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Jef and the Sad Sack

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There was a boy who lived in an attic. His name, when he bothered to remember it, was Jef.

In some ways, Jef was a very normal boy. He liked catching bugs in his hands, and jumping on things, and running around and around and around in circles, all over his attic.

But in other ways, Jef wasn’t very normal at all. He didn’t have a favourite colour, or a favourite animal, or a favourite food. He didn’t have a favourite anything, because no one had ever taught him what a “favourite” was. He slept on top of an old wooden desk and used the rainwater that leaked through the roof to fill his baths. He never got to play with other boys or girls, or visit the park, or eat chocolate or candy.

In fact, Jef never got to leave his attic at all, and he didn’t get to have visitors, either! The only person who ever came to see him was the man at the trapdoor, and he never wanted to talk to Jef or jump off things or catch bugs. All he ever did was look grumpy and bring Jef bowls of carrot soup. He wasn’t a very nice man. Actually, he was a very bad man, but since no one had ever taught Jef the difference between good people and bad people, he didn’t realize it.

Sometimes Jef was sad. Sometimes he was lonely. Sometimes, during the night, when it was dark and the wind was blowing through the rafters, he felt scared. Most of the time, Jef was very hungry.

One morning—Jef always knew when it was morning because he could see the sunshine through a crack in the wall—one morning, Jef was lying on his desk and feeling even hungrier than usual. There had only been two lumps of carrot in his soup the night before, and normally he got three or four. He was too hungry to even play with the ant that was crawling past his face!

Jef’s tummy rumbled, and he sat up and poked at it with his finger. “There’s no use rumbling, Mr. Tummy,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to put inside you, unless you want me eat this ant!”

His tummy rumbled again, louder. Jef could see his belly button wiggling. “No, sir, Mr. Tummy,” he said. “I will not eat that ant, no matter what you say!”

Again his tummy rumbled, even louder this time, and it kept on rumbling so hard that Jef’s desk began to shake, and then the floor began to shake, and then the roof began to shake. Jef began to think that maybe all this rumbling wasn’t actually coming from his tummy!

He jumped down off his desk and went to peek out through the hole in the wall. Instead of seeing two big brick buildings with the sun rising between them, like he normally did, Jef saw a round, silver spaceship covered in blinking blue and green lights flying right towards him! He jumped out of the way, and only just in time. The spaceship came crashing through the wall, scattering bits of wood and brick all over the place.

A door on the side of the spaceship flopped open and a funny little grey-haired, blue-skinned alien jumped out. It was about the same height as Jef, but it had four arms, a round belly, a big, wide nose, and enormous eyes. It was wearing spectacles that were bigger than its face, and they were taped together in the middle.

“Bother and trouble,” it said. “Trouble and bother. What is it this time? The Pompter Valve? The Jumbly Filter? The Warston Gauge?” It popped open a panel on the side of the spaceship and started poking at wires and tapping little beeping buttons.

Jef didn’t know what to do. He’d never had an alien spaceship crash into his attic before. I expect you haven’t, either! Jef was a very curious little boy, so he decided he should at the very least say hello.

He walked up to the alien and tapped it on one of its four shoulders.

The alien jumped in surprise and put two of its hands over its two hearts. “Oh dear!” it said. “You startled me! What are you doing here, little boy?”

“This is where I live,” said Jef.

“You live here?” said the alien. “Little boys aren’t supposed to live in attics. They’re supposed to live in bedrooms.”

“What’s a bedroom?” asked Jef.

The alien shook its head sadly. “You don’t know what a bedroom is? Humans can be so very strange… Hmph!” It went back to fiddling with the wires on its spaceship.

Jef didn’t much like being called “strange,” especially not by a four-armed blue alien with gigantic spectacles, but he was so very curious about the spaceship that he decided not to be mad. “What are you doing to your spaceship?” he asked the alien. “Are you trying to fix it?”

“Yes! Something is wrong with it, but I don’t know what. It started flying crooked as I was going past Earth, and then I lost control and crash-landed all the way down here!” The alien took its spectacles off and rubbed them on its shirt. “My eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Can you read what it says underneath this blinking red light?”

Jef looked at the tiny little words, but it was no use. “No one has ever taught me how to read!” he explained.

The alien wrinkled its wide, flat forehead. “Haven’t you ever been to school?”

“What’s school?” asked Jef.

“Oh dear,” said the alien. “Oh dear, and oh bother. Humans, eh? Humans. School is where you learn important things, like reading and writing and long division and arts and crafts. But I think you can still help me. Take this pencil and copy down the letters you see onto this paper, but bigger. Then I can read them.”

“Okay,” said Jef. He took the pencil and paper that the alien had pulled out of its shirt pocket and started copying the letters. These were the letters he copied:

S C R E W L O O S E

“There,” he said, when he had finished. “What does this say?”

“Oh, of course!” said the alien. “It says ‘screw loose.’ So that means all I have to do is tighten this here…” He took a screwdriver out of his back pocket and reached up to the engine on the side of the spaceship. There was a screw sticking out a little ways, and the alien used its screwdriver to tighten it back in. “Problem solved!” he said. “At least, I hope so. Thank you so much for your help! Oh, and silly me, I haven’t properly introduced myself. I am YoboHogo, space explorer. What’s your name?”

It took Jef a few seconds to think of his name, because he hadn’t used it in a while, but at last he remembered. “I’m Jef,” he said.

“Pleased to meet you, Jef,” said YoboHogo. “Now I suppose I must be on my way.” He closed the panel on the side of the spaceship and started to climb back in through the door.

“Where are you going?” asked Jef. He didn’t want YoboHogo to leave, not so soon! He had too many questions to ask about what space was like, and how it felt to have blue skin.

“I’m on my way to visit my aunt and uncle on Mars,” said YoboHogo. “And thanks to that loose screw, I’m already late!”

“What are aunts and uncles?” asked Jef. “Can I come visit them with you?”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” said YoboHogo. “What would your parents think?”

“What are parents?” asked Jef. “Do you mean the man at the trapdoor?”

“Doesn’t even know what parents are?” muttered YoboHogo. “Lives in an attic, never taught how to read… You poor boy. Maybe you had better come with me, after all.”

“Hooray!” cried Jef, and in a flash he had crawled into the spaceship behind YoboHogo and settled himself into one of the soft, comfortable seats inside.

YoboHogo pulled the door of the spaceship closed and then buckled Jef tightly into his seat. “Hold on tight while we’re taking off!” he said. He grabbed onto four different controls, one with each hand, and started to twist and turn them all at the same time. The spaceship growled and rumbled and grumbled and howled, and then with a flash of light it zipped backwards out of the hole in the roof of Jef’s attic and zoomed up into the sky.

In just a few seconds the spaceship was so far off the ground that Jef could see for miles and miles in every direction. There were houses everywhere, and big, tall, glass buildings, and roads filled with teeny tiny cars, and mountains, and lakes… Jef had never imagined that all of these things had been surrounding him in his little attic. The only things he had ever known about, for as long as he could remember, were the attic, the trap door, and the brick walls he could see through the crack. Seeing all of these things made Jef feel very, very small.

They flew higher and higher, until the sky turned black and Jef could see the whole Earth way below them, like a big blue and green ball hanging in space.

“Isn’t it pretty?” said YoboHogo. “Your attic is down there somewhere, far, far away, so far away that it’s just a tiny speck, and we can’t even see it.”

“A tiny speck?” said Jef. “Far, far away? Ooooh…” Suddenly he started to cry.

“What is it?” asked YoboHogo. “What’s wrong?”

Between sobs, Jef said, “I’ve never been outside of my attic before, and I’m scared! What if I never see it again?”

“Don’t be sad,” said YoboHogo. “Don’t be scared. You’re on an exciting new adventure now!”

But Jef couldn’t stop crying.

“I know what you need,” said YoboHogo. “Wait right here.” The alien got out of his seat and bustled off into another part of the spaceship. After a couple of minutes he came back carrying a bowl and a little blue bag with a zipper and a bell at the top. “You’re probably hungry for breakfast. Here: eat this.” He handed Jef the bowl.

Jef didn’t recognize what was inside. “This isn’t carrot soup,” he said.

“No,” said YoboHogo. “It’s cereal. I hope you like space cow milk.”

Jef tried the cereal. It was delicious! He liked it far more than watery carrot soup. He ate it all up, and felt much less hungry, but it only made him feel a little bit better. He still missed his attic.

“Now, try this,” said YoboHogo, handing Jef the little blue bag. “It’s a Sad Sack. Next time you start to feel sad, scared, or worried, just open the Sad Sack up and put those feelings inside. You can try it now, if you want.”

Unzipping the bag, Jef held it up and looked inside. “How does it work?” he asked.

“Tell it how you feel,” said YoboHogo.

That sounded like a silly thing to do, but Jef thought it was worth trying, so he said, “I’m sad because I miss my attic.” The bell at the top of the Sack started to jingle, and the Sack shook a little bit in Jef’s hands, and then ZIP!, it zipped itself shut. Even though Jef hadn’t put anything inside it, the sack didn’t look quite as empty as it had before.

“Feel better?” asked YoboHogo.

And Jef did! He stopped crying and wiped his eyes. Something strange was happening to his face. “I feel… funny,” he said.

“Uh oh,” said YoboHogo. “You aren’t getting space-sick, are you?”

Jef had been sick before, and it didn’t feel like that. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m all warm and fuzzy inside. What does that mean?”

“Oh,” said YoboHogo, “that just means you’re happy! Don’t you know what happiness feels like, Jef?”

It wasn’t like anything Jef had ever felt before. The corners of his mouth were rising up towards his eyes and he wanted to jump up and down! It was kind of like when he was running around and around his attic in circles, or playing with a caterpillar in his hand, but way better. “What do people do when they’re happy?” asked Jef.

