Jake sighed as he slumped against the steering wheel of his truck and moved back into the lane. He had moved over to the side to let a motorcycle past because the truck filled the whole lane. It had been years since he’d been on a bike, the girl who loved to ride on the back of his cruiser when they were dating had mysteriously morphed into a wife who made him sell his bike because she was worried he’d get killed riding it. At least that meant she wanted him to make it home, right? Things could be worse. Some couples burned hot for a few years and then faded but they still lay in bed on Saturday mornings laughing and cuddling like newlyweds. He smiled, thinking about her eyes looking up at him. Continue reading
The airstrike rattled the city, everything shook. Dust rattled down from the rafters and somewhere in the basement below an infant cried. Mo sat as still as he could amidst the crush of strangers and tried to focus on breathing. The air was thin, too many lungs sucking oxygen and not enough ventilation. The earth shook again beneath the roar of planes overhead, and the thunder of bombs; aggravating the ringing in his ears.
He had ended up here by sheer good luck, if you could call it that. The university had closed months ago because of the protests and never re-opened. When the military had opened fire on protests in the capital the shock waves went right across the country. Many of the students had joined militias, others fled. Mo headed for the border, he couldn’t muster enough faith to believe in a revolution and the fundamentalists were even worse than the soldiers. On foot it was a long journey and the war overtook him. Continue reading
The night was warm with the scent of rain and a few lonely stars visible through the clouds. I pulled my scarf up the back of my neck, flush against my helmet to take the edge off the wind. Ahead of me, the glow of my high beams threw the surrounding darkness into sharper relief and lit up the underbrush of the trees. Coming into the corner, I leaned forward low over the gas tank and let the bike slide gracefully into the curve as I hugged the edge of the mountain. Continue reading
The flower was huge, pink, and spiny – like something from the surface of an alien world. Jenna was enthralled. Around her, the farmers market buzzed with people and activity, but she was long gone. She pictured herself as the exiled queen of an ancient empire, cast adrift in space, her last loyal retainers around her as she worked to raise an army and reclaim her lost home world. The chief among them, Zarrow the mighty with his muscles ripling under his green skin in the red light of a dying sun, would carry it back from their last raid against the enemy to present to her, his queen, as a token of their forbidden love.
Jenna blushed to herself, a secret smile playing on the edge of her lips.
Suddenly, she was knocked aside, dreams scattered like sand in the surf, as her little brother Aaron barreled into her, hooting with delight. He was playing tag and too busy running as fast as possible to bother looking where he was going. Their mother, two stalls away, was trying her best to disavow all knowledge of the unruly herd and focus on picking out tomatoes from the big box. As the mother of five she knew that the endless tribal warfare would never stop and had stopped trying years ago As far as she was concerned, the kids were an autonomous nation of their own and as long as nobody needed to go to the emergency room, she just plain didn’t care.
Which was nice for her and all, but as the older sister Jenna felt the need to establish some order in the universe and so did her best to fill the void. In this case though, her chance had passed – Aaron had taken advantage of her temporary confusion to flee the scene of his crime and she didn’t feel like chasing him. At 14 years old she was practically a woman and it was beneath her dignity. More importantly, he was far enough away that she couldn’t easily catch him. At least for now.
She turned back to the stall, looking for her flower and was surprised to see Adam (from her 4th period math class) at the till, buying flowers. To her delight, she saw he’d picked out one of the big pink spiny ones and hoped for a moment he’d give it to her, dropping to one knee and proffering it with both hands and proclaiming his eternal devotion. Instead, he stuck it in his bag, got on his bike and rode away; a gift for some other girl. She tried not to feel disappointed, Adam wasn’t her type anyway. He was nice to look at but not a lot going on upstairs.
She sighed and her shoulders slumped a bit before picking herself back up and saying under her breath “well Jenna, sometimes a girl has to buy her own flowers. Might as well do it.”
She brought it home and put it in a vase by her bed, smelling its exotic perfume. She dreamed.
Molly ran down the dirt road, squealing with delight. She felt as though if she went any faster her body would break gravity’s hold and she’d be able to soar off into the sky. She jumped and spread her arms wide imagining it, before landing knees bent and then springing forward again.
Look at me daddy, I’m flying!
Her father came walking behind, heavy backpack weighing him to earth as they slowly climbed the mountain. Their previous camp spot downtown under the bridge had been a hell of a lot more convenient, but the police had a habit of waking people they caught camping with a kick to the head and if one of those bastards hurt Molly, things would get very intense very fast. He wasn’t going to let that happen. So instead, it was up into the hills. Less accessible, more places to camp, no cops, and clean fresh air.
