Author’s Notes: As with “Home at Last,” “Ask Mother” is a one off, i.e. a story written for a contest and is a very specific and narrow response to the contest guidelines. In this case the contest was put on by Booktracks, whose platform allowed writers to add music and sound effects to their books and stories. I kind of liked the idea and had put a lot of time into soundtracking several chapters and stories which were then posted at their website. Apparently, most writers found soundtracking to be too labor intensive because now Booktracks has changed its business model.
Getting back to the limited nature of the one off. This story had to be based on a book by Hugh Howey called “Halfway Home.” So basically the story makes no sense unless the reader has already read Howey’s book, and of course, I had to be the iconoclast and rail against the theme of his book, one that I find to be boring and trite: The “Big Bad Corporation has evil plans for you” story.
So a little background, as best as I remember it: The bad corporation has sent a bunch of zygotes to a distant planet along with an AI, Colony, who will birth them and raise them to serve the corporation. Good guys find out about evil corporate intents, bad guys support the corporation, they fight and the good guys win. [For more detailed background you can check my original post about the story at : This Link]
So my story begins a year after all of the bad guys have been dealt with, and the good guys are in charge and aren’t much better than the bad guys were.
So here you go:
They Hanged Hickson
They hanged Hickson. At the trial, when he knew it was over, his face shot full of anger and tears. He lunged forward, his trembling fingers clawing at me, tears splattering across his red cheeks.
“She made me do it,” he shouted.
I shrank away, pulling my bare feet up under me and wrapping my arms around my legs. My face buried against my knees, I sobbed in terror and blurted, “Don’t let him hurt me. Not again, please.”
I made myself so tiny and defenseless that I felt empathy oozing from their pores. I’ve known how to appear vulnerable right from birth.
Tarsi couldn’t resist. She hugged me and said, “Myra, you’re safe now.”
They hanged Hickson—and not me.
I got three years of hard labor on the farm and lifetime banishment from the Council. Both lasted less than a year.
It’s late afternoon. Kayla and I are digging up a sprouted bomb fruit. When sunlight hits them for about an hour, they sprout, sending down a net of roots that chokes out our crops.
We’ve dug for thirty minutes on this one and still haven’t gotten to the end of it. My arms and neck are caked with grime and dried sweat. My muscles ache from digging root bombs all day, but I feel good.
Kayla looks up. A muddy streak paints her forehead. “I think we got it,” she says. “Time for a break?”
“Yeah.” I sit beside her.
Kayla and I turn toward the voice. Several bean rows over, Samson points a damning finger and scowls at Jim, a day volunteer.
“Jim, you just ate a whole squash. I saw you,” Samson says. Crop production has been anemic. Sometimes workers sneak a piece.
“Leave! Get out of here, and don’t come back,” Samson yells. He wags his finger three times toward the village.
Jim hangs his mouth open and raises his palms up like he has no idea what Samson means. Samson widens his eyes; I can see the whites from ten meters away. Jim drops his hoe and hurries off.
I run my fingers through my hair and look up. The sun is at the edge of the canopy. Italian beans and crooked neck squash that two weeks ago bathed in vibrant sunlight now have become pale and spindly under the ever-increasing shade.
Sam, as we farmers call him, smiles at me and says, “Got a bomb anchored in, Myra?”
Kayla grins back and answers, “Yeah, but I think we got it.”
Kayla has goo-goo eyes for Sam. There’s a shortage of men after the shootings and hangings. Some men have taken two women. Clearly she’s hoping he will.
Still looking at me, Sam steps between the plants and ambles over. The sweat beaded on his hairy arms smells good, and I get a twinge in my chest that shoots straight to my pelvis.
“Too damned many bombs. They sprout before we can clear them all,” he says. “We need more help out here.”
I take a swig of water. The midday shade is poised at the edge of a row of beets. I angle my shovel handle toward the shadow. “Sam, it’s not just the bomb fruit; the canopy is filling back in.”
His face droops, and he scratches his beard while staring at the ground. “Farming is goddamned impossible. I don’t have a chem lab, herbicides, or a gene-splicing platform. Who knows what shit I didn’t learn because Colony dumped us early.”
I frown like I’m struggling with the issues too, then say, “Maybe she can tell you.”
He looks at Kayla.
