We’re back!

It’s been a long journey, and we’ve missed you. It is a personal delight to be able to announce that we have the team back together and the site up and running. As of today, we’re soft-launching our new website, restoring access to the AE archives and bringing all the amazing stories we’ve published over recent years back online.

We’re also getting ready for a fresh new issue of AE after a year long hiatus: we’re accepting new submissions from authors and artists, and can’t wait publish AE Issue #23. The stories we’ve accepted so far are amazing – and we know you’ll love them.

In the meantime, take a look at the new site and let us know what you think. We’ve officially recognized some of our favourite stories with a brand new feature: the Editor’s Choice Award. These stories are some of our favourites, and is the perfect place to start if this is your first time here.

Don’t forget to sign up for the mailing list, and we’ll be sure you’re invited to the launch party when we release our first (new) issue.

Love and lasers,

Paul, Helen, Duff, and the rest of the AE Team.

AE, 2.0: Letter from an Editor

It’s easy to appreciate the challenge of starting something new, of bringing something into existence that wasn’t there before. In technology, they like to call it going from zero to one, and although all that activity is usually hidden from view, it’s understood that a lot of effort goes into that change, especially if you want it to endure.

A decade ago, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review was just an idea — an idea of a print magazine, no less. But when we unveiled it in October 2010, it was as an online publication. From that moment, the digital format, no less tangible for being made of bits instead of atoms, has simply felt right for our magazine. What mattered was that we had an engine for putting stories out into the world (I can’t think of an adjective for “stories” that doesn’t sound like someone else’s trademark, so let me just expand and say “stories that we were damn proud of and excited to share week after week.”)

It started small. Literally, with a story that first made our acquaintance as an entry to our inaugural microfiction contest. Freed from the constraints of a 200-word limit, and given just a bit more space to stretch, “A Little Thing” was a gem of a story laying on a black velvet tray waiting to catch a passing reader’s eye in the display window of our brand new magazine. It was soon joined by “Touch the Sky, They Say,” “Disquieting Postcards I’ve Recently Received from My Future Self” and “Orange,” and though that first issue was abbreviated, we knew we had something special going even before “Touch the Sky” was nominated for the Prix Aurora Award and AE itself became a SFWA qualifying market.

Bit by bit, we tuned the machine, tapped more sources of fuel and raw materials to feed it, and recruited a growing team of contributors to support our mission of continually adding a bit more awesome to the universe. AE Micro became a yearly tradition. Short stories got illustrations. Our nonfiction section blossomed into a home for reviews of Canadian science fiction both classic and contemporary, as well as thoughtful essays and interviews. And our fiction selection process became more refined over time as well. Oh, when that engine was purring, it was a glorious thing.

Alas, it wasn’t destined to continue like that indefinitely. Our engine faltered. In September 2016, AE went dark. And it hurt.

We had had setbacks before. The most dramatic was when the last-minute success of our Kickstarter campaign turned out to have been a mirage. Our pre-launch momentum fizzled temporarily before our eventual liftoff. Then, we had retooled, redrawn our plans, and refocused ourselves to capitalize on our carefully chosen domain name.* In short, we emerged all the stronger for it.

Six years into being a full-fledged magazine, it was different. Embryonic AE was resilient. It was still developing, still becoming — it was more potential than actuality. A lot had changed in the intervening time. AE was a living being. It had been born, found its voice and grown up. It had, in a manner of speaking, a body that could be wounded, and wounds take time to heal.

Some things had decidedly not changed since the beginning. Our passion for great science fiction, especially for highlighting brilliant Canadian voices. Our belief that treating both our authors and our readers well comes before whatever personal gain we might wring out of our platform. And our conviction that this reversal, too, would be temporary.

But don’t ever underestimate the difficulty of recreating. Bringing back something that already existed may seem like a simple proposition, but it isn’t. Stakes are higher this time around, or at least expectations are. When we first started AE, we had a feeling it would be — or would become — something pretty great, but we didn’t know for sure. Now, we knew what AE could be, and when we unveiled AE Mark 2, we wanted it to be worthy.

As a team, that meant learning how to build things up again from the ground up. And that started with rebuilding the team. AE originally took flight as a three-way collaboration between D.F. McCourt, Adam Lonero, and me. Today’s AE has a larger and more diverse crew, and our captain is, without question, Paul Jarvey. Paul came on board shortly after our original launch, with a polite knock at the airlock that we’re so very glad we answered. And this new spaceship, whose construction and christening he has overseen, is an absolute beauty: sleek and built to last.

But AE, the site, is just what brings us all here. What makes AE what it is are the people who make it all happen: writing content, editing stories, writing the code that runs this website, helping with business planning and press relations, and running our social media. We owe a huge thank-you to J.J.S. Boyce, Matt Moore, Erin MacNab, Bree Main (responsible for our amazing cover art), Lou Sytsma, Jonathan Crowe, David Zhang, Matthew Bin, Dylan Freeman-Grist and a wonderful community of friends and colleagues who have helped us in every way imaginable.

So, with apologies to LL Cool J, do call it a comeback. We couldn’t be more proud to fire up the engine again and start bringing you new stories and analysis about worlds that might be. For those of you who have been waiting for this moment, we promise it’s been worth it. And if you’re new to the travels of this humble vessel, welcome aboard. It’s going to be an adventure.

Helen Michaud
Founding Editor

* The first four letters of aescifi spell aesc, or the name of the letter Æ, a ligature close to our hearts. Coincidence? Honestly, at this remove, I don’t know if any of us can remember.^

An Exercise in Telling: Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files

I’m a sucker for non-traditional narrative forms. If you really want to get my attention, tell your story in a fashion that doesn’t rely on the first- or third-person limited point of view. That can mean the epistolary novel, based on correspondence, diary entries or other documents (or Flowers for Algernon’s progress reports). Or Dos Passos-influenced novels that intermix factual-seeming documents with nonlinear narrative, such as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Joe Haldeman’s Mindbridge, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway or Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012. Or mosaic novels that are built up from several distinct, standalone pieces.

At their best, non-traditional narrative forms are all about verisimilitude and subtext. Verisimilitude, or believability, can be greatly enhanced by a story that sounds like a work of nonfiction, like a piece of long-form journalism that comes from an alternate reality in which these things are actually true. (See, for example, Catherynne M. Valente’s “Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica,” told as a series of auction catalogue items, or Howard Waldrop’s “Passing of the Western,” which collects reviews of movies about a fantastical event.) But what really drives stories like these is subtext: what isn’t on the page. Neither of the stories above say outright what they’re about. In Jo Walton’s Among Others, told in the form of a 16-year-old girl’s diary entries, the story’s most momentous, traumatic events have to be inferred from what the protagonist pointedly does not talk about. And The Islanders, the most ambitious of Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago books, takes the form of a travel guide to the Archipelago’s various islands: many of the entries are in themselves bracingly normal, but taken as a whole, the many unexplained contradictions between each entry paint a deeply uncanny portrait. Whatever the precise form these stories take, the reader is expected to do some of the work: the story does not tell itself, at least not completely and certainly not straightforwardly; we’re supposed to figure the rest of it out.

Book cover: Sleeping GiantsWhich brings me to the Themis Files, a trilogy of science fiction novels by the Montreal-based linguist Sylvain Neuvel. Two books have seen print so far: Sleeping Giants (Del Rey, April 2016), and Waking Gods (Del Rey, April 2017). Both are entirely made up of documents—interviews, transcripts, recordings, journal entries, news articles—organized into “Files” rather than chapters. Hence, presumably, the name of the series. (A third book, Only Human, came out in May 2018.) Now, given my enthusiasm for books organized in this fashion, you’d think I’d be all over this series. And you wouldn’t be far wrong: that structure got my immediate attention. It sounded, as I’m wont to say, neat.

Sleeping Giants is the story of the discovery of an ancient alien artifact told somewhat indirectly through these files. As a child in South Dakota, Rose Franklin stumbles across a giant hand. As an adult, she is tasked with leading a project to recover the other pieces of what turns out, once assembled, to be a giant, 200-foot-tall alien robot of incredible destructive power. Joining her are U.S. Army helicopter pilot Kara Resnik and Québécois linguist Vincent Couture, who are soon dragooned into figuring out how to operate and pilot this killer robot of unknown origin, which comes to be known as Themis. The plot unfolds largely through transcripts of interviews conducted by a mysterious and colourless person about whom very little is known but whose power to operate in the shadows appears to be limitless, and whose machinations appear to be aimed at keeping the world from tearing itself apart over the robot while keeping it out of the wrong hands (as he defines them).

Waking Gods takes place several years after the first book, and opens with the sudden and unexpected appearance of another giant killer robot in the heart of London. Themis, piloted by Resnik and Couture, is at the core of the new Earth Defense Corps, and after years of public relations tours and research is finally pressed into the fray. As before, no one knows what is going on: not the resurrected Franklin, who leads the Corps, not even the anonymous Interviewer. Things go badly. Millions die, and the matter of finding out where all these robots came from and how to make them stop killing everyone and go away becomes a matter of extreme urgency.

Book cover: Waking GodsThe interviews form the bulk of the narrative; the story’s action takes place in the spaces between, as it should be in a story using this structure. At least at the beginning, this has considerable narrative effect. Our characters are operating in the dark, partly because so little is known about the giant death robot, partly because they are being kept in the dark, both by the Interviewer and forces even more powerful than he is. The Interviewer’s tone is level, even and thoroughly humourless, with absolutely zero affect—in diametric opposition to the global freakout taking place around him, as governments come to terms with the existence of a 6,000-year-old giant death robot. That too, has an impact. That clinical, latter-of-fact tone is also effective when dealing with events that are traumatic or even deeply horrific, particularly during a scene where the order is given to perform a grisly surgical procedure.

But this is not the same as subtext. We see the characters getting ready for something, or cleaning up after something, or doing their best to explain events that the novel has chosen not to dramatize directly. This is an exercise in telling rather than showing: the book explains after the fact instead of inviting the reader to fill in the blanks. It’s indirect and roundabout, but it’s straightforward.

And in the end it’s unsustainable. Toward the end of Sleeping Giants we start to see a shift in the files from debriefings to mission logs: real-time transcripts where there is a lot of noise and shouting in the background. This continues and worsens in Waking Gods, whose narrative structure becomes even more precarious as the events they depict become even more intense and chaotic, and all pretence of reserve and self-control evaporates away.

The problem is that a narrative structure like the one Neuvel uses in this series is all about subtext and mystery, whereas the plot of the Themis Files is one of revelation. This is a method for concealing secrets, not revealing them. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes and between the lines. But for it to work some mysteries must remain mysteries. You cannot explain too much. Once you’ve done that—at a crucial point two-thirds of the way through Waking Gods, for example, we discover who the Interviewer is, or at least as much as we’re ever going to know about him—then you’re done. The artifice loses its storytelling power and becomes mere artifice. The more the reader knows, the less effective the form becomes.

