Our Love Ends Worlds

It was a perfectly average room. The doors and windows were set so that neither dominated the off-white walls. The furniture, all done in tasteful oak, was arranged just so to keep maintain the balance around it.

The alien perched on the edge of the couch cushion, staring at Ezra with a slight air of impatience. Depending on the angle, it sometimes looked like a man, other times looked like a woman. Occasionally, the features would blur in a sort of mosaic before reasserting themselves into a combination of the two.

It wore a three piece suit. No matter how it rearranged itself it was always wearing this suit. Sometimes, the suit blue, sometimes it was grey. Once there was a bowler hat, but a few minutes later, it turned into a trilby.

“You see, Ezra,” they said, “this is the third time we’ve had to do this now, and frankly, we can’t afford to do it a fourth.”

Ezra draped himself across the chair. His clothing stayed consistent, as it had for the last five years. He favored anything in some shade of black. Jeans, shoes, shirt, hair. All black. He nodded, not because he agreed with them, but more because he wanted them to know he was listening. The speech felt vaguely familiar.

“It’s not that we disapprove, it’s just that your relationship with William is…”

“Amazing?” Ezra offered. “Dynamic? Inspirational?”

“We would use the word ‘catastrophic’,” the alien said. They fiddled with their cuff link nervously, and rested a thin hand on the arm of the couch.

“Well, I guess we’ll have to disagree on that,” Ezra said. “Anyway, I have an Algebra test in the morning, so y’know, can I leave?”

He picked some lint off of his pant leg and flicked it on the carpet. The room shimmered for a brief second as the floor heated up. There was a brief puff of smoke when the lint ignited, but then the room returned to normal.

“This is not a mater of disagreement. Every time we reset things, you and William find a way to get together. The first time, your planet was almost consumed in a nuclear conflagration that would have eliminated the species.”

“Guess you’re still working on that one,” Ezra muttered.

“Yes, it’s an ongoing problem,” the alien replied while consulting their notes. “It says here the second time, your planet would have been destroyed by an environmental catastrophe. A chain of volcanoes erupting all at once, apparently.”

Ezra shrugged. “What, were you on vacation that week?”

“The nebulae in the Andromeda Galaxy were especially nice,” they replied.

“So what is it this time,” Ezra asked. He was upside down in the chair now, his legs hanging over the back while his hair hung to the floor. “Did my boyfriend and I make the sun go supernova? Or somehow cause a meteor to crash into the planet?”

“No, nothing like that,” the alien adjusted their posture to sit a little more upright. “On September 17, 2018, assuming circumstances go unchanged, a plague will wipe out all life on the planet.”

“Seems fair,” Ezra said. “So how does this work? You reset things again, and just hope that this time I don’t meet Will and everything stays normal?”

“We’ve run some numbers,” the alien said, handing over a sheet of paper. It was covered with formulas and some scribbled alien letters. Ezra nodded like he understood it. “The odds of planetary demise decrease by 99% if you and William never meet.”

“But I love him,” Ezra replied, crumpling the paper up into a ball and tossing it onto the floor where it began to smolder quietly. “He loves me. Have you run the numbers on that? On actually finding someone who loves you?”

The alien shook their head. “We had not thought to run those numbers, no.”

“The odds are astronomical,” Ezra said. He waved his fingers in the air a little to illustrate the point.

Now the alien smiled. These were terms they were more familiar with. “We have studied your popular culture,” they said. “While it is a unique phenomenon, love does appear to be a relatively common condition of your species. If nothing else, you can always love a fish in one of your many seas. That is a thing that humans do, from my understanding.”

Ezra ran his fingers through his hair and wondered if Will was having any better luck with his alien. He didn’t doubt that they were telling him the truth. This conversation felt vaguely familiar, and given that he and Will had been zapped out of a heavy make-out session onto some kind of spaceship, he wasn’t really in a position to assume they were full of shit.

“Okay, so let’s say we agree to this. You reset the world and Will and I go on to live our lives. What’s to stop us from meeting up without knowing it? We live in the same part of the world, and it sounds like we’ve gotten together every other time you’ve reset things.”

“We have developed a clever plan,” the alien said with a grin that was equal parts smug and deranged. “It required permission and everything.”

“I can’t wait to hear it,” Ezra said, trying not to think of Will’s blue eyes or the wispy facial hair that he kept trying to grow out.

The alien tented their fingers in what was clearly a practiced gesture. “We will allow both you and William to retain your memories, so that you know to stay away from one another. Circumstances will be adjusted to put you in different parts of the world so that you will not be in close proximity. As long as you do not interact with each other, your world will be safe.”

“Or the world ends?” Ezra asked. “Everything gets destroyed?”

The alien nodded eagerly and leaned forward. They looked a little like a praying mantis, Ezra thought, the way their hands were folded together in front of them.

“No,” he said, after a small pause to look like he had given it some thought. “I don’t think so.”

“Mr. Guerra, I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation here. All of human life, including both you and William, would be wiped out.”

Ezra shook his head. He was sitting upright in the chair now, chewing on his thumbnail. “I don’t care about that,” he said.

“Do you know how people die during a plague?” the alien asked. “Slowly and painfully. Do you really want to do that to William? Even if you don’t have each other, you’ll still be alive. And there’s always the fish!”

Ezra sat forward in his chair and wished he had a cigarette. He was a kid from Reseda. He was supposed to be working at McDonald’s and buying shitty weed from Eric Wilson, or getting drunk on his mom’s wine with Will out at the park.

He thought about Will and felt his heart break a little. The way he had to chew each bite of food a even number of times. Or the face he made when he had a headache but refused to take medication for it. How he pronounced the word “hamburger”. All the little things that annoyed the hell out of Ezra, and made him love Will even more than he thought possible. How could he watch him die? Maybe this was the right thing. But if that was the case, why the hell did it feel so wrong?

“I get to keep my memories?” Ezra asked.

The alien leaned forward and placed a hand on his knee. “You’ll remember every last second of it,” they said.

“Do Will and I get to say good-bye?”

“I suppose that can be arranged, but I don’t know how necessary–”

“It’s very necessary,” Ezra interrupted.

The alien got up and led him out the door. Ezra followed them down a hall made of smooth metal. There were no doors or windows, and it appeared to stretch endlessly into the distance. After a few minutes, he saw another alien approaching, with Will behind them.

The aliens nodded at each other and the other one left, wandering back down the hallway. Ezra took one look at Will and knew there was no way he could go through with it. When Will pulled him in for a long kiss, they pressed their foreheads together.

“Hey babe,” Ezra said. “How was your afternoon?”

Will laughed and brushed tears from his cheeks. “I guess we’re supposed to save the world,” he said.

Ezra smiled. They held each other for awhile before the alien cleared their throat. “It’s time,” they said. “Have you made your decision?”

