Science Fiction & Fantasy

Transcendent Annual Series

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Fiction

The Macrobe Conservation Project

1.

My asiMom was okay. She was like a pillow, a walking talking pillow. But she gave good hugs and smelled right. They did a good job with her: Sometimes when she hugged me and I closed my eyes it felt like it’s supposed to feel and I forgot that she’s not my real mom.

I saw her in the shower a few times. She didn’t care. She took showers every day exactly at 5:45 p.m., even if I messed up every clock in the house, because her inside clock was always right. She didn’t even need to shower because she was just a robot, but she did anyway. My dad said that that made her more realistic. But if they cared about that, why didn’t they give her nipples? Or any hair, except on her head? She didn’t even have a butt crack. Sometimes, just when I was forgetting that she wasn’t my real mom, I’d remember that she didn’t have a butt crack and I’d get a little freaked out.

My dad’s one of the head honchos on the station. He’s the lead scientist on the Macrobe Conservation Project. He said that he was the one who wrote all the grants and traveled all the way back to Earth to shake hands with all the jerks in Washington, and so now he was the one in charge, and if Malloy or Grisget or any of those other pieces of skrat thought they were going to hone in on his dream, they had another thing coming. He went to work at 6:00 and got home at 6:00, but they always called him back at night with some big macrobe problem. Sometimes on the speaker I’d hear Dr. Malloy or Dr. Grisget or one of those other pieces of skrat saying, “Don’t worry, Lance, this is no big deal. We just wanted you to know. You just have a good time with your kid tonight. We’ll handle this.” That drove my dad nuts. He waited until they hung up, and then he cussed like crazy at them while he tied his tie back on, and told my asiMom to clean up dinner and make up a plate for him to eat later. Mostly he didn’t come back though. Just stayed in the lab all night.

He said that we could cuss all we wanted while we were on the space station, just me and him, but only in Macrolog. Macrolog is the pretend language Dad and I made up for the macrobes. It’s what the macrobes are thinking whenever scientists are probing them or taking tissue samples or whatever. The whole language is just swear words: skrat and fragbag and kikface and dunkaballs and a bunch of others. Almost all of them have the letter k in them. I think my dad thinks the letter k is dirty.

Skrat is my favorite. Dad’s too. It sounds the dirtiest. Sometimes I told my asiMom to go skrat herself, to see if she’d do anything. But she just kinda looked at me like she didn’t get it, and smiled, and then went back to whatever she was doing. Didn’t matter, you can’t skrat without a butt crack anyway.

2.

I had an asiBro, too, who was supposed to be like my brother, but he wasn’t like my brother very much. For one thing, they made him a younger brother, and Lance Jr. is my big brother. But they only make younger asiBros. My dad told me that they tried making older asiBros for a while, but that all these little kids were following them around and burning themselves or getting their fingers cut off or getting themselves killed in the dishwasher, because the asiBros didn’t know what they were doing and couldn’t protect all those dumb little kids from all the dumb stuff they do. I asked Dad why they make asiMoms then, since they’re supposed to be substitute moms, but my dad got really serious, the way he always does before he tells a really stupid joke, and said, “Randy, you of all people should know that kids never listen to their parents.” Ha ha ha.

The Lance Jr. asiBro was really annoying. He was smaller than me and dumber than me and he followed me around all the time. He was boring, and there was no way to get rid of him. I told my brother about him, and he said “He sounds just like you!” I called him a skrat-clown and I didn’t tell him what it meant, so he asked my dad and my dad just laughed at him.

3.

Summer on the space station was okay, but not as knife as I thought it’d be. I thought it was going to be like space camp, only real. But it wasn’t like space camp. It was just real.

The space station was pretty small. And it wasn’t set up for kids. There were places to work and places to eat and rooms to sleep in and places I wasn’t allowed to go by myself, like Engineering or the Macrobe Lab. Mostly I just stayed in my room and played video games with my asiBro. And that was kinda dunkaballs, because he was way too good. I can never beat the real Lance Jr., and the Lance Jr. asiBro was a stupid robot with reflexes like you wouldn’t believe. And plus, whenever he beat me, he would say, “Good game, Randy! If you would like, I can lower my challenge setting. Would you like me to lower it now?” And yes I would like, but I felt like a kikface asking my pretend little robot brother to go easy on me, so I never did. Instead I switched to single-player games and made him watch. He didn’t mind. He just sat there and cheered me on.

