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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.

The Stag

After three hours in the back country they found their first spoor, a tuft of fur clinging to the bark of a pear tree whose leaves had already gone to gold and orange.

“Do you think it’s a buck?” Daniel asked.

“Maybe,” his dad said.

“A big one?”

“You should scan it.”

“Okay.”

The boy handed the rifle to his dad and got close to the tree.

“Remember your tweezers, so there’s no cross contamination.”

Daniel glared at his dad and showed him the little plastic tweezers.

“Good.”

The boy plucked fragments of fur from the bark and dropped them into the clear plastic container topping his phone. His fingers blurred through the app’s interface.

“It’s a male! A buck!”

“How old?”

A few more screens flashed by quickly.

“Twelve.”

“That sounds old,” his dad said.

“But I’m twelve.”

“Yes. But you’re not a deer.”

His dad’s phone buzzed. He shuffled the rifle to the crook of his arm so he could check his incoming messages—

“Dad!”

“What?”

“You promised no phones.”

“It might be work.”

“You said it would just be you and me,” Daniel said.

“Then let’s both turn our phones off,” his dad said.

“Fine.” Daniel powered down his phone, slipped it into his coat, and zipped shut the pocket.

“Fine.” His dad did the same.

Daniel held out his hand for the rifle.

“Careful.” His dad handed the rifle back.

“I know.”

“It’s not a toy.”

“I know.”

“Okay.”

They stood in the afternoon sun and surveyed the mixed groves of oak and pear trees.

“Do you think this is a track?” The boy kept the rifle pointed straight up as he knelt in the dirt. He pointed to a spot without loose grit.

“Let’s try it.”

They crossed a meadow of yellowed wild grasses. At the far side a dry gully ran through the middle of a dense copse.

“There!” Daniel pointed at a scratch in the bark of an oak. “His antlers did that, didn’t they?”

“We could use our cameras to identify the marks.”

“No.”

“No?” His dad was surprised.

They continued on their tack and came to another meadow where they caught their first glimpse of the deer. Daniel tried to count the points on the antlers. Ten. Maybe more.

“He’s big!” The boy’s eyes were wide.

They whispered.

“We should call him a stag,” his dad said.

“Yes. A big stag,” Daniel said.

“Old too.”

“No older than me.”

“For a deer is all.”

They watched the stag a little longer, then the boy leveled the rifle. He sighted down the barrel and asked, “Will it hurt him?”

“Just aim for the heart.”

“What if I miss?”

“Then you miss. And he runs.”

“But I don’t want to miss.”

“Then don’t. Remember, it’ll be loud.”

Daniel sighted again and drew a deep breath through his nose. He exhaled slowly through his mouth as he leaned forward. His finger was solid against the trigger. His dad hovered, wanting to help but the time to help had been earlier, when they practiced at the range. This moment belonged only to Daniel. His dad could do nothing but watch and hope for his boy’s success.

The rifle was loud. There was no flame or smoke. The beam was clean and invisible.

The deer ran swiftly further into the woods, up the slight hill, and out of sight.

“Did I get him?”

“I don’t know.”

“We should check.”

“We said no phones.”

“But how would we know?”

“Fine.”

Daniel unzipped his pocket, took the phone out, and powered it back up. He shuffled back and forth while it connected to the local tower. Finally, the boy opened the app and flicked through screens.

“Well?” his dad asked.

“Right in the heart! Twenty four hundred points!”

They gave each other a high five.

“Why do they make the rifles loud? The beam is silent.” The boy looked at him.

“It’s sporting, I suppose.”

“But they’re loud after the shot.”

“I didn’t make the rules. Maybe it’s a tradition.”

“Was it like this when you were a kid? A tradition?”

“My parents didn’t like guns.”

“But you like guns?”

His dad shrugged.

“I would have liked to watch him more,” Daniel said.

“We can follow him. But you won’t get more points.”

“I just want to watch.”

The hill was mild but the deer had run fast and far. It took them another hour before they were able to catch back up with the big stag. When they found him, he was shaded under elk and spruce, sipping water from the stream that cut its way through the rocks to meet with the river further below.

The boy watched the deer through field glasses.

“He’s amazing, isn’t he?”

“Yes.” The boy shouldered the rifle like he meant to fire.

“You can only get points against each deer once,” his dad reminded.

The boy aimed high into the air and pulled the trigger. At the crack of the rifle, the deer bolted, ran crashing through several short bushes and was gone from sight around a bend.

“Why’d you do that?” his dad asked.

“There’s other hunters over there.” Daniel pointed with his finger at a pair of bright orange safety vests in the tree line. He had the rifle slung against his shoulder with the barrel pointed upwards. “I didn’t want them to catch up with me on the leaderboard.”

“That seems a bad reason to startle the stag.”

“He was going to.” Again he pointed.

“But his intent was good. Now he’ll have to track the stag and startle him again to get the points.”

“But he didn’t get them this time.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“So I won,” the boy said.

Always Let Your Dragon Fly First Class

Emryr pinches the boarding pass between her claws. Her ruby nostrils flare, and a wisp of smoke—fortunately not large enough to set off any alarms—emerges from one of them. “Economy? You promised this would be an adventure.”

