Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 56
Stories
Murmuration
by E. Catherine Tobler
The Warrior and the Sage
by Shweta Sundararajan
The God in the Window
by Steven R. Stewart
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
A Choice of Weapons
by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Bonus Material
The Gathering Edge
by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Shadows and Shore Leave
    by Brian Trent

Shadows and Shore Leave
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

It's challenging seeing Mom in only three-dimensions again.

She's already flinging open the painted green door to my childhood home as I step onto her gardenyard path. She rushes down the stairs, auburn hair flying, arms outstretched.

"Darron! Oh, great stars!" She wraps me in an embrace that smells of basil, detergent, and freshly-minced cilantro; the aromas temporarily overpower the turpentine stench of my fresh-off-the-clone-clinic body.

"Hi, Mom." I pronounce the two words carefully, remembering Lesson A-1 from the training video on how to act on planetside shore-leave: If loved ones greet you, greet them back!

But why can't I see the back of her head? Where's the sat-view of the property, with us as two friendlies on a green rectangle of gardenyard bisected by this narrow tarmac?

Mom releases me, tears running down her cheeks in glistening rivulets. "We were counting the days! Oh, Darron! It's so good to have you home! For you to really be here!" She claps her hands together in merriment too great to be constrained.

"It's not really me," I protest.

"It is you inside," she counters, and she steers me into the house, arm linked with mine as if we're recreating a Victorian-themed holo-tour stroll in Hyde Park. The prodigal Rappelt returns home!

The inside of my childhood home presents itself in dangerous limitations. Tiled foyer, cream-carpeted parlor, kitchen straight ahead. The remainder of the house is an unknown darkness in my situational awareness. Memories stir, but it's been three years since I've been back. A lot can happen in three years.

I smell lemons and cooking oils wafting from the kitchen. Odd sounds emanate there, too: crackling skillet, bubbling water, and the mellifluous voice of the cookguide suggesting the pasta be stirred again. Mom whisks me forward, and now Dad appears, bearing tongs and wearing a greasy apron. His smile draws a thousand wrinkles. Dad isn't a hugger or kisser but he does both now; his gray stubble like tiny knives against my cheek.

"Missed you, pal," he says, squeezing me until my cloned joints practically squeal in protest.

"Missed you, too," I mutter, thinking: I should cry. I should wrap my arms around my dear father and weep into his shoulder.

Instead, the strangeness of being cut off from the omnisquad has me feeling amputated and reduced; like phantom-limb syndrome, nerves firing in echo of old connections. And why can't I see Mom or Dad's blood pressures, heartbeats, thermoptic aspects? Where's the bloom of house blueprints in my brain?

The kitchen is rendered in birthworld harvest hues. Green apples in one wicker basket, red apples in another. A pie baking to golden-brown crispness in the oven while pots and pans bubble and froth like the hastily-erected replovats in a xenobiology field tent, researchers anxiously standing by for results.

 "Close your eyes!" Mom demands cheerily, whirling away from me to dip a spoon into a saucepan.

I frown. "What?"

"Come on, close your eyes!"

Perplexed, not seeing the end of this request but not wishing to disobey, I willfully clench my eyes shut.

The panic is instantaneous.

I can see nothing.

Nothing.

It isn't like the practice sim that my buddy Tagawa talked me into taking just two days ago on orbital approach to Sagan. Many soldiers like the simulations to better prepare them for shore leave among civilians. But Tagawa was drunk and bored and wanted to make fun of the program's pedestrian scenarios. What you did is you loaded in images of your family and friends and whoever else you expected to interact with, and these were wrapped onto boilerplate frames that said things like, "Welcome home, son!" or "Join us for brunch at the Spin Tower," or "Take me on the kitchen floor," and then you got to play through the scenario in preparation of the anticipated event. To make it realistic, the default setting was a Solstock body--two eyes, two arms, two legs. But Tagawa, drunk off Singapore Slings, thought it would be fun to customize settings to our battlebodies. So "Take me on the kitchen floor" became a nightmare tangle of omnidirectional vision and six-limbed trunks pumping away at holoporn starlets. Tagawa has a weird sense of humor.

