A story from Better Worlds, our science fiction project about hope

… 40%… 50%… 75%… 98%… Upload complete. Initiating connection.


“—there, Ray? Do you read?”

“Affirmative. I read you, Cass.”

Ray blinked into the dim light, waiting for the schematic overlay to come into focus.

Reception was good, even here in the fragrant, unwashed drains under the government lab, but uploads threw him every time. Vertigo. Nausea. Sometimes memory gaps. There were meds that could help him deal with it, but they all made him sleepy.

The mission didn’t accommodate sleepy.

The cool damp was seeping under his skin, and the odor of raw sewage wasn’t doing his stomach any good. Apparently, not even in their own buildings did the government pay for pre-treating waste. Closing his eyes to block out the mottled fiberglass walls, Ray centered the overlay on the neon blue R that traced his movements within the green lines of the sewer drains. Cass’ vivid C was on the other end of the building, moving cautiously north as she performed her own recon.

Above them both, in the red-outlined schematic of the locked-down federal building, he saw three amorphous red-orange spots indicating heat. No way to know through the building’s leaded floor which one was Ando, but all three were motionless.

Damn.

“We’ve taught him to keep still since he was a baby,” Cass said in his ear. “Don’t read into it.”

She was talking to herself as much as him, Ray knew. At 15, Ando was already a skilled operative, both level-headed and technically adept. But he’d gone off on his own for this one, and Cass was suffering from a debilitating case of delayed helicopter parenting. Ray had spent their journey here reassuring her that Ando knew how to take care of himself, never confessing the roiling terror in his own stomach. There was nothing quite like parenting to remind you how little of the universe you could control.

“I’m not reading anything into it,” he lied. “I’m trying to figure out which one is him. This the best data you could get?”

“Government labs don’t label their floor plans. But based on the power grid, the middle one is the computer lab. Too much drone traffic for him to hide there.” Cass took a breath in his ear. “Flip a coin, Ray. We only get one chance at this.”

Ray focused on his own blue icon and let his peripheral vision filter out distractions. There it was: a variance, almost insignificant, probably just the overlay’s augmentors working to enhance the little they could make out through the interference. “The north spot,” he said to Cass. “Full boost.”

Ray felt a twinge in his left eye as the overlay flickered. The orange spot in the northern corner of the building grew larger and more pixelated, turning red, then yellow, then white, filling his field of vision. Too large to be an animal, too hot to be a drone.

Was it moving? He was sure it was moving. Ando was there. He had to be.

The twinge flared into a stabbing pain, and the room became another place: silhouettes; unintelligible whispers; a familiar odor, metallic and musty, out of place. The brightness burned through his senses until there was nothing else left. No shadows, no sound, nothing but searing white emptiness and voices—


“—calibrate a little better. See that line there? We just—”

Upload suspended. Buffering… resuming… Upload complete.

“Dad?”


“Who’s there?”

Ray stood in the open doorway of the building’s north library. The voice had been low, worried — Ando’s, yet not. His own, perhaps? Why would he be calling for his father? His father had been dead for 12 years.

How had he entered the building? Through the sewer?

That wavering call again. “Dad?”

It was Ando after all.

The boy came out of the shadows and threw his arms around his father, fear and relief tempering his usual teenaged reticence. “I’ve got him, Cass,” Ray said, relief washing over him in a dizzying wave. For a moment, he wasn’t an operative on a rescue mission, but a father with his only child in his arms, safe and unhurt.

Cass, never one for sentiment, handled the situation in her usual fashion. “You tell him I’m taking his fabricator and his cryptography equipment, and he can handwrite notes to his friends for the next 30 years,” she ranted. “And he can leave the anarchy to the grown-ups.”

Ray felt Ando choke out a laugh despite the danger. The boy knew his mother.

“Surveillance?” Ray asked.

“One drone sweep every 21 minutes,” Ando said into his chest. “Two minutes until it’s back.”

“Back down into the sewers,” Cass directed. “We can get out the south door.”

Ando said, “We can’t leave.”

Ray loosed his arms, and Ando took a step away from him, his eyes level with his father’s. Ray frowned, uneasy. When had Ando become so tall?

The boy’s jaw was set, but there was no anger in his face; this was determination, not rebellion. “I came here to do this,” Ando said. “I can’t leave until it’s done.”