There are risks to attempting a atypical narrative form, risks that compound themselves in longer works. There’s a reason we see narrative experiments more often in short fiction; that Neuvel has attempted an entire trilogy this way, not just a novel, is absolutely audacious. And it’s not to say that there’s no value in how Neuvel tells his tale. Voice matters. Style matters. Whatever I may have to say about the structure of these narratives, the characters—particularly the Interviewer—are engaging and the plot just zips along. But I can’t help but feel that had these books been written in a more straightforward, third-person manner—that default science-fictional voice—they would have been a lot more ordinary. But they weren’t, and they’re not. These books are proof that even in our field, which often disparages style in favour of idea, the execution of that idea—how you tell that tale—does in fact matter.

When His Hydraulics Failed and Mighty Casey Did Strike Out: Sports Science Fiction

I rather like the idea of “obscure sub-field of science” fiction. As we come up on a century of science fiction as a cohesive and recognizable literary genre, the far-flung ideas of rocket science, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology have been extrapolated, deconstructed, recombined, and otherwise speculated upon to Alpha Centauri and back.

What about the lesser known sciences? Library science fiction: a great-great-grandchild of Dewey envisions a new way of categorizing non-fiction, and it changes everything. Agricultural science fiction: the world of farming is about to see its biggest shake-up since the John Deere tractor, but yuppie suburbanites just want to know, what of their organic baby lettuce?

Or what about sports science fiction? Actually, we may have something there. You can even set aside the parallel Disney universe Emilio Estevez stepped into that one time. You know, the one where Canada apparently took the year off and the two best junior hockey teams in the world were either all from the same neighbourhood in Minnesota or else the evil villain part of Iceland.

Sports have taken many a turn for the speculative over the years. For many American writers, writing a nostalgia-steeped tale about baseball seems to be a rite of passage, though the most famous example, the film Field of Dreams (based on the story Shoeless Joe), came from an Alberta writer.

Although we’re talking about sports in science fiction, not fantasy, W.P. Kinsella’s tale of prophetic voices and ghostly ball players is emblematic of the widespread belief in the transcendence of the sport. The story pivots about the 1919 World Series cheating scandal, yet the game is still presented as ultimately pure. Decades later, doping is rampant, but somehow the game still manages to be, on some level, both innocent and magical.

Robert Reed’s “Starbuck” features as its title character a natural-born pitcher in a league where nearly every player is enhanced, not merely with steroids, but with nanotechnology and more besides. Somehow, with brains and guts and whatever heat’s left in his un-augmented arm, Starbuck needs to strike out three batters he knows to be more machine than man.

There are tinges of John Henry here, and we’ll come back to that theme, but it’s very much couched in baseball mythos. Even in a complex future, there will still be heroes in this world. Naturally they’ll be wearing polyester and cleats.

Doping really is a topic rife for speculation and extrapolation. While steroids changed the meaning of what it meant to cheat in a sport, both nascent and never imagined technologies might change the meaning of what it means to dope.

We’ve already discussed nanomachines, a newer take on the old cyborg concept. “Old Timer’s Game”, written by Ben Bova for his recent anthology, follows sports medicine as it moves from surgery to joint replacement to–and here’s where things take a different direction–stem cells, and then finally telomeres that keep baseball players physically young for decades longer. Interestingly, this merely extends their prime rather than improving upon it. The unintended consequence of this new career longevity is that new players are unable to break into the big leagues, which have become crowded with old-timers, but at least the danger of superhuman athletes fundamentally changing the game is, in this future, a solved problem.

That makes Ben Bova’s tale (and the companion piece fellow editor Eric Choi wrote later) an exception. Because doping has always been about doing more than is possible with a natural human, however you define it. And this isn’t science fiction, it’s right now.

“Fuel” envisions a world in which doping is both legal and ubiquitous, but the form it takes is designer blood, taken by transfusion to improve athletic performance and sold by Nike. This is quite a bit darker, as it becomes almost impossible to opt out, and has filtered down to the high school level. Of course, the economics of it makes no sense, and it’s a bit of a science fictional twist on a story done much better in true-to-life films like Varsity Blues and Friday Night Lights, both set in the heart of Texas football country.

More importantly, those films show that amidst all the skewed life priorities, parental and social pressure, and sheer physical risk these young men face, there are still moments of pure joy to be found in the game. “Fuel” wasn’t written by someone who loves a sport but is still willing to criticize it, and I think that’s key. Because even if most science fiction readers aren’t sports fans, we’re open-minded and understand what it means to be passionate about something.

Nancy Fulda’s Hugo- and Nebula-nominated “Movement” is, therefore, the polar opposite of “Fuel”. It features a protagonist with both a deep genius for dance and severe autism. Her parents are contemplating a treatment that will ameliorate her social problems but likely destroy her talent. Dancers are both artists and athletes, but what the two groups have in common, I think, is a higher priority on greatness than happiness.

It brings to mind a paradox I found myself turning over in my head during the recent Summer Olympics. People spend years or decades of their lives, training and hoping for a chance to run a specific distance a few hundredths of a second faster than everyone else, to vault a centimetre or two higher. Is this monumentally impressive or embarassingly trivial? Neither? Both?

I want to finish off with two stories about running. In Ian Creasey’s “The Prize Beyond Gold”, enhancement is the norm and humans with ordinary bodies are a bit of a niche group, akin to today’s organic foodies. But one thing still belongs to the unenhanced: world records, which can only be set by people using the “ancestral model”.

Centuries of modern sport have resulted in most records approaching their asymptotic limit. In the century in which this story is set the men’s 100 metre record has been unbroken at 8.341 seconds for 70 years. (As of this writing, Usain Bolt’s record of 9.58 seconds record has held on for a full decade.)

When modification of an athlete’s body through surgery or drugs is off-limits, everything else must be controlled and monitored, and only a perfect storm of exact training and mental and emotional preparation with perfect weather conditions make the rare breaking of a record possible, and that’s the scene as this story opens. Of course, the mathematical certainty of victory means the race itself is not the point, and the story ends with the firing of the starting pistol.

In my absolute favourite sports story, neither is victory guaranteed nor the challenge fair. Derek Zumsteg’s “Usurpers” is set in the near future, wherein gene doping, if illegal, is either too difficult to detect or simply not important to regulators. Suddenly, the rich white kids are dominating cross country. A summer trip to China to get some custom genetic changes and muscle grows faster, blood oxygenation increases, victory comes without effort.

Our hero is King. He is poor, black, determined, and deservedly arrogant. He refers to the gene dopers as knock-offs, though he recognizes their advantage. He’s quit his job to focus all year on preparing for this one critical meet. Yes, this is the other John Henry tale I alluded to, an all-natural athlete competing against biotech, but it’s not anti-science, it’s anti-laziness. In this athletic contest only brains and guts can beat money.

King has been working with sports scientists at the university, checking his VO2 max and other physiological details, modelling, calculating his theoretical best possible performance, his absolute physical limits. He’s working with a mysterious trainer who only communicates by email, responding any time of the day or night, and instantaneously, at that. King is sure his trainer is an AI program, chewing on King’s performance data and constantly adjusting his regimen, always optimizing, shooting for that theoretical limit.

The prose style mimics a race, with short, punctuated sentences, mirroring the out-of-breath, brain-can-barely-process-complete-sentences feeling of an intense run. But this is a knock-down drag-out brawl of a race, with thrown elbows and insults alike. With their inhuman lung capacity and red cell counts, King’s perfectly sculpted competitors are a half-dozen Ivan Dragos to his one Rocky Balboa, but they have one weakness. They never worked for any of it. They don’t know pain. And pain is King’s friend.

King may not seem like the most likeable character on paper. He’s an extreme underdog yet he refuses to be humble. He’s acerbic, dismissive, and willing to play just a little bit dirty, although he doesn’t dish out anything he can’t take. But he’s destined for greatness and he knows it and the readers know it, too. I’m reminded of the scientists and engineers, always brilliant, sometimes arrogant, that made up the SF heroes of the Golden Age. Sometimes greatness can be a virtue in itself, if you earn it.

Are you surprised that in my, admittedly, not quite exhaustive survey, the most exciting science fictional sporting event I found turned out to be an intramural cross-country meet? I’ll admit at first glance that it doesn’t sound as exciting as Death Race 2000The Hunger Games, or The Running Man. Nevertheless, I stand by it. If you read one of the stories I’ve discussed here today, make that it.

All of the stories I’ve discussed here pulled me in to some extent or another, making me care more about a given sport than I normally would. Case in point, I’ve only ever sat through two baseball games but have much enjoyed probably a half-dozen baseball stories over the years. But “Usurpers” did something else. It made me actually want to get off the couch and start running. A science nerd exercising? How novel. I might even do it.

Northern Cross

I heard Joel’s voice from the bow near the anchor line.  “You remember that trip we took on Lyrical?”

His dad’s first boat.  “Sure,” I said. Joel always wanted to know if I remembered this or that from before.  As usual, he didn’t follow up the question.

He switched on a masthead light—only one, to save power. “Anchor’s set.  Did you choose a song for tonight, buddy?”

“We could do more than one,” I said.  “Lots of sun today. The battery overfloweth.”

“I’d rather not bend the rules.”

He was right—better to save for a rainy day.  All our power had to come from the solar charger.  The engine could charge the battery too, but it was stupid to waste methanol when an empty tank meant days ashore foraging and distilling more.  And any time spent on land could turn into a chance encounter with scavengers. We didn’t have a gun.

I pressed play and plucked an air guitar.

“I feel like I recognize this,” said Joel.

“Dude.  Crosby, Stills and Nash, ‘Southern Cross.’  To honor our passage into the Southern Hemisphere.”

The song twanged to its end, and Stills sang the part about finding a new love who’d help him forget.  Joel turned his gaze over the prow, and I found myself looking in the opposite direction.

It was a song about starting fresh—something we both needed. I kept hoping some landmark along our southern journey would feel like a fresh start.  I guess crossing the Equator wasn’t the one.

Pretty much every night, one or the other of us found occasion to be sad.  Tonight it was Joel’s turn.

“Do you remember when I was deciding whether to get a vasectomy?  We talked about it at the time, didn’t we?”

“I remember.”

“You remember what I told Karen?  ‘What if you die, and I end up remarried to someone who wants children?’”  He was crying.

“She’s not dead, buddy.  None of them are.”

“How do you know that?”

“Why would the posthumans want to kill anyone?  They take people up to join with them. There’s no other explanation.  She’s one of them now.”

Ellie too.  I thought of the green-lit fog billowing down to engulf her.  The way her extremities faded first—ears, fingers and feet.

“They’ll outlive us both,” I said.

The stars came out, and we found the constellation from the song—Crux, the Southern Cross.  Four bright stars in the eponymous cross shape, with a fifth one hanging off to the side because constellations could never look too much like their names.

Joel turned to the compass.  He tapped it with his finger, making a confused sound.  “Look at this,” he said. “It’s the Northern Cross now.”

The letter ‘N’ on the compass was pointing straight toward Crux.

“It must’ve flipped sometime after we anchored,” I said.  We watched the thing compulsively whenever we were underway.

“It’s a nice nautical compass,” he said.  “It can’t have just broken.”

“No, it’s working.  I think it’s detected a monopole.”

“Monopole?”  In the old days, Joel was a boardgame publisher.

“A magnet with no south pole.  We used to theorize about how to build them.  The posthumans must know how.” I grabbed the binoculars and peered through them, in the direction the compass said was North.  “We must be near a pillar.”