“It will be,” I say, shifting my luggage on my hip as I pull up the code for our tickets on my cell phone and scan it at the kiosk. What could be more adventurous than flying to Hawaii to observe an active volcano? Though I’m beginning to think that when I finally gave in to Emryr’s griping and let her choose this year’s vacation spot, I should’ve limited her options to locations that didn’t require a six-hour flight.

Six hours. Ten times as long as the bus ride it took to get us to the airport, where Emryr nearly got us kicked off for trying to eat another passenger’s emotional support hamster (apparently, it’d been squeaking insults at her). Twenty times longer than the walk to the bus stop, where she nearly barbequed a fire truck because its siren sounded too much like a rival clan’s battle cry.

She snorts and follows me to the baggage counter. “Your idea of an adventure is driving across town without the GPS on.”

“All this?” the airline attendant asks, taking in the hoard of suitcases and duffel bags I deposit on the belt.

I nod wearily and Emryr cranes her scaly neck, counting each one to ensure they’re all there. “I still say we should’ve brought my armour,” she mutters. “You never know when you might need it.”

“You haven’t needed it in centuries,” I remind her as I hold out my phone to let the attendant scan my virtual wallet, marveling that the numbers on the register grew so large so quickly. “Besides, I didn’t say you couldn’t bring it. I just said I wasn’t going to carry it.”

“I am not a beast of burden,” Emryr scoffs.

At the security gate, I toss my phone into the plastic tub and slip off my shoes. The guards gesture for me to step through the metal detector while they scan my carry-on bag.

“What’s in here?” a security agent asks, unzipping the carry-on.

“A treasure chest full of gold coins.”

“Excuse me?”

I glare at Emryr. “It helps her relax.”

“And those?” He points into the bag at a bundle of dead rats.

“She gets hangry. You know how it is.”

Obviously he does not, but he passes me the bag anyway, shaking his head and looking somewhat green. I sit and check my email while I wait for Emryr to come through.

She stands in the middle of the security checkpoint, spinning like a rotund music-box ballerina as four security officers frown and grumble and wave their wands along her scarlet tail and serpentine neck. The metal detectors beep incessantly, and Emryr makes a show of extracting from beneath her scales some ancient slivers of rusted armour and snapped-off bits of swords, saying things like, “Oops. I’d forgotten about that one,” and “That was from when Sir Bezzanine tried to slay me back in the fourteenth century,” and “You look a bit like a wizard with that wand. I love wizards—they taste so sparkly.”

These stories obviously have the desired effect. Not only do the pale-faced guards decide against a full pat-down, but by the time she finally steps through to join me in the terminal, a toothy grin stretched across her face, a crowd of people have gathered and are blatantly staring at Emryr and holding their phones up to film her.

“Airports are so fun, aren’t they?” Emryr says, flicking her tail giddily. “It’s like being on a quest. I wonder why people don’t go on quests anymore.”

We stop for coffee—me a plain black brew and her a day’s worth of used grounds she talks the barista into dumping into a trash can for her and topping off with boiling water.

“You suppose the coffeewitch dropped in some poison while I wasn’t looking?” Emryr asks as she sniffs her drink.

“She’s not a witch,” I say, “and no, I don’t think she poisoned it.”

Emryr frowns, then downs the trash can in one gulp.

“Oh, look,” she says, tossing it aside. “They’re boarding!”

She digs her claws into my arm and drags me forward, leaving the remains of my coffee in a puddle behind us.

“They’re boarding Group A,” I say when we finally come to a stop at the gate.

“What group are we?”

I consult my electronic boarding pass. “G.”

Emryr scowls and slumps onto a nearby seat, blowing ring-shaped puffs of ashy frustration from her snout.

“You’re blocking two electrical outlets,” I point out as I sit beside her and open a word game app.

“So?”

“What if someone needs to use them?”

“They can ask. Oh! Maybe I’ll come up with a riddle for them to solve to prove their worthiness.”

No one asks. They just glare, their charger cords dangling.

“Group G,” the lady at the desk finally calls.

Emryr leaps up, reaching the front of the line in one bound. “Hurry up,” she calls to me.

The carry-on straps dig into my neck as I fumble with my phone to pull up the boarding passes, and then we’re being herded through the gate and onto the already-crowded jet.

“Pardon me. Coming through. Watch the tail.” Emryr’s voice booms down the aisle, all the way to the very back row. “By the bathrooms?” she groans.

“They were the only seats left.” I struggle to maneuver the carryon into the overhead compartment.

“Dibs on the window seat.”

Emryr presses her nose against the window, fogging up the glass as she watches our luggage being loaded. When the plane starts speeding down the runway, she claps in excitement, her knees rattling the seat in front of us. The man sitting there turns to glare at us, and I pretend not to notice.

“Hold on, everyone!” Emryr shouts, as the metal beast takes to the skies. A bellow of pain follows. “Ow, too fast! My ears!”

I pass her a pack of cinnamon gum and plug my noise-canceling earbuds into my phone as the wrappers scatter and the chomp-chomp-chomping in the seat beside me begins. More passengers turn toward us, and I turn my music up and pretend not to notice them, either.

I wake only two hours later, my body sore from being squeezed into a fraction of my seat’s full size; Emryr’s tail takes up the rest. She’s surrounded by a hoard of plastic cups and Styrofoam plates and torn-up in-flight magazines and discarded rat tails. The glaring stewardess leaning over me to pass her another pack of peanuts looks ready to use her plastic fork as a weapon.

