Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Fiction

Watchman, What of the Night?
by Eric Del Carlo

Enemy From Nowhere
by Jeffery Scott Sims

Dance by the Light of the Moon
by Milo James Fowler

Continue Program?
by Seth Chambers

Perfect Blue, Scorched Black
by Rachael Acks

Catastrophic Failure
by David Steffen

Twice Upon a Midnight Dreary
by Richard Zwicker

Screwed by Frankie Frog
by Tim McDaniel

Infinite (∞) LDK
by Ryu Ando

Reparation
by Sara Backer

Articles

Time in a Bottle
by Eric M. Jones

A Real Death Star
by John McCormick


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Perfect Blue, Scorched Black

By Rachael Acks

IN HER DREAMS, THE SKY ROLLS with blue flame.

In her dreams, she flies.

***

Her eyes are scratchy when she opens them, eyelashes gummed together. She lifts hands that don’t belong to her, fingers stubby and foreign and pale.

“Lauren!” Paper rustling, the shuffle of feet being put on the floor. She lets the strange hands drop to her lap, to be examined later. A man sits in the corner of the room on a wooden chair upholstered in beige. A book is on the small table next to him. He has gray hair, gray eyes, a crooked nose. He wears a blue—blue? wrong blue—shirt and a light gray coat over it.

When she says nothing, he stands, comes to the bed, takes up her hands. “Lauren, can you speak? Do you understand me?”

So her name is Lauren. It feels like too-small gloves.

His lips look strange, moving around the words. She feels like she shouldn’t understand, yet she does. Her own face moves, rubbery lips and tongue and clacking teeth, and she croaks, “I understand.” Her mouth tastes strange and sticky.

Then he wraps his arms around her. A flutter of panic runs through her chest as she is trapped and she squirms, blunt fingers scraping uselessly at his shoulders. He lets her go quickly, then leans over and presses his lips against her forehead. “I’m sorry. I just ... I’m so happy to see you again. To see you awake. We thought we’d lost you.”

Lauren peers around him; one wall of the room is made of mirrors. She is a strange, pale thing, brown eyes too big and mouth a puzzled, shallow slash across her face. Her hair is brown, but there’s not nearly enough of it, shaved down to a light fuzz on her skull. She runs one hand over it, finds a puckered line along the back of her head.

The man pulls a thin black rectangle from his pocket. “I’ll call Pete. He’ll be so excited to know ... you’re awake.”

“Pete?” she croaks.

One hand cradling the device to his head, he uses the other to pour a glass of water from the light green plastic jug nearby and hands it to her. “Your fiance. You remember him, right?”

And somehow, she does. At least she remembers the impression of dark skin, a broad smile, and other confusing things. She wonders who this man is, standing at her side, but then it floats up from the bottom of her jumbled brain, that is Father, also Ethan Coldridge. He is a neurologist. And his nose looks strange because it was broken in a bar fight on his fiftieth birthday, a fact that still exasperates her.

Exasperates.

She drinks, closing her eyes. The water feels right, sliding down her throat, even if nothing else does.

***

Pete has deep brown eyes that almost look black in the off-white light. He comes quickly to her room—in the hospital, her brain helpfully supplies—and he too squashes her in his arms, his shoulders shaking, his breath loud in her ear. She doesn’t squirm this time, convinced now that this is supposed to happen.

She spends what seems like a long time in the hospital, learning to walk and speak and other things that her brain tells her ought to be easy, but aren’t. She learns to tie her own shoelaces, though she prefers to go barefoot.

All of this is because of: The Accident. That is how they say those words.

“Maybe it’s better that you don’t remember,” Pete says as he watches her walk back and forth in front of the mirror in her room, practicing and practicing until she convinces her muscles it’s natural.

“Why would that be better?”

“It was probably scary. I don’t know. Isn’t it better to forget the bad things?”

She shrugs. “Tell me what happened. I should know.”

He crosses his arms over his chest, inclining his head to one side. “You really want to?”

She pauses, checking her posture in the mirror. “I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.”

“You were out on your motorcycle. You crashed.”

“Just like that. I crashed.”

