Plugs

John knew them all: the giant grasshopper, the amoeba with floating brains, the child-sized ones with big heads and even bigger eyes. This one looked like a lobster with the head of a horse; no more or less bizarre than many of the others. It must have been the expression. All the rest, the ones with faces anyway, smiled all the time.

The horse lobster kicked a rusty can out of its way and squatted, knees far above its head. “Why do you do it?”

“Excuse me?” John took a swig of Magic Shake. All of a sudden he didn’t want it, and spat into the fire, which hissed and flared green.

HL waved its arm, as if to take in everything around them: the desolate camp, the ruins of Miami, the ruins of the whole human race.

John raised his bottle. “Here’s to rescue from ourselves. Perfect nutrition, a taste you can neither become addicted to nor tired of, something in the air I suppose that vastly reduces human fertility, and our 10,000-year effort to wipe ourselves out is stymied. Our rescuers could have demanded anything, but instead they demand nothing. Because they demand nothing, we produce nothing. So the question, ‘Is Nothing sacred?’ has been answered in the affirmative.” He threw the bottle into the fire, with another fluorescent emerald response.

HL shrugged.

“Your species is bisexual,” the creature said. “You should have a mate. Instead, relieved of the threat of violence or want, you have practically nothing. Why? What happened to the civilization that had almost made it to the stars?”

“I had a partner. Although I think you mean that my species has two genders. Bisexual means something different. I had a partner. He’s gone. He couldn’t take freedom. Couldn’t cope like I can.”

The HL seemed to nod. “Those busybodies go everywhere, bring their technology, makes everything so easy. What it doesn’t do is give you access to the things they don’t know. The places you could contribute. There are such places. There are such things. My group tries to warn young races to stay away from that debilitating drug.” HL pointed at the fire, where the plastic bottle stubbornly refused to burn or melt.

“Similar things happened when human cultures met. We should have known. So. How long will it take to recover from this mess?”

“It’s a process,” HL said.

End

At first I thought I should of never had said yes because they promise you fame all up and down the planets and all kinds of money, but then there you are head-over-heels and pissing into a squeeze bottle, or trying to figure out how to open one of those tubes of steak and you don’t remember the last time you woke up from one of those nightmares without flying across the room and smashing your face on the bulkhead. I just can’t sleep all strapped-in, okay?

But they said, Act natural! Like there’s anything natural about reality television I should of said but didn’t, because I didn’t think of it. I wanted to be better than that but you can’t act different than everyone else.  You just can’t. We acted natural, like monkeys. All over the space station. Zero-g has got a lot of advantages when you stop smashing your face—these chicks were pretty stacked I could not help but notice—and we did what we wanted and things were pretty okay, beer and tubes coming up like clockwork until they stopped and finally we noticed. The insides of our heads were banging and we noticed we were alone maybe for real. Chuck got right up into one of the cameras and he screamed his head off and Jamie cried pretty steadily when we ran out of tube lasagna and vodka, and if the cameras were still recording no one cared any more. Not even us, mostly.

We’re going to run out soon. Of squeeze bottles because Charlene won’t just wash hers like the rest of us mostly remember to do, and food tubes. Jimmy says we’re going to end up being like cannibals as if it was funny and then he said and I’ll eat Jamie first and the way he grabbed at her, and her shrieking, it was like they thought the cameras were still rolling.

Mostly we play gin rummy, or sleep or screw and wait for how it’s going to end. I’ve got a bottle of Jack under my bed, and I’m pretty sure I can take the girls. When Charlene’s down on her knees and I put my head against the window, when I look at that view, the Earth and all our fans floating out there too far away, I wonder if I should just crush her skull now.

A cold wind blew in off the desert. The walls of the bunker vibrated in sympathy, producing a low moaning at the limit of audibility. The wind never varied. Chalmers played the radio constantly to drown out the ghostly sound, but he could feel the vibration every time he touched anything that was anchored to the floor or walls.

Easy money, he’d thought, when he saw the job listing. Staff the outpost for a year. If anything needed to be replaced, like a battery or a memory block, replace it. There would be plenty of consumables and an almost infinite library of films and videos. He had never particularly needed company anyway. Discharged from the Guard and having no other prospects, he couldn’t say no.

Chalmers made coffee as hot as he could stand. He stood by the small circular window and stared at the blowing sand. The wind seemed to be whipping the sand past the window faster and faster, but the instruments consistently reported no change in wind velocity, no change in temperature. Chalmers shivered. He reheated the coffee and took a cautious sip. The trembling walls formed words. “We will blow you away, you cannot stay,” repeated again and again.

Chalmers woke with a start. He was at the hatch, fumbling with the controls. He had undone two of the 12 latches. And he had been, still was, whispering. “We will blow you away, you cannot stay.”

Chalmers put the table and chairs in front of the hatch and returned to bed, huddling under the blankets. It was hours until dawn, but he didn’t sleep at all.

One month. Chalmers had been in the outpost one month.. Under the relentless pressure of the wind the entire station was moaning. He had woken up again fumbling with the hatch, and had since rigged metal cables to seal it shut. There was no way he could undo them in his sleep.

The outpost was abandoned. The hatch was open and a meter of sand covered the floor of the facility. Chalmers had missed his weekly checkin and had not responded to queries over the radio, so a team had been sent.

They finally shoveled enough sand out to close and seal the hatch. Tegmen pulled off her helmet and rubbed her scalp vigorously.

“Oh God, that feels good!” She looked around. “This place is cozy. Killer video system. It would be a nice gig.”

Lambert cocked his head, listening. “The walls are shaking. Almost sounds like words.”

End

She didn’t understand why I had wanted to go to college. She thought I ought to be out there. A special boy like me, finally using his specialness for good. “Don’t be so shy,” she’d hiss, pushing me toward the burning building. “Go save the nuns. Go on!” But I could never do it. Not when everyone was looking at me. Wasn’t that what fire fighters were for?

She figured, once I was 18, once I was a mature adult, I would see that I was put here on earth for a purpose. I wouldn’t hide my light under a bushel any more. Maybe college would just be a phase. She clicked her tongue against her teeth every time she came home and saw me sitting on the couch, when she turned on the news and saw that North Korea still had nuclear weapons, that trains still derailed, that small children everywhere were trapped under various cars.

I said, “What am I supposed to do? There’s no ‘Superhero’ section in the Classifieds.” And she sighed in that disappointed way and waved her hands around her head. She looked old and tired in her nurse’s uniform. She said, “Haven’t I taught you anything? Haven’t I taught you how to make your own way in the world? To forge your own path? When your father left us, didn’t I take care of everything?”

I had to agree there. She had. And I lifted heavy rocks for her, and took care of the gutters—I didn’t need a ladder, and I wasn’t afraid of falling. I cleaned out the sewage drain, because I could hold my breath indefinitely. My x-ray vision found her missing earring; my superspeed saved her cat. And I washed the dishes after dinner, never breaking a single one. But I think the only reason she didn’t kick me out of the house was because she was afraid I’d kill her with my heat vision.

“I got an A on my midterm,” I said, almost hopefully.

“You’re wasting your gifts,” she said. She took the remote and turned off the television.

“I want to be a marine biologist,” I said quietly.

She pursed her lips. “At least you might save a whale,” she said, and went to her room. I don’t care what anyone says–disappointment is way worse than a super villain.

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