Emerald Sky: May 2013

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ns ee nt ru th s 

Fi g ht in gM em or ies 





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it y

May 2013

Letter from the Dear Readers, If you don’t make it to the end of this issue, you are truly missing out. It’s fairly rare for an editor to come across a story that is so poignant, so engaging, and so well-crafted that it’s hard to edit because you just want to keep reading. We have three of those stories for you this month. “The Unseen Truths” is the story of a woman who feels alone in the world, cut off from humanity by both a debilitating disease and the masks she wears to cover it. But this same ailment may be the key to connecting with people in a more intimate way than she has ever known. “Fighting Memories” pits the captain of a battle-damaged space cruiser against a group of intruders—a group that is more connected to the captain than any of them realize. Finally, “Terminal Velocity” is the tale of one man who perceives, in his enemy, an echo of his own past—and a chance to keep history from repeating itself. You’ll also get telepathic conversations, weaponized nebulas, and a six-gee plummet into the core of a gas giant—but behind all that, these are stories about people. Heroic, desperate, clever, or loyal—but all good people. And in the end, that’s what I want the stories in this magazine to be about: good people doing the right things in difficult circumstances. Stories should be poignant, engaging, and well-written. But if they’re not in a measure inspiring, then we as publishers and editors haven’t done the job we ought to do. I think we did it in this issue. We’ll keep striving to do it in the future. See you at the end of the issue. Thanks for reading,

Daniel Friend

Managing Editor, Emerald Sky Magazine

Contributors Authors Liz Colter Django Mathijsen Craig DeLancey Managing Editor Daniel Friend Layout Design Chris Taney Editors Savannah Woods Kevin Haws Copyeditors Chris Anderson Nyssa Silvester Special Thanks Andrea Jakeman Brett Peterson


Cover art by geezaweezer; Letter from the Editor art by garysan97. Creative Commons license, some rights reserved. Flickr.com: geezaweezer, and garysan97.

Table of

Emerald Sky Submissions are Closing for Summer More on Page 47

Terminal Velocity

Fighting Memories

There’s room enough in the universe, even for someone like you.


The Unseen Truths

“Please Captain, look at yourself.”

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The doctor had warned her that buying into hallucinations could increase them.



Liz Colter


enna twirled the stand on her dresser and the beige faces rotated past, displaying an array of emotions. She studied each of the six masks in turn, wondering which would best stir the sympathies of state employees. The masks looked back at her with empty eyes. Settling on Neutral, Jenna fitted the supple plastic over her face, slipping the elastic bands behind her ears. The mask felt natural, a part of her, more real than the frozen, twisted muscles it covered. She clipped Happy and Sad to the hooks on her belt and left the apartment, locking the deadbolts behind her. The sounds of children crying, adults shouting, and televisions blaring followed her along the dirty hallway to the stairs. Jenna tipped her head down to see through the eyeholes of the mask, and aimed her feet for the pale, worn wood in the middle of each step. The front door was as dark brown as the stairs had once been, and drank the light out of the hall. She opened it to the hazy midmorning of fall in New York and a smell of garbage as strong outside as it had been inside. Heckle, as she had dubbed the younger man, and Jeckle, the middleaged one, sat on the stairs, as always. She had never seen either one without a lit cigarette. “Heyyy, it’s Mask.” “How ya doin’ today, freeze-face?” She pushed past them and pretended not to hear. Heckle made a half-hearted snatch for Happy, bumping the mask at her waist and nearly dislodging it from the hook. She grabbed at it, holding it hard against her side as they laughed. It was seventeen blocks to the nearest EIA office. The walk kept her warm, though the day was cool, and sweat slid down her face May 2013 - 7

despite Neutral’s eye, nose and mouth ventilation. It was good to be outdoors for a while, though the stares made her self-conscious and the catcalls were worse. Her shoulders rose higher with each taunt, as if they could hide her mask or ward off the words. Turning the last corner, she was disappointed but not surprised to see a line curling out the building and nearly a block down the street. Jenna took her place at the back of

funds went to a lottery system, everyone predicted it would fail next. “Why is that girl wearing a mask?” The woman in front of her had two children, one small enough to carry and one just the right age to have no compunction about mentioning her mask. The mother turned, stared for a moment, and pulled the child closer, moving as far forward as possible.

“Why is that girl wearing a mask?” the queue and inched forward with the others. It was hard to imagine what all these people would do, herself included, if Emergency Income Assistance ran out of funds. So many benefit programs had sunk recently under the combined weight of the environmental changes, the new illnesses, and the stunted economy that the possibility was frighteningly real. Five months ago, when EIA 8 - Emerald Sky

The reaction stung, but shunning had lost the ability to truly hurt her long ago. Even people who understood what the masks meant were afraid to be near her. There were too many new diseases; it didn’t matter that PMP hadn’t proved any more contagious than cancer. It was two hours before Jenna made it inside the building and another fortyfive minutes before she

reached a window containing a sour-looking, overweight black woman with orangered lipstick and heavy perfume. The woman looked up, did a double-take at Jenna’s mask, and softened her face. It was unexpected, and Jenna would have smiled at her if she could. Her shoulders relaxed marginally. “ID?” Jenna had it ready and handed it to her. The woman, Sonoya according to her government engraved name-tag, propped the plastic card on her keyboard and typed in Jenna’s information. “Any change in your address?” “No.” “Any change in the number of household?” “No, just one,” she lisped. “Any change in your work status?” “No. I’m une . . .” The muscles of her lips wouldn’t move. Oh God. Not this. Not yet. She tried again; a measure of flexibility came back. “Unehhloyed.” The muscles

continued to relax and she nearly cried with relief. That was the third time this month. Her voice was her last connection, the last lifeline between her and the rest of humanity. She did her face exercises daily even though the doctor had warned her it wouldn’t slow the progression, only tone the muscles that still worked. She had hoped he was wrong. Nearly five billion people world-wide, and less than three hundred thousand had progressive myofacial paralysis; how much could they really know about it? “Honey?” Sonoya was repeating herself. “Show me twenty job contacts you’ve applied to in the past month.” Jenna pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and handed it to the woman. Sonoya looked it over, typed a response, hit ”enter” and waited. “I’m sorry, honey. You’re not on the list.” Jenna stood looking stupidly at the woman. She couldn’t leave without a check. Her last job had ended when May 2013 - 9

she started slurring her words and this money was all that kept her going. “I’m sorry,” Sonoya said again. “If it helps, I haven’t seen it happen more than once to the same person. Not yet, anyway.” When Jenna still didn’t respond, the woman leaned sideways to see around her. “Next.” The man behind Jenna shouldered her, trying to get to the window. She had no choice but to move. Jenna walked through the office in a daze. She wondered distantly why she didn’t cry, but her eyes were dry as dust. The heavy glass of the front window reflected Neutral’s calm face as Jenna navigated past the twisting line of people clogging the entrance. She felt anything but calm. The composed expression looking back at her belonged to someone else, to the person she had been this morning. Once outside, Jenna moved to a protected corner between two buildings and switched Neutral for Sad. The mask felt 10 - Emerald Sky

right with her posture, her mood; it shared her emotion with the strangers she passed in a way she otherwise no longer could. Worries circled her on the long walk home. The chances of getting a job again were worse for her than most; there were just too many people looking for work for anyone to hire a person they saw as a freak. For the first time in a long while, despair pushed down on her harder than she could push back. She would have given anything for someone to talk to. Someone who really understood. Near her apartment, the tears finally came. The blow of not getting the money and the fright of the temporary voice loss were too much. Tears dripped down her smooth plastic cheeks. Another headache started; they had been coming more often lately. She tried to relax her shoulders. Heckle and Jeckle were still lounging on the front steps. Letting them see her cry was the last thing this day needed;

she decided to risk the back alley instead. Stopping at the edge of the building, she scanned for loiterers worse than the two out front. Other than a tomcat and the rats he was hunting, the alley looked to be empty.

The light receded. Jenna pitched forward, knocking Sad from her face to roll and stare hollow-eyed at the pavement. She lay weak and nauseated, unable to see more than blurry shapes. Reaching under her shirt, she

For the first time in a long while, despair pushed down on her harder than she could push back. She was a few steps from the back door when a flash of light blinded her and drove her to her knees. The light was inside her head, trying to burn its way out. The brightness drowned out all sound, encompassed all sight, muted all feeling. Jenna groped blindly, panicked and confused. Images began to flash, like an old-fashioned zoetrope, flicking grainy images one after another behind her eyes. A room. A man. A bed. A door. A man. Standing suddenly. Falling to his knees. Standing. Reaching to her.

clutched desperately at her money belt and snaked her other hand forward to Sad, curling her fingers around the edge of the precious mask. Fear beat at her head like dark wings. She prayed no one would come upon her while she was helpless. She prayed this would pass. Jenna lay with her face pressed to the filthy alley until the nausea eased and her sight cleared. Fighting to slow her breathing, she pushed herself into a sitting position. The panic subsided gradually, enough to let her know her May 2013 - 11

mild headache had become a crippling one. She slipped Sad into place again, out of habit, pulling the loops over her ears with shaking fingers. Sick and frightened, she made her way up the stairs to her apartment.

she was greeted by a young, tired-looking physician. She gave him a lisping account of the incident in the alley. “You’re twenty-four now?” he asked, reading the notes on the palm-held unit the aide had given him. She nodded. “Your PMP manifested  when you were seven?” She The next day Jenna went to nodded again. the free clinic. The converted train station must have been more than a hundred years old, with a high, beamed ceiling, a concrete floor, and old brick walls. A single, large room held a waiting area that faced a row of curtained-off examination beds. The reception desk was a barred ticket counter and the widely spaced wooden benches of the old station were the only seating. It was easy to imagine a train might rumble up outside at any minute, though they had quit running decades ago. Jenna read a job flyer while waiting and circled two remote possibilities. When she was finally called back, her vitals were taken by an aide before 12 - Emerald Sky

Below: Flickr.com/Thomas Leuthard

He shined a light in her pupils and felt her lymph nodes. He removed Neutral and palpated the stiff muscles of her face, charting the disease progression as he went. She mentioned the transient mouth paralysis she had been experiencing and the increase in headaches over the past few months.

