Story Excerpt

The Dust of Giant Radioactive Lizards

by Jason Sanford

 

Tessa Raij lay under the tin roof of her clapboard shelter and stared at the dead teenage girl standing before her. Tessa had slept all day under the blazing Nevada sun only to wake and discover the dead girl. The wood planks under Tessa’s mattress creaked gently, giving her the illusion she still lived in a universe of time.

Not wanting to deal with yet another person who’d died trying to see her, Tessa rolled over and looked the other way.

She’d dragged her shelter last year to the lip of the massive crater left by the Sedan nuclear blast. She dangled her feet into the crater before jumping down, taking care not to walk too far and turn the shelter or dead girl to dust.

She sat to clear her head, her silver spacesuit cushioning her from rocks and briers. On the other side of the crater, well outside her sphere of influence, heat waves wrinkled the sagebrush and baked soil. A buzzard soared the blue sky, riding the desert’s thermals.

The buzzard circled with a little too much interest, but there was nothing she could do about that. At least the authorities and an outsized fear of the Nevada Test Site’s negligible radioactivity kept most people away.

From her backpack Tessa pulled a notebook with a cartoon Godzilla on the cover and wrote her daily observations with an old-fashioned ink pen. Yet another morning in a four-decade curse of life. Another year without eating. A new decade without a sip of water. She took a breath last month merely to scream. And of course, she still had no clue how she—or the rest of humanity—could escape this perverse prison.

Tessa added a note about the dead girl before placing the notebook in her backpack. She then climbed back to her shack.

That’s when Tessa saw the buzzard floating toward her—the damn thing had flown into her influence horizon. Months without killing anything and now two lives in a single day. She cursed as the buzzard floated down toward her, propelled by forces she couldn’t understand.

When the buzzard reached Tessa she hugged it tight against her body. The buzzard returned to time, jerking its neck in a startle reflex and squawking in pain. Tessa folded the buzzard’s wings against its body and threw the bird away from her. The buzzard floated until it reached her horizon, where the bird exploded into billion-year-old dust.

Tessa planned to spend more time with the girl than she had with the buzzard. Step close enough to allow her to return to time. Ask her name. See if there were any final messages to deliver. Some people cried when they realized what they’d done. Others accepted their fate and spent their final moments talking with Tessa until the pain of being near her grew too great to bear. Even though Tessa wasn’t a religious woman, she prayed the dead girl would be among the latter.

But when she stepped beside the girl, Tessa received the worst shock she could imagine. The dead girl was truly and absolutely dead.

*   *   *

Occasionally the soldiers who were supposed to keep people away asked Tessa questions. They’d turn on the holographic system on their communications truck—always parked well outside her influence sphere—and project words into the sky. Usually Tessa ignored the questions. Sometimes she’d write an answer in a notebook and hold the paper up so the soldiers could read her responses through their binoculars.

Their most frequent question was why she liked this ancient nuclear blast crater.

Tessa no longer explained that as a child she’d lived eight horrible years near Las Vegas with her grandmother, long before the city was abandoned during the water wars of the middle twenty-first century.

Tessa’s grandmother had insisted on being called Aunt Fancy instead of anything hinting at closer familiarity. As a child Tessa lay in their decaying tin and plywood trailer and listened to the air conditioning squeal out barely cool breezes, the A/C running in tune with Aunt Fancy’s complaints about her daughter dying and leaving a child to raise.

She’d hated Aunt Fancy even then. Hated when Aunt Fancy yelled at her to stay inside so the hot sun wouldn’t make her skin darker. Hated the twists and turns of life resulting in Aunt Fancy being her only living relative.

When the social worker dropped her off at age nine at Aunt Fancy’s door, all Tessa had in her backpack was a single change of clothes, a plastic Godzilla toy, and a school notebook in which she and her mother had reviewed their favorite kaiju movies and shows.

“Kids should be with family,” the social worker said to Aunt Fancy as the three of them sat at the linoleum-covered card table in the trailer’s kitchen.

“Of course,” Aunt Fancy said, pulling a cigarette from her rhinestone purse before deciding against lighting up in front of the social worker.

Tessa ignored the conversation and opened her kaiju notebook. She reread the last entry, from three weeks before when she and Mom had watched several old Ultraman episodes. Tessa thought the episodes silly and technically not kaiju until Mom whispered how, as a kid, she’d rushed home after school to watch them.

“My only TV was in Aunt Fancy’s bedroom,” Mom had said, also calling her mother by that silly name. “Ultraman reruns were on one of the cable channels, but I had to watch them before Aunt Fancy returned from waiting tables at the casino. She didn’t hold with young ladies watching monster shows.”

As Aunt Fancy and the social worker talked, Tessa glanced toward the bedroom down the hall. A giant TV built like a wooden dresser sat on the floor. Was that the same TV Mom had watched Ultraman on as a kid?

In the notebook Tessa had lied and given Ultraman five stars, much to Mom’s delight. Now she was glad she did. The next morning she walked into Mom’s bedroom, wondering why she wasn’t getting ready for her job, and found her dead. She’d passed away between tucking Tessa into bed and the morning sun rising over their apartment complex.