“Well, sometimes they laugh,” said YoboHogo, “like this.” And he laughed, “Ha ha ha ha!” while his round belly wobbled.

Jef tried it: “Ha ha.” It sounded strange, but it felt good. He tried again: “Ha ha hah hah.” And then suddenly he couldn’t stop! “Hah hah hee hee ho ho ho!” he laughed, and YoboHogo laughed with him.

“Now you’ve got it,” said YoboHogo. “It sure is nice to laugh sometimes. But remember, even though you can put your sadness and fear into the Sad Sack, that doesn’t mean it goes away. You have to let those feelings out every now and then, so the Sack doesn’t get too full.”

“Okay,” said Jef, but what he was really thinking was that he never wanted to be sad or scared again, not when being happy felt this good! He put the Sad Sack into his pocket.

“It’s time for us to head to Mars,” said YoboHogo. “It’s going to take a little while to get there, so you can go take a nap on the bed in the back.”

“What’s a bed?” asked Jef.

“A bed is what you sleep on.”

“I sleep on a desk,” said Jef.

YoboHogo said, “I think you’ll like a bed better than a desk.” He led Jef to the bed and tucked him in under the blankets. The bed was so soft and comfortable and warm that Jef fell asleep in three seconds flat!

***

When Jef woke up, he had been sleeping so deeply that he’d forgotten where he was. What was he doing all wrapped up in these blankets? Why was he so warm? He wasn’t used to being all covered up like this! He yelled and kicked the blankets off.

Then he remembered that he was in a bed aboard YoboHogo’s spaceship, flying through space towards Mars, far away from his quiet, dark attic. For a minute he was scared again, but then he felt the Sad Sack in his pocket. He took it out, opened the zipper, and said, “I’m scared because I’m way up in space!” The bell jingled, the Sack filled up a little bit more, and then it zipped itself shut, and Jef felt better again. He put the Sack back in his pocket, got out of the bed, and went looking for YoboHogo.

He found the alien at the front of the spaceship, sitting in the pilot’s seat and flying with the four joysticks. Where the blue-and-green Earth had been before, there was now a big red planet, covered in white swirling clouds.

“You’re awake!” said YoboHogo, when he saw Jef. “Did you like the bed?”

“Mmhmm,” said Jef, nodding, but he didn’t tell YoboHogo that he’d had to use the Sad Sack again, because he wanted YoboHogo to think he was too brave to need it.

“That’s Mars up ahead,” said YoboHogo. “We’re almost there. Pretty soon you’ll get to meet my aunt and uncle. They’re very nice people. I’m sure you’ll like them.” The alien helped Jef strap into his seat for the landing, and then the spaceship swooped down through the clouds of Mars and went zooming past the red mountains and over the red valleys.

Soon they came to a round blue house sitting on top of a tall, red, dusty hill. The spaceship landed a little ways away. Before they opened the door and got out, YoboHogo gave Jef a little pill to swallow, to help him breathe the Mars air, since air on Mars is very different from air on Earth. The pill made Jef’s mouth and throat feel ticklish.

YoboHogo opened the door of the spaceship and helped Jef down the ladder onto the ground. Two other aliens had come out of the round blue house and were waving their four hands to say hello.

“That’s my aunt and uncle!” said YoboHogo. “Wave hello to them!”

Jef waved, even though he only had two hands to do it with.

YoboHogo said, “Let’s go see if they have supper ready for us.” He took Jef’s hand and led him up the hill to the round blue house. He gave his aunt and uncle each a big, four-armed hug.

“It’s so nice of you to visit!” said YoboHogo’s Uncle UmburBumbur, who had dark blue skin, a belly shaped like a basketball, and big square glasses. “And who is this friend that you brought with you?”

“This is Jef,” said YoboHogo. “I crashed into his attic on Earth. He has spent his whole life sleeping on a desk and eating nothing but carrot soup, so I decided to bring him with me.”

“Oh, you poor dear!” said YoboHogo’s Aunt AndaManda, who had green skin and teeny tiny little glasses shaped like half-moons. “Come on inside. We’ll feed you waffles and strawberries and apple pie. Have you ever had ice cream, Jef?”

Jef hadn’t ever had ice cream—can you imagine?—so he shook his head.

“Poor dear!” cried Aunt AndaManda again. “Poor, poor dear! Quick, Uncle UmburBumbur: get the ice cream!”

They rushed him inside and Uncle UmburBumbur fetched the ice cream from the freezer. Jef took one careful little bite and his face lit up into an enormous smile. He loved it! He started scooping big spoonfuls of ice cream into his mouth, even faster than he could swallow.

YoboHogo laughed. “Slow down, Jef. Slow down! Save some room for the waffles and strawberries!”

When Jef had eaten two heaping bowls of ice cream, Aunt AndaManda give him a waffle covered in strawberries and whipped cream, and he gobbled that up, too, and asked for more.

“Careful, Jef,” said Aunt AndaManda. “You might give yourself a tummy ache.”

“Oh, fiddle faddle,” said Uncle UmburBumber. “Fluff ‘n’ puff. Let the boy eat! He’s had nothing but carrot soup his whole life…”

“Yes, please let me have some more,” begged Jef.

So Aunt AndaManda kept the food coming. Jef had another waffle with strawberries, three pieces of apple pie, and then one more bowl of ice cream for dessert. When he was finished there was a stack of dishes in front of him that was as tall as he was. Uncle UmburBumbur whisked the dishes away into the sink and began washing them.

“To bed with you now, I think!” said Aunt AndaManda. “All that space travel, and all that food, and you’re so far away from home… A good night’s sleep will do you well! YoboHogo, would you show Jef to the guest room?”

YoboHogo brought Jef up the stairs and down the hallway and showed him into the guest room, where there was a nice, big, soft bed waiting. “I told you my aunt and uncle were nice people, didn’t I?” said YoboHogo.

Jef tried to say, “Yes,” but he had eaten so much food that all he could do was roll onto the bed and lie on his back, staring at the ceiling with his mouth open. He looked down at his tummy, and it seemed almost as big and round as all of the aliens’ tummies were! “Oooooh,” he moaned.

“What’s wrong?” asked YoboHogo. “Did you get a tummy ache?”

Jef nodded. The food had all tasted so good, but now he wished he hadn’t eaten so much of it. He remembered that he still had the Sad Sack, though, so he took it out, opened it up, and said, “I feel sick because I ate too much yummy food and got a big tummy ache!” The bell jingled, the Sack swelled up nice and full, and the zipper went zip! and shut tight. Right away Jef’s tummy felt a little better.

“Jef, have you been remembering to let some of your bad feelings out of the Sad Sack now and then, like I told you to?” asked YoboHogo.

Actually, Jef had forgotten all about letting his feelings out. Besides, it felt so nice to put all of his sadness, scared feelings, and tummy aches into the Sack. Why would he want to let any of those things back out again? Why shouldn’t he make himself feel better all the time? Jef decided to tell a lie. “Yes, I’ve been letting them out,” he said.

“Good,” said YoboHogo. “It’s very important, you know. Well, have a nice sleep! I’ll see you in the morning.” He turned out the light and closed the door.

Jef fell asleep and dreamed of mountains of waffles and strawberries, covered in snow made of ice cream.

***

The next morning Jef was woken up by the happy singing voice of Aunt AndaManda. “Wake up, wake up, sleepy little boy!” she sang. “You wouldn’t want to miss breakfast, would you?”

Jef sat up and asked, “What’s breakfast?”

“Breakfast is the meal you eat in the morning,” said Aunt AndaManda. “Haven’t you ever eaten breakfast before?”

Of course, Jef hadn’t. He was only used to getting carrot soup for supper. He didn’t know that people usually ate three meals every day instead of just one. “Oh boy!” he said. “Do I get to have more waffles?”

“No,” said Aunt AndaManda. “Here on Mars we eat waffles for supper and have chicken and potatoes for breakfast!”

Jef didn’t know what chicken and potatoes were, so he didn’t know how silly it was to eat them for breakfast. He just thought they sounded delicious—and, of course, he was right. “Hooray!” he said, and he jumped out of bed with a giant smile.

YoboHogo and Uncle UmburBumbur were already downstairs waiting. Everyone sat down, and Uncle UmburBumbur said thank you for the food, and Jef started eating as fast as he could. Yum yum yum! The chicken and potatoes were so delicious. Jef especially loved the gravy. He even ate a big bunch of broccoli! This time, though, Jef remembered to stop eating before he gave himself another tummy ache.

When everyone was done eating and Uncle UmburBumbur had taken the dishes away, YoboHogo said, “We’ve had such a wonderful time visiting you here on Mars, Aunt AndaManda and Uncle UmburBumbur, but I think I should bring Jef home.”

“Oh no!” said Jef. “But I want to stay here!”

“We can’t stay on Mars forever,” said YoboHogo. “I have lots more exploring to do, and it’s time for you to go back to Earth.”

This made Jef very sad. He had been having so much fun here on Mars. His smile drooped down into a frown, and then into a very sad face. He sniffled, and was almost going to cry, but before he did, he took out the Sad Sack and opened it up. He said, “I feel very sad because I want to stay here on Mars and not go back to Earth.”

The Sad Sack shook and swelled up very full, and the bell jingled, and the Sack began to shake harder and harder.

“What’s happening to it?” asked Jef. “Why is it shaking so hard?”

“Haven’t you been letting your feelings out?” said YoboHogo.

Jef knew he couldn’t lie again. “No,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to be sad or scared anymore.”

“If you haven’t been letting your feelings out, then the Sack has gotten too full!” said YoboHogo. “Now all of those feelings are going to come out whether you want them to or not. Here they come!”

The Sad Sack jumped out of Jef’s hands onto the floor and shook around and around and around until suddenly POOF!, out jumped a little yellow monster with ugly red eyes, a flat, piggy nose, four stubby legs, a brown-and-yellow tail, and sharp bristly hairs all over its body. It hissed like a cat and leapt up onto the table.