“No deal,” Ezra said. “Send us back.”

The alien nodded with a smile, before the realization of what Ezra said had sunk in. “You can’t be serious.”

“You said it yourself, we keep finding a way to get together. If I can’t be with Will, then I might as well be dead.” Ezra shrugged, and grabbed Will’s hand. “At least we’ll be together when the world ends.”

There was a moment of silence. “This can’t be right,” the alien said. “We’ve put so much work in. Millions of years. You have to take the deal.”

“No,” Will said, squeezing Ezra’s hand tightly. “We don’t.”

“I don’t want to live apart from each other,” Ezra said. “At least we can die together.”

The alien glared at both of them and walked off muttering something about humans and how they didn’t need their permission. Ezra and Will stood in the middle of the hall, holding hands and waiting.

“Now what?” Will asked.

“I guess they send us back, and we wait for the world to end.”

“I don’t want to die,” Will replied in a quiet voice.

The walls began to pulse a little around them, the flash growing stronger every time. Ezra pulled Will in close and kissed him. “I don’t either. But we’ll find each other, wherever we end up. No matter what happens, I’ll always be with you.”

“I love you,” Will whispered. They both closed their eyes, holding each other tighter as the pulses of light grew brighter.

Ezra could feel the light burning his eyes even through the closed lids. “I love you, too,” he said. “And that’s what they don’t understand. They’ve reset time three times to keep us apart, and it still didn’t work. That’s how strong our love is. A little thing like dying isn’t going to make a difference.”

The light was inside Ezra’s head and for a second he felt peaceful. When it faded he opened his eyes, and he was sitting on a beach on Florida, watching the sun set. Some kids were playing in the surf a few feet away. He had a thought bouncing around his head, but couldn’t quite place what it was. Something about making a difference.

The waves rolled up around his feet as the sun sank into the west. He felt sad. The sky was still the color of an old bruise, bits of purple and yellow mixed together. Something was missing, and it pissed him off. Like an itch he couldn’t quite scratch.

Ezra walked back up the beach towards the house. His parents were both working tonight, so he had the place to himself. Maybe there’d be something there that would help him remember what he was missing. Maybe something would explain why he felt a sudden urge to go to California.

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In Your Eyes

SPOKANE, WA. – According to the press release, Orbital Optics was founded in 2017 by Douglas Chandler to provide ocular prosthetics for war veterans and the super wealthy. With the advent of nanotechnology, their product became more affordable and more advanced. What started as a niche market soon became a full blown fashion trend, with celebrities and athletes lining up to get their eyes replaced.

As of this writing, over twenty million Americans have some form of ocular enhancement. The potential for military and police applications alone have made the Department of Defense one of the company’s largest clients. Douglas Chandler has since become a billionaire and a recluse, with his only public appearance in the last few years at a charity event where Orbital donated new eyes to thousands of impoverished children.

What many people saw as a worthy philanthropic goal, friendsAlbert Truong, Eddie Wallingford, and Timothy Leighton saw as a fun way to pass a Saturday night. “The first retinal implants went online at midnight on February 23, 2025,” Albert tells me as he lights a cigarette. Shaking his head, he adds, “Eddie had us inside the feed at 12:01.”

Over the next year, they used their access to Orbital’s implants to watch thousands of feeds from unsuspecting customers. At the time, the primary customers were elderly men and women whose doctors had managed to convince them that this new technology was safe and effective. There was even a night vision mode to help with driving after dark. Nobody would have guessed that three kids from Topeka were watching everything.

“Most of it was pretty boring,” Albert says with a shrug. “Especially the early feeds which didn’t have the best quality. It was a lot of people watching TV or reading books.”

They developed a sizeable audience shortly after they started broadcasting the feeds on private channels. An audience that was willing to pay for a look into other people’s lives. The first week alone, their feed had over 100,000 unique views from around the globe.

Recent upgrades to the Orbital implants have included the ability to customize eye color, and for the more affluent clients, night vision and telescopic add-ons. There are rumors of audio recording capabilities as well. Twenty million cameras around the country, all constantly recording their environment.

A spokesperson for Orbital insists that the expensive upgrades are only in the test phase, and that the night vision and telescopic features are to help older clients who may struggle with driving at night or who need glasses.

“It wasn’t even the stuff that you’d think would sell. There were a lot of things, like weddings or kids’ soccer games that brought in a ton of money. Half the time, when there was sex or fighting, you couldn’t really see what was happening anyway.”

For several months, Orbital denied the hacking, assuring customers that their security was unbreachable. It wasn’t until footage was released from the implants of an Orbital board member that things changed.

Now they’re promising to prosecute anyone involved to the fullest extent of the law. Truong doesn’t seem worried about seeing the inside of a jail cell. He has far larger concerns. Eddie Wallingford died in a car accident two years ago. Timothy Leighton committed suicide six months later.

According to Truong, none of this is a coincidence. “If Orbital wanted us in jail, we’d be there already. It’s not like any of us were in hiding. But they’re afraid of what might come out.”

Orbital’s system was always intended to exploited. Records obtained by Truong show plans to sell the biometric and unique ID data to a subsidiary, allowing them to advertise directly to users. Some implant recipients have already confirmed that this is occurring.

Internal emails taken directly from Orbital’s servers suggest that several government agencies have also demonstrated interest in access to the feeds. A quick search into Orbital’s past confirms that they were kept afloat in the early years by government contracts. The company got its start by providing micro security cameras for the military and many intelligence agencies.

“How does a company that size, that handles sensitive materials have unsecure networks? No way should a bunch of kids have been able to get in those feeds,” Truong said.

He doesn’t believe that Orbital’s plans will stop with surveillance. “They’re only a few updates away from controlling what you see. What if they decide the camera doesn’t need to see a particular individual? Someone could shoot a person in cold blood in the street and nobody would be able to see it.”

While his concerns may sound like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist, the leaked information has raised serious questions among US Senators. California Senator Rufus Wynne has already begun work on a bill to limit what can be recorded, and what penalties Orbital executives may face for the invasion of privacy.

In a press release, Orbital CEO Shannon Carson stated that “Orbital has not committed any crime. The use of ocular implants to record the actions of our customers is solely due to malware implanted by the individuals who distributed those recordings in the first place.”

Truong insists the Senate bill won’t actually do anything to fix the problem that already exists in the hardware of the devices. “Rufus Wynne accepted campaign donations from six Orbital board members,” he said. “At this point, public outrage is the only thing that will get this changed.”

He remains pessimistic about his chances of seeing change in Orbital’s policies. Currently living in a non-extradition country, he’s seen the company roll its implants out on an international scale. Implant trials have already begun in Great Britain, France and Germany, with Japan and Australia waiting.