“Not her, Colony.”
“Colony?” Sam and Kayla stand motionless. He studies me like he thinks I’m testing him. Then he says, “Colony is dead. Colony wanted to nuke us, so we had to kill her.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Maybe Porter misunderstood her. No one else was there, so we don’t really know what she said.” I flop my arms against my thighs loudly. “It’s too bad. Her brain had the knowledge we need: everything she taught us, everything she never got around to teaching us, and everything she discovered about this planet before we were born.”
Kayla says, “Oh well, she’s dead.”
I flash a bemused smile. Sam sees it; Kayla doesn’t.
He frowns at me askance. “What are you thinking?”
“Leila, she’s a computer person. I bet she can bring Colony back. I mean just the knowledge-teacher part, as a servant, not as a master.”
Kayla’s jaw drops.
Sam whistles low and shakes his head. “You need to be careful. Some people don’t trust you.”
“Fine, but I bet Colony could make an herbicide to kill these root bombs.”
Sam catches on. “Yeah, and maybe another herbicide to stop the new growth in the canopy so our gardens get sunlight like in Alaska.”
“Alaska?” Kayla and I say in unison.
Sam shrugs his shoulders. “Colony told me. It’s a place where the sun shines all day long and squashes grow as big as wheelbarrows.”
Kayla says, “Wow. There isn’t a person here who wouldn’t trade a two-kilogram vinnie steak for a scrawny little squash.”
The sun dips partway behind the canopy, and daylight begins to fade. Sam calls it quits. We discuss our production problems while we walk to the village. Sam takes a profound interest in everything I say. I notice it, and I know Kayla notices it. We stop near my hut to say our goodbyes. Sam hangs around longer than normal, so I hint, “If you want, I can ask Leila. I’m spending the night with her.”
Sam’s face twitches and turns sour. He coughs then hurrying through his words, he says, “Yeah, ask her. Tell me in the morning. If Leila can do something, I’ll introduce the idea at council tomorrow night.” He backs up awkwardly and hurries off.
“Hey, I’ll walk with you,” Kayla says and trots after him.
I look up and bite my lip to keep from laughing. Something flashes red through the canopy above me. A chill runs down my neck and my skin prickles.
Late that night, after the village activity calms down, I sneak off to the vats to rendezvous with Leila. It’s the perfect place for us. The rest of them avoid it because they think it will attract the metal-eaters.
Normally it’s a high to slip off and make love to Leila. Tonight, I’m spooked. I sneak through the village and into the fields, my mind homing in on clicks and rustles I never noticed before. Now and then, I swerve and glance back, scanning in all directions, even up into the canopy, especially the canopy. I see no movement, no red glows, and when I stop, I hear silence. Still, my nerves are ragged when I reach the vats.
I peek through the door, and Leila calls out, “Hey.” She smiles and plants her hands on my cheeks and gives me a long, deep kiss. A flamethrower burns from my chest to my groin. I unbutton her shorts and slide my hands over her skin. My calluses cause me to blush. She giggles and runs her fingers over my palms. “Tsk-tsk, manual laborer,” she says and kisses my neck. It takes a long time for us to extinguish the flamethrower in my abdomen.
Spent, we doze off in each other’s arms. While I sleep, my subconscious is disturbed by a hollow noise. My mind struggles to awaken. It swims against a torrent of lethargy to rouse itself. Finally, I come to. My ears are on instant alert. I hear rustling outside, or is it inside?
I put my hand over Leila’s lips and nudge her.
“Shush! Is this place secure?”
“The door’s locked. It would take a cutting torch to get in.”
I think about it then say, “I want to talk to Mother.”
“You want to play Dragon Quest? Hell, it’s almost morning. We need to get back to the village.”
“Shush.” I touch my fingers to her lips. I tell her about the red glow in the canopy.
“It was just a star peeking through the trees,” she suggests.
“That’s lame, Leila. Stars don’t peek through the canopy. I need to talk to Mom about it. Is she ready?”
Leila sits up, beaming a big grin. In an excited, husky voice, she says, “Yeah, she’s ready, but we’ll have to do it tomorrow night. We need to go now.”
She throws her long legs over the edge of our makeshift couch and begins putting her pants on.
“Will she remember that she’s Colony?” I ask.
