“Children of the Earth” by Ben Godby
The darkness of the wormholes terrifies me. If the light can’t keep up, I’m scared I could lose myself in the darkness.
But I guess that wouldn’t be all that bad. I have no idea where I’m going, anyway.
Gallette is a shit planet. I check into the first hotel I see when I touch down. All the vending machines are broken and the clerk refuses my Children of the Earth Membership Card.
“Swiper don’t work.”
“What about credit cards?”
“Those work just fine.”
“So on Earth they’ll give us actual land to live on?”
“On Earth you’ll have more space to live in than you ever dreamed of.”
“And it’s all green?”
I hand around the leaflets again. The pictures are from the last millennium, before the war and before the planet turned the color of the toilet bowl after my morning coffee; Abyssal munitions did the same thing on every inhabited planet. But considering I’m handing around fucking leaflets — I’ve got the images uploaded to a chip in my fingernail, but the Gallettians are too poor to own consumer electronics — I think that’s pretty fair game.
“Green as the eyes in my head.”
A stone flies past me and I jerk. A stack of the glossies sluices into the street. “Take right off,” says the thrower. “This is Gallette, what? We like it just fine.”
“Gallette experiences routine temperatures in excess of three hundred Kelvins,” I say, reading from the script scrolling over my eyeballs. “It has an artificial atmosphere dependent on comet ice and imported gases. Why struggle to scrape out an existence here when you can live in your natural habitat, in communion with the gentle and nurturing Worldspirit of planet Earth?”
“We’d be fine if it weren’t for you Earthlingers,” the thrower says. He turns and starts walking away. “We’ll have our own ‘hole, one of these days. Green-talk won’t pay for another ten thousand years of war.”
The crowd murmurs and dissipates like a fog.
I feel a lot better when I pull out the contacts. It’s nice not to have to look at all the Gallettian facts and figures superimposed over my eyeballs.
My eyes are brown behind the lenses.
“You a drinker?”
I’m clutching my second quadruple. The fuck does it look like. I should really buy some other clothes, because I’m not supposed to act like an asshole when I’m dressed like a Child. Children of the Earth are personable, knowledgeable, polite, and humble ambassadors of the ImmiGaia project.
I learned that from a leaflet.
“Me, too. Let’s drink up together.”
If I had civvies I’d kick this guy in the mouth. But money is the only thing I get dressed for, so what do I need new clothes for? I only want to kick someone in the mouth every, oh, eleven Earth minutes.
The newcomer watches me while I sip. It’s a robotic maneuver I learned on the job: savor the flavor only as long as the drink in question deserves. I’m ready for another by the time his drink arrives.
“Boy, you sure are a drinker.”
I size him up. He’s got a wrinkled old face and a straw hat on his head. “Where’d you get the hat?”
He grabs the brim with both hands and twiddles it lower over his crown. “Undon.”
“What were you doing there?”
“What you doin’ on Gallette?”
My third drink arrives. It’s only a double. The android bartender expresses its concern for my condition by suffusing its plastic face with a gentle, blue glow.
I scowl. “I’m supposed to be drinking.”
“I’ve drunk too much.”
“You’ve drank too much, partner.”
“Oh, fuck right off.”
Me and the straw hat soldier are tripping our way down a deserted desert road. I don’t know where the hotel went. I think he called himself Chuck.
“Gallette’s a lot prettier when you can’t see straight.”
“Lot of planets are that way,” says Chuck. “Earth included.”
“You’ve been to Earth?”
“I’m Green, brother. Born and raised. Why’d you think I went to Undon?”
“A lot of folks went to Undon.”
“Not you, though.”
“I was only a baby.”
“So why you preach?”
“This?” I pluck the green robe I’m wearing. It’s filthy and it stinks. I must’ve fallen into a puddle somewhere back. It’s okay because I’ve got six others. “It’s a job.”
“An important one.” The old soldier pauses under a streetlamp and tries sparking a joint. He must’ve slipped in the puddle, too: his flint is toast. “Fuck.”