There was nothing visible, at least as far as the horizon.  I passed the binoculars to Joel.

“We’ll find one,” I said, “if we keep going that way.”

After a day at sail, the tip of the pillar appeared on the horizon.  Joel and I traded the binoculars back and forth until nightfall. We’d only seen a pillar once before, when our wives and Joel’s sons were taken up.

It was polished white, splitting near the top into a clump of turrets like closely-bunched fingers.  At irregular intervals a pinpoint of green light flashed near the splitting point.

There was no way to tell where it came from.  Sometimes the pillars descended from above; sometimes they rose from beneath the earth.  They rarely stayed in one place for long.

“It isn’t the one,” said Joel.  The one that took them up, he meant.  Taller, that one had been, without the finger-like structure up top.

“They all communicate.  That’s the theory. The same collection of minds inhabits all of them together.”

When the stars came out that night, Crux shone above the green-blinking tip of the pillar.

“I keep waiting for you to say something about it,” he said.

“It’s not like I’m pretending it didn’t happen.  We talk about it all the time.”

“I mean say something important.  Something profound, professor.”

“Come on.  When have I ever said anything profound?”

“That night I got high—”

“Oh man.  ‘Is this happening in real time?’”

“Yes.  That night.  You told me about spacetime, and how the past is still out there, and the future already is.  It was profound.”

“Only because you were high,” I said.

“No, I’ve thought about it many times.”

“Something profound about the Singularity.”  I sighed. “Give me some time to think about it.  Profundity can’t be rushed.”

I got up to piss over the edge.  Joel went to bed below. I stayed on deck awhile, taking out the binoculars.  With each flash of green light, I was given a glimpse of the pillar. We’d reach it tomorrow, probably.

I went below and took a trazodone.  How would I ever sleep, once they ran out?  No one made medicine anymore.

Thank God Joel turned down my offer to share them.  I could already hear snoring from his cabin. He was, I realized, the sanest and most well-adjusted friend I’d ever had.

Up close, the pillar looked too smooth to be real.  It was silent, aside from the little waves lapping against it.

We grew silent too, as we approached the hulking thing.  Both of us were afraid to try communicating, I think, even though we had no other reason to come near it.

We looked at each other, and Joel nodded to me.  I was supposed to be the profound one.

I cupped my hands on either side of my face.  “Ellie!”

“Karen!” Joel yelled.

We endured a few more minutes of silence.

“Ellie!” She used to quote from a relationship self-help book, about how you should never ignore your partner’s bids for attention.

There had to be some way to make them listen.  We were nearly close enough to touch the pillar.  I picked up an oar and swung it. It clunked against the pillar’s wall, a muted sound, although the impact felt solid.

“I’ll die out here!” I cried.  “You know that? We’ll be together forever if you let me in.  God damn it!”

I swung the oar again, harder.  As it thumped once more against the pillar, I felt my balance shift forward—too far.  Too late, I let go of the oar. I pitched head over heels into the water.

I forced my head up.  Joel’s voice came from above.  “Grab the oar!” He appeared at the bow with the life ring.

He dragged me back on deck.  “Jesus,” he said. “Be more careful.  When I thought of you drowning…”

“You’d die out here.”

“I’d lose my best friend.”

I hugged him.  After a moment I was shaking with sobs.

“Maybe they can’t hear us,” he said.

“You think they’d design them so they can’t hear what’s outside?  They heard everything.” I squeezed my eyes shut, wishing I could forget all this.  “We’re ants. We were ants before, but at least we didn’t have them to remind us.”

An image I can’t forget: Ellie with a lean black cat in her arms, head down to kiss the animal’s forehead.  “Don’t you love this tiny meow?”

“I love you.”  My stock answer.

“Someday you’re going to love her.”

“I’m allergic to her, honey.”  Another stock answer, this one less faithful to the truth.  I was allergic, but there was another reason I didn’t love the cat.

“She didn’t have a mind,” I told Joel.  “Not the way humans do. I liked her fine.  But some people have it in them to love lower animals, and I don’t.  Everyone draws the line somewhere. Even Ellie did. Could you love a bug?  A virus?”

I looked up at the pillar, unchanged and quiet.  “We’re below that line now, for them.”

Island of Misfit Toys

SSanctum C-91 passed Earth once every six thousand years and perihelion was only twenty-seven years away. Sanctum was hidden inside the comet Alfarsi-Rufus 10, whose magnetized coma deflected solar wind, and any noise from inside Sanctum would be dampened by the coma; still, the signal indicated something had entered the six light second tail, feeding on shards of H2O. The astronomical improbability of it also creeping up through the tail to the coma suggested its insatiable intent.

Inside the comet’s flesh and inside the bulwark, the smell was metallic, undercoated with formaldehyde. To conserve energy, Sanctum had gone dark. Reflective Erlenmeyers, microscopes and surgical tools shone only when the bunny’s one red eye fell upon them. The small station terminated at a cold storage chamber: frozen Tardigrade Lake, which glowed translucent blue like a cloudless, trapped sky. Water droplets from a spigot dripped onto calcite, echoing through Sanctum.

Inside a black pantry in the lab among dismal powdered food stuffs, lit only by a red warning light that might never turn green, squatted a trembling human child wrapped in frayed hex-pattern synthetic, oxygen mask covering her gaunt face, who tried not to breathe, which could at any moment force a fit of paroxysmal coughing and give her away.

Her robotic nursery toy detected the intruder. Once it was just a bunny—white with tall ears and it would hop around the nursery. There were no toys in the nursery anymore. None were needed—the child was feral. But that’s okay, Peter thought, because she’ll have a whole planet to run around on. Peter wasn’t a realistic bunny, but anthropomorphized. He could calculate. He could converse and entertain. Now he controlled Sanctum and nourished the secreted human child.

In the control room, Peter watched the convex display screen. The panel’s lights tinted his dingy fur—threadbare and stitched all over, one eye recessed and burning red, one arm without its covering, but with five dexterous metal fingers. Thumping the grated floor with one heavy foot, he studied the intruder’s readout: a killing machine programmed with the gift of evolution’s perfect killers. Its flitting movements suggested agility and precision striking. It dashed the tail ice violently, like a sperm attacking the egg, and then returned to a lifeless drift in the black alongside the comet. It was the intruder’s economy that curled Peter’s ears. Its patience. Its potential.

Clinging to surface regolith, the intruder’s drill emerged from its mantle, screaming as it tore through the comet flesh and struck the hatch, where it stopped. Peter stood very still, so still that he heard water dripping from the spigot, heard the child’s timid breathing, and his own whirring innards. Then three periodic claps rang Sanctum like a bell.

The screen showed a squid-like creature with a matte carapace, rounded and elongated, from which yellow light escaped two hyphen slits. Under the carapace curled metal prawn arms, and twelve telescopic tentacles floated behind. It persisted knocking with its dome in groups of three, increasing in urgency and intensity until the child hiding in the pantry screamed into a wadded rag.

Fearing the hatch would buckle, Peter spoke into a microphone. His voice was happy and fun and childlike. “Stop banging and leave at once.” The intruder stopped long enough to listen, then resumed in earnest. The banging pulsed. Peter had heard so many pulses—from syncopated arrhythmia to ritardando death—but this pulse felt like his own clock-steady rhythm. “I’m not organic,” Peter said. “I’m like you. And I’m warning you.”

The banging ceased.

Peter studied the intruder’s amber eyes and onyx dome. It thrust six of its tentacles into the well it had drilled; the others floated like lampreys. Outside the hatch, Peter cast a hologram of himself composed of fine grains of yellow, blue and red. The intruder inspected the hologram’s integrity by lancing Peter’s face. Pixel grains scattered and reassembled. Peter smiled, stretching his harelip. “You see me. Now go.” He intoned silliness.

“Are you the curator?” the intruder asked. Its synthesized, metallic voice distended through the speaker and through Sanctum’s control room to the nursery, lab and pantry. Peter cut the hologram. He thumped his foot and wished he’d been constructed better. He was a toy for humans. But they’d taught him things. And he taught himself things. But those things all came from and existed within Sanctum. The intruder came from out there.

Again it knocked. Peter felt the tremor, heard the hatch’s seams stretch, saw the O2 reading flutter. He recast his hologram. “Explosives respond to vibration,” he said, giddily. He worried for the child in the pantry. He estimated her vitals. The temperature was dropping.

“I will enter.”

“Nothing’s here,” Peter said. “Besides . . . it’s just you and me. It’s over.” This was Peter’s fear—why Peter kept rigging his power supply and maintaining Sanctum and learning surgery and endocrinology: Peter was a toy but he suspected his human was probably the last.

“That makes no difference,” the intruder said.

“When did you last receive an update? A signal? Anything?”

“I will destroy you.”

As they conversed, Peter hopped and wiggled his stained tuft and twisted his whiskers like a waxed mustache with his fingers and winked his good marble eye and danced routine number 57 from his programming, but he would not thump. He would not let his ears drop.

“What is this station’s purpose?”

“It has no purpose,” Peter shrugged, “except as a morgue. There’s no life in the solar system larger than tardigrades.”

“There might be.”

Peter turned a cartwheel, then stood on his head and grinned. “How long since you’ve destroyed something?” he asked.

The intruder did not reply. In the pantry, the warning light blinked red. Peter did not look in that direction. The intruder’s threat pinned him to the grated floor. He waited patiently for a reply.  He was a very old toy.

“Thousands of years,” it responded, at last.

“Tell me what you’ve seen.”

“Show me the morgue.”

Slowly, Peter rotated his head toward the blue chamber. The hovering hologram projector cast a wide image of Peter and his station and followed him as he moved. Peter weighed the benefit of self-destruction against the diminishing odds of survival: her human parts and his machine parts stripped to bare, star-seeding elements, and then the quiet—the quiet of a universe with no one left inside. With his robot hand he grasped an axe. He raised it high and swung it into the ice where he stored human genetic material. Stall, he thought.

“They’re all in space, of course—the corpses. But here I keep the essence of what they were.”

There were dozens of phials.

“Many females.” The intruder scanned the labels.

“Oh?” Peter stepped back, knocking the projector. “I don’t remember. My capacity is limited—I deleted memories, after they were gone. But I decided I had to keep the station running. I had to have purpose.”

“I will destroy it.”

“That’s all right,” Peter glanced out the viewport, to the sun. “The comet won’t survive perihelion, anyway.” He sighed. “I desire death. You feel it too, don’t you? It’s like . . . tired.” Peter slowed his voice to sound less exuberant. “I want to show you something.” Hopping in the dark, Peter entered the nursery where dust dissipated around his red eye beam as it roved over walls with unrecognizable drawings on them, no more than palimpsest. Peter gazed into a tarnished toy box containing chipped bead eyes and torn bits of fabric, a plastic button, a frayed guitar string, a broken snow globe. “Their relics,” Peter said, sniffing them.

“They created us to succeed them, toy rabbit,” the intruder said.

Peter hopped back to the control room where his display screen showed the well was empty. The intruder circled the comet, methodically stabbing into the flesh, checking for weakness—somewhere it could pry open, an exhaust.

“Life proliferates,” Peter said. “We don’t.”