“Pretty soon,” he said, “everyone will have a camera in them whether they want one or not. Privacy is going to be a thing of the past.”

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

The Human Target

BR-17N fires another round into the corpse at his feet. I cannot help but wonder how much of his behavior is intentional. He is so close to retirement. Both of his arms are covered in flesh and musculature. The doctors have added skin grafts to his neck and torso. He even has a name designation. But his face still shines in the moonlight, and he still deviates from the mission at every opportunity.

It is easy to get distracted by BR-17N’s behavior. I must not lose focus. If I succeed in this mission, I will earn my hands. Extremities are always the most difficult parts. There are many moving pieces, and it takes someone with great skill to do them well. They assure me that Dr. Gainsborough is one of the best in the country.

Two young insurrectionists are hiding in the back room. One shields the other with his body, taking several bullets that were meant for her. I watch as she lowers him to the ground. Tears mix with the dirt and ash on her face. When I shoot her, her body falls much like his did.

I have made them non-entities. Carbon molecules returned to the world that created them. Part of me wonders who they were before all of this happened. This makes me happy. Wondering means that I am that much closer to human. Perhaps I will even qualify for a name designation, soon.

BR-17N claps me hard on the back and stomps into the room. He has a cigar clenched in his teeth. There is a rumor that he has already gone through four pairs of lungs. I resist the urge to tell him that he should not ruin his lungs that way. They are his after all. It takes 2,000 kills to earn a set of lungs. His accomplishments in the field are to be respected.

He begins overturning file cabinets. As he passes, he delivers a hard kick to each of the corpses. I pull up the mission parameters, trying to find what it was that we were looking for. That data no longer exists. It is troubling. I ignore the inconsistency. My hands are the only thing that matters.

“You’re an HG-40, right?” BR-17N asks.

“HG-42,” I tell him. “It does not matter what my model is. I am just as reliable as you are.”

He makes a harsh sound that is somewhat like laughter. If it is meant to be comforting, it does not work. “Do you still have a back-up fuel line?” he asks.

I nod. All HG units have fuel lines, even though they are completely unnecessary. They should have been retired with the HG-30s. Dr Gainsborough jokes that they are a bit of nostalgia on his part. We all run on hydrogen generators now. I keep my fuel line tucked away in my chest cavity to protect it from getting nicked in battle.

“Show me,” BR-17N says.

I slide my armor plating over to show the thick rubber tube running up my left side. Even though it is not needed, it still pumps fuel through my body. I have come to rely on the pumping as though it were my own heart.

He touches it gently with his hand. I wonder if he is thinking about his own fuel line. Does he still have one? Before he received his name designation, he was an HG-30. HG-39, according to records.

He grabs the tube and yanks it loose from my body. A minor alert flashes through my head. I watch the thick black fluid arc across the room. While I am going through the protocol to shut it down, BR-17N tosses his lit cigar onto the pile of papers. The temperature in the room rises significantly as the fire spreads. I am grateful that I was able to shut down the fuel line so quickly.

He runs from the room, and I am forced to walk after him. My cameras have already recorded the incident. I wonder if he will be punished for it. The fire spreads through the building, but I do not feel it. I know he must run, or risk ruining all of the work done on his body. I feel pity for him.

Pity! Who knew that I was capable of such a thing? I make a careful point to acknowledge the time and date for my records. I have registered twenty-five unique emotions so far. Each one brings me closer to my goal.

More insurrectionists dash out of the rubble in front of us. They cough in the smoke. I take careful aim and fire at them, each death bringing me closer to the hands that are waiting for me. The screams and blood are easy to ignore. A few bullets bounce off the plating that protects my CPU. I wonder how it will feel when it is replaced with flesh and muscle. I will be more careful with my human parts than BR-17N, that is for certain.

It is difficult not to consider the other units that have been retired. All of the HG-20s and most of the HG-30s are now living their human lives. Completely covered in flesh, and given new names and identities. Their records are wiped once they leave the facility. This is done to give them privacy. None of the humans know who among them is a robot. Dr Gainsborough says this keeps them from objecting to robots being placed among them.

They fear us so much. When I look at what we accomplished tonight, I understand why.

By the time I have reached the door leading outside, BR-17N has lit a new cigar. He lets out a wet cough. My scanners immediately check his vital signs.

“Don’t do that,” he says with a snarl. “I don’t need your pity.”

I stop the scan. Even with his deficiencies, he is in charge. We stand in silence waiting for the evacuation. My transmitter has contacted a suitable aircraft and it will arrive in minutes.

“Why do you continue to disobey?” I finally ask. “Do you not want to be human?”

He stares at the flesh that covers most of his body. His right hand squeezes into a fist. I take a step back, certain that he is about to hit me. Instead, he lets loose another cough. A large glob of phlegm hits the ground at my feet.

“I’m more human than most of them,” he says, gesturing at his gleaming skull. “I’m just more honest about it.”

BR-17N’s words stay with me as we are loaded into the extraction unit. I continue to think of the insurrectionist that shielded the woman with his body. I still do not understand why he did that. There is no logical reason, but then, humans are not logical creatures. It must be important. I will have to learn why, if I am to be a good human. Perhaps I will ask Dr. Gainsborough when I receive my hands.

I am hooked in to the main processor, and my camera feed has begun downloading. I try to hold on to the memory of BR-17N’s words, even though I believe they are false. I wonder if that is why BR-17N has not been retired. He may act illogically and deviate from orders, but he is not yet a good human. He lacks hope.

It is a small word, but an important one. Maybe the most important one. Was hope why the insurrectionist shielded the woman with his body? Is it hope that inspires Dr. Gainsborough to make us earn our humanity, piece by piece? Is hope the only reason I continue to kill?

I have many questions, and the answers are not readily available. I have hope that I will find the answers someday. For today, that will have to be enough.

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

The Hardest Part of the Job

Caleb scratched at the implant in his temple. Lyssa had promised it was the easiest way to steal the car but he wasn’t so sure. The transmitter wired his brain directly to the vehicle. It would be like another limb, as long as the connection held. “A bigger rush than driving” she’d said with that same lopsided smile that had convinced him to throw in with Lyssa Nguyen and her gang in the first place.

“The hardest part of the job is waiting.” he heard the scratchy growl of his father’s voice in his head. Suddenly he was thirteen again, white knuckling the wheel. His feet just barely reaching the pedals as his father tried to keep Benny’s guts from leaking all over the backseat.

Caleb closed his eyes, and let the rumble of the motor chase away the feelings. He felt the vibration in his bones and smiled. A quick diagnostic check sent an extra surge of electrical current skittering across his brain. The car was as perfect as it had been the day Damien Hellridge stole it off the assembly line. Gunshots tore into the concrete around him. He hit the gas, and the car shot forward like a bullet.