As a result, the practice sim hadn't prepared me for how limiting a Solstock body was. With my eyes closed, I'm completely blind.

Something touches my lips. A spoon, hot from the saucepan, slips into my mouth and gently clinks against my teeth. I slurp, tasting salt and wine and chicken stock. Chicken marsala? The juices slide across my tongue, exciting taste buds as they trickle down my cloned esophagus. The brew hits my stomach like a firecracker.

I open my eyes and look into Mom's anxious face.

"Well?"

"It is delicious," I say.

"We've been reducing it all day. You arrived just in time!"

Dad brushes by me to reach the fridge, snatches a beer, and hands it to me. The cookguide is talking again, advising on the internal temperature of the potatoes, and Dad curses, hurrying back to the oven.

As I'm twisting open the beer, an unknown silhouette appears in the corridor.

With omnivision I would have known someone was in the den. Without it, I have no read on this new shape, nothing except a brief impression of a humanoid body crossing through shadow and light, and suddenly it's in the kitchen with us.

"Hey jerk."

"Janine," I pronounce the syllables.

My sister.

Both hands stuffed into her jacket pockets.

What did she do to her hair?

"What did you do to your hair?" I ask.

She touches the synthetic cyberlocks and gazes sidelong at me. Her "hair" resembles a plastic squid nestling on her scalp, cobalt-tipped filaments in a nest of fiber-optic tendrils. "What did you do to yours, freak?" she counters.

I tousle the mop of brown curls atop my head. The decanted clones are often hung upside down to drain before hosting a neurocast, and the unintentional side-effect is that the hair dries in a mad scientist poof. The staff provides a hairbrush, but I'd forgotten to use it.

"At least it is hair, idiot," I say, regaining the hang of our old lingo.

"And why is your face wet?"

"What do you mean?"

Janine pulls out a gun and shoots me.

I see it happen in slow-motion. The quick jerk of one concealed hand, yellow weapon rising from the pocket, the plastic muzzle erupting. I twist aside, adrenaline squirting through me as a spray of water streaks by my face.

"Janine!" Dad roars in outrage. "What the hell are you doing?"

Suddenly I'm six-years-old again and DAD HAS SPOKEN. The universe grinds to a halt, save for the chicken simmering in its stew of liquid like bubbles on a gunship's hull taking fire from krolort surface batteries.

Janine has a strange look on her face. Not apologetic--she's not one for apologies. Not embarrassment, either.

Curiosity?

A little relief?

The knowledge arrives like an infobeam: She was testing me.

My heart returns to normal gallop, even amid Dad's yelling. I hold my sister's gaze and ask, "Did I pass, sis?"

"I was just curious if my bro can take a joke and--"

"Janine Rappelt, give me the damned toy!" Dad snatches the water pistol and slams it into the dissolver, cursing and booming. I suddenly recall being a kid and watching Dad confront a neighbor who had manhandled me when I accidentally rode my hoverbike into his gardenlawn's hostas. I recall Dad's threatening shape in the doorway, the neighbor practically cowering, eyes wide, as Dad thunders, "You do not put your hands on my son! If he's done something wrong, you infolink me and I'll handle it! Never touch my son or daughter again, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME, MISTER GIPSON?"

And Mister Gipson had understood.

Mom deftly becomes peacemaker, interposing herself between my sister and father. "Please! Janine, Sean, let's not ruin today!"

Janine's face is bright red--you can't help the blood rushing to your cheeks when Dad starts screaming. But she studies me and there are tears in her eyes, and she embraces me, whispering, "Welcome home, bro."

"Please stir the pasta," advises the cookguide from the oven range.

Great Mother of Eagles!

