’t make Elana want to hurl.

She threw her hands in the air, grinning expectantly at her parents.

“I got in!”

Nothing moved except the soup drip drip dripping into the bowl, its contents almost the same hue as the light filtering through their boarded-up windows. Her father’s mouth was open in a perfect, comical O.

But as the silence stretched, Elana found it less and less funny.

Her arms fell.

“Aren’t you guys excited?”

Elana’s question shattered the spell like a rock through glass doors. Her mother’s spoon clattered against the bowl, spraying soup all over the wrought-iron table that used to sit on their patio, before it was incinerated.

“Absolutely not.” Her mother’s eyes flashed. “It’s out of the question.”

Elana’s excitement withered like burnt paper, curling into ash.

What?”

“You are not going halfway across the country for a college education you don’t need. Not at a time like this. I forbid it.”

“Honey…”

But her father’s deep, soothing voice fell on deaf ears, because his wife was shoving upright, hands gesticulating wildly.

“What if something happened? How would we ever find out? What if things get worse?”

“Mom, you’re being so unfair,” Elana said, stamping her foot. “Just because the world is over doesn’t mean my life has to be!”

“I said no!” Her mother’s voice had become a full shriek now, making Elana’s father wince and flick nervous glances at the ceiling. “We have to stay together! I won’t have my only daughter flitting off —”

“I’m not flitting!”

—to some far-off city where I might never see her again!”

“Mom, you can’t just keep me here! I’m eighteen years old!”
“It’s the end of the goddamn universe, Elana, and you’re going to stay. Right. Here!”

Elana swung to her father, bearing down on him like a cosmic storm.

Dad?”

The weathered, balding man shrunk in his wicker chair, clutching armrests that looked just as world-weary as he did. But he met his daughter’s ferocious gaze with an apologetic shrug.

“Sorry baby girl. Your mother’s right. We need to stick together now that… you know. Now.”

Elana gaped at him, that overflowing, excited, wonderful joy as distant as her memories of sunshine.

“I hate you!” she screamed at last. “I hate you both! If this is all you’ll let me do, maybe I don’t want to live!”

“Elana —”

Ignoring her father’s pleading voice and her mother’s brewing fury, she spun on her toes and shoved the screen door open, slamming it behind her and not caring a single bit about the crash.

Her blurry eyes could barely focus on the red sky that stretched to the horizon or the clouds churning with tentacles. Those long, undulating limbs drifted in and out of view like divine fingers mixing the oil of existence. Elana glared up at them, tears spilling over and streaking the grime on her face.

“Couldn’t you have waited until I got out of here to ruin everything?” she said.

But of course, there was no answer. The monsters swam on, drifting over her as if she wasn’t even there.

The End

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Hyphae

This is how it ends, with a target lock on Isabel’s ship and her sister screaming through the radio.

“Sargent Fernandez, you have been ordered to cease and desist. Sargent, cease and desist your current course.”

But Isabel’s not listening. She’s acquiring her own target lock, making her own choices. She doesn’t plan to desist. She plans to destroy, to zero in on the epicenter of it all and blast it to smithereens.

“Sargent Fernandez, you are in restricted airspace. Respond immediately or you will be fired upon.”

Isabel’s lips are pursed and her heart hammers, but her breath comes steady. In this she’s sure, or at least as sure as she’s been of anything in her life. She barrels toward this terminus like cannon fodder. But Isabel lit the fuse and crawled inside the barrel.

She made this decision freely, in defense of everything she loves.

Her sister’s voice comes over the radio again, softer this time.

“Isabel…. don’t do this.”

#

It was a Sunday when the Haze first arrived.

[Is that why so many people thought it was an act of God?]

Sophie was studying for her officer’s exam.

Isabel was drag racing down the middle of campus in Sophie’s car, whooping as the wind jerked rough fingers through her thick head of curls. Squinting at the raw horizon, Isabel didn’t notice when her competitor fell away. Or when the violet cloud bloomed over the teeth of the Rockies. All she cared about was the main gate, the finish line, the man holding up his Air Force T-shirt like a flag of surrender.

He didn’t wave it as she blew past him.

Sophie’s car skidded off the road, spinning in a full circle and coming to rest in a cloud of sand. Isabel didn’t bother with the door, leaping over the convertible’s bulwark like a sailor landing on a foreign beach.

“Bryan? Didn’t you notice? I won!”

But he wasn’t looking at her. Rather, he was looking past her, through her, toward the bullseye of the sunset.

She spun, her smile undimmed.

It froze on her face.

The orb of the sun kissing the horizon was stained a fluffy, cloudy purple, a heliotrope dandelion in the act of being blown.

“What the…?”

At that moment, the alarms began to wail.

#

“Isabel, do not fire, I repeat, do not fire!”

Isabel’s jaw is clenched, her helmet strapped chokingly tight. She’s flying a hypersonic SR-72 Azazel with laser-lock railguns and dual-mode ramjet engines. Brand new, probably illegal, totally off-the-books. Its stealth tech protects her from ground defense but not her sister’s eyes. Isabel soars over the desert like a falcon, but instead of corkscrew nostrils it’s her hair that could open wine. The joystick is clutched in her fingers like a life rope. The heat shields glow coal-red.

“God damnit, Isabel, answer me!”

#

A knot of quantum energy? A spectral fungus? An infection of the collective human consciousness? A Russian attack? All they knew at first was that its spread could not be stopped. Before the Air Force even launched their jets, that lavender tint in the sky had exploded, dispersed, and then touched down in a million silent lightning bolts. People screamed. Cities shut down. Every road from Texas to New York was gridlocked for almost twenty-four hours. Emergency Rooms around the nation were forced to set up blockades to triage the influx of people with magenta stains in their eyes, in their brain matter, treated by doctors with the very same symptoms. By the next morning, the World Health Organization was calling it a pandemic. By that afternoon, China had snapped its borders shut.

The United States mobilized quickly around the strike zone, the virulent flare-up Isabel had missed. And the Generals [like their father] knew what to do. Military protocol clearly outlined the reactive procedures, should a flex of extraterrestrial muscle ever endanger humankind. Deep in the missile silos of some undisclosed location, a bomb was prepped, its trajectory calculated. The technicians in charge of launch waited just long enough for the blast radius to be evacuated.

They never fired.

At that point, news reports had begun to filter in, obsessively covering the strange question spreading like a dogma through the citizens of Earth. Scientists convened in borderless web conferences. Major politicians got on the phone.

[If you’d been watching the news that day, it would have felt like the world was waking from a nightmare.]

The real cascade started when the President filmed a live TV address, meeting the camera’s eye with a cautious smile and a purple tint in his sclera.

“What if it’s not an attack?” he asked the people of this planet. “What if it’s an invitation?”

At that point, no one had to ask what he meant.

#

[An argument for: Did you know that there have been no acts of mass violence since the arrival of the Haze? Of course, there have been murders, gunshot wounds, wives beaten and husbands stabbed. But no one has attacked a building or held a school hostage. Up to 80% of children surveyed the month after impact said they want to be scientists. 68% of adults have given up their self-labeled ‘frivolous hobbies’. And despite the existential angst rooted in the last two decades, anxiety rates are dropping. Nations are shaking hands. Because we know where we’re going now. We have a North Star.

That star is Isabel’s target.]

#

“You can’t do this! You don’t have the authority!”

Beneath the flight mask, Isabel’s lips are pursed. Her eyes narrow, this time with chilling focus. In the distance she can see that mauve miasma, the nexus, the Haze. Her navigation instruments are beginning to fail.

But she’s been trained not to rely on them.

“Listen to me,” Sophie says, her voice harsh with static. “I know it’s scary. I’m scared too. But this is the next step in our evolution. It’s going to solve everything.”

Isabel’s voice, when it comes, is little more than a growl.

“Humanity doesn’t need to be solved.”

Sophie’s voice crackles now, a whip-snap of frustration.

“Damnit, Isabel, think about your son! Think about our parents!”

Her knuckles are white. The crater comes into view, pulsing like a heart.

“I am.”

#

Years ago, before that portentous asteroid had even entered our solar system, these two sisters once sat around a dinner table. The oldest in a fine uniform, fresh and pressed and adorned with a shiny new Major’s star. The other in combat boots and jeans.

[I’m sure you can guess which was which.]

“We’re so proud of you, Sophie,” said Mrs. Fernandez, still wearing her cocktail dress from the ceremony.

“Yes, well done.” Their father, the illustrious General Fernandez, offered Sophie one of his rare smiles, a gift that anyone in the Air Force would have killed for.

But everyone’s nerves were as tight as piano wire. Because despite the steak dinner with mushrooms and wine, ordered in honor of their promoted Field Officer, it was the other daughter’s presence that tugged on their thoughts. It was the words General Fernandez had spat three weeks ago that still rung clearer than his congratulations.

Fernandez daughters don’t stay grunts.”

Because that’s what Isabel was, a grunt, an airman, given the title of Sargent because of a family name she didn’t earn. And yet she grinned at her sister with no envy, no admiration beyond the joy for a sibling. Sophie might be sitting ramrod straight beside her boyfriend of five years with the pleasing heft of duty on her shoulders, flush with the fulfillment of a calculated accomplishment.

But Isabel laughed the loudest, toasting with water to protect the illegitimate child growing in her belly.

#

[An argument against: there’s an experimental theatre on base that used to host eccentric concerts and fringe-art performances. It was Isabel’s favorite building in their desert oasis. Despite the rigor of life in the Air Force — not that she was ever very rigorous — this was her nest of disorder. A beautiful something molded out of dry sands and obligations. Wild, unbridled, sometimes bordering on insane, no one walked away from that theatre unchanged. No one could deny its power, even if they spent the whole evening squirming in their seats.

That theatre is shut down now. After all, there are more important matters at hand than art.]

#

Inside the Haze is perfect order. Even the dust motes organize themselves in mandala patterns, moving with awareness and acknowledgement of everything around them. As if the air particles themselves are awake.

Isabel is the only thing in here that flouts the rules.

[Does it know she’s coming? Does whatever intelligence that pounds those distant drums sense her intention?]

Sophie’s target lock doesn’t blink, waiting for permission to incinerate the other jet. Isabel knows this, just as she knows that her sister’s hands are shaking. But Sophie can’t shoot, not without endangering what Isabel has come to destroy.

[Are there other reasons she holds back?]

Sophie tries again with reason.

“Isabel, listen to me. All this, it’s a miracle. It’s shown us we’re not alone. You saw the announcement. The major world economies have agreed to combine their resources. Imagine what that will do for our future. If we work together —”

Isabel’s laugh is the harsh edge of a serrated knife.

“Human beings aren’t made to work together. Not like this.”

“But if we embrace what’s happening —”

“If we embrace this,” Isabel says calmly as her ship booms forward, “then we destroy ourselves.”

“Please.” Sophie’s voice is choked and desperate. “Don’t make me kill you.”

#

General and Mrs. Fernandez refused to visit, but Sophie came.

“It’s… interesting.”

Isabel’s laugh was a warm answer. Content in a way Sophie couldn’t understand. With one hip cocked and arms folded over a swollen belly, the airman out of uniform grinned at her handiwork, at her own technicolor chaos splattered on the nursery wall in vivid paint.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit much?” Sophie asked, examining the way three streaks crashed together and then exploded apart. “You know, for a baby?”

“It’ll give him something to think about,” Isabel said, stepping up beside her sister. “Besides, it’s not the whole room. There are three other walls.”

“Still, it seems kind of… overwhelming.”

Isabel winked. “Life is overwhelming.”

But Sophie didn’t smile back. Her thin fingers were trailing over the antique wooden bassinet that her sister had found at a flea market and painted a bright, gender-neutral orange.

“You still haven’t told the father?”

Isabel shrugged. “Don’t know who he is.”

“And you won’t try to find him?”

“Nope.” Isabel’s eyebrows pulled together, pinching in the middle. “Why do you care? Odds are you wouldn’t have liked him.”

“I…” Words were failing Sophie, thinning like snow runoff at the end of spring.

Isabel leaned closer, touching her straight-backed sister on the arm.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, really. I want this. I’m excited for it. Maybe it was a mistake, but good things come from the strangest of places. Don’t you think?”

The soft afternoon light was transmuting the streaks of tears on Sophie’s face into gold.

[A sort of alchemy, perhaps?]

Isabel leaned forward, her nascent maternal instincts picking up on the stink of human pain. “Soph? What is it?”

Sophie blinked, straightened, lifted her chin.

“Mike and I have been trying.” Those narrow harpist fingers tightened on the wood, on the padded crevasse that will one day hold a baby. She swallowed hard. “They say it’s not going to happen.”

“Oh, Sophie…”

“It’s fine,” she snaps, scrubbing her cheeks. “We’ll be fine.”

[It’s the arrival of the Haze, more than anything, that will make her fine.]