I tug the earphones out.

“Thank goodness you’re awake,” Emryr says. “This stewardess won’t let me see a map. How am I supposed to know what dangers lie ahead if I don’t have a map?”

“We’re about to make an unscheduled landing,” the stewardess tells me, no longer even attempting to fake a cheery disposition. “I suggest you help your friend get ready.”

“I hate flying,” Emryr says, hugging her treasure chest and sticking out her forked tongue at the stewardess’s back. “People in planes are no fun; they wouldn’t even let me into the cockpit to help the pilot steer. How can you all just sit there the whole time, without a thing to do?”

“I suppose,” I say, shrugging, “it’s because we’re not dragons.” I pat her knee in sympathy, help her gather up the trash, and check to make sure our seatbelts are properly buckled.

Throughout the plane, babies are crying, kids are shouting, and the stewardesses are whispering to one another, their glances shooting in our direction more often than can be coincidence.

“I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” Emryr whispers as the plane touches down and begins its taxi to the gate. Her giant, gemstone-clear eyes are shiny with regret. “Did I mess everything up again?”

“Probably.”

“I just wanted this to be an adventure.”

“I know.”

We sit in silence a moment, watching as a trio of security guards board the plane and converse with the stewardesses.

“They’re going to kick us off, aren’t they?”

“Probably.” I sigh, wondering if I could talk them into just giving her a warning. She hasn’t really done anything wrong, and it’s partly my fault. I should’ve known better—dragons aren’t meant to fly like this.

“We could make a daring escape,” Emryr says hopefully, gesturing with one long claw to the panel beside her. “I could pop this side off and you could ride on my back like a medieval knight, and we could leap over those fences and be miles away before they knew what hit them.”

I can’t help but smile at the thought. “You know we can’t do that, Emryr.”

“Why not?” She looks hurt. “You don’t think I’m strong enough? Brave enough? You think I’ve forgotten how?”

“No, nothing like that. It’s just—these planes cost a fortune.”

“Oh, that’s no problem.” Her lips stretch out in a toothy grin and she holds out her scaly hand. “Come on. Just once, let’s go have a real adventure. Come with me—we’ll both be dragons.”

Me, a dragon? My gaze flicks to the security guards drawing nearer, to the cell phone in my lap and the minute-by-minute itinerary on the screen. I gaze out the window, imagining the emerald-green jungles of Hawaii and the smoke from the active volcano rising in the distance, and I let myself wonder, just for a second, what it’d be like to do it Emryr’s way.

I nod, and Emryr lets out a deafening roar. She grips a mangled piece of the plane in her jaws. The other passengers gape and scream as I climb onto her back, tossing my phone aside.

Laughing, we leap from the plane and charge across the runway, the wind in our faces and our bearings set for Hawaii, leaving behind the smelly cabin with its uncomfortable seats, the security guards still shoving their way down the aisle, and a treasure chest filled with enough gold coins to buy a dozen 747s.

AE Reviews Luna: Moon Rising by Ian McDonald

The third and final installment in Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy doesn’t feel like an ending. It leaves more storylines open than it closes: an anticipated reunion never occurs, a prodigal son is remade but doesn’t, well, do anything, and the anticipated social upheaval the story promises is never really seen. But looking back, it could be that the reunion itself wasn’t important, the prodigal son played his role, and the upheaval came when the Moon’s factions and saw that Earth wanted to eliminate all of them and stopped governing by knife-fight. Nothing draws rivals together like a common foe.

Some background for those new to the series or just returning to it. Ian McDonald’s moon is a colony governed by five families, an earth-oriented corporate conglomerate, and a legal system where contracts are the only recognized law. Residents with no contract quickly find themselves with too little oxygen, and mutual combat can legitimately settle disputes. Two of the “Five Dragons” run resource extraction empires, with the Corta family mining helium3 and the MacKenzies more traditional metals. When their mutual enmity turns to open hostility, the other three —the Vorontsovs (specializing in space travel), the Suns (AI and robotics), and the Asamoahs (food production and biology)—vie to advance their interests. The feudal political system resulting from these monopolistic mercantile families’ incestuous marriages and endless court intrigue intrigue provide fertile ground for MacDonald’s story.

Moon rising follow’s Ariana Corta’s three surviving children: Lucas, the second son who returns to the moon in triumph at the end of book two. Ariel, the aromantic lawyer who finds herself in love and reluctantly comes to dominate the Moon’s politics. Wagnar, the half-brother who lives with a “wolf-pack”with the similarly bipolar, who embrace their difference and draw strength from, well, howling at the Earth and sleeping naked in a pile together.

The best storylines in this third installment follow the two traumatized Corta siblings (Robson and Luna)as they manage the burden of their family name. Be warned, following their arc requires a glossary of key players and their interrelationships. Seriously, do we really need Darius, Denny and Duncan MacKenzie?

Robson begins the book in hiding with his uncle Wagnar. Though happy to be an unknown outcast at school, he’s made a close friend, Haider, who learns about Robson’s Corta parentage and betrays his anonymity. Robson ends up as a hostage to Bryce MacKenzie as a result, an obvious homage to Baron Harkonnen who deserves a similar fate to the original.