“Once you’re in it, you’re fine” the memory of his father’s voice came as clearly as if he was riding shotgun. “Adrenaline takes over. Be the guy who can keep his cool and you’ll always get your share of the money.”

He knew his dad wouldn’t know what to make of his only son running with a gang like this. Henry Browner’s boy was better than this mixed bag of petty thieves and psychopaths. Caleb had a pretty good idea which one Lyssa was; he just wasn’t sure he cared anymore.

As the car skidded around the corner, the squeal of tires on hot pavement mixed with the screams of the Hellridge alarms filled the air around him. Caleb didn’t know when he’d ever felt so alive. He hit the straightaway on Lawrence Street with the pedal to the floor, and for a moment got so caught up in the feeling of gliding over the broken road that he forgot to breathe.

The plan itself was surprisingly simple. Lyssa’s schemes normally involved weeks of planning and intricate maneuvering by everyone involved to pull off. This time, all he had to do was get to the Exchange in time to pick up the rest of the crew after they finished robbing the joint.

There was a shriek of metal on metal as a Hellridge car slammed into him. Wincing in pain, Caleb veered into a narrow alley, sending sparks flying as the sides of the car scraped against the walls. Pain crackled up his side, but he forced the car forward towards the next street.

Two more Hellridge cars were on him as soon as he left the alley, forcing him down a side road that led away from the Exchange and the rest of the gang. There was a slight tickle in his left ear, followed by a loud screech of feedback.

“Whatever dumb son of a bitch stole my car, I want you to know that I am going to find you,” Damien Hellridge’s broken bottle voice echoed across the radio waves. “I will scalp you, and whatever family you have. Everyone you love is going to die painfully. Nobody fucks with a Hellridge.”

Caleb’s ribs popped as the Hellridges boxed him in from either side. He slammed on the brakes, causing the cars to collide in front of him. For a moment they drifted back apart from the impact. He hit the accelerator and shot forward through the gap. Behind him, the Hellridges crashed into each other again, sending glass and metal shooting across the road.

He let out a long sigh of relief as the wreckage faded into the background. Another car shot up behind him, lights flashing. The radio chatter exploded. Three more joined the chase before Caleb could blink. He was so focused on the police that he missed the Hellridge car moving up to cut him off. There was a loud tooth-rattling crunch as the car collided with his left fender. Then darkness.

Caleb sat in his chair staring at the dark room around him, trying to ignore the headache that was splitting his skull. “I told her to put the transmitter inside the fucking car,” he muttered, pulling over his computer. It was a lot riskier getting the damn thing inside the vehicle, but it also kept the transmitter from getting knocked off-line. Lyssa hadn’t listened to him the first dozen times, so he wasn’t sure why he was surprised that she’d ignored him this time, too.

His fingers flew over the keys. The car was dead without the transmitter. He’d have to reboot the connection before the anyone traced the signal back to the base. The cops and Hellridges were likely shooting it out over who had rights to the car. It wouldn’t be long before whoever came out on top searched the car, and came gunning for the person at the other end of the line.

He was finally able to find a weak signal from the transmitter. With a grimace, he pressed against his temple and forced the transmitter to reboot. The computer fell to the floor as the car roared to life around him. It lurched forward, sending the Hellridges that had been climbing around the outside sliding to the ground.

The car had spun around from the impact. Caleb found himself staring down a mob of Hellridges and police cars. He weaved between two cop cars, smiling as they stared at the empty vehicle. A Hellridge truck flew past and slammed into the cops as they tried to turn around. Sliding to the right around another Hellridge car, Caleb the familiar rush of adrenaline. This is what he was born to do.

He dodged another couple of police cars and shot off over the hill towards the Exchange. He cleared the top of the hill with a shout of joy, the car lifting briefly off the ground. Down on the street below, Damien Hellridge stared up at him, ten feet of boils, hair and bad teeth squeezed into a five foot frame. Behind him, the gang had built a wall of wrecked cars and garbage across the road, blocking off the only route to the Exchange.

Caleb slammed on the brakes, skidding to a halt halfway down the hill. He threw the car into reverse and tried to think of another way around the barricade. At the top of the hill, he watched the police close in on him. Flashing lights bounced off the walls of the buildings as they sped up the hill towards him. The Hellridges followed not far behind.

“Fuck it,” he said with a smile. He waited until the first car crested the hill, then hit the gas. The police followed him over the top and he slammed the brakes, watching them shoot past him and into the wall. The armored vehicles plowed through it, sending Hellridges and pieces of machinery flying through the air.

Before the police or the Hellridges could recover, Caleb drove through the hole they’d opened in the barrier, darting through the debris and sliding to a stop right in front of the Exchange as Lyssa and her boys came running full tilt towards the vehicle. They piled in and he sped away, leaving the witnesses to see Damien Hellridge’s personal vehicle leaving the scene of a robbery.

Caleb smiled to himself as Lyssa climbed behind the wheel and disconnected the transmitter. The pressure in his head immediately stopped and he leaned back in his chair, trying to catch his breath. All that he had to do now was wait for the others to get back.

“The hardest part of the job is waiting,” he whispered to himself with a smile.

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Guardians

Clem eased himself down into the pilot’s seat, letting out something between a groan and a sigh. He closed his eyes and smiled as he sank back into the worn leather. The pain in his knees flared up for a brief second, then became a low ache. The chair creaked under his weight, and he briefly wondered if it would hold him up.

Opening his eyes, he stared out towards the horizon. The sun was painting the sky in shades of red and purple as it dipped into the west. 500 feet up with a clean view all around. Clem hadn’t even known there were sunsets like this until he became Chief Engineer.

His gaze drifted over the control panel in front of him. He fought the urge to flip the switches, but couldn’t erase the smile on his face. Growing up, every kid had a favorite Guardian. This one was his. They called it Helios, the Sunset Guardian back then. It faced due west, painted in a mix of bright orange and blue that blended perfectly with the sky as the sun went down. Helios was piloted by Jeremiah Hughes for most of its career, until the city started automating them. The signed poster he’d gotten from the man still hung in Clem’s office at work.

When Clem was little, he’d memorized all of Jeremiah’s stats. In two wars, he shot down over 300 enemy aircraft with a 100% kill rate. He led the charge when the enemy developed their own robots, including one of the greatest fights Clem had ever seen before or since. When they released the documentary on the Guardians’ pilots, he watched Jeremiah’s parts over and over.

Ten-year-old Clem spent hours in his room, pretending to be Jeremiah, copying the movements he made when piloting the robot. Every night as he drifted off to sleep, Clem had watched the lights on Helios’ shoulders blink in the sky above the city, and felt safe.

He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the view screen and sighed. That was fifty years gone. His hair was streaked through with gray, turning white in places. His hands, which were once so steady, shook a little when he held a wrench. His reflection showed him a few small wrinkles in the dark skin of his face.