#

Isabel can see her target now, approaching at a mile per second over the crest of the Earth. And even weak, even held back by the dam of Isabel’s resistance, the voices in the back of her purple-streaked brain hiss their welcoming whispers [or warnings?]. It’s the same susurrating murmur that has seduced everyone else. They aren’t words, not really. More like the magnetic pole a compass points to, only the needle is the human mind.

“Isabel, how can you be so fucking selfish?” Sophie’s voice is rising to a scream now, desperately trying to shout over Isabel’s certainty. “Just because you’ve never followed a goddamn order in your life doesn’t mean you get to choose for everyone!”

#

The Dyson Sphere [it’s probably less simple than that] was always there, or at least as long as humans were looking. In fact, a scientist in Sweden had seen signs of it two years ago, although he interpreted the strange warble of light around that distant star as a cosmic dust cloud. But with the combined cerebral forces of the world’s most brilliant minds and the Pied Piper leadership of the Haze, they solved the puzzle in less than three months. Some called it Babylon. Some called it a new Mecca.

The politicians called it a goal.

#

This is how it started, with a little girl sitting tall as a kind-faced nurse handed her a swaddled, screaming infant. This child barely out of toddlerhood looked to her mother for comfort, but it was her father who spoke first.

“That’s your baby sister, Sophie. Careful for her head.”

The little girl accepted the fresh loaf of human with shaking hands, staring down at her opposite. Still pink and squirming against the confines of the tightly-wrapped blanket, little Isabel already had matted curls, eyes screwed tight against the limitations the world had put on her. The infant wriggled like a caterpillar trying to get free.

“She’s loud,” Sophie said to no one in particular, watching her new sister’s face grow ruddy with frustration.

“Babies are loud, honey,” Mrs. Fernandez whispered, slumping exhaustedly into the nest of her sheets.

As General Fernandez met his wife’s gaze, Sophie gazed solemnly down. In her youthful mind, she hoped they would be friends. The Air Force base was a lonely place for a child to grow up, and Sophie was already tired of reminding the boys that she can knock them down as easily as they can call her names. And besides, in her developing existential schema it was proper to have a sister. Sophie planned to teach Isabel the way of things, the order she was just beginning to understand.

But this affectionate ambition was made to be broken, because little Sophie would soon find that little Isabel wasn’t made to color in the lines or put stuffed animals neatly to bed. When Sophie would arrange their dollhouse with meticulous care, Isabel would gleefully crash her plastic dinosaur through its halls, leaving miniature havoc in her wake. Sophie grew used to [and disgusted with] the paint smears on the playroom and the dirt that always snuck into Isabel’s bed, no matter how many times their cleaning lady washed her sheets.

[Is that why she requested Isabel in her squadron? Because the yearning to civilize her baby sister never really went away?]

#

“Sargent Fernandez, I am authorized to fire. You have ten seconds to alter course or —”

“Remember that dance I dragged you to?” Isabel’s eyes flick up, as if she can see her sister in the jet’s nonexistent rear-view mirror. “Bachata night?”

“What does that have anything to —”

“You didn’t want to go. It took everything I had to get you to put on that stupid skirt. Remember? Even though it’s a part of our heritage, your heritage, you wanted nothing to do with it.”

“Isabel, that doesn’t —”

“You were so sad that you hadn’t discovered it earlier. I hear you still go with Mike.” Isabel’s breath is raspy, panic and precision thrumming like a tuning fork in her chest. “But you haven’t gone since the impact, have you?”

“Don’t be stupid, we’ve had more important things to worry about.”

Isabel’s eyes narrow, a human target lock.

“Bachata night, Sophie. That’s what the Haze is trying to erase. That’s what we’ll lose.”

Isabel can’t know it [or maybe she does], but far behind her, in the other jet shrieking through the unnatural atmosphere, Sophie’s conviction stutters.

#

It wasn’t the first time Major Fernandez had bailed her sister out of trouble, but it certainly was the most dramatic. And in their own headquarters, no less. The officer on guard let Sophie in without question, accepting the silent order to remain back so that his commanding officer could have a word with the detainee. Alone.

Her shoes clicked up to Isabel’s cell. The motion-sensor lights bubbled on.

“Jesus,” Sophie muttered as she took in Isabel’s black eye and split lip.

Isabel straightened, curling the un-swollen side of her mouth. “Nothing I didn’t dish right back.”

“You just couldn’t stay out of it, could you?”

Isabel’s smile tightened.

“Embarrassed by your little sister?”

“I’m embarrassed for you.” Sophie shook her head. “And for your son.”

“My son will be proud, when he’s old enough to understand. If he gets the chance.”

“Is that what this is about?” Sophie’s face puckered into a scowl. “You’re so afraid of something telling you what to do that you’re willing to march against our future?”

Isabel shoved to her feet, shoulders bunched.

“Did you really expect me to just stand back and watch our free will get flushed down the goddamn toilet?”

Sophie rolled her eyes. “No one’s taking away your free will —”

“If you believe that,” Isabel said. “Then you’re not paying attention.”

A crash split the silence as Sophie’s hand slammed into the bars, rattling the cage. The sound stretched and warped in the murky air between them until it seemed to come from everywhere, from history itself. Sophie didn’t speak, but Isabel was never one to be intimidated. She drifted fearlessly into her sister’s furious space.

“I’m sorry. Really. But someone has to stand against this.”

“Stand against what? Progress?” Sophie lifted her head. “We’re reaching for the next level. That’s what the physicists are saying. This is the next stage of existence. We have the chance to join something bigger.”

Isabel’s eyes might have softened, but her fists remained clenched at her sides.

“Do you really want to join like this? As cogs in someone else’s machine? Don’t you get it, Sophie? They’re making us into them.

“What if they’re better than we are?”

Isabel’s smile was tragic, full of something Sophie had never bothered to learn.

“What if they’re not?”

#

Some of the more rational minds in the intellectual community have insisted on reminding whoever will listen that we don’t know that there’s a greater consciousness out there welcoming us to join it. It could be an alien trap, a way to weaken the planet by pouring all our assets into an interstellar mission with no guarantees. Or worse, the Haze could be a base predator, offering a carrot light-years away to distract us all as it munches on humanity’s creative disorder.

But then that inventor in South Africa showcased his Scavenger Engine and everything changed.

At that point, fusion was a fringe technology, hopeful but flawed, always twenty years away. The problem of fuel limitations lingered with such stubborn persistence that the aerospace industry had moved on to solar sails and generation ships. But the Scavenger was something new. Augmented by the same heat shield that’s currently protecting Isabel from vaporization, this new engine was designed to pick up the particles it found on the way and utilize deep-space gasses for power. The closer the ship got to its intended target, the more energy-dense vapors it would find. Now our ships could forage food in the dark, energy in the emptiness.

With that fulcrum problem washed away [and the world sinking gladly into the quicksand of someone else’s plan] even the rational minds ran out of things to say.

Except Isabel, of course.

#

There was this tree that Sophie used to climb as a teenager. Thin and bristly and hardened by desert life [like Sophie, you could say], it was barely enough to conceal her. But if she climbed high and no one looked closely, she could hide there for hours.

That’s where Isabel found her on the night Sophie’s acceptance letter to Stanford came in.

“This bark is going to rip my skin off,” Isabel joked as she lifted herself into the scrubby leaves.

Sophie didn’t respond. So Isabel made herself comfortable, sprawling between two branches as if there was a hammock there and not ten feet of lethal nothing.

“Would you be careful,” Sophie snapped at last, unable to contain herself.

Isabel grinned.

“Talk to me then.”

“There’s nothing to say.”

“Of course there is.” Isabel swung her legs through the empty air, tantalizingly precarious. “You got into Stanford.”

“I’m not going.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

But there was a fire in Isabel’s eyes that would not be ignored, an umbrella of rebelliousness that she was determined to share.

“Sophie, you’ve gotta stand up for yourself. Screw Mom and Dad, do what you want. Who cares what they think?”

“Obviously you don’t.”

Isabel laughed.

“Not really, no.”

From her perch in the palm of the tree, protected [or caged?] by a web of thick branches, Sophie glowered at her sister, this untamed force she’d lived with for almost fifteen years and still didn’t understand at all.

“How can you say that? How can you ignore everything they want from you?”

Of course, Isabel grinned.

“Practice,” was her only answer.

#

“Sophie,” Isabel pleads now. “Hear me out for a second, just this once. I know what they’ve told you, but it’s wrong. They’re wrong.”

“What would you know about what they’re telling me?” Sophie snarls. “You’ve never listened to anyone in your life.”

“But I am listening. I’m listening to the people no one is paying attention to. I’m listening to you. Tell me, Sophie, do you really want to exist like this? Do you really want to lose the things that give us meaning?”

“We have a goal —”

“We both know that’s not the same.”

“Then let’s go back and talk about this like fucking Americans.” There’s a quaver in Sophie’s voice, the terror that she’ll have to be the monster they sent. “Either that or I shoot you down as a traitor.”

Isabel pauses, long enough for the scrubby ground below her jet to thicken with streaks of pulsing magenta. When she finally speaks, her words are raw and filled with their shared past.

“Go ahead. If you really think the world is better off without me, then press that button.”

But the seconds shriek by with hypersonic velocity and still the missile doesn’t come.

#

[If you’re wondering how someone like Isabel managed to snag an Azazel in a time of jacked-up security and endless protests, then look no further than Airman David Thomas. She’ll never know it, but the Vermont-born pilot is the father of her son, the second player in her greatest happiness. Of course, Thomas doesn’t know it either. Both are loose in their habits, messy in their trajectories. They spend their lives like casino chips, toasting to the gamble.

But as the grunts like to joke, they smile a lot more than Major Fernandez does.]

#

Surprisingly, it was David who reached out to Isabel. She’d been exiled from base after a blurry photograph caught her leading a march against the Haze. Her father hadn’t spoken to her since. Little Benny, only two and already smearing paint on the walls, didn’t know or care why grandpa stopped coming to visit. After all, General Fernandez wasn’t known for his skills with children.

Isabel tried not to let it bother her.

One clear-sky afternoon, Isabel was out gardening with Benny on her hip, tickling his face with a California poppy blossom. And then, as sudden and unexpected as the arrival of the Haze, David pulled up in that rusty old pick-up he loved more than his F-22 Raptor.

“Hey,” he said as the door slammed behind him and he stepped onto her flagstone path.

Isabel straightened, shifting Benny to her other hip.

“How are things at base?” The accusation was clear in her aquiline eyes.

David winced. “I’m sorry about that. I wasn’t… I wasn’t sure, you know? I couldn’t risk it.”

She turned away from him, staring instead at the jagged horizon that had always been a more reliable parent than either of the ones she was born with.

Until it turned purple, of course.

She sighed. What was the point of cruelty?

“Don’t worry about it,” she said at last, adjusting the mass of toddler. “I was asking a lot.”

“Well.” David shifted his weight, hands in the pockets of his civilian jeans. “That’s actually why I’m here.”

She waited, giving him the space to stretch his thoughts. Taking a deep breath, David scanned her house, as if the squat, one-story rambler could offer him a piece of her assurance.

“I used to keep this dream journal in college,” David began, not meeting her gaze. “It started for a class, but it became kind of fun, you know? And boy did I write down some weird shit once I started paying attention. There was this one dream where the sky would kind of warp down and I could climb this road up into another world where everything flew and the clouds were…” He swallowed, his fists bunching and relaxing like lungs. “It doesn’t matter. What I mean is that I loved my dreams, no matter how wacky they got.” His eyes flicked up, snagging hers, pleading for something she couldn’t offer. “I haven’t had dreams like that since the impact.”

Isabel didn’t respond, her lips pursed as Benny mumbled happy nonsense in her ear.

“Maybe you don’t feel it as much, since you never leaned in.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “I bet it’s not even in your cerebellum yet. But it’s in mine, and now my dreams are just like real life. I get up, brush my teeth, go to work. And worse, they’re filled with that… longing. It’s like I can’t think of anything else. Like I’ve been given this rigid backbone that all my thoughts have to be structured around, you know?”

“I do.” Isabel’s voice betrayed nothing, leaving the silence between them blank and bare. But David’s face held that naked desperation she had come to recognize at protests, the regret that radiated from the ones who hadn’t been strong in the beginning, who hadn’t resisted. And now, the scrabbling terror of the ones losing ground.

Like her.

“I miss dreaming, Isabel. I miss the way some things didn’t have to make sense. I miss walking to the grocery store and suddenly wondering what would happen if the sidewalk turned to Jell-O. It sounds stupid, but sometimes it feels like I’ve lost my sense of smell and everyone’s acting like that’s no big deal, but what if it is?” He scrubbed one hand over the bristles on his scalp. “What if you’ve been right all along?”

Benny made a grab for Isabel’s wild curls, tugging on a brown coil with the insistence of an ignored child. She reached up and gently took his fist in hers, her eyes never leaving David’s face.

“What are you saying?”

