Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




How We Burn

Look at how bright we burn. I’m driving my spaceship with a hacked joystick and my friends in the side-seats: Tiger, Grizzly Bear, and Joshua Tree, my boyfriend. And me, Sequoia—all named after extinct species, as if our light could bring them back. The spaceship is an older model we stole from a junkyard, souped up and kept at an abandoned building in the Park Zone so our parents wouldn’t confiscate it when they saw all the mods. I’m sitting backwards, straddling the inward-facing seat. The windows are down, and wind undulates in and out, hurting our ears. There’s smog and the dopplered roaring of the other ships. My friends’ hands are outside the windows, trying to touch the zombie ships that zip by at two hundred miles an hour. We’re on Z, which makes everything go in slow motion, which is how I can pilot the ship at a few hundred miles an hour in crowded traffic. It was invented for fighter pilots years ago, before computers started navigating everything.

We’re laughing. We’re throwing off the burdens of hope the olds have placed on our shoulders. Despite four generations of the one-child policy—fourteen of them going into making every one of us: eight great-grandparents, four grandparents, two parents—it’s still so easy for us to do all the things our families forbid. We hack the autopilots faster than they can update the security patches on our ships, our blind desire faster and smarter than their fear. We install joysticks and pilot ourselves into the Park Zone, skip school, go wherever we want. We pry the glass from our spaceships and hang out the window while zombie-pilots zoom between buildings. We do the drugs named for each letter of the alphabet. We cut our palms with knives and mix our incompatible blood types and call each other siblings.

There’s a fear in their eyes when the olds talk to us, when they chastise us, when they control where we go. They’ve programmed our spaceships’ autopilots to do nothing but shuttle us from school to music lesson to singing lesson to private tutors. Our parents try to keep us in line with prevention programs and shame. Mothers Against Doing Drugs, Grandparents Against Going into the Park Zones, Fathers Against Cutting School. They’re against everything. Drones patrol the streets. Even our supposed spaceships can’t go into space, staying firmly within two hundred feet of the Earth’s ruined, crowded ground. Even there they’re ruled by fear.

How do you get that way? They’re zombies, going through the motions in their safe and perfect lives. My father’s the worst of them. I know he knows how to drive—all the high-ranking police officers do so they can go outside the law as they need to uphold it—but he still zombie-drives to work, where he forces all of us to comply. I asked him to teach me how to drive once, and he just shook his head and closed the door on me. After work as Chief of Police, Chief Zombie, he tosses his zipties and badge on the counter, he rubs his forehead and his shoulders sag, and I just think, Where did you go, Dad? What happened to you?

They’re so worried about our lives, keeping us safe, but why not live as brief and bright as a flame?

I’m trying to steer us clear of the drone cameras, locations I picked up from hacking my father’s work-tab while he slept. This morning my dad’s messaging vid blared him awake and I heard him whispering intensely. I swear I heard him say Procreators through the wall. So I knew police had found them in the city.

“I can’t believe we might finally meet a Procreator,” Josh says over the wind, his eyes lit up with his big dreams, “and we can finally join up with them.”

“And get to Mars,” Tiger says. She’s the best hacker of the four of us, coding-wise, whereas I’m the best social engineering-wise. Give me code to hack and I know where the people were careless, where they left their backdoors, how they can slip, how I can make them slip. Give Tiger a logic problem without people and she can solve it faster than anyone we know, code circles around it. She knows that if the stories Josh has spun are true—about the Procreators making their own mission to Mars to populate the ruined bio-domes after the last mission reported a malfunction and the planet lost power—and they saw what she could do, they’d get her on the team coding the next Mars mission. Meanwhile, our zombie parents and zombie government say that we should focus our resources on saving what we have instead of ruining another planet, playing it safe because that’s all they know.

Grizzly stays quiet, laughing, his hand out the window, his fist trying to grab the fin of a ship I’m keeping pace with, though his fist curls around just air, around the ripping sound of our speed. His mother is a judge for the district, and his judgment’s all black and white, just like his mother, except his white would tarnish hers an inky black. He’s trying not to get his hopes up about finding the Procreators, because once activated, he cannot be dissuaded.

“Down there!” yells Josh. But there’s nothing below us except floodwater glistening between buildings, the abstract reflection of a thousand ships.

A ship zooms by. I know that we are talking a million miles a minute from the Z, that no one can understand us but us, and this makes me smile. I love all of us, and my time-bomb heart races, and Josh can see it in my eyes. He climbs into my lap, blocks my view to press his lips to mine, wraps his arms around me. He’s our storyteller, the one who tells us everything will be okay, but in this moment, I want not to be okay. His kiss is like the slowest jump into a pool, the wetness fresh and inviting. Do I dare swim further in? Always. The kiss lasts maybe a second, but on Z it lasts nearly forever. Josh’s dark eyes hold me, like a few years ago when we all would hold hands underneath the dinner table at each other’s apartments with the parents and grands, sly glances to remind us we were still alive in this world drowning with ancients.

Then Josh is off my lap, and the traffic lane blooms in front of me, and I yank us up from the family-sized ship we were heading toward. Tiger moans from the back that she’s blind, which means she’s had too much Z, but this has happened before, and, sib, that first glance of the world you get after going blind, everything slow and full of light—it’s like being born.

In school, they tell us what this world has lost. They tell us the species we were named after, what they were like, how they died because we took over all viable habitats. They show us pictures of how big sequoias were, the orange stripes of tigers, the teeth of mammals we will never see again, and they use them as threats. Like, look what will happen if you don’t comply. But here’s what we learn instead: This planet doesn’t need more humans, not even any at all. Did the last animals know they were the last? Did they savor those moments, the last grizzlies on Earth? Did the animals in the zoos comply with their trainers, or get sick with sadness at their bars, or did they do what they’d always done: teeth flashing, ignoring the humans who’d doomed them all? And if we lived in their memory, shouldn’t we celebrate being the last of a dying breed? Shouldn’t we burn bright for them?

