“Ugh, I can’t believe she isn’t dead yet!”


Terra Joy crossed her arms and pouted in the passenger seat and Grant loved her fiercely for her gross selfishness. For her open hostility. For the honesty of her wickedness. Loved her with a fire burning cold in his heart.


“Isn’t that your grandmother?” he laughed.


Terra Joy fumed.


“So?” she asked.


It was that sort of bold crassness, that malicious breaking of social norms, that had first attracted him to her. She was a Valkyrie, an ancient goddess of war, taking what she wanted by force without apology or remorse. And the fact that she wanted him with that same cruelty? That she wanted him with that same animal need? It was satisfying in the extreme. Like receiving an “A” on a difficult and important test he hadn’t even known he was taking.


“You’re so fucked up,” Grant said, but he was young enough to think that could mean the same thing as I love you.


Red spots came to Terra Joy’s pale cheeks and they only made her more gorgeous. It was impossible to tell if the spots came from anger or happiness, and he loved the danger of not knowing.


“Don’t look! I can’t believe she’s just doing that right out in the open… she’s so gross.”


It was hard to look away from that face at all, let alone follow Terra Joy’s gaze through the dusk, but when Grant saw what she beheld he couldn’t help but laugh. And it was all the more hilarious because it was horrifying to Terra Joy that he should be amused. But how could he not laugh? He’d never seen a woman chew tobacco, let alone a woman in her seventies.


“This is awful! She’ll ruin everything!” Terra Joy moaned.


His range-rover crested a sandy dune, bringing the river into view and Grant found himself riveted. Illuminated by the headlights, Terra Joy’s whole family milled about by the river. Dozens of them, men and women, shifting around by the water enjoying their Family Reunion. Except for the old woman chewing tobacco by the fire.


It wasn’t until later, in those last few minutes of life when the speed of his thoughts would accelerate to his brain’s full potential, that he’d remember that there were no children and wonder why.


“Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll charm her,” Grant said, but he was so nervous it came out of his mouth as a jumble and he cursed himself for an idiot. Terra Joy seemed not to have noticed and he flushed with relief. It wouldn’t do to be weak in front of her. It wouldn’t do at all.


Appearance was everything to Terra Joy.


“I hate when they bring her! Grandma Ella is the worst! All she does is talk about the old days. How it was different! How the traditional ways are best! She’ll be on me about my clothing in no time, wait and see! I wish she’d just die already! She’s as old as the dark itself! Some of us younger girls need a chance to lead!”


The old woman was draped all in black, clothed in something like a shawl or a cape, expression scrunched and jaw working furiously. Her face cratered inward around her mouth like her flesh was made of dough and someone had poked her lips with their finger.


Maybe Terra Joy hadn’t noticed his fumble because she’d been so incensed by the imperfection of her own relative? Didn’t that mean Terra Joy the weak one? Did that make him the strong one? Grant, unable to stop himself, brought a hand up to his mouth to stifle another fit of laughter.


“Lead what?” he asked between giggles.


“You wouldn’t understand. You’re too stupid. Even after all I’ve done for you, you’re just too stupid.”


She adjusted the spaghetti straps of her blouse and examined herself in the mirror for a moment.


“Hey, what?”


“You heard me, don’t pretend you didn’t. That’s so fucking pathetic to pretend you didn’t hear. Never say I didn’t tell you what this was. I’ve been honest with you from day one,” and with that Terra Joy was out of the car.


Grant set his jaw and promised himself that he’d find a way to force an interaction between Ella and Terra Joy. Then he’d get even, and nothing made him happier than when he got even. Nothing in the whole world.


He parked the car and got out to follow, furious.


She always tested him in moments like this, when he felt most vulnerable.


Presently, Ella sat in a fold-out chair halfway between the river and the hill that hid the Family from view. A fire crackled to one side of her. Every now and again, she turned her head to spit in a brass bucket. It made a ping like a small dinner bell.


“Is that a spittoon?” Grant asked, a little too loudly.


Ella turned her head. Her eyes flickered orange in the reflected firelight. Grant swallowed hard, wishing he’d thought to keep quiet. Wished he hadn’t tried to hurt Terra Joy by drawing the old woman’s focus. Wished for a moment that he’d never met Terra Joy. Suddenly, he didn’t feel very strong at all. Didn’t feel that getting even would be possible, or worth it.


The drunken confidence and love of competition that Terra Joy usually gave him fizzled away like champagne bubbles.


Ella’s eyes were the hangover.


In the two weeks since he’d met Terra Joy, he’d done things he’d never thought himself capable of doing. Led discussions in class, impressed professors, been promoted at his jobs. Felt strong and certain and powerful. Yelled at waitresses, insulted random people for physical deformities, screamed at his mother for being poor…


“Hey, maybe it’s not such a good idea for me to meet your family,” but it was a mumble and no one heard him.


Terra Joy stopped and turned, several feet ahead, impatiently motioning for him to follow.


“What? No, it’s not a spittoon. It’s a… I hate that thing. This is so frustrating. I’m going to text my mom.”


Ella’s eyes had not turned from Grant and he felt what could only be described as a goose walking over his grave.


“What business is your family in again?” he asked in a weak voice.


“Culinary arts,” she snapped.


Doubt rushed in. He’d been surprised that Terra Joy cared enough to invite him to a Family Reunion. Understandably, she had wanted them to come later in the day. She’d been insistent they come no earlier than dusk. She explained that way if her family hated him she could minimize the damage. Appearance again. Appearance was important to the whole family.


Were the old woman’s eyes orange or was it just the fire? He felt as he had before Terra Joy had found him. A dumb little fish in a pond full of sharks playing checkers against chess masters.




“Goddamn that old woman! Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing, Ella! I know when my glamours are being fucked with! Fine! See, Ella? The final chance, just like the old ways! You insufferable old witch!” Terra Joy walked up until she was no more than a few inches from Grant’s face and smiled as she laid a hand on the side of his face, “Don’t you want this? Wouldn’t you give anything for this? With me you can have wealth, beauty and power. Wouldn’t you give anything for that?”


Her breath was silk against his skin. Swallowing, he reminded himself that there were things to learn here. Pleasures to be had with Terra Joy.


“Yes,” he croaked.


Grant would get rid of the look of rural Tennessee if it killed him. Isn’t that why he’d worked so hard in school? Why he had done all those horrible things? What was an awkward reunion compared to that?