“We think you had help. There were some chips of bright green paint on the guard rail and your bike. We think someone ran you off the road.”

She hesitates, looking at him. His eyes are narrow, lips thinned with anger. But there is something in his tone, and the odd part of her brain that always seems to understand what is going on even when she doesn’t supplies: He’s mad. At you. “What are you angry about?”

“You also weren’t wearing your helmet.”

Her hand goes to her head again, the strange fuzzy hair, the puckered line that she can’t look at in the mirror no matter which way she twists. “Guess I survived anyway.” She smiles at him.

Pete lunges from his seat, and she slams herself back against the mirror in response, palms pressed flat against the glass, waiting for... what? Then he peels her from the mirror, wraps his arms around her and squeezes her so tightly that she can’t breathe. His shoulders shake, his breath is unsteady; she clutches at the back of his shirt, suddenly terrified that he is sick, or so angry that he will hurt her when she is so pathetically frail.

His tears roll down her forehead in a hot track. Then her own tears begin to slide down her cheeks. She’s not entirely certain why, but something in her chest twists and it’s the only release for that pain.

***

Their shuttle slides between streamers of blue flame, the waiting arms of their defense grid. Small white bursts light the boiling clouds from within, hapless enemy dropships unable to avoid the plasma. She sits, eyes half closed, tracking the speed of their descent, adjusting to minute changes of attitude. One hand rests loosely on the hilt of her combat knife.

Someone nudges her lightly. She gives Pete a narrow-eyed look; he tilts his head back and forth, golden eyes sharp and watchful. “You shouldn’t be so eager to close distance. This is a modern war whether you like it or not.”

She bares her teeth in a grin. “You can’t slow me with caution. We each have our purpose. As it is willed.” Her combat knife comes free from its sheathe with a soft, metallic hiss. It is a thing alive, crying for blood.

He laughs and nudges her again, but he can get away with that because she loves him. Anyone else, she would shred for intruding in her space. “As it is willed,” he echoes, and smoothly pulls the door release.

***

She leaves the hospital after weeks that feel like years. They take her home in Pete’s gold-colored car, which hovers soundlessly above the road. It almost feels like flying, but it’s not fast enough and the wind doesn’t reach her face.

Home is just off a winding mountain road. The surrounding forest seems strange to her, a little too cool, but she likes the softness of it, the smell of the pine trees. Pete helps her into the house even though she’s been walking just fine on her own for weeks, and shows her around. All of the colors seem odd and muted, mostly white and tan and some darker earthy tones. Everything feels familiar, and everything feels utterly foreign. The entire time, Father follows her and Pete, hands locked nervously in front of him.

The last room they come to is the attic, finished in blonde wood. There is an easel, a blank canvas, paints, all set up neatly. Instantly, she knows that this is hers, the place where she can always retreat. She touches the canvas, running one finger over the textured surface. “Where are the other paintings?”

“You put them in storage when you moved in. Do you want me to get them out?”

She shakes her head. The purity of the blank space speaks to her, and she already knows what she will, what she must fill it with: a sky, rolling with blue fire. Anything else would be a distraction.

***

Wind roars through the open door, tries to tear her free and throw her away, but she grips the bars on either side of it, gives herself a moment to take in the battle and choose her trajectory. Her nose burns with hot metal, ozone, sulfur.

Light rolls endlessly, light and dark and light, the burst of explosions across the sky, white flares that burn into her eyes. The plasma roars up in column after column from the black shapes of cruisers far below, perfect tetrahedrons with slick, mirrored sides that reflect each flicker of blue fire. It is only years of experience that allows her to find the boundaries between cruiser and sky, discern the flash of explosion from the discharge of cannons and the beacons of hovering transports.

The unsteady flash reveals shadows cutting back and forth across the sky like ghosts, armor reflecting dully. She sees them, because she knows to look. Because she is one of them.

The wind whips away her battle scream as she throws herself from the door, going into a tight, controlled dive. When she is free of the hot wash of engine fumes, she snaps her wings open to catch the air like the four arms of an avenging spirit.

And she flies.