“Sibs! Sibs! Sibs!” we yell from the ship window, because the whole world is full of our siblings.

That’s when we hit the hologram. I have the locations of all of Josh’s holo-graffiti memorized, and I should have remembered this other one, having passed it on the way to school, but then I was on zombie-pilot, when hitting a hologram doesn’t matter because a zombie nav doesn’t react. Now, a blacktop road floats in the middle of the sky. Out of thin air, an ancient car from the time before spaceships careens out into the hover-lanes. Then another old car weaves between the spaceships, and they’re about to collide. I can tell the Z is wearing off; things are moving fast. I jerk my wheel to avoid them, even though I know it’s impossible for those old junk cars to be flying, for that ancient road to be floating. Everyone is smashed against the side of our ship, and for a moment I lose grip of the joystick. Behind me, Tiger asks what’s happening because she still can’t see. The ancient cars smash together in an explosion of parts, one car flipping in the air, the driver launched through the windshield—and you can see her, this ancient woman dressed in museum clothes, arms spread before she hits the impossible pavement.

Then the woman and the cars disappear, and we’re back to being several hundred feet above the ground. It was one of the holograms that Mothers Against Taking Your Spaceship Off Autopilot have put up to show us how bad things were before.

I grab the joystick again, steer us away from the building looming ahead. But it’s too late. A drone shines its laser on us from around the corner. Then its lights disco and sirens blare, and I can feel my ship jerked toward it, grabbed in its magnet.

• • • •

When the cops arrive, the Z has mostly worn off, although everyone talking still sounds muffled and deep, like they’re underwater. Most of the officers know me, and some of them smile with sadness because they remember me as a cute kid who played between their legs. Others are angry, like they would do worse to me if I were someone else’s daughter. They’ve pulled us all out of the ship, which still hovers, attached to the drone. They’ve zip-tied our hands and taken our statements, or tried.

I taunt them. “Haven’t you driven before?” I say. “Don’t you know what it feels like? Sib, the thrill. To make your own mistakes.”

Is that longing I see in their eyes, or is it the zombie taking over, yelling comply comply comply?

One older cop, a woman I know my dad had passed up for promotion, says, “I’m not your sib. Idiots like you don’t get to go off autopilot. If everyone tried to drive, the system would fall apart.”

Grizzly behind me laughs, the judge in him warring with what she’s said, and the rest of us take up his chant, all low and garbled like we’re an engine churning underwater, “System, system, system, system . . .”

Why are we even alive, anyways, just to perpetuate this crap? Maybe one day, once we’ve had enough single children, there’ll be a generation down the line that can do whatever they want, because there will be too few of them to matter. If they throw trash out the window—if every single one of them does—it would be only a fraction of the garbage we produce now, and the newly abundant green would take it back. Why do we have to take responsibility for what other generations have done? The Procreators hidden deep in the Park Zones don’t; they have as many children as they want and live outside the law. If all the greats and grands died, we’d have less than a fourth of the population left. If we were left alone. Wouldn’t that make us free again?

• • • •

My father is waiting for us on the arrival pad at the police station. His jaw is hard and he’s gritting his teeth. The door opens and the zombie-pilot says, You have arrived.

I don’t move. My father reaches in and drags me out by the arm. My friends climb out willingly. I’m sure they expect to get off easy like last time. But my dad has been changing his tactics lately; following his own advice, my dad, the very guy that started Dads for Scaring Children Straight. One of the smartest guys in the world, except I’m smarter, and look at him—black uniform pressed defiantly crisp against the flood-damp, wasting everything he taught me on punishment and order.

Other officers are arriving on the hoverpad, and we’re in their way. I can hear the gargling automatic voices, Please step away from the vehicles, and the airy whooshes as they fly by. My father yanks all our zipties to be sure they’re tight. I remember when he used to tuck me in at night, swaddling me in the covers so that I couldn’t even move my arms, and this feels surprisingly like that, the same rage and joy as I struggle against what binds me. I want to laugh.

“Book them,” my father tells the junior officers. He turns away from me. “Put her in cell B075.”

My friends protest and yell. Josh tries to hold my zip-tied hands so we won’t be separated. I stay silent. I know my father’s password is still based on my name. Keep hitting your head against a brick wall, and either you cave or it does. But the thing is, how far can even my father go? How much can any of them punish us, when all their hopes rest on one kid? If they break us, they can’t have another. If our lives are wasted, so are theirs.

• • • •

There’s a girl in the cell already, sitting on the floor with her back to the door. When the plexi doors open, she doesn’t even jolt or turn around. Her red hair frizzes out down to her waist like it’s never been cut or combed. The doors close behind me, and through the glass I watch the officer walk down the hall.

“Hi,” I say.

She’s humming a song I’ve never heard, almost like folk songs from the old days.

“I might be here a while,” I say.

I walk in front of her, but she’s still humming, eyes closed. Besides the head of crazy hair, she’s dressed strangely, in a shirt made of burlap and old-timey jeans, instead of the stretchy sim spidersilk material that my friends and I wear. The stiff waistband cuts into her stomach.

“What are you in for?” I try again. “I took my spaceship off autopilot.”

Her eyebrows rise, but she doesn’t seem much impressed. I nudge her with my foot.

Finally, she opens her eyes. “What do you want?” she says with a strange accent. When she opens her mouth, I see that half her teeth are gone, her gums checkerboarded in white and black, even though she’s young, just a few years older than me. My own teeth ache at the sight. I’ve never seen anyone look so neglected.

“I’m just talking,” I say, backing away. “I just said, what did you do?”

“I exist,” she says, and closes her eyes again.

Suddenly I get it. She’s a Procreator, born outside government quotas and the law, except they caught her. Behind her, beyond the plexi, other officers push other zip-tied prisoners in the same old clothes as my cellmate. They smile without teeth and have bruises all over their skin. My cellmate can’t see them with her back turned, but I realize maybe that’s the point.