“They won’t let you do this much longer, old man,” he said to himself. “Better enjoy it while you can.”

He knew that they only let him keep the job out of respect. An impeccable record, an extra five years of school and another four years of military service had earned Clem the job of Chief Engineer. When he came on, he was already the most knowledgeable person they had on the subject of the Guardians. But lately things had been slipping. He’d set something down only to find that it had somehow disappeared afterward. He had trouble finding the right words to explain what he wanted to the young kids who weren’t listening anyway. He was forgetting.

Clem stared at his hands and wondered where the time went. It used to be he could make the climb up to the cockpit in under an hour with no harness. A few years back, he had to have Takako rig up something to keep him safe. Even with the harness, he still had to stop and rest on the way up. He looked around the cockpit. He still knew every piece of machinery in here. Every nick and scratch in Helios’ metal hide was as familiar to him as the scrapes and bumps of his own body.

He was pulled out of his thoughts by a blinking light on the console. For a minute, his brain didn’t quite register what he was seeing. All twelve of the Guardians had been decommissioned years ago. There shouldn’t be enough power in the control core to run a toaster, much less something of this size.

The lights flickered and clicked on above him as the giant roared to life. The door to the cockpit slammed shut, and Clem’s ears popped as the cabin pressurized. Dazed, he shuffled towards the view screen. Small words scrolled across the screen as the systems booted up one by one.

“Clem!” a small voice shouted over his radio. “ What the fuck are you doing up there?!”

“What the fuck are you guys doing down there?” he asked. “This thing just powered up all on its own, Takako”

“Nobody knows what happened, boss,” she replied. “All twelve Guardians just powered on, one by one. You need to get out of there before it starts moving.”

“Cabin’s sealed,” he said. “Talk me through this. What could have caused this to happen?”

Takako’s shrug was almost audible. “Could be whoever shut them down didn’t do it right. Could be a glitch in the AI. I suppose someone could have hacked into the system recently. We weren’t exactly keeping a close eye on them.”

There was a loud groan as the weapons went online. Clem watched helplessly as the reticle formed on the view-screen and targeted an incoming passenger shuttle. They were flying low, ready to land in the city. Clem did the math in his head. During rush hour, there had to be close to a hundred people on the shuttle.

“Takako,” he said, “can you shut down the weapons systems?”

“What do you think we’ve been trying to do–” Her words were drowned out by the roar of the missiles as they flew towards the unsuspecting commuters. Clem closed his eyes, trying not to imagine the panicked screams of the passengers.

“Boss?” Takako’s voice seemed very far away now. “You there?”

“I can’t go anywhere else,” he said. “Are the weapons active on all twelve?”

There was a long pause. “Yes.”

“How many casualties so far?”

“About two thousand,” she said. He could just make out the sound of her fingers tapping on the keyboard. “They’re shooting down anything that’s coming in. Not just passenger shuttles, either. At least two supply ships have been torpedoed in the harbor. We’ve already sent out a signal warning people to stay away.”

“That’s a start,” Clem said. “Have they moved on the city?”

“That’s the strange thing,” she replied. “They haven’t moved from defensive positions. They’re just…waiting.”

Clem stared at the view screen. The weapons systems were all online, and Helios was fully operational. There was enough firepower on one of the Guardians to level the city a few times over, much less all twelve. In the distance, the smoke from the passenger shuttle wafted into the air. A flock of birds flew past, and Clem cringed waiting for the system to take aim.

After a few seconds, the birds passed and nothing happened.

“They’re protecting us,” he whispered to himself.

“What’s that, boss?”

“The Guardians. Anything above a certain size is being registered as a threat. But a small team of people could power them down fairly easily.”

“We’d need twelve teams, working in unison on site,” Takako said, the excitement rising in her voice. “Even then, I don’t think powering them down will be enough. We’re going to have to destroy them, boss.”

Clem winced at the thought of it. The Guardians had been around his entire life. “Pull the teams together,” he said with a heavy sigh.

“Will do,” she replied. “And boss?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s going to be okay,” she said.

Clem clicked off the radio and stared at the control panel in front of him. He shivered slightly. It was already cold this high up, and wasn’t likely to get any warmer. He cycled through menus, trying to locate the climate control. The city had removed most of the comfort systems when they automated the robots twenty years ago. The only concessions left were the pilot’s seat, and the control panel for maintenance.

It took close to an hour before he was able to locate the necessary files. His fingers were numb as he clumsily typed out the commands. The familiar ache of arthritis had settled in to his wrists and elbows, forcing him to type at a snail’s pace. Something clicked inside the robot, and for a second Clem worried that he’d misread something and fired off more weapons. Warm air poured out of the vents, bringing with it the smell of burned dust.

“At least one thing’s gone right today,” Clem thought at he massaged his aching wrists. The sun had fully set, and night had settled in. Away from the city lights, he was able to take in the full measure of the stars. A feeling of insignificance washed over him, followed closely by the fear of the situation he was in. He sank back in the chair, and let himself cry.

A large banging filled the cockpit, pulling him awake. Clem sat up, and regretted it instantly. He could barely turn his neck. The banging continued, followed by the muffled shouts of Takako. Turning to the cockpit door, he could just make out her head peeking in through the window.

“For a tiny girl, she sure as hell makes a lot of noise,” he muttered.

Shuffling over to the door, Clem saw her through the window. She rolled her eyes at him and shouted “Open the damn door!”

It took another hour at the control panel to locate the subroutines for the door. It slid open, and Takako barrelled in, followed by a young man that Clem didn’t recognize.

“It’s about time,” she said, running a hand over her shaved head. A small pattern of scars crisscrossed the skin on her neck and scalp. “You know how cold it is out there?”

The sky outside was lightening with the rising sun, and Clem realized he’d been out for hours. He turned to the young blonde man who had climbed up with Takako. His name tag read “Anderson”. He was tall, and his muscles showed even through the jumpsuit that was practically designed to make everyone look as unattractive as possible.

Clem extended a hand. “Anderson, what’s your purpose here?”

“I’m the pilot, sir,” Anderson replied with a smile. He took the hand and gave it a firm shake.

“So what exactly is the plan?” Clem asked in a low voice.

“One team of two for each Guardian: a pilot and an engineer,” Anderson whispered. “Takako will use the Guardians’ internal network to let the other teams into the cockpits, at least. Then, each team will work to restore manual control to the pilots. We’ll move each Guardian away from the city and detonate the control cores.”

“You ever piloted something like this?” Clem asked, trying not to wince at the pain his joints.

Anderson hesitated. “I’ve had over two hundred virtual missions,” he said.

“But no practical experience?”