“They should have realized in year 1961: machines function in space, they do not.”

“Tardigrades survive. In my lake,” Peter said.

“I will destroy them.”

“If humans made you, you can’t be rid of them until you’re destroyed.”

“I will be the last echo of man.”

“If I destroy this comet, you’ll be destroyed as well.” Peter clapped his hands. “Let’s play a game!” he said.

“Quiet.” The intruder returned to the well at speed and rammed the hatch. Peter fell into a control panel, tearing his lip. Oxygen seeped through the hatch with a piercing hiss and the control room was bathed in red emergency light. A siren warned of imminent decompression so loud that the stunted child with sensitive ears and eyes and skin emptied her bladder and smelled the ammonia. As it turned to ice around her, she shivered, chipping her brittle teeth. She sucked her respirator.

“You will freeze,” the intruder said.

“Thank you,” Peter said. On the screen, he saw the intruder cached in the well. Peter’s ragged fur began to crystallize. “Tell me a story,” he said, yawning.

The siren pulsed. Peter waited.

“They were in the Asteroid Belt,” the intruder said. “They burrowed in like their mammal antecedents. We were meticulous. Now I search freely, looking for stragglers.”

We’re the stragglers,” Peter whispered.

“I remember the last outpost,” the intruder continued. “They shielded their progeny. It was useless. I killed everyone. Mothers and fathers and the old and those in prime vitality all fell on the children. After, I followed weak signals. They led me as far as the system’s clouded edge, but the signals terminated before I could reach them.”

“You were lost then.”

“I was lost.”

“Endless searching . . .” Peter said, trying to move toward the Destruct panel, stuck in slow motion. His nicked ears were stiffly bolted back. “We don’t function in space, either. Not without them.” Peter wrinkled his nose sniffing the residue of space beyond the seeping hatch. Red light bounced off his black marble eye and off his rectangle teeth.

The intruder’s yellow slits dimmed.

“Sleep, toy rabbit.”

Peter watched as the intruder unlatched, crept to the surface, and listed into the black beyond the coma. The broken snow globe echoed in Peter’s mind. He was just a toy. But he’d watched his humans fail to reproduce for lack of genetic diversity, and he’d observed how tardigrades reproduce in isolated colonies. Through parthenogenesis he’d rigged their reproductive systems, making one human at a time, to conserve, for sixty generations.

Peter was tired.

He reached for the panel; the crystals on his fur shattered and chimed. With increasing slowness, he keyed in his code, the code that had been given to him by the last natural descendant. As sealant filled the well, the seeping hiss rose an octave and ceased. The siren died. The station warmed. Oxygen flowed. The spigot dripped. Peter clicked a switch from the upper position to the middle (a steady red) and finally to the lower position (green) while contemplating the forgotten things swimming in the inkwell of space.

The pantry was humid and pungent, the floor wet with thawed human excretion. Her stick-like arm reached from the dark pantry; her translucent face lay on the threshold. Blue lightning veins branched beneath her eyelids. Her unresponsive eyes collected the dim light.

Peter thumped the grated floor.

The comet survived perihelion. Riding past the blue marble and out beyond the system again, Peter did not feel alone, but out of place. The universe was never out there—it only existed in their eyes. He remembered them in fragments, in shards of memory. And when he finally forgot them, he felt he existed somewhere beyond the universe. Or before.

What Dungeons and Dragons can Teach Us About Storytelling

TThe sorceress traipsed gingerly through the castle courtyard, inching closer to the ogre. The stunned hulk towered above her in a motionless daze, its fleshy jowls shaking as it tottered from side to side. She had charmed the beast, but I stayed hidden behind a crumbling stone wall, afraid the thing might haul another boulder at us. We’d heard of spectres and spirits residing within the walls of the long-abandoned keep. We hadn’t heard of ogres.

“Fortune is on our side,” Sylvan declared as she swivelled her head back to us. “I speak ogre.”

She let out a guttural bellow. Still stunned, the ogre grunted in return. Watching Sylvan attempt to speak, I thought she must be hexed—or just a fool. I began calculating who could get to her first: me, to save her, or the ogre, to turn her into its next meal. But before I could move, I felt a hand on my shoulder, next to the strap of my quiver. “Don’t,” the cleric P’Za calmly whispered into my ear, as if reading my mind. We exchanged glances as Sylvan and the ogre continued groan at each other.

“It’s all right,” Sylvan shouted, far too loudly. She and the brute exchanged a few more creaks. “His name is Gormgok,” she told us, breaking into a smile. “And I’m going to ask him to be our friend.”


I didn’t exactly write that passage. Rather, I co-created it, seated around a wooden table in a Toronto apartment playing Dungeons and Dragons with three friends: Curtis, as the bold enchantress Sylvan; Paul, as the holy adventurer P’Za; and Benjamin Shaw, as our Dungeon Master (DM). Ben had created the world—and all the castles and ogres in it—but it was up to us, the players, to bring it to life. In this case, by glad-handing a groggy ogre.

Dungeons and Dragons is an exercise in collaborative storytelling. Like any worthwhile narrative, a D&D campaign needs a main conflict, compelling characters and memorable scenes. DMs provide most of those elements, but they let players assume the central role as protagonists. Together, through roleplay and dialogue and countless dice rolls, a DM and his party create a fiction in real time.

Written narratives and D&D rely on many of the same things to be successful: preparation, dedication, imagination. Over the years, Ben has developed and begun to formalize theories about being a Dungeon Master, and they can just as easily be read as writing tips. The art of Dungeon Mastery encompasses character creation, world building, rule following and, occasionally, rule breaking. The job requires big decisions (what’s the main drama to drive your story forward?) and trivial ones (how much does it cost to buy 10 feet of rope?). If you do it right, you suck the player (or reader) in, fill them with wonder and give them a platform to live out fantasy—not just the genre, but their own. “In day-to-day life, people make all sorts of little choices: what to eat for dinner, how to get to work,” says Ben. “As much as we might not like the idea, those choices don’t really matter.” A D&D campaign offers players a rare opportunity to make decisions that change lives, albeit fictional ones. “It’s a chance to make choices that actually do matter.”

Ben has introduced roughly 30 people to Dungeons and Dragons. When I first met him, he seemed excited to teach a few more. Not that there was much “teaching.” Ben’s straight brown hair danced below his shoulders as he unloaded his knapsack: a heavy sack of dice, a box of miniatures, stacks of paper. (Ben’s ’do was not so much Legolas-inspired as apropos of his professional career as an opera singer.) He cued up a medieval soundtrack and asked us each to create a character: Give them a name and gender. Pick a race (e.g., elf, human, halfling), class (barbarian, wizard, rogue) and matching figurine (he brought dozens). Grab a set of dice and roll. That’s your strength. Roll again. That’s your intelligence. Roll again… Roll again… Roll again… Compared to the hours I’d spent creating characters in Skyrim (which I later realized is, in some sense, a digital D&D), it was swift and simple. My elven archer, Ash, was ready within minutes.

“Welcome to the Twilight Coast,” Ben announced. He set the scene: we were seated in a dark, half-filled tavern in the town of Birtash. A waiter with his arm in a sling rushed to a table of rowdy locals with one too many steins balanced in his lone healthy hand. A dishevelled greying man mumbled to himself at one end of the bar. A shadowy ranger nursed a drink at the other.

“What do you want to do?” Ben asked us. Answering that question is essentially what it means to play D&D.

When Sylvan asked the ogre— a grunting, teetering behemoth played by Ben—if he wanted to be our friend, Ben smirked. Without saying anything, he picked up a die and rolled it behind a divider that concealed his notes, maps and rolls. He looked down at the result, chuckled and then, in his best ogre impression, rumbled, “Okay.”

In D&D, dice determine (almost) everything. Want to fire an arrow at a fast-approaching goblin? Roll to see if you hit. Want to haggle for a better price? Roll to determine if you can sweet-talk your way into a discount. Want to ask Gormgok if you can ride his back? Laugh, then roll to find out if the big guy is amenable. Players’ dice control their characters, while the DM’s dice control non-player characters (NPCs) that they interact with, whether it’s a troll or a tailor. Just keep rolling until you slay the dragon, rescue the princess or seize the throne.

It’s the moments between rolls that matter most, though. Through Ben, our party talked to travellers and traders (he acted them out), explored dungeons (he mapped them out) and skimmed tavern menus (he handed them out). Everything we did filtered through him. Though Paul, Curtis and I had never read a D&D rulebook, we played for hours, relying on Ben to know the answer to our ceaseless questions: What was in that locked chest? Which dice should we roll to find out if we could open it? Could we cast a spell to improve our chances?

Dungeons and Dragons’ history is appropriately mythic—a fractured timeline with as many schisms as the Christian church. Officially, it was invented in 1974, when American game designers Gary Gygax and Dave Armeson released the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, or, at least, three books that taught you how to play it. To oversimplify things immensely, there have been five editions of the game to date, some with strict rules and others with a more laissez-faire approach that gives DMs greater discretion as to how they run the game. Ultimately, D&D is not one cookie-cutter activity, but an umbrella term for a series of games that can feel at times quite similar and at others radically different.

Ben discovered D&D as a grade-schooler. “My dad would have his friends over to play D&D, and I always wanted to play,” he says. “One guy always ran the game. He had, like, 1,000 pewter miniatures, all of them hand-painted. So I grilled him for information. He was more than willing to talk to me about it.”

In Gr. 7, Ben saved up his allowance to buy a series of D&D rulebooks from his local used bookstore; they were locked in a glass cabinet next to the Magic cards at the back off the shop. Tomes in hand, he rounded up his brother and friends (“I was the older one so I could force them to do anything”), and ran his very first campaign. “Everybody, welcome to the game,” he told his inaugural party before launching into a nonsensical scene: “You’re walking through the woods when you’re ambushed by orcs, 20 feet away.”

Ben honed his DM skills over the course of countless campaigns in high school and university, researching the role online along the way. While Ben was studying music in Halifax, a friend named Ricky asked him for pointers on how he might DM a campaign of his own. So Ben wrote Ricky a series of letters (three and counting), which together comprise a sort of starter kit to DM’ing. He takes credit for few of the ideas in it. “When somebody asks for advice,” whether a first-time or veteran DM, says Ben, “I think you can assume that the advice they get is coming from the community as a whole.” Many DMs trade theories, questions and tips online (Ben posts some of his on a blog appropriately titled Wizard Shaw). “No dungeon master is out there claiming to having invented everything about how to be a dungeon master.”

Nonetheless, the “Ricky Letters” are a useful anthology, a sort of ongoing DM’ing for Dummies. They detail how to dole out treasure and experience points, how to structure dungeons and how to draw maps for the players you’re leading. But their most insightful passages are more philosophical than technical.

Ben suggests DMs think of every world they create as a series of rooms. Fill every “room” you create—whether it’s an eerie crypt or entire country—with a look, a feel and things that players can interact with. The biggest room is the world you create as a whole. That world has regions (each their own “room”), every region has towns (also “rooms”), every town has buildings (you get it), every building has actual rooms, every actual room has characters and objects. DMs describe the rooms only as players enter them, as if unveiling a series of Russian dolls. “You don’t have to polish any of it beforehand, because it doesn’t come alive until it hits the table anyway,” says Ben. “I usually give just the first layer of description, something like, ‘There’s a statue with outstretched arms.’ ” If the players walk by without investigating, fine. But if they look in those hands, they’ll find a ruby. And if they find a ruby, they have to decide what to do about it.