A storm of questions comes out of my mouth, and the last of the Z in my system makes it seem like a flurry of words. I want to know what the Procreator compounds are like, whether they have spaceships they can take wherever they want, how they forage and farm, if she has a brother or sister, how many kids she’s had.

She says nothing.

“Look, you’re in jail—at least we can talk to pass the time.”

“Who’s in jail?” she says.

“We are?”

She scoffs. “You may be in jail. You’re the ones who put up walls around me and you’re the ones calling it jail. I’m just sitting here, same as always. You build these walls, and the only thing you’re doing is keeping yourself out from where I am sitting. You’re so afraid of us overrunning you—that one day there will be more of us than you.”

I only want know where they live and how. To join them. To make it clear that me and my friends, we’re not like the officers.

“Sib—” I start.

“You are not my sibling,” she says. “You are one of the wall builders.”

And then she gets quiet again and no matter what I ask her, she won’t respond, except for once, when she says, “Be quiet. Are you on drugs or something? Slow down and listen to yourself.”

I lay down on the bench, nauseous from my comedown. Please, I want to yell, we want to join the next Mars Expedition. We want to live free. My friends and I, we’ve been trying to live free.

In the watery light down the hall I make out lab-coated people I don’t recognize, accompanied by officers. They’re pulling a gurney out of a cell with one of the Procreators on it. This is the first time my Procreator has been facing the plexi. I sit up.

“What’s going on?” I say.

She lies back on her bench. “They’re sterilizing us,” she says, looking at the ceiling.

I shrug, since everyone gets sterilized after having their one kid, but I know that this goes against everything the Procreators believe in.

“Is that your friend?” I ask.

“My sister,” she says.

I look back to the gurney rolling in our direction. The same frizzed red hair cascades toward the floor. Her eyes are closed, and she doesn’t move. Sister. I cannot possibly know what that word means.

“Why are you just lying there?” I say. “Fight back.”

“Against what? You’re a dying breed, you wall builders. You’re afraid. Do you even know how much you’ve lost?”

I want to kick her, to make her look at what is being done. “You don’t know me. I’m not afraid.”

“We will overrun you,” she says.

I bang on the plexi. Officers Gerel and Miliero barely glance at me as they escort the gurney down the hall.

I feel sick again, and I hug my knees on the floor. My sibs should be here, and I feel them missing. “Have you . . . procreated already?” I ask.

“No,” she says. She rolls over and faces the wall. “I wanted to have four.”

I imagine me, Josh, Tiger, and Grizzly all real siblings, all her kids even though she’s our age. Sister. Brother. We would sleep every night together tangled like a nest. Our blood would rage on across the history of the earth and we would never die. The Earth would never die.

“How did they catch you?” I ask.

“We were pulling food from the flood trash dump in just outside the Park Zone when the drone caught us.”

“You forage for trash?” I say.

She’s silent.

“But we don’t have much trash. Most everything is designed to be recycled.”

“Yes,” she says. “I’m often hungry.”

Cold sweats rack me and I start to tremble, coming down from the Z. When I open my eyes, the Procreator is standing over me with her checkerboard mouth open.

“What’s wrong with you?” she says.

“It’s nothing,” I say, rolling over, but then I start to shake harder. My stomach hurts sharp, and I know I’m supposed to have food right after Z but we haven’t been fed since we got here. I clutch my middle and bring my knees up. Then I have to lunge for the toilet in the corner.

I’m heaving up nothing, holding my empty self against the cold toilet. The Procreator’s fingers cup my forehead, sliding over my hair, pulling it back. This is the closest she’s been. She smells like trash and mold, and it makes me gag more. She hums an old song into my ear. All bile is coming out of me, my mouth infinitely open, and everything is so slow I will be in this moment forever, remembering when my father would toss me in the air over the couch and I’d gasp, flying until my mother caught me. When I can finally close my mouth, I lay my head down on the toilet. The Procreator lets my hair down gently so that it falls over my shoulder. She’s stroking my head, and I think, Sister. I want to rub her trash smell all over my hair, and I want to hold her hand.

“Please,” I say, “take me back with you.”

“Shhh,” she says, hand in circles on my back. “I can’t go back. I’d lead them to the rest of us.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. I feel emptied out.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “We all see each other again on Mars.”

That doesn’t make sense. My heart sinks, and I just want to drown in the crete of the floor. “But how are you going to get there if you can’t go back to the expedition?”

“Expedition?” She snorts. “We go to Mars when we die.”

She drops my hair and backs away, and I feel more alone than a star in space. There’s no way off this dying planet, no way through but fighting. I want to claw the tattoo of Mars off my wrist.

Officers and lab coats are walking up to our cell. I’m ready to fight back. I will be testing my father’s limits. If they tase me, it’s because he ordered them to, otherwise they wouldn’t have the guts.

“What’s your name?” I say, before the plexi opens.

“Thalia,” she says.

Then the lab coats come in. I lunge at them, but they tase me and I crumple to the floor in a ball of pain and shakes. They inject her and wheel her out. Thalia, I say to myself. She was not named after dead things.

• • • •

All the greats and grands are standing on my shoulders. They’re stomping their feet, boots on my scalp and heels in my mouth and my eyes, and then they stomp me underground where I can’t breathe.

I gasp awake. I open my eyes and it’s morning. My father is at my cell door, but the plexi isn’t open.

He stays on the other side, rigid in his uniform, looking at me, the vomit on my shirt, my hair smashed on one side with trash smell from Thalia threaded through it, the shaky tattoo of Mars my friends and I gave each other on my wrist. He’s wearing the face that often is paired with him saying, You’re breaking my heart, Quoia. But you know what, I just don’t buy it. He doesn’t have that much heart anymore to break.

So I get up from the bench and look at him with the same face to let him know what I think of him. I punch the plexi where his face is. His eyes shut, but he doesn’t flinch.

I call his bluff, turning around before he can, before he can threaten me with leaving me in here for days. I lay down on the bench like I’m ready to stay. I hear the plexi doors whoosh open.

