short stories

The BREAKERS series may be over…but the world goes on.

And I’ve got a new story in it! You can find it in TAILS OF THE APOCALYPSE, a new collection of stories featuring animals in the apocalypse. The book includes work from Nick Cole, Michael Bunker, and eleven others. And for the next few weeks, the publisher will be donating $1 of every sale to Pets for Vets, a charity that connects military veterans with shelter animals.

Oh yeah: there’s also me. My story’s about a young Raina in the early days of the plague. The book is available for Kindle and in paperback.

Tails of the Apocalypse Cover(I don’t know if or when this collection will be out in other formats. However, I think there are still some review copies available, so if you’re not a Kindle user, email me at edwrobertson AT gmail and I’ll see what I can do.)

It was pretty fun to revisit BREAKERS, especially without the pressure of tying the story into a larger series arc. I definitely see myself writing a few more of these as time goes on. In particular, there’s a story implied by the end of BLACKOUT that deserves exploration. Yes, it’s the one you’re thinking of. I have some other things to write first, but I’ll be keeping that one in the back of my mind.

In the meantime, hope you enjoy TAILS!

Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy, but its ships and settlements remain isolated by the limits of light speed. Even simple messages would take years to travel between settlements. But one thing keeps the network of mankind connected: the Flames.

Portals linking two places together, Flames can be crossed in an instant–but if you don’t know how to navigate them, you’ll be lost in the void. Fewer than one in a million people can cross the Flames without getting lost. Known as Ferrymen, these men and women are the one thing that holds the universe together.

Their stories are found in the new Walk the Fire anthology.

* * *

Man. Lot of topics to cover here. I suppose I will start with the people who made it possible: my fellow authors. Walk the Fire is a shared universe anthology edited by John Mierau, and he’s established quite a crew of authors here. Nathan Lowell, whose Solar Clipper Trader Tales are regularly high up the science fiction charts. Jason Andrew Bond, author of the bestselling Hammerhead. Patrick E. McLean, the guy behind the hilarious-looking How to Succeed in Evil series, the stories of a hapless consultant to the world’s supervillains.

And, of course, me.

It’s funny how small the real universe can be. I’ve spoken with Nathan Lowell on a handful of occasions. Just a few weeks back I was on a video chat about ebook pricing with our coauthor Brand Gamblin. I’ve been aware of fellow contributor Matthew Sandborn Smith for years now–I used to see his name all over the place when I was focused on selling SF/F short stories to traditional magazines.

And now we’re all in an anthology together.

Shared universes are so much fun. I have previously participated in one for The Aether Age (holy crow! Just $0.99 and it has two of my stories in it buy it now now now) and it was a total blast. First, you get to fool around in someone else’s world, finding the corner of this strange place you want to write about, and then when the book comes out, you get to see which corners of it your coauthors found to make their own. It’s a pretty gleeful experience, really. I highly recommend giving it a shot, if just once. Me, I leap at the chance.

The chance to be in Walk the Fire, incidentally, came as an invitation. That is So. Cool. A few years ago, back in my previously-mentioned short story period, one of my goals was to reach the point where editors were inviting me to submit to their magazines/anthologies–as opposed to me writing stories on spec and submitting them unsolicited. I imagined I would reach this point by selling to a lot of pro markets, where I would then be read by other editors, who would nod sagely and then fire me an email.

Well, I made a couple pro sales, and a whole bunch of semipro sales, but it wasn’t until I started self-publishing that this modest little dream came true–I believe the editor found my work during a giveaway of Breakers. (P.S.: Breakers sequel coming soon! Join my spam-free mailing list if you want to be notified.) How weird is that? This business is so weird! I’m getting where I wanted to go, but the path I’m on is utterly, starkly different from the one I expected to take.

And speaking of different paths–my story is weird. I mean, there are weirder stories out there. I am sure that if Jeff VanderMeer had been asked to contribute my story would look like a condensed Reader’s Digest story in comparison. But by my standards, my story is pretty weird. That’s one of the fun bits about short stories in general: you get to branch out. Spread your wings. Learn things that may help your later works down the road. Short stories are a very different beast from novels, so I understand why some writers don’t bother, but I am very glad I spent a couple years focused on the form.

Anyway, I’m ramblin’ again. Walk the Fire is live (currently on Amazon, think it will be elsewhere soon), it’s jam-packed with an array of authors, and it’s just $3.99. If it sounds like your cup of tea, please go give it a look.

So the other day I mentioned I’d sold a new story at AE. Apparently, it’s already online.

Fast turnaround! I’ve had stories take a year to go from sold to published before. This one took a few weeks. The internet: it is fast.

In a bit of trivia that may or may not be interesting to anyone, my original title was “Obsolution.” It’s appeared here as “Baby, Your Body’s My Bass,” a song title from within the story that is rather less pretentious than my own offering. Editors love changing headlines/titles! My newspaper editors change my suggested headlines at least half the time I send them in. And usually, they are pretty good at it. Editors bring fresh eyes, have a sharper nose for what the story’s really about/what will draw readers than the author. I don’t always agree with their changes (though I do like this one), but I’ve learned they’re almost always made for good reason.

I’m really proud of this story. Authors are rarely the best judge of their own work, but I really, really wanted this one to find a good home. Now it’s headlining at AE. I am happy.

And now in fun news, the alternate history/shared world/steampunk/generally awesome anthology The Aether Age: Helios is now avalailable for Kindle, including my two stories “The Inspiration of Philocrates” and “The Arms of the World” (along with 17 other works). $2.99! A bargain by any measure that is a good measure. Snap up your copy before the internet runs out!

Seriously, I’m very happy to see The Aether Age get the ebook treatment. It was an extremely fun project to work on and despite the fact just about all of us authors had no idea what the others were up to, the stories resulted in some great contrasts and overlaps. Stories spanned hundreds of different years and several different cultures, providing a fairly complete (if elliptical) history of the Age.

The result is pretty damn cool: an anthology that’s both cohesive, yet literally all over the map. As a writer, I’ve already revisited the universe; that story appeared in Fantastique Unfettered #2. As a writer, I’m hoping we see the next anthology–the plan is to produce three in total–sooner rather than later.