And besides, there was nothing to go back to.


He’d already told his mother she was dead to him.


Terra Joy had given him a blow job immediately afterward.


It had been the most thrilling experience of his entire life.


He took a step forward. Grant waved hello to the family with what he hoped was a presentable smile, although the whole time he just wished that he’d had braces as a kid.


“Just walk and shut up, your presence is required not your participation,” said Terra Joy.


All of the family turned to watch. All of them silent. All of them staring. They all seemed so young. All so perfect. All but Ella, who still watched him from the other side of the fire as they neared her, the faint sliver of a crescent moon rising up behind her. Only now she seemed to be smirking and…


Grant held up a bottle of wine he’d brought, awkwardly.


“Are you going to intro-” he started.


A woman cut him off.


“Terra Joy!”




The woman who ran forward was too young to be Terra Joy’s mother, surely. She couldn’t have been thirty. Not even close to thirty. Perhaps not even twenty-five. The only reason Grant would think, even for a moment, that she was Terra Joy’s mother was because Terra Joy said so.


The surprise stopped him in his tracks. Everyone here was so young. Everyone was so beautiful.


Except the old woman. Except her. Except Ella, to whom his eyes kept returning, for some reason he couldn’t quite place. There was something wrong with that tobacco…


“I see you brought dinner!” Terra Joy’s mother said with a smile.


Something was awful in the woman’s smile. Something not right about the teeth, though it made him feel better about his own teeth.


It was hard to remind himself that these were good people. Attractive people. Rich people. People who didn’t know the ins and outs of what you could and could not buy with food stamps. Not people like his mother who worked dead-end cleaning jobs for fourteen hours a day because they’d been dumb enough to get pregnant at fourteen.


“Just wine, actually!” said Grant.


He held it up and was relieved when everyone laughed, then he had the disconcerting sense that the laughter was directed at him. Blushing, he realized his mistake. No way he should have brought grocery store wine. Not for these people. Better to bring nothing. There was still too much of the trailer park in him, even after all the work he’d done.


The family gathered around Terra Joy, embracing her, complimenting her beauty, whisking her away. He stood still, near the light of the fire, feeling too awkward to move.The Family said things to each other and it took a moment to realize whatever was said, it wasn’t said in English. But it sounded cruel, harsh, growling.


As one, the family jumped in the river, in their suits and fine clothes and began splashing one another. It was so abrupt, so eccentric, and so odd that Grant jolted.


“If you run, you might make it.”


He turned around. The old woman regarded him from the other side of the fire.


“Excuse me?”


The old woman spit into the brass bucket.


There was a coppery scent in the air, but he couldn’t quite pin it down. Again there was something wrong with the teeth. Was it some sort of genetic deformity? He’d read about those in biology. How the Amish were all related to one another, and therefore more prone to dwarfism, polydactylism and a whole other host of diseases. Perhaps there was something similar in this Family.


“Their vanity is the only weakness they share. They love each other so much that they’ll be distracted for a few minutes. You might make it.”


Terra Joy had warned him that Ella hadn’t been the same since moving from the old country.


“Maybe I’ll go get Terra Joy and tell her you’re not feeling well,” he took a few steps toward the river to excuse himself.


The old woman cackled.


“I’m fine, child. I’m just old. I don’t have the hunger as they do. It is the hunt that excites me. The Rituals of Breaking. Watching your humanity fray as terror sets in, your principles crumble, your loves fail, so all that’s left is a scared animal. Ugh, I hate earlobes. They always get stuck in my fangs.”


Ella spit again, something small and meaty. It landed in the spittoon this time with a splat.


Splashes behind him.


Enormous splashes.


He turned.


Terra Joy’s family seemed at intervals to be flying out of the river water in twenty or thirty foot arcs. One of them appeared to be floating above the water’s surface doing backflips.


They were playing catch with decapitated heads, and suddenly he saw tents that hadn’t been there a moment ago. A barbecue and some coolers. Everything that a normal family reunion might have on hand. The tents were ripped apart. Slash marks as though from a giant animal. One of the Family dove for a catch and missed. A head landed a few yards away, hidden slightly under a bush, staring at him. The face was old and male. Its eyes were hazel.


He turned back to Ella.


She grinned. The teeth were long and sharp. Carnivorous.


“We are fresh awoken, Reunited, and the time for Breaking is upon us. You are the sacrifice selected by Terror of Joy. The Family is abroad. It is time to run.”


That’s when Grant finally noticed what had been bothering him about the tobacco.


It was red.

City in the Sky

“Let there be Martians,” the television read.

“Alex! Shit-paper!” dad called.

The hardest part about watching the broadcast, apart from watching it on his deaf neighbor’s television through a stolen telescope and reading the closed captions, was contrasting it with everything else. Through the telescope: Six astronauts on Mars, Humankind expanding its presence in the solar system, the concept of Cosmic Time. Behind him: the dog barking because it was hungry, his mother’s drugged and muttering stupor, his father yelling for someone to grab him some “shit paper” from the downstairs bathroom.

None of it seemed to belong to the same reality.

“By mutual agreement, to honor the solemnity of this event, the astronauts have stopped broadcasting audio to Sereno. They will be making daily speeches available at the website in the scrawl below. Now a word from the President…”

Al pulled away from the telescope. He’d already heard the speeches from the NASA chiefs and CEOs who had actually accomplished the mission. The ones who had worked out all the tricky parts, conquered the vacuum of space, and made a dream into a reality. Over the past few months, the pattern had repeated a thousand times. A person with a not good hair cut who was very bad at public speaking would mumble something profound in the matter of a few minutes, and then a politician with fantastic hair would show up to take credit and say nothing in as many words as possible.

“Alex! Goddamnit! Pull your head out of your ass and get me some shit-paper!”

What sort of animal were human beings, that one member of the species could walk on another world at the same moment that another could beg for toilet paper? And that neither of them, while doing so, could be thinking of the other? Al had wondered this sort of thing many times with no answers. The vision on the television only deepened the mystery.

“Just a minute!” he shouted.

“No, Alex, not just a minute! Now!”