“It’s a Sadness Monster!” cried Aunt AndaManda. “Look out!”

The Sadness Monster spotted Jef, flicked its tail, and pounced onto his head. It grabbed Jef’s head with its legs and wrapped its tail around his neck, and suddenly Jef began to feel so sad, and so scared, and so sick all at once that he didn’t know what to do!

“Help me!” said Jef. “Oh, please help me!” Before he could stop himself, he started to cry and scream and sob and wail.

Then he felt twelve arms wrap around him tight, as YoboHogo, Aunt AndaManda, and Uncle UmburBumbur all gave him a big, warm group hug. All three of them started to cry with Jef, helping to share his sadness and fear.

The Sadness Monster howled and yowled and hissed, but it quickly began to shrink, smaller and smaller, until pop!, it disappeared.

The three aliens let go of their hugs and lifted up their glasses and wiped their eyes on their sleeves. “How do you feel, Jef?” asked YoboHogo. “Are you all right?”

Jef wasn’t sure how to feel. He was still a little bit sad, but he felt much better now that the Sadness Monster was gone.

YoboHogo said, “That’s what happens when you put all of your bad feelings into the Sad Sack and never let them out. If you store up too many at once, they turn into a Sadness Monster and attack you! But if you have people who love you, like your family or your friends, they can help share your sad or scared or sick feelings, and then those feelings aren’t so bad.”

“Thank you for helping me,” said Jef. “I wish I had family or friends back on Earth, though! There’s nobody to help me with my feelings in my attic except for the man at the trapdoor, and all he ever goes is look grumpy and bring me carrot soup.”

“Hmm,” said YoboHogo. “Hmm hmm hmm. Maybe we can do something about that! I have an idea we can try once we get back to your attic.”

Aunt AndaManda gave Jef some waffles and ice cream to take along for the flight back to Earth, and Uncle UmburBumbur picked up the Sad Sack and gave it back to Jef.

“Thank you!” said Jef. “Maybe I can come visit you again someday.”

“We would like that very much,” said Uncle UmburBumbur.

Jef gave Uncle UmburBumbur and Aunt AndaManda both one last hug, and then he and YoboHogo went back to the spaceship, got inside, and blasted off for Earth.

***

When they made it back to Jef’s house, there were workmen up on the roof trying to repair the hole that YoboHogo’s ship had made in Jef’s attic. The workmen looked up and saw the spaceship and were so scared that they dropped all their tools and went running away down the street.

YoboHogo flew the spaceship through the hole into the attic again and he and Jef climbed out. As much as Jef had loved Mars and hadn’t wanted to leave, it felt good to be back in his familiar home again.

“Here you are, safe and sound,” said YoboHogo. “And before I leave, I’d better put my plan into action!”

“What plan?” asked Jef. “What are you going to do?”

“Watch and see,” said YoboHogo. He had Jef hide behind his old desk, and then went to the trapdoor and stomped on it three times, stomp stomp stomp.

After a few seconds, Jef heard the sound of footsteps, and the trapdoor swung open. The man at the trapdoor stuck his bald head up, frowning and grumbling. “You workmen always have some new complaint!” he said, and then he saw YoboHogo and his spaceship. The man’s eyes grew extra wide, and his mouth opened up in a big “O”. “Wh-who are you?” he said. “Wh-what in the world are you?”

“I am YoboHogo!” said YoboHogo, holding all four of his arms out wide and shaking them around. “I have come from Mars to live in your attic! Boogidy-boo!”

The man in the trapdoor squeaked like a big mouse and ran back down his ladder, letting the trapdoor fall shut behind him.

“I think my plan is working!” said YoboHogo to Jef.

“How is it working?” asked Jef. “I don’t understand.”

“You’ll see,” said YoboHogo. “Just wait here. You’ll see. Now, it’s time for me to go do some more exploring. I’m off to Venus next! Goodbye, Jef. I’ll see you again someday soon.”

Jef gave YoboHogo a big hug and said, “Goodbye, YoboHogo!”

Then YoboHogo climbed into his spaceship, started up the engines, and flew off into space, making the whole attic rumble.

Jef sat on his desk and waited for YoboHogo’s plan to work. He wondered what was supposed to be happening, and how long he was supposed to wait.

After a while, he heard footsteps climbing the ladder to the trapdoor. Was the man at the trapdoor coming back again so soon?

The trapdoor opened up and someone stuck their head through, but it wasn’t the man at the trapdoor. It was a woman in a blue hat. “I don’t see an alien or a spaceship,” said the woman in the blue hat. Then she saw Jef. “Oh, hello, little boy,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Hi,” said Jef. “I’m Jef.”

The woman in the blue hat climbed all the way up into the attic. She was wearing a blue shirt, too, and she had a shiny badge stuck onto her shirt. “What are you doing up here all alone, Jef?” she asked.

“I live here,” said Jef. “I’ve lived here for as long as I can remember. But I just got back from a visit to Mars.”

“Is that so?” said the woman in the blue hat. “You know, you look familiar, Jef. I think maybe I’ve seen a picture of you before. Yes, I’ve definitely seen your picture back at the police station. It’s been hanging on the wall there.”

The man at the trapdoor climbed up behind the policewoman and said, “It was right here, I tell you! A big round silver spaceship, and a blue alien with giant glasses and four arms!”

“There’s no spaceship,” said the policewoman, “but there is my new friend Jef. I’ve been looking for him for a long time, and now I’ve found him! Why don’t we all go to the police station to celebrate?”

The man at the trapdoor didn’t seem very happy about going to the police station, but Jef was excited. He didn’t know what a police station was, or why the policewoman had been looking for him, but it sounded like an adventure, and he now knew how much fun adventures could be.

Jef got to ride in a car all the way to the police station. It was kind of like YoboHogo’s spaceship, but it stayed on the ground and didn’t go as fast. When they got to the police station, a man and a woman were waiting for them.

“These are your parents,” said the policewoman as they got out of the car. “Do you remember them?”

Jef didn’t, but he did remember YoboHogo talking about parents once, and saying that he was supposed to have some. It turned out he did, after all! He hoped they would be as nice as Uncle UmburBumbur and Aunt AndaManda.

Jef walked up to his parents and said, “Hi. I’m Jef!”

“Hello, Jef,” said his parents. They were both looking at him and crying.

Jef knew what to do about that. He reached into his pocket for the Sad Sack, but to his surprise, it was gone! How could he help his parents now?

Then he remembered: there was another way to help people when they were sad. He reached out his arms and gave both of his parents a big, warm hug.

END

Unsettled

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Darien Hammond gripped the top corner of the dresser with both hands and heaved it away from the wall. He reached into the gap and wrapped his fingers around the cold steel barrel of his old flashgun.

Abigail called to him from the hallway. “I’m ready to go, Daddy! I brought Kai’s teddy bear, too, and the toothbrush he forgot.”

Darien pulled out the flashgun, fished a new battery out of his back pocket, and clapped it into the butt of the weapon. “Okay, thanks, Abby.”

“Will we see Kai and Mommy right away when we get to Pacu?”

“I don’t know,” said Darien. “They have a long way to drive, so it depends what time they leave Auntie Karen’s house in Endira.”

“I wish I could’ve gone to visit Auntie Karen, too…”

“Well we can’t always get what we want. Go get in the jeep with Uncle Jake. I’ll be right behind you.”

Darien heard Abigail’s footsteps pattering down the stairs, along the hallway, and across the carpet of the living room to the front door. He hefted a full duffel bag onto his shoulder and stood for a moment looking over the empty bedroom. There was the bed he would never lie on again. There were the drawers full of clothes that he would never wear again. There was the lamp Tiffany would never use to read the kids another bedtime story. There was the box of Harvest Day decorations tucked up on the shelf in the closet, ready and waiting to be pulled out next week and draped all over the house and the barn. But there weren’t going to be any more Harvest Days, not here in the farmlands, not in the cities of Pacu or Endira, not anywhere on planet Oronado.

Darien turned out the bedroom light and stumped down the stairs, the flashgun dangling at the end of his arm. Stopping briefly in the kitchen, he twisted open the gas valves on the stove and listened to the hiss. He looked at the radio sitting in the window and reached for the dial to turn it on, but thought better of it. He couldn’t bear to listen to more reports of what was happening across the planet, the fallout, the panic, the chaos, the evacuation logistics. Enough.

At the door he pulled his thick-soled boots on and tied them methodically. He scratched a match along his insole and it flared into life. Taking a candle down from a ledge beside the door, he lit it with the match and settled it on the floor.

Then he shouldered his gun and his duffel bag again, pushed his way through the door, and jogged out to the open-topped jeep, where his daughter and his old friend Jake were waiting for him.

“Daddy, where did you get that gun?” Abigail was only 8, still a child, but not for long. Not after today.

“They gave it to me before you were born,” grunted Darien, lifting the tarp covering the back of the jeep and tossing his duffel bag in. He turned back for one last look at the house he had built so many years ago.

“Who gave you the gun?” asked Abigail.

Darien didn’t answer, so Jake filled in the silence: “The army did, kiddo,” he said. “We all had guns back then.”

Abigail’s eyes opened wide in wonder. “You were in the army?”

Jake lifted up his cap and ran his fingers through his short black hair. “Everyone was in the army, when we first got here. They wouldn’t’ve let us come here otherwise.”

“Well where’s your gun?” asked Abigail.

“I sold it years ago. Never thought I’d need it again.” Jake revved the engine. “Jump in, Dare. We gotta go, or all the shuttles are gonna be gone without us. We should’ve headed for Pacu a couple days ago, with everyone else.”