Links ahoy:

The Battle for Moscow, Idaho & Other Stories

When We Were Mutants & Other Stories

The Kemetian Husesen Craze

I just uploaded them to the Smashwords catalogue, so they should be available on iTunes, Sony, and everywhere else within the next few weeks. Smashwords offers sample downloads, if you’d like to check them out. A bunch of these stories are linked in my bibliography (it’s down the page) as well.

So I’ve had these collections on Amazon and B&N for some time now, too, but was procrastinating on Smashwords because I’ve hardly ever used Word (the only format they accept) and the table of contents looked complicated. It wasn’t. It’s basically just a dumbed-down HTML with clicking instead of coding, and the Smashwords Style Guide makes it all terribly easy. If you’re a small or self-publisher and you’re not using Smashwords, do it. Formatting takes a couple hours, tops, and once you have a template in place, you can knock it out in less than thirty minutes.

Now some numbers, because I like them:

All told, there are twenty short stories here. Mutants has eight pieces and is about 50,000 words long. Moscow and Kemetian both have six and are about 24,000 words. The average story is just under 5000 words, then, with the longest (“Steve Kendrick’s Disease”) at 8400 and the shortest (“The Magic Taco Wagon”) at 25. 12 of these stories have been previously published in various magazines and anthologies, meaning 8 were new. To you, anyway. I’ve seen some of these stories dozens of times.

As long as I was being all businessy, I updated The Zombies of Hobbiton to include links to my other stuff. Been giving that one away for free, so it seemed wise to provide clickables for readers gullible enough to want to read something else with my name (virtually) stamped on it.

Smashwords has nearly twice as many books online since when I posted my first with them at the end of March, so standing out is harder than ever. We’ll see if it makes any difference there and elsewhere to have several titles made available at the same time. I doubt it!

Yup. Available here.

This is particularly nice for me because it marks my first sale to a prozine (by the SFWA, a magazine that pays at least 5 cents/word), a designator that probably means exactly zero. To me as a writer, though–if the hypothetical day comes when I’ve “made it,” and I’m looking back on all the steps it took to get there, this sale would be one of those steps. Not the biggest of them, I’d imagine. Individual short stories rarely prove that critical to the outcome of a career; it’s mostly about books. But it would mean something to me, at least, a moment when I could know I’m not just flailing around over here.

Given these circumstances, it’s a coincidence that “Founding Fathers” is a semi-sequel to the first story I ever sold, “All Man’s Children” at Reflection’s Edge. I mean, it’s not a total coincidence. I like writing in this universe. I’ve set an entire book there. I’ve written other short stories in it that may or not show up in other magazines one day. On that hypothetical day when some editor is sorting the stories belonging to this as-yet-unnamed universe, she is going to find plenty of material to work with.

Still, it feels like something of a bookend, the opening and closing sentences of a story in my life. I’m just hoping that story is the chapter of a much longer book rather than a complete work in itself.

And in celebration, I’ve now got both my collections available for Nook: When We Were Mutants & Other Stories and The Battle for Moscow, Idaho & Other Stories. They include previously unpublished pieces along with work that ran in M-Brane SF, The Future Fire, Reflection’s Edge, and elsewhere.

Huh. That really wasn’t much of a celebration. I have mislead you.

Fantastique Unfettered #2, including my new Aether Age story “The Kemetian Husesen Craze,” is now available through Barnes & Noble. Go! Buy! Buy buy buy! Buy once, anyway. It contains good things.

Note: the following story first appeared in M-Brane SF #5 in 2009. Later, it made Tangent Online’s 2009 Recommended Reading List. It’s also available for Kindle in my collection When We Were Mutants & Other Stories.

Steve Kendrick’s Disease

We went to Greenvale for the same reason anyone goes anywhere: to steal all the good stuff while everyone was offplanet. When Petey objected on the grounds a place everyone was being evacuated from was the last place we should be going, Captain Briggs reminded him the ship wasn’t just a clever name, and that shut Petey up and the rest of us too. Besides, the captain said, if we waited around for the official explanation why before we headed in, other crews would pick the settlement clean long before we got there. We were too close to pass up the chance to be there first.

So Smalley punched up our course and ten days later the Help Wanted hit Greenvale atmo. Clouds webbed it up pretty good, but I could still see a lot of ice around the poles; on the trip I’d read everything I could find about Greenvale, knew they’d spent a century tweaking the atmosphere to warm it up enough to live on but it had a ways to go. So far it had just the one settlement, a town of a couple thousand people called Brighton, and according to the captain and his sources, they’d all been carted off by the feds a few weeks back, reasons unknown. Smalley dipped us into the clouds and for a long time I just saw water streaming against the glass. Like that we dropped out of it and the land opened up into long hills coated in shaggy green forests.

“What do you think?” the captain said once we were circling Brighton close enough to pick out the houses and the streets from the surrounding woods.

“Cars aren’t moving,” Janssen said, crouching over the glass in the floor of the observation deck like it didn’t scare her at all. She pointed to a hole through the forest canopy a few miles out from the town. “Crash site down there.”

“Huh.” The captain looked up at me. “Laurey?”

“Well, I guess it wasn’t nuked,” I said. Janssen shook her head at the glass.

“He’s right,” the captain said, smiling at me before he looked back down. “Looks intact. Eminently lootable.”

Janssen grunted. “We’re bringing guns, right?”

“Oh, you know it.”

I went to wake up Steve and he swore at me for letting him miss the descent and then apologized for swearing.

“It was just a lot of clouds,” I said, looking away. “You can see it on the way back up.”

“Guess I can,” Steve said. He rolled out of his bunkhole and blinked dully, doing a little dance on the cold metal floor. “Any transmissions?”


“Well, I hope they’re not all dead. I heard this place was supposed to be beautiful.”

“They’re gone, not dead. Captain wants the gear together before we touch down.”

Janssen pitched in when it was clear we were lagging. She wore tight pants and a sleeveless shirt and as she carried boxes down to the bay her muscles somehow looked hard and soft at once. Her face just looked hard.

“Smalley, Petey, you two are onboard while we head out,” the captain said once we were set. They both nodded. “Looks empty out there, but I want these doors spacetight until we get back.”

“Should we vacuum or something?” Smalley said. “I’d just hate to feel useless.”

“Yet you do it anyway,” Janssen said, shrugging her rifle up her shoulder.

He smiled at her. “Oh, I’ll do lots of things I hate.”