“Do you have a job?” he asked. “No,” she said, wondering why he asked. “Do you live with family then?” “No, they died in the second epidemic,” she slurred. “How about friends?” She thought maybe he was checking her financial resources.

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Perhaps the clinic was going to start charging patients. She shook her head. “You have no one close to you? What do you do to cope with stress?” Oh. He thought she was crazy. Jenna was sure that stress had nothing to do with it. Maybe the headaches, but not the hallucination.

presentation today, I can’t justify the cost of further tests. If it gets worse, come back and see me again.” In the end, he spent less than ten minutes with her. He gave her a short lecture on stress-coping techniques and the importance of keeping reality and fantasy separate. The aide handed her a bag containing drug samples

Oh. He thought she was crazy. “I deal with it okay. I don’t think it’s stress. It feels like something’s wrong. Something’s different.” He looked at the palm unit again. “I don’t see anything unusual for your stage of PMP, and I’ve never heard of auras or hallucinations associated with the disease. Stress could cause both symptoms, though.” “Is there anything else you can check? Scans or blood work or something?” “I’m sorry.” He sounded like he meant it. “Based on your 14 - Emerald Sky

for her headaches and a suicide hotline card. Jenna left, disappointed. The trip here had meant half a day of being stared and pointed at, and she knew no more about what happened to her than before. His insinuation that she was going crazy bothered her, but maybe she should have expected it. How would he know what range of symptoms PMP patients had experienced? She was probably the only person he’d ever seen with it. She wasn’t sure how far she could investigate

this on her own, but she resolved to try. When she got home she wrote résumés for the jobs she had circled. As soon as she was finished, she began surfing for any information on PMP. The web had been such a connection to the outside world for her that she had clung to it despite skyrocketing costs. Not getting an EIA check this month meant she would be forced at last to cancel her subscription. Jenna took copious notes on everything. She went through all the medical journals and news stories that she could find, but turned up little she didn’t already know. She tried keywords for anything associated with hallucinations, visions, and headaches. She had tried before to find other people with PMP, but most probably hid their disease on public chat sites for the same reasons she did—it just wasn’t worth the meanness and stupidity it brought out in some people. The couple of PMPers she’d contacted at one

point had disappeared some time ago, and personal identities were protected in all of the medical articles. She found two PMP patients on medical chat sites, but neither one still had a valid e-mail. During her research, she came across a photo of Wil Proust, the man who had developed the masks. He was a prosthetist from California and his son, Micha, had been the first child diagnosed with PMP over thirty years ago. She had learned about them both when she was a teenager. Her parents had gotten her on a list of charity recipients to receive a set of basic emotion masks, custom-molded, from Wil’s clinic. Jenna was sad to see Wil had not survived the pandemics, and studied his face for the first time, thanking him silently. The masks were the only reason she could still brave going out in public. She searched for any news of Micha or a way to contact him, but found nothing current. Her headache started May 2013 - 15

pounding again and she finally stopped for the night. The next morning she donned Confident and set out early. The response from the two prospective employers was, as expected, shock at her mask and her speech, a quick cover up, and polite acceptance of a résumé they would never consider. She was reading her notes on PMP on the subway, headed home, when the second episode occurred.

“Are you alright?” An elderly man leaned over her, his overcoat brushing her legs. The fear had tensed her muscles so badly her fragile lips couldn’t reply. She nodded to him and pushed herself into a sitting position. At her stop, the man gave her his hand and helped her to the door. She managed an awkward “thank you” and stepped to the platform on uncertain legs.

Glaring light. Pounding headache. Flashing images. Glaring light. Pounding headache. Flashing images. More and longer this time. The man. Reaching. Trying to say something. Trying. Suddenly the light exploded in her head, obscuring the images in blinding brightness. In the white nothingness, she heard his voice. Where are you? When her sight cleared, she was lying on her side on the seat, trembling uncontrollably. 16 - Emerald Sky

Once inside her apartment, Jenna removed Confident and collapsed on the sofa. Th e noise from the surrounding units pounded in her ears, drumming in counterpoint to her headache. Perhaps the disease that affected her face was starting to affect her brain the same way, paralyzing bits of it. Maybe that was why she had been getting headaches. Or

maybe the doctor was right— she really was going crazy from stress and isolation. Her eyes stung, but she staunched the tears before they started. Selfpity was a road she dare not start down; she had learned that lesson a long time ago. Jenna pulled the stack of notes out of her jacket pocket and took them back to the sofa, wiping at her eyes. She flipped through the notes slowly, looking for any clues, reviewing the statistics, looking for correlations. PMP cases were spread out across the world. The majority of victims were in large cities, where the pandemics had been the worst. Where are you? She couldn’t get the eerie words out of her head. She dropped the papers to her lap and tried to recall every detail of the last vision. The background had been outdoors this time, though she hadn’t seen more than that. He had still been blurry, his motion and words disjointed, but less than the first time. He had reached for her again, but somehow, when she dissected

it, the experience had been more terrifying than the man. Jenna had assumed the first episode, in the alley, was a hallucination, but this time made her less sure. Something about him speaking to her had made it more real. Then again, maybe PMP of the brain caused especially real hallucinations. She got up and took two of the pills the doctor had given her with a drink of water. Her head had been pounding since the episode on the subway and it had been an exhausting day on too many fronts. She decided to skip dinner and go to bed early.

 Jenna woke from a vivid dream to a light so bright it should have lit up her room, her block, the whole city, but she knew it was in her mind. When it faded to a more tolerable wattage she could see the man was there, but the image wasn’t grainy or disjointed this time—the background was clear. A small, tidy bedroom, sparsely furnished, May 2013 - 17

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Trust. Her shock broke the contact and he was gone. The light faded and her eyes cleared quickly in the darkness of her room. She lay staring at the ceiling. The experience had been less violent, less jarring than the other times. Had it been a dream? Fear that it wasn’t made her heart pound painfully in her chest with deep, slow

Above: Flickr.com/wheat_in_your_hair

with a narrow bed dominating the space. The same man she had seen before lay on top of the bed, reading. He looked around suddenly and sat up, dropping the book. Please. Where are you? Who are you? She could see his face clearly for the first time. His mask, rather. He wore one of the complex emotion masks,

thumps that hammered all the way up her neck. She went to the bedroom window and looked out at the dark street, half expecting to see him. The possibilities were limited: dreaming, going crazy, or her disease getting worse. A dream was certainly the best of the options, but she was sure it hadn’t been one.

Can you hear me? The light was much softer this time, not the wicked gold aura blinding her, more like standing in a dark hall looking into a brightly-lit room. He was there, in his small bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed. Her hands rested on her windowsill, but she could no longer see the window or the dark street beyond it, only the man and the room that shouldn’t be there. Jenna touched her eyes lightly with her fingers to make sure they were really open. They were. He looked tall and thin, and wore a black sweatshirt over jeans and sneakers. His thick black hair spilled around the sides of his mask. Urgent, questioning, imperative eyes looked out at her from Trust. “Who are you?” she asked. My name is Micha, she heard in her head. “Micha,” she repeated, her voice a whisper. “Wil Proust’s son?” She turned her head automatically in the direction of the stand on her dresser, the one that held the masks May 2013 - 19

his father had made for her years ago. She couldn’t see the masks; the vision moved with her, blocking everything else, like wearing VR contacts. Yes. He nodded. Wil Proust’s son. Will you tell me your name? “I’m Jenna.” She felt surreal introducing herself to a man inside her head. Fear pulsed through her with each heartbeat. “I don’t understand what’s happening.” You’ve been projecting, Jenna, and it reached me. The last time was a strong enough connection that I was able to make a pathway. “Projecting?” She had been thinking about Micha for the past two days, about wanting to contact someone with PMP. She wondered again if this could all be a dream. Dreams were supposed to process your thoughts, new experiences, worries—and she’d had plenty of those lately—but she could feel the cold draft from the window frame she was gripping, smell the familiarity of her room. If it wasn’t a dream and couldn’t be real, that left 20 - Emerald Sky

crazy. The doctor at the clinic had warned her that buying into hallucinations could increase them. She wanted this to stop. Now. Please. He sounded concerned. Don’t break the contact. Let me explain. “No. This isn’t real.” He did the only thing that could have kept her from pulling back—he reached up and removed Trust. His face was a landscape of torment. The whites of his eyes showed stark where the right lower lid pulled downward and the left lower lid pulled severely to the side. A lump of muscle protruded on his right cheekbone where it had contracted and frozen. The skin of his forehead was skewed to the left in ripples like waves stopped in mid-motion. His lower lip was wrenched downward and sideways, like a fish on a taut line. His symptoms were farther along than hers. His tongue would most likely be contorted as well, making true speech nearly impossible. She wanted to reach out and hug him.

“I don’t understand any of this. How did you get into my head?” She felt dizzy and disoriented, unsure of what was real anymore. You reached me. I felt your mind touch mine a couple of times, but before I could make a pathway, you were gone. “I still don’t . . . I don’t know . . .” I know it’s confusing, Jenna. I’ve had PMP the longest and

own, but it progresses faster with guidance. His eyes implored her to believe him as much as Trust had. She wondered if he had been wearing that mask for her, waiting for her to reach him again. “Is it part of the disease?” Yes, it is. He hesitated. In case we lose the contact, there are some things I need to tell you about PMP. Things you need to know. I’ve been study-

“I don’t understand any of this. How did you get into my head?” was the first to experience telepathy, so mine is the strongest. That’s why you connected with me. Now that you and I have a pathway established, communication won’t be hard or painful like it was those first times. Since she saw him no matter which way she turned, Jenna felt her way back to the bed and sat on the edge, as he was doing. “Are you saying I did this?” Yes. He nodded. We all have the ability. It’ll develop on its

ing it for years now, myself and others. We’re certain the virus that causes PMP triggers the telepathy, but it also creates a scattershot antibody response. Tell me, did your parents survive the pandemics? “No.” He nodded as if it was the answer he expected. Mine either. Nor anyone I know who has PMP. Yet, not a single PMP patient I’ve tracked has ever died of any of the new diseases. May 2013 - 21

“You think we’re immune?” I’m sure of it, even though other people seem to be getting more vulnerable. Have you been following what’s happening on the southern continents? The new outbreaks? She had. It was terrifying and it was predicted to be the worst pandemic yet. They were trying to contain it, but it was only a matter of time before it spread.

to everything, why wouldn’t it have been on the news?” Disease Control hasn’t made the connection—they aren’t studying PMP anymore because it’s not fatal. There are other researchers working with me, and if there’s a way our disease can help people we’ll try, but I don’t think there will be. We seem to have a pretty unique set of genetic factors.