4.

I went to the lab sometimes with my dad. Not a lot, but sometimes. There wasn’t a lot for me to do there anyway. All I could do was look but don’t touch.

It was still pretty knife. It looked like a morgue, probably because of all the dead people. The center of the lab had sixteen incubators with sixteen dead people lying in them. You couldn’t actually see the dead people, because the incubators weren’t see-through, I guess so the scientists didn’t have to stand there looking at dead people all day.

The incubators weren’t for the dead people, because if you’re dead, there’s nothing to incubate. The incubators were really for the macrobes. The cadavers—that’s what my dad liked me to call the dead people—were the hosts for the macrobes. So really they had two incubators: the real incubators, and then the dead people.

It seemed like a lot of work to keep those things from going extinct. I didn’t get it at first. I mean, why would you want to protect animals—if you can even call them animals, since they look like blobs of Jell-O that were made with toilet water—that will also take over your brain the first chance they get? So I asked my dad one day. Actually, I told him maybe New Hope would be better off without macrobes. “I mean, the less things that will eat your brain, the better, right?” I said.

He got real serious. I could tell because he stopped eating. The skrat on his fork started dripping through the tines, but he just held it in the air, because he had turned into Professor Dad and it was time for a really long science lesson: “Randy, we’re the outsiders. We’re the guests to New Hope. We came here because we did a really good job of ruining our own planet and are going to need to move everybody off of it in the very near future. And now that we’re getting a second chance, you think the first thing we should do is just start killing off species left and right?”

“No,” I said. I was staring at the skrat on his fork. It kind of looked like a macrobe.

“We’ve only been here a very short while, and already we know that the macrobes are an essential part of the planet’s ecosystem. There’s a certain type of tree on the planet called a ‘brain tree’ that needs the macrobes in order to live. Maybe other trees do too, we don’t know. But trees give us the oxygen we need to breathe on New Hope, just like they did on Earth. It wouldn’t be smart to start killing off all the trees, would it?”

“No.”

I said no twice already, but once you get my dad going on macrobes, there’s no stopping him. “And anyway, macrobes are one of the most interesting life forms we’ve ever discovered, Randy. Certainly the most advanced parasites we’ve ever seen.”

And then I saw a way to ask him about the knifest thing about macrobes: the dead people. “Yeah, I don’t get that. How can they be parasites? Doesn’t the host of a parasite have to be alive? I think they’re more like scavengers.”

He looked at me liked I had dunkaballs coming out of my nose. He finally ate his forkful of macrobe and said, “That is a very perceptive thing to say, Randy. Did you think of that yourself?”

And I said, “Yeah, dad. I’m not stupid.”

And he said, “Hey kiddo, that’s not what I meant! But no, technically, the macrobes are parasites. See, they’re not just eating up the bodies they inhabit, like a scavenger would. They’re actually preserving it! They get inside a dead body and spread throughout the nervous system, and they get everything working again, almost like the body has come back to life! That’s hardly the behavior of a scavenger, right?”

And I said “Yeah. But then it’s like they’re not really parasites either. They’re symbiotic. They help their host, so they’re not just mooching off of it like a leech.”

I could tell he was impressed that I knew what symbiotic meant. And then he said, “Well, they don’t really help out their host, because the host is dead, and it stays dead. And, if you put a macrobe in a live human, well, believe me, you’d know it was a parasite! Eventually it would spread through your entire nervous system, go up your spine, and take over your brain, just like you said. But with a cadaver, it doesn’t matter if a macrobe takes over the brain, because the cadaver isn’t using it anyway.”

“What happens when the macrobe takes over the brain?”

“In a cadaver, not much, because we sever a lot of the neuromuscular connections to avoid complications.” He gave me a weird look before he kept going. “In theory, though, a macrobe could take over enough to . . . move a human body around, maybe.”

“And make it walk and talk again? Like the living dead?”

My dad was laughing. “No, not like the ‘living dead.’ Where do you come up with this stuff? You think this space station is going to turn into a zombie movie?”

“That’d be so knife.”

“Yes, very knife. But to answer your question . . . I can’t answer your question. We don’t know exactly what happens. That’s exactly what we’re trying to find out here.”