“We’ll bring the first load in a couple hours,” the captain said. “Let me know if you see or hear anything that isn’t us.”

Petey drifted back into the guts of the ship while Smalley watched us roll the cart down the ramp and into the ragged grass of the landing field. A handful of birds chirped from the thick-clustered canopy. Both trees and birds were introduced species, I’d read; Greenvale had been too cold to put together any natives more complex than algae and lichens and bacteria. The cart whirred and our gear rattled and clanked: Janssen’s ammo belts, my kit bag, Steve’s hammers and prybars, the captain’s radio and translator and metal detector. The birds made the ride from strip to town seem all the quieter.

We turned a bend and Brighton sprawled in front of us. About half the houses were blocky module units, the other half built of wood hacked out of the forest. Few stood taller than two stories. The roads were wide and badly paved. Captain killed the cart and watched the stillness.

“Yeah,” he said, quiet. “We’ll take the first couple houses together, then if we still haven’t seen anyone, we split up.”

Janssen nodded. “Want me on the door?”

“Yeah. You two, make two piles of whatever you find: one of what you know is worth its weight and one of what we might take if we have the room.”

“I think I know how to rob people,” I said.

“Shout out first sign of anything.” He wheeled us up to the side of the nearest house. Steve got out his lockbusting stuff, but when Janssen tried the door it swung right open. She crept into the dim house, lit by the overcast sunlight. We checked closets and bathrooms and the garage. No one was home.

Their stuff was. I found no real treasures, but Greenvale was a backwoods moon in a backwoods system. I found small items that would make the captain smile: bits of jewelry, earrings and silver rings and firestones. I found a couple palm drives and a GameStation and a fist-sized set of decent speakers. We piled it all up near the front door, where Janssen stared through the curtains, rifle in the crook of her elbow.

“Think this place is tapped,” the captain said, watching us haul the first pile outside.

“Something up?” Steve said, panting. Though my watch said it was 42 degrees, he was sweating.

“Wouldn’t think they’d leave the jewelry behind,” the captain said.

“Even freighters got weight limits, don’t they?”

“Even so.” He shook his head and led us to the next house. Sprinklers chugged in the yard, throwing water over knee-high grass. I caught that dewy scent that reminded me of the hour before sunrise when the whole world slept but me. Inside, I hit a dry spell, didn’t find much but a few storage chips and a bunch of paper books until I swiped off a whole shelf and found a box of hard cash behind it. I took it up front, grinning. Even Janssen raised her eyebrows when I showed her. The captain emerged from the back rooms, his brown face misted with sweat.

“What are you so happy about?” he said, and I opened my mouth and from upstairs Steve screamed so loud I dropped the box against the floor. Plastic cards skidded over the hardwood.

“You find a rat?” the captain called up to him. For a long moment we heard nothing. Captain stared up the staircase, then glanced at Janssen. “Huh.”

Janssen took the lead, gun ready, me and the captain on her heels. We found Steve sitting in a bedroom with his back against the wall and his shirt over his mouth, eyes locked on the bed. A weird smell hit my nose, bad but too faint to place.

The captain cocked his head. “What the hell?”

“I touched it,” Steve said.

“Touched what?”

Steve nodded at the bed. The captain gave him another look, then sidled up to it, crouching down and lifting the bedspread where it touched the floor. He jerked back, gagging.

“Good God.” He turned to Steve, face hard. “You touched it?”

Steve nodded again. Goosebumps burst over my thighs and the backs of my arms. The captain swung his head at me, mouth open. I pressed my hand over my mouth and pulled back the bedspread.

Three bodies lay in the darkness under the bed, skin tight over their bones, spotty and black. Weeks old. What was left of their flesh was dimpled with big round sores, purple and gray-green in the faint light. The smell hit me then, a blunt fist of dead stink.

“Uh,” I said. “Oh man.”

“Well?” the captain said, a blankness on his face I’d never seen before.

“I strongly suggest we blast the Christ off,” I said. Steve moaned, twitching one hand. His fingers gleamed a dull brown. I fumbled in my kit bag for my disinfectant, poured a stiff dose onto a rag, and tossed it in his lap. He just stared.

The captain took a step back. “Tell me that’s not contagious.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Without lying.”

“Everyone here’s dead or something, right?” I threw the rag aside and stood, knees popping. “Which means it’s probably got an airborne vector.”

“Oh God,” Steve said.

“Get your ass up,” Janssen said, but she didn’t offer him a hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

Steve got to his feet and we headed for the cart. Birds chirped in the overcast morning. The streets were silent.

“Place had what, two thousand people?” I said. My voice sounded way too loud. “Three? There should be survivors. No disease kills everyone.”

“Don’t even think about it,” the captain said, just staring at me. He raised his radio to his mouth. “Smalley?”

“How’s the haul?” Smalley’s voice came back.

“Steve found bodies. Whole city’s a graveyard. Plague or something, wasn’t any evacuation. We’re on our way back.”

“Okay,” Smalley said, stretching out the word. “A plague?”

“We’ll be back in twenty.” Captain had me throw all the loot off the cart, then scrub it down. Once it was cleaned we climbed up and the captain peeled out, jouncing us over the weather-worn pavement. From the weeds by the road, I saw a pale hand curled in the dirt. Nobody said a word on our way through the tunnel of trees back to the landing strip. We broke free into the open field. The doors to the Help Wanted were closed.

The captain killed the cart and walked up to the ship. He raised the radio. “We’re here.”

“Okay,” Smalley said back. A breeze ruffled the grass. Janssen shrugged her rifle up her shoulder. Steve shivered. I caught myself staring at his hand. The captain swore, punched his code into the pad beside the door. The door didn’t budge. He banged his fist against the ship.

“What’s the hold up?”

“Well. Me and Petey were talking.”

“Put the tea party on hold and open the doors. I don’t want to spend another second on this rock.”

“Okay,” Smalley said. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, well what if you’ve got it?”

Janssen’s chin swung toward the captain. The captain closed his eyes. “Smalley. I’m going to skin you and run you out as the flag.”

“Hello, Briggs,” Petey’s voice cut in. “I want you to take a deep breath and think about this for a second.”

“I’m thinking about how I’m going to keelhaul you when the ship doesn’t have a keel.”

“If you’re infected and you come on board, then we’re dead too. If you’re quarantined a few days and it turns out you’re fine, then the worst that happens is you fire us. That’s your decision. It’s a chance Smalley and I are willing to take.”