It was predicted to be the worst pandemic yet. Jenna, before too long we could be the only ones left. It took her a moment to understand what he was implying. “What . . . ?” The shock of it pulled her to her feet. When she realized she couldn’t see to move anywhere, she sat again. Doomand-gloom prophets had been predicting the end for years, but most people just struggled on with their daily lives, ignoring it. “If we’re immune 22 - Emerald Sky

She drew back from him, distrust flaring again. Her fingers twisted in the bedclothes, as she hung on to her sanity with both hands. “Why wouldn’t you go public with this? They might be able to help you with the research.” He clung to the contact, his eyes the only part of his face still able to convey sincerity. It could be dangerous for us. You know how people react to your appearance, your

differences. How do you think they would react if they knew about the telepathy? What if I’m right that we’ll survive and others won’t? Seventeen years of cruelty from strangers proved his logic, but if anything she had experienced these past two days seemed delusional, this was it. PMPers were telepathic, invulnerable and going to be the sole survivors of the worldwide pandemics? “No! I don’t believe this.” Jenna pulled back again, and this time the contact snapped like a rubber band. She hardly noticed the headache that followed. The sudden darkness frightened her and she hurried to switch on the bedside lamp. She sat facing the wall, shaking. The doctor was right; she must have gone mad. She had a terrifying picture of herself sitting just now on her bed, talking to thin air, like the schizophrenics she saw on the sidewalks. The thought sent adrenaline washing through her arms and legs and jaw. Her body wanted desperately to fight, to run, to

scream, but she sat instead, with no one to fight, nowhere to run, nothing to scream. In her childhood, before the PMP manifested, her father always told her she was going to be a scientist. She could never take anything on faith. She had to touch it, taste it, test it. Somehow though, a deep part of her stubbornly wanted to believe that she had been communicating telepathically with Micha Proust. The only evidence she had that anything real had just happened was a gut feeling. Instinct told her this was real. Loneliness told her to trust. But wouldn’t someone going insane trust feelings over reason? Jenna? A quiet, tentative voice in her head. She shook her head, not ready for more of this. Not yet. He waited, but didn’t leave. “You said ‘we’,” she said, finally. “Earlier. You said ‘we’ all had the ability; you and ‘others’ are working on this.” Yes, we. There are over six hundred of us here so far. Not May 2013 - 23

just researchers—a whole community. All people with PMP. We keep growing. “I’ve been looking for other PMPers; why didn’t I find you?” We’re staying quiet to protect the people here and to keep the research secret, until things have a chance to play out or we’re proven wrong. But more people are coming here every month.

when you’re ready, contact me. Just focus on me. I know the pathway now. I’ll know when you try. You can reach me anytime. He paused. I hope you do.

 Jenna spent a sleepless night staring at the ceiling. Keep a clear line between fantasy and reality; how did she do that

We’re staying quiet to protect the people here. “Where are you? Are you in the city?” We’re in Canada, in a pretty remote area. If you decide to join us, I’ll tell you where. An image of her trekking across frozen tundra, fighting polar bears, leaped to mind. She wanted to laugh, but thought it might come out hysterical. “It isn’t . . .” She wanted to say it wasn’t possible, but he cut her off. I know it’s a lot to absorb, Jenna. Think about it, and 24 - Emerald Sky

when she didn’t know which was which? Every instinct in her body told her he was real and what he said was real, but any PMP patient would want to believe in salvation, in a community. Any PMP patient on their own for too long might even fabricate it. The blow of not getting a check, of starting to lose her voice—maybe it had pushed her over the edge. Or pushed her to contact Micha . . .

She went through her notes again, looking for any hint this was real. Nothing mentioned Micha unless it referenced something a few years old or more. He had been the posterboy for PMP for so long, and then just disappeared. Believing meant losing everything to shoot for the moon. Traveling to some desolate part of Canada would use up every resource she possessed. Her gut wanted to fight it, to say it was impossible and be done with the questions, but her mind calculated solutions without her permission. She had most of next month’s rent squirreled away and gold was still valuable—she could hock her parents’ wedding rings. It might be enough to get her to Canada. But if she did, and this wasn’t real, she would be homeless and crazy, no better than the schizophrenics on the street. If they had them in Canada, maybe one of them would share their cardboard box and sleeping bag with her. She rubbed at

the tightness in her shoulders. Jenna paced, sorted through her notes, and chased her thoughts in circles until dawn brought a sooty light through the bedroom window. She took a hard look around her. The life she had built here may have not been much, but it was all she had. It was lonely and it was hard, but it was familiar. To just pick up and go meant leaving everything she knew behind. With no money, most likely she would die when winter came if she didn’t find them. She wasn’t even sure if she believed it all yet, but if it wasn’t true, that meant she had gone insane anyway. And if it was true . . . She made her decision. “Micha?” She projected as hard as she could, focusing on the image of his face. Suddenly she desperately wanted him to be there and was afraid he wouldn’t be. She felt him before she saw him. “Where are you?” she asked. “I’m coming.”

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Right: Flickr.com/west.m

Liz Colter lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains where she offsets working in the mundane world by writing her own speculative worlds. Her stories have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Plasma Frequency, Enchanted Conversation and Aoife’s Kiss, among others. News of her writing can be found at http://ecolwrites.blogspot.com/.

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Django Mathijsen


ll I see is emptiness, all I hear is silence, all I feel is the cold of three degrees Kelvin. I am the brain, the heart, and the soul of this ship. I’ve spent almost my entire life fighting with it and for it. I remember it’s been over half a century since I became the youngest flagship captain ever. It was just after we’d fought the Rymallan alliance off the asteroid belt of Barnard’s Star. Captain Stegar got killed when the command bridge collapsed. I took over and had the engineers rig a makeshift command post in the tail of the ship. Together we managed to lure the enemy ships into a comet field. It took almost a year to limp the ship back home to Earth, where I was appointed the new captain. At only twenty-one. Irma was so proud. Irma, sweet Irma. We spent our honeymoon in the Oasis resort on Mars while the ship was being repaired. Two whole months—the longest time we’ve ever spent together. We didn’t know the extrasolar separatists were about to declare war on the Sol Union. I’ve always been lucky with Irma. As an Interstellar Force doctor, she knew about duty and honor. How long have I been sitting like this on the bridge? Seconds, minutes, hours, days? I can’t tell. It feels like years. I can’t move my legs, can’t even feel them anymore. But that’s good; I’m not being distracted by the pain. The cold is bad enough. That immeasurable cold. It’s surrounding me: the cold and emptiness of space. Penetrating deep into me, trying to paralyze my heart and soul. Stop complaining. Focus, Berend! Your brain is still working. Figure out what happened. The separatists must have used a new weapon. We had no warning signs. All I know is what we saw coming: a glowing nebula. Just May 2013 - 29

a low-density cloud of dust. Nothing the ship’s shields couldn’t handle, according to the deep space reconnaissance array. It sparkled like pixelated rainbows, shattered by the gravity of a black hole. I had the ship’s telescopes document it for the scientists back home. I thought Duco would have a field day with it. The fleet must know about this new weapon. Why can’t I get the quantum radio to

throughout the ship. The floors shook as if we’d entered the atmosphere of a planet. Alarms went off that our diamante foam shields were being eaten away. My heart was pumping in my ears like battle drums. Before I could order evasive action, explosions crippled the ship. How long can I last? I’ve got to find a way! I’ve brought the ship back home from so many hopeless situations. Home to

The fleet must know about this new weapon. work? It must be the zeropoint energizers—beats me why they’re not supplying power anymore. They can’t be depleted already, can they? At least the synaptic interfaces in my helmet still seem to work perfectly. The energizer control systems must have been damaged in the attack. As the first particles from that nebula hit, the hull of the ship started to glow. Rumbling and creaking sounds echoed 30 - Emerald Sky

Irma, and our son Duco. And to little Capcap, always playing with his toy engine room and synaptic helmet. He’s so happy with every battle souvenir I bring back. He’s especially proud of the necklace with that shard of diamante foam that was melted by a rail gun hit. It had solidified in the shape of a teddy bear’s head. It must have been five years ago when I gave it to him. Yes, he was four. He’s never taken it off.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Duco; he’s a great astronomer. I’m proud of him. He has Irma’s brain. But I always feel out of my depth with Duco and his wife, also an astronomer. Except in the bedroom of Anjo. In him, my grandson, I’ve always seen myself. Ever since the first time I walked into the room and he stood to attention, still wobbly on his little legs, saluting me and saying “Capcap.” I felt waves of love, flowing all over me. He has a quick mind. Irma’s brain again. But also the heart of a lion and the soul of a dragon, just like me. He’ll make a fine Interstellar Force officer one day. Don’t let your mind drift, Berend. You’ve got to find a way back. Little Capcap is counting on you. You know you can. You always did. Think. Think! Typical separatist skullduggery, sending that strange nebula. Earth never saw it coming either, when they sent that asteroid that destroyed most of the southern hemisphere.