“What do you mean?”
“Extraterrestrials have no respect for Earth these days. The rebel flame’s still burnin’ hot.” He throws his flint in the dust. “I need a light.”
I look up from the pre-made sandwiches.
“What, you can’t buy your own lighters?”
“I’m a pensioner.” Chuck shrugs.
I grab a turkey-bacon club and whip out my Children of the Earth Membership Card. The convenience store clerk shakes his head.
I leer at him. “What if I promised you a four-acre parcel of land back on Earth?”
“ImmiGaia? Anyone can get that for free.” He chuckles. “Earth’s a shit planet, anyway.”
“See what I mean?” Chuck mumbles under his breath.
The turkey-bacon is calling me. “You take credit?”
“Yeah, sure. That’s just fine.”
“It’s all natural, man. It’s green!”
Chuck’s laughing his ass off at his own joke. I’m coughing and spitting. By the time I recover, he’s eating my turkey-bacon sandwich.
“You wanna see something cool?” he says. Mayonnaise is greasing his lips.
“I’m kind of tired…”
“Nights are longer on Gallette than they are on Earth, newbie.”
I’m planning how to ask him to return my sandwich when the old soldier pulls my sleeve and I’m too stoned to resist.
We walk down a street that runs parallel to another street ten feet below, separated by a concrete retaining wall. We lay down on our bellies in the dusty backfill at the edge of the wall. He points to the far side of the street below us. “See that?”
Between rows of shadowy warehouses there’s a miniature pyramid. It’s a little more than three stories, and a big antenna crowns its apex, pointing at the stars. The mortar between the black blocks is glowing blue.
“What is it?”
“That’s where they were gonna do it.”
“Open the wormhole.”
I gape at the pyramid. “Maybe I’m just high, but isn’t that a really bad idea?”
“Not there, retard. Out in space, on the edge of the system. That’s just Wormhole Control.”
“You had me worried there for a second.”
“But they’ve still got all the gear in there. Gallette’s got the only intact Wormhole Generator, outside Earth.”
We lie in silence. Maybe I’m just high, but I feel like the pyramid’s breathing. I think it’s alive. It’s going to generate a wormhole right there and swallow us down. It’s going to throw us through the black space where matter moves too quickly for light and shoot us out on the wrong side of the universe, where, for all we know, ten thousand years of war is becoming twelve.
“How’d you survive, Chuck?”
“What do you mean?”
“Every second soldier died, right? So why didn’t you?”
He grunts. “Same reason Earth won the war. I took stupid risks.”
Two lines of humanoids appear out of the shadows beside the pyramid and march around to its front. They look like insects, with six black arms arching off their backs and their faces covered with compound eyes.
“Holy shit. Are those Martian Guards?”
“Fuckin’ eh, brother.”
I shiver. “What are they here for?”
“The Generator’s a museum. It’s closed for the night, or I’d say we should have a peek. But they’re not stupid enough to leave it unguarded.”
“Fucking Martians, though.”
“Aw, they’re not so bad. I fought with some on Undon. They’re good people, ever since Intervention and Rehab, and definitely good to have on your side in a fight. Real weird, obviously, and they don’t say too much… but I guess I’d get burnt out of talking after a thousand years or so, too.”
“Are they all that old?”
“Older. But they’re all sterile. They’ll die fighting for Earth and there’ll be no more of them afterward. Serves them right, I say. However nice they are now, they were all rebels, once. Earth should’ve done the same thing with the Gallettians and the Undonis and all the rest of them, too. Then we wouldn’t need to worry about policing the colonies, or funding ImmiGaia to rejuvenate the Homeworld.”
I scratch my chin on the ground and make a crater in the dust. “Why don’t we just let them build their own ‘holes?”
“What are you, some of kind of Terretic? All wormholes lead to Earth. ‘Wormholes between colonies threaten the fabric of Humandom.’ What did you become a Child for, if’n’t for Humandom’s sake?” He pulls off his hat and shakes his head slowly. “They’d make the universe into Swiss cheese and fold it in on the rest of us, if they could.”