The captain pulled his lips back from his teeth. “They’ve been dead for weeks. Laurey doesn’t think they’re infectious.”

“Laurey failed med school.”

“I dropped out,” I said.

“I can’t let you onboard, captain,” Petey said. “Not until we’re sure you won’t kill us.”

“I’m going to do that either way. How long you intend to keep us out here? A week? A month?”

“I don’t know that yet, captain.”

“Symptoms should manifest within a week,” I said, turning away from Steve and toward the trees surrounding the field. “Something this virulent, probably less.”

Wordlessly, Janssen punched me in the stomach. I fell to a knee, wheezing, tears blurring my eyes.

“Janssen,” the captain said, soft. He raised the radio. “Petey, we’re going to freeze out here. We’re going to starve. You think you’re saving yourselves? You’re going to kill us.”

“There’s an emergency pack in the cart,” Petey said.

“Open the door right now.”

“There’s nothing more to say, captain. No symptoms and I’ll open the door in three days. Don’t bother asking for more than that.”

“Hey, Petey, at least tell me you’re sorry. Tell me you’re sorry it has to be this way, Petey.” The captain blinked up at the ship’s windows. “Petey? Smalley?”

“Am I going to die?” Steve said, hands clasped in front of him.

“Everyone out there’s long dead,” I said, rubbing my eyes. “The ones that kill you before you have a chance to spread them just kind of flame out. They’re dumb. That’s why they get replaced by stuff that doesn’t kill you as bad.”

“Really?” Steve smiled a moment. “Is that true, captain?”

But no one touched him the rest of the day, and when darkness fell and we sheltered up under the ship’s wings, no one slept beside each other. I shivered under my covers; there had been two blankets in the emergency duffel, and Janssen had given one to the captain, one to Steve, then emptied the duffel and given it to me. I pressed a hand to my forehead, but I felt fine. A mile through the woods, Brighton lay under the same clouds we did, an empty city on an empty moon.

* * *

“All right, Laurey, lay it out for me,” the captain said, a whisper I could barely hear.

“They look like hives. Could be allergies.” I glanced through the woods to the field where Steve and Janssen still lay under the ship’s wings. “This is all just guesswork.”

“Cut the humble BS. I need to know what you think so I’ll know what we can do about it.”

I wiped my nose with my sleeve. “Janssen’s got them, too. She didn’t touch Steve or get near the bodies.”

“What about us?”

“Considering all the stuff we touched? We were breathing the same air they were.”


I glanced between his eyes. “How do you feel?”

“Stiff. Sore.” He frowned, drew back. “How do you feel?”

“Fine. For now.”

“All right. Then for now, we don’t go near them.” He pressed his fists against his eyes, suddenly old. “How did this happen, Laurey? Are we bad people?”

“Uh,” I said. “Janssen might be.”

“All I wanted was to make enough cash we didn’t have to scrounge so hard for a while.” He stared at the ship, then shook his head. “Come on. Let’s go let them know they’re going to die.”

I frowned. “Maybe you should let me tell them.”

It didn’t help. Steve sat with his head between his knees, shoulders shaking. Janssen stared off at the clouds like she hadn’t heard. She touched a boil on her cheek, then dropped her hand to her side and wiped it against her pants.

“Guess you two should steer clear,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I said stupidly.

“Laurey thinks we’ve got it, too,” the captain said. “We’re just not showing yet. Right, Laurey?”


“No sense taking risks until we’re sure,” Janssen said. “Rest of the food’s yours. If me and Steve get too hungry, we’ll head into town.”

The captain smiled at her with half his mouth. “If we all get out of this, it’ll be from you.”

I glanced away from a bright red blister on Steve’s neck, tossed Janssen a pill bottle from my kit. “Take two of those every three hours. Let me know if you start feeling weird.”

The captain and I sat down on the other side of the field. We didn’t talk much. The day warmed up a little. The captain sat with his chin on his knees, brow all creased up.

“Say we’ve got it,” he said. “What can we do about it?”

“Eat antibiotics until we’re crapping pure bacteria. Drink lots of water. Wait it out.”

“Let’s assume we’re not any luckier than everyone in Brighton.”

“Town’s got a hospital,” I said, scratching my neck. “A clinic, really. But if they got started on a cure, or figured anything out, it might have records.”

“We should send Janssen right now. She’ll do it.” His eyes focused on mine so hard I could actually see his pupils shrink. “Hey. You’re white as white paint.”

I pressed my finger against the itching knob of skin on the back of my neck. Pain seared up and down my spine so hard my head went foggy.

“I think I need to go talk to the others,” I said. “You better stay here.”

“Oh, Laurey.”

I fainted before I reached them. My sight and brain came back and Steve was leaning over me, hand out. I took it and leaned into him until my balance came back.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s okay,” I said. “There’s a hospital in town. I think we should go there.”

Steve drew back. “You think there’s a cure?”

“You see any cured people running around?” Janssen said.

“They might have started on one. They’ll at least have immunoboosters.” I met Janssen’s eyes. “You can stay here if you want.”

She snorted. “Get on the damn cart. I’m driving.”

From fifty yards off, the captain watched us start down the path to the city. Steve waved to him and the captain raised one hand over his head. Trees swallowed us up.

“Yesterday you were saying something about survivors,” Janssen said over the soft hum of the engine.

“Chances are a few people are immune, or just ran out before they could get infected.” I watched her brown ponytail bob along with the suspension of the cart. “Why?”

“Imagine you grew up in the boondocks. Probably never left the planet once, just all this nature crap around. Then, over the course of a week or two, everyone you know died. If there’s survivors, how you think they’ve been surviving since this thing hit? How’s Steve’s fat ass going to look to them?”

“They’re not going to eat us!” Steve said.

“They’re not going to be in a neighborly state of mind, either.”

It was a while before I stopped watched the sides of the roads enough to remember what was happening to me. In town, among the low houses and wide streets, bodies hid in the yards. A couple lay in the streets, not nearly enough to account for the town. I had Janssen slow down; we threaded in toward the city’s middle, past parked and crashed cars and carts, abandoned and still. We saw no dogs, no cats.

We smelled the hospital before we saw it. In a side yard, big old swathes of grass had been overturned. One pit still lay uncovered, the bodies piled, arms and legs dangling over each other. Janssen parked the cart out front.

