by Adam-Troy Castro
Art by Soo Lee
Delia Stang appeared previously in “A Stab of the Knife” (July/August 2018) and “The Savannah Problem” (January/February 2019) alongside Draiken.
* * *
The golden woman is a prisoner trapped in a straight-backed chair.
She has been paralyzed by artificial means, reduced to a temporary quadriplegic by a device affixed to the back of her neck. She has been stripped to her undergarments and left only enough bodily autonomy to prevent her from soiling herself, or from collapsing to the floor.
The room is shaped like a silo, the curved walls extending high over her head. She cannot crane her neck to see the light source, up above, but assumes it’s some distance away; this is how it is in the cell where they’ve kept her, until now.
She cannot see her interrogator, who speaks in a voice filtered to remove all identifying signifiers.
The voice of her interrogator could be old or young; male, female, or any of the other associated genders; human, or some representative of several possible alien races. The golden woman has her suspicions. All she can determine of its character is a total lack of empathy.
“Your name is Delia Stang.”
“Is that your actual name or just some alias you’re using?”
“I would advise you not to play games with me.”
“I’m not playing games. It’s both my name and my alias. These are two different things.”
“Explain the distinction as you see it.”
“I was not born Delia Stang. It is the name all my associates know, the name I use when I think of myself. I could give you the one my parents gave me, but you are not interrogating a child with no choice over who she chooses to be. You are interrogating a grown woman who can be anyone she wants to be. I have used other aliases, but this is the only name I recognize.”
“If it suits me, I will call you anything I like and train you to accept it.”
“That would be exerting your techniques pretty early in the conversation, I think. I’m being cooperative enough.”
“Very well. Your name is Delia Stang.”
“Glad we have that settled.”
“Restrain from sarcasm.”
“That wasn’t sarcasm.”
“You have worked as a bodyguard and a security consultant.”
“I see you’ve looked me up.”
“We have a dossier of your activities on multiple worlds, both legal and illegal, but we are most interested in what happened on New London and afterward.”
“Don’t you already know the story?”
“We have the outline. We know that a couple of years back, when one of your bodyguard assignments took you to New London, you were involved in stopping an assassination.”
“Well, a double assassination, depending on how you do the math.”
“We are more interested in what happened afterward.”
“You left New London in the company of a man named John Draiken.”
“Oh, there are so many mistakes in that sentence.”
“First: we left New London together, but not by choice. We were just expelled at the same time, both in bluegel suspension, where we wouldn’t have noticed company of any kind whether it was each other, total strangers, or a fifty-piece marching band.”
“Nevertheless, you left together.”
“In the sense that one box of cargo is shipped together with another box of cargo, without input from personal volition, yes.”
“You deny a personal relationship with this man, Draiken.”
“No, I do not. We formed a partnership afterward. I only deny that we had one on New London or while in transit.”
“These are minor points.”
“You’re interrogating me, aren’t you? I would assume you wanted accuracy.”
“Why do I still suspect sarcasm?”
“I don’t know. I’m trying to be helpful. You’re also wrong about his name.”
“His name was John Draiken.”
“He called himself John Draiken. He was adamant that it wasn’t his name.”
“It was the name he used on New London.”
“Yes. And before and after. But he used it for convenience. He also said that it was not his real name, that it had nothing to do with who he really was.”
“Would you like to know his birth name? It’s in our dossier. I can assuage your curiosity about the man if you’d like to.”
“No, thank you. I believe it would be disrespectful of his wishes.”
“Regardless of your prior status as strangers to one another, it remains true that when the two of you arrived at the world where the New London authorities deported you, you did form a partnership.”
“Yes. Initially, of convenience.”
“Do you expect us to believe that it was never more than convenience?”
by James Van Pelt
Jacqueline theorized how to build a private video connection for the three of us from broken baby monitors, trashed cell phones, and digital displays; I collected her shopping list from Dad’s junkyard, and Selena took Jacqueline’s scribbled plans, deciphered them, and somehow turned the three boxes of abandoned electronics I gathered into a working communication system. We sat in our own bedrooms in our own houses and talked whenever we wanted. Jacqueline came up with the idea because all of our parents said we weren’t old enough for smartphones.
“Thanks, Penny,” Selena said when I gave her the box of parts. “You have all the coolest stuff,” she added.
We were eight, and we’d decided we should never be apart. At least I believed that then.
Six years later, near the end of summer before we were to start ninth grade, Jacqueline said, “We can go to the Moon.” She sat in her favorite seat by the Submersible Club’s control panel. The LED lights gave her face a ghastly hue, and dark hair covered her shoulders. She’d traded glasses for contacts at Christmas, and her face still looked naked to me. “High school is a chance to remake yourself, don’t you think? I don’t want to be the geeky kid with glasses.”