That's Tagawa's favored curse, one that quickly became the chant of our entire squad. Cherrybrook "Brave" Tagawa shouts it during a drop when things are getting hairy. Like when we're flying in low to a krolort target, strafing their black-and-white buildings and bile black streets and bone-white defensive turrets, when the only other colors on their freakish world are the bruise-hued sky and the bright detonation of fusillades around us. Our gunship darts about like an angry hornet, taking fire, shedding ablative layers like a dandelion in a gale.

That's when Tagawa bellows:

"Great Mother of Eagles!"

"What's an eagle?" Janine asks me, as we depart the PDT streetcar at Factory District. It's past midnight local time; dinner's over, plates and pots washed, and Mom and Dad have retired to bed.

"It's an avian from the birthworld," I say, walking abreast of her, my limbs stiff from the clone clinic. "Not all that big or scary."

"Then why was your buddy so obsessed with it?"

I shrug. "He has some Cherokee in his heritage. I guess the eagle was an important animal. So whenever things get bad in a drop, he shouts it. It's become our battle cry."

"Great story, bro."

"Actually, there's more to it than that." The Factory District waits ahead of us as a warren of modular units connected by skyway lattices. Plenty of restaurants, bars, and holoparlors are open at this late hour; colorful marquees dancing above doorways in the low fog of coolant exhaust from rooftop atmoprocessors. "An eagle apparently had this really loud, blood-curdling shriek. So our squad commander decided to program our gunship to emit an eagle's cry during battle. Started as a joke, but the sound terrifies the krolort."

Janine turns off the main road and hops onto a guard-rail. Squatting there like a gargoyle, she gives me a quizzical look. "Do the krolort even know what an eagle sounds like?"

"Doesn't matter. That shriek at two-hundred decibels is pretty damn intimidating. Hey, what the hell are you . . ."

She hops the guard-rail, vanishing out of sight.

"Janine!" I sprint to the ledge, On the opposite side, my sister is sliding down a hill of gravel like a surfer taking the drop down a towering wave. She glances back, grinning as she goes. She's become a real badass, apparently, when it comes to gravel slopes.

I half-tumble, half-roll in her wake. She's already moving off to an unlit avenue . . . and it occurs to me that everything down here is unlit.

"Wait up," I call, stumbling after her and taking stock of our surroundings. Factory District is above us, built on pylons and the overpass. Down here is a different story: tumbled masonry on shattered, weedy streets. Abandoned buildings and dark windows, transport trucks stripped down to rusted skeletons . . . the detritus of early colonial efforts before TowerTech arrived to establish order.

Janine locks arms with me, marching us towards the cavernous parking garage of a nearby building.

"Where the hell are we going?" I demand.

"I told you. I want to show you off to my friends."

"You said your friends were in Factory District."

"They are in Factory District."

"But--"

"Shut up, okay?"

I comply, but my senses-- the finite senses in this very finite body--are on high alert. This is a bad part of town. Off-the-grid, literally, where no one can be tracked and all sorts of low-life specimens congregate, like runoff scum in the bend of a stream. Smugglers, separatists and black-market peddlers lurking in abandoned colony buildings. Hermit-crabs hiding in yesteryear's slough.

"Janine, let's go to a bar."

"We are going to a bar."

"Dad would fry a circuit if--"

"Shut. Up."

There's something comforting in seeing that her stubborn streak is intact, though I'm concerned by the troubling roots it's grown since I enlisted. Even as a kid, she was always drawn to the forbidden and off-limits, as if her legs were a pair of divining rods cued to seek out the seedy, shady, and borderline-sinister. Instead of boiling away as she reached adolescence, this trait seems to have deepened. When did it happen? I've only been gone . . .

Ah.

Three years.

Out in the deepworlds, time is measured in missions. Janine was barely thirteen when I saw her last.

The parking garage is void-black, and my sister's arm is the only tangible thing until we reach a stairwell festooned with cables and a single lantern. Ducking beneath what is surely a network's underbelly, Janine asks, "Your body is AR-compliant, right?"

"Of course."

"Good. Switch to Channel 66732."

"Janine, let's grab beers at Veejay's, okay? This place is wrong, and you shouldn't be--"

"66732."

