by Gord Sellar
The land slept hard, after months blanketed beneath deep snow. Seeds nestled in the soil, frozen on the cusp of sprouting, and the earth was riddled with slumbering creatures strewn cold in their tunnels, the husks of the dead and of those yet to reawaken. A vast whiteness covered everything, blazing intense even in the darkness of prairie night. The snow stirred only when occasional windstorms struck it, or by the coming of the sun in frigid new year’s mornings.
Across these frozen plains cut long, snaking ribbons of highway stretching out to the east, to the west, and the south, with a few running northward. Visible from far above as long, grey slashes cleaving the barren whiteness, these highways were the main evidence of intelligence in this snow-desert, more readily noticed than the tiny dots of the towns, more constant than the steamy exhaust of the furnaces in those tiny, defiantly warm farmhouses that clung to the earth. The creatures that had built these roads were thinkers, planners. They could plant and prepare for spring, and dream of the crops that would come after the year’s snow had come and gone again.
The seeds of the next fall’s crop, MSWW-536, did not dream as they slumbered, waiting, in the earth. They did not plot or scheme, though they held secrets. When the warmth of spring came, it would unlock the strange clockwork mechanisms buried in their hearts and unleash their wondrous otherness upon the plains. Though it was not the first of its kind, and far from the last, this year’s crop was different in a way from all those that had preceded it.
People had begun to sense it, by then, even if the earth itself had lain as open as ever to the seeds. Not everyone, just a few, those who lived on the land, and worked it. A very few sensed some deepening enigma beneath the snow, in the way the land lay there, accepting that strange, unnatural seed, yet turning within itself, bracing for what was certain to come. They thought of the seeds as they looked out across the vastness of the snow, imagining the blizzards that it just might spawn, covering up the roads and leaving confusion in the place of everything that had stood clear under the wide, gentle sky. They thought of the seeds and the change they might bring, and waited for the coming spring.
* * *
Jimmy’s ice skates were just a smidge too small, because they were his cousin’s hand-me-downs, but that never slowed him down in the thick of a game. He managed to get a couple of shots past Mike Yip and between the two black plastic posts that marked the width of the net, one off a pass from Terry Horchinski. Two goals was really something, and the victory tune that the flashing, shivering puck played as it soared between the tracking posts was still ringing in his ears when the game was over. Mike was a tenth grader and built like an ox, after all, and Jimmy was only twelve—and Terry always bragged about how he’d been playing hockey since he’d been in diapers.
Jimmy knew that was bullshit, but Mike was the best goalie in all of Biggar, and in all the years of coming out and playing on the frozen slough at the Wishnowski place, Jimmy had never scored on him twice in one game before. And they’d streamed it live, Jimmy thought, happily glancing up to the drone they’d set loose to capture it all. He looked forward to showing his dad those shots: the old man might not be much interested in hockey, but he’d cheer Jimmy on, all the same.
After the game, Mrs. Wishnowski invited the boys in for hot chocolate and to warm up in her kitchen. Everyone but Mike took her up on the offer, because he had to go pick up his old man in town in twenty minutes anyway. He offered the other boys a ride, but they all turned him down.
They stayed out of gratitude to Mrs. Wishnowski. She didn’t have a boy of her own around anymore—her own son, Randy, had moved to Saskatoon to study at the University. She talked about him all the time, and said she was sure he’d never move back to Biggar, not ever, not even for the summers, except maybe at harvest-time. Which was kind of sad, but that was how it always was with young people, and it wasn’t so bad, really. It wasn’t like Randy had died or anything. Saskatoon was only an hour away: she could always visit him sometime. Even if he did like everyone else, and moved to Calgary, or down East, or to one of those famous new economic development zones in India that all the smart kids seemed to be going to for a year or two, just long enough to make a fortune. She just seemed a little lonely, a little sad at how nobody her boy’s age ever stayed around for long anymore.
“Well, boys, you sure played hard out there,” she smiled and sipped her own mug of hot chocolate. “How’s your father, Jimmy?” She always asked after him. They’d taken classes together in high school.
“He’s just fine,” Jimmy said, feeling a little protective of his dad. “Still working on that wheat strain of his, I think.”
“Well, he always was a clever one,” she said, ruffling Jimmy’s blond hair. “We were always so sure he was gonna do something big, someday,” she added, and then she went silent. Jimmy didn’t know what to say. He’d heard from Terry that Mrs. Wishnowski had dated his dad for a while in high school. Knowing that felt a little weird, made it always feel awkward whenever she asked about how his old man was doing.