“Don’t panic,” said Darien. “We’ll get there.” He tied down the tarp at the back of the jeep, swung himself into the passenger seat, and pulled the door shut behind him. “Might as well head up to higher ground for a better view, anyways. This is going to take a few minutes.”

“What is?” said Jake.

“I’m not leaving anything behind for ’em.”

“Come on, Dare, really? What difference do you think that’s gonna make?”

“Makes a difference to me.” Darien looked down at Abigail in the back seat. “Put your seatbelt on, Abby.”

She obeyed.

Darien nodded to his friend. “Let’s go, Jake.”

Jake sighed and gunned the engine. The jeep peeled out in a hail of gravel and headed uphill, climbing out of the valley bowl that held Darien’s farmhouse and fields.

As they reached the top of the hill and swung out onto the main highway, Darien gestured to Jake to stop. “Should be soon,” he said.

“You sure you want Abby to see this?” said Jake.

“I want her to remember.”

Jake frowned. “You’re just gonna make this day harder for her than it already is.”

“Don’t tell me how to raise my daughter. Abigail, watch the house. This is what the Cust have done to us.”

“What, Daddy?”

Watch.”

There were a few more moments of quiet, and then the house erupted in a ball of flame. Abigail screamed and hid her face in her hands. Darien watched as the house collapsed in on itself, as the fire spread rapidly into the surrounding fields of wheat. Gouts of blue and green flame burst upwards out of the fields here and there as the chemical sprinkler heads in the irrigation mats popped.

Abigail was sobbing into her arms.

Jake shook his head slowly. “This was a bad idea, Dare.”

“This whole planet was a bad idea. Every single second we ever spent here was a mistake, so shut up and drive.”

Jake drove. For about two hours they wound along the highway, running across the tops of the hills and looking down over the hundreds of small, abandoned farms set into the valleys and plains. Jake tried the jeep’s radio a few times, but could only raise static.

“They’re probably jamming us,” he said.

“All the way from orbit?” asked Darien.

Jake shrugged.

“Whatever,” said Darien. “I don’t really want to hear it, anyways.”

Every now and then, as they passed through the farmland, they came across a house-sized black crater standing near the road.

“You know, I’ve been wondering,” said Jake. “If the Cust wanted to blast away at our farms from orbit like this, why only target our houses? They turned two whole cities into craters last week. Are they trying to impress us with their aim or something?”

“I don’t care,” said Darien.

“I’m just saying,” said Jake. “Seems kind of weird.”

“If you ask me,” said Darien, “I think they’re making a game out of killing us all. They’re taking pot-shots. A city here, a farmhouse there. They don’t care whether we stay or leave; they just want to destroy things. I say we leave ’em as little to play with as we can.”

“Always the optimist,” muttered Jake. He kept driving.

Soon a city began to grow visible in the near distance, its skyline broken by a series of rising skyscrapers. Farmland was giving way to suburbs and retail malls. The highway skirted a small, empty town and dipped down into the shadow of a hill for a few miles.

“Not a soul in sight,” said Jake. “I would’ve figured there’d be a whole stream of people on their way into the city still.”

“They could’ve headed somewhere else,” said Darien. “Other cities have spaceports, too.”

“I guess,” said Jake. “Whatever the reason, we’ve got clear roads and smooth sailing. Another 10 minutes or so to downtown Pacu, and then we hop a shuttle out of here.”

“And good riddance,” added Darien.

“Daddy?” said Abigail from the back seat.

“What?”

“What’s that?”

Darien turned in his seat to look where Abigail was pointing. A short ways off, buzzing low through the air, was a dark, shifting, quick-moving cloud. Darien cursed. “That’s a Cust swarm… Hit it, Jake!”

Jake didn’t need the encouragement. He hammered down the gas. “Better get that flashgun ready,” he warned. “I doubt we can outrun ’em for long.” He squealed the jeep around a wide corner and opened up the throttle on a straight stretch. Taller buildings were rising up around them as they entered the outskirts of the city.

“They’re gaining!” said Darien.

Just behind them, a burst of green light flashed onto the asphalt, blasting a hole in the surface. More Cust lasers followed, tearing up the road and burning holes through the jeep’s bumper. Jake began to weave across the lanes.

Darien turned backwards in his seat and balanced his flashgun beside the headrest. “Abby, get down on the floor!” he barked. Abigail undid her seatbelt and curled up at the foot of her seat, tears streaming down her face. “Get us some cover, Jake!”

Jake spun the steering wheel and left a trail of rubber through an empty intersection, putting some buildings between them and the swarm. Seconds later, the swarm swept around the corner behind them, now less than 100 feet away. A fresh hail of lasers fell. Most missed, but a few put holes in the windshield.

Darien took aim and pulled the trigger. A wide burst of white energy erupted from the muzzle of his flashgun, searing through the air. The swarm parted fluidly in the middle, all but a few of the insect-like Cust evading the beam, but several of them tumbled out of the sky. The rest of the swarm pulled back a short ways and rose higher in the air. Darien fired again, but they dodged more easily this time and responded with another scattershot.

“They’re out of my range,” reported Darien. “Only a matter of time before one of ’em gets a lucky shot on us.” He fired again, to keep the swarm moving. “Jake, we’re almost at the river, right? Forget the bridges; can you get us to a tunnel?”

In response, Jake squealed through another turn and pushed the gas pedal to the floor. He dodged through the streets like a madman, nearly rolling the jeep over on the corners, as Darien and the Cust swarm continued to exchange long-range fire.

The empty, unlit toll booths guarding the entrance to the tunnel were just ahead. All of the lights in the tunnel were out, apparently cut off from their power source.

“Hold onto your hat!” said Jake. Darien ducked down and reached around his seat to hold Abigail’s hand. Another salvo of laser fire swept over them just as Jake rammed the jeep through the toll booth, smashing the gates and crumpling the jeep’s front bumper. They dove down into the darkness of the tunnel.

“Now!” shouted Darien. “Turn it around!”

Jake slammed on the brakes and spun the jeep around to face the opening of the tunnel. Darien leapt to his feet and propped the flashgun up on the top of the windshield. The tunnel echoed with the two men’s heavy breathing and the idling of the jeep’s engine.

Come on, you God-forsaken bugs,” whispered Darien through clenched teeth. “Come get some.”

“Dare, they’re not comin’.”

“I’ll burn ’em all.”

“Dare… Dare, I’m hit.”

Darien looked down from the gun sights. The front of Jake’s shirt just below his right shoulder was black and burnt. Jake slumped forward, and Darien saw a hole through the seat where the laser had burned through.

“Breathe, Jake. Just breathe.” Darien’s hands shook on the trigger of the flashgun. He looked back and forth between Jake and the mouth of the tunnel. Still the Cust didn’t come.

“Dare… You gotta drive.”

Darien swore. Taking one last look at the tunnel mouth, he leapt out of the jeep and hurried around to the driver side. “Abby, get in the front,” he ordered. While Abby climbed around to the passenger seat, Darien pulled Jake out of the jeep and laid him out in the back bench. He pushed the flashgun into Jake’s hands. “Take care of this,” he said. Then he hopped into the driver’s seat, gunned the engine, and spun the jeep around to head further down the tunnel.

The headlights cut yellow holes through the darkness as he drove. The echoes of the screaming, red-lining engine sounded like the tormented cries of some otherworldly beast. Darien checked the rear-view mirror constantly to see whether they were being followed, but saw no sign of the Cust swarm.

The tunnel began to rise, and Darien saw natural light ahead. “Keep your head down,” he told Abigail. “We don’t know what’s waiting for us outside. Hang on back there, Jake!”

Stomping the gas pedal to the floor, Darien pushed the jeep to its top speed as they climbed out of the tunnel. The window of light at the exit grew wider and the noise of the engine rang in their ears.

They shot out into the daylight going 90 miles an hour. Darien blinked in the sunlight, momentarily blinded, but kept his foot down. He heard Jake scream from the back seat and the sound of the flashgun being fired once, twice, three times. As his eyes adjusted and the road swam into focus, Darien saw a street lined with tall skyscrapers stretching out in front of them. He checked the mirrors and his heart almost stopped.

Two enormous Cust battle tanks were standing on either side of the tunnel mouth, their turrets pointed skywards as they launched enormous balls of green energy up at the buildings. Jake was firing the flashgun at the tanks and screaming at the top of his lungs while Abigail held her ears and tucked her head down towards her knees.

“Jake, stop!” Darien reached back with one hand and grabbed Jake’s elbow. Jake fired one more shot, then lapsed into tortured breathing.

Above them, several floors of a skyscraper exploded, and the building began to pancake down on itself, showering down debris into the jeep’s path. Darien searched frantically for an escape, but there was nowhere to turn. He put his head down, pushed Abby’s head between her knees, and held the steering wheel straight.

With an ear-shattering WHUMPF the skyscraper toppled, and a shockwave cloud of wreckage and rubble swept down the street and over the jeep. Just when Darien thought he couldn’t hold his breath any longer they burst through the veil of dust, trailing a haze of filth behind them. The jeep ran up onto the sidewalk and Darien lifted his head barely in time to haul on the steering wheel, veering them away from a streetlight. The jeep spun out and flipped onto its side, raising a shower of sparks as it slid across the pavement.

***

Lights and sounds resonated through Darien’s skull. He reached out for Abigail, but felt only cloth, plastic, and metal. In a paroxysm of panic he thrashed around, searching desperately for her.

Strong hands gripped his arms and legs. There was pressure on his forehead.

“Relax!” barked a voice.

“Jake?” Darien’s eyes fluttered open. Three faces hovered over him, none of them familiar. “Where am I?”

“You’re in Pacu, in the Colonial Hospital,” said one of the faces.

“Where’s my daughter?”

“Abigail’s here, just down the hall. She’s fine. She wants to see you.”

“What about Jake?”

“Is he a friend of yours?”