***

She spends most of her time sketching with pastels and charcoal, trying to recreate what feels so present in her dreams. There is always paper with her, whether she is in her attic work room or sitting at the small kitchen table with Pete, waiting for him to finish frying eggs or making sandwiches.

Father is often at the house as well, wandering through the back door at strange moments. Father was Pete’s advisor for his doctorate, and they now work together in the same lab, authoring papers and fighting about politics.

She sits on the sofa and draws, paper propped in her lap and supported by a board that was once part of a kitchen cabinet. Father and Pete bracket her, watching the images that flicker across the flat screen of the television; sometimes she finds the bright colors distracting, almost real enough to gain her attention.

One of those times, a halo of color in the depths of a star field, a wash of greens and yellows that mark the spatial distortion of a dimensional rift catches her eye. The ship itself is silver, with wings like a bird, a body like a torpedo. She regards it curiously.

“That’s the Saratoga. She’s the new scout ship, first one out of the docks. They’re off to look for planets. Ones we could live on,” Father explains.

“Huh.” She watches the distortions peak, watches the ship stream away into otherspace. “Pretty. Not very functional.”

“I think it’s supposed to be both,” Pete offers.

But Father sits up a bit straighter, looking at her sketch. It’s the same thing she’s been working on for weeks, the roiling sky, the cruisers hovering over dark ground. “Why do you say that?”

She shrugs, setting down her charcoal stick. “It’s got a front. It only goes in one direction, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t quite take your meaning.” Father taps on one of the tetrahedral ships in her drawing. “Would something like this be better?”

Now she wonders why she is saying any of this at all; the simultaneous tangle of logic and foreignness dizzies her. “You’ve got four directions to reorient yourself. But it’s only four directions. Best for where there’s gravity.”

She glances at Father, at Pete, expecting one of them to crack a joke; she is no engineer, just an artist. But Father just nods, leaning back in his seat again. “So if you made a ship that stayed in space all the time, it would be a sphere?”

“Of course,” she says, and something deep in the back of her head assures her of the simple fact. “What other shape would it be?”

***

She loops away from the transport, catching the unsteady updraft caused by the superheated air off one of the plasma streams. It’s dangerous, this sort of flight, but she’s the best in her division. In the strobing light of explosions, she catches sight of a boxy enemy transport.

Instinct guides her wings, whispers in her blood the perfect moment to dive. She goes from steady flight to arrow-true fall in an instant, and slams into the side of the transport. Her armor shimmers, drinking in the impact, turning it from bone-breaking to merely jarring. She switches the magnetic locks on her gloves and pulls herself around toward the engines. Engines are always vulnerable.

Her combat knife scores a deep hole in the plating around the engine housing. She packs it with explosives, presses a detonator into the mess, and then throws herself back into the air. The entire process takes less than twenty seconds.

The explosion is a wash of heat behind her, tickling at her back as she dives. She opens her wings again, catches the heat and rides it up, eyes fixed on another transport.

***

A month later, Pete and Father are together on the couch again; she comes down from her attic room to get a glass of juice. Instead of talking as they normally do, they both stare intently at the screen in grim silence. She sniffs the air nervously, though she’s never been able to pick up much in the way of smells. Maybe The Accident damaged her nose.

“Who died?” she asks, her tone light. It’s a standard joke for their strange little family, she knows that.

But instead of a laugh, Pete says, “A lot of people.”

“I don’t understand.” She steps cautiously into the room. “Was it some kind of terrorist attack? Earthquake?” Those things, she knows are possibilities. Chemical weapons sprayed on a military base by dissidents, disasters hitting the few places on Earth not prepared for them.

“Something happened to the Saratoga,” Father says. “The ship was destroyed.”

She crosses her arms over her chest, feeling cold. “How?” Space is dangerous, she knows. The list of things that could destroy a ship is far longer than the list of things that won’t.

“Hostile vessel,” Pete says. He snorts, smiles slightly, and he turns to look at her. “Guess we’re not alone after all.”

Father points the remote at the screen, winds the news coverage back. There’s just a few frames of video before the bright wash of an explosion becomes nothing but static. The hostile vessel is a perfect sphere, only visible because it reflects the spreading light like a cutout in space.