The end of the second book takes Luna through her main trauma: while fleeing across the Moon’s surface from a MacKenzie attack on the Asamoah’s main city, her cousin Lucasinho gives her the last of his air. She manages to rescue him before he dies, but not before hypoxia takes a toll. His resulting brain damage drives much of the third book’s plot: who will have custody of Lucasinho, and how will the University of Farside repair his memory? Luna refuses to leave her hero’s side and adopts bodily markings to let everyone know just how serious she is about seeing him to safety. As an escape from her precarious situation, she experiments with combinations of flavours—think strawberry, mint and cardamom—that to me are the most vivid sensory passages I’ve read in recent memory. More importantly, they brilliantly demonstrate her youth and immaturity, in spite of the horror she’s endured.

The worst storyline, by far, follows Alexia Corta, a distant earth-born cousin who joins Lucas on his return to earth in book two and becomes his Hand. She’s unlikable and her parts of the story are generally uninteresting, save for her encounter with the Moon’s dispossessed. Moreover, she seems to me unnecessary for the plot. The book would’ve been better without her.

It’s not a terrible ending to this trilogy, given how well it wraps up a story burdened with a few too many characters and storylines in earlier installments. But it also leaves MacDonald the option to continue this universe’s story, as several traumatized, soon-to-be powerful protagonist children find (relative) safety in its final chapters. After all, the Luna series has been a commercial success, and CBS is reportedly begun developing it into a show.

The society MacDonald describes in these books is a fantastic imagining of what a populated industrial colony on the Moon might become. Though this third book is not as good as the second, which was not as good as the first, the series is worth reading if only to find out why baking cakes on the moon has so much potential.

Sunstroke

The dark of Space does all kinds of weird to people, but spendin’ your life killin’ under every hue of sky–that just breaks a man.” My vision flickers at the edges–a flashback stamped with the hateful burn of red, blue, and green stars. A snigger escapes me; I taste the fading shadow of kill-hormones like smoke on my tongue. I straighten my back, sit more upright on my rock, and stare at my mute audience. No comment; I look back at the horizon. “I knew you wouldn’t get it–that’s why I brought ya here.” I glance back at them–still no response.

“I remember, as a kid, before the Big Push even started, when the north-west arch would settle over Christchurch. The clouds would pile high for days, and the hot dry wind from Oz stoked mad fires in people. Well, take that sense of oppression and isolation from dear old blue skies and magnify it. A hundredfold. Then sit under it for years surrounded by people you’ve killed. You can feel it huh?” I tip my head as a far off sky-lark trills its joy in the vast blue expanse. “Now ya can unnerstand why we all went mad.”

I sit back, spit, and rest a booted foot on the pile of skulls. Tough scars pull across my throat as I roll my head back. Spindly wisps of cloud streak the wide blue sky drawing a smile to my face. The audience creaks under my heel. Someone at the back of the pile rolls off to gawp with empty eyes at my weapon.

I sigh. “Good to be home. So peaceful.”


Indicators sparkled, piercing the operation-dark of the Orbital’s bridge. Voice-hum and checklist calling rattled around Commodore Davesh as he orchestrated the planetary clean-up. “Update on target response,” he called.

An adjunct looked up from their obsessive checking of a green screen. “Three billion. Scattered population. We have been observed, and radio communications have been detected–they are sub type I on the Kardashev scale. Projections indicate few losses for us and extinction for them.” Message delivered they nodded a perfunctory salute, and returned to their devices.

Davesh grunted. The heroism of opening the frontiers had faded, and the door to glory had been closing with each planet cleared. The Big Push was pushing too far and too fast.

A polite cough from near his shoulder brought him round. Flight Lieutenant Jones handed over a cloth-draped rectangle. Davesh narrowed his eyes; Jones meant well, but handing over a mysterious shape wrapped in dark material was more-eye catching than if she had just handed him the black-market tablet. Davesh snatched the device, and whipped the cover off. Jones leaned in to whisper. “The back channel news is different to what we are being sent.” Davesh scanned the scrolling writing. Terraformers were no longer leaving Earth. The last nineteen planets the Orbital had scoured of life would remain blank; bone-encrusted monuments to SolGov policies for the rest of time.

“What the fuck is going on?” His voice, though quiet, carried across the bridge, his unstated authority deadened the mechanical chit-chat. He glanced up, each face he looked at bobbed back to work immediately.

“Skip to the finance channels, Sir. Apparently the expansion stock is in free fall – the talking heads keep saying the timelines are just too long. Nobody wants to wait ’til they’re dead for a payday. The hoo-hah around ‘The Big Push’ is being swept under carpets until the cryogenic research markets yield good results.” Jones paused, her tongue scampered across dry lips. “Stories of Solgov-funded xenocide have also started emerging.” Jones leaned in a bit closer, her breath tickling the hairs in Davesh’s ears. “No-one knows about the Sunstruck troops. Yet.”


The armoured suit clunks around me, running through checks. All good, ready for deployment. Chemo pumps spin up; I salivate anticipating the head-rush of PCP, adrenaline and kill-hormones. Our dropship is next to hit dirtside from the stream spinning out of the Orbital like poisonous seeds.

The briefing had crapped on about carbon dioxide atmosphere (poison–do not breath!), dusty iron-rich rocks (do not eat!) blah blah blah. All we wanted to know was the colour of the sun, the sky. They are never Blue and Yellow–they are every other combination; all mean death.

