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Last Resort
    by Michael Greenhut

Last Resort
Artwork by Eugene Carter

The rip tide had promised Stephen a watery grave, then backed out of the deal. He'd seen red, felt his lungs exploding, and said his atheist prayer of Good Riddance. After that, his life became a badly edited grind house film. One broken reel later, he was on the shore. A shell sat on his chest, just over his heart. He coughed up saltwater, sand, and part of a dead jellyfish. His mouth, throat, and nose felt like victims of a hot pepper holocaust.

Stephen picked up the shell and held it to his ear, indulging in a little "what the hell" he used to do as a kid, before beaches were prisons. Inside the shell he heard a second beach, a second ocean, and a woman's voice.

"I wish you could see me, Gerald," she said. "I got them. All thirty-six of the men and women who orchestrated this. They'll each be playing a lifelong game of Solitaire."

Frowning, Stephen sat up and switched the shell to his other ear. He heard the woman laughing and playing in the water with two younger voices. Girls.

"Their prisons are beaches like this," she continued. "But not like this. I have the house we built. I have the girls. I have you."

And I've got a lifetime supply of ultra violet, Stephen thought. Still, he was grateful for the white collar aspect of his prison, grateful that he woke up every morning without a sore ass or an involuntary tattoo, even if he had nobody to talk to. He wondered what he'd do with a wife, two little girls and a summer home. Probably work late.

"Hello?" he said into the shell, feeling like a moron. He was probably saying hello to schizophrenia, or some other delirium that resulted from excessive mental masturbation.

She didn't seem to hear him. "I'm going to build sandcastles with the girls. See you tomorrow, Gerald. Keep the lightning away."

Stephen had improved his aim enough to kill the seagull with one stone. He ran up to it, wearing the rags that had once been his Armani suit. He looked down at the dying bird, avoiding the little eyes, and said, "I'm sorry, guy. I just need to eat you or I'll suffer a protein deficiency. It's nothing personal."

Bob and the others from top management would laugh at him. Stephen tried to imagine Bob on his own beach, waddling after some other flock of seagulls, demanding that they get the hell back there so he could stuff his face with them, didn't they know who he was? By now, Bob had probably lost enough weight to see his own feet.

The bird didn't taste like chicken, but it stopped the rumbling in his stomach. Stephen picked up the shell and listened to the other beach. For a little while, he heard only the ocean, crashing and retreating against the shore. Then, a gaggle of female voices.

"Don't trample your sister's castle," said the woman, "or I'll put you on your own beach by yourself. And I mean it this time. I meant it the last time, too, but this time I mean it doubly."

"Can I make that beach, Mom?"

"Only if you're willing to babysit her there."

Stephen listened to them play, smiling, until the girls' voices faded into the background.

"Good morning, Gerald," she said, then sighed. "You're not really listening to me, are you, Gerald? I suppose I'm not really talking to you either."

"No," said Stephen. He wondered how he'd react if she ever heard his answers. If this woman existed outside his mind and on a real beach, StarCorp policy would make him toss the shell into the sea, maybe destroy it. Then they'd send someone to that other beach to destroy her and appropriate her daughters. Of course, "StarCorp policy" was now nothing more than a few makeshift umbrellas.

"I want to go back to work," she said. "Designing more resorts, not prisons. I was better at making people happy. But making people sad pays a lot more. Hell, I owe my early retirement to that. I owe every hour I spend with my girls to that. And those jerks at StarCorp deserved what they got. Didn't they?"

Adrenaline hit Stephen like a six foot wave from behind. He opened his mouth to say something, but all that came out was "Bitch."

He shivered at night, sleeping under all his ex-corporate rags. Once, he rolled over and pricked his leg on a pin that still read "Starcorp Bioconflict, Inc." - hiding in something that had once been pocket liner.

When he couldn't sleep, he traced imaginary constellations in the foreign pattern of stars. A hunter with six arms. A scorpion with two tails. A mother with seven children.

He periodically picked up the shell and listened to the woman snoring.

"What's your name?" he asked her once, just for fun.

"Andrea," she muttered in her sleep.

Stephen bolted up, holding the shell over his ear, feeling like a voyeur caught with his pants down.

When he got over the embarrassment, his mind formed a million questions. Instead of speaking again, he paced through the sand, muttering to himself. How had she heard him? In her sleep, no less?

He'd still only 80 percent convinced himself that this woman was real. Part of him still thought he'd drowned and surfaced in some afterlife, waiting for some psychic old lady with cataracts to come along and tell him to "head toward the light."

