My son’s eyes were broken. Emptied out. Frozen over. None of the joy or gladness was there. None of the tears. Normally I’d return from a job and his face would split down the middle with happiness, seeing me for the first time in three months. Now it stayed flat as ice. His eyes leapt away the instant they met mine. His shoulders were broader and his arms more sturdy, and lone hairs now stood on his upper lip, but his eyes were all I saw. “Thede,” I said, grabbing him. He let himself be hugged. His arms hung limply at his sides. My lungs could not fill.
Isla didn’t consider herself much of an outdoor person, but after five layoffs and a breakup, she found herself in a drone warehouse at the border of the barren wasteland known as Robot Country. She consulted the map on her tablet. To the west was the Gila National Forest. So, trees. She clicked on the forest icon and up popped some names of trees. Arizona sycamore, Douglas fir, Aspen. To the south was desert and the Mexican border. To the east was an even more extreme kind of desert, the White Sands National Monument, where atomic bombs had been tested in the previous century.
We’re recording. I was born in the sky, for war. This is what we were told. I think when people hear this, they think of ancient Earth stories. Of angels and superheroes and gods, leaving destruction between the stars. But I’m no superhero, no Kalel of America-Bygone with the flag of his dead planet flying behind him. I’m no angel Gabreel striking down Satan in the void or blowing the trumpet to end worlds. I’m no devi Durga bristling with arms and weapons, chasing down demons through the cosmos and vanquishing them.
Noah Stubbs eyes the large white pill pinched between his thumb and forefinger, remembering the first time he hit golf balls on the moon with Gord. “I wonder,” Gord says to him as Noah lines up on the tee, “just how far these suckers’ll really go?” THWACK! Noah swings. The little ball hurtles into the Lunar day, a pinprick of speeding light bright against the velvet sky. Long after the ball becomes invisible to the naked eye, his suit’s visor tracks its trajectory until it drops towards the ground. They parked the hopper at the top of the Virgo Escarpment.
“Light, dust, and water are the alchemy of the universe.” Ritual words murmured softly by myriad voices, powerful as a roar, effortless as a whisper. “I will consent to be made and unmade.” An initiate must never walk in. Many elders raise the cocooned body high upon their hands and process into the open space, to lasers alight in a pin-and-string arrangement of bright green on dark velvet. “To burn to ash and dissolve in dew.” The elders guide the still, surrendered form up and into the core of the lattice of light. “I am but dust and ashes; for me the world was created.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” screams Aria. Her voice goes up raspily at the end of the exclamation, giving her the affect of a mewling cat, and she is embarrassed by the profound uncoolness of such a tone. She slams her fists on the Versa’s console to compensate, to physically demonstrate the depth and seriousness of her anger, causing the subtelar ship to rock violently in the warpwake. Don’t judge her; Aria Astra is usually a very cool person. She likes good food and knows a bunch about film and uses lots of swears and has great fashions.
The Warhosts sit in the lees of the starships while the sky grows less flushed with dawn, playing cards. At the same time, the regulators within the Red emissary and our own play their own game across a moist medium of flesh, chemical brew, and stench to determine where the next battle will be fought. We—the Purples—have been fighting the Reds for possession of this moon, jigsaw piece by slow jigsaw piece, as deliberately as a pavane or carved ice. The Reds have grown increasingly desperate. The moon has a certain strategic importance, and the Reds are very close to having to cede it entirely.
I’ll never forget the taste of my mother’s marrow. I think of it now, as I rub oil into the stiff, cracking heels of my shoes: how I scooped it still warm from the bone, like pale butter. How it lingered in my teeth for days after the harvesting. And I think further back, as I often do lately, to the way her hands jerked and fluttered close to her bony chest before she passed. She was too weak to shape her signs properly so I can only guess their meaning. Perhaps I’ve guessed wrong—Aefha thinks so—but I can’t forget. Follow the ghosts.
Two hundred ships moved through the stars, leaving an iridescent trail of transmission beacons in their wake. Five billion kilometers long, the beacons stretched all the way to Earth, a desiccated and shaken planet that the passengers once called home. Sometimes simple messages from the ships arrived in the data. After a long time, images came and—after an even longer time—clips of the passengers going about their lives. But the vast distances meant these clips were rare. Normally an image arriving on Earth was cause for celebration, because it meant the crew was still alive, or at least the ship’s systems were still functioning.
The boy stopped playing after his Mom and Dad chained the iron man to the Kingdom’s heart. The boy used to run alone and brave through the welt within the walls, and even ranged as far as the borders of the wood. He tossed the ball his mother gave him into the sky, gold against blue with the sun behind, and laughing, caught it again. The ball purred in his grip. Sometimes he asked it questions—how to build a puppet, how to open the castle gates, how to change the color of the sky— and it answered. How questions were the ball’s job; why questions were Mom-and-Dad’s.