"Dammit." Very reluctantly, I switch to the specified augmented reality channel.

The decrepit stairwell transforms to my eyes. It sprouts a jungle, tendrils of ivy crawling up walls that now appear constructed of granite blocks. Torches hatch like red flowers, flickering and blackening the masonry. No longer blind, we scamper up several flights of stairs to what must have been a manufacturing floor, if the stench of industrial lubricant, rusted metal, and cleansing fluids is any indication.

What it displays as on the augmented channel, however, is an airy temple courtyard with overhead terraced balconies and a jungle canopy pierced by ornate totemic columns. Young men, women, and neutrals gather around the base of towering idols and leering carvings, drinking and eating, flirting and groping in this Xibalban fantasy.

"Hey all," Janine shouts, giving a wave. "This here's my brother."

I nod at the gaggle, appraising these scruffy little rebel-wannabes; third-generation colonials who didn't have the previous generation's stories of duty and honor and responsibility breathing down their necks. Hadn't experienced the difficulties of colonizing Sagan in the past, and knew nothing about the horrors of the krolort war in the present . . . except what they flick through on the newsfeed.

I'm greeted with shifty nods and suspicious eyes. I smile slightly, nodding and hanging back, watching my sister make the rounds.

But I'm already feeling better about the evening.

There are dangerous types in the colony underbelly--TowerTech's bulletins keep the omnisquads informed of news from Sagan, and there's always stories on crime, mostly separatists blowing up buildings or supply depots. It's immediately obvious to me, however, that Janine's crowd is little better than weekend trawlers in the criminal shallows. Secret meetups at an off-the-grid nightclub is as daring and outrageous as these posers get.

My attention flicks to a nearby bar kiosk, run by a strikingly tall, bald, and pale lady with cyberlocks stacked into a kind of beehive on her head. I approach her counter.

"Hanoko, make it two!" Janine calls to me.

"One," I tell the bartender. "A whiskey double."

I watch her pour liquid the hue of gold and straw and engine oil. There are tables scattered like islands amid the human sea, and a number of kids have plugged their cyberlocks into connection ports on the glass tabletops. A VR game of some kind, I guess. Willful illusion within an abandoned building already steeped in willful illusion.

My sister shoulders her way beside me at the bar. The lovely bartender doesn't need prompting; she fills a mug of beer for Janine and slides it across a puddle of liquor to her.

"You're too young to drink," I say.

Janine dips her fingers into the mug and flicks them at me. "Your face is wet again."

"Cheers, sis," I laugh, clinking my glass against hers and downing the whiskey in one swig.

"What do you think of my friends?"

"I like your bartender." I wink at the tall lady, who offers a sly smile and turns away to assist other customers. "It's too bad your friends live in a crappy part of town."

"They don't live here. They just wo . . . hang here."

I notice the correction. My gaze strays back to the people crowding the tables, playing that weird game. There's no display of what they're seeing--it could be virtual tennis or a virtual massacre or a virtual orgy--so I focus on their expressions. Tight, fierce frowns of concentration.

I glance back to Janine. "I don't like you hanging in this part of town."

"And I don't like you wearing these crappy clothes." She pulls at the front of my shirt.

"What's wrong with what I'm wearing?"

"It's old, bro."

"It's what Mom left for me at the clinic."

"Be sure to tell my friends that Mom still dresses you."

"You're saying that pickup line doesn't work?"

The bartender laughs. "I think he's hot, whatever he's wearing," she counters.

My clothes are old, but that's what I like about them. They make me feel local-normal. When I emerged from the clone crèche, Mom had already set up my blue jeans and T-shirt and button-down. She even thought to include the college ring she and Dad bought me upon graduation from Sagan's only university. I almost cried, seeing that ring again; I had knelt down on my new knees in my new body and clutched it like a talisman to my cloned heart.

But the tear-ducts in my body didn't comply.

I have no tear-ducts in my battlebody, either. No eyes. Don't need them.