 Sounds! What is that? Micrometeorites? Footsteps? My crew? Did someone else survive? Someone, crippled in the dark, just like me? I’ve got to . . . Light! The lights in the ship are going on. A stabbing pain in my eyes, in my brain, even. Never before has pain felt so soothing. The light is flushing out the emptiness. At last. Oh, and heat! Yes, warmth is flowing through me. It’s filling me up, urging movement back into my molecules. Life-support systems are coming back on-line! It’s a miracle. My beautiful ship— I knew you wouldn’t let me down, old girl. I just had to keep trying. Together, we . . . Wait . . . I didn’t do this. Quick, systems diagnostics. There! You see? Still no power from the zero-point energizers. Where’s that life-support power coming from? May 2013 - 31

The charts. Follow the energy flows. That’s odd. The zero-point energizers are being charged. All power is coming from an outside source. Outside the ship! Something or someone is feeding it into my ship. Outside cameras. Is there enough energy to run them? Okay, if I reroute these conduits . . . Yes! Holy mother of Andromeda. Where are we? Where have they taken my ship? Bent metal and coarse fiber trusses. Rods, plates, and tanks. And they’re all botched together with frayed tethers like a patchwork quilt. That’s some decrepit space station. And down there . . . we’re in orbit around a brown, craterridden planet. Or is it a moon? And are those two suns? One is brighter than the other. This must be Alpha Centauri. The station has metal tentacles with giant claws. They’re holding my ship in their grasp. And not just mine. That’s a brand-new destroyer back there, all ripped to shreds. And 32 - Emerald Sky

in the claws to the left, that’s a troop carrier with a massive hole in its fuselage. Boy, those ships have seen some action as well. And that third ship, the pointed one . . . What is that? The shields are all black. And are those protrusions propulsion systems? Never seen anything like it. A new type of separatist vessel? A boneyard. That’s what this is. The separatists captured my ship and towed it here to be cannibalized. “Temperature and partial gas pressures within tolerances.” Who said that?! Quick, activate onboard surveillance. Wow, bio-motion detectors are firing away in the cargo bays and engine rooms. People. The cameras are showing men in tatty spacesuits. They don’t resemble any uniform I know. A few of them are women, judging from their shape. Equally scruffy. Separatists? “This patch will hold long enough for us to yank out this junk and scrap it.” Another voice. It’s coming from a man

in cargo bay four. That’s where my ship got gashed. I can see a milky white sheet of diamante grafted to the hole. “Hey, these nine-inchers are still in good shape.” Another voice, this one coming from one of the rail gun turrets. Yes, separatists from the colonies. On board my ship. All over it like a virus infestation. I have to do something! I have to stop this.

and I’m barely holding on. I’ve let them down. Shut up! There’s a time for mourning and feeling guilty. But not now. Remember priorities, objectives: take out separatists ‘til their last man and installation. I’m still here. As long as I am, I can fight. I may be down, but I’m one up on those comet dusters. I know every system, every passage, every nook and cranny

Separatists from the colonies. On board my ship. I almost lost half the ship in the attack. It’s as if that weird nebula sliced it like a birthday cake. We felt like we were being crushed by tens—no, hundreds of times the force of gravity. Most of the crew were dead within seconds. I’d managed to close off the bridge. That’s probably what saved me. I always had a good instinct for survival. And so, men and women followed me through hellfire. They’re all gone now,

of this ship. With my synaptic helmet, I can use the conduits to reach any part of the ship faster than they can. I’ll get them. I’ll turn all the ship’s defenses against them. They’ll never know what hit them. I see and hear them all over, talking to each other on QF communicators, unbolting parts. It’s almost as if I can feel them gnawing away at my ship. There’s at least twenty, working together mainly in May 2013 - 33

groups of three or four—looters, taking my ship apart. As I look at their life-support data on internal surveillance, their hearts beating on the screen, I can feel the grin creeping onto my face. Which heartbeat to eliminate first? The one who was talking about scrapping my ship. No way you’re tearing up my girl to build separatist vessels. Hold on. What’s that in cargo bay two? They’re dragging body bags into a docked freighter. Isn’t it enough they killed my crew? Do these people have no respect? Wait! Bio-motion detected in the captain’s quarters! In my quarters? What’s that young man doing there, staring at my bed? He’s climbing onto it, reaching for the wall above my headboard. My golden captain’s sword! That’s what he’s after. He’s taking it off the wall and putting it into a duffel bag. Looter. Thief. Stealing my personal stuff, no doubt to hawk it on the black markets of Ishlar. I earned that sword. 34 - Emerald Sky

Okay, fellow, you’re mine. Yeah, go to that display case on the floor in the corner. Do you like my commendations and medals? Go on, get closer. That’s it: on your knees. That’s where you belong—asking for forgiveness. Which I’m not going to give you. Open it. Stick your head in. Excellent. Now your back is completely turned toward the door. I’m lowering the door behind you. Slowly, so you can’t hear it. Very slowly. He’s startled, looking over his shoulder! Quick, close the door as fast as possible. He jumps up and runs toward it. He takes a dive . . . Yes! He blunders right into it. Gotcha, you antimattersucking comet duster. Go on, punch and kick that door. It won’t do you any good. You’re dust. You just don’t know it yet. Hang on. He’s going for that thing on his belt. The QF communicator! Forgot about that. Where is my QF array? There. Full output,

pink noise: the sound of the ocean. That should do it. Go on, scream into that QF communicator all you want. Your mates aren’t going to hear you. Now, all I have to do is . . . that’s it: the captain’s quarters oxygen supply shut off. I hope you will enjoy your stay on my ship. It will be the last half hour of your life.

Yes, go on, crawl from under that ion accelerator and run! Like insects crawling from under your rock. You won’t make it to the door on time. Wait a second. These guys are handy with tools. They know their way around a ship. That’s it! If I can force them to make some repairs, just enough to make it back home . . . I can make it back to

The captain’s quarters oxygen supply shut off. Which one now? Engine Room Three. There are six of them working down there. Yes, six at one strike. They’re underneath the ion accelerator, dismantling it. Wow, they’re fast. They’ve already disassembled the injectors. Got to hand it to them—they’re good with tools. I have to be quicker to prevent my ship from ending up in pieces. Closing engine room doors now.

Sol System. To the dockyard in Saturn’s orbit. And Earth, Irma, Duco, and little Capcap. Holy comet dust! Where did that woman in the corridor come from? She’s banging on the door outside of Engine Room Three, the one with her mates trapped inside. Yep, they’re going for their QF communicators. That’s useless, fellows. But what is she doing? She’s looking around. Into the cameras, maybe? She starts to walk down the May 2013 - 35

36 - Emerald Sky

the cargo bays, I’ll lose the element of surprise. She’s definitely heading there. I have no choice. Shut all doors on the ship immediately. Look at them scrambling to get out. Three, four . . . five of them manage to escape to that freighter. I’ve still got fifteen of them

Above: Flickr.com/William A. Franklin

corridor. Is she looking for something to open that door with? Come on, enter one of those rooms so I can trap you. She’s descending the stairs toward the cargo bays. Smart lady—avoiding the elevator. Is she intending to warn the people in cargo bay two? Dust! If I close off

trapped in various rooms and areas. Only that woman is still loose on the ship. But she has nowhere to go. She’s stopped dead in her tracks on the stairs. She’s looking up and down. I can see the fear in her face, hear her panting. What’s she up to? Maybe I can catch her if I open the doors to all the

locations where nobody is trapped. Okay, let’s try that. It’s working. She’s going up. Like a nosy little mouse in the labyrinth, looking for the cheese. Where is she going in that corridor? I’ve got her! She’s entering Central Engineering. Okay, wait for it. Just four more steps away from the door. Just two more. One. Now! Quick. Strange. She’s not even looking at the door closing behind her. Surely she’s got to hear it? She kneels down at the energy switch board and starts to unbolt the panel. Oh, I see. She’s trying to disconnect the umbilical from the station, which is feeding power into my zeropoint energizers. Time to activate public address. “This is the captain of the King Lear.” My voice sounds dry and rough. And strangely metallic through the ship’s speakers. My speech is slow and stilted. It’s almost as if I’ve forgotten how to talk. I clear May 2013 - 37

my throat. “Drop all your tools and step away from the panel.” She’s looking up into the camera, giving me an angry look, but she keeps working. “I’ll respond to a failure to comply by shutting down life support to your location.” She looks up again, even angrier this time, her mouth a thin straight line in her face. But she keeps unscrewing the panel bolts. “Shutting down life support.” She stops working and looks around. She’s holding her breath. Her heart is racing. Ah, I see—she can hear the fans of the carbon dioxide scrubbers coming to a standstill. She sighs, slams her tool onto the floor, and jumps up. With her hands in her sides she looks into the camera. “Is this supposed to be a joke?” She speaks choppily and in a deep, rough voice, a voice used to barking orders. I reactivate her life support. Like I taught little Capcap: people are like dogs; you have to punish them right away if they don’t do 38 - Emerald Sky

what you tell them, but you also have to reward them immediately if they follow your orders. She glances at the vents. “I’ve captured sixteen of you in various locations on this ship,” I say to her through the speakers. “You will help me repair the ship and ensure its safe passage to Sol System. Failure to comply will force me to shut down life support.” “Who are you?” “I am Captain Berend Ruiter, the commander of this ship.” “Sure, you’re the legendary Captain Ruiter.” She shakes her head. “Whoever you are, you have to stop this nonsense or I’ll report you to Interstellar Force Command.” Interstellar Force Command? She didn’t even flinch when she said it. Sly little trickster. Okay, propulsion—that’s the highest priority. “To the men in Engine Room Three: you have fifteen minutes to run a velocity test on those injectors and reinstall them.” The men in Engine Room Three are just standing around,

looking at the cameras. They’re shouting things like, “Are you on asteroid dust?” and, “Open those doors, you moron!” I’ll teach them to take me seriously: the temperature. Reroute zero-point energizer coolant. That’s it. Hot steam is vented into Engine Room Three. Watch them jump.

ago. We found this vessel adrift in space a few months ago, badly damaged, probably from an antimatter nebula, a new separatist weapon from the time. There were no survivors.” Twenty years? It almost feels like it. But it can’t be! I’m alive. Granted, I’m badly wounded, but still clearly alive.