Selena tinkered with the CO2 scrubber. We could stay in the Submersible Club as long as we wanted—the scrubber worked—but the air smelled like a vegetable drawer gone bad. At the time, she’d said, “As if the glasses are what make you geeky.”
“They’re going to put me in with upperclassmen. It’ll be bad enough being three years younger than everyone else.”
So she got contacts.
I sat by a porthole. Outside, the quarry grass twisted slowly like a thick, sluggish carpet, while a catfish muscled through, probing the bottom with its whiskered mouth. Algae flecks drifted by. The day had been cloudless when we called the Club to shore and boarded her, and the water was particularly clear. Thirty feet down, where the light started to dim, I still had a good view.
“Dad doesn’t have junk we can turn into a spaceship,” I said. “Besides, NASA bailed on the Moon fifty years ago.”
Jacqueline grinned. “You’re missing the beauty, Penny. We don’t need a spaceship. We’ll take this.” She waved her hand, encompassing the entirety of the old gas station storage tank we’d spent last summer turning into the Submersible Club. By the time we were done, Selena had taught us both how to be competent welders. “We keep water out under a lake; in outer space we can keep air in.”
I imagined the three of us disappearing in a flash of flame and poor planning. “We have no rockets, and we can’t make the fuel. That stuff is wicked explosive.”
“We don’t need rockets.”
Selena extracted herself from the CO2 scrubber. It filled the back quarter of the club, along with the battery packs, the diesel generator we ran when we surfaced, and her tools. “I’d like to go to the Moon.” She stood tall and slender and was a magician with her hands when it came to soldering and assembling and making it all fit. “Do you have schematics?”
“Working on the numbers,” Jacqueline said. “Two more days.”
As always, they were way ahead of me.
* * *
Dad said, “A customer out front needs a replacement motor for his blender. It’s an Osterizer Imperial Dual Range Cyclomatic 14. Can you find one, or a motor to double for it?”
I munched on a jelly sandwich. “Is he a restoration nut? The Cyclomatic 14 is from the ’70s. He could replace it on eBay for ten bucks.”
“An eBay customer doesn’t make us money. Do we have one or not?”
Dad specialized in auto and truck parts. If you wanted a transmission for a 1948 Chevrolet Thriftmaster 5-Window Pickup, he knew exactly where we’d parked it and what size wrenches for the job, but I excelled in the smaller stuff. I spent a lot of time wandering the junkyard.
Dad sighed and leaned against the counter. “What’s it going to cost?”
I gave him the squinty eye, like I was being shrewd. “Well, we’re out of chocolate ice cream.”
“Okay, you’re on. If you can find the motor, I’ll pop for the good stuff.”
Mom always called Dad her “swarthy sweetheart.” I thought for the longest time that “swarthy” meant strong, and he is, too.
I snagged the key for the golf cart as I headed out the back door. The yard stretched over fifteen acres, much deeper than wide, and even with the cart it could take a while to get to the farthest reaches overlooking the old quarry, but I’d modified the transmission. I whipped through the twisty path, leaning into the curves, scrap metal whipping past on both sides. Dad would kill me if he saw me drive like this, but, oh, I loved to be behind the wheel. If it moved, I wanted to steer, and the faster the better. The thought of getting a driver’s license in a couple years kept me awake at night.
When I returned, after finding the little motor way back in the yard, beyond stacks of washing machines, and teetering towers of hot tubs and refrigerators, after digging through a bin of blenders, mixers, can openers, and electric knives, Dad said fondly, “You’re not like other little girls, are you? And I bet the guy will be happy to pay twenty for this.”
* * *
The three of us attended summer school: Selena failed eighth-grade English; I had to retake World Geography (I just couldn’t keep those European countries straight on a world map, and I never remembered more than thirty-two of the states), and Jacqueline volunteered as the student assistant in A.P. Calculus for those kids who took school in summer for fun.
Most of the rooms were empty as I trudged to remedial Geography. Desks needing replacement were piled in the hallway, and the festive, “Welcome to Summer” and “We’ll Miss You!” posters had been torn down, leaving the walls bare and sad looking. I imagined how I’d feel if this were the Moon, and how light my steps would be, but I guess I couldn’t do it well enough. I stayed stubbornly Earth-bound.
Twenty kids sat in the Geography room. Worst of the worst. The Fab Four filled the back row: Melissa, Melinda, Vivian, and Victoria, like a four-pack of genetically identical lab rats.