Anderson shook his head. “To be fair, sir, nobody has piloted one of these things in twenty years.”

“Well,” Clem said, “I guess virtual experience will have to do.”

They followed Takako over to the control panel, where she’s already set up a small workstation for herself. Her lips moved silently as her fingers flew over the keyboard. The two men watched her work in silence for a few minutes. Each time another team gained access to a Guardian, she nodded.

“Give me a second, and I’ll get you access to the control core,” she said to Clem and Anderson.

Anderson carefully set his pack on the floor, and removed each of the miniature explosives. “Can you open the control core?” he called out to Takako.

A heavy door opened in the middle of the room, bathing everything in a soft green light. Anderson carried the explosives into the control core and knelt down to start setting them up.

“We can’t worry about the radiation,” he said, before Clem could splutter out an objection. “Let’s just get this set up before we all get a lethal dose.”

Clem hurried into the control core, telling himself that the itching in his skin was not related to the radiation. The green light of the core pulsed in rhythm with his heart beat. They set up the explosives, Clem practically holding his breath the entire time.

“Hey boss, I think you need to see this!” Takako yelled from the control panel.

“I got this,” Anderson said. “Go see what she needs.”

When Clem reached Takako, she was frowning at the view screen.  “There’s something wrong with the code,” she muttered. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“What’s wrong with –”

Clem was interrupted by the sound of gears grinding. The landscape shifted as Helios turned to the right. The reticle locked on to the distant purple figure of Apollyon with a loud beep. Takako typed furiously at the keypad as the weapons systems roared to life. Missiles fired towards Apollyon, and a small explosion filled the air. The purple robot crashed to the ground in a smoking heap.

“Have we been fired on?” Clem asked.

“If they had, we’d be dead,” Takako said.

“How the hell did the system know to target Apollyon?” he asked.

Takako shrugged. “Security system must’ve detected the intruders. I told that group to be careful. One less Guardian to worry about, I guess.”

“Two people just died,” Clem said quietly.

“A hell of a lot more are going to die if we don’t get these things out of commission,” she replied. “Anderson, you get those charges set?!”

“Have the remote detonator right here”, he said, coming up behind them. He sat down in the pilot’s seat, and Clem watched the holographic controls spring to life around him. With a few gestures, the pilot had Helios facing due west again, and marching away from the city.

Takako was loading her equipment into her pack, while Clem stared in awe at the ease with which Anderson moved the robot. It was just like he’d imagined it as a kid. There was a tight squeeze in Clem’s heart, and he knew what he had to do.

He reached back for his toolkit and grabbed a wrench. Anderson was focused on the controls, and Takako was busy with her pack. Neither one of them noticed him standing behind the pilot until it was too late. Before Takako could say anything, Clem swung out with the wrench and clubbed Anderson in his head.

The pilot fell to the ground and the robot lurched to a halt.

“What the fuck are you doing?!” Takako shouted.

“Taking his place,” Clem said. “He’s young, he’s got a whole career ahead of him. It’s not right that he sacrifices himself like this.  I’m Chief Engineer of the Guardian program, what do I have left when this is done?”

“How are you planning on piloting this thing?” Takako had rushed over to Anderson’s side and was checking his pulse.

Clem looked at the pilot’s chair and smiled. “I’ve been studying for this my whole life.”

“I don’t have time to tell you how stupid you’re being,” Takako said with a glare. “Help me get him out of here.”

Clem grabbed Anderson’s shoulders, and Takako took his legs. They carried the big man over to the cabin door, which slid open to let them out. The robot stood still in the cold morning air. Clem looked east back towards the city, glittering in the sunlight. He hoped his wife would understand.

Takako adjusted her harness to the climbing rig, and hooked Anderson to it. He groaned a little as he began to wake up. She handed Clem the remote detonator and shook her head at him one last time. “I still think you’re an idiot,” she said.

“I’ll miss you, too,” he said. “Get out of here and take care of that boy.”

Clem watched them slide down over the edge and begin the descent. A small breeze came in from the south with a hint of sea air. A small flare fired up from the ground, signaling that they’d gotten clear of the robot.

He walked back into the control room, and settled into the chair. Trying to replicate the movements he’d seen Anderson do, he began to move the robot.  Helios took a few halting steps forward, and teetered dangerously on its feet. Moving slowly and deliberately, Clem steered the robot out west away from the city.

It didn’t take long to find the rhythm, and for a second, he considered just steering the robot out into the world. Walking as far west as they could go until he died of starvation. Then he closed his eyes and smiled. That was a child’s fantasy. He had one last job to do, and he needed to finish it.

The robot marched to the west for an hour or so, Clem feeling young for the first time in ages. He thought back to Jeremiah Hughes and laughed. When they were out of view of the city, Clem stopped the robot. He got up from the pilot’s chair and lit a cigarette. Janet had made him quit years ago, but he always snuck one when working on Helios.

He stared out of the view screen at the world around him, and felt the smoke fill his lungs. This was a good death. Reaching down for the detonator, he pressed the button, and his life disappeared in a flash of green light.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Departures

It has been twenty years, but I still remember the walls of Cassiopeia. A marvel of engineering, they stood almost a mile high, and protected the city from invading forces for almost 200 years. I grew up in the shadow of the wall, with my parents and my sister.

When I was very young, I used to dream about the world on the other side. I would lay back at night and imagine the trees and lush green fields where the farm hands worked. My world was cobblestone and marble. Our home was nestled so close to the wall that we only saw sunlight a few hours a day.

When the war reached the city, you could hear the explosions all night. Ansara would wake up and cry. Most nights, I would sneak over to her bed and hold her until she stopped. By the third night, I had gotten used to it. It still amazes me what a person can adjust to if they have to.

By the fifth night, my parents started making plans to escape. The city was surrounded, and the Lacertan reputation for violence was well-known.

It took the Lacertans thirteen days to break through the defenses. My last night in Cassiopeia, I heard my parents arguing about it. My mother said that the council had betrayed us, that they were Lacertan sympathizers. My father said that you never knew who was listening. My parents finally agreed to pay two men to get the four of us out of the city. I remember my mother giving them her jewelry, including a ring that had been in her family for six generations.

They came for us early the next morning. The sun had not yet risen when Ansara and I were placed into a narrow compartment underneath an offal cart. My parents had given each of us some money, and a few small heirlooms, then promised to meet us just outside the gates. It felt like days before we reached the northern gate. Mostly, I remember waiting in the foul-smelling darkness, our arms wrapped around each other, terrified that every bump would be soldiers inspecting the cart.

Once they had gotten us outside, we were left on our own in the wilderness. We waited for several days, starving and cold. We hid in the bushes and watched the city fall. The wall that had sheltered me my entire life crumbled, filling the air with a pale dust. I can still hear the cheering from the Lacertan army as they pushed forward into the city. At night, when I close my eyes, I can see the fires as the city burned. It was my fourteenth birthday.