“He was with us! He was in the back…”

The faces looked at each other and shrugged. “We don’t know.” Someone called out from somewhere else in the room, and two of the faces turned and left.

“What’s your name?” said the remaining face. It was flat and wide-nosed with dark, pitted skin.

Darien snarled, “Where’s my wife?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

“Then what good are you?” Darien struggled to push himself up onto his elbows, then sat the rest of the way up. Blood rushed out of his head, making him dizzy, but he rubbed his temples and held himself vertical. He saw that he had knocked over some kind of IV stand. The face, who was wearing military fatigues, was picking it up.

“Don’t worry about this,” said the face. “Just fluids. You’ve been out for the better part of a day, but there’s nothing really wrong with you. The dizziness should pass soon. You’ve got bumps and bruises, but nothing’s broken. I’m Fax, by the way.”

“Are you a doctor?”

“A medic.”

Darien snorted. “A simple ‘no’ would have sufficed, then.”

Fax took the barb in stride, and his face remained placid. “Your daughter’s just down the hall. Think you can walk?”

Darien swung his legs out from under the threadbare blanket that was covering him. He saw that he was dressed in a thin, gauzy hospital smock. He lowered his feet to the floor and transferred his weight onto his legs. After a briefly intense wave of further dizziness, he stepped away from the bed and looked around the room. There were several other beds, all occupied with people in various states of ill health and injury. Darien looked for the door.

“Good,” said Fax. “You can walk. That makes the shuttle seating simpler. All right, follow me.” He led Darien out into the hallway. Dozens of people were churning through the narrow space, hurried and harried, talking animatedly. Fax cleared a path for Darien, whose steps were weak and faltering. Thankfully they only had to advance past three or four doors before Fax guided Darien into the room where Abigail was waiting.

She was lying in a hospital bed reading an old magazine. Her eyes were red and puffy. She looked up as they came in. “Daddy!”

Darien swooped down on her for a hug.

“Careful,” said Fax. “Watch her arm.”

Darien saw that his daughter’s right arm was wrapped in a cast and tucked up in a sling. “Are you okay, Abby?”

“My arm hurts.”

“It’s broken,” said Fax, “but not too badly. From the sounds of things, you’re both pretty lucky.”

“What happened?” asked Darien. “How did we get here?”

“One of our patrols brought you in. They said they found you in an overturned jeep out by the river.”

The tunnels. “Yeah,” said Darien. “We were making a run into the city. We came in through one of the tunnels and saw some tanks. They almost collapsed a skyscraper right onto our heads.”

“You’re probably among the last to make it through,” said Fax. “They’ve blocked up all the entrances now. Not that it makes much of a difference anymore. We’re going to have a hard time fitting everyone on the last few shuttles as it is.”

“Flights are still going out, then?”

Fax nodded. “Every ten minutes or so. We’ve still got clear skies, though probably not for much longer. By tonight this city will be completely empty, one way or another.”

“What about the other cities? Are they sieged up, too? Are they still launching shuttles of their own?”

A look of sadness came over Fax’s face. “Oh, you haven’t heard…”

Darien’s gaze hardened. “Heard what?”

“There… are no more cities. They’re all gone.”

Time stood still. The words swam through Darien’s ears like molasses. He clenched his jaw. “Gone?!”

Fax nodded slowly. “One by one, like clockwork, over the past couple of days. Just like they did to Tivic and Yohama.”

The hospital room seemed to be collapsing in upon itself. Darien’s next question came out as the barest whisper. “What about… Endira?”

“Early last night,” Fax confirmed. “They’ve been working their way around, going east to west, one city at a time. Lomo got hit about 20 minutes ago. We’re the last ones left.”

Darien’s knees wobbled.

Fax put his hand on Darien’s shoulder and gently but firmly pushed him down to sit on Abby’s bed. He poured a glass of water from a sink, pressed it into Darien’s hand, and lifted it to his lips.

Darien drank without being aware of the action. His mind was transfixed by a vision of entire cities, millions of people, burning into dust in mere instants, leaving behind blackened craters like the remnants of the farmhouses he had seen. Men, women, children, dead before they even had a chance to scream. Kai… Tiffany…

He choked. Abby flung her arm around his neck. Her tears ran down his chest and her little body heaved. Darien could see that she was sobbing, but he couldn’t hear anything. His eyes were filled with fog and his ears were filled with blood. He saw himself moving his hand in slow motion, cradling her head, pulling her close.

Burning down the house, torching the fields… He’d wanted her to understand the invasion, to remember, but not this. She shouldn’t have to understand this.

Fax’s lips were moving. Darien tried to blink away the fog.

“…there’s anything I can do,” Fax was saying.

“Yeah,” choked Darien. “Yes. Get us off this dying planet.”

***

The shuttle pilot’s voice came on over the speakers: “Two minutes to launch. Make sure all safety harnesses are fastened securely.”

Darien helped Abigail pull her buckles tight and gave her hand a squeeze. He couldn’t tell whether she had registered the gesture. She was shutting herself off from him, from the whole world. Darien felt utterly helpless.

But at least she was alive. Darien was just starting to appreciate how close he’d come to losing her, too. One stray laser from that Cust swarm could have stolen her from him, one stray brick from that falling skyscraper could have claimed her, one whim from those orbiting Cust destroyers could have cratered their farmhouse last week instead of their neighbours’. And if he’d let her go to Endira to visit her aunt instead of having her stay home so she could go to school…

Millions of human were dead. The Cust were sweeping Oronado clear of colonists. Mere thousands had been escaping by means of these shuttles. Darien knew he should be thankful to be aboard one and to have his daughter with him, but it was hard to feel grateful when such a gaping chasm had been opened up beneath his feet.

He should never have come to Oronado. Humanity should never have tried to make this planet her own. It had belonged to the Cust before they had arrived; they should have known the Cust would come back for vengeance.

The noise level in the shuttle increased as the massive turbines began to spin up for launch. Darien steeled himself for the crushing sensation of liftoff, something he remembered so clearly from his last flight, 18 years ago.

The engines spun and whined for 30 seconds, 45, a minute. What was going on? They should’ve been moving by now.

The engines spun down again, and the pilot came on: “Sit tight, folks. Minor difficulties. Nothing to worry about. We’ll be underway in 10 minutes or so.”

A murmur arose among the passengers. What could be wrong? Was there a problem with the shuttle? Were the Cust attacking?

Darien checked on Abigail. She was staring at the floor, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around her. Only a slight tremble in her bottom lip betrayed any sign of emotion. Hang in there, Abby, thought Darien. We’re going to get you off this planet. We’ll deal with the emotions later.

A wispy, curly-haired man across the aisle from Darien was conversing excitedly with his seatmate. “There’s got to be a reason for it,” he was saying.

“They’re bugs, Doctor Morin,” snorted his companion, a heavyset woman with a furrowed brow. “Stop trying to figure out how they think. They aren’t like us.”

“But they’re rational creatures, at least on some level,” insisted Morin. “They must have some kind of plan.”

Darien inserted himself into the conversation. “Yeah, their plan is to kill us all, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it.”

Morin turned to Darien. “Is that all there is to it, though? If all they wanted to do is kill humans, they’ve been going about it in a pretty strange way.”

Darien scoffed. “Like the lady said, they’re bugs. Everything about them is strange.”

“Yes, but think about it. Hear me out. The first thing they did when they showed up was burn Tivic and Yohama into dust, right? That got everyone good and panicked. Then over the next three or four days, they started precision-targeting random farmhouses all over the planet. Why would they do that? Why start picking off farmers if they could be taking out whole cities?”

“Because this is a game,” said Darien. “They probably enjoyed watching us all run around like ants under a magnifying glass.”

“Where did all the farmers run to, though?” said Morin. “Everyone came to the cities, right? And then a week after they first showed up, they finally started torching the rest of the cities.”

“They probably just wanted to get us all at once. All the farmers flooded into the cities, and suddenly it was that much easier for the Cust to wipe us all out from orbit.”

“Yes, that’s part of it, but have you stopped to consider why they’ve left Pacu for last? This is our biggest population centre, and by far our largest spaceport. Why didn’t they target it first? We’ve had more than two days to effect our evacuations, far more time than they ought to have given us if they were really so concerned with the ‘efficiency’ of their bombardments. And besides, none of this explains the lull.”

“What lull?”

“You have to realize we should all have been dead hours ago… There were three hours, at most, between the burning of any two other cities, but it has now been”—Morin checked his watch—”nearly four hours since Lomo was struck, and Pacu is still standing. How can we explain that?”

“Forget explaining it,” said Darien. “Let’s just be glad we’re still alive, and get ourselves off the ground before time runs out, I say. No point wasting time thinking when we should be flying. Why aren’t those engines running yet?”

“Maybe if you hear my theory,” persisted Morin, “you’ll agree that my ‘thinking time’ has not been wasted. Look at the situation this way: once our last few shuttles have gone, what’s going to be left for the Cust? A dozen mounds of rubble where the cities used to stand, a planetful of fields ready for harvesting, and, as it stands right now, the city of Pacu.”

“What’s your point?”

“Don’t you see?” said the man. “We wanted Oronado for a farming planet. We’ve spent the past 18 years terraforming it and laying down hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigation mats to build our farms on. We’ve made this planet 20 or 30 times more productive than it was when we first arrived. You can be certain that such an increase in crop output would appeal to the Cust. They were barely scraping by when we got here and chased them off, but imagine the population they could sustain if they had our technology to work with. And all of our irrigation runs through Pacu, doesn’t it? We built the city as a control hub, and the majority of our core wells are here.”

“That doesn’t explain why the Cust staged their attack the way they did,” pointed out Darien.

“It absolutely does. If they want Oronado for its crops, then it makes perfect sense for them to scare the farmers out of the fields and into the cities before destroying us all.”

Darien narrowed his eyes skeptically.