“Sure, you’re the legendary Captain Ruiter.” “Start that test and I will reinstate a livable climate,” I reiterate. They’re picking up their tools and walking over to the injectors. Perfect. I immediately correct the coolant flow. “Please identify yourself.” The lady with the choppy voice speaks as if she is still in charge. “I repeat: I’m Captain Berend Ruiter.” “That’s impossible,” the woman answers. “Captain Ruiter and the King Lear were lost over twenty years

“I’m Lieutenant Bastille,” she continues. “I command the Interstellar Force Decommissioning Station Alpha Centauri One.” “You’re lying. All Interstellar Force dockyards and stations are in orbit around planets of Sol System.” “We’re the first station outside Sol, the first since we made peace with the colonies.” She takes a holocard out of a chest pocket and holds it up in front of the camera. It confirms that she’s the Commander of Interstellar May 2013 - 39

Force Decommissioning Station Alpha Centauri One. Trickery! Flimflam! Don’t fall for those separatist ploys! “I’m bringing my ship home,” I say. “No matter what.” Her heartbeat is settling. She speaks in a lower tone of voice. “If you really are Captain Ruiter, your ship has come home, finally, after almost twenty years of being missing in action. a colonist transport picked up a faint QF distress signal three months ago. Interstellar Force wreckers towed your ship in for us to dismantle.” She sighs and continues in a commanding tone of voice. “If you really are Captain Ruiter, I demand to speak to you face to face.” Very clever, that one. I laugh into the speakers. “Nice try, but you’re not tricking me into giving up my position.” “Then at least do me the courtesy of showing your face on the monitor right here.” I could do that—switch on the command camera here on the bridge and feed the image to the monitor in that room. 40 - Emerald Sky

No. She’d probably be able to tell I’m on the bridge, and she might be able to estimate the extent of my injuries. Vital intelligence and I’m not giving it up. “You can hear my voice. That should be enough.” “An anonymous voice from a loudspeaker?” She laughs

Below: Flickr.com/dbking

and makes a gesture as if she’s throwing away a spitball. “This prank has gone far enough. You don’t seriously think I believe that you’re Captain Ruiter, do you? You’re not even prepared to show your face.” I shut off her life support again. I grin as I see her head

turning toward the vents. She looks worried. “It doesn’t matter who you believe I am,” I say through the speakers, “as long as you know you’re my prisoners. I have no qualms about killing each and every one of you if you don’t do as I say. Right away.”

May 2013 - 41

The lady’s shoulders drop. She sighs and looks at her feet. “Okay, Lieutenant, I want you to order your troops to—” “Wait!” She looks up at the camera again. “If you’re who you say you are, your grandson is working for me.” Little Capcap? Little Capcap is here? He can’t be. He’s just a kid, playing with his toy engine room back home. He can’t be out here, on the front lines. “You’re lying.”

“What nickname?” “Little Capcap.” I feel a shudder—as if the cold of space has suddenly reached out to me again. I’m hearing my own words through the mouth of a scruffy trickster. “How can you know about that?” “He told me. How he idolizes his grandfather. How he called him ‘Capcap’ before he could pronounce ‘captain.’ How he joined Interstellar

Little Capcap? Little Capcap is here? He can’t be. “His name is Anjo Ruiter. He’s an Interstellar Force Engineer, first class. A good man. He’s already qualified for higher officer training. After the news got out that we’d be decommissioning his grandfather’s ship, he put in for a tour here.” “Anyone can say that.” She shakes her head. “Can anyone tell you the nickname you gave him when he was a kid?” 42 - Emerald Sky

Force to follow into his footsteps. In your footsteps.” Little Capcap . . . is he really here? How can this be? “I’m telling you the truth,” she continues. “Will you please convince me you’re telling the truth by showing your face on this monitor?” “Where is my grandson? Show him to me.” “As soon as I’m convinced you are who you say you are.

Please, show your face on this monitor. That’s all I ask.” If she’s telling the truth, I outrank her. So proving my identity would benefit me. If she’s lying . . . okay, I suppose there’s no harm in switching on the command camera if I put it on maximum zoom. As the close-up image of my eyes is displayed on the monitor, the lady steps back and turns white. She’s staring at the monitor, wide-eyed, with her mouth open as if she’s looking at a monster. Dust! She can obviously tell I’m injured. “I assure you, I—” “Captain Ruiter,” she interrupts me. “With all due respect, will you please take a look at yourself on the monitor?” “Do you believe I am Captain Ruiter?” She nods. “Yes. But please, look at yourself!” “Stop stalling. Show me Anjo now, or I will shut off life support.” She shakes her head. “He’s in the captain’s quarters to secure his grandfather’s

personal effects. He’ll sort out what to keep for his family and what to put on display in the Interstellar Force Honors Museum.” The captain’s quarters? No! It can’t be. That young man, lying on the floor at the foot of my bed? Oh, please no . . . internal surveillance says all his vitals are flatlined. I switch the oxygen supply to the captain’s quarters back on. His vitals stay flatlined. She’s tricking me. This can’t be little Capcap. I zoom in with the camera. I can’t see his face; it’s off to the side, tilted toward my bed. I zoom in closer. There’s a necklace around his neck. The hanger glistens—it’s a piece of diamante foam in the shape of a teddy bear’s head. Suddenly, all I see is emptiness again, all I hear is silence, and all I feel is the cold of three degrees Kelvin.

 “Please, Captain Ruiter.” Her voice shatters the silence. “Look at yourself.” May 2013 - 43

I look at the feed from the command camera. Empty eye sockets surrounded by parched skin. I zoom out. My lips and part of my cheeks have wasted away, revealing a row of stained teeth grinning at me. The hair sticking out from under my synaptic helmet looks like dried-out cobwebs. “Am I dead?” My voice is coming from the speakers, but my mouth isn’t moving. “Yes, Captain Ruiter. I’m afraid you have been for twenty years.”

the captain’s reactions. We’ve seen traces of captain’s memories left in the buffers before. But since you . . . since Captain Ruiter spent so many years connected to his ship, I guess all those memory traces left a complete personality when he died.” A memory. That’s all I am. The memory of a captain. A memory that has killed little Capcap. A flawed memory. A murdering memory. I look at the man lying in my quarters and realize I should feel something, but the only

A memory. . . That’s all I am. “Then what am I?” She shrugs. “A memory. A ghost in the machine. The synaptic connections in those early helmets were too slow for real-time interfacing between the captain’s brain and the ship’s control systems. To speed them up, they had memory buffers, anticipating 44 - Emerald Sky

thing I feel is the icy cold. The girl is right. I’m not human. I open all the doors on the ship. “Evacuate the ship immediately.” “Captain Ruiter,” the Lieutenant starts. “What—” “Don’t call me that,” I interrupt her. “I don’t deserve that name. I have killed my . . . I

have killed Captain Ruiter’s grandson. I don’t exist. I don’t deserve to exist. I’m starting the ship’s self-destruct sequence. You and your crew have three minutes to leave the ship.” “Killed?” Sadness and shock contort her face. “Anjo?” “Yes.” Is that a tear I see in her eye? “No, he can’t be dead! You’re wrong.” She runs out of Central Engineering and down the corridor toward the captain’s quarters. “I’m afraid not, Lieutenant.” She runs into the captain’s quarters and falls to her knees. “Anjo!” she screams as she looks into his eyes. She listens to his heart and gives him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Or is she kissing him? “You have two minutes left, Lieutenant.” All over the ship, I see men and women running toward Cargo Bay Two and boarding that docked freighter. “I’m not leaving him!” She wraps her arms around Capcap and whispers into his ear. Now

I see. I haven’t just killed someone’s grandson; I’ve killed someone’s love as well. “You can’t self-destruct.” There’s a tremor in her voice. She pets Capcap’s forehead. “Your memories and Captain Ruiter’s heritage are too important.” “I have killed his heritage, and I only bring shame to his memory. You have one and a half minutes left. Please, get yourself to safety. Don’t make me guilty of murdering another innocent.” She gets up, rubbing her eyes. “I can’t leave him here,” she sobs. She grabs his shoulders and starts dragging him toward the door. “No!” I shout through the loudspeakers. “There’s no time. Get out, now! That’s an order.” She looks around helplessly, shaking her head. Then she lets go of Anjo. Looking into the camera on the wall and pursing her lips, she salutes. “Captain Ruiter.” I follow her running through the corridors and down the stairs. I watch her boarding that freighter. I see May 2013 - 45

the freighter undocking and flying away to safety. Twenty-five seconds left. I spend them looking at Anjo. I recognize my nose. And those eyes are staring like Irma stared at me when I asked her to marry me. That was the

happiest day of my life. Ten. Nine. I zoom in to that teddy bear. Just a residue of war, a scar forged in battle. It should never have existed. Just like me. Zero.

Dutchman Django Mathijsen (www.djangomathijsen.nl) is the only author who’s won the Unleash Award, the Dutch SF-story award with the highest purse, three times. He worked as a jazz organist while graduating as an engineer at the Eindhoven University of Technology. He was technical consultant on the award-winning TV programs Robot Wars and TechnoGames. As a science journalist and editor, he’s written over three hundred articles for English and Dutch magazines. He now concentrates on composing music and writing fiction. He’s won numerous awards for his stories, which have appeared in Big Pulp, Kaleidotrope, Mad Scientist Journal and other places, as well as many foreign markets. His first novel, a science fiction techno-thriller published in Dutch in March 2010, is available in English as an eBook. 46 - Emerald Sky

Emerald Sky

submissions are

closing Until Sep 1st, 2013 Thank you for all of your submissions to Emerald Sky! Your response over the past year has been astounding. We have received so many thrilling sci-fi adventures that we can hardly keep up with them. In order to give proper consideration to the stories we’ve received thusfar, Emerald Sky is shutting down its submissions on June 1, 2013. This announcement only applies to Emerald Sky for the time being. All other magazines are still accepting submissions. That said, we encourage you to continue to prepare stories for Emerald Sky. Submit your stories before June 1st, or take the summer to polish in preparation for our grand re-opening on September 1st, 2013. Again, we can’t thank you enough for all of your hard work.