I scooped up some of my macrobe-skrat with my fork and let it hang in the air for a minute and stared at it and watched it drip through the fork-teeth. And then I asked my dad, “Dad, why did we have to come to this space station?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, why couldn’t you do your experiments with the macrobes on New Hope? Why’d we have to go all the way to outer space?”

My dad got a big, crooked smile on his face and leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “I’ll tell you, Randy. But this has to be a secret between us.”

“Okay.”

“The reason we’re on this space station is because none of the brand-new nations on New Hope have the dunkaballs to say that they are letting me stick macrobes into cadavers on their soil. Sure, they want me to save the ecosystem and bring the macrobes back from the brink of extinction, just as long as I shoot myself into orbit to do it!”

And just when things were getting good, those fragbags Malloy and Grisget called with another skratty problem they were having. So my dad left and I helped my asiMom clear dinner. After we finished, she said “You are a good son.” And then she added, “If you would like me to increase the amount of praise I give you, please say ‘Increase praise’ at any time.”

5.

I don’t even know why I have to be here. With you. I’m not crazy. I know my dad thinks I’m crazy, but I think he’s crazy, so we’re even. I’m not a “danger to myself and others.” I got that off of my chart. I don’t know who wrote that, but it’s not true. If you wrote that you’re wrong, and I know you wrote that.

When I was on the space station I only got in trouble twice in the whole summer. And the first one wasn’t even that big a deal. I just used a nailgun without permission. On my asiBro.

Why did they have a nailgun in a space station if it’s so dangerous? They shouldn’t have just left it lying around either. How was I supposed to know? It was just there, in Engineering, and okay, I wasn’t supposed to be in there, but it’s not like they locked the door or anything, and the nailgun was just there. And I didn’t take it for that long either. I just wanted to see what it could do.

But you can’t use a nailgun on anything in a space station. Everything’s so breakable. It’s not like there was any wood or anything I could’ve used.

So I took it back to my apartment. I didn’t need my asiMom for anything, so I told her to go recharge, and she did. And then I told my asiBro to come over.

He came over and said: “That is a nailgun.” He was always identifying things, like I was some sort of kikface.

And I said to him, “Hold out your hand.” And he did, and I shot him between the knuckles with the nailgun. The nail went in maybe a centimeter before it hit metal. The asiBro said “Ow that hurt,” but I could tell it didn’t. He still had the same happy idiot look on his face, and he didn’t even try to pull it out.

So I shot him a few more times. Okay, a lot more times. It was funny. He just kept saying “Ow that hurt Ow that hurt Ow that hurt Ow that hurt” in the same normal voice over and over. It didn’t matter where I shot him: face, stomach, foot, chest, knee, or right in the dunkaballs.

That was the day I discovered that when an asiBot is getting damaged, it calls its owner’s phone to let them know what’s happening.

My dad busted into the apartment out of breath and looking really scared. I know he was really worried about me, but I wasn’t doing it for attention. I didn’t know my fragbag pretend brother was going to call him and narc me out. Well anyway, my dad didn’t stay scared long. He was too busy getting really really angry.

6.

My dad said I was lucky he didn’t send me back planetside. I told him he couldn’t, because no ships were coming from New Hope for another five weeks. He told me that I was wrong, mister, and that I was a kid and I didn’t know everything, so I should listen to him, because there was a whole ship-full of post-docs coming from New Hope that very day, and he was sure the captain would be willing to take me back. I said fine, I’ll go spend the rest of the summer with Mom and Lance Jr. At least Lance Jr. wasn’t stupid enough to just stand there while I shot him with a nailgun.

And then my dad got quiet. It was weird. He just sat there and looked at me. It was so weird that when he finally said, “Go to your room,” I did without even yelling or throwing stuff or anything. A little while later I heard him leave, and I didn’t hear him come back that night.

He told me the next night at dinner that he’d been busy all day with the new post-docs. He said he wasn’t mad any more, and that he’d had my asiBro checked out, and that it was fine, no harm done. So, if I wanted, I could have him back. But only if I promised not to shoot him anymore.

7.

Besides getting my asiBro back, my dad took me to meet all the new post-docs to show me he wasn’t mad. They were all eating together in the mess when I came in. When I saw they were human, I was really relieved: I thought a “post-doc” was some kind of new alien creature they had discovered. Turns out they’re just PhDs.