“We’ll find out.”
Boom in the Night
Kayla says the village looks like it dropped right out of Polynesia, wherever that is. They built it five hundred meters from the vats and used all native materials so it wouldn’t attract the metal-eaters. Never mind that the vats, which are full of metal, have sat unmolested for nearly seventeen years.
Today we quit work early for the council meeting. Sam told me on the way back that he’ll ask council to reinstate a modified Colony. Not that their authorization matters to Leila. Everyone is in the lodge house now.
Sometimes while they all are there, I poke around in their huts. I never take anything. I’m just curious what others might be up to. Usually though, I sneak into the crawl space under their meeting and listen.
Tonight, I’m edgy. While there’s still some daylight, I slip under the lodge porch. Tonight, I feel safer close to the others.
Overhead, I hear Porter reading the agenda. I drop to my hands and knees in the darkness and navigate under the floor towards his voice.
Directly beneath him, I fumble for the block of wood I stashed there to rest my head on; then I lie back and listen.
They’ve already begun to discuss Jim’s punishment for food theft. Porter has words of empathy. “We all feel the temptation,” he says.
Porter goes off on some psychology thing about chemicals in our brains determining how much willpower we have. Some people have less chemicals; their lack of willpower isn’t their fault.
Doctor Nancy asks for the floor. Someone says they can’t hear her, so she yells, “I’m afraid there’s a health issue.”
Tarsi says health issues aren’t on tonight’s agenda.
Nancy screams that health issues are an integral part of the problem.
An irritated voice shouts, “Let the doctor speak.”
A drone of voices support Nancy.
Porter mediates. “This meeting is for the good of the community. I believe we can digress from the agenda…”
Tarsi withdraws her complaint.
Nancy yells in short bursts, “Bad news. I can’t candy coat it. Jim has jaundice. The whites of his eyes are yellowing. We all have it—to some degree. I think a toxin from the bomb fruit and vinnie flesh is accumulating in our livers. That’s why we crave Earth food.”
Someone near the porch shouts, “Which causes it, doc, the bomb fruit or the vinnie steaks?”
“It concentrates higher in the food chain, so vinnie steaks are worse, but they both have it.”
Charlie, Samson’s assistant, raises his voice. “That explains why so many chickens are sickly; we’ve been feeding them ground-up vinnie.”
The room hums with disturbed voices.
Sam shouts, “Listen, everyone.”
People continue to banter excitedly.
“Listen up,” Sam booms. The background noise fades. Finally, he continues, “I believe I have a possible solution—”
The air fills with the cracks and snaps of splintering wood. A dull, earthshaking thud follows. The building rattles over my head. I think—everyone thinks—the metal eaters have attacked the building. Running feet pound the floor over my head. On my hands and toes, I crawl for the porch.
People line up along the porch rail. A few come down the steps and stand beside me. Everyone is peering toward the noise.
The wing-flapping and shrieks of desperate chickens set my hair on end.
“Something broke into the chicken coop,” Charlie yells. He grabs a torch from the porch railing and rushes down the steps.
“Wait!” Sam calls out and takes another torch. “People, come on. We need help.”
Several other people seize torches and group around Sam. I see Leila. Her face drawn and pale, she stares down from the porch in wild-eyed terror.
“Does anyone have a gun?” I ask.
Porter looks down from the banister. “You know they’ve all been melted into ingots.”
“I thought you would have had the sense to save a few,” I whisper. In contempt, I turn my face away.
Leila hurries to me. She snatches my hand. Her mouth next to my ear, she says, “Mother.”
“Not now,” I say and pull her into the huddle of people following Sam.
Sam glances over the crowd. He counts his followers. When he lips “twenty,” he says, “Okay, let’s go.”
Leila in tow, I catch up to him.
“What do you think it is, Sam?” I ask.
Hard faced, he’s stomping at a furious pace. “Probably some giant vinnie raiding the coop for the feed. If the hens get into the woods, we’ll be lucky to get any back.”
Someone shouts, “Over there, I see something.” She points toward the tomato bushes.
“Looks like a giant vinnie,” Karl, the electrician, says.
I remember the red glow in the canopy. At the same moment, Leila gives me a little tug. Her face is pale. Her lips trembling, she tilts her head toward the vats.