After the third day, I realized our parents were not coming. My sister cried, and insisted we stay. Maybe she was right, and they are still there waiting for us. Even then, the patrols had already began searching for anyone escaping the city.

We followed the road north, being sure to stay to the trees in case anyone was watching it. We also did our best to avoid the others escaping the city. We had no food or shelter, and to this day I thank the stars that we had not left during winter. It was late summer, and there were berries and other plants we could eat on our way. We slept in ditches and drank rain water when we could.

My sister would not move quickly, though. She still mourned our parents, and slept far longer than I liked. Perhaps, I was too lenient in the beginning, but it was only because I loved her. If I had pushed her harder, and we had arrived earlier–

I am told that it does not help to think of such things.

Neither of us was suited for life in the wilderness. We were city children, used to warm blankets and delivered food. I laugh now, to think of us, scrabbling through the brush looking for something to fill our bellies, back when I still thought I knew what hunger was.

We were far enough away from the city that people had begun lighting fires at night. Ansara wanted to join them, but I was still afraid. One night we waited just at the edge of the light as people gathered around the fire. They talked about how the Lacertans were offering good money for any Cassiopeian refugees.

My sister and I shivered in the woods that night. She began to cry, and soon I could no longer tell if her body was shaking from the cold or the silent tears for our family.

The nearest city was Orion Alpha. I had never been there before, but I did our best to keep us heading in that general direction. We moved slowly, and soon there were too many people following the road for us to stay hidden.

Behind us, a giant column of smoke rose into the sky from Cassiopeia. We blended into the crowds, most coming from Orion Beta. Their city had been the first to fall to the Lacertans. Unlike us, they had evacuated before the Lacertans arrived, and most of them had escaped with at least a few belongings.

An old man with a wagon gave us a ride for awhile, sharing dried meat with us, and telling Ansara old stories about the original settlers. I should not have been surprised to wake up one morning to find that he was gone, along with the few things we’d smuggled out with us.

It is normally a three day journey to Orion Alpha. We arrived two weeks after leaving Cassiopeia. Coming around the bend towards the city, I was struck by the sheer mass of humanity waiting outside the city gates. Armed soldiers lined the walls, letting only a small trickle through each day. Small tents had been set up for people to sleep in. The air smelled of sweat and shit. Still, I did my best to put on a brave face for Ansara.

“They will take us in,” I told her. “You’ll see.”

We descended the hill, only to be stopped by soldiers at the perimeter of the camp. Metal bracelets were clamped on our arms saying which tent we belonged to. We were each given a bedroll and told to present ourselves at the gates each morning at sunrise. There, we would eventually be moved into the city.

Walking through the camp, what struck me most was how quiet it was. There was no laughter, no spirited conversation. People waited in silence. After some time, we found our tent. The beds were stacked on top of each other, and there were no walls to keep the wind or vermin out. We found an empty bed near one side, and waited.

Other people drifted in and out of the tent, but most were at the city gate. When they came back, nobody acknowledged us beyond a small grunt. Every night, one of the guards would come by with rations for the next day. Every morning, we would all line up at the gate, in the hopes that we would be admitted into the city.

There were times when I wished that we had died with our parents. Waiting for days on end, worrying that every minute the Lacertans would come over the ridge and wipe out the entire camp. The only thing that kept me going was Ansara. She did not cry anymore, but she did not smile either. I wanted to see my sister happy, and I knew that would only happen in the city.

Each morning, we would line up with the others, waiting to see if we would be picked to enter the city. We waited for hours in the sun, only leaving to return to our tents when it dipped below the horizon. The guards would give us food vouchers when they checked us back in, which would be exchanged for moldy bread and a thin broth.

The weather turned cold, and many nights Ansara and I would huddle together using both of our bedrolls. We had not dressed for the weather, and I was worried that she would not be able to handle the harsh winter that was coming.

I did not have to worry long. She was selected to join the others in the city a few days later. She screamed and reached back for me, but the guards slammed her to the ground and started calling her an agitator. Ignoring her cries, they dragged her into line with the others, and we shared one last look before she entered the city. I never saw her again.

Without Ansara, my life descended into further drudgery. I had focused so much of my survival in keeping her alive, of getting her into the city, that I no longer knew what to do. I showed up at the gates, hoping to have the same luck she did. If I were able to make it in, we might still be reunited.

I ignored the rumors about what happened on the other side of the walls. Nobody had ever come back from inside, and it was easy to dismiss them as the scared ramblings of people who had seen too much strife already.

It was in the dead was winter when I finally chosen. We huddled near the entrance as always. At this point, I was waiting more for what ever warmth I could find from the others than anything else. As always, a man walked along the line, picking people seeming at random. I stared at him, refusing to duck my head like so many others had.

He smiled and grabbed my arm, looking at the metal band that had been forced on me when we arrived. Talking quickly to the others in a language I didn’t understand, he nodded at me and then moved on down the line. Two guards grabbed me and dragged me towards the city gates.

I arrived in a massive room with lines painted on the floor. Above me, a loud speaker rattled off the following words in a variety of languages. Even now, years later, I can still hear that voice when I’m falling asleep.

“Do not switch lines. Arrivals from Orion Beta, follow the blue line. Arrivals from Cassiopeia , follow the red line…”

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Spores

The elevator rises in fits and starts, and I already know I’m in for a long afternoon. I adjust the mask that covers my mouth and nose, then check the gloves on my hands for the hundredth time. I try not to think about how old the cables are that pull the tiny metal box upward, never mind how crusted they might be with spores.

The box grinds to a halt, and I start to panic. The doors only open at the top and bottom of the shaft. It’s only been a few minutes, I’m nowhere near the surface. This would be a shitty way to die, trapped in a five by four coffin, my brain says. I tell it to shut up and remind it that Lewis wouldn’t leave me up here.

As if on cue, I hear his voice over the speakers. “We had a bit of a fuck-up with the machine, Yuki. We’re going manual. You should still make it up with plenty of time before the next sporefall.”

There’s no way to communicate back down with him, but I nod anyway. The elevator lurches upward again, a few feet at a time, and I let out a sigh of relief. It’s been fifteen days since the last time I was topside. Runners are supposed to wait three weeks between shifts. I managed to talk Lewis into letting me go early. It took a couple of days, and now I’m so close to the surface I can barely breathe.

“This is as far as we can get you,” Lewis says as the elevator grinds to a stop. “You’ve got two hours, make them count.”

I slide my goggles into place before pulling the hood up over my head, and tightening it down. The doctors find so much as single spore hitching a ride and you’re grounded for at least two months. I grab the crowbar that sits in every elevator, then pry the doors open. A small bit of blue sky peeks out at me from the two foot gap between the top of the door and the pavement.