My armor plugs straight into the nervous system and blooms in the optical processing portion of the brain. Better than eyes. Omnidirectional vision, turning me into a kind of transparent eyeball fed by multiple rivers of data. Eyes are limiting. I have no limitations.

The first two days of boot-camp are dedicated to the history and limitations of eyes. Human eyes, the instructor explains, are remarkable evolutionary developments that served humanity well from our hunter-gatherer progenitors to the very beginnings of far shore diaspora. Here on the frontier, something better was needed.

My battlebody takes in data from every available source. Info goes straight to the brainpan.

No eyes, no ears, not even a stray hair on my head. Download into my battlebody and I become a bald little pawn, so the barracks joke goes. Top-line TowerTech sensors are woven around my skin, armor, visor, chest-plate, and the greaves for all my legs. We're not just pawns, but spider-pawns who can move faster and react more efficiently than a bipedal form. (Tagawa calls this "going Kafka," but that phrase never caught on). And more arms, capable of wielding shields and weapons, grown straight off our DNA.

Then it's on to the finishing touches, or what we call "getting your decals." The Paleolithic savage has been remade into a facet of the omnisquad assault wing of the Colony Defense Force. Real-time links to each soldier. Tactical overlays, brain-backups along the length of shellacked spine, and semi-sentient sock-puppet doppelgangers that can be programmed to offer a menu of support options that include covering actions, holding actions, diversionary actions, or even acting as a catcher's mitt for a hardslam ejection of host consciousness for insta-upload to a replacement body if the original is deep-sixed.

It was necessary. CDF had quickly realized it was the only way to improve the human soldier against an alien adversary unlike humanity had ever encountered.

The krolort.

The krolort scare the hell out of me.

Maybe its best I don't have eyes in battle. Like the mythical Gorgon, I don't want to see their hideous and debilitating strangeness.

"The krolort are like, a million years old," I slur, sitting across from the motley gang of Janine's friends in the sacrificial pit room of our augmented fantasy. My fifth whiskey has unraveled my tension like a fraying rope, and the acid-dub music has me tapping my foot.

One of Janine's guy-pals, with a plum-purple beard and permanent scowl pressed into his face like seams in a gunship hull, makes a hissing noise. "You've fought them up-close, huh?"

"Yeah." My attention flicks back to the bartender, and I see she's watching me with open, frank interest.

"Alive?"

The word breaks into my pleasant buzz. It takes me a second to realize the bearded kid is still addressing me. "What?"

"I asked you if you've ever fought living krolort."

"They don't represent much threat if they're dead."

Janine plops down beside me, the way she used to when we would go fishing many years ago in the stocked caverns beneath our home district. There's a virtual tree running sideways above our heads, cracking through the temple walls; partly because I'm drunk, partly because I'm bored, I fling an ice-cube from my glass into the tree, watching it sail through the illusion, and catch it on my palm.

I nudge Janine. "I need to piss."

My sister hops up and leads me towards a connecting corridor. Her purple-bearded friend, however, steps deliberately in my way. "Show us a battle," he demands.

"You mean show you a video-capture of classified field intelligence?" I grin without humor.

"Intelligence!" he gives a caustic laugh. "You're a stupid grunt! What do you know about intelligence? You know exactly what TowerTech fills your head with, and--"

Janine points her finger at the kid and, like a fabled sorceress, lights him up in scarlet luminosity. "Lay off my brother," she warns. "Or I'll spike you with vomit-porn. Do you understand me?"

The kid slinks away, allowing me to follow my sister deeper into the honeycomb-like innards of the building.

"What are you smiling about?" she asks, catching my look.

"Aside from the vomit-porn threat," I laugh, "You do a good impression of Dad."

Nagoro are always black and white.