I look at Chuck, then at the pyramid, then at Chuck again. “You’re right, Chuck. And you know what? We should blow it the fuck up.”
He looks at me. His eyes are greener than Earth’s ever been. “God damn, kid. You’re right.”
I stare. “I was only kidding.”
The Gallettian atmosphere is thin and the sky has the same cast as its yellow star. Maybe I’m still high, because I feel like I’m tasting popcorn when I look at it.
I roll onto my side. A lesser man would hurl at this moment, but I’m still drunk and I’m not about to spoil that. I’ve got a whole day of work ahead of me.
I stand up and fall back on my ass. There’s a Martian looking straight at me.
“No loitering near the Museum.”
The voice comes out of a sort of cup with ventilation holes punched in it. It’s built into the Guard’s mask at the chin.
“Get up, then.”
“Is the Museum open?”
The Martian cocks his head. I should say it: men and women are the same with them, now. They’re all covered from head to toe in metal, red rubber, and black glass. Six bladed claws protrude off the insect arms on their backs. Everything is grafted onto their skin. But this guy’s got a really humongous rifle, so I’m going to assume he used to be a dude.
I’m still drunk, and I’m kind of a prick like that.
I flash my Children of the Earth Membership Card. “Please pay at the ticket booth,” the Martian Guard says politely, and then walks away.
I stand and walk across the road to the ticket booth. I don’t know where Chuck is or how I got down the retaining wall. I am glad to see that the pyramid has not been exploded.
The Museum only gives a fifty percent discount to Children of the Earth. Honestly, what the fuck?
I am a tour group of one.
“My name is Axalaide, and before Intervention I was the Grand TechnoWizard here at Wormhole Control.”
Axalaide has stiff silver wires jutting out of her bald scalp. They are jointed, and fall like thin, metal hair.
“Why didn’t they scrub you out like the other rebels?” I ask.
Axalaide looks over at me. Previously, she had been speaking to a space somewhat to my left, as though a full group were present. “I participated in partial Rehabilitation in order to retain my present position.”
“Please follow me.”
The complex is tiny and Martian Guards are stationed throughout. Their red and black bodysuits meld into the dim, blue lighting of the corridors. Their mechanical back-arms curl around their bodies like dead spiders. We pass under an archway and through a curtain of purple lasers. Axalaide leads me to the center of a conical room dominated by metal grille walkways and dark computer mainframes.
“This is the Wormhole Generator.”
“How does it work?”
“I no longer remember and neither does anyone else outside of Earth.”
“It just looks like a bunch of random mechanical equipment.”
“It is an authentic Wormhole Generator. It has not been dismantled or in any way tampered with, though its power source has been withdrawn.”
“How do you power it?”
“With an extremely concentrated and powerful source of energy or fuel.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know how it works.”
“I have no understanding of how to operate Wormhole Control,” the guide sighs. “But the basic physics of wormhole generation are common knowledge.”
“Then I must be uncommonly knowledgeable.”
The TechnoWizard does not acknowledge my funny. I look up at the ceiling. A bunch of colored electrical filaments gather there.
“Why do you stay on Gallette?” I ask, staring up at the ceiling.
“I am Gallettian,” she says. “And I have a job here that utilizes my skills and special knowledge.”
“So… you just give these tours all day long now?”
“Yes,” says Axalaide, “I just give these tours all day long now.”
I’ve changed out of my dirty robes but I can’t draw a crowd today. I use the dregs of my expense account to rent a projector and load images of last-millennium Earth onto a screen in a filthy Gallettian park characterized by a greasy pond and brown bluegrass. But the Gallettians just ignore it. They hurry past on their way to work, on their way to school, on their way to market or their puppet parliament. I expect to see the Terretic from yesterday; my body preemptively twitches to avoid stones not yet thrown.
But he doesn’t show.