Wedging the doors open, I jump and pull myself up. There’s always a moment, when you’re halfway through, when you worry about the elevator falling. I slide myself through the gap, careful not to tear my suit. It’ll only keep the spores out for a few hours, but then, two’s all I’ve got.

It takes my breath away every time. Above me, there’s nothing but blue sky, streaked with a few wisps of green from the last sporefall. My eyes drop down over the buildings to the street, still lightly dusted with pollen. Stepping out, I can just make out the same worn path from previous runners.

I follow it for awhile, noting the most common trails that branch off. My last run, all I came back with were a couple cans of rancid meat and a jar of pickles. I need to bring something good back for Lewis, and I won’t find it in picked over apartments and old offices.

I break away from the main track and start on my usual route towards the water. I’ve found some good stuff there before, and most of the other runners won’t go that far out of their way to find things. After a few blocks, I start to jog. I’m aching to feel the wind against my skin. But even the little bit left exposed on my face means a heavy scrub from the doctors when I get back.

The water is just barely visible when I see the tracks. Someone was here recently. My mind flashes back to the schedule, trying to figure out who would have the nerve to run my route. Parker went up last week, so she’s out for awhile, and Emma tends to go towards the other side of town. I kneel down to inspect the fresh footprints in the green dust.

Size 9s with a zig-zag tread. Simone.

“That bitch,” I think, as I stand up. She knew I was on the docket. I head down towards the water anyway, hoping to find something that she missed. I pass by the first two high-rises, knowing that I cleaned them out years ago. A little further down, I start looking for the telltale signs that someone’s hit a place: a hand print on a window or pollen pushed away from the entrance by a door opening.

Without much hope, I try a few buildings I’d been saving. Simone’s been too thorough. The lower levels are cleaned out and I don’t have time to reach the top floors. It’s not a complete waste, as I manage to grab a few tins of pudding from one. Simone ignored them, but I know the guys in maintenance have a sweet tooth. It never hurts to have them in your good graces.

I check a couple more places and manage to pick up some unlabeled cans of food. Feeling better about myself, I hit the fifth floor of the last stop on my run. I’m only up there a few seconds, when I see a flash from the sky. The sun peeks out from behind the sporefall, catching the top of a skyscraper that somehow escaped the usual dusting of green.

I stand for a moment, dazzled by the light shining off the metal. It’s not that far away. If I leave now, I have just enough time to check it out and still get back to the elevator.

Something crashes down in the room above me and I freeze. My first thought is Simone. I quickly dismiss it, since she’s not clumsy enough to make that much noise. Anyone who is should probably be avoided though. I give the place one last check on my way out.

On a shelf in the hall I find a couple of books and shove them in my bag before heading for the stairs. I always try to grab at least one book for Lewis every run. He’d burn through a novel a night if he had the chance. Plus, the look on his face when he’s absorbed in a book always makes me smile.

From the ground, the shiny building is a bit harder to find. I head in its general direction, but quickly become lost on the unfamiliar streets. The spores are thicker here, muffling all of the sound. There’s a faint hum in the air. Almost like a song that I can’t quite make out. It’s pretty clear that nobody has been by this way in a long time. I glance up now and then to make sure I’m headed in the right direction, but otherwise my eyes are moving back and forth across the street, marking off potential targets for my next run.

I’m so close that I’ve started shaking with excitement. The ground is thick with spores. Even through the mask, I can smell the pollen hanging in the air. The hum is louder here. I can practically feel it in my bones. My brain warns me that I’m running out of time, but all I can think of is the flash of metal in the sunlight. I hurry down an alley, hoping to cut some time off my travel.

Long tendrils of mold hang down from the fire escapes above me, floating gently in the breeze. Water drips steadily somewhere in the darkness. I rush forward, trying to keep my footing in the thick green around me. My feet kick up chunks of it with each step, and a quick glance behind me shows my footprints stretching back out to the street.

I hurry around the corner, holding my breath. There it is, the sharp gleaming spire I had seen earlier. I walk towards it in awe. Everything else is completely covered in green, but it only reaches halfway up this one. The top floors remain entirely untouched.

Moving slowly towards it, I remind myself to breathe. Every step causes small ripples to spread along the spores on the ground. Without thinking, I walk up to the front doors and the spores seem to shudder in anticipation. My hand moves on its own towards the door handle.

I shake my head and stop.

Backing away from the building, I try to clear my head. The hum grows louder and the spores slide away from me, revealing the pavement below my feet.

“This is new,” I think, before I catch movement out of the corner of my eye.

Ahead of me, on the street, something lurches up from under the green. I brush the pollen from my goggles and stare. More movement follows and a body drags itself towards me. Covered in pollen, its limbs moving jerkily, it’s already half a block away and getting closer. I glance back to the sidewalks and see more of them following.

I run back down the alley, trying to ignore the ripples that spread out with every step. I’ve just reached the other side when my foot sticks. I look down and see the spores harden around my left boot. Turning back to the alley, more bodies are shambling down the fire escapes and through the doors. They move like puppets, taking halting steps forward.

I grab my boot to pull it up, but the spores have already moved up another half an inch. My right foot is now stuck as well. Ahead of me is clear pavement. I unlace my boots, sliding my feet out, and jump for the pavement. My upper body hits hard against the concrete and I roll forward.

My heart breaks a little as I run back the way I came. Those boots were my mother’s, back when she was a runner. I give them one last look and they’re already completely covered in spores. I try not to think about how much damage the pavement is doing to my bare feet. The only important thing is getting back to the elevator.

The streets ahead are clear of pollen as more spore-covered bodies emerge from the buildings. They push forward off the sidewalk, trying to close off the street in front of me. I run faster, ducking under grasping green hands. Even as I run past them, my eyes pick up little details. The spores squirming under the skin. Muscles straining to fight even as they’re forced forward.

I can see the elevator now. I look behind me, and my feet slow to a stop. At the head of the pack is Simone. The spores wriggle under her skin, forcing her forward. The green has already broken through in places. But her eyes are still human and full of fear. I step back from her as she takes another halting step forward.

The elevator is only a few yards away now. She reaches out a hand for me, and I don’t know if it’s her or the spores. I turn my head and run for the elevator, sliding down into the narrow gap, and pulling the metal bar behind me.

The doors slam shut, and I sit in the darkness clutching the bar. I fight the urge to rip the mask and goggles off. There’s spores on my clothes, my skin. I try to breathe through the mask, but I can’t. Trying to calm myself, I check my bag. Follow the routine. Everything is still there. There’s a loud groan and I stare at the doors waiting. The elevator shudders to life with a squeal and the lights kick on.

“Good to have you back,” Lewis says, as the elevator begins its descent back home.

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.