But they were pretty knife. A lot younger than my dad and Grisget and Malloy and all the other scientists on the space station. And funny. They were always fragbagging around. My dad said they have skrat for brains. I said they do not, they just like to have fun. He said you don’t go on a scientific space station to have fun. I said you can say that again and he said what? and I said never mind.

I hung out with them pretty much all the time. I knew the space station, so I showed them around, and they said I could be their mascot. They gave me a PhD in Space Station Knowledge and Etiquette and called me Doctor Randy and took me with them everywhere, even into the Macrobe Lab without my dad.

Their first real day in the lab was a week after they came, and I went with them. Dr. Grisget was conducting an orientation for them in the lab. He kept congratulating them and telling them what a great honor it was to have been selected for this post-doc. Maria Centas, who was the same height as me and was always laughing about something, said to me, “This guy is really full of himself, isn’t he?” And I nodded yes, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want Dr. Grisget to notice me and tell me I wasn’t allowed to be there.

But then he did something really knife; he opened one of the incubators. All the post-docs huddled around it, so I couldn’t really see. He said, “Ladies and gentleman, this is the reason you are here. The Macrobe Conservation Project is dedicated to saving macrobes from extinction, thereby helping us to preserve the ecosystem we discovered when we first landed on New Hope.” And then he said the whole history of the whole project, how when settlers first came to New Hope, they cut down a lot of trees, only they didn’t know the difference between the different kinds of trees, and they didn’t know that they were cutting down brain trees because they didn’t have that name back then. They didn’t know that brain trees were basically trees with brains, and that they had a symbiotic relationship with macrobes, and with the trees getting cut down, the macrobes started dying off. Plus a few people had been infected by macrobes, and the macrobes started taking over their brains, and that scared a lot of people, so they started killing macrobes like crazy. And since a macrobe is basically just a big squishy gray-and-green blob of toilet water, it was really easy to kill them. Dr. Grisget said, “Now they are almost extinct. We are all that’s left to protect them from total annihilation.”

I finally squirmed through the post-docs so I could see inside the incubator. I’d seen glimpses inside them before. Mostly they shaved the cadavers’ heads and had them in those green paper outfits they give you in hospitals that don’t close in the back. But this one was a woman, and you could tell because she had long curly woman’s hair, and an earring in the ear I could see, and she had a dress on with flowers. Earth flowers.

I wasn’t tall enough to see her face, but I knew the dress was my mom’s. She had the same hair as my mom, too. I couldn’t figure out why my dad would take one of my mom’s dresses and put it on a dead lady. My mom would be so mad if she found out.

8.

I wasn’t supposed to call New Hope by myself, because calls from the space station were very expensive. But I didn’t like that my dad had put one of my mom’s dresses on one of the cadavers.

Lance Jr.’s big kikface appeared on the monitor. “You’re in trouble, Randy,” he said. “You’re not supposed to call.”

“You’re in trouble, too,” I said back. “You’re not supposed to answer.”

“There’s no one else around to answer. Aunt Lois went out for groceries.”

“Where’s Mom?”

Lance Jr. looked at me totally dunkaballs. “She’s with you, stupid.”

“No she’s not, fragbag. She’s with you.”

“Since when? Is she coming home?”

“She’s always been home. You’re not funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny, dickhead.” And then he kind of squinted and said, “You haven’t seen Mom?”

And then I saw my mom walk right behind him on the monitor. I pointed behind him and shouted, “See, skratbreath, she’s right there! Liar!”

Lance Jr. turned around, then turned back to the phone. “Man are you dumb. That’s just an asiMom.” He turned around again and said “Come here,” to my mom and my mom walked over in the exact same way an asiMom walks. Then Lance Jr. said, “Increase praise.” And my mom put a hand on his head and said, “Sorry, but praise level is already set to maximum.” Lance Jr. kind of shrugged at me and said, “I learn best from positive reinforcement.”

9.

That night during dinner, Dad got a call from Dr. Malloy. “We’re having a little bit of a problem here,” he said, “but it’s nothing we can’t handle, Lance.” My dad said, “I’ll be right over,” and then, when the speaker was off, he said, “This place would fall apart without me.” And then he headed out of the door.

My asiMom cleared the dishes, and my asiBro asked me if I wanted to play a game. I told him to go fragbag himself. He said, “I don’t know what ‘fragbag’ means. Would you like to add the word to my dictionary?” So I told him to go recharge himself instead. And then I watched the clock for exactly five minutes. Then I got up and followed my dad.