Up ahead, Molly was perched on top of a boulder, looking out at the city below. She had no concept of homelessness or unemployment and if her father had his way she never would. And while she still cried sometimes at night because she missed her mother, this last summer had been one gigantic adventure and she was thrilled to have her daddy spending so much time with her.
Tom found himself walking the path, lost in thought. When his wife had been diagnosed with cancer he thought his world was ending and things couldn’t get worse, at least until their health insurance refused to pay for her treatment and they’d had to take out a second mortgage to cover the bills. He quickly used up all his time off and sick leave driving her to doctors appointments. His work suffered, but even so, the layoff had taken him by surprise. Unable to afford the treatment and with his credit cards maxed out, he’d taken Jeanine home; hardly leaving her side for those last weeks. Molly didn’t understand what was going on and cried constantly, they all did. A month after Jeanine died, he and Molly had moved in with a friend and put the house up for sale while he continued to look for work. But the work hadn’t come and there’s a limit to the generosity of even a good friend.
Look at the city daddy! It’s beautiful!
It’s hard to stay depressed around a five year old, especially one as precocious as Molly. Tom pulled himself together and bent down to look along her outstretched arm at the city below.
Well, I promised you a place with a view didn’t I? Only the best for my little girl.
He hugged her like he’d never let her go, his whole world wrapped up tight in his arms. They watched the sun set over the trees.
The afternoon was cold and foggy – a typical summer day in San Francisco – and Gary was glad he’d grabbed his heavy jacket on the way out the door. Traffic was a mess, as usual, and he shivered a bit as he carefully wound his way between the lanes of traffic. Lane splitting downtown struck him as having more than a passing similarity with riding a motorcycle through a mine field, except the mines moved unpredictably and would occasionally vent their frustration by trying to swerve into him to block his progress.
On the one hand, he felt like he should be shocked and dismayed that people would attempt to murder a complete stranger because they perceived him as “cutting in line” even though lane splitting was perfectly legal. On the other hand, Gary’s opinion of humanity as a whole was low enough that he couldn’t work up anything approaching genuine surprise. Sure, he thought, most people are decent enough most of the time if they can connect with another human one to one. But the moment they stop thinking of you as a person and start thinking of you as a “car” or “motorcycle” or “internet comment” the claws and fangs come out and we’re right back in the jungle. We may claim to value kindness and empathy, but most people just want to get theirs most of the time.
He squeezed his brake to slow down abruptly and avoid crashing into the idiot talking on the phone while making a left turn into oncoming traffic, and let out a sustained blast on his horn as he wove around them and up onto the on-ramp towards the bridge.
To ride a motorcycle well requires being aware of not only ones self, but of everyone around you – the teenager having a screaming argument with her boyfriend on her cell phone and moving erratically. The trucker who is bigger than anything else on the road and lets his size compensate for the fact that he’s been up for 20 hours straight and is driving like crap. The middle aged man texting with his mistress while he steers his luxury sedan with his knees, lost in a fantasy that doesn’t involve a grouchy wife and 3 mouthy kids who stubbornly refuse to shut up and do what they’re told. Bubba in his lifted oversize pickup who might ride dirtbikes on the weekend and let you by with a wave and a smile… or might take out his frustration with his dead end job by casually swerving in front of you.
The whole thing was just ever so slightly terrifying. And since fear can help keep one alert, he figured that was a good thing. Still, if there was an undercurrent of fear the dominant emotion was unbridled joy and exhileration.
As he wove through traffic, Gary couldn’t help smiling as the stress of the day fell away. The rush of acceleration, the subtle dance as he scanned for hazards and deftly avoided them, and – most of all – the knowledge that she was waiting for him at the other end of the ride.
There are managers who you like and even learn from, people who make you feel motivated and excited to be part of a team and who lead by example instead of relying on threats and bribes. And then there are managers like Roy. He’s not a bad guy and was a decent engineer, but some people should never be promoted to management!
Robin was trying very hard to be diplomatic and failing miserably. Roy had been a great programmer and when their boss had retired everyone assumed Roy would be the obvious guy to take over as Team lead, but his skill as an engineer had completely failed to translate into skill leading a group of engineers and he was floundering. Everyone knew it, including Roy, and his panic at suddenly being bad at his job had made him defensive, which of course only made things worse.