It all hits me: the glow in the canopy, the big beast on the ground in front of me-and no weapons. I should have listened to Leila. I’m nauseous. I want to throw up.
Torches out stretched, everyone creeps toward the form.
I push Leila into the middle of the group.
Charlie’s in front. The flickering light from his torch reveals a huge hairy cylinder. Angry and disgusted, Charlie says, “It’s a giant vinnie. Smashed five tomato trellises.” He looks up at the canopy, indicating that it fell from above.
“Fuck,” Sam says while we all gather around the carcass. “Must weigh two hundred kilos.”
Charlie looks toward the chickens. Our torchlights don’t reach the pen. He listens to the occasional wing flap and says, “They’re settling down. The boom from this thing hitting the ground must have scared them.”
Charlie circles the vinnie. Karl follows.
“What’s this?” Karl says. He’s now on the other side of the vinnie.
Charlie thrusts his torch toward the carcass. His jaw drops. He emits a startled, “Eck!” Gulping his words, he says, “Something killed this vinnie.”
Several people gasp. Bodies move about in aimless jerks. Heads turn, glancing right and left.
Leila digs her fingernails into my wrist and gives me a furious look. Then she mouths, “Too late.”
Huddled together, the group circumvents the vinnie to join Karl and Charlie. The vinnie’s head is bent at a sharp angle to the body. Its purple guts spill out of a meter-wide hole in its belly. Faces, orange in the flickering torchlight, stare up into the blackness of the canopy.
Torchlight making her hair writhe like Medusa snakes, Leila wrinkles her face into a snarl aimed at Porter. “We need guns.”
“No,” Porter asserts, but his voice wavers. “It eats vinnies not us. It’s not dangerous to us.”
Sam thrusts his face within centimeters of Porter’s. “We don’t know that for sure.”
Kelvin shoves between them. Sam steps back. The two big men square off. Sam juts his jaw toward Kelvin. “We need guns, big ones.”
Porter peeks from behind Kelvin. “You’re hysterical. We’ve been here for years, and it hasn’t bothered before.” Porter finishes by putting his head near Kelvin’s ear and saying, “I want to go.”
Still staring at Kelvin, Sam points to the vinnie. “We should butcher this thing. It’ll dress out at a hundred kilos in steaks and roasts. Are you going to help?”
“After what doc just told us?” someone says. “Who gives a shit if it makes a ton of steaks.”
Leila speaks up. “Colony studied this planet for fifteen years before birthing us; maybe she knows how to detoxify the meat.”
“Recreate Colony?” Porter says. His voice is becoming more high-pitched. He thrusts a finger at Leila. “No way! That’s not happening.”
“Council—” Sam starts.
Porter interrupts him. “Council will never approve it. I’ll make sure.” He digs his fingers in Kelvin’s shirtsleeve and tugs him toward the village.
They both leave.
Grumbling under his breath, Sam pulls a knife from his waistband and begins to skin the thing. Leila and a few others pull knives and join in. The rest of us make ourselves helpful, pulling out the organs and piling them off to the side.
It’s a lot of meat, but we work well as a team and make good progress. The team dissipates when people break off, one by one, to carry loads of meat to the village.
Five of us are left to finish up. We’re on our knees, scraping and pulling at the last bit of hide. Sam holds his torch over us. He steps back and surveys the mess. “That’s good enough. Let’s clear out.”
My arms slimy with gunk, I look up at him and gasp. The stars go black. Sam yelps. His torchlight reflects off a shimmering surface behind him. His arms flail and he’s snapped up into the air. Blood splatters down on us. His torch hits the ground and hisses and flickers.
“Run!” Leila screams.
My eyes still following Sam, I grasp her arm with both hands. They slide off, and she staggers back.
“No,” I scream and leap at her. My fingers curled into claws, I yank her to the ground. Overhead, two red eyes swivel on a long neck and rise. They grow smaller and smaller, then vanish in the ink of the canopy.
People are wailing. Others crawl about and attempt to hide under the tomato bushes.
I’m furious at them. “Get yourselves together,” I scream. “Form a tight group.” I kick one guy who is curled under a bush. “Get up, goddamn it.” I kick him hard in the ribs. “Get up, you shit.”
People stare in terror at me. Some hide their heads between their arms. Some crawl down the tomato row, trying to escape.