Al took a minute anyway, to hide the telescope under his bed. As always, he felt a flush of guilt. He shouldn’t have stolen it, even though Mrs. Allmand had urged him to do so. She’d made a bunch of fuss about how the school district was selling off “unused” or “old” science supplies to make ends meet and said that if anything were to happen to the telescope that the inventory sheets were so old that no one would probably notice. Then she’d given Al a significant look and stepped out of the room. Still, it hadn’t been hers to give nor his to take. And yet… it brought the stars so much closer. How could he not have taken it?

When the telescope was well hidden, he ran back down the stairs.

“Here, dad.” Al extracted a roll of toilet paper from the closet just outside of the bathroom and held it through the crack in the door.

“Fucking finally,” dad said.

“Hey dad, when do you think we’ll get a television again? They’re going to be having daily updates on the Mars Colony and I have to do reports on it for school-”

“Hey, don’t start! I’m not the one who stole the fucking television and pawned it for drugs!” the last sentenced was yelled at Al’s mother.

“Oh fuck off! Alejandro knows I didn’t steal the goddamn tv!” mom yelled back. She was still laying down on the couch, where she’d been for pretty much the last three days.

Al sighed and walked over to the dog. Better to let them fight it out. They had a habit of drawing him in, calling him both Alex and Alejandro, forcing him to pick a side. Until they were no longer yelling at each other but at him. Pepe, their old mutt, was digging his head into an empty food bag. Here was a problem that Al could fix. Everywhere, there were problems beyond his control. Dad had been kicked off disability again. Mom still had her food stamps, but you couldn’t buy dog food with food stamps. Yet, all the same, he knew how to fix this problem.

Somehow, that was comforting.

“Don’t pretend you didn’t steal the fucking television, Maria! Alex knows it too! Ronnie may have been the one to actually take it, but he did it for you-”

“I ain’t been fuckin’ Ronnie! I told you already! Alejandro understands the hell that I’m living in with you! But if I did cheat, it would only be because I can’t get it from your crippled ass!”

Before closing the door, Al announced:

“Hey, I’m going to go to the animal shelter and see if they’ll give us some dog food!”

But he mostly said that for himself.

Parents were supposed to want to know where you were going when you were only fifteen years old.


Pepe ate the dog food with relish, grumbling happily, right there in the alley outside the animal shelter. Al hadn’t had the heart to make him wait, hungry as he was. Besides, night was falling and he was held rapt by the place in the night sky where Mars would be visible if he didn’t live in a big city with too many lights. People were there, in that distant and invisible place. Six human beings on another world. Living and breathing, with a mission to change an entire planet. Six people who dared to imagine that they could make oceans and skies and life. That idea kept coming back to him, the bigness and smallness of humanity, intruding into all of his other thoughts.

What was the difference between the two?

His father was disabled. Human beings had traveled millions of miles through space and landed successfully on another world.

His mother was a junkie. Human beings had figured out how to draw breathable air from a poisonous atmosphere.

His dog was hungry all the time. Human beings were growing food on a world that had been dead for a billion years.

All of that meant something, he was sure. Something important and deep right down into the marrow of the universe about the difference between possible and impossible. He was equally sure he didn’t know what exactly that was. At least not yet.

Holding the dog food under one arm, he took Pepe by the leash and led him back toward the main street. The dog followed, tail wagging. It was hard to be resentful of the lights that had taken the stars from him when they made the street feel so safe and so warm. There was a library only a few blocks away, and there was a computer there and the librarian was kindly. She even proactively offered that Pepe was a “companion animal” and could therefore be allowed in the building.

Certain people got helpful like that when he wanted to learn about Mars. His astronomy teacher, Mrs. Allmand, had been one. The librarian was another. It felt a little bit like being a member of a gang, where you flashed a certain sign and people went out of their way to help you. Except the gang was nebulous, made of the subset of people who both loved science and thought that human beings should live on Mars. And they were everywhere, rich and poor, man and woman, young and old. Even dumb and smart. Either way, they helped him because they recognized him as one of their own.

He stayed in the library until close, scrolling through pages and pages of news reports. He read more about the MCT, the BFR, and a dozen other acronyms which were suddenly as sparkling as diamonds. The expanding factories in Hawthorne where the components for the new Martian city were being built. The Beam Ships that would be built in future generations. Pepe slept on his feet the whole while and in the dark of the night when Al finally arrived home no one called out to ask him where he had been.

And that meant something too.

He just couldn’t put his finger on it.


“Hey, Coconut!”

The pencil eraser pressed against the back of Al’s head right at the base of his skull. He ignored it. Acknowledging it would only lead to bigger problems. Or so experience had taught him, but…

“You like to have you skull fucked, Coconut?”

Ahead, the teacher was talking about Benjamin Franklin. Who, although an avowed whoremonger and a terrible father, had accomplished quite a bit in his long life. The discovery of electricity, grandfather of the Constitution, inventor of the term “Americans.” He’d even been against slavery before it was fashionable. Also, when Benjamin Franklin was quite young, he’d run away from home. That thought stuck in Al’s head so deep even the pencil eraser couldn’t touch it.

“Are you a faggot, Coconut? Is that why you like getting your skull fucked?”

Al had cried about the bullying in the past. When he was younger. Although, “younger” in this case meant a few months ago. He’d been beaten quite badly in the intervening time. Bad enough his parents had actually taken him to a hospital. Since then, he’d learned to ignore it. Except, somehow, since the Mars landing, he didn’t think of himself as being that young. There was that thought in his head again, of two worlds, separated by something ineffable. How to move from one to the other?

Al turned around.

What had before been a frightening bully was suddenly a boy of Al’s own age, who was about the same size as him, and who was still trying to poke his head with a pencil. The Aerospace engineers had figured out how to solve problems vastly more complex than this bully. The Astronauts had faced terrors far greater. What was he scared of exactly?

A sixteen year old whoremonger had run away from home and grown up to give shape to a nation. A single man from South Africa had also run away from home, and through sheer force of will set into motion a series of events culminating in the colonization of Mars. A teenage girl had once led the armies of France and been good enough to win. Was he going to just sit here and allow this to happen?

Al stood up.

“You gonna fight me, you faggot?”

Al did not raise his fists, did not give an insult, did not say anything at all. He simply reached down and dragged the other boy’s desk into the hallway, which given the angle of the drag and the fact that the desk was all of one piece, trapped the other boy inside. After dragging him out into the hallway, Al dumped him over to give him the time necessary to go back into the class, close the door and lock it.