“You can do it another day!” Cass howled.

But Ray knew what the boy was thinking. “They’ll be ready for us another day,” he said. “He’s right, Cass. We need to finish it.”

She swore, repeatedly, a sailor’s grand lexicon of profanity. “Fine,” she said when her vocabulary was exhausted. “But you’ve got 85 seconds to get out of the way of that drone.”

The overlay flickered, and abruptly, Ray could see in Ando’s face the man he would one day become: a solid jaw, cheeks still cherubic when he smiled, wisdom drawing deep lines around those passionate eyes, wires of silver threaded through his jet-black hair. Ray shook himself. The boy was barely shaving, and Ray was seeing visions of him as an old man.

He gave Ando a quick nod, and with nothing but the flash of a grin, the boy disappeared into the shadows again. Now, of course, Ray had to remember how he’d reached the library. Surely, he’d come up through a floor panel or an auxiliary stairwell, but his memory provided nothing. “Cass?” he asked. “Where is it? The sewer entrance?”

The overlay flashed white.

Buffering… 85%… Connection unstable.

“—on, just give it a se—”


He was in the building’s main hallway. Behind him, he heard a low hum, possibly his imagination or maybe the patrol drone making its preprogrammed way down the hall, about to turn the corner to detect him. Everything they’d done, all of Ando’s naïve determination, would be for naught. He turned and ran from the sound, but there were no stairwells, no open doors, not even the room where he’d found Ando, and why was everything growing brighter? A corner up ahead. Surely, that’s where he’d come in, that’s where he’d left Ando, that’s where—


“—interrupts expected at this stage. They’ve been working on the problem for a while. In the next—”

Buffering… 30%… 65%… 98%… Connection resumed.


What problem? What connection? Where am I?

Now, he was standing in a room lit by a bank of computer monitors. Before him sat Ando, tapping at an old-style physical keyboard, entirely absorbed in his task. Cass stood next to their son, staring anxiously up at Ray. His perception of his wife was apparently time-traveling as well: she looked to him as young and elegant as she had the first time she’d shown up at one of his protest meetings.

They’d made it to the computer room. Of course they had.

“I’m okay,” he assured her. “Where are we?”

“We’re overloading the main generator,” Cass told him. “The auxiliaries should go up in sequence.”

Well, that seemed sloppy. “No redundancies?”

“Tons of redundancies.” She grinned at him, and there was pain in his left eye again along with a bright white flash, like an ancient camera. “Just no fail-safes.”


just no fail-safes


A klaxon filled Ray’s ears. The overlay flashed red all around his peripheral vision: impending disaster. He had his back braced against the computer room’s heavy hydraulic door, but he wasn’t slowing it down. His feet pushed into the doorframe, and the structure began to press him in half.

Bad time for a memory gap. “Cass! Ando! Now!”

“Just one sec—” Ando said, but Cass grabbed him by the back of his shirt and hauled him out of the chair like a rag doll. The door kept moving, and something in Ray’s hip gave. He set his hands on the frame to reinforce his futile efforts. Ando leaped over Ray’s buckling legs and ran into the corridor. Cass followed, grabbing Ray’s arm as she passed, and he stumbled out of the room.

In a single step, Ray realized his legs weren’t going to hold him up. His hip, his eye… he wasn’t sure which pain was worse now. “Run!” he shouted. “I’m right behind you!”


right behind you


His wife and son were half dragging him down the hallway toward the open exit door. He could hear the drones behind them — four, he could see on the overlay, and the red pulsing border was growing larger.

Why was the exit door open?

“Wait,” Ray said. He tried to slow down but found his feet were useless. “Wait! The door. It’s—”


the door it’s


They were outside, he and Cass, watching Ando run across the building’s dimly lit lawn, disappearing into the night, into safety, when the blast wave hit. Still under his arm, she was lifted along with him. He tried to pull her in front of him, to shield her from the worst of the blast, but she was gone, abruptly, from his hands, and the red of the overlay filled his vision, blinding him.

“Cass!” he shouted, as the red flared into white. “Cass!”

And then there was nothing.

He was on his back, unmoving, something roaring around him, deafening.

“Cass? Ando?”

All he saw was white.


It’s all right. That’s not how this ends.


“Dad?”