Morin continued. “If they had just bombarded all of the cities as soon as they showed up, what would you have done?”

Darien thought about this. “I probably would have gone into the hills and tried to fight it out.”

“Precisely,” said Morin, “Millions of other farmers would have, too. And if you were fighting a guerrilla war and saw the Cust going through your fields and harvesting your crops, I think I can guess what your next move would have been.”

“I would’ve burned every field I came across.” Darien pictured the flames that had been consuming his farmhouse and fields as they drove away. The image was bittersweet, but satisfying.

Morin nodded. “Exactly. So the Cust adopted a strategy that they thought would minimize damage to our crops and technology.”

“Hmm,” said Darien. “It’s an interesting theory. If you’re right, the smart thing to do would be to burn our bridges behind us… Have you shared your theory with anyone else?”

Morin shook his head. “I couldn’t get access to anyone worth telling. Besides, it’s too late now.”

The intercom crackled. “I apologize for the delay,” said the pilot. “We’re back up and running. Another shuttle is in the processing of launching in front of us, and we’ll be following close behind them. Please remain ready.”

Morin shrugged his shoulders. “Still, I suppose it doesn’t make that much difference what we do, in the end. Oronado is theirs now. At least some of us are getting away.”

Darien balled his fists as the shuttle’s engines wound up again. He’d felt better about the situation when he’d thought the Cust were just mindless killing machines. The idea that the bugs might be planning to live off of the 18 years of blood, sweat, and sacrifice that he and the other colonists had put into terraforming Oronado grated on him. But Morin was right: it was too late now. Only a handful of shuttles remained to depart.

Darien reached down and took Abby’s hand again as the shuttle started to rumble, and then they were airborne, the pressure of launch pounding them back into their seats, thrusting them skyward, tearing them away from everything they had worked so long and so hard to build.

By the end of the ascent Abigail was crying again and Darien was exhausted from the strain on his joints and muscles. He welcomed the peacefulness of zero gravity and tried to relax his aching body. “We’re through the worst of it,” he told Abby, not sure whether she was even listening. “It gets easier now.” He closed his eyes.

Then a piercing alarm rang out. Darien knew that sound… He prayed it didn’t mean what he thought it meant.

A woman in a military uniform burst through the folding door at the front of the passenger area. “Does anyone in here have space combat experience?”

No, thought Darien. Not this. But against his every urge, he felt his hand raising. “I do,” he said. He sighed haggardly, then flung off his safety harness and propelled himself forward. A man from a few rows further back joined him.

“Through here,” said the woman.

Before following, Darien looked back towards Abigail. She was staring after him with wide eyes and a quavering chin. Darien pointed to Morin and the woman sitting with him. “Take care of my daughter!” he called. Then he dove forward through the folding door.

There were half a dozen people in the cockpit, a skeleton crew. With so many shuttles departing, the ranks had obviously been stretched pretty thin. The pilot and co-pilot, both wearing viewmasks that allowed them to see through the ship’s external cameras, were moving their hands frantically across massive banks of controls. Six defense pods lined the walls, three on each side. Three were occupied, and the other volunteer was climbing into a fourth.

“Take that one,” the woman instructed Darien, before crawling back into her own.

Darien slipped into the seat and pulled the viewmask over his eyes. The fit was a bit off, but the feeling was familiar, despite the 18 years that separated him from the last time he had sat in this position. He flipped a switch on the side of the viewmask and the retinal projectors buzzed into life. He blinked a few times to accustom his eyes to the vibrant colours of the heads-up display.

He was staring out along the barrels of a laser turret, positioned near the rear of the shuttle. At first he could see only stars, but then some shapes swam into view. He saw the other shuttle not far away, the one that had been meant to launch after them but had ended up preceding them when they had been delayed. Several smaller, glimmering shapes were swarming around it. Green flashes were passing between the swarming ships and the shuttle.

A few moments later, the shuttle exploded in a puff of glowing sparks. Several voices cried out in fear, shock, and anger.

“Where did they come from?” demanded Darien. “Why didn’t we know?”

Someone in the pod beside Darien’s called back, “We couldn’t see them! We’ve been monitoring this space constantly since the evac launches started. We thought it was clear! They must be jamming our instruments from orbit somehow. We can’t even call back to ground control to warn them.”

The implications swept over Darien like a bucket of ice water. All of those shuttles that had gone before, thousands of people evacuating, leaving Oronado to the Cust… Had they all been surprised like this, picked off as soon as they reached orbit? Had anyone at all actually escaped?

He gripped the turret controls. At least this shuttle wasn’t going to be caught quite so unprepared.

“They’re coming around,” said one of the other gunners. “Look alive.”

“Buy us three minutes!” called the pilot. “We’re resetting for re-entry.”

Re-entry?” said Darien. “Can’t we jump out of here?”

“There’s no way we could hold them off long enough to spool up.”

The Cust fighters were regrouping from their kill, aligning themselves into a loose formation.

“Target the leaders!” ordered one of the gunners.

Darien turned his turret towards the alien attackers and tracked their movement, waiting for them to come into range. The turrets at the front of the shuttle started lancing blue needles of energy through the void, and an instant later Darien’s targeting reticule blinked the Ready signal. He pulled the trigger and watched the blue beam pass between three of the spiralling, dodging, twisting little fighters. He cursed and swung the clumsy turret to the left, following the fighters as they did a fly-by, peppering the shuttle’s hull with laser fire.

“Two more passes like that and we’re done for!” the pilot informed them.

“Try to anticipate their movement,” advised one of the other gunners. “The bugs never sit still for long.”

Darien aligned his turret with the fighter swarm as it swung around for another pass. He had the first shot at them this time, and lined up his reticule with the lead fighter’s nose. Just before pulling the trigger, he bumped his aim upwards, guessing the direction of the fighter’s dodge. It leapt the opposite direction, down and away from his beam, but another turret had anticipated it better, and it was cut apart and exploded into a million tiny fragments.

“Whoo!” shouted the other gunner. “Good teamwork!”

Three more fighters took hits, but the shuttle suffered another barrage.

“Keep them off us!” said the Pilot. “We’re almost there!”

Half a dozen Cust fighters still remained. They gathered themselves into a new formation, preparing to finish the shuttle off. As Darien was swinging his turret around to face the new direction of attack, he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Two slower, bulkier Cust ships were approaching the shuttle from a different angle.

“They’ve got support!” he shouted. “Starboard!”

“I’m on it!” said someone. “Stick with the main group!”

But Darien kept his reticule on the new attackers. He’d seen these before, 18 years ago. And if he remembered right…

The young gunner who had called the new targets blasted a beam straight into the cockpit of the lead ship. It shook and jumped, but kept coming. Lacking the mobility of the smaller fighters, the Cust bombers had been built with heavier defenses. Their main armour was simply too strong for the second-rate weapons possessed by a passenger shuttle like this one.

But Darien had seen this problem solved once before… He found a spot just below the ship’s wing, tracked it, honed in, and fired. The ship rolled, cracked, and burst apart. Following Darien’s example, the other gunner hit the same spot on the second ship, with the same result.

Darien pumped his fist, but his satisfaction was short-lived. The main fighter group was sweeping past, laying down another bombardment.

The shuttle shuddered, but didn’t crack. Darien shot at the backs of the fighters as they circled around but missed.

“Here we go!” called the pilot. “Screens off, and pray she holds together!”

The stars in Darien’s viewmask swam and spun, and the turbines at the rear of the shuttle fired. Reacting too slowly, Darien scrambled for the switch on the viewmask to turn it off, but the light of the turbines had seared trails onto his eyeballs, like he’d looked at the sun. He swore as he peeled off the viewmask, and continued cursing as the shuttle dove back down into Oronado’s atmosphere, shaking like a leaf.

Darien clung to the seat of the defense pod with white knuckles until the shaking stopped. He braced himself with his feet as gravity reasserted itself.

“Essential systems intact,” reported the pilot. He let out a long, slow breath. “Congratulations, team. We’re out of the fire, back into the frying pan.”

The shuttle swooped back down to the surface, soaring at incredible speed over horizons of farmland, broken here and there by mountain ranges, rocky wastes, and a handful of charcoal warts that marked the mass graves of millions. As soon as contact with ground control was restored the communication systems began buzzing frantically. Darien listened to the conversations from outside himself, hearing the words but not their meanings. He learned afterwards that another shuttle had launched behind them, before they could convey their warning. For hours afterwards the survivors on the ground waited, but no sign of it ever reappeared.

Upon landing, the passengers and crew tumbled out of the shuttle like peas spilling out of a broken pod. Darien slumped over on the tarmac, emptied of all emotions but one, inhaling and exhaling only dust, emptiness, and a spark of rage. Then the voice of Dr. Morin behind him said, “Here he is,” and Abigail’s fingers found his cheek. She collapsed limply into his lap. Darien held her and stared into her eyes, those little brown eyes, so much like her mother’s. Something broke inside him and he breathed again, a real breath, a lungful of life-giving oxygen, the perfect fuel to ignite the spark inside him into flame.

***

Epilogue

The familiar, cutting voice of Captain Asaki crackled over the shortwave radio. “All teams, report in.”

Darien got the thumbs up from his partner, who was crouching on the other side of the window, and listened to the others reporting their readiness.

“Spearhead, ready.”

“Demo 1, all set.”

“Demo 2, ready…”

When it was his turn, he said, “Decoy 3, we’re good to go,” and tucked the butt of the railgun into his shoulder. He carefully pulled apart the blinds covering the window of the ground-floor office where he had taken up his position. The tank was still sitting in front of the massive grain silo, with three Cust swarms circling overhead.

“How long until they figure out Doc Morin’s plan, you think?” said Darien to his partner, as the rest of the teams checked in.