She wasn’t trying to be critical, but things were quickly turning toxic and she wasn’t thrilled to have to contemplate looking for a new job.
Have you ever heard of the Peter Principle?
Jeanine had briefly studied organizational theory before dropping out of her grad program when she had her first child. Having a career and building a human was all the stress she could handle. She’d been talking about going back for most of the decade since. In the meantime, she kept up with the field as best she could by reading on her own and finding excuses to talk over the ideas with friends.
Ok, so basically this guy Lawrence Peter argued that in most human organizations people get promoted based on their competence at the job they were doing previously, not based on how they’d perform in the job they’re getting promoted into. Which means that over time, everyone who climbs the ladder will eventually get promoted to their position of incompetence where their inability to perform prevents them from advancing further and every large organization that doesn’t actively take steps to prevent it will end up being run by incompetent people. It’s a side effect of the fact that our brains haven’t adjusted to moving out of a hunter gatherer society where it made sense to have the best hunter lead the hunt.
“So what you’re saying is it’s not Roy’s fault that he sucks at his job and I should just blame biology?” Robin was obviously skeptical and her laugh dripped with sarcasm. “Roy doesn’t need my pity, what he needs is a crash course in basic management skills.”
Robin stopped to take a sip of her beer. It had been a long week and even without an incompetent and defensive manager she’d have been tired. Her relief at it finally being Friday night was palpable and, as much as she enjoyed spending time with Jeanine, what she really wanted more than anything was to curl up in a comfy chair and read a book. She started to make an excuse and stood up without looking behind her, and bumped into a couple guys who were walking past. Robin apologized reflexively as she turned around and was surprised to find herself looking up into a face she recognized. It took a second to click and then
He laughed at her surprise and she tried not to let the way the crinkles around his smile made her feel register on her face. They had talked a bit on skype after that first initial meeting, mostly work stuff but occasionally veering off into personal lives, music, sports. All the standard small talk. She thought he’d wanted to ask her out but he never seemed to work up the courage so bumping into him here was as unexpected at it was pleasant. He’d come out to Oakland from the city to meet a friend, Charles, who he promptly introduced.
Sorry, it looked like you were about to leave, I didn’t mean to bump into you I should have been watching more carefully…
Oh no! Nothing to apologize for, I walked into you. Actually I was just going to get up and get another round. Want to join us?
The two men looked at each other and it was Charles who spoke first. “Actually, that would be just about perfect.” Jeanine quickly chimed in “Well I’m glad that’s settled then! You two go get us a pitcher” as she playfully shooed them away and motioned Charles to come sit by her.
John pushed through the crowd, Robin following after him, trying her best to not to make the fact that she was staring at his butt overly obvious. She failed. He didn’t mind. It was a good night.
Getting older is one of the few inevitable’s in life., and yet it’s a constant source of surprise. I still can’t quite wrap my head around how fast the years since have gone. 9 years in a failed marriage, a house that my ex kept, a pile of songs no one sings on albums no one listens too. And now even my career is falling apart. I’ve failed at literally everything I’ve ever cared about.
Grant took another sip of his beer and stared straight down at the table, blank faced. He was in one of his depressive moods and thought he was being philosophical and honest but as far as the rest of the world was concerned he was just wallowing in self-pity. Jared looked across the table at his friend and raised his eyebrow.
Snap out of it man. There’s a difference between failing and not having succeeded yet. Everyone who knows you respects you – you have courage and integrity and you’re smart. No one else would have walked into Mark (their CEO)’s office after a major product launch and told him the direction he was taking the company was wrong and would bankrupt us. And I can’t think of anyone else who could have convinced him he was right. That takes guts. You should be proud of yourself, not crying into your beer. Continue reading
The sound of artillery was thunder, earthquakes, and every bad dream he had ever had as a child rolled into one. A sound more felt than heard, it made his bones ache as the vibrations poured through him. He had never particularly wanted to be a soldier, but when you are a young man with no prospects in a nation at war it’s hard to avoid the front lines.
Sy had no real conception of the enemy – he had rarely left the settlement where he grew up before joining the army and the natives were invisible behind the wall. The land had been barren, inhospitable, and it was only when the Settlers had arrived that the desert started to bloom. They had fled fear and persecution in a hundred lands and come here looking for peace, only to find themselves attacked and locked in an endless war. Growing up he had heard the stories so many times he knew them all by heart. They had won this land with their blood sweat and tears and he had no intention of letting some barely-civilized savages take it from them.