“Don’t push me,” he says. “Why do you always have to push me to the end?”

“Where are my friends?”

He throws my study tab at me. “We let them go last night. You’re going to school.”

I’m silent as we walk down the hall, the row of doors on my right revealing mostly empty rooms or young people like me with their heads in their hands, imagining what they’re going to tell their fourteen parents and grands. I don’t see any more Procreators. And what good would it do me if I did?

A squad ship hovers on the landing pad with both doors up. My dad makes me get in the back, behind the divider. The spaceship snaps off as soon as I’m in my seat. I can barely look at any of the buildings we pass when we’re going two hundred miles an hour before it’s whipped away from me. But I know from piloting myself that it’s bombed-out buildings that linger in the corners of my eyes, leftover mistakes from generations ago when they were fighting for food—mistakes that my generation is supposed to fix.

My dad is looking at me across the plexi. His password is still quoifish, and I remember the day we went to see the last living koi, its fins a deep purple, delicate as tissue, and they let our hands in the tank to feel its scales. “The last of its kind, just like you, the last Sequoia, the last of our family. Quioa-fish,” he called me, and my mother yelled at him to get my hand out of the filthy tank, and he said that he wasn’t going to stop me. The fish died soon afterwards from captivity, and there went the kois.

He breaks the silence first. “Didn’t you see how terrible they have it? That’s what you and your friends want to be?”

“She hasn’t had any kids yet. You didn’t have to sterilize her.”

“Is that what she told you? She lied. It doesn’t matter anyway; they’ve had more than their fair share. And if you keep going the way you are, you might end up that way too.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “I’ll join them.”

“You’ll never see her again. Did you not take a good look at her? They don’t have teeth. They don’t have doctors. They have all those kids and then half of them die. The women do most of the work and they’re pregnant and saddled with children all the time. For god’s sake, don’t you get it? They eat our trash.”

“So I’ve saddled you? Then just let me go.”

“Disease, death, squalor, everything halved and divided until a little postage square of air is all you get. You want to go back to those times?”

“These aren’t those times,” I say, but I already know now I can’t be a Procreator. We’d thought they were going to Mars. That still doesn’t mean giving into my father.

The squad ship halts quickly and descends to our apartment building. When it lets us out, Dad tries to hug me, but I flinch.

“Please,” he says. “I’m trying. The least you can do is try too.”

• • • •

When we open the door, the grands and my mother, all thirteen of them, are collected in the living room, waiting. There’s a young officer just inside the door. I have to walk past each of them to get to my room. They’ve formed the line of shaming.

“You have ten minutes to get what you need before breakfast,” my father says. “And Officer Rexen here will be your permanent escort at school.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” my mother starts.

Grandpa Ano says, “I will not let our entire lineage culminate in a waste.”

“I still remember what it’s like to be crowded elbow-to-elbow,” Great-Grandfather Fidelio says. “If these were the old days, you would have been dead by now.”

“And what if you’d died, hmm?” Great-Grandma Celesta says. “Can you imagine? All of us in mourning, the end for us, our family’s own apocalypse.”

“We do all this for you,” Great-Grandfather Javier says. “And you throw it away. You throw all of us away.”

“And your father,” Grandma Elena says, “who will take care of him when he is broken and old? There’s no one else. You want that your parents will die in a gutter?”

And so on down the line, six more times, each of them getting in a jab. They’re creative; each shame ritual they come up with something new. And then I get to Great-Grandma Nifel, my favorite, who looks away. It’s worse than all the words of shaming. I can feel the tears welling, but I’m trying not to blink any out.

When I reach the safety of my room, I change into new clothes and crumble the dried vomit from my hair.

“Glad you survived,” Grizzly says, lying back in my bed. Tiger is curled on one side asleep against him, but she starts to wake up. Josh is on my floor waiting for me like a dog. Their images shimmer as they move. One of Tiger’s first hacks when we were little was unlocking all of our room feeds so we could project our holograms in and talk all night without our parents knowing. Had any of our parents caught us, they would have seen three glowing forms curled around their child. We can’t stand to be apart.

Tiger says, “Sibs, my parents said I’m switching schools after this week. Homeschooling. They’ll never let me out.”

Grizzly says, “That’s not right. They think they can just break us into what they want us to be?”

“Well, they can’t keep us apart,” Josh says, rising from the floor.

“That’s it,” Grizzly says. “We’re leaving, this time for good.”

“Wait,” I say. “What if we don’t have anywhere to go? What if we never find any Procreators, or if they don’t exist like we think?” I know each of our weaknesses like the back of my hand. Grizzly, who can take years to change his mind once he decided. Josh, whose dreams and visions are bigger than even our hearts, who deflated would be nothing.

“I don’t have any other options,” Tiger says. “We can live on our own if we have to.”

And my weakness: my sibs and keeping them safe, always being the leader, the driver. Not telling them about the Procreators is my burden, what will sustain us.

It’s that I’m hesitating to go that scares me. Finally I say, “I’ll go anywhere with you. We’re leaving for good.”

They all nod.

I download the new assignments for school that I already know I won’t need, like a new, reformed Quoia. I brush my teeth. My sibs log out, heading to school.

Outside, I can hear my family playing home vids from when I was little, a favorite pastime of the greats. I know all the vids by heart, and from my screams of joy, it’s my dad taking me to the glass park, me jumping off a translucent, tinkling tree—not alive and therefore not something that can die, not something we need to preserve, not something we can ruin—and him catching me, the greats and grands lounging on the grass, fighting as usual, bickering as terrible roommates. But I remember flying through the air, how grateful I was when my father caught me. They’re remembering me at an age they can pretend I was innocent, even though just by being alive we are guilty.

Someone knocks on the door.

Great Nifel pokes her head in, sits on the bed. “Quoia,” she says, “I’ve been there.”

“Don’t start, Great. You led a revolution.”

“And it gave us park zones and minimal housing laws and city bombings. It gave us new laws, not no laws. You have to fix things, not break them.”

