Story Excerpts

A Stab of the Knife

by Adam-Troy Castro

The takedown defines the phrase coming out of nowhere.

Draiken, who was trained not to enter any space without first accessing it for potential angles of attack, doesn’t see it coming at all.

On this trip, he is supposed to be a businessman seeking government contracts, and so he is doing what business people do when traveling in support of their enterprises: staying at a hotel. His room is at the midpoint of a long straight corridor, lined by doors. It is a classical space, identical to any number of others that have existed on any number of worlds for thousands of years; a form that follows function, altered from the general model only when some local designer feels like showing off. It would have been comprehended perfectly by guests at a similar establishment, from a hundred years back, or a thousand.

He has seen no other guests since his walk from the elevator. He’s registered no doors opening, nobody entering the hall from either side, nobody approaching rapidly in order to close with him in the time it takes for him to reach his door and speak the admittance code.

One moment his assailant is nonexistent, the next he is looming in Draiken’s peripheral vision, his powerful right hand reaching for Draiken’s neck.

Draiken spins, recognizes the man as one of the persons of interest he’s been trailing, realizes from this that his operation has gone wrong, and out of a variety of possible counterassaults instantly selects a crippling jab to the throat.

The man parries the blow with no difficulty at all.

Draiken has spun to face him, though, and so he is unprepared when with supernaturally perfect timing, the door to his room retracts into the wall, and a smaller and more delicate arm emerges to affix a buzzpatch to the base of his neck.

It’s a fast-acting paralytic, one that spreads numbness from the point of contact.

By the time Draiken feels the first effects, they have spread past his shoulders and are crawling down the muscles of his back. He aims a weak, uncoordinated blow at the woman in the doorway, who also parries it with no difficulty.

She wears the firm but sympathetic expression of the caretaker of animals who does not take it personally when the creature in her care resists the application of medicine; she knows that it is terrifying to the animal, but also that this cannot deter her from getting the hard part out of the way as quickly as possible. She actually mouths the word, Sorry.

He is not used to getting apologies from his enemies, but okay.

He is useless within two seconds, unable to stand in less than five.

They catch him as he falls.

As darkness comes, he registers that both man and woman are, as per their observed habits, dressed as if they find it a virtue to get as close as they can to nudity without quite arriving there. Thin strips of metallic silver, light enough to reveal the shape of what lies beneath, cover their midsections. The man’s chest is bare; the woman uses the same silver material to cup her left breast, but not her right. Both have covered their neck and their shoulders with the same material, which looks less like fabric than form-fitting paint. Both man and woman have what are, despite the intervening millennia since the abandonment of the homeworld, still called Asian features, in both cases to beautiful effect, though the silvery bristles they both have as hair are as odd an aesthetic choice as streetwear that resemble bathing suits. Even on New London, a diplomatic hub where most visitors affect whatever’s fashionable on the worlds they come from, exhibitionism on that scale is pretty much showing off.

His last thought is that he might be about to die. It’s a reasonable thing to worry about. He’s dealt with kill teams before, sometimes surviving only after spilling blood, sometimes getting away with the spilled blood his own. A couple of times, put out the way he’s been put out today, he went under aware that it was quite possible that he might not be waking up, at all. Always, he felt a vague disappointment in a life that had come to this. Always, when consciousness returned, it might have been under terrible circumstances, but it still arrived as a pleasant surprise, confirmation that at the very least he had something to work with.

When he wakes, he finds himself in his own hotel room, or at the worst one identical to it, which seems unlikely. His captors would have had little reason to move him, let alone bring along his one simple traveling bag, if all they were going to do is transfer him to an identical room with the bag occupying the same corner of an identical dresser. The lights have been turned down low, and the atmosphere is gloomy but for a wedge of light escaping the corner bathroom. He can hear someone moving around in there, running water.

Draiken himself is now what a colleague used to sardonically call a “floating head,” in short, a temporary quadriplegic thanks to a spinal block at the base of his neck. (Of course, it might be permanent for all he knows, a lingering misnomer left over from the days when actual spinal damage was a life sentence, not only as long as it takes him to get somebody to drag him to an AIsource Medical kiosk.) There’s plenty of reason to believe his condition temporary and artificial, because he retains enough physical sensation and balance below shoulder levels to keep from sliding out of a chair, which has no armrests or other impediment to a body otherwise totally at the mercy of gravity. He’s been in this state before, and it’s annoying but familiar, again welcome at the very least because it establishes his captors as not the type to kill him right away.

The water stops running. The beautiful woman with the spiky silver hair emerges, unsurprised to see him awake. She offers him a light smile. She is no longer dressed in the lopsided bikini but in a new outfit, considerably more conservative: a tight gray jumpsuit that covers her from her neck to her ankles, but for her right arm, which it leaves bare. The skin there is sleek and tan over the developed musculature of an athlete, leaving open the question of whether her physical gifts are naturally acquired or enhanced by surgery.

She says, “I’m happy to see that you’re feeling better.”



Left to Take the Lead

by Marissa Lingen

The day I found out my uncle Will was still alive, I had been out spraying the crops in a full crinkly hazmat suit. The Earthers I was working for were nice people, but they always whined about the suits. To me they seemed light and airy, hardly even an annoyance compared to a vacuum suit, so I was the one who would get sent out first with the sprayer when the blight warnings came in from the provincial capital in Edmonton.