I realize I will not hit my quota today or any day on Gallette. I should not have used the dregs of my expense account on the projector, but as I used the lion’s share: at the bar.
But I can afford nothing other than to sit glumly on a park bench.
“Hey, mister, what are you doing?”
I look up. A little girl stands there, wearing jeans and a backwards red ball cap. She is also wearing a T-shirt. The shirt bears a cartoon of an anthropomorphic truck eating rocks.
“Have you ever heard of Earth?”
She skips on one foot and kicks a small stone, sending it hurtling through the grass. “My dad says you’re a geofascist lesbian tree-faggot.”
I have not been in the business of preaching for long but I sense this to be a sign of danger. I stand quickly and look around.
“Is your father here?”
“No. He’s doing good honest work like a hard-working Gallettian.”
The girl hops up onto the park bench next to me and I reseat myself cautiously. She is a sponge, filled with the soap of the father. She will scour my dishes clean if I do not reverse the flow of the water. A child only counts toward half a person in my quota, but that is half a person more than I have converted at present.
“Did you come through the wormhole?” she asks.
“Yes.” My eyes dart across the faces of passersby, looking for disgruntled Gallettians. I have a gun that shoots soporific spore clouds hidden in my belt. During Children of the Earth training, it was discreetly disclosed that the spores do not work quickly enough to preclude sleepy but nonetheless grave beatings, and that the spray is only wide enough to target one enemy at a time.
“One day I’m going to make my own wormhole.”
“You can’t do that.”
“My daddy says I can do whatever I want.”
I look down at her. Her hands are balled on her hips. “Well, you can’t do that. There’s an intergalactic moratorium on wormhole generation. There has been ever since the Ten Thousand Years of War.”
“My dad says it wasn’t ten thousand.”
She is right. It is a hyperbolic war. “Children are very annoying to argue with, because they dwell on simple points that adults have already discarded as irrelevant.”
She squints at me, confused. I look at the crowds seething over the streets of Gallette. “It doesn’t matter,” I say, then look back at her. “Would you like to travel through a wormhole?”
“To Earth, of course.” I point at my projection screen. “Look how beautiful it is.”
She thinks. “I’d rather go to Undon.”
“Why? Undon is just like Gallette.”
“No, it isn’t. Undon is the center of the Revolution.”
“You’re a lesbian tree-faggot star-fucker!”
The girl cartwheels away from the park bench. She runs, does another cartwheel, and skips to the edge of the pond. An old lady gives her bread and they feed the two-headed ducks that paddle around the greasy water. The heads nip at each other, fighting over the crumbs.
Some days I hate my job more than others.
The imposter Sun of Gallettia is falling, and when I turn to see Chuck he looks awful. He is wearing a yellow jumpsuit and it bleeds into the background of the sky.
“What the hell are you wearing?”
He swaggers out of the alley. There is a flask in his hand. “My old fatigues.”
It is a mystery why the Inter-Planetary Defense Forces would choose to wear such abysmal yellow fatigues. I suspect it must be routinely debated at High Command.
He looks around, over his shoulders, under his armpits. Then he hisses: “For the operation.”
He leans in. “We’re gonna blow Wormhole Control sky high!” he says. Then he takes a step back.
“Don’t play dumb. It was your idea.”
“I was joking.”
“Then why’d you recon it today?”
“What… uh… were you watching me?”
“Covering you. Come on, I’ve got something to show you.”
I follow him into the alley and gently divest him of the flask. It is okay with him because he needs both hands to pull a bunch of garbage bags away from the wall. There is a rolled-up sleeping bag and a shoebox beneath the trash. He opens the lid of the shoebox and reveals small crystals, attached to a pair of timers.
“What are these?”
“Fuck!” I blink, to make sure the crystals I see aren’t part of some articulated hangover. “I thought they’d mined the last Abyssal well on Kateli Prime decades ago. Where’d you get those?”
“Been saving them for someone special.” He winks at me.