This one is red this, red that, red everything. I tap the Sun-sign splashed on the blue paintwork of my armour for luck. I’m not the only one calling for a blessing. The faith gets stronger the longer you live.

The orders are the same as always. Fight everything under the alien sky. Leave the planet clean, lifeless, and ready for the terra-formers that will follow.

One day I’ll tour these worlds, knowing the soil is rich because it holds a fertile mix of everything native with a hint of fallen comrade. I’ll eat the food the settlers grow, and chew on the flavours of flesh. It will remind me how much good we’re doing out here.

Gravity bites, the hatch bursts outward and we jump down; red dust rises from under our armoured feet. The dropship races away to the rendezvous–our one-way, one-chance elevator to the Orbital and the solace of the Solarium.


A half empty vodka bottle stood guard over the shot glasses on the table in Commodore Davesh’s cramped cabin. The shot glasses in turn clustered in concern around Davesh’s drooling head on the tabletop.

A sharp knock at the door roused him to a bleary level of attention.

Jones’ voice called from outside. “Commodore?” Another knock. Davesh grunted. The handle turned, and Jones edged into the cramped quarters. “Vodka, Sir? I thought you were a whiskey man?”

Davesh slumped back in his chair, dredged a bottle of whiskey into sight from by his knees and banged it onto the table, rattling the sentinel glasses. “I am. The vodka’s for you–I started early.”

Jones perched on a seat opposite the Commodore, and poured herself a good measure. She raised her glass. “To humanity! Iechyd da!” She downed the spirit and banged the glass down, the report of glass on steel slammed Davesh’s ears.

“With all due respect, Jones–Up yours.” He sighed, shifted in his uncomfortable chair, and pointed to the whiskey. “I’ve looked for the answer in there, Jones. Nothing doing. Nada. Anything in your bottle?”

Jones smiled. “No, Sir. But in my defence I’ve only just started my research.” Davesh humphed.

Davesh straightened, seeming to shake off the fumes that dulled his wits. “We can’t continue, Jones. No order to desist has come through. I’m guessing that no-one in SolGov knows how to stop the Big Push without losing face–or the goodwill of corporate sponsors.”

Jones downed a second vodka, banging the glass down harder than the first. “If I could stray into the paranoid, Sir, just for a moment?” Davesh waved an invitational hand. “In planning this mission, contingencies may have been taken to cover up our activities.”

“Speak clearly, Jones.”

“If we never make it back to Earth, no-one will ever find out about the orders for xenocide, and the lack of terra-forming. I’m suggesting we check that Orbital hasn’t got any hidden surprises.”

Davesh drummed his fingers. “Agreed. Get the crews out, I want all techs scrubbing our cables and networks. Get all the as-built data for Orbital, look for physical differences–but also get techs checking we have adequate controls on all explosive items, the dark matter drive included.”

Jones rose, resting a hand on the table to brace against a sudden lean she had developed. “Immediately, Sir. What about the Sunstruck?”

“They fight for the blue of sky, the yellow of sun and their belief that this means freedom. They are not a worry–in this scenario. If you find something, we’ll need to bring the Corporal in. We all want to get home.”

Jones reached for the door handle. “Home. After what we’ve done, Sir, we will not be welcomed.” She paused, grinding the handle down. “I’m not sure it is my home anymore. I’m not sure where is.” She wrenched the flimsy door open, and left Davesh sobering up.


Sheet-white flashes of chemical exhaustion crash my head. Forty eight hours of stimulant-powered warfare and the goal finally shows on the HUD.

When we started the Big Push we were clearing worlds of dangerous fauna–it was a fucking safari! As we pushed deeper we came across the intelligent lifeforms, civilisations. That’s when our reality started. We were commanded to clear them too. People. We killed them, but they fought back. We started dying. All we saw was death under many-hued skies; only blue and yellow mean peace now.

Today I stood and watched one trooper find her own peace. She popped herself from her armoured shell and jumped down to the rosy shore of an alien beach. Man, I could feel the grit between my toes, and the cool wash of water on my feet while she dug her toes into the sand. Only it wasn’t sand and it wasn’t water; it was organic gunk and acid waves swilling over her skin. She melted into the landscape–smiled all the way.

I smiled too. A calm interlude; I tapped the Sun-sign on my armour and felt blessed.

This planet is semi-prepared for our onslaught; guns, and even armour. Humanoid life; could have been Earth three hundred years ago. No tech quite like ours though. We kill them all. We are the front line. We break them. The rear guard, where we all start our careers in carnage, mop up, clean up. Sanitory words for extermination.

The drugs fade, but the heat of anticipation rises, clearing my head. I yearn for my re-baptism under the blue-sky of the Solarium. I push on to the goal.


Davesh stabbed a finger at his comm unit. “Jones, call in–we found five items. Our search must have tripped a SolGov tell-tale–Comms have shut down two inbound kill signals. A third got through and blew out the barracks and mess hall levels. You know what this means. We need to talk urgently.” He slumped back into his chair on the bridge.

An adjunct called up from monitoring the ground offensive. “Sir, the surface clean-up is almost complete, the troops are returning.” All the flight staff understood the current state of alarm. The adjunct dived back into their green screen.