Lots of CDF analysts have tried explaining why those two colors are so important to the enemy species. Is there religious significance attached to dichromatic design? Does it help them navigate better? Is it intended to confuse invaders? If nothing else, it seems to succeed on that account, because there's something vaguely disconcerting, in a way that's difficult to put into words, about rappelling from our gunship into a black-and-white labyrinth of alien barricades, forts, and bunkers. Tagawa and I even attended a field researcher's seminar on the subject; the researcher talked about a birthworld animal called a zebra, and how its bizarre stripes actually evolved as a deterrent to flies; apparently, the winged bloodsuckers were troubled by the strange zig-zagging patterns.

The krolort themselves are not black and white. They look like crabs, with a tough hide and speckled, reddish brown appearance that reminds me of the skin of a potato. They have twelve prehensile appendages, probably an evolutionary adaptation to whatever hellworld they came from. Hideous things. Terrifying marauders on the fringes of the star system.

They conjure a level of terror that peels back your bravado and mental armor and military training, boils away your adulthood, reduces you to being a child calling for its Mommy.

You scream for Mom because she was usually the one to rescue you from the nightmares and monsters of your imagination. I've seen the hardest, meanest, most fearless drop-troops wail for a beloved parent when we're up to our knees in alien guts and steaming, burnt out carapaces.

It happens among civilians, too. The terrible fire aboard the Fleury Spin Tower five years back. An electrical fire melted the suppression wires and burned thirty people alive. Some instantly, and others . . . not so instantly. One guy had time to contact the police; the recording of that call made it onto the newsfeed. The guy had burned like a torch, but before it all became wordless howls of agony he had managed to get one word out, over and over as the fire found him.

He had screamed for his Mommy.

Screamed at the top of his blistering lungs.

"Phil's a confrontational asshole," Janine tells me in a narrow corridor filled with bright frescos of hearts being torn out atop step-pyramids.

"Those two things tend to go together." I press the subdermal patch behind my ear and the Aztec illusion dissolves. The frescoes revert to simple drywall, the sacrificial pits reveal themselves as a row of work cubicles. "Where's the bathroom?"

My sister points to something I can't see. "The glowing statue of Tlaloc, doing a rain dance."

"Ha freakin' ha." I stumble towards a doorway, my fingers struggling to undo my belt as I weave to the urinal, bladder twitching painfully for release.

I'm washing my hands when Janine enters. In the mirror, I regard us: brother and sister reunited.

"So anyway," she says, "I just texted Phil and told him again to back off, or I'll rip his purple beard off his chin."

"How do you know him?" I ask.

She shrugs. "Does it matter? Come on, Hanoko just texted me, wanting to know where we were. And by that, I mean she wanted to know where you were. She thinks you're cute."

"The bartender? 'Cute' doesn't seem like something she'd say."

"That wasn't how she worded it."

"How did she word it?"

Janine makes a sour face and waves her hand, as if flinging something invisible and unwanted at me, and suddenly a forwarded text springs to my optics:  

HEY! IF YOU'RE GONNA SKIP OUT ON

THE PARTY AT LEAST SEND YOUR

BROTHER BACK. I WANT TO BONE

THAT CLONE DRONE.

"That does seem more like her," I admit. "So how do you know Phil?"

A hesitation. "We sort of work together."

I twist off the sink faucet and blot my hands dry on my pants; there are no towels or air-dryers in this desiccated husk of an office. Still watching Janine in the mirror, I say, "Work together, huh? Is that the euphemism for hacking CDF?"

My sister's face registers pure shock before she can lock down the expression.

"That's what I thought. The 'game' your friends were playing at those tables? I've got a buddy in cyberwarfare operations who spends thirty-one hour shifts protecting our systems from local hackers. He's shown me holos of group intrusion patterns." I smile bleakly. "Looked mighty familiar, sis."

"Don't judge me," she mutters.

"Judge you for what? Harassing the very people who keep this world safe from--"

"From what? The damned krolort? Ha!"

Her outburst resonates in the small bathroom like an acid-tinged echo.

I glower. "Yes, the krolort. You've never seen them up close. You don't know how dangerous they are."

"No one knows if they were ever dangerous!"