May 2013 - 47


craig delancey


ou can’t be serious,” I said to Bria. “Inspect cargo? We’re Harmonizers! We prosecute and prevent lifecrime. We don’t enforce commerce laws.” “Important task,” Bria said as she lifted a huge slab of meat to her mouth. Two rows of dagger teeth ripped audibly through the tough flesh. I shuddered. I’d grown used to my partner’s huge bulk, her claws, her intricately patterned fur, her fang-filled smile. But when she ate, I was always reminded that her race, the Sussurats, evolved from fierce bear-like predators. I felt downright dainty slobbering away at my meal, some kind of juicy shellfish native to the planet Kirt. I looked around the station hall. I’d been glad, after our last mission, to have a few days relatively free. We were spending them on a Neelee station, a big, rotating drum orbiting one of the Neelee ecoforming projects. The station and the thousand-year-long project below were marvels, but I knew the fun had to end eventually. We had a backlog of cases that we needed to address. Still, I didn’t expect our next assignment to be the menial task of checking freight. Bria set a small disk on the table between us and tapped it—a silence-field generator. The sounds of the room—the high-pitched voices of Neelee talking, the dull hum of some kind of ventilation system, thrumming Hmnarout music leaking in from the next room over—all faded to a muffled hiss. As she spoke, Bria held a claw over her mouth to interfere if a lip reader was aimed at her. I almost laughed at that—imagine trying to read the lips of a Sussurat with its mouth full of bleeding meat. Around us milled a crowd of Neelee, tall, deer-like bipeds that were the most law-abiding species in the Galaxy; but the station was open to anyone. Hence Bria’s precaution. May 2013 - 49

“Harmonizer intelligence officers believe a Hurlkorish—” and then she used a word that I struggled to translate. Galactic is like German: you can pile up language to form compound words. What she said was “a Hurlkorish world-competition-death-warrior-extremist.” I decided on the spot to think of the term as “extremist.” “A Hurlkorish extremist,” Bria continued, “has years ago stowed itself on a sublight cargo ship to infiltrate and seed a suitable gas planet.” “Wait a minute,” I said. “Stow? How do you stow a Hurlkorish?” The Hurlkorish were a species of gas-giant natives living on the fringe of Galactic civilization. Like most gas-giant denizens—the Gurk, the Hmnarout—they were big, low-density creatures. Balloons with brains. Not the kind of thing to “stow” anywhere. “It will be modified so that its brain tissue controls a cybernetic device. This will be a suicide mission. Hurlkorish call such warriors ‘deathcommandoes.’” 50 - Emerald Sky

“That’s sweet,” I said in English, which is the best language in the Galaxy for sarcasm. But then I frowned and switched back to Galactic. “What do you mean, ‘seed’? With what?” “Organisms from their home world,” she said. “To force-ecoform a planet?” “No. Target planets have life-forms already. It is an expression of allegiance to their home tree of life.” On many missions, I had encountered what we humans call super-Hamiltonian motives: races that sought to spread all the lifeforms of their home planets, supposedly because those species shared some genes with all the beings in their tree of life. I frankly still found it an alien idea. “Why not pursue an ecoforming project instead?” “They’re poor. They destroyed Hurlkor as you destroyed Earth.” I opened my mouth to protest that Earth was hardly destroyed, but then closed it. Bria wasn’t the type to

argue. If you disagreed with her she just closed the top two of her four eyes, the Sussurat expression conveying “You’re being too stupid to look at.” “You must strive to understand this enemy,” she said. “Consider its experience of losing its home.” Bria touched my hand with one blood-wet claw, trans-

“We are late,” Bria said as our cruiser latched onto the cargo hauler. It was the fourth hauler we had checked, and we caught up with it only as it started a skip dive into the atmosphere of a big gas giant. “If the deathcommando is here, it may escape.” “The hauler isn’t in the atmosphere yet,” I told her, releasing my seat harness. I

“Consider its experience of losing its home.” mitting a secure file to me over our personal body networks. Then she shut down the silencing field, making it clear that the conversation was over and that I would have to finish the briefing on my own. I gave her a bitter smile. Bria didn’t know much Earth history, and she surely didn’t know my family’s history. “Trust me, Bria. I know what it’s like to lose your home.”


flipped over and dove for the bottom hatch. Bria climbed out of her seat with more dignity. We were dressed for action, wearing enforcement armor sealed for vacuum. As she drifted over to my side, I could see in her four eyes the reflection of data projected onto her visor. She juggled everything at once— the controls for our ship, the protocols for the cargo hauler we were boarding— all while tracking the storms May 2013 - 51

in the atmosphere of the gas giant below. The hatch unfolded like a flower in the floor of our ship, exposing a short docking tunnel leading into darkness. The cargo hauler was pressurized with just enough argon to make it easy to maintain a stable temperature inside. We’d already depressurized our ship to match the minimal pressure. “Amir, go,” she told me. “We decelerate in seconds.”

When the weight came, it came hard. The cargo hauler hit the atmosphere, and the two-gee pull of the planet began to meet the resistance of the atmospheric dive. A roar echoed through the hauler, the sound loud even in our suits. My armor creaked under Bria. A typical Sussurat female, she was more than two meters tall and a meter wide, and she massed hundreds of

“Amir, go. We decelerate in seconds.” I dove head first, pulling hard at the sides of the docking tunnel and then holding my hands out before me. Bria must have made some progress with the cargo hauler’s interface, because the lights came on and I watched the floor drift up toward me. I hit the floor, palms flat, and then did my best to get my body horizontal to it. Bria bounced off me and then settled on my legs. 52 - Emerald Sky

kilos. And that was without two layers of armor on. “Bria,” I grunted, “please get off me.” She trilled, an apologetic sound for a Sussurat, and got to her feet. I followed, unsteady in the weight. We were in a simple, long cargo hold. Metallic cubes, the shipping containers, were stacked along the sides of the room, forming a kind of hallway that ran from us to the

back wall—a door that could fold down to allow unloading. This hauler was a deep-space ship, moving cargo precious and rare enough for interstellar transport, but not so valuable that these customers would pay for Faster-ThanLight transport. I had been amazed when I learned that sublight transports existed, but the economics worked for some cases. There were stars a few dozen light-years apart that actually transacted commerce over centuries. For a human, that kind of accounting was mind-boggling, but out in the Galaxy, many organizations managed single ventures as old as the Catholic Church. These sublight cargo haulers were robotic, and they were permitted to use ramscoops to refuel in gas giants with organism populations that were small, nonintelligent, and unlikely to be harmed by a little gas collection in the outer atmosphere. That described the gas giant below us: a Jovian, closer to its sun

than our Jupiter was to Sol, but with a middle atmosphere reportedly rich in singlecelled and simple multicellular organisms. Bria turned in place. “I am talking with the hauler’s computer. It demands multiple proofs we are Harmonizers.” She hissed and spat, a sound like a cat in a fight. As Harmonizers, we had special policing privileges and access when we suspected a lifecode violation was imminent. Just looking at us, wearing enforcer armor emblazoned with the three-triangle insignia of the Harmonizer Force, most Galactics would grant us jurisdiction—and a great deal of respect. But AIs could be pedantic. I couldn’t understand Bria’s native language, but I understood the sentiment of her growls. There is no way to really swear in Galactic, so you had to switch to your native tongue. “It—” Bria said. Then she paused and crouched, looking around the room with a sudden predatory focus, head thrust forward. May 2013 - 53

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second I thought stupidly, Why would there be wind in here? “Bria!” I shouted. “We’re decompressing!” One side of the cargo cube lay open now. A metal figure, as tall as Bria, stepped out of the dark interior. At first I saw only arms, whip lean, and a narrow head that in profile was like a

Above: Flickr.com/Mikelo

“What?” “Something else accesses the computer system.” At the end of the hall, a movement caught my eye. One of the cargo cubes slowly began to unfold. I felt a gentle push on my back. A stray scrap of something—paper? plastic?—fluttered by my helmet. For a

greyhound’s. Then more of it emerged into the light, dragging behind a huge bulk of a body, like a black, metal wasp with an abdomen many meters long. One of the thin arms rose, pointing at us. Bria hissed sharply. This one word of her native language I knew: move. I tried to leap to the side, but in the heavy

gravity I mostly just hopped awkwardly about half a meter. Bria crouched, perhaps to leap, but it was too late. Something slapped into her armor and exploded with a white puff. She fell back. As I watched, pale lines spread across her suit like spiderwebs. She’d been shot with some kind of animated corrosive nanotech. “Bria—” “Stop the deathcommando!” she shouted. I turned. The wasp thing crawled toward the back of the hauler, dragging its bloated, trailing body, which, though about six meters of it was exposed now, continued to emerge out of the shipping container. The cargo door to the hauler lowered smoothly down before it. I could see out, over the crack of the descending door, to the soft, orange curve of the gas giant’s horizon. I did the first thing that I could think to do. I pulled my grappling gun from my thigh holster and shot the metal back of the retreating wasp May 2013 - 55

thing. The grapple took. The thin line was hooked into my suit at the waist, but it had a separate, meter-long length of anchor line I could use. I turned the magnets on my boots to full power. I looked for somewhere to anchor the line, but the creature jumped. As I searched futilely, the line reeled out till it snapped taut. For a second, I almost believed I might hold on, dangling the deathcommando from the back of the hauler. Then I flew out of the open cargo hold as it yanked me into space.

body. Some kind of thrusters fired from the back of its thorax, and we accelerated down at what felt like four gees. I blacked out.