“Is there a problem, Al?” the teacher asked.

“Not anymore,” said Al. “Can you tell me more about what Benjamin Franklin did after he ran away from home?”

And Al leaned forward and listened.

From outside the door, muffled and low, he heard:

“You’re in trouble now, Coconut motherfucker!”


“I’ll write you a letter of recommendation anywhere you want to go.”

“Thanks, sir,” said Al.

Mr. Espejo gave Al a congratulatory pat on the shoulder as he leaned forward to inspect the weld. The pat was hard enough that Al was forced to brace himself to stop from falling over. Mr. Espejo was barely five and a half feet tall, but a life of brutal labor in the construction industry had also made him five and a half feet wide. All of it was muscle. And not the kind of muscle you got from going to the gym, which after all was acquired by simulating actual work, but from doing the real actual work that muscle had evolved to do in the first place.

“Where do you want go after you graduate? You only have a few years left, don’t you?”

“I’m a Freshman, but… I want to go to Mars,” Al blurted and then blushed.

To his great relief Mr. Espejo didn’t laugh.

“Well, it’s not impossible anymore. Not like that would have been impossible when I was a kid. Not sure a high school teacher’s letter of recommendation would get you there, though. But maybe some place close. I know guys working in aerospace. They need builders.”

Builder. The word entered his ear and wrapped around his brain like warm honey. It was like being called a superhero.

The weld Al had made wasn’t for anything useful, just two pieces of quarter inch plate stuck together at a right angle. They’d done a lot of them in class, upside down, right side up, sideways at an angle. All so that the kids in the class could leave high school with something like a marketable skill. There’d been a big government program about it, led by some old reality television star. Remarkably, it had somehow materialized into existence despite being opposed by every major political party. It probably helped that the people in favor of the program were used to actually doing things, instead of talking about doing things.

“Thank you, sir.”

Mr. Espejo cleaned the weld with a slag hammer. In the teacher’s massive fist, the hammer looked like a child’s toy. Something you’d give to a little kid who wanted to feel grown up. Yet it revealed Al’s weld to be even, consistent and perfect.

“Would you mind if I saved this to show to the other kids?”

“I would be honored, sir.”

“I’ve talked to some of your other teachers, you can write your ticket anywhere. I know it’s boring as hell but welding would be a good way to pay your way through school. You can even write the letter of recommendation and I’ll sign it, sight unseen. You could be making thirty or forty bucks an hour right out of high school.”

With that, Mr. Espejo walked off to yell at a student whose weld looked like, in the gruff teacher’s words, a scattering of metallic bird shit. Mr. Espejo had retired at fifty after a lifetime in specialized construction and he taught for the joy of it. Rumors were that he was worth millions.

Again, disparate thoughts struck him.

He was a good welder and had high test scores. He wanted to be an astronaut.

Was that as impossible as it seemed?

“Hey Alejandro, you better make things right with Snake. He’s pissed at you for that shit you pulled in class today. He’s going to get all of his friends together after school to kick your ass. Worse even than last time, I heard.”

The person who whispered in his ear was Pablo, who up until a short time ago had been someone Al considered a friend. Until Pablo had decided to accuse Al of being on a “high horse” about Mars, whatever that meant. He’d also walked away from Al during the previous beating. After which, Al hadn’t really had many friends at all.

Looking at Pablo it was hard to tell if the words were meant to be a warning or a threat. Either way, Al decided he didn’t like it much. Didn’t like Snake trying to make him live in fear. Didn’t like the gleeful way his old friend looked at him, excited for whatever would happen.

“Tell Snake I fucked his mother,” Al said.

Pablo’s mouth dropped wide open. There was a general mumbling of “oh damn” from all the kids in earshot. A few chuckles.

“In the ass,” Al added, after a moment’s thought.

No one laughed at that. The room was as quiet as an execution chamber.


At approximately the same time Snake was waiting outside of Al’s last class with all of his friends to murder him, Al parked Snake’s car outside of his house. He’d watched a video on hot-wiring cars in the library during lunch, had smashed in Snake’s driver side window with the slag hammer in the student parking lot very shortly thereafter, and driven it home immediately after that. As it was the first time he’d ever driven a car, it also had more than a few dings.

Al wiped the back of his hand across his sweaty brow.

He was trembling.

He’d never been so terrified in his life.

Or felt so good.

“What the hell am I doing?” he asked no one.

The invisible place in the sky answered. There was only one way to move from one world to the next. And it was the same way no matter who you were. You had to decide on the right course, act, and hope to God that you weren’t just out of your fucking mind. And somehow, Al knew, if he didn’t act right now when that fire was burning inside of him so bright and so hot that he might never find the courage to act again.

He got out of the car, hastily got back in when he realized he’d forgotten to put it in park, and then went into his house. His mother and father were fighting. Of course.

“You cunt! I knew you fucked him! I knew it the whole time! Alex, is that you? You’ve got to help me! She’s gone nuts!” his father was on the living room floor, crawling. His back must be hurting again.

“Of course I fucked him! Of course I did! And I liked it. I loved it! I needed to feel good! And Alejandro understands I need to feel good, doesn’t he? Don’t you, Alejandro?” his mother had a lamp held over her head and she seemed willing to throw it.

“I’m leaving,” said Al.

No one seemed to hear.

“I’m going to Mars!” he yelled.

His mother threw the lamp. It shattered next to his father’s head. There was glass everywhere. Al looked at it from what seemed like a long way away, as he realized that they’d have to clean it up themselves this time. He wouldn’t be around to help any longer.

He walked to the stairs, grabbed Pepe’s leash and the dog food and walked back out the door. No one seemed to notice. No one seemed to care.

Pepe panted at him expectantly from the passenger seat.

“I’ve never driven on the freeway before,” said Al.

Pepe kept on panting.

Al gulped. Of course, he hadn’t driven anywhere at all when he’d first stolen the car. That hadn’t stopped him.

“Joan of Arc was my age when she led battles in the Hundred Years war,” he said to no one.

He turned the key in the ignition.

He had a letter from Mr. Espejo that he could weld and it said he was eighteen. That was all he’d need, at least for a while. That and enough people who believed in Mars as much as he did and he had a strong feeling there’d be a lot of those where he was heading. He’d figure out the rest and somehow, someway or another, he’d get there.