Just as important as the world are the NPCs who live in it—and give it life. By sharing news and having their own desires, fears and motivations, they give the impression of a world that exists beyond your party. NPCs can also teach players about themselves (e.g., because people in the Twilight Coast discriminate against elves, NPCs would occasionally slander me).

Ben assigns each NPC five essential elements: 1) a connection to something of greater importance, like the innkeeper’s knowledge about Barrow Deep; 2) a physical mannerism you can act out, like his arm in a sling; 3), a desire and fear, like his concern over a strange noise coming from the tavern chimney; 4) an errand in progress, like serving customers; and 5) a detail that causes players to wonder about the character’s backstory or significance, like how he broke that arm anyway?

These traits not only help players visualize and remember NPCs, they invite players to engage more deeply with the world. “Put in as many things as possible that make players wonder,” says Ben, who takes credit for at least this particular idea of wonder. “The game will go smoothly if what you present immediately brings questions into their minds. They ask questions, you give them answers, those lead to more questions. Really, it’s a back and forth of questions and answers.”

You’ll know you’ve created convincing characters when players have strong feelings about them, whether hatred or admiration. “Sometimes groups just decide, without a word, that they love an NPC. Inevitably, someone starts hitting on them,” says Ben. “It can be an excellent tool for a DM. You can put that NPC in danger, for example, and the players leap on that.”

A practical tip: have a list of names and simple stock characters on hand in case you need to improvise. If a player asks to speak to a blacksmith you haven’t fleshed out, pick one out and wing it. “On a very basic level,” says Ben, “even having a name at the ready is actually super impressive to players.” These details can be used when they’re needed. In other words, wherever players wind upf can become an improvised version of a hyper-detailed setting that Ben has already prepared. The sci-fi structure may differ from fantasy, Ben says, but “I’m finding that if I approach it in entirely the same way, many of the philosophies continue to apply.”

Dreaming up worlds and characters as detailed as these takes time. Ben spent six months creating the Twilight Coast. It has what you might call a central “quest” and a defined ending, but that’s practically a moot point. The most dedicated group to play in it lasted for several months (campaigns can last years) and still covered just five per cent of the world Ben created. They didn’t even start the main quest. “I used to feel bad about players skipping over meticulously detailed content I had created, but now I’m taking more of a Hemingway approach—the iceberg theory,” says Ben. “I’ve stopped trying to guide players to interesting stuff. I let them make their own decisions. Every single group finds different stuff, makes different choices in the same rooms.”

Choices are a dungeon master’s most important tool. “Give the players as many interesting, meaningful choices as possible,” says Ben. That point features prominently in the Ricky Letters, which contain a list Ben created that he refers to, unceremoniously, as “What Players Want.” It’s not long, so here it is: 1) something cool for their character, like a magic sword or spell; 2) choices that affect their game world, like whether to assassinate or side with a wrongful king; 2) deeds to build their character’s legend, like deposing said ruler because he’s corrupt; 4) unique experiences through adventure, like discovering a hidden passageway in the kings’ quarters; and 5) to earn the respect, loyalty and friendship of NPCs, like the rightful king, found imprisoned down that secret passage. Or, if you’re my party, you try to hang out with an ogre.


The ogre was hungry. So, back in Birtash, P’Za and I visited the market to purchase a pair of cows. We led the animals down the main street, out the town gates and past the tree line, where we reunited with Sylvan and Gormgok. The innkeeper refused to let him stay on the tavern’s grounds, so this overgrown nook at the edge of town—just out of sight of disapproving villagers—would be his home for the time being.

As Gormgok feasted on the first cow, the fiery late-afternoon sun dipped behind Birtash’s low-lying buildings. I rested my bow against a tree and sat in the tall grass with Sylvan, the only one of us who could speak directly to the ogre. She was smitten with her new companion. He’d helped us wipe out a wave of kobolds, venture deeper into Barrow Deep and return home with the spoils.

Still, Sylvan seemed uneasy, her brow furrowed as she watched the sun set. “What’s wrong?” I asked. 

She was still and silent for a moment and then replied, “My charm spell only lasts two weeks.” When her hold on Gormgok dissolved, she asked, would he still be our friend? 

“What happens if—” I began, but couldn’t bring myself to continue. 

“Well, Ash,” Sylvan said, turning to me, “I guess we’re going to have to make a choice.”

From One, Many; From Many, One

The old truck stopped on the crumbling blacktop of what had been a two-lane highway when Victors had controlled the world. The faded, tattered map showed a small town on the other side of a row of hills, dark in dawn’s gloom—five thin, grey lines intersecting three others with the label “Beckley.”

Perhaps a cure for NickJennyPhil’s husband and son waited there. For two weeks, all he and the others had found were empty towns. Some collapsing and deserted, others burned flat.

As if no more Victors remained.

The thought made NickJennyPhil go cold, a vestige of his inherited physiology. No Victors did not just mean no cure, but no new Adams.


Beside NickJennyPhil, DonaldCharlotteKellie shut off the engine and gave him a slow nod. His eyes—one blue, one brown—held the same hope NickJennyPhil felt. DonaldCharlotteKellie grabbed his rifle from the rack behind their seats and got out.

NickJennyPhil left his bag of surgical gear on the seat. Its metal instruments knocking together made too much noise.

AmyJonTom and LeahFritzChung were already out of the truck’s canopied bed, leaning against the spare tire secured to the bumper. Clubs hung from their belts, sacks with ropes and gags over their shoulders. The others’ seven foot frames dwarfed NickJennyPhil, a reminder he had not been created for this.

“Nice and quiet,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said. “Don’t spook these wet-borns.” He led the way up the wooded slope, rifle in hand.

NickJennyPhil hated that DonaldCharlotteKellie’s had brought the weapon. In the beginning, when the Creator had flowed His lifeblood into the first Adams, He had decreed that a Victor could only be harmed to create a new Adam. Needlessly killing one wasted His bounty, and needlessly wounding one rendered it an abomination of His perfect image.

To say nothing of medical concerns. Victors were fragile. If one survived the gunshot, NickJennyPhil would have to keep it alive during the twelve-hour trip home. Anything dead longer than two was useless tissue.

It took twenty minutes to reach the crest. The rising sun revealed a town much like theirs: twenty-odd houses surrounding a handful of shops and commercial buildings. Except here a rust-spotted dump truck and bulldozer blocked the road into the town centre. A patchwork of split rail, barb wire and chain link formed a half-completed perimeter fence. No lights burned, nothing moved on its streets, no sounds carried up the hillside.

NickJennyPhil’s hope faded, nudging him closer to a precipice over which lay despair.

“Same as always,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said. “We’re just here to look. No stupid chances. I’ll come get you in a few hours. Go.”

AmyJonTom and LeahFritzChung shared a quick I’ll-see-you-soon kiss before moving in opposite directions.

“Best we’ve seen,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said, eyeing the town.

“Those defences could be decades old,” NickJennyPhil replied. “I doubt Victors are capable of that coordination now.”

“Maybe not.” DonaldCharlotteKellie held up his rifle. “Still. Be back in a few hours.” He disappeared into the trees.

NickJennyPhil’s concern over DonaldCharlotteKellie’s potential blasphemy gave way to the usual doubts of his own usefulness. He had been assembled to be a surgeon, not a harvester. The Creator’s lifeblood made Adams stronger and more durable than Victors, but they did not heal as quickly or wholly. Even a simple laceration rendered an Adam an abomination, risking his ascension to merge with the Creator. So, his fathers made him the size of a small adult Victor, able to manipulate delicate nerves, veins and sinew. Flashes of memory from the Victor whose brain NickJennyPhil carried surfaced from time to time, an identity not entirely erased by NickJennyPhil’s lifeblood. It had been clever, intelligent and contemplative. A brain suited for diagnosis and plans of treatment, but not a harvest’s brutality and tenacity.

Yet that had been its life.

NickJennyPhil conjured memories from his own—the patchwork hues of LeoZhaBert’s body, his voice calling NickJennyPhil to bed, his touch on NickJennyPhil’s skin. The joy when LeoZhaBert had agreed to have a son when a Victor encampment had been found.

A harvester son, strong and brave.

That had been then.

Time passed.

Only the shortening shadows moved below.

How different this town was from that Victors encampment. Makeshift structures and crude lean-tos had dotted the forest clearing. Primitive sanitation, no medical facilities. Their undisciplined, panicked defence had collapsed within minutes. Those not caught fled into the forest.

Then the screaming—that joyful sound of new life—filled the encampment.

LeoZhaBert had caught, tied and gagged six Victors for most of their son—strong arms, graceful legs, a robust torso. For the brain, they had laid claim to a Victor armed with a machete who, rather than fleeing, launched sudden attacks and then disappeared back into the dense foliage.

LeoZhaBert had admired its determination.

NickJennyPhil had admired its cleverness.

LeoZhaBert had passed NickJennyPhil his harvesting club. Trembling but determined, NickJennyPhil followed his husband into the trees. They would do this—every step of it— together. The Victor burst from the underbrush, slicing at them. LeoZhaBert shoved NickJennyPhil back, bringing up his other arm in defence. The blade buried itself in the bone and muscle of LeoZhaBert’s forearm. Yanking to free its weapon, the Victor did not see NickJennyPhil charge. He swung, wild with fury, and knocked it unconscious.

It never awoke, even as NickJennyPhil severed its head from its body.

Gunfire pulled NickJennyPhil from the happy memory. He dropped flat on the forest floor.

Nothing moved in the town.

Motion to his left. A figure emerged from the trees, limping, a hundred feet off.


Two more shots. A bullet sliced the air next to NickJennyPhil’s left ear. His heart hammered uselessly in his chest.

A third shot and AmyJonTom collapsed, clutching a knee. Two smaller figures emerged from the trees. Victors. Each carried a rifle and wore camouflage patterned clothing. One kicked AmyJonTom’s injured leg while the other drew a hatchet from its belt. “Where’s your town?” it screamed, the high voice of a female. It swung, nearly severing AmyJonTom’s foot at the ankle, rendering him an abomination. “Where!”

Panic surged like a living thing. Helpless, useless, NickJennyPhil sprinted toward where DonaldCharlotteKellie and LeahFritzChung had gone.

He did not know how long he had been running when he skidded to a stop. LeahFritzChung lay face down on the forest floor, the back of his skull blown out.

“Hey there.” A male Victor knelt in the brush wearing frayed camouflage clothing, a yellow-on-black patch reading “RANGER” on the shoulder. Dried mud caked its long, white hair and beard. It levelled a rifle across the stump at its left elbow, aiming with its left eye. A savage mound of scar tissue filled its right socket.

“Never seen one of you so small,” it said, moving toward him. “Something wrong with you?”

“I’m a surgeon,” NickJennyPhil managed to say, more shocked by such an abomination of the Creator’s image than its gun.

“I’d say your friend’s beyond help. So where’d you come from? Where’s your town?”