Father looks at her, eyes expectant, hungry. “What other shape would it be?”

She runs, feeling like a coward, her stomach sour with terror. She bolts from the house and down the mountain, onto the soft, pine-needle-carpeted trails. She runs and runs, arms outstretched to take flight and escape.

***

It is Pete that finds her, where she sits and shivers by a creek that is barely more than a trickle in the summer. Her hands are cut and bleeding; she tried to climb one of the nearby pine trees, but couldn’t seem to get a proper grip on a branch. Her arms are too weak, her hands, her everything.

He crouches down on his heels several feet away, wary. He watches her like he expects her to run again. “Are you okay?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t think I am.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know.” She folds her knees up against her chest. “But I did know. How did I know?”

“A lucky guess, Lauren,” Pete says, voice soothing. “You think differently from us, is all.”

“I get my brain mushed in The Accident so I think like an alien.” She snorts. “That’s stupid.”

He shrugs and then grins, “Maybe. You always were a little weird.” He hesitates, cocking his head, face going serious. “So what do you think happened out there, alien girl? Guess we were stupid to assume anyone we’d find would be friendly.”

“Maybe not friendly.” She makes a sound like a laugh and a sob, and isn’t sure which she intended it to be. “But not so cowardly. They wouldn’t attack without provocation.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I don’t know!” She rests her forehead on her knees, shuddering with cold, with the feeling of blue flame licking through her nerves. “But if my paintings are coming to life, I feel like I should.”

He doesn’t ask her anything else, not then, just scoots closer and wraps his arm around her shoulders, pulling her tight against his chest. He rests his chin on top of her head, and he’s got enough stubble that she can feel the prickle of it. “It’s okay, baby. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

Later, when she’s stopped sniffling and wiping at her nose with the back of her hand, he does ask: “Would you still like to marry me?” His voice is ragged, like he has been punched in the stomach.

She tells him yes.

***

They stand together on the cruiser’s flight deck, updrafts of superheated air battering them from side to side. She curls her hands and feet more firmly around the safety railings, narrows her eyes against the burn.

“They send more,” Pete says. “Always more. For cowards, they are determined.”

She makes a snort-hiss, a horrible noise that he hates hearing, but it’s the only sound in her vast catalog that expresses how she feels. They have all taken their turns, trying to understand this enemy, because an enemy understood is an enemy defeated. But from the first hostile approach to a ship broadcasting diplomatic messages, to their attempts to land on a planet already colonized, to the peace meeting that turned out to be an ambush ... this is not an enemy they can comprehend. And now they send machines to do battle in their place or burn the land rather than fight soldiers, piling blasphemy upon blasphemy. They cannot even find common language, let alone understanding.

“They are not like us. Nothing like us. Maybe for them, this is what passes for bravery.”

For a moment, Pete leans against her, side against side. She curls one wing over him, protectively, and he laughs. He always laughs. “We will have victory soon. And peace. And I will return to farming.”

“And still be bad at it.”

“I will swallow any failure as long as we share our successes.”

“Of course,” she grumbles. “Because I make the successes.” But it is a happy grumble, a contented purr instead of a growl.

A piercing tone sounds over the roar of the wind, the low snarl of the plasma jets. They both look up, locating their ship, the one that will take them up to space, that will put them within striking distance of the capital ships, and within them the computers, the data that will show them the way back to their enemy’s home world.

And then, truly, the end.

“I will be first. Follow me.” She jerks her head toward the stars. “We’ll drink to our victory together soon enough.”

“This life or the next—”

And there is something else he says, her Pete, but she has already let go of the railings, allowed the wind to tear her away and throw her up into the sky.

***

There is a wedding to be planned, so many mundane details that she feels like she will fall asleep at any moment. But she does her best, tries to pay attention, because it is important to Pete. She looks at pictures of flowers and wedding dresses while the television screen shows another launch, and another, ships like the Saratoga.

She picks blue napkins, flowers that have a dusty gold color, the look of metal turned into velvet.