Several minutes in, he realized he had forgotten the telescope. But that was fine. He didn’t need it anymore.

He’d get to the invisible place in the sky.

He’d get to Mars.

But first, Hawthorne.


Like this story? You can find more on the “Age of Fusion” stories page, in the Amazon Story Bundle or by following me on Patreon

The Specter of the Wolf

“Why don’t you just call up a car from the Fleet, grandpa?”

I’d Fleeted over earlier to “help” replace the battery pack in my grandpa’s car, which involved me handing him tools that were already within his reach. In the typical manner of precocious children, I had also taken to explaining to him all the things I had recently learned that he already knew. At the age of seven, I was just beginning to understand why grandma called grandpa’s workshop a “Museum.” Thus, I’d taken it as my duty to challenge him on everything.

“Why do you play with toys?” he grunted.

“Because they’re fun?” I said.

“Maybe,” he muttered around the screws in the corner of his mouth, “but good toys keep your mind sharp, too. There’s no substitute for a sharp mind. It’s the only thing you’ll always have as long as you’re you.”

While it may have been bizarre that my grandfather still owned his own car, even more bizarre it was a Tesla Model S so old it might as well have run on gas. The car was silver, chrome, and it looked as new as a car that old could look. While I may have questioned it constantly, even I couldn’t deny its appeal. It had the same sort of functional, well-designed beauty as a great white shark. Every part spoke of engineering so good there was nothing left to improve. Except, of course, that it was almost a hundred years old and only an enthusiast like grandpa would think that owning one was normal behavior.

“Grandma said that owning a car was like owning a horse. So did my mom. And dad. And grandma.”

Grandpa only grunted. He’d finished fixing whatever he’d been fixing and was busy taping a 2D to the wall. I’d seen it about a million times. It was a 2D of my grandpa in the middle of a group of army guys with a bullet-gun. He never talked about the other guys in the picture and after the first few times he frowned at me, young as I was, I knew better than to ask.

“I checked my phone and you’re never more than two minutes away from the Fleet. See? And my mom said it’s way cheaper than owning a car because there’s no insurance. And Fleeting also means there’s less cars which is better for the environment,” I held up my phone, showing him a holo display of Fleet traffic zipping by his house. Any one of which could have taken him wherever he conceivably wanted to go at the press of a button and a few dollars.

Grandpa was too focused on the 2D to hear. Every time he got his old paper printer working and found usable inks for it, he entered a solemn almost religious silence as if he had performed a miracle. In later age, I realized it was something of a miracle. I would later calculate that it must have cost him about ten-thousand times as much to maintain the picture that way as it would have to put it on some e-paper or do a VR upload. Especially considering that the old ink he found decayed so rapidly. But he was particular about things. He treated the workshop like a fortress and even grandma’s “museum” lectures couldn’t breach its walls. Or maybe it was a fortress to hold out the present, which is probably what museums really are.

“It’s been fifty years now, hasn’t it?” Grandpa mumbled. He was looking at the date on the picture. I’d memorized it along time ago: July 7th, 2033.

“Grandpa?” I called again.

I was interrupted by the thunk of a package sliding down the Drone Chute. Grandpa didn’t so much as turn. Always eager for a delivery, I decided to get it for him. Picking up packages from the Drone Chute always filled me with the hope I’d catch Santa Claus there, or maybe one of his red and white drones would have malfunctioned. Then I’d get to go the North Pole and hang out with the elves at the Imagination Printer, which was a real and proper 3D Printer, where I could print any toy or even animal I could dream up. It’d be odd timing to find Santa in July, but a boy could dream.

The Chute door opened to reveal a crumbly old box. It wasn’t the opportunity to help Santa that I’d had in mind, but no child could resist the allure of a sealed package. I pulled out my pocket knife, which grandpa had given to me a month earlier after I showed him I could whittle a bar of soap without cutting myself, and sliced it open.

“Uncly,” I stumbled with sounding out the word, so I used my phone to scan for a phonetic pronunciation. I recall I had difficulty with words ending in vowels, and like most children of my age was too lazy to completely internalize reading until a few years later, “Uncle Frank! Uncle Frank sent us a package!” I held the white card above my head, victoriously.

“Good job sounding it out, kiddo,” it was impossible to tell if it was a joke or not.

I blushed. Grandpa didn’t like it when I used my phone to help me read. He said it made the mind lazy. I decided to hide my red face by inspecting the contents of the box. Under the wrapping, was an old fashioned paper book of some kind, full of 2D’s except they were all so faded there were hardly even any colors. Nothing but black and white. I couldn’t say how, but they were also of a different quality than the printed pictures on grandpa’s wall. As though they were, impossibly, even older.

“What is this?” I asked.

Grandpa laughed, but it wasn’t the jolly kind of laugh he had when he was picking me up or helping me read. It was a sad sort of laugh.

“It’s the family photo album. Your uncle Frank said the kids had him upload it so he didn’t need the originals anymore. My gain, I guess.”

I flipped through the pages, carefully. On the last page, was a man holding an even more primitive bullet gun than Grandpa had in his picture. The bullet-gun was so old it had a wooden stock, and the man with the gun was standing next to someone who looked like they were dressed up as a skeleton for Halloween. I sounded out the words on the bottom.

“Ne…ver For… get.”

Grandpa frowned for a moment, the kind of frown he’d had when I told him I didn’t need to carve because the 3D Printer could print out everything for me. The one he’d had when I told him that I didn’t need to know the street names because the Fleet navigated automatically. The same one he had when I asked him about the 2D he replaced every year.

“Let’s go for a drive, kiddo.”

He ruffled my hair, but the frown remained.




In that place no eye can clearly see, in the dark unknown and uncertain mists, stalks the specter of the Wolf. Real and unreal, both vivid nightmare and awful reality, the Wolf paces in long slow strides toward the light of a fire and a cave and the apes inside it. What has called the Wolf no one can say, for the Wolf comes when it will and demands what it will and gives no explanation.

The Wolf’s eyes gleam golden by the flashes of the fire and one cannot help but see them to know that their vision is ancient. Old as the universe. Old as calamity and decay and entropy. As eternal and fundamental as death. Those eyes set themselves on the fire and the cave and fix keenly at the ape-shaped shadows huddling together for safety. Only one of those shadows stands apart.