Inside, the rot fought with the smog of alcohol and soaps and antibiotic sprays. All the beds were filled, like whoever’d been treating them had run out while the last of them were still moaning. I had Janssen and Steve start turning on computers while I hit the pharmacy. I swept every antibiotic and immunobooster I could into a plastic sack. Hundreds of small white bottles lined the shelves. I glanced at the door, then tossed all the Euphine they had into the sack.

“Found some notebooks,” Janssen said, nodding at a pile she’d started after sweeping the junk from an admin’s desk right on the floor.

“Good.” I ran a network search of every file created or modified in the last three months and dumped it onto my palm drive. While Janssen went off to look after Steve, who was barfing, I poked around the clinic’s small lab. Vial on vial of blood blanketed one counter. I didn’t even bother checking what they’d tried. It hadn’t worked. I wouldn’t know how to continue it anyway. I had two plans: turn our bloodstreams into drugstreams, and pray my genetic stock had been brewed in a different pot from the colonists’.

“What do you think?” Janssen said on the ride back to the field.

“I think as long as we’ve already got it, we may as well move into a house. It’s cold out here.”

“About the bug.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Have to do some reading first.”

The captain was waiting for us when we got back. I almost shouted as he walked right up to us and asked how it had gone. He jumped up on the cart, reaching for one of the sacks we’d brought back, and as his sleeve fell back, I saw the blisters circling his wrist.

* * *

“Patients present with dermal swelling and tenderness,” I read from my palm drive. The file had last been updated a little under a month ago. “Within 12-48 hours, symptoms progress to include increased dermal inflammation, high fever, and a persistent cough, and may include dizziness or mild visual hallucinations. Some patients report a sour taste to their saliva, resulting in a pronounced urge to spit.”

“What about vomiting?” Janssen said. “Back at the hospital Steve was vomiting.”

Steve shook his head. “That’s because it was gross there.”

“What’s next?” the captain said, leaning forward in his chair.

“Symptoms plateau for 24-96 hours, at which point the fever heightens. Afflicted show a pronounced sensitivity to light. Blood appears in the sputum.” I paused until the captain nudged me with his foot. “Patients may die of fever, fever-induced dehydration, or the liquefaction of the alveoli. In 100% of reported and observed cases, death resulted in 2-7 days of first symptoms.”

The captain shook his head. “Christ, how do you write that up without cursing God once?”

“So we’ve got a week?” Steve said.

“Less.” Janssen stared at me like I’d just condemned her, which I suppose I had.

“Take these,” I said, passing around a mix of pills. “Drink a lot of water. We’ll probably want to head back for some cough stuff at some point.”

Janssen stared at the pills in her palm. “Any of this going to help?”

“Truth, now,” the captain said, gaze on me.

“It’ll give us some more time.”

“Feds could show up, maybe.” A hot gleam hit the captain’s brown eyes. “There wasn’t any evacuation. They know what happened. Might be working on something as we speak.” He stood up. “Should radio up the ship. Mutinous pricks might not let us onboard, but we can have them set up a distress beacon.”

“In the meantime,” I said, digging into the sack and pawing past rattling bottles until I found the one, “I suggest you all take two of these.” I shook the bottle. “Doctor’s orders.”

“Euphine?” Janssen said, and for once I thought she was about to smile.

I popped one in my mouth, swallowed, popped the other. Bitter on the back of my tongue.

“Look,” I said, tapping a couple into her hand, “why not?”

“Why not.”

“I’m already out of my right mind anyway,” the captain said, taking a pair. I held out a couple for Steve.

“I don’t think so,” he said, hunching his thick shoulders.

Captain laughed through his nose. “Don’t tell me you want to go through this thing sober.”

“Isn’t that stuff addictive?” Steve blushed as soon as he said it. “What if it reacts bad with the other stuff?”

Janssen took the pills from me and pressed them into Steve’s hand. “Take the goddamn pills.”

He glanced at me, blinking. I shrugged. Steve blushed harder, then took a long drink of water and pushed the first one past his lips.

“Guess there’s no harm now,” he said.

“Good boy,” Janssen said, patting him on the cheek.

The captain laughed to himself and dug out his radio. “Smalley, Petey. Come in, traitors. Captain needs a favor.”

“Ah, this is Smalley,” Smalley said after a few seconds.

“Need you to start beaming an SOS. Wide signal. Give our coordinates at Brighton. Anyone listening will know what’s what.”

“Can do.” Smalley cleared his throat. “What’s going on out there?”

“We’re having a party,” the captain said. “Dr. Laurey’s breaking his oaths and spreading chemical goodwill to his grateful crew.”

“That’s good.”

“You’re not invited.”

“I’ll let Petey know,” Smalley said. “That it?”

“Smalley,” the captain said, smile fading. “You may not hear from us after a while. If we go two days after our last call, you blast off, okay?”


“Promise me now.”

“I promise. Captain, what’s happening out there?”

“Like I said, we’re having a party.” He set down the radio and scratched his upper lip. “Say doc.”

I looked up. “Say what?”

“What’s your medical opinion got to say about liquor?”

The Euphine kicked in before we got back to the house with the neighbors’ whiskey, wine, and some kind of transparent local brew. Janssen tipped back the local stuff and I held out my hand and she laughed when I wiped the bottle’s rim with my sleeve. I shook my head, grinning. The captain checked the heat, found it still working, then cranked it up. He took off his coat and started wandering around with a bottle of red in his hand. Steve talked about growing up in inner Lopport while Janssen passed the bottle around. Furniture scraped down the end of the hall and the captain emerged, panting.

“Janssen,” he said, standing straight as a rod. “Arms inspection. On the double.”

She gave him a look, then slid off the couch and picked up the rifle at her feet. Me and Steve followed her to where the captain was pointing down the hall. At its far end, a row of framed family portraits stood on top of a desk.

Janssen frowned. “Sir, I don’t believe those targets are regulation.”

“That’s exactly why they must be shot.”

“Affirmative.” Janssen lodged the butt of her rifle against her right shoulder, ear just brushing the stock. She clicked off the safety. I steeled myself. She squeezed the trigger.