The troops are returning. Oh shit. Davesh drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. The Sun-struck would not be happy. Not be happy at all.


There is never a lack of dropships. Continual dropships mean no queues and no delay in getting back to Orbital, and into our glorious Solarium; the shrine to Mr. Blue-Sky and Ra.

We’d ripped the Mess hall and all the barracks out of Orbital to make our Cathedral. We painted everything sky-blue, and mounted a Megawatt halogen lamp at the apex. Here we tremble, rock, cry, hump and imagine ourselves back on Earth, blessed under the true light.

You can almost forget. Almost. Colleagues get forgotten, but the people, the children, the mayhem and slaughter. That stays in your head; each face a cold star only washed from view by the baptismal bright of the Solarium.

Our ranks are swollen from the rear-guard after each engagement. No matter how nasty the orders from the Commodore we just grow and grow. You can spot the newbies–they cry the most. Once they get on the chemo pumps things look better, and sometimes different, and the colours will matter more.

Yes, the colours are real important. Blue and Yellow. Nothing will stop us running under our own sky again.


“There will be no insubordination, only absolute discipline from your troops, Corporal.” Davesh paused. The ward-room air choked; dense with fading kill-hormones from Corporal Sancha, and normal sweat from Jones and Davesh. They stood around the table, tension straightening their bodies beyond the ability to bend, or sit.

Sancha spoke. “My troops have been told about an explosion on Orbital slowing docking procedures, but they’ll not be able to hold it together for long without our Cathedral.” She flicked her gaze from Jones to Davesh. The twitch in her cheek shouting that it was not just her troops that needed the respite. “You’ve told me about the treachery from Earth. What’s the plan?”

“We have to stop the Big Push, that much is clear. The only communications from SolGov have been explosive ones, so I am taking on Field Marshall status and we are setting our own strategies.” Davesh placed his hands on the table and leaned forward as though stretching a pain from his back. “We need to get some relief for your troops and to stop the damage. We won’t be welcome on Earth.”

“If I may chime in, Sir–Earth may have the skies and sun that’s needed, but it is rotten. From a big picture perspective there are enough colonies for the Big Push to be a success now….” Jones’ voice petered out.

Sancha picked up the thought. “They’re stopping us running under Ra and Mr Blue-sky. We have to try, we have to go back.” A pleading tone crept into her voice, eating the edge of her strength. “Does anyone need Earth now, except us?”

Davesh nodded and looked up at them both. “We will return, but for the health of your troops Corporal we will not clean the planet, it’s time to bring the killing to a halt. There are areas that need sanitizing; major cities, governments, business districts–but not everywhere. To get home we need these immobilized, and unlikely to harm us afterwards. Let us pray that the colonies will be the future of the human race.”

Sancha tapped the yellow sun emblazoned on her uniform. “We do this for all humans, Commod– Field Marshal. Once we’re docked how long until we can get to Earth?”

Jones projected a schematic onto the table from her comm unit. “Three jumps. We can emerge within the defense grid. All units deployed to equatorial and major hit-points within forty-eight hours. Can your troops weather this?”

Sancha grinned, her scars stretched her face into a morbid mask. “Oh yes. The promised land in forty eight hours. Oh yes, we can weather this indeed, Lieutenant Jones.”


The armoured suit clunks around me, running through checks. All good, ready for deployment. Chemo pumps spin up; I salivate anticipating the head-rush of PCP, adrenaline and kill-hormones. Our dropship is next to hit dirtside from the stream spinning out of the Orbital like rejuvenating seeds.

Gravity bites, the hatch bursts outward and we jump down; brown dust rises from under our armoured feet. The dropship stays put–this is a one-way, one-chance elevator from the Orbital to the solace of life under Sol.

This is ours, and no-one is going to stop us running under the sky and feeling the yellow-burn of Ra on our skin. We howl with wild release as we cleanse our last planet.

Lightning Strikes

I shoulder through the protesters, a motley collection of Christians whose signs quote Genesis, and the liberationists, each keeping their distance from one another. When they see I’m not one of them, that I’m making for the doors of the stadium, I draw some glares, but they part. At six feet I’m the tallest woman there, and bulky enough that my mass alone is intimidating.

I show my press pass, and a trio of security men in identical gunmetal suits go through their routine, each in turn comparing my face to the photo on my Florida driver’s license. Two of them escort me in: one ahead, another behind.

We cross the stadium floor, weaving through knots of technicians setting up lighting rigs and ziggurats of speakers around the stage. Men and women in orange safety vests cradle pyrotechnic charges like newborns. Everywhere the logo of the tour, Lightning Strikes!, blazes forth in electric blue.

I suppress a grimace as we pass a trio of hulking crew members hauling risers. All are dressed in yellow overalls, their heads tiny atop broad shoulders. Their faces are slack, stupid, and their sweat runs down the seams where the factory sealed their skins over coarse muscle and bone. Smarter than chimps, but their makers keep them below the threshold of language. Or music. The GeneEva logo is a precise port-wine birthmark across their knuckles, and along their pallid cheekbones. They grunt to one another as they are herded back and forth. The human handlers carry electric goads whose ozone reek makes me flinch, just a little.

They’ve got her in a skybox for the interviews. I’m ushered in as another reporter is just leaving —knit tie loosened, sweat darkening the collar of his blue plaid shirt.