"What the hell are you--"

A muscle in Janine's face twitches; I know that look, like she's weighing the final factor in an equation of confession. And sure enough, the mental calculus concludes and words come hurtling from her lips: "The krolort are dead, bro! They lived and died a million years ago, way before any human entered the galactic stage."

"We thought they were dead. Turns out they were only hibernating."

Janine shakes her head, her cyberlocks trembling. "That's not what real archaeologists say . . . the ones who aren't on CDF payrolls. Independent researchers came out here with the first ships and found ruins and fossils only. It wasn't until the CDF arrived that--surprise, surprise--the krolort are back from the dead, bigger and badder!"

"To what end?"

"CDF rules Sagan with an iron hand. They can justify every power-grab, every tax increase, every monitoring station, every data-miner . . . everything as long as there's a big bogeyman in the stars. And what better than a species than used to live here? It's all bullshit!"

"There are advanced species, sis. The cloud kings on Tempest, the hddau, the--"

"But not the krolort! They're long dead, and everything you do out there on your stupid missions with CDF is a joke, a way of tearing families apart and keeping us docile and afraid and . . . where are you going? Darron?"

Maybe it's the whiskey. Perhaps it's a combination of fear and disgust, like a toxic cocktail, that comes from seeing my little sister fall in with netcreeps and low-life idiots. It might even be rage, rage at her ignorance of what I do out among the stars, at her trendy little delusion, while I'm out fighting for her very life.

Whatever the precise emotions, I know only that I need to get away from her.

She runs up behind me. "Bro, hold on a second! I'm sorry, okay? Where are you going?"

"Why bring me out here, sis? To parade your brother in front of your counterculture brats? Or was it for me to report back to Dad on how much of an embarrassment you're becoming to the entire family?"

I don't wait for her response. By the stunned look on her face, it doesn't seem like a reply is coming any time soon.

I return to the party floor, where the tall bartender is trading places with another. She sees me at once, and flashes a smile. "I was hoping you were still here."

We locate privacy in one of the abandoned private offices. Tugging and unsnapping our clothing, we skin out of shirts and kick off socks like reptiles hastily sloughing off old skin. She selects a frothy seaside backdrop as we rut, the office's four walls vanishing beneath an illusion of overhanging mangroves and the glitter of icy planetary rings passing over us like an arch made of diamond.

I don't tell my parents about Janine's midnight activities. It's not my fight, and all I can think of is that Janine was trying to enlist me as either ally or proxy in her adolescent rebellion against our father. I refuse to contribute to that. I have a day of shore-leave left, and I won't spend it in a teenage-fueled Noh drama.

Janine doesn't come home that night, anyway. The next day, she sends a message saying she's visiting with friends, so my parents and I rent a hovercar to reach the colony's up-city gardens and have lunch at the caldera. Janine does come home that night, though she steadfastly avoids my gaze and presence, and the next morning--when I'm getting up to return to the clinic--she's already gone.

My parents ride the PDT with me, already making plans for my next shore-leave. What it seems like, though, is that they're just filling the awkward quiet.

"Did you and Janine have a fight?" Mom asks at last.

"Not at all," I insist. "I've been talking to her all morning by holo. She had things to do, that's all."

"Things to do," Dad echoes, and his eyes burn like distant flares.

I dredge a smile onto my lips. "She's doing okay, Dad. She's young . . . and her older brother isn't top priority. Honestly, don't sweat it."

His dark expression tells me that the subject of Janine's mysterious comings and goings has been broached before. But he drops it, and we say little else during the ride. The only sound is the pleasant hum of the PDT, and the whoosh-like doors as they disgorge or accept other passengers.

At the clinic, my parents bid me a tearful farewell.

"Be safe out there," Mom says, anxiously kneading her hands.

"Next time we'll take the hoverbikes to the canyon," Dad insists.

I bid them goodbye with kisses, handshakes, hugs, and promises. Then I enter the storage crèche for neural upload to the military pick-up atop the space elevator. In the security of my changing stall, I disrobe, taking care to fold my clothes; the clinic staff will return everything to my parents in a bright blue plastic bag.