Watching the shells fly overhead and slam one after another into the wreckage of the city ahead, Sy felt himself growing more and more certain that he was doing the right thing. The alternative was not even worth considering – no matter what those softhearted fools in the Korridge party said. How could they preach disarmament in the middle of a world that wanted nothing more than to drive them all back into the cold dark of space to wander for who knows how many years until they found a new home? And while the war might be messy, it was nothing compared to the damage humans had inflicted on this world in the centuries before the Jorn had arrived – it would take decades to undo the damage these primitives had done to the ecology. They didn’t deserve a planet like Earth, their actions had proven it. This world would be a new homeland for the Jornish people, and if the Humans didn’t like it they could go somewhere else!
Outside the walls, Caleb huddled in the wreckage of a hospital and watched the shells come down, pounding the remnants of the city into rubble. Houston had never had the most hospitable climate, but with those alien bloodsuckers sucking all the water into their settlements and poisoning everything else, farming was impossible and the travel restrictions on human movement made trade almost impossible. In order to eat, humanity was left scavenging from the wreckage of human cities or from the waste of the Jornish settlements that had displaced them.
America had first welcomed the refugees – those damn liberals had insisted that it didn’t matter whether they were human, they were sentient beings in need of shelter and their technology and know-how could only make the nation stronger. But the refugees kept coming, and when congress had tried to limit the influx they had ignored the rules. Worse, there was no way to stop them coming – how can you stop immigrants who can simply drop from the sky and land anywhere they like at any time? The air force had gotten involved and – after one too many confrontations – someone had opened fire at a Jornin dropship. The response was instantaneous.
Within an hour every capital city in the world was in ruins, bombarded from space by the warship no one knew was waiting there. Within six hours the governments had fallen apart, military installations turned to rubble. Within six days the Jornin militias, armed with weapons from their ship, had wiped out all organized resistance. Still, the human spirit is strong and in the 60 years since, the disorganized resistance had never yet let up.
They had no real hope of winning. What can guns and improvised rockets do against plasma cannons and artillery that can level entire city blocks? But they were going to keep fighting anyway, make the monsters pay for every inch. Maybe if they made them bleed enough, made it hard enough, they’d eventually give up and go back wherever the hell they’d come from and let humanity rebuild. It was a ridiculous notion, no one seriously believed it, but “Drive them back into Space” had been the rallying cry of the resistance since long before Caleb had been born and he wasn’t about to try and change it. He was too busy killing Jorns.
Caleb leaned into the scope of his rifle and took aim. It was a strange sort of weapon, cobbled together from salvaged Jornish tech and human ingenuity but it worked well enough. They were preparing for another ground offensive, lured out from behind that damned wall by the humans home made rockets. The rockets couldn’t do much harm – nearly all of them were intercepted before they could hit anything, but it made the bastards angry and when they got angry they swarmed. He signaled his men to take up positions around the bluff and waited for the enemy patrol to approach.
They were silent. Hours passed. Finally, the Jorns moved into range and the trap was sprung. Rifle fire picked off the two rearmost in the column before their friends realized they were even under attack. As the second body fell with a thud, they realized they were under fire and rushed deeper into the ravine to escape the enemy they thought was firing from outside. Caleb hit the detonator and a home-made mortar pointing out from the back of the ravine ripped through the enemy squad as his snipers rained fire down on the enemy below. It was a bloodbath, perfectly executed. As they last Jornin soldier fell and his men cheered and rose from their positions, Caleb took a moment to reflect on a job well done.
The enemy artillery shell took him entirely by surprise.
Sy looked down at the human trooper, pinned unconscious under the rubble and kicked it in the head. How could anyone seek peace with monsters like this? These humans had no empathy, no souls, they deserved no mercy. Captain Mek had been a hard ass but he was a good man, a soldier of Jorn, and he had helped Sy pull it together when he was a new recruit who didn’t know his cleck from his blaster. And now this good man lay dead, surrounded by the bodies of his men. And this human – the sole survivor of the shelling that had followed the rapid extinction of A squadrons life monitors, was responsible.
Sy kicked him again, and again, first in the groin and then in the face. The savage stirred.
The world was black, no light, no sound, only pain and the deafening ringing of his burst eardrums. Caleb had the faint idea that he was being kicked, but that couldn’t be right. No one can kick you when you’re dead, or at least if they do you’re not supposed to be able to feel it. The blow to his face sent ripples of pain through his wrecked body, and he decided he must somehow still be alive. He looked up at the alien raining blows down on him and cursing in that weird clicking language of theirs. If his jaw hadn’t been shattered he might have smiled.