One by one the boys finished their hot chocolates, put down their empty mugs, and wiped their mouths with their shirtsleeves. They all sat there for a while, saying nothing, and the TV nattered away in the background, too low to make out much except that it was a talk show on one of the craptertainment American feeds Mrs. W ran off one of Randy’s old rebuilt Playstations in the living room. READ MORE
by Mercurio D. Rivera
Emilio sat up inside the REMpod, discombobulated, and took deep breaths. He thought he heard Tomás shout “Dad!” from a distance before the cobwebs cleared and he regained his bearings.
The Seed. He was aboard the Seed.
Tomás had been dead for centuries.
His shortness of breath gave way to a sob. He covered his face with his hands.
Rows of REMpods, like pale-blue neon-lit coffins, surrounded him in the darkness. The steadiness of the blue glow signaled that all the sleepers on the cavernous deck remained in stasis. The cityship was still en route to Proxima b.
“Sorry to wake you prematurely, Dr. Garcia,” LEE3 whispered into his earpiece.
“Pre—prematurely?” he said, teeth chattering. His throat felt dry.
“How long . . . ?”
“Two hundred fifty-one days. We need your help with a medical issue.”
Only eight months? Tomás was still alive then, still a child. He clutched the locket around his neck and felt an enormous wave of relief as he strained to stop his shivering.
“Dr. Lo?” Emilio said. “Dr. Srinivasan?”
“Still in stasis. Only your services are required right now.”
His services? Someone on the skeleton crew needed a psychotherapist? He was about to ask why an AI therapist hadn’t been activated when LEE3 added, “My algo concluded you’re the best suited for the problem at hand, Doc.”
“Understood,” he said. If the alien algorithm had selected him for the job, that settled the matter.
He stretched his arms over his head and took a few minutes to allow the lightheadedness to pass before standing. Then he stepped out onto the ladder leading past the stacked rows of REMpods to the deck below.
* * *
As he exited the shower stalls, the dressing room remained veiled in darkness, lit only by the indigo glow of the phosphor strips lining the edges of the ceiling.
“LEE3. Can you do anything about the lighting?” The ship’s AI presented now as an androgynous hologram, bald, with high cheekbones and pouty lips. It appeared to sit on one of the benches in the dressing area.
“We’ve gotta watch our energy consumption, Doc. In-transit travel protocols,” LEE3 said, shrugging apologetically. Its mannerisms and colloquial speech patterns were designed to make listeners feel more comfortable, no doubt, but they struck Emilio as odd. “But you do have local power sources.”
“Oh?” Emilio flicked on a mirror light and powered up the holomonitor. The shower had done him good. He felt fully awake, at least.
A few seconds later, a star-map projected overhead, revealing the Seed’s location. They had cleared Neptune and were just a week away from a layover on Pluto where a thousand colonists would board the Seed and enter stasis.
The trip to New Earth would take three centuries. After a hundred years—the maximum amount of time the human body could tolerate stasis without permanent brain damage-—the passengers would all awaken to life aboard the cityship. And upon arrival at their destination, the Seed would serve as a ready-made home base while their descendants studied and terraformed their new world.
“So, what’s the nature of the medical issue?” he said, applying shaving gel to his face.
“Three days ago there was an incident. Angela Velasquez, an engineer.” LEE3 pointed at the star-map hovering next to Emilio and the image faded, replaced by vid of a REMpod. A brown-skinned woman with long curly hair lay inside, her body twitching, eyelids fluttering. “As you can see,” LEE3 said, “she was dreaming.” The AI’s voice dropped to a whisper, as if afraid the sleeping woman might be wakened.
“Experiencing intense nightmares, actually. Her blood pressure spiked, and when the heart palpitations started, I woke her.”
The vid faded, the star-map reappearing.
“How is that possible?” Emilio asked. REMpods suppressed all neurological activity while a traveler slept—including the rapid eye movement associated with dreaming, which was how the pods got their name. REMpods were alien tech. Library Tech. And Library Tech never malfunctioned.
“No clue. One of the members of the skeleton crew is examining Ms. Velasquez’s REMpod right now, looking for some defect—as improbable as that may be—but in the meantime, she’s still tormented by nightmares. She barely sleeps, and when my algo suggested she see a therapist—you, specifically—she finally agreed.”