I try to uplink to Janine, but all I get is her away-avatar asking if I want to leave a message. I do want to, actually, but can't think of anything to say. Reluctantly, I break the link, my vision dissolving back to the privacy of the clinic stall.

Only when I'm sinking into the crèche, inhaling its turpentine stench once again, does a message finally arrive:

I LOVE YOU BRO. SORRY FOR BEING, YOU KNOW, ME. PLEASE BE SAFE. WHEN I SEE YOU AGAIN, MAYBE I'LL HAVE HAD TIME TO GROW UP MORE.

And then I cry.

It wasn't Dad's hug or Mom's cooking or even the sight of my college ring that had conjured the tears, but this twenty-seven-word text from my little sister.

I text her back:

JUST BE SAFE AND SMART AND THINK OF YOUR PARENTS.

Ten words back at you, sis.

And I lean back in the crèche like a man enjoying a steamy bath. The transfer is made with all the subtlety of an icepick jabbed into the base of my skull, leaving my discarded body to sink into liquid slumber.

It's just eight months later, three terrifying missions later, when I'm allowed to neurocast back to Sagan.

This is surprising and a little unorthodox, but I don't question the requisition when it comes in. It's a relief to be away from the fighting. November had seen the bulk of our missions, filled with surprise assaults on krolort strongholds, shooting into their hideouts and foxholes, flushing them out while they scurried for cover. I'm so happy, in fact, that I even splurge at the fleet-market, purchasing gifts which are transmitted along with my neurals to the clone clinic; the 3D printer is still humming with souvenirs as I pull myself from the slimy crèche and rinse down in the shower stall.

Toweling off, I go to the dressing room, where Mom has laid out clothes for my arrival.

A black suit.

The PDT drops me a block away from home, and as I walk past the homes and gardenyards of my childhood memories, I spot Mom and Dad already on the porch. I can tell from a distance that something is wrong.

Janine, as it turns out, was killed in a police raid.

I would later learn that colony separatists had hacked into a CDF sky-rise and were trying to steal sensitive data. No names of the deceased were listed in the newsfeeds; CDF had long ago determined that separatists always benefited from public sympathy when names were made public. Instead, Janine's life and death were summarized by a single sentence from the article:

Police reported that thirty-nine separatists were killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

The funeral was months ago, but we go to the memorial anyway. Mom barely speaks. She stands at my sister's placard like a frail tree. The headstone produces an image of Janine and her wry smirk, as if this is all a prank. As if any minute, she'll pop up behind me with a water pistol.

Why is your face wet, bro?

"I'm so sorry," I say aloud, not sure if I'm speaking to my parents, myself, or to the memory of Janine.

Mom says nothing. Dad says she hardly ever speaks now.

For his part, Dad still speaks, but his legendary anger is like a faded ember in a fireplace; possessed of little heat now, destined for a cold and gray future.

"What was she thinking would happen?" he asks me later, when Mom has gone to bed.

"I don't know."

The old anger blooms for an all-too-brief moment. "Did you know about this, Darron? About the kinds of people she was associating with? Is that why you two weren't speaking the last time?"

"Of course not."

Dad stares at the floor, his gaze blank. "She called us," he whispers at last. "The night she died, she called us."

"When did she die, Dad?"

"November," he whispers.

Something cold and oily pushes through my veins.

I don't want to hear the recording of the call.

It's three days later, when Dad takes Mom for a walk--which is to say he pushes her along in her wheelchair because her legs haven't really worked since the night of Janine's death. Dad asks if I want to join them but I decline, my heart jack-hammering, cold sweat dripping down my spine.

Only when they're gone do I sit in the empty kitchen and dredge up the recording list from the house phone. Scanning its contents. Locating the date of the November call.

My voice shakes as I say, "Play message."

And suddenly I hear my sister's voice.

Screaming.

Screaming for Mommy.

Screaming for all she's worth.

And behind her, in the distance but audible above the whining bullets and explosions, an eagle screams and screams and screams. 


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