Although the idea of being party to illicit, soul-shattering explosive mayhem is alluring — and a considerably grand alternative to meekly requesting return space-fare to Earth from my ImmiGaian corporate masters — I shake my head furiously. “Chuck, I will not be a party to terrorism.”
“The question is, will you have a terrorism party with me?”
“This is no time for puns.”
“Hey.” He frowns. “Hey, did you say that with an ‘a’ or an ‘o’?”
“Terra-rism? Or terror-ism?” He smashes his right fist into his left palm and bites his lower lip. “Because I’m doing this for Terra.”
“Gimme my flask!” He snatches it greedily. Then he squints at me. “You wanna smoke a joint?”
“Maybe I’m just really high, but I think this is a really bad idea.” We are on our bellies in the dusty backfill again. The pyramid is glowing, black and blue. I easily cave to peer pressure, and now I am way too paranoid to talk to my boss about return space-fare. Chuck has good pot. “What if innocent people get hurt?”
“Martians?” Chuck flaps his lips noisily. “Fuck ’em.”
The soldier has donned his straw hat. He has a pair of binoculars around his neck, and the shoebox of explosives lies between us. “Look at it this way. You want Gallettians to immigrate back to Earth. When this generator explodes, they’ll be so terrified that they’ll be killing each other just for the chance to get on the next wormhole transiteer!”
“But isn’t Abyssal the most concentrated and powerful source of energy in the universe?”
“Sure, but these charges are shaped to blow a small area. We’ll vaporize the pyramid, but we probably won’t even kill all the Guards — lucky bastards.”
“I thought you said they were good people.”
“Sometimes, good people ought to die.”
I wonder whether I am a good person who ought to die; the existential ramifications are so powerful I feel “predicate logic” as though it were a diseased part of my body. The patrol of Martians comes around the front of the building. We wait until they go around back again, and then rush across the street. Chuck cracks a hole in the window of the tollbooth with a crowbar, reaches in, flips the latch, and we sneak inside.
“This place is really trippy,” says Chuck as we sneak through the dark hallways. They glow faintly blue. Either we walk very slowly, or the hallways are very long, but in the dim lighting it is a toss-up. There is the sound of footsteps ahead of us, and I duck through a doorway and pull Chuck after me.
We are inside the lavatory.
“What do they need a bathroom for?” asks Chuck.
“Even TechnoWizards and Wormhole Generation Assistants must urinate.”
To me, it is minutia; but Chuck giggles ferociously. “You’re funny, Jack. You’re really funny.”
That is not my name. But it suits me.
The footsteps pass and we slip out the doorway and back down the hall. We arrive at the curtain of purple lasers. I remember their gentle caress from the tour and I step through. Chuck quickly follows.
An alarm immediately sounds.
I am probably just really stoned, but as I listen to the alarm, it sounds like the alarm is talking to us. It sounds like a man with an accent, greeting us as his brothers, friends, compatriots. Hey-MENG-MENG-MENG-MENG-MENG-MENG-MENG-MENG!
Chuck and I run into Wormhole Control. Boots pound in the corridor outside. Shouts lift to the air. The shouts sound like the real alarm. The alarm bell itself has become comforting.
“What do we do?” Chuck squeals.
Chuck is wearing a straw hat and army fatigues that are stained with garbage because he is homeless and sleeps beneath garbage bags. His pension affords him fine scotch, kind bud, and military-grade shaped high explosives. He refuses to be beholden to the man. When he holds out that shoebox filled with these items and surrounded with this philosophy like a dimly palpable aura, he looks like a cartoon character.
I realize, too late, that it is foolish to consort with cartoons.
“Say we were just having a peek,” I say. “And say… say that we’re pretty stoned.”
There is a box on top of the nearest computer terminal; it looks vaguely like a safe. When I tug the handle, the safe opens. It is lined with weird circuit boards and filled with a lavender haze, but I ignore its idiosyncrasies and shove the shoebox inside, then slam the door shut.
Martian Guards pour out of every crevice, like insects.
Axalaide storms out of a shadowed culvert. Her metal hair is in disarray.