“Well, it’s got me wondering if there’s a way to stop it.” A ghost of his old self wandered across his face. “And if there was, what I could maybe do… to help.”

Isabel took a step toward his truck [toward the bench of a back seat where they’d drunkenly fucked and forgotten].

“Are you sure?”

The question, taut with all the pieces of their training and the jumbled puzzles of their minds, is a handshake. A lifeline.

A joystick.

He looks at her. “Do you have a way to stop it?”

She holds Benny tight.

“I think I might.”

#

Once the dust had settled [figuratively as well], researchers gathered around the Haze like insects on a rotting carcass. Accompanied by a whole squadron of Marines, those inquisitive men and women hauled in their best technology, equipping themselves to the teeth with machines for sending, sampling, reading EM waves, tracing quantum pulses. They charged bravely through that gossamer border with the best weapons science had to offer.

All of it failed the moment they crossed inside.

But that wasn’t the end. Because those brilliant minds were heavy with more than just knowledge. They carried Atlas’s burden of our global hopes, our cosmic fears. So they marched back in, supplied instead with old polaroid cameras and their minds.

Over the next few weeks, the coverage of their discoveries was as all-absorbing as the tug on everyone’s soul.

It turned out that the Haze had a glowing violet core precisely at its center [a heart, if you want to call it that] made of an unidentifiable substance that somehow disrupted subatomic fields without being magnetic or electrical itself. It was physical but also not, existing in the liminal realm of quarks and bosons but also there for us to see, touch, prod. Even with the terror of endangering the ten billion minds attached to this benign invader [but is it really benign?], they tried to chip off a piece. Bring back a souvenir.

No matter what they did, they couldn’t damage this husk of nothing and node of everything. That is, until a frustrated Russian physicist tried to lite his smuggled cigarette.

Fire, it turns out, is liminal too.

Using microscopic welding torches, the scientists carved off the smallest piece imaginable, a sliver of pure plumb. They followed every protocol, took every precaution they could think of. In the moment before the piece fell into the tiny, sterile vial [could they hear it hit the bottom?] the scientists almost glowed, their own excitement resonating and reverberating like an echo gaining force, like constructive interference.

But when that tiny piece lost contact with the whole, it went dark.

The scientists didn’t — couldn’t — know until they left the Haze the next day that their microscopic surgery had detached fourteen million minds. Fourteen million humans suddenly floating, suddenly free.

[Did they end up at Isabel’s protests?]

A paper was published [perhaps unwisely] detailing the notion that the heart of the Haze could be destroyed with the proper incendiary technique. And if it was, all the accompanying threads in brains around the world would go dark. The whispers would stop. Our compass needle would spin again, looking for a new target.

That paper was the seed of Isabel’s plan.

#

[ You see, she never leaned in. Not once. The temptation was there, of course. It was for everyone. And oh, how the human mind is perfectly structured to fall for it. Even with the riotous Isabels in our midst, most of us love to be soldiers. To let someone — something? — else instruct us, claim us, lead us. So when that wordless directive was injected into our supple, hungry consciousness, there was barely any resistance. Philosophers ruminated fanatically on its meaning. Professors and tech giants consumed every bit of data they could find. Politicians spoke of nothing else. And all the while those violet tendrils compounded like mental habits, fed by our curious — but no longer muddled — souls.

Unless you resisted. Unless you ignored them.

Unless you were Isabel.]

#

In seconds, she’ll be close enough to drop the guided missile with its nose full of thermite, the pyro-bomb that David stole. It’s small, contained, designed to kill a single person in a crowded market. An antidote to the anarchy of war.

[Earth’s weapons are rarely used the way they were intended.]

“Isabel, please,” Sophie’s voice is choked and bleeding now. Isabel can imagine her sister’s hands shaking, finger bumping against that blood-red button but unable to press down. “Please. Don’t make me choose.”

Isabel’s eyes are softer than they were before. Sadder. They’re the eyes of a mother who’s watched her son skin his knee and fall off his bike and done nothing. The eyes of a sister who knows what she asks.

“But you have to. That’s why I’m here.” Isabel taps out a command and in the shell beneath her feet, the thermite ignites. “Because we either choose to be a slave or we choose to be a mess. It’s still our decision though. No matter what those morons in Washington say, this thing is not some easy answer to existence.”

Through the close-range radio, Sophie coughs. Isabel can’t tell if it’s a laugh or a sob.

“I used to wish you’d never been born, you know,” Sophie says quietly.

“Do you still?”

There’s no response.

A yellow light blinks on Isabel’s panel. She’s almost in range. The warning of Sophie’s target lock is a claxon in her cockpit.

“Well, I have no regrets,” Isabel says. “I know we’ve never agreed on anything, but I wouldn’t wish it any other way.”

She thinks of Benny, of how motherleness looms over his crib like a grim reaper. She thinks of David and wonders if he’ll ever get his dreams back.

She thinks of her sister.

Two things are milliseconds away from being annihilated.

[Which heart will stop beating first?]

“Sophie?” Isabel says, perhaps too sharply.

The yellow light on her dashboard turns green. The target-lock warning continues to wail.

“Goodspeed,” Sophie whispers.

The warning falls silent.

Isabel grins.

And then she’s drag racing again, pulling ahead as her opponent falls behind [and maybe she’s missing something, maybe there’s another cataclysm in the works that she doesn’t see, doesn’t notice]. But unlike her sister, Isabel’s fingers don’t stutter. Her aim is true and fierce.

“We’ll figure this out,” Isabel says with a laugh on her voice. “And we’ll do it as goddamn human beings.”

The indigo webs in her eyes are throbbing as if in panicked desperation. But the threads aren’t deep enough, their control less than absolute. The Haze can’t stop Isabel as she releases her payload.

[Maybe it never could.]

Together at the end of the world [or is this a beginning?], the two sisters who at once have loved and hated one another watch the black streak drop out of the sky like a guillotine, like a signature. The Haze congeals around it [to understand? To hinder?]. But the pyro-bomb obeys the predictable physics of matter. It made of hard logic and the reality we know.

[Maybe the Haze was never strong enough to fight the true solidity of Earth.]

The thermite hits in a burst of red, a boil of lava, a single California poppy about to bloom.

And finally, between one blink and the next, that glowing purple heart goes dark.

Isabel whoops. Sophie sobs. Their planes warble in a sudden, screaming wind of celestial power as the veil of the Haze is ripped away [How many panicked minds scramble madly for the cause?]. A bright yellow sun sweeps its arms over the landscape, over the sawtooth mountains that both sisters have always adored. Over the concave depression in the sands with its black and smoldering center.

“Well,” Sophie says on her tattered exhale. “I think we’re both in for some deep shit.”

“I’m used to deep shit,” Isabel says, tilting her stolen Azazel into a long, low arc. Even with the mask on, it’s clear that she’s smiling. And why not? Her accomplishment is more than duty, more than orders. This dream was all her own.

Humanity is free again.

[If you’re wondering if that’s a happy ending, I suppose that time will tell.]

 

The End

Continue Reading

This World of Mine

Reaper 401 contemplated the blurry spattering of stars above him, wondering where his beloved was now. Had she reached Mars yet? Or was she still watching that sky slowly change around her shuttle, hoping the new constellations held more hope than the old ones?

“What’s the hold-up, Julio?” Reaper 513 hissed. It was a gross breach of protocol, using real names at a time like this. A cruel reminder.

Because of that, Reaper 401 didn’t answer. He just tilted his gray-streaked head further back, towards the smeared clouds of sulfur dioxide and thick clots of water vapor. He closed his eyes and tried to picture his vibrant childhood on the Italian coast, a world that had always seemed like a painting. Pastel houses, cobalt water, everything candy-bright and brimming with potential. Was his imagination exaggerating, latching onto the excess of color like a life raft in an endless gray sea?

Did he care?

A sound jolted him out of his memories, a sterile electric ping from 513’s tablet.

“That’s the signal, Julio. Time to haul ass.”

“Indeed it is,” said 401, his gaze still riveted on the yellow-tinted fog curling malicious fingers up the nearest skyscraper.

“C’mon man, don’t get sentimental on me,” said 513, fingering his tool belt. “We’ve got our orders.”

“Why did you take this assignment?” asked 401, looking the shorter, paler man straight in the eyes, chocolate meeting icepick blue.

“What the fuck, dude, you want to do this now?”

“It’s important to remember the why, amico.”

513 shifted from foot to foot, but 401 didn’t budge.

“For my family, ok?” 513 blurted at last. “They went up with the last Mars colonizer, my wife and two boys. My youngest has asthma and the vapor clouds were killing him. This job bought them the ticket. That enough for you, old man?”

“Yes,” said 401 with eerie calm. “That’s enough.”

“Can we get this over with now?”

“You didn’t ask me why I signed up.”

“I don’t’ fucking care! I just want this goddamn day to be over!”

401 frowned, the expression a prickling hint of the storm in his mind.

“All right. Let’s go.”

#

There had always been a jump of electrons between their hands, an invisible lightning bolt of electricity that passed from his pale Italian caramel to her shining Nigerian black. It was as though their souls had been destined for each other since the very birth of the universe, as if her beauty was a current that could be diffused into him.

“You’re missing the sunset,” she said with a smile.

“It doesn’t compare,” he answered, tugging the soft fuzz of her hair and letting it bounce back.

Her eyes shimmered like oil spills.

“Don’t be stupid. There’s only one advantage to the world ending and it’s the goddamn sunset, so look.”  

“What man could look away from you?”

Her laugh was the peal of church bells as it echoed over the incandescent mountains, the murky golden sea.

“See, how can I believe you when you say cheesy shit like that?” He smiled and pressed a hand to either side of her face, planting a kiss on the crease between her eyes.

“Because I love you?”

“I suppose,” she said. He felt more than saw her happiness capsize under the bitterness that was never far from the surface these days. “Why do you have to stay behind?”

She’d asked the question a thousand times as they waited for her Mars Visa to go through. And a thousand times he’d hated himself. He’d never lied to her, not to hide his mother’s prejudice or his previous loveless marriage or the depression that sometimes clung to him like a restless ghost. But now….

“You know why, il mio mundo.”

“No, I really don’t. Why do they need you for crowd control? It’s not like you forced everyone in Asia to transfer to Ethanol fuel all at once. It’s not like you told those scientists in Germany to start screwing around with atmosphere engineering. You’re an analyst, not a grunt!”

“I’m what they need.”

She pulled back, eyes flashing orange in the dying light.

“They’ve already ruined the rest of the world, why can’t they leave us alone?”   

“We all must make sacrifices,” he said, running a finger over her velvet cheek. She leaned her head into the touch. “It’s the duty of those that can.”  

She glared at him.

“Don’t you quote the fucking president at me.”  

#

 Their target — the monstrous Sisyphus shuttlewas settled like a demigod in the middle of Central Park. Surrounded by the corpses of trees and the hollow sentinels of abandoned buildings, it seemed to watch their approach with cosmic disapproval, as if it might shift away from their touch. Reaper 401 sighed as they approached the back entrance, a tiny man-sized hatch in its mountainous flank, conveniently inconspicuous at ground level.

The engineers had only designed this door in the most recent vessels. The first wave hadn’t needed them.

“It’s over here,” muttered 513, hunching his shoulders as he consulted the bright screen of his tablet. 401 didn’t comment.

200,000 people. There were 200,000 people sleeping in that behemoth of graphene and steel, plus as much of their home planet as they dared carry to Mars. DNA of important species, seeds of edible plants, megadrives with all of humanity’s knowledge.

So much to save.

Running his hand over the skeleton trees of the park, 401 allowed himself to indulge in one small tear, beading at the corner of his eye and stinging the dry and blistered flesh of his face. Even the water in his body was infused with sulfuric acid at this point, coursing through his veins like Earth’s vengeance.

He’d said goodbye to her almost six months ago. She’d said “I’ll see you soon.” She’d said she’d wait for him. She’d said that they would marry and have a beautiful life together, even if it couldn’t be in the chiaroscuro sunset of their beloved home.

He’d said it all back.

The lie tasted like bile now.

It wasn’t until 513 spoke that 401 realized he’d stopped walking.

“Jesus, man, are coming or what?”

401 pushed off the tree, wiping his cheek and ignoring his partner’s resentful murmur.

“Of all the fucking loonies I had to end up with…”

They found the entrance to the spacecraft easily enough. It wasn’t even guarded. All the same, 401 watched the bleak ground behind them as 513 plugged his tablet into the command panel, waiting to be let inside. After a long, silent moment, there was that ding that seemed to run bone-deep in humanity, that positive mechanical affirmation that you did something right.

The thought sent chills up his spine.

How can this possibly be right?

“We’re in, Julio,” 513 hissed.

“All right,” sighed 401. “Meet back here in ten.”

Without an answer, 513 rambled off in the vague direction of the engine room. 401 had no idea what his comrade’s mission was. Both of them were kept carefully oblivious of the other’s orders, minimizing the chance of a mission failure.