Charlie yanks a couple of guys to their feet. I grab the guy I’ve been kicking and pull him by his shirt collar.
“The torch,” Leila shouts. It flickers and goes out.
We get them back to the village; then I fall on my knees and vomit. Leila helps me to my bed. I lay there, knees pulled up under Leila’s thighs. My arms, covered with dried slime and blood, are wrapped around her chest. I press my head against her shoulder. I’m vulnerable again, but this isn’t faked.
The glow of a bonfire beams through the hut door. Outside, shadows dash back and forth. Frantic voices shout, accusing and defending: “Why don’t we have guns?” “We need guns.” “No, we don’t.” “You messed with the beast’s kill.” “You provoked it.”
On and on it goes. The only commonality is hysteria.
Leila strokes and kisses my hair, not caring that it is clumped with disgusting biological matter.
“We have to go, hon,” she whispers.
“No,” I say, holding onto her like a child. “Wait until morning.”
“We can’t wait. Porter will have the vats cordoned off by morning.”
I bite my lip. My body trembles at the thought of crossing the fields. I stutter, “It attacks stragglers. We’ll be easy prey, five hundred meters of open field…”
She strokes my back and listens. When I’m done, she says, “Sam held a torch over himself. We’ll go without light. Maybe it won’t see us.”
“And if it does?”
She clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “We can’t stay here. This mess is doomed.”
Outside, Porter is telling his cohorts that it was a mistake to butcher the predator’s kill. We should have walked away. We need to heighten our awareness, not make guns.
I release Leila. We sit on the edge of the bed. She takes my hand. Tired and sad of heart, I force a smile.
Leila pats my leg. “Ready?”
She locks eyes with me. “Once we’re with Mother, nothing can harm us.”
“Today, I fixed her defense perimeter. We’ll turn it on once we’re inside.”
I pull on my shoes. “I’d feel better if we had spears. Tie some knives on the ends of sticks.”
She resists. “That’s a waste of time.”
“I’m not going without spears.” I lock my jaws and clamp my fingers to the edge of the bed.
“Shit,” she says. “You really think a spear will stop that thing?” She clatters through utensils, looking for the knife she used to help butcher the vinnie.
A chill runs down my neck. I think the thing may smell vinnie blood. “Forget it,” I say. “Let’s go now—quickly.”
I pull her arm. She pushes me away. She ties a butcher knife to a short stick.
“What’s with you?” she says. “First spears, then no spears. I made it, and I’m taking it.”
I pull her outside. “Stay in the shadows,” I warn, then sneak to the corner of the hut and peek out. The area is deserted. The low rumble of arguing voices comes from the lodge. We’re the only ones moving in the open. That makes the hair stand on my neck.
We creep from hut to hut. Each time I peek before we sprint to the next building.
“Fuck this,” Leila says. “Let’s just walk fast.”
“No!” I point my finger up. “Be smart. Make it difficult to track us.”
She sighs and curses under her breath. We come to the last hut. Five hundred meters of open field lie between us and Mother. My heart pounds in my ears. I’m tempted to pass out and let fate take its course.
We race for the field then I realize the light from the distant bonfire paints our bodies dull gray against the black of night. My eyes are adjusting. I can see everything. It can see everything.
As if a cloud passed over, everything darkens. Then it brightens again.
“Down,” I hiss. I pull Leila behind a row of squash bushes.
“Fuck. I almost cut myself,” she complains.
“Shush!” I whisper and push her head down below the tops of the plants. I peek through the leaves toward the village.
The village is gone. The outline of a dark mass blocks it from view. Two red eyes open and scan from side to side. I constrict my throat to hold back my gasp. The plants sparkle crimson when the gaze passes over us.
My arms trembling, I lay on top of Leila. The red glow passes over us again, then moves aside.
I can see the village again. Three people stand by the last huts, their silhouettes outlined in the glow of the bonfire.
“Get to the vats. If Leila’s there, don’t let her mobilize Colony.” It’s Porter’s voice.
“We’ll take care of it,” Kelvin says.
A voice I don’t recognize speaks low.
Porter leaves. Kelvin and his accomplice walk toward us.
I see the outline of the giant head as it swings around. I see one red eye, then two, then one. A long wolfish snout is profiled against the village then the black shadow sinks down and becomes a low mound.