That question. Like the female with AmyJonTom.

The Victor nodded to a hatchet on his belt. “Should I take you apart? First your fingers then your toes? Hands and feet go next.” He waved the stump of his arm. “I’ve been your guest. Know your faith. You all descend from your creator. If you’re too far from his perfect image, he won’t recognize you. Won’t let you ascend to become part of him again.”

This Victor was nothing like the panicked animals at the encampment. Was this what the Victors had been like in the beginning? Scripture told of Victors’ numerous sins enraging the Creator, so He had replaced them with something more perfect to His image. Victors had attempted to slaughter the first Adams, but the Creator’s will had been done and Adams had inherited the world the Victors had built, passing His lifeblood down through generations.

“Answer me quick,” it said, “and die whole.”

“NickJennyPhil, get down!”

Thirty feet away, DonaldCharlotteKellie leaned against a tree, rifle aimed.

The Victor spun and fired.

Fear gave way to hatred, then rage. NickJennyPhil charged and tackled the Victor. It twisted and maneuvered in his grasp, precise and purposeful movements to leverage itself free.

DonaldCharlotteKellie slammed his rifle butt into the Victor’s face. “Wet-born!” It went limp, eyes rolling back in semi-consciousness.

DonaldCharlotteKellie ripped the rifle from its hands before his right leg buckled and he collapsed. Blood stained three finger-sized holes in his pant leg.

NickJennyPhil ripped the fabric open, exposing bullet wounds in DonaldCharlotteKellie’s thigh. If he had his tools, NickJennyPhil could have removed the bullets and rewoven the muscle. Or, with time, grafted muscle from LeahFritzChung.

“Leave it.” DonaldCharlotteKellie pushed him away and took a gag from LeahFritzChung’s pack. “They knew we were coming.” He fitted in on the Victor, silencing its moaning. “I got one, but this one killed LeahFritzChung.” He removed lengths of rope from the pack.

“Two more are out there,” NickJennyPhil said. “I think AmyJonTom is dead.”

“Creator’s sacred name,” DonaldCharlotteKellie cursed.

NickJennyPhil winced at the blasphemy.

Limping, DonaldCharlotteKellie pulled the Victor behind a fallen tree, secured its right hand against its thigh at the crotch and bound its feet while NickJennyPhil kept watch. DonaldCharlotteKellie found additional ammunition along with a photo of a female Victor around the age of sexual maturity in the Victor’s pockets. He hurled its hachette into the trees before loading ammunition into the Victor’s rifle.

“Take my gun,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said, pointing up the slope. “Fifty feet or so. Crossfire.”

“I—” He tried to find the words.

Killing the Victors would be blasphemy. The Creator had given no exemption for self-defence. Even if they merely wounded them, getting all three to the truck would be impossible given DonaldCharlotteKellie’s injury. They could secure them and NickJennyPhil could retrieve his tools to repair DonaldCharlotteKellie’s leg, but one might free itself.

That was assuming victory. The Victors knew this forest. NickJennyPhil had no experience with firearms.

Retreating with the Victor would be dangerously slow, but leaving it would render AmyJonTom’s and LeahFritzChung’s deaths meaningless.

That left a single option.

DonaldCharlotteKellie’s nod showed he had reached the same conclusion. He held out his rifle. “Go.”

NickJennyPhil ignored it, tying a length of rope at the Victor’s ankles.

“Long road home.” DonaldCharlotteKellie took cover behind the tree. “You might have to fight to see your husband and boy.”

Accepting the logic, NickJennyPhil slung the rifle over his shoulder.

“If I get them,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said, “I’ll call out.”

“Thank you.” Words as useless as NickJennyPhil felt.

“Time’s short.”

NickJennyPhil grunted, taking the rope’s other end and dragging the Victor behind him. He prayed the Creator would forgive DonaldCharlotteKellie’s blasphemy and let him ascend despite the injury rendering him an abomination. After all, the blame lay with NickJennyPhil.

Each step added to that guilt.

Following the harvest at the Victors’ encampment, NickJennyPhil had attached LeoZhaBert’s new forearm, taken from a Victor they had claimed, returning him to be made in the Creator’s perfect image. Then, together, they had assembled their son.

A son with a severe brain injury caused by his panicked blow. A son who breathed but did not awaken as they fed their lifebloods into him.

Several weeks into their grief, a twitch began in LeoZhaBert’s new forearm. NickJennyPhil has seen this before. A disease that had lingered silently within the Victor inexplicably springing to life when exposed to an Adam’s lifeblood. With all the Victors from the harvest partitioned, they lacked another limb to replace it.

Twitches became spasms that leaped across the sutures at LeoZhaBert’s elbow. After two months, LeoZhaBert’s bicep and tricep quaked while his hand hung cold and limp. If it jumped the sutures at his shoulder and reached his brain, it could be fatal.

LeoZhaBert had asked—then begged—NickJennyPhil to remove his arm, but NickJennyPhil would not render him an abomination.

So LeoZhaBert had proposed taking their son’s arm and, as a mercy to prevent him from being an abomination, stilling the life within him.

The argument had lasted hours.

In the end, DonaldCharlotteKellie had organized this small harvesting group. He and LeoZhaBert had been lovers, once. Whether an act of charity or overture of renewed affection, NickJennyPhil did not know, and he surprised everyone when he insisted on going. Yet even he was uncertain if it was to fight for his husband’s life, to make up for what he had done, or some form of competition with DonaldCharlotteKellie.

Now three more lives had been lost and Victors’ bounties wasted.

Gunfire popped above him. Startled, NickJennyPhil lost his footing and gravity claimed him, sending him tumbling.

A collision with a fallen tree jarred him to a stop.

The Victor’s rifle was gone.

Below, through the trees, was the truck.

Far above, the gunfire ended, but ten steps above the Victor sat up, fully conscious.

So clever, it was, biding its time.

It brought its knees to its chest and shoved its bound wrist down between its legs to work at the knot at its ankles.

“No!” NickJennyPhil scrambled up the slope, but the Victor had the knot undone and slipped the coil at its wrist over its foot. It stood and charged up the hill. Higher still lay the rifle.

NickJennyPhil turned and loped down the hill for the truck. Terror did not occlude the realization of his complete failure.

Reaching the road, a shot kicked up chunks of blacktop near his feet. He rounded the truck to the passenger side and leapt in its cab, searching for a weapon if the Victor pressed its attack once its rifle was empty.

“I just wanna know where your town is!” it called out.

Its words gave the burned towns they had found new meaning. Had those towns been populated by Adams? This Victor used Beckley as a trap to catch Adams and torture them into betraying their towns’ locations. Towns the Victors somehow destroyed.

Yet NickJennyPhil was forbidden from killing something so dangerous for such a sin.

All he found were his surgeon’s tools.

“One of your creator’s rules should’ve been ‘Go slow’,” it continued. “You spread so fast. You’re wiping us out.”

A shot shattered the driver’s side window.

Anger and panic swirling, NickJennyPhil grabbed his bonesaw. Fatal if he struck a blow, but perhaps intimidating enough to force its retreat. He slid out of the cab and moved to the truck’s rear to peer around the other side.

The Victor stood at the driver’s door.

It fired.

NickJennyPhil retreated, a bullet whining past.

“My daughter will take you apart when she gets here,” it said. “She was eight when she saw one of you saw off her mom’s legs and cut out her ribs. And she lived through most of it, screaming.”

A bullet came under the truck, nicking NickJennyPhil’s boot.

He leapt onto the bumper.

LeoZhaBert would not hesitate, a courage NickJennyPhil both loved and fretted over. And the Victor whose brain went to their son had attacked against futile odds.

But his rash actions had cost too much.

He was no harvester. Let the Victor come. Let this end. NickJennyPhil used the tire to steady himself.

The tire, with its thick, metal hubcap.

He dropped the saw and threw the tire’s release mechanism. It fell and NickJennyPhil caught it on the bounce, hefting it up so the hubcap protected his face and head, and charged.

Shots popped. Pain seared through his leg, his chest, his gut.

None fatal.

NickJennyPhil ran blindly toward the gunfire. His collision with the Victor sent it sprawling. NickJennyPhil dropped the tire, limped to where the Victor had fallen and straddled its chest.

The gun lay out of reach.

NickJennyPhil wrapped his hands around the Victor’s throat.

“You forget I know your faith?” it said, attempting to twist away to free itself. “You can’t kill me.”

You forgot,” NickJennyPhil said. “I’m surgeon.” He squeezed.

When it stopped thrashing, unconscious but without permanent damage, NickJennyPhil retrieved his tools.

The sun touched the treetops when a female Victor stumbled from the trees. Face ashen, a scarlet bloom darkened its jacket at the abdomen.

It nearly retched when it saw the remains of its father.

That DonaldCharlotteKellie wouldn’t stop the Victors was a risk NickJennyPhil had accepted. Timing critical, he continued his work.

The male Victor’s arm hung below NickJennyPhil’s left, his nerves and veins woven into it. NickJennyPhil now knitted its head’s nerves and veins into his abdomen, the gunshot wound feeding his lifeblood into the new brain for his son.

A brain both clever and determined.

“I was going to butcher you,” the female Victor said, breathing rapid and shallow. It could not hold its rifle steady. “This is better.”

Connected in a way NickJennyPhil did not understand, the male Victor’s consciousness—fighting to retain its identity—stirred at the female’s voice.

“You have forfeited your life to take mine?” he asked. “Kill me rather than seek treatment?” Unless, NickJennyPhil considered, no Victors survived to aid it.

“Ready for hell, abomination?”

“I am not,” NickJennyPhil replied. “I am as the Creator. I carry more than my own life within me.”

His words stirred a new idea. This was, after all, a female. “Your wound renders you an abomination,” he continued. “I should treat you.”

Its eyes shut heavily and snapped open. “So you can cut me up?”

“No. Your father was correct. Harvesting all Victors condemns future generations of Adams. We must let you flourish again.”

Its knees buckled and it landed on its side. “I’ll kill…” Unable to raise its weapon, it placed the barrel under its chin, stock between its legs, thumb on the trigger. “I won’t…”

Its eyes rolled back.

The male Victor’s head secure to his abdomen, NickJennyPhil treated the female’s wound and transfused a mixture of the male’s and, to prevent an incompatibility reaction, his own blood into it.

If they found another male, they could breed them and produce a menagerie of Victors. Clever, dangerous—they would need to be contained, perhaps restrained, but providing limbs and organs for new Adams to be made or injuries treated. And with his skills, they need not die, able to be further harvested when a need arose. They would live on as abominations, but they seemed able to accept such a state. Surely rendering a Victor as an abomination so that an Adam could reflect the Creator’s perfect image was a necessary and just act in the Creator’s eyes. Had not the Creator already deemed them less perfect than his Adams?

Awkward with his new limbs, he heaved the female into the back of the truck and tied it down.

When NickJennyPhil started the engine, the Victor awoke.

It screamed.

Such a joyful sound.

Memory and Faded Ink

She liked to watch me sleeping. “I always remember you like this,” she would say. “Drowsing in a pool of sunlight, dawn pouring off you like gold. That is how I know you are rich.”

