Pretty much everybody made peace with it very early on in the process. It wasn’t the most pleasant prospect in this world, or any other. But it had been explained to us in the most rational and persuasive terms imaginable, in sentences so simple that even the dumbest among us were capable of getting it; and once we swallowed that pill and incorporated it into our daily lives, it really didn’t make much of a difference in the scheme of things. We were adults about it. But that doesn’t make much of a difference when your four-year-old daughter looks up at you with her big brown eyes and asks you, “Daddy? Why are the space men going to grind us into hamburgers?”
Dan Linh had walked out of the Purple Forbidden City not expecting to return to it—thankful that the Empress had seen fit to spare her life; that she wasn’t walking to her execution for threefold treason. Twenty years later—after the nightmares had faded, after she was finally used to the diminished, eventless life on the Sixty-First Planet—she did come back, to find it unchanged: the Midday Gate towering over the moat; the sleek ballet of spaceships between the pagodas and the orbitals; the ambient sound of zithers and declaimed poetry slowly replacing the bustle of the city at their backs.
It was difficult to sleep at night, wishing good men dead. This was but one of the hurtful things I felt in my bones and wished I could ignore. It was an ugly truth waving its arms that I turned my gaze from, that I didn’t like to admit even to myself. But while my bag warmed me with the last of its power and my breath spilled out in white plumes toward the roof of our tent, while the flicker of a whisperstove melted snow for midnight tea, I lay in that dead zone above sixty thousand feet and hoped not just for the failure of those above me, but that no man summit and live to tell the tale. Not before I had my chance.
The ship dies in orbit above an abandoned world. Kitshan curses. Metal bones shudder around him as the last of the ship’s breath is sucked into vacuum. His skill at the helm and hasty patch jobs have kept the engines together, but luck is scarce out here, and his is gone. The ship is unminded. Lifeless metal, basic programming, and manual flight operations are things he can tolerate better than another consciousness wrapped against his. The viewscreen flickers and a cold vista stretches across the interior curve of the cockpit: the small star, bright and distilled against the void.
That’s how Cynthia and Ugo met. The Easter egg hunt had just started when little Cynthia noticed a dark, short-haired nine-year-old boy, all alone, sitting by the church steps. Her first impression of him was his quietness, and the way he stared at her. When she told him (well, shouted) that it was impolite to stare at strangers, and why wasn’t he running like all others?—the dark-haired boy walked quietly over and told her that they didn’t need to hurry.
Wren Hex-Yemenni woke early. They had to teach her everything from scratch, and there wasn’t time for her to learn anything new before she hit fifty and had to be expired. “Watch it,” the other techs told me when I was starting out. “You don’t want a Hex on your hands.” By then we were monitoring Wren Hepta-Yemenni. She fell into bed with Dorado ambassador 214, though I don’t know what he did to deserve it and she didn’t even seem sad when he expired.
“Ladies and gentlemen, everyone you know—the entire world you know—is now dead.” Murmurs ripple through the assembled cadets. Not because they’re shocked—everyone knew what they were signing up for—but because it all happened without fanfare, a jump across light-years of space unaccompanied by any grand orchestral swell or roaring engine thrusts. The wiry guy with a shaved head standing next to Tone mutters, “Jesus, I didn’t even feel anything.”
I should have known when I didn’t hear whooping and hollering and congratulations from Chornohora Station when I crossed the finish plane. My sister Luzia and I eked out a win over Scott and Ferenc Nagy in the maneuverability race even though Luz was just barely old enough to compete in the teen division. Usually that sort of thing calls for celebration, and Luz was not going to let it go without some. “Wooo!” she hollered into the comms. “That’s right, Pinheiros have beaten you again, even without Amilcar’s help!”
He emerged suddenly from behind a potted shrub. Taking Madeline’s hand, he shouldered her bewildered former partner out of the way and turned her toward the hall where couples gathered for the next figure. “Ned, fancy meeting you here.” Madeline deftly shifted so that her voluminous skirts were not trod upon. “Fancy? You’re pleased to see me then?” he said, smiling his insufferably ironic smile. “Amused is more accurate. You always amuse me.”
As the commuter jet descended toward the ruins of Las Vegas, Roland Zhang craned his neck at the window, watching the skeleton towers grow nearer. Billowing clouds of dust clogged the air, and wind-blown dunes partially buried the filthy, abandoned buildings. He’d viewed footage from the far corners of the Earth, every remote hellhole imaginable, but this was the first time he’d ever seen the real deal in person. He tugged at his collar, sweating in spite of the air conditioning.