The rifle went off like a person saying “pop.” Down the hall, glass clattered; the frame spun off the desk, slamming into the wall. The captain doubled over laughing, fist pressed against his forehead. Janssen swung the end of the barrel, squeezed off a second shot, then plastered two more frames before what was left of that one hit the ground.

“Let me try,” Steve said, stepping forward.

Janssen eyed him. “Never fired one, have you.”


“The bullets come out the end with the hole in it.” She handed him the rifle. He fiddled with it a moment, then clamped it to his cheek. Splinters of plastic and paint sprayed from the desk and the wall behind the one remaining picture. Steve frowned, blinking so hard his lashes brushed the scope Janssen hadn’t used. His finger twitched; the frame flew off the desk. He muttered to himself, then fired again, five quick shots over the empty desk.

“I think it’s broken,” he said, lowering the gun and frowning over it. Wordlessly, Janssen took it away and slung it over her shoulder. The captain and I had been laughing a while before Steve joined in. We stood there in the hall a while, winding down, glass and plastic glittering down the way. Steve’s shoulders started jerking rather than bouncing; he was coughing.

“Oh shit,” the captain said, then let a long breath out his nose. He pulled from the bottle and held it in his mouth before he swallowed. “Well, let’s take a ride.”

“You’re going to drive?” I said, following him out the front door. The day was gray and cold. I couldn’t see the sun, but it didn’t feel like it would last much longer. The day had evaporated, been eaten up while we weren’t watching.

“If we’re all killed, I’ll take full responsibility with the police.” The captain threw himself into the driver’s seat of the cart and flipped it on. I’d barely sat down when we swung off. Steve, half-crouched in his seat like a dog getting ready to lie down, tumbled over the side. I had to punch the captain on the shoulder to get him to slow down enough for Steve to hop back on. Gravel spat from the tires and the cart snapped forward, jerking back my head. Cold air roared past our faces. The captain took a turn without slowing down, wheels skidding, going mushy as we slid onto the shoulder. He leaned hard and reached out to touch the side of a car parked even further down the shoulder. I braced myself against the cart door, head starting to clear, stomach to twist. Back on the road, the captain pitched the engine higher, a hum that ran through my elbow where it touched the door and my ass on the seat. I swallowed. Fast; it was all so fast, I thought, as far as I could think at all. We’d landed, stolen, become infected, learned we were going to die. It had all streaked past like the grass by the road, like the empty space between the planets. We needed to slow down.

“We need to slow down,” I shouted into the wind. I punched the captain’s shoulder again. “You’re going to crash!”

The captain hunched down and reappeared with the pistol he kept under the seat. He planted his knees against the wheel, gripped the pistol with both hands, and squeezed a shot over a passing roof. A smatter of small gray birds burst into the sky. He fired again, shattering a window. Behind me, Steve laughed.

“You think that’s funny?” I said, twisting around.

“He just shot that window!”

The cart ripped over the asphalt, swerving around parked cars, juking around the bodies stretched across the street. Steve grinned, eyes watering in the wind. Boils stood up on his face and neck, red and so swollen they almost shone. I looked past him into the city. The cops were dead. The children were dead. I wanted to scream, but my breath was torn away by the wind; by the time I’d caught it the feeling had passed. I let myself go limp, rocked by the jolting cart. It was like I could reach right up and pull down the clouds, dig out the secret there all along.

* * *

I was hungover. Dehydrated. Skin so hot it could cook steaks. Euphine hadn’t kicked in yet. Whole room stunk like alcohol; broken bottles sprawled in the corner, the captain sprawled on the couch. Memories of the bodies at the hospital, of coming back and stealing a stereo and playing music and talking, time slipping by without a feel. Of Janssen sitting silent for twenty minutes, then standing, yanking Steve to his feet, dragging him deeper into the house before he could blush. Couldn’t remember falling asleep. I worried, briefly, if I’d said anything stupid before then. The worry burnt away, but I could find no trace of whatever mood we’d found the day before. From the couch, the captain coughed so hard he sat up straight, knees drawn to his chest.

“How you feeling, captain?”

“I told you to call me Ben.” He worked his jaw, then spat toward the pile of bottles. “I feel like I need medical attention.”

I tossed him the pill bottle. He groped around for a wine bottle and washed them down, chased it with a cap of cough syrup.

“Sorry,” I said. “Kind of fuzzy.”

“Yeah.” He jerked his chin toward the back of the house. “Janssen, huh?”


“Thought I’d be jealous, but I’m kind of glad it was Steve.” He narrowed his eyes at me, then looked away. “Don’t suppose you found a cure yet.”

“Huh-uh.” I coughed into my hand, then spat into it too quiet for the captain to notice. No blood. I wiped it on the floor. The captain—Ben—wriggled down into the couch and closed his eyes, sighing long.

“I’ve always known what I wanted to do, you know. Why I got the ship. Lot of responsibility, making sure you jackasses aren’t killing yourselves all the time, but I like that, too. I like knowing what to do.”

I nodded, sipped some water. “The feds might come.”

“The feds aren’t coming, Nova.”

“They’ve got to come sometime,” I said. Suddenly my face went hotter. “Wait, I told you that?”

The captain laughed. “Your parents didn’t do you any favors.”

“It wasn’t their fault,” I said, then realized he was still talking about my name.

“Yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “So where do you think it came from?”

“Hospital log says the first guy had been camping in the woods alone.” I folded my arms over my stomach. “A hundred years ago, they started warming this place up. Eighty, they started seeding it—trees, birds, bugs, all that crap. Any native organisms have probably seen more environmental change in the last century than since they first appeared.”

“This is a plague, though. A really good one.”

“So? Everyone thinks it takes like a million years for a fly to turn into another kind of fly. Sometimes evolution’s like that, but when it has to it makes great big leaps. Way faster than you’d want to believe.”

The captain gave me a look. “Your drop-out, was it the voluntary kind?”

“I’m just saying, stress makes life do crazy things.”

Janssen and Steve reappeared, pale and flushed, coughing into their hands and smiling at each other. We took antibiotics and cough suppressants, drank water, found a neighbor with a good movie collection. Ben radioed the ship long enough to check in. We were getting worse; everyone had a fever, felt listless, run down even when the hangovers faded. That night as we watched a movie, Steve started babbling. I dosed him up with a fever-killer. I didn’t know if it helped. Janssen put him to bed, finished the movie with us, then went back to him.