The deadline was approaching on swift and inevitable wings. But he couldn’t help the instinct to admire the stasis pods stacked in a honeycomb around the ship’s hollowed middle. Even though he knew they were filled with living, thinking, dreaming humans, the small sarcophagus-shaped chambers felt alien. Something as far from him as Mars.

What have I become?

#

When they arrived, the parking lot was already full of children, their panicked shrieks filling the air like the cry of extinct sea birds. He could feel his beloved’s distraction as she fought the tears that had been lurking in their shadow all week.

He squeezed her hand as he helped her out of their vintage Cadillac, pressing it to his chest.

“It’s going to be okay.”

She nodded, but kept glancing at the smallest of the children, a tiny tow-headed girl who was clutching to a tight-lipped woman in uniform.

“Maaaaama!” screeched the child, shadowed by her two older, stone-faced brothers. “I don’t wanna go!”

They both stared as the woman tried to console her sobbing daughter.

“Come, il mundo mio,” he said. “We must check in. We don’t want the Pods to fill up.”

He’d meant it as a joke, but she didn’t smile. Instead, she looked at him with eyes full of that flashing determination he adored. She pressed her lips together once, as if in warning. Then, his wonderful African beauty pulled her hand free of his and strode over to the family.  

“What’s your name?” she asked, crouching in front of the child.

The little girl hiccupped herself into silence, huge blue eyes turning up to her mother’s face. The mother, who looked exhausted by the thought of talking, only nodded.

“Frieda,” said the girl in a timid voice that was at violent odds with the volume she’d just been producing.

 “Well, Frieda, aren’t you excited to go to Mars?”

Frieda hiccuped a suppressed sob.

“N-no,” she said, throwing an accusing glare up at her mother. “I w-want to stay with M-Mama!”

“Well, I’m sure your Mama is going to join us very soon.”

His beloved kept her eyes on the small girl, which was a blessing because at that moment his brown eyes met the mother’s pale ones and a secret passed between them like a classroom note. The children, distracted by the kind stranger kneeling before them, didn’t see their mother’s face crumple.

“Don’t you worry, sweetie, I’ll be taking care of you while your Mama is busy.”

“I don’t want to leave her down here,” faltered the small girl. “It smells bad.”

“But your Mama needs to make sure all the other little girls get to Mars. You don’t want them to be stuck in the bad smell forever, do you?”

Frieda’s limp blonde hair stuck to her face as she shook her head.

“Good.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “You see my man? He’s going to meet me up on Mars, just like your mother. Do you want to wait with me?”

Her hand shone in the speckled sunlight as she held it out to the little girl. Dark fingers waited like ancient columns that would stand until the end of time.

Finally, the girl accepted.  

Perhaps it was a tragedy that they never got the desperate farewell they’d both been dreading. But as she herded the children onto the Charon, he knew it was right. A drop of mercy in a world suddenly short on it.   

“I don’t know how to swallow this,” said the mother beside him as they watched their lives disappear into that frightened crowd. “I-I don’t know how they expect us to do this.”

He tried to smile at her through the pollution of his own ache.

“For them, my dear,” he said, voice raspy. “It will always be for them.”

#

 401 wandered down to the control room, trailing his fingers along the bumpy walls full of Stasis Pods. All those poor people, foxes in a burning den. Mothers, Children, hopeful youths.

His heart squirmed like a worm on a hook.

He located the console he’d been trained to find, fingers hovering over the keyboard.

Could he really be such a monster?

“Stop right there,” snarled a familiar voice.

401 twisted around to find the wild eyes of Reaper 513 glowing like embers in the half-light.

It took him a moment to notice the pistol pointed at his forehead.

401 gaped, his muscles freezing. Through the sludge of shock, he forgot his comrade’s code name, his tongue stumbling over the only thing that came to mind.

“Peter?”

“That’s right, asshole, I’m Peter. A real fucking human, standing in front of you, not wanting to die.”

“What’s going on? Why are you here?”

There was a thrum as the ship’s system woke up, activated by the raised voices.

How may I help you today, sir?” HERA asked in the neutrally polite tone that, after endless drills, had begun to haunt their nightmares.

“Listen, Julio, I have no intention of dying on this goddamn planet,” Peter snapped, waving the gun. “We’re gonna take this ticket and get the hell out of here.”

“Peter, have you forgotten? There aren’t enough supplies—”

“There are,” said Peter, his irises rimmed in white. “There’s plenty for just the two of us. No passengers. No cargo. Just two new Martians headed for space.”

“What a terrible waste —“

“Waste?” spat Peter. “You wanna talk to me about waste? We are about to blow up a three trillion dollar spacecraft full of two hundred thousand human beings. What kind of waste is that?”

“I’m not sure I understand the question,” said HERA.

“It’s mercy, Peter.” 401 kept his voice smooth and steady, the way he would talk to a bucking horse back on his father’s farm. “Would you have them suffocate from carbon monoxide, or die of acid rain?”

“Fuck them!” Peter spat. “Julio, we can still see our families! We can live! Don’t you have someone up there you care about?”

401 couldn’t help but flinch.

“Hah,” said Peter, the gun quivering. “See, you want it too. You don’t want to die here either.”

“Of course I don’t, amico. Of course I don’t. But sometimes one must—“

“Don’t give me that self-sacrificing bullshit,” said Peter, spittle flying. “I’ll kill you right now!”

I’m sorry, I do not understand,” said HERA.

“Look,” Peter panted. “Just… just wake them all up. We’ll tell them there’s a problem with the ship, that we need to evacuate and clear the area. Then we’ll launch when everyone’s looking the other way.”

Was that a request to wake the passengers from cryostasis? I will need the Hades override to complete that action.”

“You think people will look the other way from their only chance of escape? My friend, this ship is all they have left. They’re not going to leave it for any reason I can fathom.”

Peter growled in frustration.

“They’ll do anything we tell them. You have the codes. Together, we can control this ship!”

401 sighed. Peter’s words were an arrow right into the middle of his doubt, piercing the very thing he’d been avoiding as avidly as a young boy refusing to look at the sun. But he was surprised to find that doubt empty, echoing.

He might be a worm on a hook, but it was the hook he’d chosen.

401 spread his hands. “What about your child’s future? Would you jeopardize that?”

“He’s going to die anyway.” Peter’s eyes were rimmed in tears now, pleading. “No one knows if we can survive on Mars long-term. They say it’s hopeless. I-I just want to see them again. P-please.”

401 cocked his head.

“You may have lost hope.” He straightened. “But you will not steal mine.”

“Don’t you — ”

But Peter was too late. 401 dove to the ground and rolled beneath the control console, expertly opening a hatch as he went. He flinched as a bullet pinged on the grating, heard Peter’s panicked curse, felt footsteps clattering towards him. But he had simulated this thousands of times. They’d prepared for frenzied civilians and desperate vagrants and ex-military commandos. They’d trained for the limited time they might have to do the job. And, of course, there had always been a Plan B.

Nowadays, everything was Plan B.

On the old-fashioned keyboard that had been installed under the main command deck, 401 typed out a series of quick commands. His rapid-fire fingers didn’t shake as he gave the ship its horrific instructions. A hand wrapped around his boot, tugging viciously.

“Not yet, amico.”

He stretched to reach the final key, using every last inch his genetics had blessed him with. Blessed or cursed, it didn’t matter now. He was just the messenger. Just a pawn.

No longer a man who once knew love.

Then, suddenly, the other man threw his weight back, rolling them both to the middle of the room.

When Peter saw his partner’s sad smile, the blood drained out of his face.

“No….”

“It’s done, my friend. I’m sorry.

It wouldn’t be as stylish as the silent, sinking power-down that had been planned, not to mention the explosion that would take out half the city.

But perhaps that was mercy too.

Peter began to flush, eyes popping, fists clenching. But before he could speak, HERA’s serene voice washed over them.

The fuel lines have been compromised. Please enter command code Hades or the ship will be destroyed. Approximately one minute until detonation if no course of action is taken.”

“How dare you?” Peter pressed the gun to 401’s forehead. “How dare you?”

401 was quiet as he rolled to his knees, ignoring Peter’s shouted threats and curses. Head bowed as if in prayer, Reaper 401 let the calm wash over him, savoring it, letting it smother his doubts like the thick clouds outside.

Thirty seconds until detonation.

“STOP!” Peter screamed. “UNDO IT! FIX THE SHIP!”

Tears were coursing down Peter’s face. 401 tipped his head down so he didn’t have to watch. He heard the clatter of the gun, the pounding of footsteps, the crash of the door.

It didn’t matter.

There was no escape for any of them.

He was at peace with that now.

Ten seconds until detonation,” came Hera’s voice.

“Rosie,” whispered 401, closing his eyes as he pictured her glorious smile. “This is for you, my Rosie.”

Three seconds until detonation… Two… One…”

Taking a last, sweet breath of toxic air, the man prayed for forgiveness as two hundred thousand souls were vaporized.

 

The End

Continue Reading

Heartsick

He might has well have shot me, sending that note. Or at least that’s how my health sensors reacted, blaring up at once like an unholy chorus. Cortisol alerts, stress infractions, the beeping alarm of my heart rate rising without the expected stimulus of exercise.

“God damnit, Shen,” I muttered, silencing the alarms but unable to turn off the insistent buzz on my wrist. With his letter crumpled in one fist, I flicked a look down at the screen of my BioMonitor.

UHD Alert – Ms. Numa Faraq, you appear to be having some sudden-onset distress. Please provide urine and saliva immediately for further diagnosis.

Was that intentional? Did Shen suspect, perhaps, his ironic symmetry?

As if in silent rebellion, I followed the instructions on my watch, trying to focus on my breathing as I spat and peed into the chrome diagnostic-toilet I was just beginning to get used to. It whirred under my thighs, analyzing its trophies like a god weighing mortal offerings on an ancient altar.

But not loudly enough to distract me from the folded paper on my lap, the letter he’d slid under my door.

How dare he? How dare he insert himself back into my life while I’m moving on, embracing what he’d chosen to reject? That pretentious, arrogant, irresponsible…

As if in agreement, my BioMonitor beeped. I glanced down.

UHD Alert – Ms. Numa Faraq, your saliva and urine show high levels of cortisol. A friendly reminder: stress is detrimental to bodily function and is considered a preventable health threat by the Universal Health Directive. The fine for Prolonged Emotional Negligence is $300 with potential for disciplinary action. Please think responsibly. We advise you to reach out to your social contacts for support, such as:

 Mom… 

My lips twitched with sardonic bleakness, knowing the little machine on my wrist had no idea how very un­-relaxing it would be to call Mom. But I could hardly blame it. There was no one else to offer. Clenching my jaw with aching force, I tried not to think of the other names that were no longer on that list. Dad. Sandra.

Shen.

Don’t think about it, I told myself, climbing into the shower. I stayed for them. For all the fathers and friends and lovers I can still save. 

“Doesn’t he realize that?” I said aloud, the words burbling through the clear rivulets coursing down my face.

The only answer I got was a cheerful beep from the weight-sensing tiles, confirming that my BMI remained a healthy 21.1. A little avatar winked on my BioMonitor, offering me a thumbs-up.

You’re an anti-obesity champion! said the alert as the avatar continued to smile. Keep up the good work!

#

Diabetes: Their tireless work unappreciated, exhausted β-cells begin to shirk their duty. Or maybe the insulin receptors, like overstimulated children, cover their ears and hum over the fists pounding at the door. Ignored, unwanted, the glucose that should have been squirreled away for winter drifts through the blood, looking for a home. A safe haven. It will find one in the heart or the arteries, maybe the liver or the warm den of the pancreas. The kidneys will pump, frantic and maternal as they fight to clean up this mess. But what can they do against the onslaught of nutrients, the suffocating abundance? Ignorant of the ravaging wildfire inside, the owner of this straining factory eats on…

#

“Late night?”

My smug first-year resident didn’t — couldn’t — realize that it wasn’t a lack of sleep that made his attending’s eyes look so distant. But I snapped back to attention quickly, with all the cultivated rigor of medical training. The patients come first, I reminded myself.

“Tell me about this one,” I said, jerking my chin to the sleeping woman sprouting a root system of IV lines and drains.

“Textbook case.” The young man shrugged without sympathy. “Necrotizing fasciitis, caused by a Group A Strep. Apparently, she got it from her ski glove of all things. Poor lady had a paper cut on her finger and the infection traveled up her arm to settle in her abdominal cavity.” He shook his head with a disbelieving grin. “The ER team said she was lucky her BioMonitor caught the infection, or else she’d be toast.”

“The pathology report?” I asked.

“Nothing complicated. Gram positive, catalase negative.”

“What treatment do we have her on?”