“I come,” said the Wolf, sitting itself at the boundary between the light and the dark, “as promised by the Covenant of the Night of the First Fire. I challenge and present myself as challenge. I am the question. Who among you shall be my answer?”

The Wolf is but the latest shape of the First Darkness. As the First Fire grew and flickered and as bits of it failed, so too has the Wolf changed and dwindled and adapted. It is a Wolf, now, and because of this it has always been a wolf. Yet in the wake of countless shapes, the Wolf has left both paw prints and floods and famines.

The shadow of a single ape draws near until the ape itself emerges from out of the mouth of the cave. Reluctantly, the apeling turns its back to the fire, holding a bit of wood before itself in the trembling absurdity of its forepaws. A forepaw without even the illusion of a proper claw, but only five bits of useless wiggling meat.

“I challenge that which comes in challenge! I am the answer!” the apeling cried.

The wolf snorted. The apeling’s stick shook so violently that it seemed it must soon fall, but the apeling’s meaty fingers held it preciously, as though it was one of the pathetic weakling newborns of its race. The stick looked like all the other countless sticks the Wolf had crushed in its jaws, except for a bit of stone that had been fixed to the end.

“Why come you this night, apeling?” sneered the Wolf.

The apeling grew still then.

“I came to see and be made strong by seeing, as my father did and his father before him. To stare into the eyes of the Wolf is the fulfillment of the Covenant of the Night of the First Fire,” said the apeling.

The Wolf stepped forward from the mist and placed a single paw inside the cave’s circle of light.

“Very well, apeling,” it said.




The Tesla silently drove itself out of Grandpa’s garage, down the gravel road of his farmhouse, and onto the main street. In only a few minutes we were surrounded by the rounder, more modern vehicles of the Fleet. The kind you could stand up in and move around in without any of the old-fashioned steering wheels or speedometers cluttering things up. The kind that were Loop-compatible so that you could drive across the nation in a little under four hours.

“You know, I have my Drive Alone license. And I’m chipped. Nothing bad could happen to me.” I gave grandpa a thumbs up, reminding him of the GPS tracker under my thumbnail that could summon an emergency response in minutes. The one I’d had since infancy, like all other children, everywhere.

“What do I always say about that, kiddo?”

I sighed.

“You’re not careful for the things you know about. You’re careful for the things you’re going to be surprised by. And you’re always going to be surprised by something,” I muttered.

Grandpa always insisted on taking me home himself, which my parents told me to take with good humor. In his day, the idea of just putting a child in a car and sending them on their way was unfathomable. Of course, back when he was young, kids hadn’t been chipped either.

To pass the time and hide my embarrassment, I perused the book of 2D’s in my lap. When that got boring, I’d look up and watch the people in the other cars driving by us. Most of them were reading or VR’ing or working on their computers. Sometimes, though, I’d see a single kid whisking off to do something and I’d have to hide my face. If I saw someone I knew I didn’t know how I would be able to explain myself. Once, I saw a girl in a Karate uniform practicing kicks and punches and I almost burned with jealousy.

“See that there?” Grandpa said, pointing at one of the 2D’s, “that’s a hand-pump and a wood stove. And that there? The pump… that’s this big metal gizmo here… drew up well water. I got half my muscles working that thing. I’d go over for the summers, he’d make me draw up water for the cows and chickens and split wood out back. Chopping wood is where I got the rest of my muscles. Why do you think he did that?”

Grandpa had the biggest hands of anyone I’d ever seen. When his fingers touched the page it looked like someone had put a tan pickle there as a bookmark. He’d told me once that anyone could get big muscles on their body by going to the gym or the right doctor, but that the only way you got muscles on your hands was by hard work.

“So chickens would have water and you could cook them later?”

I was suddenly very excited to hear about cooking chickens. Like every other modern child, I’d only ever eaten Guilt Free Vat Meat, and I was only a little bit aware that cooking chickens involved killing them.

“That’s part of it, probably. But he also did it so I’d appreciate the running water in the house. Appreciate the heat when it was cold outside. Appreciate what it takes to make all of it work. Do you understand?”

I frowned.

Looking out the window, I saw a boy go by with his lips and tongue pressed against the window making faces at me. He seemed so proud of himself to be driving alone. He seemed gleeful to see a kid my age riding with an adult. I remember how proud I’d been when I’d got my Drive Alone License, and how I wouldn’t even let my parents drive with me to school after that. I’d even taken a HyperLoop all by myself, once. Yet… I could feel the knife in my pocket pressing against my leg. For some reason, I pitied the boy making faces. I bet he didn’t have a grandpa to give him a knife. I bet he didn’t know what it was like to be afraid of cutting off your fingers or how good it felt when you didn’t. I was prouder of that knife than I’d ever been of my Alone License.

“What’s Buchenwald?” I asked.

It was written in the upper corner of the photo on the last page. I’d been sounding it out in my head for the last several minutes. Grandpa cleared his throat and promptly closed the book of 2D’s.

“It’s a place in Germany. Something bad happened there. There was a war.”

And then Grandpa pointed at a medal he had hanging from the mirror at the front of his car, the one he called the rear view. The medal was silver and made from two triangles set on top of each other. He pulled it free and put it in my hand.

“Grandma says there won’t be anymore wars. Not anywhere in the whole world. She said it’s okay and you shouldn’t be sad anymore,” I didn’t know why I said it but it’s what everyone at school kept telling me.

Turning the medal over in my hands, I noticed how parts of it had been tarnished black with age.

“I said the same to my great-grandfather. He gave me that necklace and he said ‘You never see the really bad things coming, and they’re always the same when they come back even if they look different.’ A man gave that necklace to my great-grandfather. A man who’d done impossible things to keep it safe. A man who shouldn’t even have been alive. And do you know why that man gave this to my grandfather even though it was the only thing he had?”

I shook my head and my eyes saw nothing but that little piece of metal in grandpa’s giant hand.

“My great-grandfather was a man who made bad things end. Who saw bad things for being bad and stopped them. The man wanted to thank him and he wanted him to have something to remember him by. And he said, ‘Gold is the metal of fools because it never tarnishes and stays always bright. Silver is the metal of the diligent and the wise because it must be attended and polished to sparkle.’ That’s what it takes. You have to know bad things happen and you have to make them stop. You have to polish the silver.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

And I didn’t. Not then. Not until much later.