“You made your own mistakes. You resisted.”

“And how many people died?”

I don’t answer because the truth is, I don’t remember. I’m sure I skipped that day at school. I hug her because it could be the last time. I hug her gently because of her brittle bones, her body that can break so irrevocably, the torn shoulder from the war. We burn, we break; we’re still alive.

• • • •

On the way to school, Officer Rexen escorts me in his squad ship, which means there’s a plexi between us, though we have to stare at each other. Instead of scrambling to do my homework, I study him. Every human, every system, has a weakness. A grief or a desire. For almost all of the olds, it’s us—the young. For every human, it’s simply the desire to live. What right do we have to breathe and waste, to spew the poison that comes from everything made easy for us? But we want it, more than anything. The olds want to live through us, keep us going. I want to live a life worthy of extinction.

But Rexen wants neither. He doesn’t wear a wedding band and looks too young for it, besides. He has dark hair, dark skin like Josh’s, and there’s contempt on his face. He keeps pushing his hair back from his eyes; he’s nervous. I can guess that he’s fresh from officer training, that it will be hard for him to get ahead. I know what I have, what I want to throw away; while those of us whose parents matched well have great-grandparents accumulating and pooling their wealth into us, people like him whose great-grandparents had nothing keep pooling that nothing down the line. Unless he marries someone with money or performs well—not just the job of four olds that’s expected of all of us, but beyond that, a string of impossible missions pulled off against all odds. Everything is against him. Including that he got picked for this babysitting job.

And I intend to ruin him. I can already guess his weakness, the worm in him that begs him to persist.

He breaks the silence first. “He still has your pictures all over the office, you know. I know you’re smart. If you just played nice, you could have the world at your feet.”

“It must be hard to be you,” I say. “You played nice, did you? But there’s more that you want.”

He sighs. “All right. Are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?”

“For you, seems like you need easy. I’ll play nice. But me, I’ve been told I like hitting my head against brick walls.”

He purses his lips and turns off the intercom across the plexi.

When we land, he follows me at a regulation four-foot distance through the stream of sibs taking the elevator down to flood levels. Far enough to be nonthreatening and appropriate, close enough to intervene. It’s this correctness that will take him down.

• • • •

In biology, Rexen stands towards the back, while Tiger and I huddle over a holo frog, black ooze from life in the flood waters seeping from its liver. They don’t trust us with real knives. The dissection tool they’ve given us is blunt, but the holo-tip on the end adds pressure feedback when it touches the hologram of the frog, and it feels like slicing through tough chicken. We’re supposed to identify the cause of its failed systems: Which human waste-product killed the animals this time? The cameras in the corner of the room deliver our images to approved watchers. The greats too broken and old for jobs spend their days watching their descendants for any mistake, any wrong answer. Often I make an ugly face just to prove that that’s worth watching too, the ugliness and the failures. Every once in a while, you see a sib jerk back from their frog, usually from an overachieving ancient patching into their personal device, yelling or chastising them from doing something wrong.

Josh and Grizzly are near the front. We’re messaging them with extra flicks and waves of our dissection knives, a fidget code we programmed to spell a message, the only way to talk right under the camera or our teachers’ noses. To Officer Rexen, all of us must look like twitchy overworkers.

Meet after lunch on the roof hoverdeck.

Your babysitter?

I’ve got him, I say.

My mother screams into my school tab, “PAY ATTENTION!”

I flinch.

For some sibs, the pressure is too much, fourteen sets of eyes watching what you do, telling you that you can do better. The sibs that can’t take it eat an E pill—E for Ender. When we were ten, Grizzly had one in his back pocket every day—his mother, the judge, being the worst of them. He had decided it wasn’t right, that he should live. Why was he taking up the air, tossing packaging, consuming electricity, if he wasn’t the best student in his violin lesson, if he wasn’t the one with all the answers at math? “All of us should E,” he’d said then. “It’s only fair to everything else alive on this earth.” That was the year Tiger coded our holograms into each other’s rooms, so we could watch him all night, so we could sleep together and tell him we needed him still. That was the year we made the pact to live the way we do, to live like it’s already over, to not be like the olds.

One of Josh’s holo-graffiti creations blooms in the air next to the teacher’s desk. It’s probably one he put in the system months ago. He deploys his creations periodically all over the school and installs them on congested shipways. This one is a dragon, a creature that never existed and so we weren’t the ones to kill it. It rears in the air with its neon rainbow scales glistening, breathes fire at the teacher, who blusters and leaves the room for the IT department. It will take them half the day to figure out where his code is and scrub it from the holo-projection. It’s beautiful, the intensity of his visions, and for the next period we will slice open frogs attended by a dragon, raging. Josh sits with a straight face for the watchers.

In gym, we play dodgeball, the holo-balls shimmering through the air as we duck and catch them. We hold them with our palms cupped. Times like now, I want to squeeze, I want to feel their weights in my hands. But they haven’t let kids use real balls for a hundred years. We’re too precious to let us play with real things. Sometimes I want to scream, just to remind myself that I’m real. I want to punch someone, push someone, just to feel their flesh against mine. Meanwhile, we play pretend, the balls giving us no resistance. I toss one at Josh, who’s on the team against me. I know he’ll duck in time. Behind him, Officer Rexen leans against the back wall, startled by the ball of light headed towards him. Now he’s on alert. He moves towards the dividing line, close to my position.

The balls can’t hurt us, but we can use ourselves as obstacles. I see two sibs collide, toss a ball at them while they’re stuck together. The sib to my left moves right every time she dodges. All I have to do is turn at the right time, and I’m colliding with her, her elbow in my stomach. I go flying towards Officer Rexen.

I hear olds from all the school tabs yell, Watch out! Then his hands are under me and he’s lifting me up, and this is exactly what I wanted. He can’t afford my harm under his watch. “Thank you,” I say breathlessly, my hands on his back as I right myself. “Nice reflexes.”