You need an I.D. to swipe to get into the Macrobe Lab, so I stopped at Maria Centas’ room and took hers. She was having dinner with the other post-docs in the mess and she never locked her door.

I swiped her card and went in the lab. I crawled on the floor and peeked around incubators to find my dad. The floor was cold and really clean.

Dad was shaking hands with Dr. Malloy. “I know I say this every night,” my dad said, “but thanks.”

Dr. Malloy just gave him a few pats on the back and said, “You take care of yourself, okay? For your sake, and your sons’.” And then he started walking toward me, so I had to duck behind a different incubator and hide there until he left the lab.

Once Dr. Malloy was gone, I peeked around the incubator to watch my dad again. He had opened one of the incubators, the one with the cadaver that had on my mom’s dress. He just looked at that dead lady for a long time. Then he put his arm under her and kind of propped her up until she almost looked like she was sitting. He moved the hair out of the dead lady’s face and he said, “Hi, Cathy.” My mom’s name is Catherine.

And then he took out the biggest syringe with the longest needle I’ve ever seen in my life and stuck it in the dead lady’s ear. All the way. I almost screamed. It took a long time to push all of the medicine into the dead lady’s brain. When he was done, he put the syringe on the tray and then held the dead lady with both arms, just looking at her and waiting for something to happen.

The dead lady’s head sat up like only her neck had come back to life. Then she opened her eyes, then closed them, then practiced opening and closing them. She opened and closed her mouth next, in exactly the same way. She stuck out her tongue then sucked it back into her face and moved her eyebrows every crazy way they would go.

My dad took out his pocket recorder. He turned it on and said, “6:44 p.m., stimulant administered. Macrobe ‘Catherine’ exhibiting advanced facial movement ability. Cadaver has recovered doll-eye movement, but lacks a blink reflex and is not yet breathing. Macrobe ‘Catherine’ seems on-schedule to fully permeate the medulla in three to five weeks.” Then he turned the recorder off and put it back in his pocket.

And then he hugged the dead lady again. And he kind of rocked her back and forth and he said, “Cathy. Oh Cathy. Why did you leave me Cathy?” And all the while, the dead lady never stopped making all those insane faces.

10.

I snuck out of the Lab and went back to the apartment. I told the asiMom and the asiBro to follow me. The stupid asiBro said “I am not fully recharged yet. Do you want me to stop recharging now?” And I said, “Yes, fragbag!” And so he stopped recharging and followed me.

The three of us went to Engineering. Now the door was locked because of the nailgun thing, but I used Maria Centas’ I.D. and the door opened. “Follow me,” I said, and they followed.

We walked to the space station’s trash compactor. It was huge; it looked like it could crush a planet. I walked them over to it and said, “Get in.”

They climbed in. I couldn’t believe how stupid they were. What did they think was going to happen?

I told them to kneel, and they did, both of them looking up at me like I was the dad. Then I said “Pray,” and they both bowed their heads and folded their hands, and the asiMom asked, “What prayer would you like us to say?” And I said, “Just pray quietly,” so they just pretended to pray quietly. Then the asiBro said “This is a fun game!” and the asiMom said, “Honey, you have to be quiet. We’re praying now.”

I walked over to the compactor’s command console—that’s exactly what it said on the front of it, “Command Console,” like you could control the whole world with it—and hit the big red button. I’d always wanted to.

The compactor came to life and this big slab of steel started to slowly push down on the heads of the asiBots. It kept pushing until I couldn’t see their heads anymore. “Keep praying!” I yelled. Then I heard metal getting smashed and glass breaking and small electric pops and plastic splintering. And then the compactor hit bottom. It stopped there for a moment, and then started to slowly come back up.

I turned to face the door. I’m sure both asiBots had called my dad to tell them they were being destroyed. I was sure he would come running, just like last time. And when he got there I would ask him if that dead lady was really my mom.

Carlos Hernandez

Carlos Hernandez

Carlos Hernandez is the author of over 40 SFF short stories, poems, and works of drama. His critically acclaimed short story collection The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria came out in 2016 from Rosarium, and his middle-grade novel Sal and Gabi Break the Universe was published by Disney Hyperion in 2019. Look for Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe in 2020.