Grandpa laughed again, but it wasn’t his normal laugh. More like the laugh he’d had when I told him that I didn’t need to know how to carve, or know the name of the streets, and suddenly I was scared.

“Well, I guess I’ll show you then.”

He pressed a few buttons on the faded touchscreen console of his Tesla… and very slightly the movements of the car changed. It veered the smallest bit to the left before grandpa’s big hands took the wheel and corrected the motion. Even though the force of the correction was minute, I felt certain the sudden motion would throw me from the car.

My mouth went dry. The car wasn’t driving itself anymore. Grandpa was driving the car. I froze in terror, heart hammering.

“It’s not dangerous. Every person my age knows how to do this,” Grandpa said cheerily, as if nothing at all was wrong. As if this was not terrifying. As if he were in complete control. “We never thought of it as a big deal. The same way my great-grandpa didn’t think much about chopping firewood or pumping water. Here kiddo, put your hands on the wheel.”

All I could do was stare to either side and remark how very close the other cars were. How little distance separated us. Not even ten meters in some cases.

“Kiddo, did I let the knife cut you?” he asked.

Without even thinking about it, I’d been about to say my Safe Word to trigger my thumb chip. And for the life of me I couldn’t seem to move my thumb away from my mouth. Then the big hands enfolded mine and put them on the steering wheel.

“There you go! Scared, ain’tcha? Don’t worry, we’re still in a residential area and this is slow enough to be safe. Plus, being scared is good as long as you don’t stop thinking. This is the thing I wanted to show you. This is how you face fears.”

“Someone died last year, grandpa. Driving on the road. We saw her picture in school,” I said in a small voice.

It’d been all over the news. People had been yelling about it, demanding action, wondering what kind of world it was where someone died Fleeting to work just because there was a hurricane. There’d even been congressional hearings.

“We won’t. I’m here. This is part of what it takes to polish the silver. This is the knowledge that safety keeps from you. I’ll show you.”

He let go of the wheel and suddenly I was driving at the ludicrous speed of thirty-five miles per hour.

I was terrified.

I held death in my hands and it was only by my frantic will that I kept the car on the road.

And somehow, in those moments, I also knew what it was to be a man and what my grandpa had been talking about.




“As promised the first time your Fire touched my Dark, I will never stop trying to Destroy you,” the Wolf growled and leapt.

The apeling darted back, but not fast enough to miss the Wolf’s teeth. A red wound opened on the apeling’s hairless calf and a bit of meat slid down the Wolf’s throat. With a mouth full of red teeth the Wolf smiled and howled.

“You were the Dark and we made a Fire,” whispered the apeling rising, leaning on the stick for strength. Such meaningless words, but the apes had made a habit recently of speaking to things that were not there.

The Wolf leapt again but this time the butt of the stick hit its head and drove it back. But the apeling stumbled, limping, weak and scared.

“You were the Cold and we made clothes for Warmth,” the apeling grunted. The other apes were too far away to hear. Perhaps this apeling was crazier than the others. The ones they sent to challenge him tended to be the broken in some way.

The Wolf dashed to one side and lunged. It was only the barest moment in which the apeling managed to put the stick in the way and deny the Wolf the pleasure of its throat. The stick cracked internally with a sound like shattering ice and the Wolf knew the wood would not withstand another attack.

“You were-” the apeling began but the Wolf screamed.

“I was the drought that made you thirst, and the famines that starved you, and the age that crept on you day by day so that even if you survived the rest I still killed you! And I am the dread despair in your heart as you make ready to die! And I am the Nothing that comes After!” the Wolf spat and pressed forward in a fury.

The Wolf fought as it had always fought, in every shape back to the Night of the First Fire. Tireless and vicious. Cold and cruel. It did not will or want. It did not dream or desire. It was as implacable as causality. What the Wolf really was, was in everything and in the course of eternity it would destroy everything… and it hated everything that wasn’t already dead.

And now it was a Wolf, so its jaws sought the throat of the apeling.

The sharp bit of stone at the end of stick revealed a sinister purpose. It slashed the Wolf’s skin. Gasping, the Wolf realized that the stone cut and that it cut as the stick had never cut. That in some stupid and impossible way that this meant the claws of the apes were now as numerous as the stones of the Earth. The Wolf howled again, this time in pain, as the stone opened another gash in its hide.

At the end of the stick, the stone had transformed from a piece of rock into a piece of death.

“You were the Wolf and we made a Spear,” whispered the apeling.

The Wolf jumped with its last strength…

And the apeling stabbed it in the heart.




Standing on an asteroid, traveling at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour, I gave my Captain a thumbs up. Some thirty meters above me, she rolled her eyes through the command module window. The thumbs up was a joke between us. She’d just asked me if I was safe to proceed and with my thumbs up I reminded her I still had my thumbnail chip in case anything went wrong. After all, Earth’s emergency services were only six months away by the best ion-drives.

“Asshole,” she said.

“Hey, do you think Hawthorne or Canaveral is going to want to hear you talk that way? All these logs get beamed back, y’know. Anchor points for the engine look good.”

The thing about standing on an asteroid is that you have to be very careful where you step and how you move. Both because there really isn’t anything you could call gravity and also because if you haven’t quite melted off all the things that are going to turn into steam just from being warmed by your foot you’re probably going to die. I’d seen men thrown into space during training. If their suit wasn’t breached, they spent a long time falling into the black waiting for death. Of course, I had a Maneuvering Unit in that eventuality and we’d put all the shuttles lights on this spot for the last two days to evaporate everything, which I guess meant I wasn’t very brave at all.

“Hawthorne light delay is over an hour, Unum is over thirty minutes. They’re not going to waste the bandwidth, jackass. Final exhaust check?”

I climbed up the engine and peered down the thrust nozzle, checking for any debris that might suddenly decide to explode when we started the engine. I’d had to do some drilling on the anchor points and it had made a mess of things. I mean, the engine was designed to throw explosions out into space of course, but only a very specific kind of explosion. I’d also spent the last few weeks knocking all the hard rocky bits we hadn’t wanted from this asteroid into space and that tended to get messy as the debris didn’t really go anywhere and it just sort of floated around. Every now and again, a chunk of methane ice found its way someplace it didn’t belong and did a few billion dollars worth of damage.

“We’re clear.”

“Then get back inside and let’s get this thing moving. I miss gravity. Stay sharp.”

“You sound like my grandpa.”