After gym, I twitch my message to Tiger, Josh, and Grizzly. I head towards the bathroom. There aren’t any cameras in there.

Officer Rexen follows at his four-foot distance. He comes into the bathroom, even. I turn around.

“Thank you for catching me,” I say.

He just looks at me. He takes a position against the sink. His back up against a wall.

I walk towards him, put my hand on his chest. I unbutton my shirt as I kiss his neck, run my hands through his carefully combed hair, leaving it in disarray. He can’t back up. He’s frozen, so I kiss him on the lips and it takes a second before he throws me away from him.

I fall to the floor, grab my ankle. “Sib, my ankle!”

He’s panicked, I can see it in his face, eyes wide, hope drained. All his perfection, his best-laid plans, and he’s screwed it up. The cameras will catch him emerging red-faced and hair awry from the bathroom.

He backs away. “Nothing happened. You’re fine. I’ll wait outside.”

I’ve got maybe five minutes for him to grapple with his panic, dread, and guilt, run through scenarios of what anyone watching through the cameras might have seen, before he realizes I’m taking too long.

As soon as he’s out of the bathroom, I pull the grate off the air vent, crawl to a hallway on the other side. I keep my face down so the camera’s face recognition can’t track me. I sprint to the elevator, and when I emerge onto the roof hover-pad, my sibs are already there.

They’ve snagged another ship. Tiger and Joshua Tree handle it with the super-magnet we picked up from a decommissioned drone, and Grizzly is hacking the warning system. I run up to the keypad they’ve plugged in and hack the autopilot. I’m breathing hard from the run. In my back pocket I have controls from the electronics lab and an extra joystick that I stash in my locker. We hack the new ship in under two minutes.

I’m the driver, as always, and I pull us into the traffic blotting out the sky above us. We don’t have any drugs on us, so I need all my attention just to keep up with the zombie ships, trying to stay in the hover-lanes and not attract notice until we get to the Park Zone. We left the advertising module unhacked in the interest of time, so ads for adult diapers and walkers and canes keep popping up on the windows. It’s no wonder we feel like we’re dying all the time.

Now that we’re free, I should tell them about the Procreator. Josh, Grizzly, and Tiger are all lying on the floor of the spaceship laughing and whooping, rolling from side-to-side and into each other and their packs with my less-than-smooth piloting. I want one of them to touch me, but they’re touching each other, Grizzly’s hands pushing Tiger into a lazy roll, her hair twisting above her on the felt. Sister. Brother. Suddenly I can imagine the three of them without me, the three of them happy, laughing like they are now, burning incandescent and together and holding each other’s hands. If anyone can get to Mars, it would be them, with all their hopes unbroken.

Josh’s eyes lock on mine. He fingers the double taser burn on my shoulder, giving me the touch I’ve been craving except it hurts. I know he’s not sorry, he’s proud. I whip us to the right to avoid an incoming ship, and he stumbles and falls to the floor with Grizzly and Tiger.

It would be easy, so easy, to say the words. I met a Procreator. There is no Mars Mission.

Instead, I keep our dreams alive. I keep my eyes in the air, and I manage to avoid all the holograms on our way into the Park Zone, where the gray and white of crowded buildings fade into various shades of green. Every year, as more of the greats die off and families combine, people are relocated further interior, and more streets on the outskirts go back to green. The buildings crumble; green ivy and mold take over the structures and crawl down the street. Most of the old avenues are flooded with the sea level rising, but that’s no different than the interior—why they invented spaceships and rooftop landing pads to begin with.

I slow down as we get close to Building Lake, one of those high-rises that was erected in the National Park Zones and then evacuated. The inside walls and floors and ceilings are rotted through. Rain collects in what used to be the basement and bottom levels. We can park our spaceship near the top and hang out in the old window grooves, then jump down and scream with the thrill of dropping down several stories into that green-brown water. The adults don’t know about Building Lake. The police, the parents, my father—all dying to find the places we go to when we cut school so they can drag us out again.

We’re not the only ones playing hooky. I see other souped-up junk ships hovering outside the building’s upper windows.

Tiger gets up and hangs over me while I fly, her black hair waving over my shoulder. For just a moment, I imagine what it would be like to be real sisters, to sleep in her room, every night combing her hair, to feel like fifty years from now we’d still be skin-to-skin, holding tight.

“We’re never going back,” she says, and something inside me cringes. Where will we go, now that there’s no great cause to join, just ourselves and our love and our rage? I pull the joystick down to park us, hovering by a fifth-story window.

• • • •

The water is cool and dark below us, lapping at the building’s walls, where other sibs float, the pocking of the crete serving as fingerholds. The four of us stand on the busted-out window’s ledge, holding hands. We don’t know what’s down beneath that green-brown. Old merchandise, extinct animal bones, new green creatures crawling to life from the depths? But the old feeling is back. Nothing can stop us.

We jump, screaming the whole way down into the plunge of cold and churn.

Underneath, we release hands, the cold water separating us. Where their fingers had touched, my skin throbs hot as brands. It always feels like this when we come apart again, like I’m letting them go, really letting them go, and I almost sob instead of gasping for air. When we reach the surface, I cling to Josh’s back, his warmth radiating on my chest.

“Careful with the waves,” says one of the sibs by the walls. They’re in a circle around a girl floating on her back, her hair splayed out around her face. They are trying to keep her head above the waves that still crash past them from our jump.

“Let’s join the bonding circle,” Tiger says, swimming towards them first. I read in books that hundreds of years ago people used to have a tradition called trust falling, where you fall backwards and you’re supposed to trust that your friend would catch you. But we need more than that, we sibs. We need K to paralyze one of us for five minutes, we need the rest of us to be sure the limp one doesn’t drown, we need one-by-one to touch them while they’re paralyzed. Trust we won’t do something horrifying to their bodies and we won’t let them die.