My heart is fluttering, and Chuck moans.
“What is the meaning of this?” Axalaide demands. The Martians are aiming humongous rifles at us. Are they all dudes, I wonder?
“Just having a peek.”
Axalaide looks at me sternly. “You already came for the tour!”
“I’m pretty stoned.”
The box into which I shoved the explosives has turned red. It reminds me of the android bartender, expressing concern for my inebriated state by tinting its face blue. Logically, the box must be expressing approval, but when Axalaide sees the box, she gasps.
“Did you put something in there?”
I swallow. “Just a roach.”
She tugs at the door but it resists. She hisses. The Martians grip their weapons uneasily.
“What did you put in there?” she demands.
“Abyssal charges!” Chuck moans.
He has forsaken his military training and given in to the enemy.
I intercede: “No big deal.”
“No big deal?” She rounds on me. “That is the Wormhole Generator’s Power Cell!”
“Good thing it’s deactivated, huh?”
“It isn’t!” she screams. “Did you really think the Terrans would leave a Wormhole Generator just sitting around on some buttfuck planet because they wanted to make a fucking museum out of it?”
I am silent a moment. The computer terminals are coming to life, ending their silence. My predicate logic is aching. “They were just little charges. I mean… it’s just a prank, really. What’s the worst that can happen?”
She bustles at the controls. “Abyssal is the most concentrated energy source in the universe. That is why they call it Abyssal. As we speak, a wormhole is opening between here and the planet Earth. It was the suicide plan of the Gallettian resistance to hurtle this rock into that one, before the operation was frozen by Terran Tech-Strikers.”
“Really? I know I’m only an ImmiGaia preacher, but that doesn’t sound like a very good plan to me. Maybe I’m just stoned, but I heard that the wormhole is supposed to be generated somewhere out in space.”
“Then the generator would be in space!” Axalaide snarls. “Get out, get out, everyone!” Axalaide swings her arms around wildly. “I will attempt to control the damage.”
“How? I thought you were Rehabilitated.”
“Partially,” she growls. Then her face saddens. “Partially.”
Chuck, myself, and the Martians hustle outside. A wind is whipping up in the streets. Humongous balls of electricity shatter off the pyramid’s antenna and hurtle into the night sky. I look up, and the sky is very dark.
“Wormhole coming down,” says the Martian nearest me. “Saw it once on Raritan, I did.”
“Can the TechnoWizard stop it?”
The Martian looks at me. With that big rifle, he might just be the same one as before. “Do I remember my life before becoming an immortal technosoldier in the service of Humandom?”
I cannot sort out the subtle insinuations of his statement, so I look up at the sky and just laugh. Space is splitting apart.
Some days, I hate my job less than others.
“You’re a God damn Terretic, aren’t you?” Chuck spits. He seems to have recovered from his earlier terror and remembered his guiding philosophy of hatred and intolerance. “I saw you stick the Abyssal in that box. You had this planned all along!”
I’m not quite listening to Chuck, though. Gallette sure looks pretty when you can’t see straight. How will it look in the dark? Pondering this, I smile and stare into the gaping maw of the wormhole, directly overhead. Can it really swallow a whole planet?
The Martians are sighing with relief. It must be a very annoying thing, to live forever. I am only thirty-four, and had had quite enough by the time I was twenty-three. But I hope that the wormhole really does exit at Earth. Then, I will not only fulfill my quota, but surpass it stupendously. I will be the Child of the Month, and no one will question the list of expenses incurred at the hotel bar or the incidentals incurred in my room.
(But, if that is the case, I should have been more brazen. There are several films I would have enjoyed watching, and a fine scotch in the minibar I might have sampled.)
The wind is gathering strength. It is carrying women and children into the abyss that’s above us.
“Fucking eh,” Chuck finally sighs.
“That’s right, Chuck,” I agree. “Fucking eh.”
I’m no Terretic. We’re all just Children of the Earth, anyway.
|Ben Godby writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario, with a girl, two dogs, and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.|