He pointed to the bandages packed onto her middle, oozing pus around the edges. “Well they sent her through surgery to remove the necrotic tissue.” He said this with a well duh kind of expression that made me want to put him on bedpan duty. “The machines seem to have gotten it all. And now we’ve got her on an antibiotic combo. Vancomycin and penicillin G.”

“Prognosis?”

I watched his answer, looking for a flicker, a blown candle of human empathy. He shrugged again.

“Dr. Hansen estimates a 75% chance of survival, but I don’t think it’s that high.” Then his smile turned conspiratorial. He leaned in. “That UHD officer has been sniffing around all morning, but this patient won’t be waking up to any fines. No way could she have prevented strep from growing in her glove.”

I frowned back, feeling blurred around the edges as I thought about the streps in all our gloves. The bumpers with our names on them. The bullets we can’t see coming.

What’s so wrong with side-stepping the ones we can?

But of course, Shen wasn’t there to answer. So I turned to the young doctor, trying not to think about how his arrogance felt so brutally familiar.

“And the ChemBalance patient?” I asked, clacking down the ICU in my heavy, utilitarian clogs.

“Oh him,” the resident winced. “He’s not happy.”

“I don’t imagine he is,” I said.

But that’s not the point.

#

Do you remember when we met? You offered me a greasy plate of homemade donuts and a cigarette-stained smile. Did you know — I’ll bet you didn’t — that my father had just died, strangled from the inside by telescoping arteries closing against his life? Did you know that every day I watched helplessly as my patients smoked and ate and worried themselves to death? You didn’t look at all concerned when I said no. If I’d known you better, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But when I left Sandra’s party, I was determined to never see those charming eyes again.

I guess I lost that war.

#

“Mr. Thomas, how are you feeling today?” I asked, stepping up to the end of the oversized hospital bed. Even at six-five, the man lounging there looked small and shrunken. Huge shoulders curved protectively over a wide barrel of chest, more used to clean-cut suits than thin hospital gowns. He peered at me owlishly, like something from the back of a cave. So instead, I turned to his wife. “How’s he adjusting?”

Her eyes glistened, oily with regret. “He… doesn’t love it.”

I forced my features into an understanding smile.

“I hear there’s an adjustment period, but give the implant a few days to calibrate your chemical balance. You’ll be stable in no time, sir.”

“How would you know?” His voice came out in a growl, antagonistic and raw. “You goddamn doctors don’t know anything.”

My smile stayed hitched in place, a road sign swinging in the wind.

“Well, I know that you’ve been suffering from high levels of anxiety and depression. I know that your neurotransmitters weren’t being produced and distributed properly, as per your BioMonitor. And I know that our new ChemBalance is designed to help brains like yours stay healthy.”

His lip curled in a pale imitation of what was probably once an intimidating business sneer. “Just because I didn’t pay my UHD fines doesn’t mean you had the right to screw around in my head.”

Actually, that’s exactly what the new law says.

But no, not now.

I swallowed the antagonistic urge to vent my frustrations on this patient, this ignorant man who had no idea what I was dealing with, what I was going through. Instead, I said, “Mr. Thomas, the UHD was designed for the well-being of our citizens. Your habits — driven primarily by a dysfunctional neurology — were going to make you sick and that would have made you a burden on society. So the health officer in charge of your case decided that this operation was the best option.”

His glower didn’t waver under my determined kindness, so I turned to his wife.

“We’ll give him another day to adjust before sending him home. Please let us know if you need anything.”

Then I left them alone, drilling my gaze into my clipboard as I walked back down the ward, trying not to think about those eyes, that hate. Should I have told him that I’m on the wait list for the same procedure? That someday soon I would also join the ranks of the forcibly balanced, the chemically sane?

As if summoned, Shen’s letter swam into my mind. I could recite it word-for-word despite the fact that I had shoved it down the garbage disposal. One line remained etched on the inside of my eyelids, pulsing with violent austerity.

Numa, don’t do it. Don’t make that choice.  

Fuck you, I thought helplessly. When did you ever understand anything about healthcare?

When did you ever understand anything about me?

#

Cancer: With every stress and sunburn, another base pair bends. Cracks. Fractures. The genetic ladder fights to stay straight, but replication proteins zoom over the damage perilously fast. They must. The body demands new soldiers to defend the bulwark of the stomach, the abused fortress of the skin. But then a traitor, black and toxic, sneaks into the fresh recruits. Mostly, your imperious immunocytes catch the mutineer and perform the necessary execution. But sometimes this malevolent spy sneaks past your defenses with its broken promises, disappears into a shaded, unnoticed corner.

And grows.

#

I knocked gently on the door, right under the plaque that read Chief of Neurology.

“You called for me?”

Dr. Federica Vasquez had eyes that could flay skin from bone, black hair framing her face in scalpel-sharp lines. She was short, but somehow dominating, even more so after she volunteered to be one of the first to join the ChemBalance trials.

Now she was looking at me with a level, calculating expression that hasn’t suffered a mood swing in over a year.

“Dr. Faraq, please sit.” She flicked a hand at the one chair in the room besides her own, snapping her attention back to her computer. Settling in the uncomfortable palm of the wooden seat, I tried not to feel like a schoolchild waiting for a scolding as she finished drafting an email. I passed the time by examining the framed awards that cluttered one wall, from the city, the state, and even the President himself.

Look, I told myself in strict reminder. This is the woman I want to be. She’s a general fighting the battles that matter. This is why I stayed.

Finally, she turned to face me.

“You’ve been approved for the procedure,” she said without preamble. “Tomorrow, nine a.m. sharp.”

My breath caught traitorously, like the squeal of a reed instrument, and I couldn’t help thinking about that stupid goddamn letter rotting in the pipes of my apartment building.

Did he know? Is this why he chose today, of all days, to write?  

Dr. Vasquez squinted at me, her raptor gaze missing nothing.

“If you’re not ready, there are other people who —”

“No, no,” I interrupted. “I’m ready.”

But this woman who watched me evolve from a frightened graduate from rural Vermont to a native New York City doctor knew me too well to miss the pulse of hesitation, the thrum of unease. She leaned across the mahogany desk, her sharp mouth softening so imperceptibly that a less-trained eye than mine would have missed it.

“You’ve had a hard year, Numa. It would be wrong to say that I understand, because I don’t. But I can imagine how difficult it’s been for you.”

I forced my cheeks to pull up, fishhooking a smile.

“We’ve all had a hard year. But the UHD is working. Things are starting to settle as they should.”

“So it seems,” Dr. Vasquez said. “But that’s not what I meant.”

“I’ll be fine.” I folded my hands in my lap, squeezing them together like they’re cells that might renege on their dividing, that might push back into a single unit. “I just need to keep moving forward.”

“And you’re talking to someone? To… cope?”

It was her duty to ask, but I was grateful all the same. I pushed to my feet.

“Who has time for that?” I said, letting half of my dragging smile fall.

And she nodded, not with humor but not quite with pity either.

#

You were so handsome when I came to bail you out. I was still in my running clothes with sweat trailing its ticklish fingers down my spine. You grinned at me as if it was nothing, but I was so furious. I could have killed you right in that park outside the police station if I didn’t want to kiss the blood off your lip. Because there I was, pulling long nights trying to build something while you were protesting to break it down. You refused to wear your BioMonitor despite the fine notices building up like snowdrifts around our apartment. And even after my father’s funeral, you smoked those fucking cigarettes and told me that you didn’t care if they were clogging your pipes because you weren’t just living. No, you were ‘enjoying your life’. You said you wanted nothing to do with this new world. I said that meant you wanted nothing to do with me.

I didn’t realize you’d call my bluff.

#

Dr. Vasquez ordered me to take the afternoon off. She reminded me that it was still my choice to get the ChemBalance installed. After all, I had no outstanding fines and my depression was under control. I wasn’t like Sandra used to be, elbow-deep in misdemeanors and sarcasm. Even as a resident, she could never bring herself to prioritize health over enjoyment, well-being over fun. Maybe that’s why she and Shen were friends. Maybe that’s why she introduced us, because she thought he’d be good for me.

Well, you were wrong, Sandra, I snarl to myself as I march out of the hospital, slinging my messenger bag over one shoulder with enough force to bruise the muscles around my spine. Look at me now, lost in a sea of imbalanced neurotransmitters and bad sleep habits. And it’s your fault. You brought Shen into my life and then you left me here alone to deal with it, all because you couldn’t stop taking those stupid pills.

Could the ChemBalance knit together a soul as shattered as mine?

Only one way to find out.

I stood on the sidewalk, squinting under the sun’s assault and remembering the last time I saw Sandra alive. We were in the locker room, changing out of our surgery scrubs and laughing about how much she owed me for all the coffees I’d been buying her, for the lunches I’d picked up when she ducked out of the cafeteria to avoid the hospital’s UHD officer.

I knew my dad would have been the same.

But if he’d lived long enough for our new world to save him, would he have learned to change?

#

Coronary Artery Disease: Blood runs thick and sludgy through narrowing canals, opaque with smoke particulates, or maybe cortisol. Lipids, bent and polarized by their crowded journey, latch onto cell walls like frightened sailors grasping for shore. In these quick-moving rapids, they reach for their friends, for strength in numbers, rising into funerial mounds of calcified protection. The blood must pulse harder, slowed as it is through this manufactured choke point. And in the resultant quagmire, fatty chains have more time to latch, more time to harden, more time to reach for their brethren. Join us, they croon to their fellows. Join us in congress for the time we have left.  

#

It was amazing to me how much Manhattan had changed since the UHD’s launch became official. In my walk home from the hospital, through that familiar and endless corridor between skyscrapers, a different kind of cloud hung over this new city, a polar opposite of the heavy smog we all used to breathe. Spattered among the ads for shoes, shows, fashion, sex, were huge billboards promoting new BioMonitors and mandatory sensing equipment (Just because you have to wear one doesn’t mean it has to be ugly). Notices ran like tickertapes over screens that used to show stock prices or headlines (UHD Reminder – Random checks are in effect. Make healthy choices and you have nothing to fear). Everywhere were the signs of a nation coalescing under one purpose, under one united mission.

You’re better than a burden.

I stared at the UHD slogan painted in huge red letters above the Macy’s in Herald Square. Sandra had cackled with laughter when it first started showing up, calling it ‘corny as all hell.’ But I hadn’t. I still didn’t.

A commotion started across the street, sharpening into a high-pitched wail. I swayed, dragged suddenly back to the present as I watched two UHD officers loom over a woman with bloodshot eyes.

“I can’t pay that!” she screamed drunkenly as savvy New Yorkers skirted the scene like water around stone. “I’m already in debt!”

“Then I’m afraid we’ll have to take you in, ma’am,” said the larger of the two officers, his gun dark and ominous on his hip.

That had been one of our biggest fights, before Shen left. In the twilight of that tenth-story apartment, we’d stood on opposite sides of our shared living room, volleying opinions like rounds of ammunition. You have no idea, I’d shouted at him.  I know better than anyone how much people don’t want to take care of their bodies. No one cares, not until the end, and then it’s too damn late.

He’d argued that it was his body, his choices, his right as a free man to be reckless. That no one should be able to force him at gunpoint.

Well he made that choice, I thought, watching as the UHD officers pulled the intoxicated woman toward the flashing siren of their converted ambulance.

And I get to do the same.

#

You’d never guess my favorite memory, Shen. It’s not the fancy Valentine’s Day dinner or star-gazing by the harbor, parked in that salty alcove we would come to call our spot. No, my most treasured moment with you was the day after Parker’s Place when we were too hungover to even think about leaving the apartment. I spent the whole day with my cheek on the toilet seat, wishing for the end as I stared at your sprawled body in the hallway, slumped, belt open in an erotic invitation I was in no shape to act on. You laughed at how pathetic we were and I threw a toilet paper roll at your face and then we spent our greasy, nauseated afternoon watching funny cat videos on YouTube and trying not to laugh because it made things worse.

Maybe you don’t believe it, but for all the times I took you hiking, that’s the one day I’d never give back.

#

I decided to take a detour on my way home. Call me sentimental, but if this was my last night with real, tangible cravings, I wanted to enjoy them. So I ducked into the dank side-alley two blocks from our — my — apartment and listened to the echo of my clogs on the sidewalk. This was one of the few places that hadn’t yet been fitted with retinal scanners, which was no surprise, really. I mean, the only thing down this road was bars, so it wasn’t like there was any question as to who would come down here.

It was disconcerting, though, how light I felt knowing that no one was watching the flicker of my gaze or the color of my irises, reading for the tiny inconsistencies that could indicate a health problem.

I walked straight and tall, clutching my messenger bag and ignoring the weight of what tomorrow would bring.

Until I found the door to Parker’s Place.

No…

A huge sign had been duct-taped to the door. Its vibrant colors weren’t quite able to paint over the bleakness of its meaning.

This establishment has been found in violation of the Universal Health Directive Net Good clause and is now closed. Please remember, alcohol has zero health benefits and is now categorized as a liability to the future of America’s population. There is no such thing as drinking responsibly!