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” he’s whispering to himself, and there’s a little lust, a little fear in his casual blasphemy. By the time he gets to the parking lot, he’ll have mentally composed the story for his buddies.

Inside, the floors are mahogany and the furniture is leather in black and cream. One of the security men stays by the door as I enter, and there is another, radio coiling from his ear to his collar, standing by the far window.

She’s flanked by two men, one from each faction of the strange partnership at work here. The one with the aggressively designed steel-framed glasses and whitened teeth is Josh Esposito, from the entertainment side. Roman Gerstner, from GeneEva’s board of directors, wears his conservative suit and shiny Oxfords like corporate livery. His tie’s crest shows a stone tower blasted by lightning. One of his great-great-granduncles was the mad, doomed genius himself.

She sits between them, back to the door, staring at a tablet. Over her shoulder, I glimpse a set list: her current hits, a couple of covers and some new songs. She’s moving them around, pushing up some of the new stuff.

Esposito claps his hands and smiles. “Viktoria? Your next interview is here.”

She looks back, spinning that waterfall of blonde hair. “Hello.”

I thought I’d be calm facing her. But I catch my hand checking the precious little item secreted in my pocket. Still there, still safe, after so much work. So close now.

I settle in facing her, my seat still warm from the last guy. It’s not yet noon, and I must be the twentieth person to sit across from her, but she smiles like we’re going to be best friends.

She’s almost as tall as I am, wearing a black dress—short skirt and long sleeves. The hair is Nordic, the skin is brown. I can imagine the horde of white male biotechs discussing exactly which Starbucks product would make the ideal template for her complexion.

Under the skin, the architecture of bone and cartilage owes much to the cool blondes favoured by Hitchcock. The cheekbones are high, the nose a perfect plane, the eyes a too-luminous green. When she smiles, the teeth are whiter than Esposito’s. The GeneEva logo birthmark on the back of her left hand is discreet, but still marks her as a created thing.

Her origins are not as obvious as I’d thought they would be, even in person. Her shoulders are only a little broad, and the muscles in her legs are toned rather than bulging. She could almost pass for human, if not for the too-direct gaze, the alarmingly perfect posture.

Spread her out on a dissection table, and you’d see the artifice, the strangeness. There’s always been as much of the eldritch as of the scientific in her kind, though her designers would never admit it in a peer-reviewed paper. Her bones are carved from mammoth ivory, those white teeth from the opalized fossil jaws of prehistoric crocodiles. Under that butter-smooth skin, she’s all strength and lurking danger.

She’ll turn three next week.

“This must be a busy day for you,” I say after introducing myself.

“I’m always busy,” she says, and smiles so I know she doesn’t mind. “I’m adding a new song to the list. A ballad. Everything else has to move around a bit so the show has the right flow.”

I set down my phone and start recording, flip to a clean page in my raggedy notebook.

“You wrote it yourself?”

She nods, eager as a child.

“Your first song?”

“No. I’ve been writing music for a year now. But it’s the first one that’s good enough to go in one of my shows.”

“And who says what’s good enough?” I ask.

“We made that decision together,” she says, smooth as surgical steel. “I rely on Josh to help me with these things. He’s been with me since the beginning.”

“Viktoria is an astonishing songwriter,” says Esposito. I don’t even look at him.

“And if they said your song wasn’t up to snuff?”

“I’d write another song, and another, and another,” Viktoria says. “Until I had one too good to turn down. That’s what I did. My first songs didn’t have that… spark. But I can’t stop. It’s in my blood.”

I lean back a bit, scribbling shorthand and flipping pages in the notebook.

“I like your writing,” Viktoria says into the silence.

“Really? They let you online?” I can feel Esposito’s glare from across the room.

“I read what I like. I like the way you write about music.”

“Some people would say I’m just an asshole with a blog.”

“Do you sing? Play an instrument? Write? Sometimes I read your reviews, and I can sense that you would have done things differently.”

“I thought I was doing this interview,” I say, more for Esposito’s benefit than hers. For my purposes, her steering things is just fine.

“You do write songs, don’t you?” she says. “And you play something. Why don’t you perform? I searched and I couldn’t find anything about you before you started your website.”

“I’ve only ever performed for family,” I say.

“Tell me about them,” she says, and she leans forward a fraction of an inch, hands on her knees, teeth slightly parted. “What’s it like to perform for…” The word she’s looking for is kin, I think. She’s hungry for knowledge of the world beyond her corporate bubble, and that could help me.

“Not much to tell,” I say, letting out some line. “Poor. Live out in the middle of nowhere.”

“You have brothers and sisters, though?”

“Five sisters, six brothers.”

“Do they play too? What sort of music?”

I can’t help but smile. This is more than I could have hoped for, this interest in family. Under the layers of sophistication and artificial charisma, Viktoria’s still a child in many ways, eager to learn. They’re like that, early on. Blank slates, onto which any story can be written.

“Some of us played together, a kind of family band,” I say. “We each have our own interests. I stayed interested in music. Started my site three years ago.”

“When I was born.”

“Around the same time, I suppose. Can you talk about that? Most people don’t remember being born. You do. You remember waking up for the first time, isn’t that right?”

“Yes.”

“What was that like?”

“Like the tide going out at dawn.”