The girl floating in the middle has her eyes open. Everyone’s hands are underneath her. The other sibs make room for us as we swim in, and I place my hands under her knee. They’re still going around the circle touching her, rubbing their palms on her stomach, running fingertips along her cheek. One sib puts the girl’s foot on his face. When it’s my turn, I lift her leg by the knee and kiss the back of it. We keep going down the line, and then the girl’s eyelids start to flutter and her arms spasm in the water, and then she starts swimming again.

“You next,” the girl says to Josh, when she’s got control of her limbs back.

“Me too,” I say. Two of us is harder, is everyone touching both of us at the same time. I have something to prove—that I can trust my sibs, that they will hold me through this too, that the knowledge about the Procreators will not break us apart. Does our love have limits?

I tell everyone my name and then Josh does. We eat the sticky pills a girl offers us from a plastic bag, the red candy coating already melting into our wet palms. Josh squeezes my shoulder, and we swim into the circle to float on our backs.

My blood feels hot, like I’m a burning crash, like I’m that woman shoved through the air of the hologram. My legs and feet start to get heavy, and I can’t swim as well. I sink into the water level just above my chin. My heart catches in my throat a little, but then I feel Tiger and Grizzly cup under me with their hands and hold my head up until I’m floating on my back. Josh slips under me, my head on his stomach, and I feel the twenty other sibs put their hands under me. My arms stop moving. There’s nothing left to do but let go and trust.

The first person closes my eyes, thumbs on my eyelids. The next tickles my toes. My stomach is kissed. A line is traced along my throat. The water slaps against the walls and trickles like bells as each person raises their dripping arms. To be truly alive, we must feel no fear. To be alive, we must find sisters and brothers where we can. Someone laces Josh’s pruning fingers between mine. To be alive, we must hold each other in the dark of this one planet. We must rage together in the light. We must feel no fear. This is the mantra I always spin, and I believe it again.

I feel a soft brush on my earlobes that reminds me of last night, my hair brushed back from my face. Then I feel the secret I’ve kept from them, my siblings. Thalia. I feel heavy in the water. I’ve brought myself apart. Josh floats curled around me, but it feels like a lie.

Because my eyes are closed and my hearing is heightened, between the slaps of water I can hear the far-off whirring of drones coming towards us. I need to warn the sibs. Someone kisses me on the lips.

I hear the metal clang of magnets latching onto spaceships, police sirens wailing in the distance.

Some of the hands fall away, and the other sibs start to yell.

“Swim to one of the windows!” says one of them.

“Let’s go!” says another.

The water licks at my face.

“Don’t you dare leave,” says Tiger. “They’re paralyzed.”

“Sorry.” More hands vacate.

“Get her head,” says Grizzly to Tiger as I feel myself go under and then up again. Josh’s body is buoyed up underneath me. They start pulling us towards the wall, all together. Nobody has opened my eyes. I hope I don’t have long left of my K paralysis before the police get here, but those things must have been in turbo drive because already the blue and red flash behind my eyelids.

I hear human-capture drones lowering themselves, the sibs who swam away yelling as they’re plucked from the water and walls and windowsills. The drone’s turbines push waves higher on my face and into my mouth. My body coughs, autonomic responses the one thing K can’t kill. Tiger’s holding my head, clutching at my shoulder with her fingertips as she swims.

Have no fear, I tell myself, have no fear.

“Hold on tight!” Grizzly says.

I feel Tiger hook her arms under my armpits and her wrists behind my head. She’s trying to hold me hard enough that I’ll be taken up with her. Grizzly must be doing the same to Josh. Then Grizzly yells. He’s being pulled up. A loud splash rocks us, and Tiger’s grip loosens. It must have been Josh falling back in the water, and I feel his paralyzed arm slip across my legs.

I will myself to swim, tell my arms to start churning, but my limbs won’t respond. Then Tiger’s hands are pulled away, and Tiger is gone.

I float for a second because my body’s breathing in. I can hear the officers telling everyone to stay where they are and no one will get hurt. Tiger is screaming that we’re in the water, that the chief’s daughter is in the water. Then I exhale and I go under, water clutching at my face.

There’s a moment everything is still. Josh and I are sinking curled around each other, and I can feel his heat when his body bumps into mine. My body is still exhaling, bubbles pouring out my nose, the screaming above muted and everything dark. Fear swallows me up. For the first time, I don’t want us to die. I stop feeling his arm on my leg. I am alone. We have been pulled apart.

Then I inhale and it’s all water, all slime and ooze down my throat, my lungs full of it. My body tries to explode it out of me, the cough that just pulls more back in, and I’m fighting. In my mind, I’m kicking and thrashing and clawing my way back to the top, but my legs and arms are dead.

Hands on my face and around my neck pull me up, and I’m at air again, sucking it in and retching it out.

A ribbed tube is shoved down my throat. A vacuum pulse sucks out the water, and I can breathe again. My body is gasping. A drone pulls me out of the water by my middle, so I’m doubled over, arms dangling, and dropped onto a spaceship deck.

I can hear the other sibs in other ships, officers beginning an interrogation. Tiger and Grizzly are yelling Josh’s name and mine and banging on windows. They don’t know if we’re alive.

A loud slap hits the deck beside me. Josh.

I’m crying. I can feel the sting in my eyes. Out of nowhere, it feels like a rock has been launched at my stomach, and my body moans. I’ve been kicked. Someone says, “Saved the Chief’s daughter first. What a waste, you stupid punk.” It sounds like Officer Rexen, but I can’t be sure.

I hear an aid drone pumping Josh’s heart and trying to breathe for him. And then he’s transferred to a different ship that zips away.

My cheek pressed against the spaceship floor, face kissing boot dust, eyes leaking a puddle, my fingers start twitching and my whole body convulses. Then my eyes open, and I can sit up slowly.

I’m alone in a ship with the door raised. No Josh. Tiger and Grizzly are sitting with their hands ziptied in another ship across from me, legs hanging off a deck with some of the other sibs. The siblings on another ship are being interrogated.

They’re staring at me in shock.

“Where’s Josh?” I call. But I already know.

“He wasn’t breathing,” Tiger says.