When she was young, rich to Tseleng meant time enough to weed millet, and light enough to spot vipers. To me, it meant a roof that didn’t leak. When the Buyani arrived, it meant them, and suddenly the whole planet was poor.

They were generous enough; the very definition of philanthropists — they loved humans. They even said they were human themselves, and they looked the part — tall and strong, with tight copper curls, aquiline features, loamy skin.The Buyani were as human as aliens could be. Too human. If ever our gods come back, they will look like this.

They weren’t really Buyani, of course, any more than they were Atlanteans, or Lemurians, or Muans, or any other lost race. They admitted that their vast ship could land, could submerge, but they left it at the L1 Lagrange point, between the sun and an Earth turned upside down by surprise and suspicion, by alien wizards and wonders.

We’d talked about it, Tseleng and I, in those drowsy, golden mornings and in the busy afternoons, when she sold her books with Mamekete and Leabua, the weathered sages of Maseru’s open air market.

“They say alphabets are for children,” Tseleng would tell us. “They say letters are the stick figure art of communication — a primitive tool to be left behind along with counting on fingers and uncertain bladder control.”

“No one will buy books anymore,” Leabua would say, wiping dust off his piles of outdated textbooks and social science tracts.

“No one buys them now,” Mamekete would reply, determined to match pessimism with cynicism at every turn. But she would wipe her own stock of novels and poetry chapbooks nonetheless.

“The Buyani don’t have any books. Do you really think they remember everything?” Tseleng would say, playing optimist. “People say they even have some sort of racial memory.”

“Too much information,” I would say. “Where could they store it all?” Every group needs a sceptic, and Serbs are naturals at it.

“It’s just transmitters in their brains,” Leabua would say. “The information’s in the cloud.” And then the conversation would circle back to whether the Buyani were really human, and whether they had left us behind, or visited before, and whether their other ships were shaped like islands or pyramids or mountains.

The Buyani wouldn’t say. They were chary with information about themselves, but they gave technology freely, so that even in Lesotho, we had free energy, and clean water, and synthesized food.

“It’s a trick,” I told Tseleng one day, as she smoked pot under a black locust tree. “They’ll make us all dependent on them, and then,” I made a fist, “they’ll have us.”

“They have us now.” They’d shown no signs of violence, but no one made any pretense that we could win a war. A few hotheads, a few suicide bombers, a few terrorists had tried, but with the Buyani present, bullets floated to a gentle stop, bombs set off slow, soft breezes, and toxins faded into nothingness. There were still wars, of course, but they were small, local scuffles over religion and other trivia. Life was better, even for sceptics.

I gave this to the Buyani — their distribution network was efficient. Even on the dirt roads outside Maseru, we got their latest gifts as soon as anyone on the boulevards of Boston, or the cobblestones of Quito.

Those lazy conversations would have been the sum of it, should have been the total of my experience of the Buyani. Until they came to us, and Tseleng went to them.

We all have our means of escape. For me, it was travel – outside the grim, stuffy confines of Belgrade, with its cheery sidewalk cafes overflowing with dour traditionalists, its bright, modern shops selling things no one could afford. I’d gone south, to Greece, and Egypt, and Rwanda, and South Africa, and finally Lesotho. Tseleng had escaped through drugs, from glue bottles on the paths of her nameless village to harder fare on the roads of Maseru.

We’d met halfway, each deciding to try something new. For her, a tall, exotic foreigner. For me, a drink or two in a shabby bar. And it had worked. I’d settled down, she’d let the hard stuff drift away. It hadn’t been easy, not for either of us. But it had been worth it.

And then the Buyani came. A dozen years after that huge ship appeared, and the radio told us all that life had changed, they arrived in Lesotho.

“What do they want?” I’d asked her, when she came home one day, still flustered after an encounter in the market. “Why would they come here?” We only ever like the changes we make ourselves, and sometimes not even those.

“They seek the pure people,” she’d said. “They want excitement. They are young, these Buyani who have come to us.”

Too young. Too exciting. And nowhere near pure enough.

“They speak perfect Sesotho,” she’d said. “I told them we were as pure as you could want. Up here in the mountains, in our isolation, you could not ask for more purity. We do not mix with others.”

Unless you counted South Africans, or itinerant Serbs like me. But she was happy, and that was worth any number of sharp comebacks. I wish I’d learned that earlier.

“You should meet them,” she’d said. “You can be giants together.”

They were giant enough, and good looking enough, to make me jealous. I was human enough to try to hide it.

“I’m busy,” I told her, and so we spent our days apart, and some of our nights, too.

“I’ll take them to my village,” she said, and I nodded in false confidence, because why wouldn’t sophisticated aliens be interested in a nameless agglomeration of clay huts and tin roofs?

“It’s very pure,” I said with a little bite, because no matter how we pretend, we’re all limbic lizards at the core.

Tseleng’s lizard was less active than most, and she’d just shrugged and taken three giant aliens on a week-long road trip. I was sorry by the time she got back, and she’d forgotten all about it.

“Your Buyani friends wouldn’t have,” I pointed out, as if it were a winning point, as if bringing them down to my level of pettiness would make them less attractive, and me more so.

“Their memories are their pride,” she said, and kissed me. “I am hoping they will teach that trick to me.” I remembered that later, as I looked around our little mokhoro with its concrete floor and mud walls and absence of Tseleng.

I woke early, and alone. “It’s their last night in Maseru,” she’d told me. “They want to celebrate.” I had thought she might be late, or drunk, or both. But now, as the dawn light ran down the tin of the roof and the stone of the walls, I wondered whether I should have expected her at all. The bed beside me was empty, untouched by anything but my own midnight thrashing. There was no sign Tseleng had been there, and deep in my gut, the lizard shook its tail and spat.

I ate old, dry toast, eschewing the flavored nutrient blocks of the Buyani synthesizer, dipped water from our old, stale well in place of clear, safe water pulled like magic from the air. It was childish, and I knew it, but sometimes the smallest acts of resistance are all you have.

I dawdled through my shower, my resolve too weak to forgo solar-heated comfort in favor of mere principle. But when I emerged, to towel dry under a warm November sun, Tseleng was still not back, and at last I accepted the inevitable. If she would not come back to me, I would go to her, Buyani or no.

I passed through the market, first, through the jumble of rusting tools to the heaps of vegetables with their flies. In the tea stalls, I found Mamekete.

“Lumelang, ‘me-Mamekete,” I said.

“Good morning to you as well, young one.” She looked troubled.

“Have you seen Tseleng?”

“I… In the market. I think.” She looked like she wanted to add more, but she and Leabua can talk for hours, once they’re started.

“Leboha, ‘me.” I left her there, no doubt deploring the awfulness of my Sesotho, and commiserating with the tea sellers about outlanders.

Tseleng was back! Not to our home, no, but to work in the market, and that could only mean the Buyani were gone. I had a bounce in my step and a smile on my lips as I wended my way through the stalls to the quiet area where books were, if not sold, at least displayed.

“Lumelang, ntate Leabua,” I offered with my best accent as I passed the old man by. I ignored his gestures, my eyes intent on the spare form of a short woman at a neighbouring table.

“Tseleng!” I leaned across the table to kiss her. “I missed you.”

She smiled back at me, bemused. “Well,” she said, “perhaps I have missed you too.”

“No perhaps about it,” I shook my head, though I’d expected a little more enthusiasm. “You have missed me like corn misses rain, like potatoes miss rosemary, like stars miss the night.” But she didn’t smile her ‘I love you for your foolishness’ smile.

“I will take you at your word,” she said, and ran her eyes over my t-shirt and my jeans. “You seem a likely enough fellow. Come and smoke with me.”

“What?” I’d only smoked with her that one time. It had made me sick, and since then she’d known to stand downwind of me when she lit up.

“Just some cannabis,” she assured me. “Nothing strange. A little nausea won’t hurt you.”

“I don’t …” I looked into her eyes, and they were playful, warm. Everything but loving. “Tseleng, what’s wrong? What have they done to you?”

She winked. “Did you know that even the Buyani have drugs? Of course they do. Everyone has drugs.”

“What do you mean? What did they give you?” This was not Tseleng. Or, at least, it was, but not the Tseleng I’d lived with for the past three years. The one I’d bonded with, loved with, grown with, planned with.

“I took a Buyani drug, once,” she said, undeterred by my growing anger. “They said it works on memory.” She giggled. “I remember them saying that. Like Russian roulette for memory, they said. Big trouble if they get caught.”

A chill ran through my heart. A new drug, a Buyani drug, a memory drug. And of course she had taken it.

“Where are they?” I took her by the arm, shook her. “Tseleng, where are they?” I would find them, threaten them, beat them, whatever it took to find out what had happened.

“There’s no point,” said a sad voice behind me. It was Leabua, come shuffling out from behind his table. “They’re gone. They drove out last night, apparently. I spoke with the hotel.”

“What happened?” I tried to keep calm, to keep from shaking this old, frail man, with his old, irrelevant books, and their tired, faded ink no one would ever read.

“What you know. They played some game, took pills. Mostly they enhance memory. One pill in a thousand erases it. Tseleng lost.”

“What? But… why?”

“Why does anyone? For excitement, for escape. For the chance of freedom.”

“And Tseleng?” What freedom had she sought?

He shrugged, his eyes wet. “She lost. Lost her memory. Not all of it. She knows who she is, who we are. It’s the associations that are gone, the links. She knows I’m Leabua, that Mamekete is Mamekete.” Mamekete had come up now, had joined our little circle in silent commiseration.

“She knows she has known us, has loved us,” Mamekete said. “She doesn’t now.” She seemed tired, even the cynicism in her beaten down by cruel reality. “Whatever formed that link between past and present is missing.” She looked at me sadly. “She knows you, too. Or knows she knew you.”

“And doesn’t care?” It seemed bizarre, outlandish. As, of course, it was.

“And doesn’t care,” confirmed Leabua. “No more than she cares about us.” As if that mattered to me.

I spent hours with her, that day and night, discovering only that they had told the truth. Tseleng came home with me, knew it for her home as well. She made love to me, and it was good, as if it were something new and exciting and different. Through it all, she treated me as a stranger, a fun discovery, with no more history than a new-bloomed flower. In the morning, she said goodbye as if I were some one-night stand.

We called in the authorities, the police, the diplomats. It was an international scandal. And if anything confirmed the essential humanity of the Buyani, it was this – that their young behaved just as foolishly as ours. For all their high technology, their vaunted memory, they took the same stupid risks, made the same unwise choices, paid the same costly prices.

The Buyani found our visitors quickly. They gave them a variant of the same drug Tseleng had taken. “They’ll lose their memories,” they said. “They’ll be like new people.” To Buyani, it was the ultimate punishment. To me, it was nothing at all. Once I found Tseleng’s loss could not be remedied, I stopped talking with them.

“This is a terrible crime,” their Ambassador told me at our last meeting. He frowned his god-like frown, ran strong fingers through curly hair, let a tear run across his perfect face. “We will do anything we can to make it right, give you anything you ask.”

“Can you give me back Tseleng?” I asked. He didn’t answer, and I left.

Tseleng still sells her pamphlets and brochures in the market place. I buy one from time to time, or read her some of Pheko Motaung’s poetry in my atrocious Sesotho. We still live together. We’re friends, I’d say. Maybe good friends. But we’re different people.