Steve woke first the next day. It was morning, I guessed; sunlight cut through the windows, painfully clear. Steve stood over me, pale, shivering, eyes red-rimmed and bright with something more than fever. My mouth was so dry it was a minute before I could speak.

“What’s happening?”

“You’ve got to help her,” he said. Blisters stood up on his face and neck like cherries. He reached toward me, half-falling onto the couch. “She’s hurt, Laurey. Come on.”

I crawled to my feet and tailed him to the back room where Janssen lay naked and dead, a white sheet pulled up to her neck. I looked at Steve, then checked her pulse. Her skin was as cool as the room.

“She’s gone,” I said.

“You’ve got to help her.”

I sat in a chair and curled my knees to my chest. My head was floaty, gauzy. Panic, enlightenment, some place in between; that had swept us along since we’d been locked out of the ship, but all I felt now was a sick impatience, a hot but weak anger that the disease had run its course in Janssen but might have days left before it finished with me. I just sat there a while, ignoring Steve, the same way I always had.

“She wanted to be burnt up by the ship’s engines,” the captain said softly after Steve brought him into the room.

“No!” Steve dropped a hand to her sheeted shoulder. “Why would she want that?”

“You all filled out the same paperwork when you signed up. People die out here.” The captain stared down at her a moment, glassy-eyed, chest falling with his shallow breath. “We’re heading back to the ship. There’s no point in them staying any longer. Help me get her out to the cart.”

“Can’t you do anything?” Steve said to me. Tears threatened to drop down his face, but he didn’t have the juice.

“Captain’s right,” I said. “Smalley and Petey can still get out. We’ve got to think of them now.”

We wrapped Janssen in the sheet and laid her in the cart in the pale and warmthless sunlight. The captain drove at a walking pace through the road through the trees. The canopy clustered so thick we rode in daylight while the woods passed in twilight. I thought I could see shadows moving deep among the brown-black trunks, but when I blinked, they disappeared.

“Janssen’s dead,” the captain said into his radio, gazing up at the blank windows near the ship’s nose. “She wanted to be cremated by the ship. I think it’s time for you two to take off.”

“Janssen’s dead?” Smalley said back through the box.

“What did you think was happening out here? High tea?”

I leaned toward the radio in the captain’s hand. “Are you guys okay?”

“We’re fine,” Petey said.

“How are you?” Smalley said. “Can we do anything?”

“Start prepping the ship.” The captain clipped the radio to his belt and gestured me to give him a hand with Janssen. Her body was light, dried out like an old stick. We stretched her out in the charred grass beneath the Help Wanted’s vertical tail jet. A metallic click sounded somewhere up in the ship’s bowels, then a hum so deep I could barely hear it.

Steve tucked his hands under his armpits, gazing down. “Should we say something?”

The captain shrugged. “Elsie was with me eight years. I knew her probably better than anyone ever did. She knew what she meant to the ship.”

“She was always so far off,” Steve said, just audible over the spooling engines. “Right up to the last days.”

“Smalley, Petey,” the captain said, taking the radio from his belt. “I don’t know what I would have done in your shoes. But if you’d let us onboard, you’d be sick, too, and we wouldn’t be any less dead. Remember that when you start believing this is your fault.” He crouched down to pull the sheet back from Janssen’s face. The skin of his brown hand was bubbled with purplish bruises. “I tried never to get us in more trouble than we could handle. Guess the hunger got to me.”

“None of us knew,” Petey said through the radio.

The captain gazed between me and Steve. “I don’t see but the one thing left to do. You’re smart kids. Maybe you’ve got a smarter idea. Whatever you choose, good luck.” He slipped the radio onto his belt, unholstered his pistol, and raised it to his temple. The gun popped. The captain grunted, slumped to his knees, then collapsed on his back in the blackened grass beside Janssen. Steve took a half step forward, then stumbled backwards. I stooped for the radio and dizziness swelled through my head.

“Give us a minute to get back,” I said to the ship. “Then get out of here.”

I put my hand on Steve’s shoulder and led him to the cart. We drove to the edge of the landing field, then turned around so we could see the ship. Steve raised his arm. The hum of the engines deepened to a rumble and pitched up to a keen. Flame boiled from all the Help Wanted’s jets, washing over the grass, clouding everything beneath it in fire and dust and smoke. The ship rocked on its feet, then shivered up off the ground, heavy as a hillside, smoke mushrooming beneath it as it climbed above our heads and then the heads of the trees. It tipped back on its tail, hovering, then lifted off up into the sky like a great hand was pushing it from behind. It shrank to a gray arrowhead, then a winking point of light. At last, it was nothing at all.

“Gun’s probably melted,” I said, gazing at the smoke settling to the ground where the bodies had been a minute ago. “We’ll have to go into town for another.”


I coughed and spat into the grass. My tongue tasted like copper. “You’d rather just wait around?”

Steve wiped his hand down his face. “I want to do something about it.”


“Not for ourselves. We have to get rid of it. Wipe it out.”

“Almighty Christ. Yeah, just show me to the Bomb Store so we can nuke the whole planet. Viruses don’t just appear because you touched yourself at night.” I flung my hand out toward the woods. “It came from out there. What do you want to do about all that?”

“Something! I don’t know!” His fever-sparked eyes switched between mine. He coughed and stumbled into me, catching himself on my shoulder; he was light as a deep breath, but I almost went over too. He braced himself against me a second, breathing hard. “Look at what happened. Look at what it’s done to us. We’re not the only ones out there digging for scraps. We can’t let this happen to anyone else. Whatever else happens, we have to make sure we’re the last ones this thing ever kills.”

The air over the field had almost cleared. I couldn’t see much of anything where Janssen and the captain had lain. The gun was gone and so were they.

“We’re going to burn the town,” I said.

Steve’s chin jerked up. “Will that get rid of it?”

“It’ll get rid of all the reasons for people like us to come down here.”

“What about the feds? They’ll come, too, eventually.”

“We can’t stop them. We’ll just have to find a way to tell them what we’ve seen and hope they’ll take it from there.”

Steve sniffed, then spat. He turned to the path back through the trees. “It’s a big town.”

“Not that big. We’ll make sure the woods catch, too.”

“They’ve got this landing strip.” He grinned at me. “They’ll have H-cells somewhere.”

“And oxygen tanks at the hospital.” I struggled up into the cart. “Let’s go.”