When the sun came up, he caught a small fish for breakfast and watched the horizon. As a boy, during family trips to beaches like this, he would wave at distant sailboats and speeders. At some point after puberty and a rather humiliating junior economics class, he decided to own one of those speeders, just to show the world that he could.

The mild clouds above suddenly morphed into ponderous gray blobs. Without warning, rain began barreling down. Lightning followed, then thunder. Stephen had gotten used to these instant storms, quicker than instant coffee and ten times stronger. He ran from the shore and ducked into his makeshift tent. He listened to the shell, hoping to hear his possibly-imaginary female friend.

"Hurry up, you'll get pneumonia." Andrea's voice. Her beach had the same storm.

"Can I watch the lightning?" The older girl asked. "I want to see it hit something."

"Is Daddy mad at me for sitting in his chair?" asked the other girl. She sounded just old enough to form words without trouble. "Is that why there's thunder?"

"No, sweetheart. It's called a second storm. Remember when I told you how I made this beach in a special vacation world? Well, this world has special weather that's a little different than the weather from Earth."

"Did the bad men send thunder from their beaches?" asked the younger girl's voice. "Do they want to shock me?"

"Yes," said the older girl. "The prison worlds are the same as our vacation world. The bad men are on permanent vacations. They're having as much fun as we are."

"They are absolutely not," said Andrea. "The bad men probably got struck by lightning. Or they drowned. Even if they haven't, they're each on their own boring, lonely beach, forever and ever. They aren't having fun like us, and they can't leave like we can. And they certainly can't hurt you."

"Promise?" asked the younger girl.


Stephen put the shell down and watched the sea. He imagined himself with Andrea and the girls, playing Daddy. Would he teach them how to play baseball, like a good old American dad? Would they eventually follow his footsteps and make their high school team? Could he teach them calculus? Would they become engineers like him and fight the national brain drain? Or would they put their talents to fixing the environment that StarCorp had wrecked?

They hadn't wrecked it, not really. Biological weapons didn't kill people - greedy clients did. That's what Bob always said. But at Christmas parties, Bob would always make toasts to greed, usually after he'd drained his glass.

Almost half a billion people still lived on Earth Alpha, and with no noticeable side effects from StarCorps' work. Stephen fell asleep repeating this to himself, listening to the waves crash and yawn.

In the middle of the night, Stephen woke up and listened to Andrea sleep.

"Did you trap me here?" Stephen asked.

"Who are you?" She murmured in her sleep.

"One of the bad guys," he said. "Maybe the worst one. I designed the plague that killed your husband."

"I hope you all drown," she said.

How could anyone who wasn't a Nazi have such detailed conversations in her sleep? Sounds from his beach must be competing on the same wavelength as sounds from her dreams.

"I tried to drown myself," said Stephen. "Fate had other plans."

"I'm sorry."

Her apology moved him, until he realized she meant that she was sorry he lived. Still, he liked the tone in her apology. Sincere, direct, passionate, without the aid of alcohol.

"It's not your fault," he answered, feeling like that phony shrink on comedy channel 14.

"It is. Gideon & Sons Criminal Justice wanted me to make desert prisons."

"So you made beaches instead," said Stephen. "I guess I owe my second childhood to your bleeding heart."

"Your jail is just a parallel of my home. You're not suffering enough, and it's my fault."

"Don't blame yourself," said Stephen. "You were brave enough to disobey the big corporate ghoul that employed you. Braver than I was." And evidently, they still paid you, he almost added.

"You're right," she said. "Damn you. You don't even sound like an ass."

"I'll try harder."

"Thank you."

"Sweet dreams," he added.


Stephen wondered if other criminals had such pleasant conversations with their nemeses. "Goodnight," he said.


Stephen woke just after dawn, feeling like he was a six-year-old on Christmas morning, just before his parents had told him of Santa's untimely death. The sand felt warm on his back and between his toes. He could smell the sea.

He drank from his makeshift reservoir, caught a couple of small fish and tried to pretend he was retired. He stared at shapes in the sun, as he'd done as a child, before his family had started prepping him for Ivy League middle school and filling his head with Greek theorems. He saw turtles, rabbits, wolves, and a lizard with wings.

When he grew bored, he picked up the shell and listened for Andrea.

She was laughing and playing with her children - just one of the girls.

"You're in a good mood, Mom," said the older girl, as if she were starting on the road to a request.

"Am I?" asked Andrea. "I guess I am. I don't know why. Maybe I had a good dream."