She is looking at wedding dresses when one of the silver ships finds a planet, blue with ocean and green with forests and white with swirling clouds in the atmosphere. They call this planet a new Earth and send more ships, filled with colonists and hopes and gene banks.

None of the dresses looks right. They are all soft and flowery, and she hungers for something hard, solid, a knife in her hand rather than lace at her wrists.

A month later, a spherical ship rolls in to orbit over the new planet. This time, when Father looks at her, she pretends to study the dress catalog, to be unconcerned by the brilliant pops of explosions decorating the upper atmosphere of that new world. “Why would they massacre colonists?” he asks.

“I don’t know. I’m me, not them.” She pretends she does not hear that word massacre, spat from the mouth like blood, when all she can think is this: we should not try to take what is not ours.

And: maybe native animals aren’t animals.

She bites her tongue because she is going to marry Pete and does not want to be an alien girl, even if inside she feels like a stranger.

***

The ship rolls and tumbles; every member of her team is in constant motion, crawling from railing to railing as up and down shift over and over again. She keeps all of her eyes shut tightly as she moves; the dim red cabin lighting makes her head ache after a while.

They break free of the atmosphere and all goes quiet, no sound but metallic creaking and twenty soldiers breathing together.

“Hold tightly,” the pilot says over the intercom. “We have been noticed. Evasive maneuvers commence.”

It is expected; there is nothing they can do now but hold tight as the ship weaves across three scattered dimensions. Something pings off the hull; air hisses. She scrambles for the emergency kit near her, pulling a sticky patch from it, and slaps it over the hole.

“Anything bigger than that ...” someone mutters.

Another soldier prays, a long, wandering chant. Two more join in.

“We are almost there ...” the pilot hesitates. “Capital ship has released a device. It falls toward the planet surface. Command, do you see? Do you see? It is not a transport. It is a device, the computer does not identify ...”

Perhaps the pilot is distracted by the device he sees. Perhaps there is too much fire. It’s impossible to know, trapped in the red-lit hold. There is a rapid pingpingping and then the side of the transport rips off.

All that saves her is her grip on the safety railings as air howls past her, as the transport breaks in two. Blood vessels rupture in her eyes; she is half blind, but can still see Pete, clinging to the other side of the transport—

And then he is gone.

***

Pete takes her to the mall in his too-slow car. She tries rolling down the windows, to see if she can capture that feeling of flight, but the breeze doesn’t help. She has the dress catalog in her lap, a few pages marked with scraps of paper.

He drops her off at the dress shop, gives her a quick kiss and turns away. “Where are you going?” she asks.

“Bad luck for me to see you all dressed up before our wedding day.” He grins.

“I’ve never heard that.” Yes you have, her brain whispers. “You’re just saying that so you don’t have to help.”

“That too. I’ll be in the bookstore, darling.”

She wants to stamp her foot. It never helps, though. “I want to buy books, too, after this.”

“Of course. You know where to find me!” And then he is gone, retreating quickly through the crowd.

Something closes off her throat; she swallows against it, reminding herself to breathe. A store clerk gives her a smile that looks painted on. She thrusts the catalog at the clerk like a weapon, and says, “I don’t want to wear white.”

The battle with the well-meaning clerk is fierce; it takes every ounce of her stubbornness to convince the woman that she doesn’t want lace, that she doesn’t want a princess skirt, that she doesn’t want elbow-length gloves or a tiara. She buys a blue dress—still not the right blue—with Pete’s credit card and agrees to come back in a week to pick it up when the alterations are done.

She likes the feeling of victory, even if it’s a minor one, and hums cheerfully to herself as she walks toward the bookstore. There are video screens everywhere in the mall, showing advertisement after advertisement.

There is a loud beep, and the screens go white, showing the logo of the local news channel. A moment later, the logo is replaced by a man with sandy blond hair and a face too perfect to be real. “Breaking news. The UEN corps ship Churchill, operating under a diplomatic mission, has been destroyed by an explosion of unknown origins. An attempt to contact the as-yet-unnamed species at New Earth was underway at the time.” The picture switches to a few shots of a room, humans seated on one side, and beautiful, alien things on the other. They are massive, twice as tall as the humans, but stretched out and thin, almost delicate. The aliens walk on four legs and have four wings like a dragonfly but furred with fine feathers. They use their front legs to grasp, to gesture.