I tried to tell myself that it made sense. I tried to think about all the horrible things that day had done to our bodies, our livers, our logical minds. It was better not to be tempted. It was better not to want.

The ChemBalance would help.

Numa, don’t do it. Don’t make that choice.  

As if to jerk away the shroud on my thoughts, my BioMonitor buzzed as it sampled my blood, prickling the inside of my wrist like a hoard of relentless mosquitoes.

#

Depression: In the zoomed-in architecture of the brain, neurons wave to one another across microscopic gulfs, propelling friendly reminders through the fluid like paper airplanes. Think, move, feel, they say. Morse code written in molecular dashes and dots. But then, a few neurons stop waving (or stop waving back). They stand closed and petulant, unwilling to respond. Their fellows work harder to pull in that slack, but the sea of unopened letters is heavy and dark, a black hole of the mind, a body that can’t get out of bed. And as jilted cellular neighbors stop putting in the effort and the stormclouds of the mind grow oppressively thick, temptation strikes. Because there is an exit. An eternal, alluring escape…

#

There was another letter waiting for me, this time stuffed into the side of the door. A part of me — that wonderful, logical part — wanted to rip it up before I could even read it, throw it out the window and watch it scatter like ratty pigeons.

But I never could resist Shen.

I opened it and read the desperate plea etched in toothy, jagged lines.

Numa, please. Don’t go through with it. You still have a choice. The UHD was a noble idea, fine. I understand why you supported it at first. But it’s gone too far now. I’m not alone in this. I can’t say more but meet me at our spot tonight at 11 and I’ll help you disappear. I promise, I’ll help you make that better world you wanted. But don’t let them ruin the woman I love.

Anger curdled in my stomach like sour milk, painting my insides with rage. I swallowed my pointless scream, eyes scrubbing the hallway as if I could still find him, still see the traces he left behind when he snuck in here to throw this poisoned dart. Or maybe he’d coerced one of his spies to do it, some sympathetic mailman or rebellious cleaning lady. How many in the city had joined his cause, been swayed by his magnetism? Were they smoking cigarettes and laughing at the poor, misguided doctor who was so very tired of watching people lose the ones they love?

“Fuck you, Shen,” I muttered, voice thick with wrath. “Fuck you.”

But even the venom of my fury had a bittersweet aftertaste, because by tomorrow afternoon a tiny machine in my brain would be there to smooth down my hackles, iron out the pleats of my emotions. It would inject serotonin in the right place, or maybe siphon off some adrenaline.

It would fix me.

Already my BioMonitor was beginning to rattle with warnings again, its beeping almost exasperated, as if to say not again. I stared at it. Took a deep, calming breath. Tried to re-center myself around the orbit of the UHD.

I did find my center, at least.

You still have a choice.

No, I thought, silencing the alarms. I’m not sure I ever did.

#

Addiction: There’s a monster in your head that’s barely tame, barely contained. You feed it sex and candy to placate its nighttime howls. But one day, you offer it something else. A new, wild treat it’s never seen before, never even known to demand. Maybe you laugh as you give it this new toy. Maybe you cry. Your pet monster doesn’t care, because it’s already inflating on a helium of stronger stuff. And soon it’s dragging you by the leash, yanking you across the park and you don’t know where it’s going but it’s probably nowhere good…

#

I took the subway this time, too tired to trudge past the condemnations on the buildings around me. Our favorite cheap Chinese food place, the bakery where Shen used to buy those greasy cronuts, the convenience store that sold the only fried Mars Bars in the state: all shuttered and dead, reminding the head-down commuters what New York had come to value.

But there was no escape down here on the underground trains, festooned as they were with scanners.

I slumped into a seat, leaning my forehead against the handrail. Infectious agents be damned, right then I just wanted to think.

What am I doing?

Opening my eyes, I saw a child looking back at me. She had big blue irises and a fist clutching a celery stick smeared with peanut-butter.

“Honey, finish your snack,” said a woman who was clearly her mother.

But the child had no interest, her attention wandering from me to the next stranger, puzzling out clues to solve her narrow existence.

No matter how hard you try, it’s never going to make sense, I wanted to tell her. But I didn’t, because her mother was still trying to get her to eat.

I closed my eyes again, letting the thrum of the subway do what the ChemBalance would have done, had I given it the chance.

#

The night you left was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. Worse than the expiration date we’d all known my father had, worse than my mother’s slide into anxiety, worse even than the sudden midnight phone call that my best friend had OD’d. I remember wondering if a person could die from crying as I knelt on the floor and stared at the place you’d just been standing, the place you’d left vacant because I wouldn’t come with you. And I didn’t understand, not then, how you could be so selfish. Were you really walking away from me — from everything — just because you didn’t want to give up cigarettes and donuts and beer?

Now I see that maybe I was the selfish one.

Because you weren’t an equation that needed to be solved, and I was at my best when you wrapped me in your jacket, smelling of smoke, laughing as you ordered pizza that we’d both regret the next day. And maybe there’s balance in that.

#

Of course he was there, leaning against the hood of his old-fashioned car like a model or a warning. And even as I glared at him from the shadow of the warehouse, I felt myself grow at once tighter and looser, like a knot that doesn’t ever want to come undone.

Distantly, a foghorn sounded, spreading like mist on the salty night air. And I watched as his familiar leather jacket drifted on the breeze. It was faded at the elbows and around the pockets. Well-loved, as they say.

A cigarette smoldered on his inhale.

After several long moments, he dropped his gaze with a sigh, moving to the driver’s side door. His shoulders slumped as he pulled it open and that was all it took to make me step into the circular light of the streetlamp.

“You bastard.”

He swung around with a grin to see me scowling and looming and marching toward him like a tide.

“You came,” he said, spreading his arms in invitation.

“You shouldn’t have asked me to.” My fists curled, ready to swing. “You shouldn’t have done that. Do you have any idea what I’ve just given up? What you took me away from?”

Finally, I stopped, my glare brimming with wrathful demands.

He shook his head, unable to contain that goddamn smile.

“I know. And I’m sorry. But I’m glad you came, Numa. I’m really, really glad you came.”

And there I was, unable to stop that slow slide into his expression or resist the tug of his gravity. The howling emptiness inside me began to close. My shoulders drooped, not quite weightless but getting there.

I met his gaze, hating how much it felt like home.

“What now?”

Shen’s eyes crinkled into a smile.

“Now we enjoy the journey.”

“But where will we go?” My own eyes overflowed, streaking the shipyard dust that stained my cheeks. One trembling hand curled compulsively around my bare and pale wrist. “What will we do?”

“We fight for your dream. And mine.”

All at once he was pulling me close, into his smell and his worn jacket and the body that will one day collapse under his stubborn indifference. But I didn’t care. Because those mortal arms were tight around me, holding me together, pulling me apart.

And for now, that was enough.

The End

Continue Reading

Holy

Interviewer

So tell us about inventing Salvacin.

Dr. George Hardy [Altaxis Research Scientist]

That’s something else the movies get wrong. It wasn’t just me in a room thinking up ways to destroy civilization. I had a whole team of people behind me who thought this was a good idea. I mean, the world was desperate. The opioid epidemic had gotten way out of hand. I read somewhere that in 2022, almost seventy percent of U.S. households were directly affected by prescription drugs. Everyone was scrambling for a solution, and everyone was leaning on the pharmaceutical companies to fix it.

Interviewer

You mean there was pressure on you?

Dr. Hardy

You have no idea. The worst part was that they had a point. I mean, I wasn’t one of the guys originally pushing Vicodin on teenagers or anything, but the industry was responsible. OxyContin was supposed to be a hospice drug. End of life care and all that. It was never meant for the general population, but that’s where the big money happens.

(He sighs)

It was like working on Wall Street. Everyone just hated you on principle. Didn’t matter if you were creating a cure for pediatric lymphoma, you were a part of the problem. My wife used to tell the women in her spinning class that I worked for a startup. If that wasn’t the loosest use of the word startup I’ve ever seen…

Interviewer

How did your team get the idea?

Dr. Hardy

That was the easy part. There was this big study that came out just a year before I joined the Altaxis team, about how LSD could be used to prevent narcotic relapses by triggering religious experiences. And with the government finally giving up on their whole war on drugs, it seemed like something worth trying.

Interviewer

It says here you were rushed through the FDA approval process?

Dr. Hardy

Rushed through?

(He laughs)

We were practically shoved into phase two testing. The pills weren’t even labeled before we were sending them out to clinics and hospitals all over Boston. What could be worse than heroin, right? To be honest, I still don’t know where half of them went.

Interviewer

And initial testing went well?

Dr. Hardy

Damn near miraculous, if you don’t mind the saying. Worked more than ninety-five percent of the time. Ninety-five percent. I don’t know how much you understand about pharmaceuticals, but there is almost nothing in the industry with that kind of success rate. Maybe penicillin, before all the superbugs came out. But this was different. People went into the trial one way and came out totally different, talking about divine faces and seeing the error of their ways. We thought it was just our patients getting their lives together.

Interviewer

It never occurred to you that there might be something deeper going on?

Dr. Hardy

(He sighs again)

The other thing you gotta understand about the Salvacin Trials is that we studied it almost exclusively at the biological level. After all, we were molecular biologists. We didn’t care about peoples’ feelings, just the addictive chemistry of their brains. Even saying that aloud, I realize how stupid it sounds. But we were in a hurry and psychology studies are notoriously slow and imprecise. The results spoke for themselves and the government wasn’t complaining. So no, it didn’t occur to us. Not until that guy on YouTube went viral.

Interviewer

Did you try it?

Dr. Hardy

Not at first. But my lab manager wanted to right away, a real bro type. You know what I’m talking about? The guy who probably spent half his mornings in college hanging over the toilet? No judgement, he was nice enough.

Anyways, this guy — I won’t share his name out of respect. But he went home and gave it a shot. He and I weren’t close or anything, strictly professional. But I get this call at one a.m., right? It was him and he was… I can’t even explain it. He was… lost? Found? He just kept saying, ‘I’ve seen Him, George. I’ve seen Him’. I told him to go to bed, though I’d bet what’s left of my savings that it didn’t do him any good.

(He chuckles sadly)

I was so clueless. I thought he’d come in the next day, same as always. Maybe a bit hungover or something. Yeah, I know LSD doesn’t cause hangovers, but still, when this guy comes in he’s totally different. Clean-shaven, well-dressed, standing tall. And carrying a bible. Turns out his parents were from the South and super Catholic. He’d gone to mass for years just to make his mom happy. And now…

Interviewer

Did he explain to you what he’d seen?

Dr. Hardy

Of course he did! But we didn’t believe him. At least not at first. I mean, the face of God? Really? The only time I’d ever heard that kind of talk was when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking. But here was my colleague, an MD-PhD telling anyone who would listen that he’d seen the true face of our divine creator. I didn’t know what to make of it.

Interviewer

But surely, the patients in your trials were saying similar things?

Dr. Hardy

Well yeah, but I mean… Look, don’t judge me here, but they were addicts. We expected wacky stuff from them.

(He pauses for a moment)

You know, I think that was half the problem. We’d built up this awful stigma against addicts, to the point where they weren’t even considered real people anymore. Since they’d done it to themselves, it was so easy to write them off. Like obesity, you know? But with the rise of prescription pills, everyone’s neighbor or teacher or aunt with a backache became one. And all those normal people were being treated like they were one step up from homeless.

Interviewer

So you didn’t listen to your friend?

Dr. Hardy

Oh no, I listened. And it worried me. It was such a strong personality change — night and day, you know? But when I contacted our spokesperson at the FDA, she told me to shut up. Salvacin was booming. The results were stratospheric. And it was an election cycle, see. It was critically important for the administration to look good, especially with the Mommy Riots in full swing and the economy in freefall. So I was told to keep my worries to myself.

Interviewer

Do you regret that?

Dr. Hardy

Sometimes. But I don’t think it was reversible at that point. If it hadn’t been for that kid online, someone else would have spread the news. The pot was boiling and a nervous little scientist like me wasn’t about to stop the lid from blowing off.

#

Interviewer

You’re known for starting the #enlightened social media campaign. Can you tell us when the idea came to you?

Saleem Alvi [Volunteer at the Second Chance Society in New York City]

Actually, yeah. I can tell you the exact moment. I was at this friend’s house and we both had the shakes pretty bad. I’d just gotten out of a huge fight with my mom and was feeling pretty shitty about myself, if you know what I mean. She’d thrown me out of the house, told me not to come back until I’d sobered up. I was broke. Homeless. And the worst part was that I didn’t care about any of that. All I wanted was more smack. I was due to OD any day — it was only a matter of time — but so long as I had a steady supply, I really didn’t care.