I took us in toward Brighton, easy this time, remembering the captain’s mad race through the streets in the careless hours after we’d first known it was over. Mid-morning sunshine poured down on the path, bright but cool. My sickness seemed to belong to another person. We drove to the hospital where the bodies rested in the beds and the open graves and we wrestled oxygen tanks and bottles of rubbing alcohol onto wheelchairs and trucked them out to the parking lot. We left one tank in front of the entrance. We were sweating, shaking, coughing and spitting. Already I was exhausted. A steady breeze blew out of the northwest and we sat in the grass and let it suck the sweat from our skin. I shook out some Euphine, some fever-killers, washed them down with water.

Two hours burned up like dry grass before we could find the H-cells; they were at the drydock, like they should have been, but rather than being sealed in a vault or locked off in a storeroom within a storeroom, they were just sitting in a crate in the back room, thirteen yellow-gray bricks the size of my forearm. I’d seen them before on the Help Wanted, but I’d never been allowed to handle one, though they were supposed to be perfectly inert up to the temperatures created in a starship’s engines. I tried to pick one up and dropped it at once and Steve yelled but it dented the floor when it landed and that was all. I didn’t know if they would burn in any fire we could build, or if when they burst they’d go off like a bomb, and destroy us before we knew what had happened. I knew that, if our fire didn’t catch the first time, I wouldn’t have the strength to try a second.

Sunlight choked our eyes as we wheeled the cells to the cart and then spaced ten of them throughout the town, leaving one at the drydock and saving two for the start. That was our big plan: find everything we could that would burn or explode, get it out in the open, sitting on doorsteps and leaning against walls in every neighborhood, then set one big fire at the northwest edge of the woods, where the wind was blowing down, and ride like hell for the landing strip, throwing flaming bottles of rubbing alcohol as we fled. Neither of us were arsonists by trade, but we thought it would be enough.

We found homes for the oxygen tanks, spent twenty minutes stuffing rags into the mouths of bottles, raided homes until we’d found a half dozen lighters. We passed a handful of bodies on our way to the north end of town where the houses butted right up to the woods. They had names, all of them, in the registries in the inner planets. Somewhere in the guts of the same computers they had my name, too.

The forest floor was a mat of leaves and dead branches. We heaved the bricks of fuel out onto the yard of the farthest house and covered the cells with tinder till the pile rose to our chests. Fat trunks of trees shot up all around us. We walked to where we’d parked the cart some hundred feet away.

“How far do you think you can throw?” Steve said, grinning, sweat dribbling down his temples.

“I played baseball when I was a kid.” I leaned against the cart, panting. They’d mowed the grass before the ballgames and it had always smelled sweet and wet and loose blades had stuck to my small hands when I’d rubbed them through the damp stubble. I pushed off the cart and picked up a bottle. “We’ll both do it.”

I turned on the cart. Steve held a lighter to the rags in the bottles. They flared up, burning smokelessly, and we drew back and we threw.

Mine crashed short, mushrooming out in a whump of fire. Steve’s spun end for end and shattered on the piled branches. Gobs of fire burst up in a dozen different places. They held steady a long moment, then the gobs began to spread, burning out into the leaves and sticks until it was all one shimmering star of smoke and fire. The paint on the house had begun to curl by the time we’d climbed onto the cart.

Gravel ground under our tires. The bottles clanked in the back seat. Steve reached for one, lit it, flung it at a passing house. I snaked us through the streets and Steve handed down fire wherever we went. At the north end of town, sheets of gray smoke stretched into the sky. Tears and sweat slipped down my face. A vast hollow boom roared up near our first fire, rolling through the town, punching my ears so hard I had to jerk the wheel to stay on the road. Steve threw another bottle, then tapped me on the shoulder and gestured at the seat. One bottle left. I took us up to the house we’d robbed when we’d landed three days ago, driving over the curb and up on the yard and skidding the cart next to the front stoop. I made sure I had the radio, then retreated with Steve to the road. He lit the last bottle and hurled it at the cart and we ran for the path through the trees. Behind us, the cart’s fuel tank caught, washing us with heat and pelting us with cracked plastic and metal shards, forcing us to our knees.

Steve gripped my shoulder with a hand that felt like all bones. I turned and saw fires climbing roofs in a dozen different neighborhoods. Smoke smeared everything, carried to us by the winds. Ash and cinders fluttered past our cheeks. Dizziness swept up my spine, graying out my sight. I felt Steve’s hand on my arm, heaving me back on feet I couldn’t feel as we ran through the tunnel of trees toward the field where the ashes of Janssen and the captain mixed with the charred grass. Steve stumbled as soon as we reached the field, falling face-first and coughing and choking into the grass. I dropped to my knees beside him.

“They’ll try to resettle,” he strained. “Some day, someone will come back.”

“I’m going to radio the ship,” I said, gazing dully into the trees between us and the town. I could still smell smoke. “I’ll tell them everything. Let them pass it on to the feds.”

“When you tell them what happened,” Steve said, then cut himself short to cough, “what are you going to call it?”

“I’ll just call it a disease. What does it matter?”

“You stopped it. It should be called the Nova Laurey Syndrome.”

“I would have shot myself.” I looked down at him. His eyes were closed. Blood lined his lips. I would be the last. “I think I know why the captain hired you.”

I raised the radio to my mouth and called Smalley’s name, then Petey’s, then repeated them both until I forgot what I was saying. Through the web of trees, I thought I could see a flicker of orange. If my voice held out, I thought I would need twenty minutes: just give me twenty minutes before the fire found us in the field.

“Laurey?” Smalley’s voice said, faint through the radio and the thousands of miles of space between us. “Is that you?”

“I need you to start recording, Smalley.”

“What’s happening?” he said after a few-second delay. “Are you guys okay?”

“Turn on the recorder.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, tasting smoke, feeling something catch down in my lungs. I listened to Steve breathing beside me, ragged and fast. Just give him twenty minutes, too. He’d earned that much.

“Ready,” Smalley said.

I held the radio to my mouth. With the fingers of my free hand, I dug into the grass and held on as tight as I could.

“We went to Greenvale for the same reason anyone goes anywhere,” I said. I tugged free a handful of grass, let it scatter into the smoke and the wind.

Well, uh, that title pretty much covers it, actually. Check it out here.

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