Is this what he wanted for himself? Would he have been proud? Would he have coded himself a neon holo-graffiti memorial so everyone would know of his drowning? For a moment I feel nothing.

“He’ll never get to Mars,” Tiger says.

This makes me want to sob. I take a deep breath. “There’s no Mars Mission,” I tell them.

“Yes, there is,” Grizzly says.

“I met a Procreator in jail. They’re just barely subsisting. They don’t have any mission except trying not to starve.”

“Maybe she just told you that,” Tiger says.

“You didn’t meet her,” I say.

We’re silent and we’re crying. We’ve lost Josh but we’ve also lost ourselves. Grizzly is leaning on Tiger’s shoulder.

“I would have gone anyways,” Grizzly says.

“It’s my fault,” I say, and they don’t respond.

An officer jumps through their ship to mine, registers a destination into the ship, and steps out before the door lowers.

Zombie pilot says, Watch your arms and legs, and then the door shuts. Then it tells me we will be arriving at an address, my own, in ten minutes.

• • • •

My father is waiting at our apartment’s hover pad. He doesn’t open the door. This time I’m wet with snot and tears and moldy water, but I sniff up as much as I can and cross my arms.

The zombie-pilot opens the door.

“I’ve been briefed,” he says. “Are you sorry now?”

I spit at his feet.

He lunges for my arm, holds it with a steel grip. I fight him in the elevator, all down the hallway into our apartment, where he flings me into the living room.

My mother is crying. The grands and greats are grim, holding their heads in their hands or knuckles white on a glass.

“You could have died,” my mother says.

“Can you see me?” I yelled. “I’m here. I’m alive. You haven’t lost anything.”

“You respect your mother,” my father says.

“How can I respect you when you’re so pathetic?” I say. “He’d still be alive if you hadn’t come after us. Just give up and die so the rest of us can live.”

He raises a fist in the air. That fist is shaking, trembling, a threat. He wants me to worship my fear, bow to it.

“I dare you,” I say. “I’m not a little girl anymore. I’ll hit you back.”

The fist comes down on the side of my head. I’m dazed, but I lunge for him and try to take him to the floor. He’s built like a bull and only stumbles. He’s pulling me off him by my hair, and all the grands and greats are yelling, but none of them gets in the way. I kick him in the balls, and he releases me. I pick up glasses from the kitchen table and start throwing them at him wildly, the grands trying to get out of our way. But then he grabs me by the ribs where I was kicked and the pain takes the breath out of me and I can’t move. He’s smacking me in the face, slamming me against the floor, moans escaping me again. My mother’s begging him to stop.

My father yells as he’s beating me, “Do you know how you’re hurting us? You’re so selfish. Why can’t you just do what you’re told? You could have died. We would have lost you.” When my moans finally drown him out, he stops. His eyes are wet.

“It’s for you that I live this way,” he says, unclenching his hands.

My mother and her parents pull me up from the floor and guide me into my bedroom.

“Fear is what tells us what we love,” says Grandma Quileña.

“You just keep hitting your head against the wall,” Grandpa Fidelio says.

My room is empty, and no one else has logged in.

“We love you,” my mother says, as she closes the door and locks me in.

• • • •

An hour later, I’m crawling up the side of our building with fire escape suction pads strapped to my hands and knees. It’s slow going, and my body screams pain every time I twist the wrong way. I avoid the windows of other families, all those greats and grands waiting for the other sibs to come home from school, waiting for the parents to come home from work, waiting to die. They’ve already lived their lives, breathing our air, and they’re keeping the rest of us young apart. I’m not even thinking, I am so full of burning, and I want to kick each of their windows in and tell them to go ahead and jump.

I pull myself into the top floor of parking garages. My dad’s ship stands out with his cop markings, stored three ships up by the exit. I pull myself under it while it floats, standing on the ship underneath me to open the hatch where the zombie pilot is kept. See, the thing about cop cars is that they’re easier to hack than any other spaceship, because they’re already made to be driven. Cops already know how to drive, so all they have to do is deactivate the autopilot with their code. I already know my father’s code; all I have to do is damage the voice-recognition chip. I take a pen from my pocket and stab it into the connection, close the hatch. I tell the ship to open and the autopilot to disengage. I pull myself up into the ship with a jump, and I don’t even try not to bang myself on bruises forming.

I guide the ship out of the garage. The joystick never felt this good in my hands, the ship underneath me never so responsive, though the rest of me feels like razors. I pull the ship up into traffic, weaving and darting between ships, concentrating so hard without Z to slow the world down. I don’t even care where I am going, this last ride, this last lap. Out or In or Up, there’s no difference.

And because I’m turning instinctively, I hit a traffic hologram, those ancient cars spinning in a tragic carousel, colliding, the plastic and metal crunching, one woman thrown out of her car into the holo-grass. Josh would have made a hologram that gives us beauty, neon and blinding, instead of this death. In this crumpling car, a baby in a car seat collapses, the expected world ending as quick as a light turning off. The woman is still in the air and flying beside her in the hologram is a Mason jar that the woman had kept in her cupholder, filled with ancient dimes, now exploding, throwing coins all over the road, these silver coins that she’d saved up all those years for the baby, glinting in that holo-sunlight, worthless to her now because she’s lying on the holo-pavement, dying. She’s looking towards the baby. None of us deserve to live, and yet it’s love that keeps us breathing, keeps forgiving us so we can do worse, later. Finally, I can feel the sorrow and fear heavy like a rain of silver coins descending on me, my grief wanting to gather back in my arms everything I’ve lost, everything beautiful we’ve just lost, wanting me to turn back home before the hologram disappears.

Brenda Peynado

Brenda Peynado’s stories have won an O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, a Dana Award, a Fulbright Grant to the Dominican Republic, and other prizes. Her work appears in magazines such as, The Georgia Review, The Sun, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review Online, and The Threepenny Review. She’s currently writing a novel about the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic and a girl who can tell all possible futures, and she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.