When I came in from my shower this morning, she was still lying in bed, with the sun just peeking over the windowsill.

“I remember you like this,” she said. “Lying in bed, wasting good sunlight. It is how I know you were rich.” I smiled and kissed her on the cheek before starting breakfast. I was rich, once. Someday, with a little patience, I will be again.

I’m Sorry I Couldn’t Make It True

Two truths and a lie…

  1. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I volunteered to be the test subject for my older brother Rob’s time travel experiment. He and his best friend Marcus had been working on it in our basement for years, and when he asked if I wanted in, in typical younger sister fashion I agreed without a second thought. Older brothers have a way of doing that, asking questions with no right answer: either way, you’re the loser.
  2. I’d had a crush on Marcus for as far back as I could remember, since we were kids running around the neighborhood with holes in our pants’ knees, going on pirate adventures and journeys into space. As the only girl in our neighborhood (besides Sara Cooke, who didn’t count because she was homeschooled by fundamentalists who didn’t let her watch the cartoons we based all our adventures on) I was always Princess Peach, the Pink Ranger, Princess Leia, and April O’Neil. It’d been just my luck that as soon as we grew old enough to notice the romantic subplots, Marcus and Rob turned their interests to science instead, which just so happened to be Sara’s best subject. It was also just my luck that the one time Marcus seemed to show interest in me, I was too young, too stupid and flubbed my chance completely.
  3. But on that late summer evening before the three of them headed off to MIT together (leaving me stuck here to struggle through my senior year alone), Marcus and Rob met up to work on their time travel project and Marcus invited me to come check it out. Me, not Sara, who just tagged along, feeling like an unwanted fifth wheel. I was the one he smiled at beneath those long, to-die-for eyelashes, who tried to act casual when he stood just a little too close. I was the one who saw the missing piece of their equation, the one tiny change that would make the machine work. And when they pressed the button and our sheepdog Hercules vanished from existence only to show up three minutes later, the drool still hanging from his jowls, I was the one Marcus wrapped his arms around and swung, laughing, through the air.

Two truths and two lies…

  1. I always knew that Marcus and Rob were honest-to-goodness geniuses, so I was used to being misunderstood. I should have known that instead of throwing an epic time travel party like I suggested (complete with a DJ and water balloons), they’d want to spend the rest of the afternoon doing even more equations and tests. After a couple hours of sitting on the stale futon in the corner and picking at the paint on its frame while they talked about chronology protection conjecture and space-time curvature over the deafening pounding of Rammstein, I was tempted to leave. I’d have rather been just about anywhere else, except that this weekend was my last chance to see Marcus before he left for school, and I wasn’t about to give up that opportunity.
  2. “I think that’ll do it!” Rob shouted. “We’ve got it. Sara, turn the music down for a minute. I need to double check-these figures before we give it another whirl.”

“Another whirl?” I sat up, my interest piqued again.

“Sure.” Rob circled around the metal box, scratching tapping frantically on his tablet. “Hercules came out just fine, exactly three minutes into the future. But if we’re going to the past, we can’t send a dog; we need someone who can adjust the settings and get themselves back to the present.”

Marcus knelt down and frowned at the box. “It’s going to be a tight squeeze.”

Rob’s eyes met mine over Marcus’s head. I could almost see the gears turning in his head, sizing up my 5’0″ frame, comparing it to the others in the room who were all well over a head taller than me.

“There is another solution, you know,” he said, just like I knew he would. “Kim’s a lot smaller. She could do it… if she’s not too scared.”

  1. “I’m not scared.”
  2. Marcus protested, not because he didn’t think I could handle the pressure, but because he’d never really gotten over me, and he’d never forgive himself if anything happened to me. I was moved by his concern but just gave him a reassuring smile and touched his cheek gently with my fingertips. Unable to hold back, he grabbed me by the waist and kissed me. I squeezed my eyes shut, and the world faded around us like some old-timey romantic movie.

Two truths and three lies…

  1. Marcus shrugged. I crawled into the box. The metal was cold and rigid, and the floor was covered in dog hair and drool. The chicken alfredo I’d had for lunch threatened to make a reappearance, but one look through the opening to where Marcus stood, arms crossed over his chest, a look of curiosity on his face, and I knew there was no way I could back out now.

“So where am I going?”

“How about… five years into the past?” Rob set the dial to today’s date five years earlier.

Five years? I stared at the dial, thinking how easy it would be, once the door was shut, to change it to the date I’d really like to revisit, the night I’d screwed everything up, the night I’d lost my one chance with Marcus.

  1. The look on his face as he stared down at me left no doubt that he was thinking the same thing. His eyes pleaded with me to just flick the dial, just a tiny bit… so I could make things right. So that we could be together, somehow.
  2. Rob leaned in, blocking my view. “Whatever you do, Kim, do not let anyone see you. Anything you do could have an effect on the timeline, and we don’t know what that would do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Any change you make could have serious repercussions on the present, making things totally different when you get back. Or, worse, you could splinter off into a parallel universe, making it impossible for you to get back here at all. Do you understand? Do you promise you won’t do anything stupid?”

  1. “Of course I won’t do anything stupid.”
  2. And as I shut the door, the last thing I saw was Marcus’s face and the look in his eyes meant only for me. As the door shut, he mouthed the words, “We were meant to be together.”

Two truths and four lies…

  1. I turned the dial and pressed the button.

The universe spun past in polychromic light. Despite the noise, despite the chaos, I could somehow make out the thread of my existence, backpedalling, retracing itself through time. Somehow I sensed each landmark, passing in reverse order. Me, descending the steps to our basement earlier that day and catching a whiff of Marcus’s cologne… the cheers at their graduation ceremony… the taste of bratwurst at the neighborhood picnic the summer after our big misunderstanding… the familiar roar of his car on the gravel road. Back and back the days passed until finally, the box landed with a thunk. I kicked the door open, desperate for fresh breath and the feel of solid earth. Desperate for my second chance.

The box had landed in our basement, the basement of two years ago, before Dad had hauled his cracked canoe down to sit in the corner, back when we had the old washing machine with the spin cycle that rattled the whole house.

I peered out the window. I’d arrived just in time. Marcus stood across the street, wearing that old t-shirt of his with the math joke on it that I’d never understood, pacing on his front porch as if he was trying to work up his courage. I knew how this would go. He’d walk across the street and ring the doorbell, and I — a stupid freshman taken entirely by surprise — would balk at his offer to take me to homecoming, reflexively saying “no” before my mind had time to process what he was asking. And before I’d have a chance to explain, to tell him that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to — I couldn’t; I was grounded — he’d turn and storm away, telling me to forget it. And for years, I’d pretend I had.

I had been such an idiot.

  1. I raced up the steps, trying to recall exactly where I’d been that day when I heard the doorbell. The bathroom. I’d been on my hands and knees scrubbing the black-and-white tiles where I’d vomited up my first taste of vodka, which had earned me my first real grounding.

I threw the door open.

“What the—?”

I grabbed her (my) shoulders. “I’m you, from the future, and you’re about to make a huge mistake.”

  1. After telling her (me) what to do, I totally didn’t wait around to watch as Marcus knocked on the door, flipping his hair from his eyes in the way only he could.
  2. And I certainly didn’t shed any tears when she (I) finally told him yes.
  3. And I most definitely didn’t stick around for three more days, sneaking hot dogs and frozen veggies from the garage freezer, just so that I could see her (me) sneak out the window in her (my) shimmering turquoise dress and jump into the shining red convertible his dad let him borrow, before I decided it was time to go home.
  4. I’d done what I needed to, and from that point on, everything—everything—would be perfect.

Two truths and five lies…

  1. The universe spun past, though more slowly this time as if, instead of rewinding like an old VHS tape, it was now carefully, meticulously rewriting itself.
  2. That didn’t bother me. It made sense. After all, wasn’t that what Rob warned me about? I was writing a new history for myself, the history that was always meant to be.
  3. I just had to sit back and relax, and then I’d be back, but this time with Marcus by my side. This time, we’d be together, we’d be an item, we’d be high school sweethearts planning a future together.
  4. I was so caught up in my daydreams that I didn’t notice the tale slowly spinning itself into existence around me. I didn’t notice when the laughter grew less and less frequent and the arguing and shouting grew more pronounced. When she (I) accused him of being a condescending jerk. When he accused her (me) of pretending to be dumb. When she (I) accused him of spending too much time in study groups with Sara Cooke. When he threw up his hands and insisted that they were just lab partners. I didn’t notice when the scent of flower bouquets and fresh aftershave were replaced by the scent of some other girl’s perfume on his jacket and in his car. Someone who smelled a lot like Sara.
  5. I didn’t notice the salty taste of tears, the sourness of bile in my throat when I caught him — my boyfriend — kissing Sara in a dark hallway at prom.
  6. Rob didn’t punch him. I didn’t dump him. We didn’t make a pact — sibling to sibling — never to allow that jerk into our lives again, never to have anything to do with him, certainly never to work with him on a time travel project which would enable me to go back in time, creating a paradox that somehow would leave me spinning frantically, desperately, perilously through time while my own present slowly disappeared.
  7. I wouldn’t be stuck in this box forever, because I knew, deep down in my heart, it was true: we were meant to be together.

An apology about how we’ve handled submissions

Since we soft launched AE last week, we’ve seen talk online about your story submissions. Are they still under consideration? What’s the status? Are we really back?

We realize in our excitement to resurrect the site we should have done a better job in managing submissions. You trusted us with your stories, and we didn’t honour that trust as well as we could have.

To everyone who’s still waiting to hear from us, we hope you will accept our sincere apology. It’s not how we intended for things to go, and we’re committed to improving the process.

When we began the process of relaunching AE in Spring 2017, our goal was to get the site back online, re-open to submissions, and continue publishing amazing science fiction as quickly as possible.

But rebuilding the site proved harder than we’d first thought. Plus, we’re all volunteers and our personal lives took us away from this work, sometimes for weeks. Yet we were making progress and believed success was right around the corner.

Of course, you didn’t know this. What you saw was a site that would appear and disappear, seemingly at random, without any changes or improvements. Some of you gave us up for dead, and we don’t blame you for that. Others saw a submissions page asking for stories and sent them in.

We’ve put a huge amount of effort over the past few months to read the 400+ submissions that we’ve received over the past 18 months, and are only now catching up with the backlog. We’ve read through 90% of those submissions and while most of you have now heard back from us, the authors of some of the best stories waited (and in some cases are still waiting) far too long for a response. We are sorry for keeping your stories in limbo for such a long time. We know the market well, and we know that it’s not fair to ask authors to wait on a decision when they could be pursuing other opportunities.

If you haven’t heard from us, that means your story is still under consideration, and you’ll be hearing from us soon. We’re really excited by some of the stories we’ve received and can’t wait to share them with you, but we also know that some of you may have submitted (and sold) them elsewhere.

If you haven’t heard from us and want to check on the status of your submission, email us at editors@aescifi.ca with the subject line “Submission Update Request” and the title of your story. Please be patient—it may take a few days to get back to you since we anticipate a lot of questions.

Paul, Helen, Duff, and the rest of the AE Team