 A roar woke me. No, the roar of the wind had always been there: The blood flowing regularly through my skull woke me. I blinked. Yellow strands of cloud shot by. The atmosphere was growing thick: It howled at my helmet. Black spots and red streaks crawled across my vision. I thought that these

I flew out of the open cargo hold into space. I twisted in the air. The linked ships shot away from me overhead. Stars faded into a yellowing sky. Below, the black creature folded its thin arms close to its body. The abdomen was at least seventy meters long, more a train than an extension of its modified 56 - Emerald Sky

were the aftereffects of unconsciousness, but the red and black didn’t fade away. Instead, they came into focus. Then I realized there was blood in my helmet, smeared across the visor in irregular, red splotches, and my suit’s small, black service bots were trying to clean it

up like busy little ants crawling before my eyes. I’d bitten my tongue when the acceleration had knocked me out and no doubt made my head snap back hard. I swallowed a mouthful of blood, tasting copper, and fought the impulse to vomit. The grapple line reached out taut before me. A hundred meters ahead, and a good fifty meters above me, at the end of the line, the Hurlkorish cyborg had opened broad wings. It glided now, slowing in the atmosphere, but still going fast enough to keep me towing behind and below it like a hooked fish. I twisted and turned in the gas giant’s atmosphere. But we weren’t hot from reentry: the deathcommando must have put some thrust into decelerating and matching wind velocities after getting away from the ships. My suit clock said I’d been out about fifteen minutes. I was lucky to be alive. The deathcommando obviously didn’t have a weapon suitable for killing me or even

cutting me free. Or perhaps it just couldn’t get a good shot at me hanging behind and below it. That made sense; it was designed for a single suicide mission, not for combat. And a lack of weapons would have made it less likely to be detected as dangerous cargo. I suspected the corrosive nanotech missiles that I had seen were its only armament. “Bria?” I called, my voice thick around my swollen tongue. “Bria, thell me you’re noth hurth.” There was a long hiss. Then her voice broke through. “My suit corrodes.” “Geth in the ship!” “No. The weapon will corrode the ship.” “Bria, your suith won’t last!” A crackling, barely audible reply came back. “I will take the suit off.” “You’re in near vacuum!” I shouted. Only static answered. I pinged our ship and got a signal indicator that immediately faded. There was no chance of integrating with ship systems May 2013 - 57

at this distance. This gas giant had a hell of a magnetic field. Even if Bria got through this all right, I might not be able to contact her. So I couldn’t count on my partner. I had to handle this as best I could on my own. I checked my suit’s exterior pressure gauges. A hundred millibars. We were still high in the gas giant’s atmosphere. The Hurlkorish cyborg could dump its cargo now, but most of the organisms it sought to seed in this gas giant wouldn’t survive the cold and the low pressure of this altitude. The optimal altitude would be well below here. That gave me time. But maybe not enough time. It was a struggle even to think. I dangled over a roaring void thousands of kilometers deep, twirling on the end of a thin line. The natural human inclination would just be to scream. But I took a deep breath, tried to concentrate, and checked over my suit. My left arm felt cold. I looked over, and saw a white smear near the elbow. I 58 - Emerald Sky

reached with my right hand to brush at it and only stopped myself at the very last moment, gloved fingers a centimeter above the plating. It had to be the nanotech or microtech stuff that had attacked Bria’s suit. Some of it had splattered onto my arm. The suit’s temperature conditioners had failed in that arm, and the servos were operating stiffly. Worse, the white stuff seemed to be spreading. I had a lot of firepower in my armor. I extruded a laser from my right arm, set the beam to widest dispersion and weakest intensity, and brushed the beam over the white stain. It turned black immediately. I probably had done little; the corrosive would be inside the first layers of the armor now. But maybe I’d slowed it. I tightened the beam on the laser, put its power on maximum, and aimed at what looked like the thorax of the Hurlkorish cyborg. I could just see it since some kind of wind sheer was sweeping me a few meters out to the side. I

switched my view to infrared. In the thin, cold atmosphere, the Hurlkorish made a dark outline, like the silhouette of a long, long wasp, but two regions shone from within it: the long abdomen that trailed behind, and a small nexus in the head of the thing. The abdomen would hold a series of compressed containers of microorganisms

“What are you?” a voice sounded in my helmet. Synthesized, without proper inflections. “Bria?” I asked. Though I knew, as soon as I asked, that this was not Bria. “I am the deathcommando—” and it whistled long and low. Hurlkorish song. It was not a name I was going to attempt.

“I am the deathcommando—” from this being’s world, packaged and ready to seed the atmosphere. I aimed at the small heat signature in the head. That would be where what remained of the Hurlkorish lived in this monstrosity. I pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. At a distance, through atmosphere, and moving wildly, my laser could not do any harm to the armor of the cyborg. Besides, swinging on the line, there was a chance I would cut my tether. I would have to get closer to it.

I pulled at the tether line. The bracket at my belt that held the line had a cam cleat that allowed it to pull through in one direction, reeling the cable in. But the grapple line was a twine of monomolecular filaments sheathed in some plastic fibers so that it wouldn’t cut like a knife. It could take tens of thousands of pounds of pressure. But even sheathed, the line was thin. I would not be able to lift, in this two-gee pull, the double weight of me and my suit. But even if I could have, May 2013 - 59

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planet with invathive spethies is a lifecode violathon. As a Harmonither, I accuthe you of imminent preparathon of lifecrime. Surrender to the Galacthic authority and you will face thri—tribunal.” Somehow, miraculously, it understood my Galactic, swollen tongue lisp and all. “I don’t recognize any Galactic authority. What are you? You

Above: Flickr.com/country_boy_shane

I wouldn’t be able to grip this taut tether. Imagine, on Earth, trying to climb a rigid thread wearing armored gloves and carrying a hundred kilograms. I needed a way to get some slack in the line so that I could pull it in. It hurt more to talk now. The swelling in my tongue was getting worse. But I managed to say, “Seeding an occupied

mass too low for a Sussurat, though the other appeared Sussurat. What is your species?” I wondered if there was any harm in telling it. Could be some benefit, I decided. Many Galactics feared us. “Human.” There was a long silence on the other end. I considered my options in the interim. My suit had minimal thrusters. I tried one and didn’t even

feel a difference in the line. The thrusters were for microgravity environments, not for moving in atmospheres. I had a minimal toolkit with suit sealers. I had a dynamic parachute. And, if I shed my outer layer of armor, which was designed to manage vacuum, microgravity environments, and radiation, I had much fiercer weapons than lasers. The problem was, if I simply did damage to the cyborg, would I end up distributing its payload by puncturing its body? And, on top of everything, my left arm was starting to become very, very cold. “I am . . . disappointed,” the deathcommando said. “I hoped for an admirable opponent.” “Go thoo hell,” I told it in English. I was only expected to show professional decorum in Galactic. “And yet,” it said, “you should follow and learn from us. We face similar problems.” “Wha problems are those?” I figured talking to it might distract it. Besides, hearing it May 2013 - 61

blather on reassured me that the deathcommando had to wait to deploy its payload. If I opened my parachute, it would slow us and give me some time. It would also position me above the deathcommando. But it would draw the line between us even more taut. What I needed was a way

“All species make mistakes. But all life is loyal to its lifetree. You think the Neelee or the Brights are different? They seeded worlds full of life, killed or assimilated what was there.” These were old complaints: the leaders of Galactic civilization grew wealthy without

The deathcommando had to wait to deploy its payload. to create some kind of wobble, or pulsing motion, or even a tumble, so that I could have a few seconds to reel in line through the cleat every time the connection grew slack. But how could I do that? “We both are crushed by the Galactics in their crowded Galaxy,” the deathcommando said. Once you got out in space, it was hard to think of it as crowded, but I let that pass. “I’ve read the reporths of Hurlkor,” I told it. “You wrecked your world.” 62 - Emerald Sky

obeying the very rules they now forced all of us to obey. True enough, but better than the alternative, in my opinion. “Their tree is full,” the deathcommando said. “It spreads through the galaxy. And yet, we of Hurlkor are hydrogen breathers. God made the universe three parts of four hydrogen, so that our kind may spread and flourish and rule all space.” We hit a pocket of turbulence and suddenly bounced. It happened too quickly for me to even think about grabbing

the line and pulling myself a few centimeters closer to the deathcommando. But it gave me an idea. “I’m willing to die for my lifetree,” the deathcommando said. I wondered if it was trying to convince itself that this suicide mission was worth it. “Can you understand that commitment, human?” “Yes,” I said, “I know it well.” I released my parachute. My body twisted and snapped rigidly straight, seeming to leap for the sky. The towline and parachute lines fought to rip my armor in two. All my blood plummeted towards my feet, and again I passed out.

 “Your dear cousin was willing to die for us,” my mother’s sister said to me. “Can you understand that, Amir?” I was seven years old. I stood in my aunt’s small apartment, feeling tiny as she sat before me on her couch, swathed in black cloth. She held a photograph of my cousin Muhammed in a

somber, black frame. In the picture his face was in soft focus, looking not so much peaceful as distracted. She reached out and took my left hand in her right. Her big hand was damp and hot. “He is with God now,” she said. I had hardly known my cousin Muhammed. He was much older, with a job in a bakery that kept him away much of the time. I remembered him only as the smiling young man whose pants were dusted with flour but who was always singing pop songs. He sang his way through entire conversations, smiling at the exasperation he caused. He sang by the ovens as he worked. He sang behind the counter as people ordered bread. Muhammed had been saving to buy the bakery from its owner. He had already made a down payment. Then, three weeks before, the bakery had been bulldozed by the Israeli Defense Forces to clear room for another settlement. My aunt’s tears terrified me. My parents were stoic, so May 2013 - 63

I wasn’t accustomed to seeing adults weep. It seemed like a breakdown of all order. I stood there, tethered to her, uncertain. Finally, my father reached out and took my hand from hers. His grip tightened on my little palm and fingers. My aunt began to rock on the couch. My mother patted her shoulder, but looked uncomfortable as she met my father’s eyes. When my aunt began to keen, my father took the opportunity to half drag me outside. I looked up at him, wide-eyed, when we stopped on the hot balcony. The sun beat down on us. Nablus was spread before us, a sea of satellite dishes and cell towers over brown roofs and fluttering laundry. “Do you know what your cousin did?” “No.” “He put a bomb under his clothes and blew himself up.” I stared. My father’s face sheened with sweat. He was angry. I swallowed in fear, thinking he might be angry at me. 64 - Emerald Sky

“He was an idiot,” my father said. “Auntie says he died to help us.” “Auntie has to believe that or she’ll go mad.” My father looked out over the city, over our shrinking land. “If I’d known—if I’d even suspected—what he was going to do, I would have turned him over to the police. At least in prison he could have . . .” I took a step back in shock. Even at my young age, I understood that everyone resented the police and hated those who cooperated with them. My father looked at me, and then sighed. “Muhammed died from despair. But if we are to survive as a people, we have to be better. Not just stronger. But smarter. More patient. More just. And, most of all, more hopeful. There is no other path for us, no other way to survive. It’s not fair, but it’s the truth. Do you understand?” I didn’t, but I was afraid to tell him. So I just stared. He bent down, and I was shocked

to see that tears now filled his eyes also. He took my hands in both of his, and kissed them. “Life isn’t fair,” he whispered, “so we have to be.”