I didn’t mind. It was the tenth month of my indenture on Earth, and I had almost gotten used to the smell, but even so a little overlay of antifungal didn’t change it much. Earthers always want to know where I was working so they can figure out what smell, because Earthers think it matters—oh, the salt sea smell, they say, nodding wisely, or the grassy prairie smell, or the other Earther things they think they know.

But among us we don’t have to hear where, because we know the stink of dirt and concrete and mixed musk that is Earth, whether it’s got salt sea and juniper on top or snow melt and alpine flowers or growing corn. It’s all Earth.

In my case, though, it was the Canadian prairie, the bit in Alberta right before it buckles up and becomes mountains, the bit nobody settled much until the climate shifted, and now they were keen to have anyone they could get to work on it. Offworlders would do, because they thought the cold of space would get us used to it. They never seemed to understand that we didn’t spend any time up close and personal with the cold of space. The cold of space means something has gone badly wrong, back at home.

Not that I’d gotten to be back at home since the collapse.

It took me just ages to figure out that they don’t think they’re lying when they say, “You’ll get used to the weather.” Apparently when you’ve always had weather, you can get used to different weather. But when you’ve never had weather at all, it’s very hard to get used to blizzards, and tornadoes are just not on the list. Apparently they only used to have them once a year or less. This seemed still unbearable but much closer to civilized to me.

On our ships out in the Oort Cloud, we had tornadoes not at all, and solar storms were points of interest, not terror. Nearly everyone I met on Earth made some comment about being in a tiny ball surrounded by vacuum, as if that didn’t describe their circumstances also. Earthers are weird.

But the Pavelkas were a good assignment for an indenture on Earth: warm-hearted, truly willing to treat their indentured servants as temporary family members. The daughter of the family, Anna-Reese, took the same number of work shifts as we did, and we all ate together, three times a day around the big applewood table in the kitchen. When we were hip-deep in antifungals from yet another blight or exhausted from extra shifts with pregnant bison, so was Anna-Reese. So were her parents. And they gave us time to ourselves in the evening, to read or watch vids or go out or read the boards or message our families.

I didn’t expect much in the way of messages from my family. Most of them had died in the collapse. My little brother and sister would write to me from Mars every Sunday, dutifully, on their foster mother’s urging. I had two uncles remaining, and I didn’t know where either of them might be, or even if Uncle Will was still alive. Uncle Wys was the one I depended on. He messaged me, but I never knew where mining would take him next. He worked the high-risk jobs to try to strike it big enough to buy a ship so Hans and Cora and I could be with him as a family again.

But there was a message waiting in my queue that night when I got the worst of the grime showered off me. The time stamp on the message itself was from my work shift, but internal to the message there was a different date, four years ago. “Dear Monkey,” it started out, “If you’re reading this, I’ve failed.”

It took me another half-hour to stop crying enough to read the rest of the message. No one had called me Monkey in four years. Not since the collapse. But I had to see what else he had to say, whether he was coming for me, and whether it might mean I could be with the rest of my family again. Even though he said he’d failed—there are different kinds of failure. There’s the kind that’s frustrating and you try again, and there’s the kind that leaves your family scattered on two or three different planets and who knew where in the outer system habitats.

I was just getting myself braced to read it when Tessa came in. “My God, what happened to you?”

“My uncle—” I managed.

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry!” Tessa sat down next to me on my bed and hugged me fiercely.

“He’s not dead,” I managed around the hard press of her bony shoulder. “At least I don’t think. I couldn’t—I haven’t—”

She held me out at arm’s length, gripping my shoulders, and waited.

“I haven’t heard from him for years, really years. This isn’t the one I—the one I talk to. I kept not hearing. I’ve asked on every Oort board there is, and nobody can find him.”

Tessa turned me to Uncle Will’s letter and waited while I read it, then read it again. I think she knew that I would go back and reread it over and over if left to my own devices. She softly touched my shoulder to get my attention back, murmuring, “And?”

“He was trying—” I took a shuddering, jagged breath. “He was trying to get to a place where he could have me and my brother and sister again. He was trying to get court decisions reversed on our old property so that we could have our actual home back. He spent every dime he earned on court costs, and he lost. And he doesn’t have a way to get back the guardianship of the little ones now that he’s lost.”

Tessa glanced at the picture I keep of them. The cube could easily be programmed to show video loops or a series of still pictures, and I have them stored on there. But I just leave it on one picture, me and Hans and Cora and our cousin Xiang-Ming before she died. We all look really happy. When I can make it to Mars, I’ll get another one with just me and Hans and Cora. The picture was six years ago, and Cora has grown so much. Hans too, but—Cora was just tiny then.

We change so fast.

“I’m sorry your uncle doesn’t have a way to get them back,” said Tessa gently. She’s a very gentle person. “I know that’s important to you. Do you think your uncle hopes to help with your education debts, or—?”

“He can’t do it,” I said. “He feels terrible, he’s blaming himself, but—he can’t. And honestly I don’t know that he understands how in-system education and indenture work.”

“Couldn’t he and your other uncle figure it out together?” said Tessa. READ MORE