“What, that we’re trying to destroy the silos rather than recapture them? Not much longer, probably. I’d say after we’ve hit three or four they’ll start to see the pattern. The real question is how they’ll react once they clue in.”

“True. My money’s on a full ground assault. They’re going to get tired of trying to starve us out sooner or later.” Darien let the blinds fall back into place. He wondered idly what inane chore they’d found to keep Abby and the other children out of the way today. He caught himself and forced his attention back to the radio. Focus.

Captain Asaki wrapped up the check-in process. “All teams are in position. Prepare to engage on my mark.”

Darien tensed. A single bead of sweat traced the length of his nose.

“And… Mark.”

Darien’s partner ripped on the cord to raise the blinds, then swung the butt of her flashgun against the window, shattering the glass.

Darien took a deep breath to steady himself and aimed his railgun at the base of the tank’s turret. “This one’s for you, Tiff,” he said, and fired.

END

Plasma

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Jayk winced at the sharp pin-prick to the tip of his finger.

The nurse noticed and flashed a quick, sarcastic smile as she squeezed his finger and siphoned off a few drops of the blood that welled out. “Funny how the big, tough guys seem to have the hardest time with this,” she said. “You’d think a little poke would be nothing to a soldier-boy.”

“You’d think,” said Jayk, absently. He thought of the last time he’d come in to donate blood, when Kip had been with him. Kip had nearly fainted more than once that day. “I’ve known people who would rather get in the way of a plasma beam than a needle.”

The nurse chuckled as she checked the readings on the blood sample. “Your iron levels are fine,” she said, scribbling a few notes and numbers onto his donor form. “Stick this card in the box over there.”

“Yep, thanks,” said Jayk. He didn’t need the instructions. He’d done this a dozen times before. Donating blood regularly had been mandatory for soldiers on leave or in the reserves ever since the Fargon had sprung up out of their subterranean caves in the heart of South America and this war had begun.

After sliding his card into the box, Jayk sat down in a flimsy plastic chair. Beside him sat a woman in her 50s with dyed-brown hair that was starting to show grey at the roots. She smiled politely at him and went back to reading her magazine, a celebrity gossip rag from a few months ago. The cover was proclaiming some scandal, accusing an actor of displaying Fargon sympathies. The story was assuredly more fiction than fact. No one actually opposed the war, did they? No one with their head on straight, anyways. Humanity had a right to defend itself.

Jayk leaned over and took a peek past the half wall that separated the waiting area from the donation chairs. Ten or twelve people were lying on the chairs, needles tucked into the insides of their elbows, with tubes running out of their arms into plastic baggies. Every time he came here, Jayk couldn’t help comparing the scene to a dairy farm: the cows line up, they go in, they get the milk sucked out of them, and then down the ramp they go to spend the rest of their day eating, making more milk for the next time. That was what the clinic always felt like to him: it was a farm, and he was a blood-producing cow.

Oh well. Jayk didn’t mind the process, really. He had blood to spare: he’d never gotten dizzy or lightheaded. He could walk out the door as soon as the needle came out and be fine, if they’d let him, but the nurses always made him stick around for juice and cookies. The younger ones especially seemed to enjoy waiting on him, flirting like little birds. It was the uniform that did it. Nurses flock to soldiers like mice to cheese.

A nurse stepped out of a little office and fished Jayk’s card out of the box. “Jayk Baskin?”

“Here, ma’am.” He followed the nurse into the room, and she closed the door and ran him through the long list of prying personal questions that every donor had to endure as a screening process for blood-borne illnesses. Five minutes and about thirty repetitions of “No, ma’am” later, the nurse initialled her approval onto Jayk’s form and directed him to the next waiting area.

There was a longer line-up here. Jayk counted six people ahead of him, so he made himself as comfortable as he could and looked up at the TV on the wall, where a price-guessing game show was playing. He had always been terrible at those. He hated shopping.

After about fifteen more minutes of waiting, his turn came up. A nurse in her mid-thirties wearing narrow glasses and a clean, new pair of scrubs fumbled with his card for a few seconds before reading out his name.

Jayk stood, and she smiled at him. “Do you have a preference for which arm to use, Jayk?”

“Left usually works better,” said Jayk.

“Okay, then, hop up into this chair over here.” The nurse led him over to the chair and swung down the left armrest. She pulled up a stool and sat on it. “Make a fist,” she said, “and hold…” She prodded at the inside of his elbow with her fingers, concentrating hard as she tried to find a vein.

“Done this many times before?” said Jayk.

“Not for a while,” said the nurse. “You can tell?”

“Well… This part usually only takes a few seconds.”

The nurse blushed a little, and kept prodding. “It’s not exactly at the peak of my skill set, that’s for sure. I normally work in an office, actually. I’m part of the Executive, but we’ve been shorthanded all over the place lately, so we’ve all been taking turns helping out where needed.”

“Makes sense,” said Jayk. “We do the same thing on the front when we’re getting a little thin. You know, waiting for reinforcements.”

The nurse looked up into Jayk’s eyes. “You’ve been to the front?”

“I’ve done two tours.”

“It must be terrifying out there.”

Before Jayk could stop the onrushing apparitions, his mind was flooded with visions of the alien Fargon, with their watery eyes and their sharp, pointed mouths, charging the trenches as their spike rifles chattered. For a fleeting moment, he smelled the burning flesh as his plasma gun ripped a Farga to shreds, and he heard its dying screams. He shook his head to clear the memories away. “You can’t think about it,” he said. “You just do what you’re told.”

“It’s always amazed me how dedicated you soldiers are to following orders,” said the nurse. “My brain just doesn’t work that way. I always want to ask ‘why.'”

“If you ask too many questions out there,” said Jayk, “everything breaks down.” He shrugged. “Most times when a soldier dies it’s because he didn’t follow orders well enough.”

The nurse fell quiet and went back to finding a vein. “Have you lost friends?”

“We all have,” said Jayk. He thought of Kip, spiked through the stomach and bleeding out into the mud of that filthy trench. Kip might’ve made it if the medic hadn’t run out of O- blood to give him on the way back to the field hospital. “That’s how war works. There’s no point being a soldier if you aren’t willing to give what they ask you to give.”

“Like your blood?” asked the nurse.

Especially your blood,” said Jayk.

“Ah, there it is,” said the nurse, sliding her finger along Jayk’s vein. “Found it.” She swabbed a chemical of some sort onto Jayk’s arm for a few seconds, double-checked that the bag and the tubes were all connected together properly, then carefully slid the needle into Jayk’s vein. The blood began to flow.

“Bravo,” said Jayk, sarcastically.

The nurse stuck her tongue out at him playfully. “Thanks for contributing,” she said. “I really mean that. Your blood is saving lives.”

“I’m just happy to be able to help the war effort from home, you know? If I have to be back here on leave, I might as well send something to represent me.”

“Actually, your blood won’t be going to the front,” said the nurse, leaning over the equipment to make sure everything was operating correctly. “Oh, I’m probably not supposed to tell you that.”

“What, is my blood going to civilians?” asked Jayk. “I know I probably don’t have any say over it, but I’d prefer to be helping soldiers.”

“You are.”

“But not at the front?”

“I really shouldn’t have said anything,” said the nurse.

“But you did,” said Jayk. “If you know where my blood is going to end up, I think I deserve to be told.”

Some of the other donors were looking their way now. The nurse smiled at them reassuringly. “Well, okay,” she said to Jayk, in a low voice. “As long as you don’t get me in trouble. Some of the donations are being used for POWs.”

“Prisoners of war?”

The nurse nodded.

Jayk squirmed at the idea of his blood being used to save the life of a captured Farga. “I’m not sure I like that idea,” he said.

“What are we supposed to do?” said the nurse. “Would you rather we just let them die? You wouldn’t do that to a human POW, would you?”

“No,” said Jayk. “I guess not. But still…”

“I can appreciate that it’s kind of an uncomfortable concept,” said the nurse. “That’s why we don’t talk about it much. Some people might stop volunteering to donate, and we need all the donations we can get, both for sending to the front and for using on civilians and POWs.”

Jayk mulled this over. “Yeah, I get it. It’s gotta be done, I guess. Honestly, though, I wouldn’t have thought that our blood would be compatible with theirs. You know, because their physiology is so different.”

A curious, almost hesitant expression came over the nurse’s face. “Do you… actually know much about their physiology?”

Jayk stretched his mouth into a thin, grim line. “I’ve probably seen the insides of more Fargon than you have.”

“Yes,” said the nurse, “you probably have.”

“I’m no scientist,” said Jayk, “but like I said, I definitely wouldn’t have thought that a Farga would benefit from a transfusion of human blood.”

“No.” The nurse’s eyes flickered. “You wouldn’t think that, would you?” She painted on an empty smile and stood to go.

Jayk reached out with his right arm and grabbed the nurse’s wrist. “What aren’t you telling me?”

The nurse tried to pull away, but Jayk held on. “What do you mean?” she said.

“I can see it in your eyes: there’s something you’re hiding from me. What is it?”

“It’s nothing…” The nurse kept trying to twist away.

Tell me,” Jayk barked.

The nurse’s eyes opened wide in fear. “Fine, fine, okay. The blood,” she whimpered. “It… It isn’t for transfusions.”

“What is it for, then?” demanded Jayk. “What do they do, drink it?”

The nurse looked down at the floor, quivering, and said nothing.

“Oh, hell, no.” Jayk flung the nurse’s arm away from him, tore out the needle that was taped to his left arm, and swung off the chair. Blood welled up out of his elbow as he stormed out of the clinic, nurses trailing frantically after him.

Snow was coming down in flurries outside. Jayk stood on the sidewalk and watched blood drip down his arm and stain the snow at his feet.

How could this be happening? Who would possibly have made the decision to use human blood for such a perverted purpose? This was not right. He would not be milked like livestock to feed the appetites of those disgusting aliens. If the Fargon freaks had to consume human blood to stay alive, then as far as he was concerned they all deserved to die.