(He takes a deep breath)

That was the weirdest thing about what happened — I was the wrong person. Like, I didn’t even want the Salvacin to work. I just wanted money. I’d read this story about a kid who’d gone viral recording his acid trip. The guy made like a million bucks. And my friend — I’ll call him Jeff — he had some of this new stuff. An old girlfriend of his had enrolled in an experimental program in Boston, testing this weird new drug. Some combination of LSD and Salvia. He said she’d been telling anyone who would listen that this stuff would change their life. So we thought why not? Maybe we’d make some cash.

That was my first time with Salvacin.

Interviewer

We have a transcript of the video, but can you tell us in your own words what you experienced?

Saleem

I mean, you’ve done it, right? You know. It’s… indescribable. Unknowable. All the shit they say on TV, it’s true. I saw God’s face. During that half-hour, or however long it was, I didn’t care that I was being recorded. I didn’t care about the money or the dope. I was just in it, man. Just experiencing His grace.

Interviewer

And after?

Saleem

I wanted to take down the video right away. It felt… sinful, I guess? My mom’s a devout Muslim, so I had some concept of what I was dealing with. She used to drag me to mosque whenever I was home. So I had a bit of grounding, you know? Unlike some. And using that to make money? For drugs? It just felt wrong.

But I was too late. The video was already being shared all over the world. My buddy had texted it to a friend and they’d sent it on and suddenly it was everywhere.

Interviewer

What did you do?

Saleem

Nothing! I mean, I was freaking out as it was. That’s the thing no one warns you about with Salvacin. You find out God’s real — or Allah or Shiva or whatever you wanna call Him — but what do you do about it? I mean every single thing in your life is different, but it’s also exactly the same. You’re sitting in the same spot, on the same dirty couch, with the same shakes as before. But you’ve just seen God’s face.

(He bites his lip, unable to continue for a moment)

I felt so lost. I wanted to go to mosque, but what if Islam was wrong? Maybe they didn’t have it totally figured out, or maybe He wanted me to do something else. I felt this overwhelming desire to act, but I had no idea what the right road was or even if there was one! It was awful.

Interviewer

I’m sorry.

Saleem

I mean, it was rough for everyone. Salvacin isn’t exactly Oxy, right? It’s not supposed to be fun. But then, in the midst of all that, I was getting calls from talk shows and networks. It felt like being on one of those Tilt-A-Whirl rides with everything blurring past, only it didn’t end. I couldn’t get off. It was insane.

(He shakes his head)

If I’d have known what would happen, I would have never agreed to those interviews. Not any of them.

Interviewer

Can you tell us a bit about the Twitter campaign?

Saleem

My friend — Jeff — came up with #enlightened. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I mean, I was barely on social media. But it caught like wildfire. Twitter was, like, possessed or something. Do you remember?

Interviewer

I do. What was the aftermath of that?

Saleem

Well, I was a celebrity for a hot minute. I bought into it too. Thought I was spreading the word. Everyone was asking me what I saw, what it looked like, how was I sure? And I just kept telling them, you’ll understand when you try it. You’ll see.

(He pauses)

You know what’s weird? The first time I did heroin there was this moment right after I shot up when I was so happy. It was like laughing and sex and eating ice cream and finding twenty dollars in your pocket, all rolled into one. It’s impossible to explain to anyone what that feels like. And then on the come-down, there’s this moment when you know with absolute, bone-deep certainty that you’ll never be that happy again.

I know Salvacin isn’t physically addictive or anything, but at least in that way, it’s just like heroin. Because it’s impossible to explain. I remember all those atheists attacking me online, telling me that it wouldn’t work on them. That I’d just hallucinated a bunch of colors and called it God. And all I could say to those people was see for yourself.

Interviewer

Did they?

Saleem

I assume. I mean, who knows, right? After everything turned inside-out, my five seconds of fame was the last thing on anyone’s mind. But I did get a few apologies. So that was nice.

Interviewer

If you could go back and change things, would you?

Saleem

(He pauses)

Maybe. I dunno, it’s hard to say, right? But I often wonder how the world would be different if those docs at Altaxis had backed a different horse. Not that I agree with that Marsha Thomas woman, not at all. What she did, the choice she made… I hope she rots away in a prison cell for the rest of her life.

Interviewer

So what happened to Jeff?

Saleem

Oh… He tried Salvacin the next day. But he… well, he killed himself. Turned out he was one of those Monk personality types, where he just got deeper and deeper into his own head. He struggled with some depression too. I suppose once he got confirmation that there’s something else out there, he figured it wasn’t worth putting up with this world when he could just hop on off to the next one. I hope he was right.

#

Dr. Allison Yin [Psychologist]

According to our early studies, the human mind responds to Salvacin in three possible ways. One of my lab techs jokingly called the responses Prophet, Saint, and Monk. Unfortunately, the names stuck, so I’ll use them here for clarity.

Prophets were usually extroverts, motivated by factors outside themselves and focused on changing the world around them. They tended to be strong personalities, often low in agreeableness and high in violent tendencies. This was the response that got the most press, obviously, since they caused so much damage. But at their core, Prophets just wanted to spread what they saw. They wanted the world to know.

In the middle were the Saints. In our research, we found that Saints were a pretty even mix of introvert and extrovert. They were high in agreeableness and openness and their personal histories were usually full of altruistic behavior. These people were motivated by doing good and helping others. Their calling, if you will, was not to spread God’s word but to do God’s work. To them, it was as simple as making one person happy. They were the easiest to deal with, sociologically.

And then we had the Monks. In Monks we saw the most varied responses. Mostly comprised of introverts and individuals high in neuroticism, these were the people who lost their minds early on, or took Salvacin obsessively until they were cut off by external factors. They wanted to understand the face of God, logically I mean. But of course, they couldn’t. I think Monk-type personalities suffered the most from the Salvacin epidemic. Very few people in this category were able to return to their normal lives after things settled down.

Interviewer

Which reaction was most common?

Dr. Yin

Prophet, unfortunately. Despite the tragic real-world implications, this is completely in line with human nature. We’re inherently tribal creatures, so an “us vs. them” mentality can quickly become default. But of course, there was a lot of crossover. We had Prophets who went mad, Monks who got violent, Saints who went door to door trying to convert people.

(She shrugs)

The human brain is a complicated place. Those idiots really should have used theirs before pushing for a psychoactive drug to be sold over the counter. If you ask me, Altaxis should be held responsible for that Canadian nutjob did. They should be held responsible for everything.

#

Victoria Smith [Convicted felon with 150 years left in her sentence]

We didn’t want anyone to get hurt. That wasn’t what the One True Faith was about, at least not in the beginning. We were just a bunch of lost kids with big ideas.

Interviewer

You were good friends with Louis Mercure, correct?

Victoria

I mean, not exactly good friends. But yeah, we knew each other. From school. He was in my department during undergrad and we used to go to the same parties. We kind of drifted apart after college like everyone does, but when Salvacin hit the city, we weren’t the only ones trying to reopen closed doors. I mean, everyone wanted stability. They wanted to go back and look at their life and find some kind of meaning, right? He actually reached out to me on Facebook of all things — I’d just reactivated my account after years of being social-media silent. It felt like fate, you know? And more than that, I was lonely. I had a cat and a nice apartment and had been online dating for a while. But it was pretty bleak, living alone in Toronto in the winter. I thought social media was making me depressed. Turns out it was just my life.

Interviewer

Can you tell us about that first assembly?

Victoria

It wasn’t even supposed to be religious. We just met up with a bunch of our old philosophy friends to talk about what was happening. We all felt like the world was burning down, watching the Mommy Riots in America and the world economy tanking and then Salvacin started spreading like some kind of pandemic. You remember how it was. Our generation had been tense and afraid for so long that it had become our new normal. And then we saw God.

Interviewer

Can you tell me about Louis?  

Victoria

Louis was one of those guys, you know, who just seems to have everything figured out. He wasn’t, like, particularly attractive or anything — too short for my taste. But he could talk you into anything. I remember one time in college he wanted to go skydiving. And keep in mind, we were a bunch of bookworms. I didn’t even like hiking. But he… he convinced us all to sign up. Twelve people who’d never so much as jumped off the high dive falling out of airplanes together. It was like magic.

(She pauses for a long moment)

The other thing he was known for in our circle was that he was a die-hard atheist. Like, really aggressive about it. He was always trying to convince people that God didn’t exist and organized religions were these dangerous, corrupt monoliths that needed to be dismantled so humanity could advance to the next stage or whatever.

Interviewer

I’d imagine Salvacin changed his mind about some things.

Victoria

 Only about the God part. When we met up that winter, he led the show. I’m sure you’ve done your research about how those meetings spiraled out of control in the next few months, and yeah, it was bad. I hear Wikipedia still has us listed under extremists. But you weren’t there. You don’t know how much Louis could hold a room. It was so easy to listen to him talk, almost like watching a really good TV show. He had things figured out, right? And at the time, people were desperate for that. I regret everything that happened, but if I went back, I’m not sure I would have done things differently. I’m not sure I could have.

Interviewer

So who came up with the plan to attack New York City?

Victoria

Look, it wasn’t an attack. That was never the intention. It was during that spring, right after Salvacin’s general launch when everyone was fighting. I mean, we watched the churches in Vermont burn down. Muslims and Jews were getting assaulted left and right, in broad daylight too! And Louis… well, he had the answer, right? He knew exactly what to do. He was convinced that if everyone could see the truth then they’d be free. If everyone took Salvacin at the exact same moment and had a collective encounter, it would solve everything. They’d know, as we did, that the religions were just facades. Just distractions. That God — the real God — could only be found outside all those dogmas and rituals.

You know, the plan actually started with Toronto. I mean, it was a major city, right? Way less security and a strong atheist base to work with. But ironically, that’s what made Louis choose New York. He said we needed the biggest, most diverse cohort, not to mention the news coverage. This was his moment and he wanted to do it right.

Interviewer

It must have been difficult to plan.

Victoria

You’re telling me?   

(She sighs)

Just for the record, I wanted to start small. Use some little town in rural Ontario or something. But Louis… he had big dreams and somehow managed to get us all behind them. So yeah, we chose New York. Obviously.

Interviewer

And you were there? When the helicopters released the spray?

Victoria

Yeah. I was. And I still have nightmares about it.

#

Interviewer

Your temple was one of the first to be attacked after the hallucinations lifted. What was that like?

Rabbi Navah Spitzer [Rising Strong Synagogue, New York City]

Terrifying, obviously. I was hosting an event for troubled youths in the area when it happened. Ironic, isn’t it, that I was dealing with addicts trying to get clean without Salvacin when it starts fogging in through the darn windows. It was a warm March day — a pretty rare thing in the city — and we were letting air in. Not to mention that the doors were wide open. So yeah, we got hit same as everyone.

Interviewer

What was it like?

Rabbi Spitzer

Well I’ll tell you, it was a real watershed moment in my career. I was new, just out of my Ph.D. at Columbia and working in lower Manhattan. I’m sure you can imagine the expectations. My parents were practically shouting from the rooftops. See, my grandfather had been a prominent rabbi in Texas with strong connections to Israel. I had big shoes to fill. But none of that pressure was anything like the moment those poor kids came to after their first dose of Salvacin, looking to me for guidance.

Interviewer

That must have been a pretty intense experience.

Rabbi Spitzer

The most intense of my life, and that’s including my interview with that televangelist idiot on the national news. There were twenty, maybe thirty people there, and I knew in that moment that their futures were like clay in my hands. I did the best I could. Hopefully it’s not too boastful to point out that the ones who survived the next few days have done well since then.

Interviewer

Did you have any idea the subsequent attacks were coming?

Rabbi Spitzer

I had a gut instinct. I mean, how do people usually react to stuff like that? Not good, right? And this is the Big Apple we’re talking about, a city where toughness is its own kind of currency. I know those OTF schmucks had grand plans, what with their stages set up in Central Park, but the thing is people don’t actually like to be sheep, especially New Yorkers. We have too much of an independent streak.

Interviewer

Can you tell me how it started?

Rabbi Spitzer

(She laughs)

With a Molotov cocktail through the window? I actually don’t know what it was, expect that it exploded. After that I was too busy trying to keep people alive to notice what was happening outside, but they tell me the sky actually darkened from the smoke. Sixteen churches, four mosques, and eleven temples all gone in less than a day. Thousands dead. My synagogue was one of the few to come through reasonably unscathed, minus the broken window and a few burnt pews. And the bodies.

(She takes a deep breath)

The city gave me an award for courage, when it was all over. Apparently, my reaction wasn’t exactly common. But I still think of them every day. The people I failed to save. Six young men and women with their whole lives ahead of them. Such a waste.

Interviewer

Your temple became a rallying point during the quarantine. Why do you think that is?

Rabbi Spitzer

I think deep down, everyone knows that the Jewish people are some of the toughest in history. We’ve gone through genocides, wars, targeted attacks, bigotry, bias, the list goes on. But we’ve endured, no matter what. It’s quite incredible, actually, how preserved the Jewish culture is. We’ve been more or less the same people since Egyptian times. That’s longer than any living nation in the world. So maybe that’s why people came to us for survival. Because we’re experts.