Their six eyes are the color of gold coins. Their skin is strange, dusky black that glows dimly in the light.

Armor, part of her brain hisses.

“The reason for the explosion is still not known, but sources say a terrorist attack is being considered as a possibility. Earth First and three of its affiliates have claimed responsibility.” And then the beautiful aliens are gone, replaced by the man with the plastic face. “An attack by the aliens followed immediately after, despite further attempts to communicate.”

And then he says more things, but she can’t hear them over the ringing in her ears. None of it makes sense.

Around her, she sees angry faces, people shouting at the screens, shaking their fists. A few people are crying. A few more look scared, like they at least understand what this war will mean, unlike the angry chest-thumpers. But all of the expressions are wooden, caricatures, their emotions not real.

She doesn’t know what to feel. Sorrow, anger, fear, hopelessness. All of those things.

***

She cannot scream, because there is no air. Habit trained by hour after hour of safety drills forces her to find a helmet, shove it over her face.

The sound of her own voice echoes again and again in the helmet. She slams her head against the side of the transport, trying to force herself to stop, to think, because what would Pete say?

He would say it was good she was finally wearing a helmet, wouldn’t he?

She chokes on it, but that horrible thought is something to cling to. The remaining engine of the transport stutters, flares, blows the ship in a massive circle, then dies. Of the few remaining soldiers, four go spinning out into space. One of the prayers begins another low chant through the crackly emergency intercom; she only hangs on grimly, says nothing. If she opens her mouth, she will scream again and not be able to stop.

The ship starts to fall, tugged gently at first back into the gravity well of Eshtra, the planet that was to be her home with Pete.

Something in her head still longs for survival. She finds herself buckling on reinforcing straps for her armor, a drag chute to slow her descent until she reaches an altitude that allows flight. She holds the transport as it begins to descend, letting it act as her heat shield, taking punishment her armor could not withstand. One soldier hanging too closely to the edge burns in a flash of orange light.

The transport is blackened slag, unrecognizable, when they are deep enough in the atmosphere. She and the two remaining survivors let go, push away from the transport and hit their drag chutes in almost perfect unison. Someone laughs into her ear, the sound crackling with interference.

Below them, the world flashes white.

A device, she thinks with building horror. They have dropped a device.

Despair overtakes her long before the shockwave, but there is one thought of hope: it seems she won’t be missing Pete for long.

***

Every day feels less real; each morning she wakes up expecting Pete to be dead, somehow, vanished in the night. Each morning she hugs him so tightly that she makes his ribs crack, that she makes her head ache.

The wedding is scheduled for a Tuesday. A woman whose name she cannot remember helps her put on her dress. It feels wrong against her skin, too silky, heavy where it should be light and light where it should be heavy.

She peeks into the church. Everyone turns back to look at her. No one in the crowd has a face. Only Pete does, only Father does. And Pete, her mind keeps telling her, is dead. She saw him die, ripped away and flushed out into space.

She ducks back into the dressing room, shutting the door.

She can’t breathe. She can’t think.

There is a motorcycle parked outside the church, brought by one of the guests. She swings one leg over it, and two seams on her dress rip. There is no helmet, but she knows that doesn’t matter now. The motorcycle responds to voice commands, engine turning on and revving. Tires squeal, she smells rubber burn, and she bolts down the road.

This is the closest she will ever be to flying.

The sky is perfect, blue with rolling white clouds. This day is perfect. And it is impossible. She can’t be marrying Pete; she knows in her heart that the dream is real, that Pete is dead, that she is dead as well.

She rides the mountain road, the one that leads her back home. There is one straight stretch, right at the summit. She revs the engine as fast as it will go, feeling the acceleration, the shift in the placement of up and down, and she grins.

The motorcycle slams into the guard rail, but she has already let go, stood on the seat with perfect, natural balance. She spreads her arms.

She flies.