Jayk squeezed his fist, and his blood ran a little thicker down his forearm. Rage pumped through his veins and out through the open wound. They all deserved to die. The sounds of war welled up between his ears, and half-remembered, half-imagined apparitions of horror floated past his eyes. His head pounded. He felt faint. His knees buckled. He crumpled to the sidewalk.

He opened his eyes and saw the pale green walls of a hospital room. He opened his nose to the smell of bleach. He opened his heart to a single resolution:

Yes, they all deserved to die.

END

Two Minutes to Midnight

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The expansion wars had changed things. Gell Miller saw it everywhere he looked. The climate of life was different. People were more wary, tenser. They smiled less, joked less, and spent more time looking at the ground. Everyone on the sidewalks walked a little faster; everyone on the hovertrain held their umbrellas and briefcases a little tighter. Gell had been affected as much as anyone, and more than most.

For the past few months, Gell had taken to moonlighting as a bartender at a dingy pub on the ground floor of the Jirage hotel in Li Phan. All things considered, it wasn’t too bad for a second job. Most of the night he got to sit at a stool behind the bar, resting his feet after long, tiring days as a teamster on the stardocks. The regular crowd was small and undemanding and had usually headed home by 11:30, leaving Gell to daydream his way through the last couple of hours of his shift, thinking about the past, when one job had been enough, when he’d still had a brother and a sister-in-law, and longing for the future, when his houseful of nieces and nephews would be able to help feed themselves.

One of the downsides of working at the Jirage was that it was close to the spaceport, which meant that it attracted its fair share of off-world guests. Every now and then they would find their way down to the bar to drink off their hyperjump lag or kill some time before their taxi arrived. The aliens tended to sequester themselves in dark corners, hiding their inhuman faces behind high, stiff collars or growling into their acidic, imported beers with gravelly, low-register voices that wavered in and out of the limits of human hearing.

Gell had learned that the safest way to serve his non-human customers was to leave well enough alone. Travelling aliens were rarely interested in small talk, so he stayed behind the bar, one eye watching for refill requests and the other scanning the net on the screen built under the counter.

Tonight was one of the quiet nights. The regular crowd had all gone home, the counter was clear, and the pub was empty other than a couple of frog-like doads stretching their long legs in one of the booths in the back. Human customers didn’t often stay very long when they realized there was a doad in the room. Recent peace negotiations hadn’t defused the heightened tensions between the two species. No one expected the ceasefire to last for long, anyways. Gell could see that the doads were nervous, sitting here in the heart of one of the most heavily human planets in the system, but in the fashion of all business agents, both human and alien, they were doing their best to drown their nerves in alcohol.

A newscast was playing on the wall-mounted screens. The anchor was detailing the increased rates of species violence in Li Phan over the past few months. Just this morning a young woman named Danika Erlin had been killed by an illegal immigrant, a doad who had smuggled himself onto the planet aboard a merchant shuttle. The anchor’s lips were turned down in a tightly rehearsed display of concern as he welcomed his guest analyst, a human sociologist who was widely known for his extreme proposals to completely shut down alien immigration.

Gell changed the channel.

Shortly before midnight a tall, powerfully built human entered the pub, his right arm tucked against his side in a cloth sling. He was young, maybe mid-twenties, and was wearing an old jacket, heavy boots, and a scowl. His eyes were dark and downcast.

Gell heard the tone of the doads’ conversation change, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up a little. As the man stalked up to the bar, eyes cast down to the floor, Gell did a quick mental count of the number of drinks he had served to the aliens over the past hour. Must be something like three pints of beer each. Was that too much for a doad? It was in his policy booklet somewhere. He should have been thinking about that. They were big, heavy creatures (no, not creatures: people, Gell reminded himself), so conventional wisdom would suggest that they could probably handle a fair amount before completely losing their heads, but every alien’s blood chemistry worked a little differently.

“Can I help you, sir?” said Gell, loud enough to be heard in the back of the room.

“A double shot of vodka,” the man mumbled, pulling up a bar stool, “and keep the bottle handy.”

Gell reached under the counter and procured a glass and a bottle. “What’s the occasion?”

“Do I need one?” The man downed the double shot, holding the glass somewhat awkwardly in his left hand. “Another.”

Gell poured out two more ounces. “People drink for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it’s a celebration. Sometimes they’re mourning. Either way, maybe I can help.” He put a little extra emphasis on the last word and flicked his eyes towards the doads, who had stopped talking and were now openly watching the counter.

“I don’t need your help,” growled the man.

Lowering his voice, Gell said, “Planning to start something with that busted up arm of yours?”

No reply.

“Let me guess… It’s a doad’s fault you’re wearing that sling, isn’t it? Maybe you got jumped in an alley and you’re out looking for revenge. Fine. Who am I to get between a man and his death wish?”

Glaring at Gell, the man held out his glass for more.

The bartender held onto the bottle. “Sure that’s a good idea, son?”

“Pour me another.”

“Sure, fine. Like I said, it’s your funeral.” Once more Gell filled the glass, and in a moment it was empty.

The doads were muttering to one another again, Gell noticed. They were probably reluctant to start a confrontation inside; there were security cameras. Outside was another story. Maybe if Gell kept the man at the bar long enough they’d lose interest.

“So, what did happen to your arm?” asked the bartender, trying to get the man talking.

“What time is it?”

Gell was caught off guard by the non sequitor. He glanced at his watch. “About two minutes to midnight.”

“Time for one more, then,” said the man.

“What happens at twelve? Gonna turn into a pumpkin?”

“Something like that.” The man downed his drink and leaned on the counter. “I’ve got surgery tomorrow. I’m not allowed to eat or drink anything after midnight.”

“Getting your arm fixed up?”

“Joined the army. Volunteered for a special program. They’re going to replace it. Weaponize it.”

Gell had heard of the experimentation the army had been doing with biomechanical “upgrades” for its soldiers, but he’d never met someone who actually seemed to support the idea. “So, what, you were going to lose the arm anyways and figured you might as well get something out of it?”

“No, arm’s fine. It’s just prefrozen. Nerve-deadening preanaesthetic. Makes the recovery easier afterwards, supposedly.” The man used his left hand to lift his right arm out of the sling, held it over the counter, and let it drop. It flopped onto the counter with a thud, completely lifeless. “Can’t even feel it,” said the man.

There was a small tattoo on the palm of the hand, a heart with the initials D.E. underneath.

The doads were following the conversation from their booth. This target seemed to be getting more and more tempting for them. Not only did the man have one completely ineffective arm, but he was also about to join the human military. Gell thought he could see the aliens licking their lips with their long, narrow tongues.

“Why would you do this to yourself voluntarily?” Beyond the need to keep the man talking for his own sake, Gell was legitimately curious.

The man chuckled ruefully. “Call it a clean slate.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

Nodding towards the limp appendage, the man said, “This hand has some stains on it, stains that don’t come out easy. New hand won’t have any stains.”

“Sure, but it’ll be the army’s hand,” countered Gell, “and they’ll just order you to go stain it some more. Violence is violence, son.”

The man slowly shook his head. “That’s not the kind of stain I mean.” He rubbed at the tattoo on his palm with his finger, and Gell noticed that the skin around the ink was chapped and dry, as if the man had been scratching at it.

The doads rose from their table and approached the counter, mean looks on their faces. Apparently they weren’t the most patient of species. Gell muttered, “Speaking of getting your hands dirty…”

The man looked over his shoulder and stiffened as the doads approached. When they were ten feet away, he reached into his jacket, withdrew a handgun, and turned it on them. His deadened right arm swung off the counter and hung at his side. The gun shook in his grip.

Both doads recoiled.

“Pay and leave,” the man directed, his voice cracking. “Today I don’t need much of an excuse.”

The aliens cautiously reached into their back pockets, withdrew handfuls of bills, and dropped them on the floor. With their webbed hands held out in front of them, they backed out the door and into the street.

The man swung his arm back onto the counter and placed his gun beside it. Gell allowed himself to breathe again.

A minute passed. Finally Gell broke the silence. “You… aren’t supposed to have that in here.”

“Put me in a uniform and I am. Allowed to pull the trigger then, too.”

Gell thought of the six little children at home, only two of whom were his. He thought of his brother, shot down while flying escort for a merchant freighter, and his sister-in-law, a Marine, caught in an ambush while on patrol. He said, “When you’ve got that uniform on, the bullets go both ways. On either side of it, someone ends up dead, leaving people like me behind to deal with it. Who’re you gonna leave behind, son?”

The man narrowed his eyes and stared at the tattoo on his palm. Gell saw the initials again and made the connection. “Danika Erlin. You knew her?”

“What time is it?”

“You think she’d want you to do this?”

“What time is it?”

“You think you can bring her back?”

“What time is it?”

Gell relented. “It’s 12:03.”

The man hesitated, rubbed the tattoo, then grabbed his glass. “Pour me another drink.”

END

Year of Stories – Week 10

Welcome to week 10 of the Year of Stories!

Free this week is Two Minutes to Midnight, an 1,800-word sci-fi drama. Read it now! You can also buy it for 99¢ in the Store.

Synopsis
The expansion wars have changed things. Gell Miller sees it everywhere he looks. As a bartender, he always tries to avoid stepping on the toes of any hostile alien visitors. But not all of his customers are so careful…

The highlighted Store release for this week is The Liquid Animal, a 3,500-word horror story. Read it now for only $0.99!

Synopsis
The Williams Wildlife Zoo is the best investment Desmond Williams ever made. His zoo makes him feel fresh and alive. A new display is being prepared, a “liquid animal,” something the world has never seen before. Skeptical, Desmond decides to take a look, and finds himself plunging into a nightmare.

To read previously released stories, check out the Year of Stories page.