He’s safe. Even groggy, Ray felt relief surge through him. His eyes wouldn’t open, but he tried to speak. Something remotely resembling language came out of his mouth.

“It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Wait— this wasn’t Ando. This was the voice he’d heard earlier, the one he’d thought was his own. Some of Ray’s relief ebbed away.

“Why can’t he talk?” the voice asked.

“He’s readjusting.” A pleasant enough voice, but not deep and warm and husky. Not Cass, then. “His vitals are good. Give him a little time.”

Ray felt fingers tuck themselves under his, and he slowly became aware of his body again. Weak, exhausted. His eye still hurt, but his hip ached less than he would have expected, what with having been blown to bits. His hand convulsed on the foreign fingers: they were long, thick, the skin dry and calloused. “Cass.”

The hand gave his a squeeze. “She’s gone ahead,” the man said. Gentle, soothing. Not a tactic one expected from a government agent. Ray managed to force his eyes open.

He was in a small space surrounded by medical equipment, illuminated by a bright light on the ceiling. An IV bag swung next to his bed. An ambulance, perhaps, though he had no sense of motion. The woman stood at his feet, staring at a screen displaying his vitals. Stout and dark-haired, she was dressed in a matching cotton shirt and pants: a doctor or a nurse.

The man holding his hand, watching him with anxious eyes, had a salt-and-pepper mustache and a well-lined face that Ray could almost, but not quite, place. The hair on his head was black with flecks of silver: tight curls, neatly trimmed. The way Cass always kept her hair.

Easy to look after, she always said. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever told her how much he loved it.

“My family,” he said to the man, managing to tighten his fingers. So weak, his hand. ”Is my family all right?”

Another squeeze from the stranger. Such bright eyes this man had, and something familiar about them. That sharp tilt toward the inside, the way the left eyelid drooped, just a little. Ando had the same eyes. Maybe this man was a relative.

“Your family is fine,” the man said.

The voice sounded familiar and thick, but all Ray heard was the reassurance, and when the relief took him again, white and clean and silent, he allowed himself to fall asleep.


“It was the one you wrote for his 65th,” Ando told his mother.

He sat on the grass, legs crossed, elbows on his knees. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to stand afterward — he’d had a knee replacement at 45 — but he could see her better when he was seated. The ground beneath him was cool, but the afternoon sun warmed him even as the breeze chilled the dampness on his cheeks.

“You made me out to be such a brat in that one, you know? But he always liked it. He got to be a hero.” Ando laughed. “And you got to ream me out for once. I always wondered why you never did in real life. Lord knows I earned it.”

The breeze picked up, and a dried leaf tumbled across his lap.

“For tomorrow, I was thinking of the rocket launch, the one you wrote when I went off to college. It’s shorter, but he always loved sitting on top of a ball of exploding fuel. I’ve been talking to the caseworker, and since it’s still a prototype, she thinks they might be able to get us an insurance exception. Maybe even for another two, which, at this point, may be enough. Nobody will say.” The words were coming harder now. “They know, but they won’t say.”

Carefully, Ando unfolded his long limbs and pushed himself to his feet, feeling his spine crack as he rose. That’d be next: a lower lumbar replacement. They were getting better these days, but he hated surgery, no matter how quick the recovery. Still, he needed to be able to sit when he talked to his mother.

“There’s so much I wish I could tell you, Mom. But maybe… maybe next time, I’ll just write it down.”

He leaned down to press his lips against the headstone, just once, before he left her alone in the twilight.


… 40%… 85%… 98%… Upload complete. Initiating connection.


“Colonel? Ray! Are you napping?”

Ray’s eyes snapped open at the sound of Cass’ voice, and he took a deep breath of the space shuttle’s generated oxygen. Before his eyes, the virtual instrument overlay glowed green.

“Negative, CAPCOM,” he said. “Just making sure you’re paying attention.”

The overlay updated the countdown: T-minus 30 seconds. Damn, he’d almost missed it. He lowered his helmet’s visor, and the hiss of the capsule’s environmental systems grew quieter.

The overlay began counting down: T-minus 10, 9, 8…

“Bring me some stardust, Colonel,” CAPCOM said, her voice clear in his ear.

Ray grinned. “You got it, Cass.”

The engine ignited with a deafening roar, slamming him back in his seat. But all Ray could hear was his heartbeat, turning the explosion into music, bright and hot and joyous.


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