“For god and country, for earth” – he’d decided on the last words years ago but couldn’t form them with his face in tatters. Instead he settled for extending a single middle finger on his unbroken left hand and activated the explosives in his vest.
The explosion ignited the vests on his squadmates corpses, leveling the canyon and every Jorn in it. If he’d still been alive to hear it, Caleb might have smiled.
The cold silence of the desert rang out across the blasted ravine, with no one and nothing left alive to hear it. A defeat, a victory, a moment of peace.
“A 20% down payment on a $600,000 house is $120,000. You’ll need that plus another $20,000 to cover closing costs at minimum to get started.”
Back in India that amount of money would have bought a palace and even elsewhere in the US it would have bought a mansion, but here in the Bay Area it would buy only a modest 3 bedroom in a not-too-bad part of Oakland. The numbers were so big they might as well be imaginary. At more than a year’s gross salary just to get started, it was an almost impossible number to raise. His programmer’s instinct kicked in and Ajay immediately started breaking down the numbers into smaller pieces. $12,000 for the new motorcycle he had wanted since his bike had died – riding BART into the city every day had tripled the length of his commute. $15k for a used minivan to get the kids to their soccer games and violin lessons. Another $6,000 or so to take the whole family to India to visit his grandparents – after all they weren’t getting any younger and he wanted his children to have memories of them and of the village where he grew up. Those costs had seemed insurmountable on their own but even all together they were only a third of what he’d need to raise here. All of that and he hadn’t even scratched the surface of this phenomenal figure. Still, his family needed a place to live and rent isn’t all that much cheaper than a mortgage once you get the down payment out of the way. Why throw money down a hole? And Pita, his father, had always wanted the family to own land in America.
He and Vedika had saved everything they could for years but still barely scratched the surface of what they needed. They both worked full time, lived frugally, almost never went out to restaurants or took vacations. They’d managed to scrape together almost $20,000 over the course of the last 4 years – only to watch housing prices soar, dip temporarily almost into the range where they could afford something, and then take off again with hardly a pause. They had made several bids last year only to see all three houses get snatched up with cash offers from property management companies that promptly turned them into rentals. When their offer for the last one fell through he and Vedika had been so disappointed they sat together and cried. Their son, John (they’d given him an Anglo name to try and help him fit in) was 5 and had been so frightened to see his parents cry he’d joined in as well. They kissed his tears away and let him sleep in their bed, the three of them holding each other tight like refugees on a life raft lost at sea.
Last month Ajay’s father had died, his mother had died of an illness years before and he was an only child. He had been a good father, stern but fair; but they had never been close. By the time Ajay was a teenager they were more like housemates than family. He’d hardly discussed his money troubles, only a dutiful nod that “yes father, I am still saving. We will buy land as soon as we can afford it.” Pitā was old, but not that old so the death was a shock. As far as anyone knew he was in good health. Ajay was doubly shocked to receive a check for $150,000 from an insurance company – apparently his father had signed up for the policy just months prior. He must have known somehow that it was coming. And so the money appeared out of the blue, a message of love from the father he had hardly known. He was alternately moved to tears, overjoyed, relieved, and ashamed at himself for feeling such emotions instead of the grief everyone expected.
The bank manager was impatient, drumming his fingers on his clipboard. Mister Sampat, did you hear me? There’s no point even looking unless you are ready to make a bid, the market is moving far to fast. Do you have your down payment ready?
Yes, the money is all here. It was a gift from my father.
Alright, I’ll need a signed and notarized letter saying that it was a gift and he will not be expecting repayment…
No, I’m sorry. You don’t understand, he’s dead. It was his life insurance money.
The man was caught of guard and stammered “Oh I’m, I’m sorry for your loss.”
It is alright, there’s no reason to apologize. I will send you all the papers tonight.
A week later they made their first bid on a home, two weeks later they found out it had been accepted. They kept waiting to give notice to their landlord in case something went wrong and the deal fell through, but all went as planned and a month later he had the keys. He gave notice the same day. As he and Vedika loaded up all their things into the moving truck John started to cry and asked “where are they taking our things Pitā? Where are we going?”
Ajay picked up his little boy, the light of his world, and held him close. “Dry your tears my son, today we go home for the first time.”