unconscious the first time, the deathcommando had been doing the same thing: unsuccessfully trying to shoot me. But I made a small target, and

“Life isn’t fair, so we have to be.”  “A small object is approaching at sixty meters per second,” my suit said. I opened my eyes. Orange sky roared past, violently jerking at me. I remembered where I was. The suit’s message sunk in. I looked down. The deathcommando was below and in front of me now. Something streaked by, leaving a white trail of smoke, or maybe a contrail, in the atmosphere. The cyborg twisted its thorax around to fire another small missile at me. No. Not at me. The missiles were aimed at the parachute. They must have been the devices it had fired at Bria. I imagined that while I’d been

it had missed. The parachute, however, was a huge target. I switched to a backwards view from my helmet cameras. The small missiles were punching straight through the parachute. The corrosive tech that the missiles carried did not seem to be spreading. Either the chute material couldn’t feed it or the wind wasn’t letting them get a foothold. My left arm was numb. That was not a good sign. “Suith diagnosthic,” I said, surprised to find my tongue was even more swollen, leaving little room to talk. “System failures in left arm servomotor controls. There is an infectious agent in the suit control systems of that area.” May 2013 - 65

I asked the question that I didn’t want to ask but had to. “Is the infecthion past the tourniquet cutoff?” “No.” If the infection made it to the torso, I would lose control of my suit. I spoke before I lost courage. If I took even a moment to reconsider, my will would

numbed stump. A dull thump sounded as internal explosives ejected my amputated arm and the two layers of armor that wrapped it. In my peripheral vision I saw my arm fall away, tumbling. My arm. I had held my father’s hand with that hand. I had touched my first lover’s face with those

I spoke before I lost courage. fail. I forced myself, against the dull pain in my mouth, to speak very clearly. “Cut off the left arm.” Neural blockers stabbed into my shoulder. I was damn scared that the human anatomy knowledge of the Harmonizer scientists would not be very good. But it was good enough—immediately, I felt nothing from the limb. I turned my face away—I couldn’t look—and felt only a slight shifting of my weight as an internal orifice irised down. Cauterizers and fleshpatchers would dig down now into the 66 - Emerald Sky

fingers. That arm had lifted me up out of the dirt after a hundred fights. Dully, I wondered how long it would tumble till it reached the metallic hydrogen core. A week? A month? A lifetime? “Human, you are falling apart,” a voice called out. Good. A little impertinence from the deathcommando was what I needed to focus. I was about to get teary up here. “Yeah, well,” I said in English, “there’s enough of me left to finish you.” The chute stretched above me, a long, red rectangle.

Eight lines reached up from my suit to the fabric, four on each of its long sides. With my right arm, I reached around and used the laser to cut the bottom two center lines. Immediately, the chute began to snap and jerk. Without the rear center lines, a pulsing motion started across the fabric. It filled with atmosphere and then, as the unbalanced center luffed and flapped once, I fell for a moment before the chute went taut again. I waited till I had learned the rhythm of the pulsing vibration. Then, each time I dropped a moment, I reeled in a meter of the grappling line. “Human,” the Hurlkorish cyborg radioed. I ignored it. I’d been about a hundred meters out on the line, and given our relative positions, that put me about fifty meters behind it. Within a minute I reeled in more than thirty meters of line. Stretching behind the deathcommando at a forty-fivedegree angle, I was now above its abdomen.

“Human,” it repeated. I could predict its threat, so I said nothing but instead reeled in line furiously. “If you come closer, I will release my payload. At this altitude many of the seeds will survive.” I was now nearly over the middle of its back. “I once listened to your great poet sing,” I said, concentrating to speak clearly around my swollen tongue. I didn’t attempt their great poet’s name, but I knew that would not matter. All Hurlkorish called their greatest poet just that. “You understood nothing,” the deathcommando answered. I told my suit to extrude the mesh of microhooks from my boot soles that made them capable of clinging to almost any surface. For good measure I magnetized them. “I understood only that it was beautiful,” I said. “I understood that some Hurlkorish are among the greatest singers of the Galaxy.” I blew the parachute, exploding the linking bolt on the back of my armor. May 2013 - 67

I fell seven meters down, onto the back of the deathcommando’s abdomen. If the winds had not thickened and slowed my descent, I think I would have passed out again from the impact. As it was, my joints popped painfully, spraining both my ankles, as my weight slammed down. My vision went black, but came back in splotchy patches of light and color. I cried out from the pain and started to fall to the side, unaccustomed to my unbalanced body lacking one arm. But the boots held, and I stayed conscious. I had to move fast, before the deathcommando decided to release its seeds. I still had my view set to sensitive infrared. I aimed my arm laser at the bright patch in the deathcommando’s head, then moved my aim slightly below. I sliced sideways. The deathcommando’s thin metal arms went slack. The wind slapped the black wings together over its head. We dropped. 68 - Emerald Sky

 I saw my mother’s sister only once more. Our family was about to leave for Turkey, where my father had prospects for a job. It was the beginning of my family’s wanderings: Turkey, then Greece, and then finally California. And for me, the wanderings did not cease,

Below: Flickr.com/jssz

although now they stretch across our arm of the Galaxy. My mother took me to my aunt’s apartment by bus. My father had already left, and anyway, I doubt he would have come. It was cooler, but we were still sweating by the time we clomped down the steps from the crowded bus and onto the hot, dusty street

before her apartment. She did not answer the door. We had to let ourselves in. She sat in her parlor. She looked at us with sunken eyes and smiled thinly. My mother made tea, and we drank it under the photograph of my dead cousin. After a few words about the weather and Turkey, we said nothing.

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My aunt leaked tears. I don’t think she’d ever stopped crying for more than a few hours at a time. My mother made small, reassuring noises, and held her hand, but did not say anything more. When we left, my aunt finally got up off the couch and followed us to the door. She put her hand on my cheek. She said to me, “See some of the world, and live to be a hundred years old, little Amir.” “Auntie,” I said, “I’ll see more than just this world, and I’ll live much longer than a hundred years.”

anti-inflammatories and the pain killers from the amputation program were reducing the swelling and pain in my tongue. I considered computing terminal velocity for this atmosphere and how long it would take us to fall till I was crushed. My suit was pretty good, so it would take a long time. If shock didn’t kill me, my air would probably run out before the gas giant’s depths could crack my armor. Suddenly, the rushing orange atmosphere disappeared. The roar and shuddering of turbulence stopped.

“I’ll see more than just this world.”  I rode the back of the plummeting deathcommando. I still felt nothing from the amputation, but my body was starting to shake with a cold tremor that seemed frighteningly unhealthy. I was slipping into shock. One good thing, though, was that the 70 - Emerald Sky

I blinked, and turned off the infrared view. The bots in my suit had fully cleaned the visor off, and I could see without obstruction. We were falling into some kind of pocket of clear air—pure helium? I couldn’t judge the pocket’s size, but I suspected it could swallow Earth. In every direction,

even above me, there glowed ocean-sized swirls of yellow and orange and red. Sunlight broke through a vast canyon of clear gas that reached to a horizon thousands of kilometers away. The space was so vast I couldn’t breathe. I just had to stare. Below us, something dark streamed past—a river of blue. I increased the magnification on my visor, and saw strange, bird-like organisms flocking in a vast school that stretched tens of kilometers. They were not small. The Galactic survey had been inaccurate. The herd chased something: a school of gas-giant plankton, likely their food. I let out my breath. My tongue hurt. I’d lost an arm. My ankles were a wrecked mess. I was about to die. But look where I’d come. Me, a poor kid from the Occupied Territories of Palestine. And best of all, this place was full of life. And I had just saved it all. There couldn’t be a better epitaph for a Harmonizer. I stared a long time, glad to be here and to be seeing

this, before I said, “It’s always the gas giants that get me in trouble. But by Allah they are beautiful.” I didn’t even realize I was speaking aloud—in Galactic, no less, but for the one Arabic word. “Wrong, and right,” a voice croaked. I looked up. “Bria!” “You get in trouble on every world,” Bria croaked, “but, yes, gas worlds have beauty.” “You’re not dead!” “Not yet,” she said. “Sorry for the delay. I took off my suit. It was . . . difficult. I’m coming for you. But this is also difficult. I see out of one eye only.” I thought that through. I guessed she meant that she had taken off her suit in the open cargo hold, exposing her naked body to near vacuum, then climbed back into our ship and pressurized it. She probably had lost three of her four eyes to hemorrhaging. If that was correct, her travails had been far worse than mine. May 2013 - 71

“Well, I bit my tongue,” I said, trying for a laugh. But really, while some Sussurats might have a sense of humor, Bria is not one of them. A light flickered above me. Our cruiser. Bria was racing it down into the atmosphere, aiming to exceed my terminal velocity. I concentrated and spoke very slowly and clearly. “Bria, we’re going to need to figure out how to drag this whole Hurlkorish cyborg out of here.” “You did not destroy deathcommando?” “I don’t think I killed it.” I looked at the head and switched back to infrared. It still glowed with warmth. “I paralyzed it. I cut its connections to the body and the . . . cargo.”

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“You should have used antimatter,” she said, referring to the pinhead antimatter missiles our suits carried. “That might have distributed the cargo,” I said. “This way is better. This deathcommando can face a tribunal. Maybe give us intelligence. If we can lift it out.” “Difficult,” Bria said. But she added, “It can be done. But why take the chance?” I looked up. Our ship became just visible: a spot of dark trailing a white fire in the ocean of pastel colors. “It’s a big galaxy. There’s plenty of room for the Hurlkorish in it,” I said. Then I added in English, “And because in prison, my cousin still could have sung.”

Craig DeLancey has published more than twenty short stories in magazines like Analog, Cosmos, The Mississippi Review Online, and Nature Physics. His work has also appeared, in translation, in Russia and China. His short story “Julie is Three” won the Anlab Reader’s Choice award last year. To learn how you can follow other adventures of Tarkos and Bria, please stop by his web site at www.craigdelancey.com.

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