***

Her eyes jerk open to dull red lights, like the ones in the transports, but she isn’t clinging to a safety railing here. She is strung up, swaddled, wings strapped tight to her body. In a frenzy, she claws, breath hissing and bubbling. Something tears and she is free, tumbling to the floor. She scrabbles to find her balance, but now her body feels wrong all over again, too long, too thin, too many limbs.

Dizzy and uncomprehending, she looks at screens, panels of lights, dials. She finds a door by throwing herself against the walls until one sounds different. She tears the flimsy thing from its hinges.

The hall is tiny, claustrophobic. A klaxon grinds in her ears, adding to her panic and confusion as she tries to remember what order to move her legs in. Something pink and squeaking gets in her way; she throws it aside and continues drunkenly on.

Stairs. She knows what those are now, an odd new part of her mind helpfully supplying that they will take her up, that this will be the way to the sky. She drags herself up the stairs, then more stairs, up and up, and then she bursts out into a place with no walls, just flat and gray with a little stone lip on it.

She stumbles to the edge, catches herself and pants. She flexes her wings, opens them, but the balance is wrong, something is missing. She twists back and forth, whipping her head around to try to see what is wrong.

Her third wing is nothing but a twisted stump.

Behind her, she catches movement. Father, and Pete—but those aren’t actually Father and Pete, except that they are, pink and squirming and alien. Her Father is named Krosh, her Pete is—was—named Rihta, but not her mate, not that way—and it’s too confusing because she knows them and doesn’t know them, recognizes their faces and can read nothing of their expressions.

She mantles her wings, a hollow, angry hiss coming from her throat.

Father puts out one hand cautiously. “Lauren?”

The name pulls at something deep in the back of her mind, something that says Yes and also No. It is enough to make her swallow killing rage and think.

She cannot make the right sounds with her face in a beak, her tongue split. She nods, then shakes her head, because she knows she is Lauren, but also knows she is Kayetakaran. She can do nothing but spread the fingers of one hand in a gesture of plaintive confusion. Then she sees that Pete bleeds, three slashes across his chest turning his white shirt slowly red. She looks at her claws and thinks that she must have done this, and it hurts.

“But you understand, right? You understand me?”

She nods. Father sags into Pete, and almost knocks him over. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry. But it’s all we could think to do. Lauren was my daughter. She ... The Accident. She never recovered. But we’d been working on this project for so long, trying to record thoughts and memories, communicate within that framework to help rebuild a damaged mind. We volunteered to help with the war, all the wounded soldiers because they needed that kind of help. And when we found you, we thought maybe ... we couldn’t understand each other by talking, but we could understand each other using her life as a reference point, so you’d know what it was like to be one of us.”

Not so different, she thinks, from being one of her. But it feels like betrayal, knowing that he put an alien in her head. She hisses.

Father flinches. Pete reaches up a shaking hand, points behind her. “Just look. Just look. I didn’t like it either. It was too hard. Lauren was my fiance. We all make sacrifices. Look!”

She turns, clutching the edge of the building, and really looks. It takes her mind a long time to understand what she sees. There are a few scorched buildings of familiar design close to her, but beyond them there is no forest. There is nothing but a blackened plain, waves of molten glass frozen in time.

A device, she thinks, numb with horror. They dropped a device.

She looks back at Father and Pete. She wishes that she could cry, like Lauren could, but it’s not biologically possible.

“Don’t you see?” Father shouts. “It has to end. You kill us, and we kill you, and it never ends. It’s treason, what we did, but I don’t care any more. This has to stop.”

Part of her howls for vengeance. Her people do not forget insults, do not forget who struck the first blow.

But.

There is no honor in killing for mistakes. It’s not worth the destruction of a planet, the burning of the sky she and her clan were supposed to share. And it’s not worth burning the sky that Pete and his mate were supposed to share, either.

She reaches out to Father, to Pete. Deep in her mind, never to be dislodged, the ghost of Lauren reaches out as well. END

Rachael Acks is a writer and working geologist. She’s had short stories in “Strange Horizons,” “Waylines,” “Daily Science Fiction,” “Penumbra,” and more. She’s an active member of SFWA, the Northern Colorado Writer’s Workshop, and Codex.

 

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