"If you say so, Mom. So . . . can I try designing my own beach later? One of the prison kinds?"

"Nice try, sweetie. I thought I told you to stop studying my work until you're older."

"I know what I'm doing, Mom."

"I know what you want to do, sweetie, and you're not doing it."

"Why not? I'm smart enough."

"Being smart isn't all you need for this kind of responsibility. Ask me again in a few years and we'll talk about it."

"Fine, fine," said the older girl, with an aggressively teenage flavor of disappointment.

"Fine, fine," echoed the younger girl, with more enthusiasm.

Stephen smiled as he listened to them splash each other. He stepped up to the tide and kicked the water with his feet, splashing nothing in particular, pretending the girls were laughing with him, that he was one of those jolly dads who lived for his kids and didn't know a thing about golden parachutes or collateral damage.

After about twenty minutes, they went out of listening range. He still wasn't sure how that range worked or why it fluctuated and traveled. Maybe Andrea had her own shell, a sort of companion to his. Something she carried with no knowledge of what it did.

To keep his mind from turning into boiled jelly, he started carving numbers in the damp sand near the tide, fragments of old equations he'd used. Before he'd gotten far, a shadow came over him. He had no time to look up before the air became a virtual swimming pool.

Lightning flashed all around him, followed closely by thunder. Stephen ran for his shelter, crawled inside and waited.

The storm remained in place. Wind had blown most of Stephen's shelter into glorified rubble. He lost track of time as the water doused him without pause, turning his vision into a rain-beaten windshield. He could hardly breathe without sucking water down the wrong pipe. Clouds had darkened the sky, making high noon indistinguishable from late evening. He shivered, pressing the shell over his ear so tightly that he drew blood. The air smelled like wet gym sneakers.

"Will it be over soon?" asked the younger girl.

"No," said her sister. "It won't be over until I say so."

"If you tell your sister that one more time," said Andrea, "I'll send you to bed without dessert for a week."

"But it's true, Mom," said the older girl. "I made this storm. I make a lot of them."

Silence took over for a few moments. When Andrea spoke, her voice had aged ten years. "Why?"

"I've been reading your books, Mom. I can make things in the worlds you've made."

"Why would you do this to us?"

"I can't help it. All the storms have to start on this beach, since it was the first one. They happen on some of the prison beaches at the same time. If you hadn't used this beach to make your prisons, that wouldn't have happened. But you did. So I'm not going to stop this storm until it kills all the bad guys in all those other beaches."

The youngest girl began crying. Andrea hushed her, then started humming a lullaby.

"Stop whining," said the older girl. "I'm doing this for Dad."

Andrea stopped humming.

"You really should have done this weeks ago, Mom. Huh? Mom, stop! Let go of the shell!"

Stephen never saw the lightning. He felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck, then the pain, as if his bones were imploding. The world around him became a dream.

Stephen tried to speak, but only gibberish came out of his mouth. The waves lapped over his ankles, as if in remorse. He stared at the wrecked vacation home.

Both girls stood beside the wreckage, looking back at him. The younger one had honey blond curls and couldn't be older than three. Tears had dried on her cheeks. The older had long, dark hair and a pale face, and looked fourteen or fifteen. She held a burnt shell that looked otherwise identical to Stephen's.

Andrea was nowhere.

"Where's Mommy?" asked the little girl.

"The lightning moved her to a different beach," said the older one. "It's not my fault. She grabbed the equipment from me and I lost control of the storm. She made me do it. She let all the bad men live. None of this is my fault. It's hers." As she said this, a tear dribbled down her cheek.

Stephen gave up trying to speak. The lightning must have deep fried a small part of his brain. He bent down and carved letters into the sand: "Why am I here?"

"The lightning must have hit you when it hit Mom," said the older girl, with a blank tone and a blank expression. "It sent her to your beach. It sent you here."

"No," shouted her sister. "No, no, no."

Stephen wrote, "I will find her."

"No you won't," said the older girl. "Every shell I send to one of the prison beaches carries my storms with it. I'll send enough shells and make enough storms to kill all the men like you." She ran down the beach and toward the shore, as if she were chasing a soccer ball. Her sister started to follow. Stephen grabbed her before she got far. The little girl fought him, then cried.

Eventually, she cried herself to sleep. When she woke, Stephen drew two figures in the sand - himself and the little girl. Then he drew an arrow pointing to the right. At the end of the arrow he drew Andrea.

"Can you bring her back?" she asked.

Stephen meant to shrug, but ended up nodding.

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