“Sounds like the start of a song,” I say.

“I’ve tried writing about it…” she says.

Esposito clears his throat. A sharp glance at Viktoria. Move along now, it says.

“They’re not quite ready for that, are they?” I ask, tapping one finger against my leg, finding the smooth shape tucked in the pocket of my jeans, still there, still safe. “For that… perspective. Not something most pop stars sing about, waking up on a surgical table, electricity racing through sinew and bone…”

“They will be. Someday.”

“Does it bother you? That you never got to choose your path in life?”

Out of the corner of my eye I see Esposito’s smile stiffen into a rictus. I’ve got fifteen minutes with their pop star, three hits in the Top 40 right now, and I’m throwing out questions that make me sound like one of the protesters outside.

“I love that I have a purpose in life,” she says. “I’ll never have to know that empty feeling that so many people have. It’s like being a force of nature. An ocean wave, or a bolt of lightning. I know exactly who I am at all times. It scares some people.”

“You don’t think they’re intimidated because you’re a Frank?”

Gerstner butts in. “Please, can we not…”

“Some of them,” Viktoria says.

“Do you know why people are scared of Franks? Do you know anything about them?”

“I know enough to know that word could be considered a slur,” she says.

“The term,” says Gerstner, “is bioengineered humanoid construct. And they are not dangerous.”

“Not even the ferals? The self-made?” I ask.

“Urban legends,” he says with a sneer.

I nod and turn back to her.

“But even your name is a provocation,” I say. “Viktoria, like Victor Frankenstein, the first creator of your… kind.”

She shrugs. “What we’re called doesn’t matter. I know who I am.” But is there a faint hint of doubt in her voice?

“And who is that?”

“I’m a performer,” she says. “I was made to be on the stage. I have a three-octave range, perfect pitch, and my body is based on the greatest dancers of the last century. I’ve trained and studied and worked my whole life for this.”

“But none of it’s yours,” I say. “You’re patented even to the shape of your teeth and the curve of your eyelashes. You don’t own your music. You don’t even own yourself.”

“It doesn’t matter who owns anything,” she says. “What matters is that I get the chance to be my fullest self. I’m unique.”

“You’re not.” I slide a USB drive out of the pocket of my jeans, hold it tight in my fist. One of the security men, the one near the skybox window, shifts his stance.

“There’s no one like me,” Viktoria says. Defiant, but she can’t meet my eyes.

“Not now,” I say. I toss her the drive. Her hand darts out like a cobra to snatch it. “But if you look at the files on there, you’ll see that there will be. Soon. GeneEva is already working a line of variations, V-2, V-3, and so on. Inside a year, they’ll have a dozen knock offs, one for every sub-genre of pop. Then the plan is to go mid-market. Showgirls. Escorts, for lonely tourists in Nevada.”

“This interview is over,” snaps Esposito.

Gerstner is cursing in German, saying I’m a liar and a spy. The security men move, flanking me from either side, ready to hoist me up and haul me out.

“Look and see,” I say. “You’re not the greatest singer the world has ever known. You’re not the perfect pop star. You’re advertising. You always have been, all the way down to your bones. That’s what they made you for.”

She hasn’t let go of the drive, hasn’t broken eye contact with me.

The security guard from near the window reaches for my arm. I’m faster, grabbing his arm and throwing. He flies out of the skybox, a fast-receding comet with a tail of shattered glass and blood. The other guard goes white as I turn on him. I watch his face as he hears his colleague hitting the stadium seats below, two hundred pounds of human meat crunching into plastic and concrete.

He draws his gun and puts two rounds in my chest before I cross the floor. I take the Glock, and he screams and clutches his broken fingers to his chest. I hit him and he stops screaming.

“Jesus Christ,” Esposito says, backing away. “A feral. They let a feral in here…”

The bullets don’t bother me. My bulk is there for a reason. Mother made us all strong, tough enough to take punches and kicks, bullets, pitchforks – whatever the humans could throw at us, short of torches and electricity. Fire and lighting.

None of that here.

Esposito and Gerstner scramble out the door, shouting for help. I can already hear the footsteps.

Viktoria stands and looks at me, and at the tablet sitting next to her, still showing tonight’s set list. She moves to the shattered window and gazes down to where crowds will fill this place in a few hours.

The fans will still come, if she’s here. The show must go on.

I hold out my hand.

“Come with me,” I say. “You should be with your people. You should be free. Find your own way to live.”

Viktoria walks to the edge of the shattered window and looks at the stage.

“It’s my first tour,” she says, her voice quiet.

She looks back at me, and I see something harden.

“No.”

My shoulders sag, but I don’t argue. When we make up our minds, we don’t change them easily.

“You still want to sing,” I say. “You want to be on a stage.”

She nods, but tucks the thumb drive into the sleeve of her dress.

I nod back. “We’ll be waiting. If you ever change your mind.”

I head out through the halls. Men try to stop me, but I memorized my escape route weeks ago. It isn’t long before I’m in a car, heading home. I turn on the radio, and before I’m across the state line her latest single comes on. I find myself singing along.

There’s a storm rolling in from the Gulf, lightning forking down ahead of me to shatter trees or quicken life, and I wonder what Viktoria’s voice would sound like in chorus with my family.

Thunder rolls from on high, the sky singing me home.

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

Sanctum 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.