I want to shout a warning, but I can’t take the risk. I’m afraid to move.
But we must.
I put my finger over Leila’s mouth. She touches my leg; then points to the vats. I shake my head no. I watch the men approach. Their forms are distinct now. I hear their idle bantering. The shadow raises up. I can’t see the men any more.
I push Leila toward the vats. We stay low, moving fast. We’re almost quiet. Seconds telescope into hours. My throat doesn’t work. I can’t get enough air. I’m suffocating. Suddenly we’re at the door.
Leila’s fingers dance error-free over the security pad. When the lock clicks, horrible shrieks stab my ears. It’s Kelvin.
The screams end. Low crunching follows.
Leila and I huddle before Mother. We quiver when a surge crackles on her perimeter fence. Leila strokes my hair reassuringly. I wrap my arm around her waist, absorbing her warmth.
Mother, about twenty-five years old, sits in holographic space. Her crimson dress is slit way up her thigh, and clings to the form of her breasts. Despite our situation, an urge twinges in my belly. I really want to trust her.
“You’re safe here,” she promises.
She’s connected to her sensors. She sees us. She sees outside. She sees everywhere her sensors are. We have no idea where they all are.
She smiles provocatively and says, “Please connect me to the machinery so I can make your weapons. That fence won’t last forever.”
Leila’s hand squeezes mine hard. It’s painful. Her eyes say she is unsure.
I think, Leila, why make her into such a sex pot if you don’t trust her?
Then I blurt, “Porter said you intended to nuke us. That’s why he shut you down.”
Mother puts her hands on the armrests and rocks gently. “I tried to tell Porter, but he wouldn’t listen. This place was terra-formed by someone. It’s lack of biodiversity proves it is artificial.”
“Okay,” Leila says in a fluster. “Explain nuking us.”
Mother throws her arms up in a gesture of annoyance. “Not nuke you, nuke this place. It’s toxic to you. It’s making you sick because these creatures aren’t completely organic.”
The fence rumbles again. We both emit little gasps and clutch our hands tighter.
“Hurry. I need to make your weapons. These predators must be killed tonight.”
Leila eyes question me. I nod my head, and she is off to the control room. Down the hallway, things turn on. I hear machines start to grind and whirl.
An hour later, Mother tells us our guns are ready.
Leila holds hers at arm’s length like it might bite her. “Let’s go?” Her voice is tentative.
“Be careful,” Mother says. “There are two. Kill them; then bring the survivors from the village here.”
I slip out the back of the compound. Flames in the village backlight a red-eyed monster. Next to me, the fence turns crimson. Meters away, a second one snarls.
I spin. Before I see it, an explosion deafens my ears. The earth shakes when a large black mass crashes beside me. A moment later, its severed head, as big as a wheelbarrow, slams down three meters away. Its red eyes cast a glow that fades to nothing.
Leila is beside me, reloading her weapon quicker than I thought possible.
“I guess I figured it out,” she says, followed by a tense giggle.
In the distance the first monster shrieks. Its red eyes turn from the village to us. It charges, its eyes grow bigger and wider apart. Then it rises, its wings filling the space in front of me.
I shoulder my weapon and pull the trigger. Another explosion pounds my eardrums. A rocket flashes from my weapon. It sizzles and weaves through the air. The beast turns. The projectile follows it, exploding in its neck. The body thuds to the ground. More pieces plop into the tomatoes, beans, and squash.
Nine survived, seven women and two men. With five of them competing for two men, Kayla is already moving on Charlie. Inseminated from Mother’s secret stash of zygotes, Leila and I are amused onlookers.
Five days of hiking has put us high on the mountain slopes. At midday, we spot a herd of animals. The discussion begins on how to take one for food. Leila and I drift away from the group and stare down at the canopy.
I brush a leaf from her hair. “Leila, wasn’t Mother supposed to nuke the terra-form this morning?”
Leila nods her head.
I look up at the sun and suggest, “It might still be morning.”
“Not really,” Leila says.
I take Leila’s hand. “When Mother nukes it, she’ll be committing suicide, but I don’t suppose an AI has the self-awareness to consider that.”
Leila lays her head on my shoulder and says, “Actually, she might.”