#

Victoria

You’d think I would have left, right? After the tragedies in New York. But Louis… well, he bounced right back. And it was like trying to break free of gravity, turning away from him. He returned from that disaster stronger than ever, more certain than ever. And I was scared. So yeah, I stayed.  

Interviewer

You ran one of the infamous Indoctrination Camps in rural Wyoming. Can you tell me more about that experience?

Victoria

(She swallows a sob before continuing)

According to Louis, the thing that went wrong in New York was that people were going into their Salvacin experience with too much scaffolding, as he called it. He said we needed to break down what they knew so they’d interpret the experience correctly. It made sense, right? That people were clinging to the world they understood, the lies that had been fed to them, anything that felt stable.

(She exhales unsteadily)

I guess we were too.

Anyways, this time we actually did start small. We bought some land out in Montana — the money was flowing in like crazy at that point, mostly American but a lot from India and Europe too. We had dozens of Kickstarters and Patreon pages, even though the governments kept taking them down. At first, we only accepted volunteers. There were a bunch of families who had seen Louis’s videos online or read his manifesto. They came in droves, desperate for what we were offering. But the problem was that those weren’t the people we needed to help. They already believed, see? It was the rest of them we needed to save.  

Interviewer

 So you started kidnapping people?

Victoria

(She’s openly crying now)

We didn’t think of it as kidnapping. We just wanted to show people the truth! We weren’t violent unless we had to be….

(She swallows)

It was a mistake. I see that now. The Reeducation Centers never should have existed. We should have stopped after New York. But Louis wasn’t ready to stop, not with all those people at his disposal, hanging on his every word. It went to his head, I think. Maybe what happened next was inevitable. Because there, in the Rockies, surrounded by true believers and the soon-to-be converted, I had no doubt in my mind that we were doing the right thing. I thought we were saving mankind.

(She looks at me tearfully)

You know what I felt guilty about, even at the time? The only part of the whole thing that fazed me? The kids. I know we weren’t the only ones giving Salvacin to minors, but even back then it felt wrong. Call it a premonition, but I had this really deep feeling that we were stealing their childhoods or something. More than anything else, I hate that I was right about that.

#

Dr. Yin

Existential Lethargy is the most common response in what we now call Salvacin Kids, and thankfully the most benign. But there are others. Some children become hyper-violent or sociopathic, especially infants born to mothers who used the drug heavily. We didn’t realize it could cross the placental barrier at first, but after the first dozen or so serial killers, the evidence was impossible to ignore.

The thing is, human empathy doesn’t come naturally. It must be learned. So when you show a child that God exists, it’s easy for them to stop caring about the world and everyone in it. Children are inherently tyrannical creatures. Adults at least have the dubious advantage of introspection and hopefully, a foundation of self-doubt. Kids have none of that, so Salvacin’s effects are universally catastrophic.

Interviewer

Do you know how many people in the long-term care institutions are Salvacin Kids?

Dr. Yin

Perhaps up to forty percent? There are a lot of reasons for that though. First of all, most of the adults who weren’t able to cope with Salvacin committed suicide. Either that or they went off into the woods and joined a monastery or commune. So the adults we treat now are mostly Monk-type personalities struggling to move on with their lives, not necessarily people who need to be institutionalized. But the kids? They’re the ones who can’t recover. They’re the ones who won’t even remember to eat.

Interviewer

Have any of the Salvacin Kids shown improvement?

Dr. Yin

Depends on what you mean by improvement. We’ve had several of our patients go on to hold down jobs, apartments, even relationships, although always with the similarly affected. But I’ve never seen any of them return to what you’d call normal life. Sometimes my cohorts and I discuss how alien they can seem when you’re treating them. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. There’s something fundamentally missing in their brains, almost Vulcan, if you’ll pardon the reference. You could hold a gun to their head and they wouldn’t even flinch.

Interviewer

That must be strange to work with.

Dr. Yin

It makes me wonder how much Salvacin took away from us. I’ve heard the world has twenty-five percent less artists now than it did pre-Salvacin. I mean, we had such an abundance of wannabe actors and writers before, it’s not surprising the numbers would go down. But it’s deeper than that, I think. My theory is that in some intrinsic way, human beings are designed to grapple with hard questions. To dig into the unknown and never quite find the answers we’re looking for. And if we can no longer ask those questions, what are we supposed to do?

(She scoffs)

Well, I suppose Marsha Thomas had the answer to that, now didn’t she?

#

Interviewer

Thank you for meeting with me.

Marsha Thomas [Government Safehouse, Undisclosed Location]

It’s not often I get visitors nowadays, at least not ones who want to talk.

(She folds her arms)

Now tell me son, what are you here for?

Interviewer

I want to know how you got started. Where did the Vax Attacks begin?

Marsha

(She laughs)

In my dang kitchen, that’s where. My husband was the scientist. He worked at Texas A&M studyin’ immunotherapies. I was just another angry woman, watching my country go to the dogs. It was infuriating, watchin’ those pundits and politicians try an’ shift the situation to their advantage. We had a collective wildfire on our hands, but they kept insisting they had control. That it was a good thing. Even with Utah closin’ its borders and the Mormons carryin’ machine guns to make sure no one brought so much as aspirin into their state, those nimwits in Washington said things were fine. Well, I did not believe that for a second. And it turned out there were some rich folks in California who agreed with me.

(She taps her fingers against one bicep)

Maybe if more people were willin’ to speak out early on, before the real violence started, I wouldn’t have had to resort to such drastic measures.

Interviewer

But you got your start well before the attacks actually began, didn’t you?

Marsha

Of course we did. Vaccines don’t get made in a weekend, you know. I was recruitin’ investors as early as that first summer, although we didn’t have a real mockup until the next spring. It’s a damn shame we couldn’t move faster, but that’s how Salvacin became such a mess. Altaxis went too fast. We had no interest in repeatin’ their mistakes, so we did things by the book.

Interviewer

 You were working well outside the system. How does that qualify as ‘by the book’?

Marsha

(She laughs)

Honey, the system barely worked anymore. We weren’t ’bout to trust no FDA committee after their role in what happened. ‘Sides, they were in the government’s pocket, and even with all the chaos, no one was about to sanction an anti-Salvacin agent. The whole world was as addicted to that stuff as they were to their smartphones, no matter how destructive it was. You didn’ see no politicians tryin’ to shut down Twitter, did you? So why would they shut down a multi-trillion-dollar drug?

No, our investors wanted things done old-school. Secluded warehouse. Animal trials. Scientists we could trust to keep their mouths shut. Everything quiet and precise.

Interviewer

Did you have any reservations about the project?

Marsha

If I did, it’s too late to voice them now. Although I have to say, we originally intended the SAB vaccine to be optional. My husband and I agreed that what happened in New York was monstrous, on scale with some of the worst terrorist attacks in history. And maybe we weren’t creatin’ another hallucinogen, but we respected people’s ability to choose. 

Interviewer

What changed your mind?

Marsha

The Purges, of course. That OTF kid changed everything once. I guess he had it in him to do it again. 

#

Saleem

I was only five when the 9/11 attacks happened, but I remember exactly how it felt. How the whole world went quiet and the schools shut down and everyone kind of held their breath as they waited for… something. Anything. I don’t know.

Well, the Purges were different. I was watching the news when the first bomb hit the Vatican and it wasn’t quiet at all. People panicked, man, like nothing I’d ever seen before. Maybe it was different this time, since it was so sudden. I mean, one second the Pope’s giving a speech. The next he’s vaporized. And in the same hour, seven other holy sites around the world turn to dust? It was chaos.

I was in New York at the time, helping with the Reconstruction. I’ll be honest, I was kind of a wreck at that point. I felt like all of it was my fault, at least in part. But when the news came in that bombs were going off all over the world, the panic hit me too. I was in one of those cars that got stuck trying to leave the city. We didn’t even reach the Brooklyn Bridge before we had to abandon it. It was terrifying, sprinting out of the city and knowing there was no way we could get out fast enough. But of course, New York wasn’t one of the targets.

Interviewer

You heard the speeches, though? The broadcast that went out after?

Saleem

Oh yeah. And let me tell you, that OTF guy might have been a prime kind of asshole. But damn could that guy send chills down your arms.

#

Victoria

(She’s sobbing as she speaks)

I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I know I have no right. But I swear, I didn’t know what Louis was planning until he did it. I only helped him with the recordings. That’s awful, I’m sorry, I know I’m still responsible.

Interviewer

Why do you think he did it?  

Victoria

Don’t you get it?! He wanted to free people. He wanted there to be nothing people could fall back on. He said that if there were no religious symbols, then there was no religion, because that’s all the organized religions were.

Interviewer

But what about the art that was lost? The culture? The lives? Did he ever consider those things?

Victoria

How am I supposed to know? He went down with his ship, right? Or at least they made him. I don’t think he was planning for that shootout with the FBI to happen, but sometimes I wonder if he was. He wanted to be a legend, and maybe on some level he knew that living people can’t be legends. Not for long at least.

(She wipes her nose on the sleeve of her jumpsuit)

The truth is that I hardly even knew him at that point. He’d become completely unrecognizable. I don’t think he had any real friends, and I know his family wouldn’t talk to him. At the time, I thought it was just the burden of leadership. But he was taking a lot of Salvacin, and maybe he had a preexisting condition, you know? Maybe he wasn’t all there.

Interviewer

What do you think he would have had to say about the SAB vaccine, when it came out?

Victoria

(She sniffs)

What does it matter? Marsha and Louis were birds of a feather. He would have hated it, sure, but he had no right to judge. No one who was a part of our movement has any right to criticize her. Not after what we did. Because how was it any different?

#

Dr. Hardy

The Salvacin Agent Blocker, or SAB vaccine for short, was designed to create an immune response to the chemical formula we created and force the body to break it down before it could ever reach the brain. It’s not perfect — in extremely high-dose situations, vaccinated patients will still feel some of Salvacin’s effects. But not like before. No, Marsha did her homework.

Interviewer

How do you feel about the vaccine?

Dr. Hardy

I mean, it literally erased my work. Wiped it off the face of the Earth, at least in major cities. But I have to acknowledge her creativity. She couldn’t just pump it into the pipes, not with everyone so paranoid about where their water was coming from, and helicopter security had never been tighter. But piggybacking the immune agent on a norovirus.

(He shakes his head)

She made the SAB vaccine as contagious as the common cold and then set it loose. The virus infected something like eighty-five percent of the world’s urban populations, at least in the States and Europe. I might hate it, but I can’t deny that it was brilliant.

Interviewer

You’re currently working on a SAB antidote, are you not?

Dr. Hardy

Yeah, but just between us, it’s pretty hopeless. I mean, we’re collaborating with scientists all over the world, but I don’t see much of a future in the research. I think at this point, we all just need to move on.

Interviewer

What about people in more rural areas? Or China?

Dr. Hardy

I mean, sure, they can still take Salvacin. But why would they? China closed their borders for a reason. Taking Salvacin now is like opening Pandora’s box and knowing it’s Pandora’s box.

(He sighs)

Still, I’d give anything for it to work again. It hurts, to be so far from Him. I get some comfort in knowing that the next generation, the ones born after the vaccine, will have the chance to see God when they’re old enough. I guess our grand-kids will have a chance to do things better. And that’s something. Not much, but it’s something. 

#

Interviewer

You’re considered to be the most hated person on the planet. Does that bother you?

Marsha

Not a bit. It’s like parenting. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy.  

Interviewer

I take it you’re not religious?

Marsha

What makes you say that? Just cuz I don’t believe a bunch of brain chemistry can replace God? No, sir, I’m a devout Christian. Always have been, always will be. I have faith, and that’s what counts. See, Salvacin was killin’ faith. People were given certainty they didn’t earn, a confidence they didn’t need. We aren’t meant to know, young man. We’re meant to wonder. 

Interviewer

But you don’t wonder, do you? What Salvacin was like? What you destroyed?

Marsha

I don’t need to. I’ve heard all I ever want to know.

Interviewer

But you don’t ever worry if you made the wrong choice? That you weren’t qualified to make the decision for everyone?

Marsha

I take it you don’t like me very much.

(She chuckles)

Son, let me tell you somethin’. Our Creator — the real one, not that drug-induced mirage — He doesn’ ever make things easy. That’s the point. He gives you hard choices and impossible challenges designed make you better.

I don’t deny that I’ve suffered. I’ve lost my family, my friends, my home. Everything. I regret that. And I regret the people who died. But I don’t regret creating the vaccine and I certainly don’t regret spreadin’ it.

Interviewer

What about the future? When the next generation comes of age and can try Salvacin for themselves? What do you think of that?

Marsha

I’ve done what I can, young man. What comes next is up to them.

The End

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