“He must’ve been a wise man.”

“Well, he got me interested in steering dangerous objects at a young age so he must’ve had some foresight.”

“Then never mind. He sounds like a huge jackass. Must be where you got it from.”

“No one’s perfect.”

I jumped up toward the shuttle, not bothering to engage my thrusters which was against protocol. But standing on a giant chunk of rock and mostly water-ice only got so safe and besides, when we got to Mars, I was going to miss having a thirty meter vertical leap. Space tumbled by, up became down, and I grabbed the rung on the airlock at the last moment. With what I could only describe as wistfulness, I savored the jolt in my wrist as my bones absorbed all that momentum. I wouldn’t be doing many EVA’s in the days ahead and I couldn’t say for sure I’d ever be out this far again.

Figuring I’d indulged enough, I climbed inside the airlock and stripped off my spacesuit. The Star of David necklace my grandfather had given me got caught for a moment in the collar, as it almost always did. I had to take an extra few seconds to pull it free. I only ever wore it on missions, as otherwise everyone thought I was Jewish. Which wasn’t terrible or anything, of course, but I didn’t really feel like sharing the story of its origin with anyone but crewmates. Besides, the whole thing about staying vigilant and sharp was something only Martians really understood. The few other Earthborn people I’d try to explain it too before leaving my birth planet behind had only talked about how convenient robots were and how they owed it to their ancestors to enjoy the pleasures of Earth. Everyone that I’d shared it with on Mars had understood immediately. In fact, my only regret in leaving Earth had been that my grandfather hadn’t been able to make the trip with me. He’d applied for launch school with me as a joke, but he’d still been pissed when they turned down his application on the basis of him being eighty-five years old.

“Ready to make an ocean on Mars?” I hollered.

“I’ll settle for an atmosphere that doesn’t freeze dry everything,” Captain called back from the command module.

Five teams, counting us, had gone out to secure water-ice and nitrogen-ice asteroids and over the next ten years we were going to smash them into the Martian poles. After that, there’d be work to do on the orbital mirrors to heat the atmosphere. Then probably a lot more asteroids. After that, there’d be an ocean. And after that, when Mars got so boring only biologists could bear the tedium of tweaking the ecology and robots were doing all the courageous jobs, there was always Europa. Or Venus.

I pulled my way down the center shaft to the command module, and strapped into my seat, giving a thumbs up as the Captain flipped a switch. The asteroid engines roared to life and slowly, not so much as you could tell, the asteroid changed its orbit. The only visible sign was a trail of vaporous debris from the rocket nozzle glimmering for a moment in the ship’s lights as it disappeared into the black.

“I can’t believe we convinced the Unum Congress to let us do this,” Captain muttered.

“Oh yeah, I mean, it would be a shame if we screwed up and transformed Mars into a barren, desolate wasteland,” I said.

She laughed. We’d said pretty much the same thing in the Congressional Hearings when we proposed the mission. Unum had just celebrated reaching the ten million population mark, and everyone was sick of so-called “Conservationist” thinking. Meaning “Earth Thinking.” The Earth President had teleconferenced in to voice staunch opposition to all terraforming measures, declaring them unnecessary and reckless, but as he was on about a fifteen minute delay nothing he had said had been timely or dramatic enough to sway anyone’s opinion.

The Martian President, however, having the benefit of actually being a Martian on Mars, spoke a great deal about the first Colonial Transporter. She told stories of her grandmother installing the first 3D printing factories in a hollow lava flow beneath the surface of Unum. She spoke about the hardships faced by the first fifty when there hadn’t even been a life-sustaining capsule on Mars, let alone a city, unless they put it there. Then she had spoken about the unknown and the need to face danger. About courage being the price of progress. About what it means to save a people and what it means to be a people worth saving.

The vote to proceed had returned unanimous.

“Delta v is within margins, stresses are within predicted norms, all engines optimal,” Captain reported.

Someone popped a champagne cork. Probably Mueller or Shotwell. The cork hit the command module window and bounced back into my lap. I picked it up and for a moment held it over my chest, near the old Star of David medal. For no particular reason, I decided to keep it. Might be a thing to give a grandkid, someday.

“Ready to celebrate?” I called.

Champagne got messy in 0g. Unless we all drank very quickly.

I took one last look at the exhaust gases disappearing into the void. For a moment, one brief second at the edge of my ability to perceive changes, the gases seemed to take the shape of a wolf.




The Wolf gasped, dead and undead, changing but not yet ready to complete the change. The ape pulled the spear out of its heart and began cutting at the Wolf’s belly, spilling the Wolf’s intestines, as the ape prepared to strip its hide. Without the benefit of lungs, the Wolf spoke.

“I accept your spear as answer. You win the challenge. Yet I ask you the same question I asked the People after the Covenant of the Night of the First Fire. Will you send your children to me when I come again? When there is safety by the Fire and the land is fat and there is no need to face me? Will you still send them against me in whatever form I take?”

The ape clutched the Wolf’s heart in its hands and held it aloft. Even in the dark and the mist the organ was bright red. The other apes in the cave cheered and a few more of them emerged from the cave, though they were still distant.

“The answer is as it ever was. We are not fooled for Fire fades. That is as true now as it was on the night of the Covenant, when in Defeating your Dark we ceased to be what we were and became the People. Even now, we remember that the thing which we are is not in the Fire but the Making of Fire. When you question, I will send my children in answer. When you challenge, my children will challenge you. Whatever form you take, we will Defeat you.”

The Wolf felt its head being cut from its body.

“One day, you will not,” it whispered, “One day the Fire will be too bright, too comforting and too dazzling to leave. The land will be too fat and life will be too easy. Your children will grow weak and foolish and I will be too dangerous to confront. And I will wait as the Fire dwindles and I will remember the Covenant even as they forget the Making of Fire. I will wait as the fat chokes them. When I question, none will know to answer. When I challenge, none will stand opposed. I will have you then. I need only be Forever. I need only be what I am.”

The ape threw the bloody hide of the Wolf over itself like a cloak. The ape’s people surrounded it, leading it toward the fire and the cave, dancing and singing the old songs. The songs of the stars that had guided them to this new land. The songs of the making of things. The songs of the Covenant of the Night of the First Fire. And the new song of the Death of the Wolf.

“Perhaps,” said the ape, “but that day is not this day.”


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