“What’s that girl doing?” Aunt Fancy asked, tapping her unlit cigarette impatiently against the linoleum curling up from the tabletop, revealing the cracked plywood below.

The social worker tittered as she closed Tessa’s notebook. “Oh, Tessa loves Japanese monster shows. I told her the test grounds might have some ‘monsters’ nearby. Maybe you should take her there to see the nuclear craters.”

“Maybe,” Aunt Fancy said, but her hard eyes told Tessa such a trip would never happen.

When Tessa came back from school two days later Aunt Fancy had thrown away her Godzilla toy and kaiju notebook.

Now, decades after Aunt Fancy died, Tessa had finally found a crater to call her own.

*   *   *

For two days Tessa lay on the floor of her shack contemplating the dead girl standing before her. The girl was in her late teens. Seventeen at most. A bland moon of a face, neither excited nor afraid by whatever killed her. Pale skin with a sunburn. Hair cut short and dyed in rainbow splashes of red, blue, yellow, and purple. Her bluejean-like clothes dazzled with artificial diamonds spelling out obscene words. No doubt some rebellious fad of which Tessa knew nothing.

The girl also looked familiar, reminding her of pictures she’d seen of Aunt Fancy when her grandmother was young. Tessa tried to remember if Aunt Fancy had any children other than Mom. She didn’t think so but wasn’t sure.

Unlike with the buzzard or any other item that entered her horizon, Tessa couldn’t return a bit of time to this girl. She stood immobile as a rock carved of flesh and fabric. Tessa had pushed her, hit her, even taken the hammer she used to nail together her shack and smashed her across the face. The hammer shattered, but the girl’s face hadn’t been disturbed.

Tessa glanced at the soldiers sitting in their air-conditioned trucks a quarter klick away. They’d been there for the last two days, ever since the girl appeared. She watched as a new truck drove up and a white-haired man named Hix stepped out.

Tessa waved—Hix had been her handler for the last four decades, and his father Stephan Rojas had been Tessa’s partner in the astronaut program when they’d opened that damned dimensional portal. Hix had been a young man when his father died and he never blamed Tessa for what happened, even volunteering to be her connection with NASA and the military.

But while Hix may not have faulted her for Stephan’s death, that didn’t mean she didn’t continually blame herself.

Hix held the truck door open, and a young boy of eight or nine stepped out. He looked familiar, but Tessa couldn’t place his face. Hix pointed at Tessa and mouthed silent words. Tessa hoped he was saying “That’s the friend I was telling you about” and not “That’s the freak in the spacesuit stuck in her own time stream.”

Hix and the boy walked to the communications truck.

“Been too long, Tessa,” Hix said, his words appearing in the sky as giant holographic letters outlined with fake fireworks explosions. From the way the little boy clapped in glee, Tessa guessed the colorful letters were to impress him.

Tessa picked up her pad of paper. “Always good to see you, Hix,” she wrote, holding the paper up for the truck’s binoculars to see.

“Thanks for making them bring me back.”

“Who’s the kid?”

“My grandson. Name’s Stephan. He wanted to see you.”

Tessa paused in her writing. No wonder the young boy looked familiar. And to have been given the same name as her best friend . . .

Tessa pushed those painful memories away and wrote “Hi Stephan!” The word “Hi” flashed back in rainbow fireworks bursting across the sky.

*   *   *

“Still don’t know much, do we?” Hix said after they’d gone through the details of the last few days.

Tessa laughed at the joke, which Hix had made many times during the decades they’d worked together. The influence horizon surrounding Tessa reached twenty-seven meters from her body in every direction, an arbitrary number that irritated every scientist and mathematician who studied it. Anything entering her horizon no longer experienced the passage of time.

However, Tessa did experience a semblance of time, and any object she touched or which passed within a few meters of her did the same. But any other living creature in her influence sphere suffered extreme pain. And the moment anything exited her sphere it experienced a passage of time equal to what scientists estimated to be a billion years.

In visible terms, they turned to dust.

No one knew how this happened. No one knew why the sphere followed Tessa. No one knew why she didn’t age or need to eat or breathe or why if she tried to kill herself she healed instantly.

The only clue they had was that, since Tessa’s return from another dimension, every subsequent attempt to open a new portal had failed. Hix once joked that Tessa was a dimensional drainage plug.

“Someone over there didn’t like us popping into their reality,” Hix said. “They’re using you to stop any more attempts.”

To keep humanity trapped in this plane of existence.

Of course, that was all speculation, but Tessa felt it was likely as close to the truth as any other theory she’d heard.

“Hi,” Tessa wrote on her pad of paper, not showing it to Hix or his grandson or any of the authorities in the distance. She added to the paper words she’d written many times before: “Why are you doing this? What do you want?”

After finishing those words she glanced again at the dead girl standing before her. Tessa tore off the page and folded it into a paper airplane before launching it into the air. The plane flew out of her influence sphere and rained dust across the crater.

Tessa smiled as she stared at the dead girl. Maybe she’d finally been given a clue about what was going on.

*   *   *

One night, a few years after Tessa moved in with Aunt Fancy, her grandmother walked into her room.

“You awake, shithead?” Aunt Fancy slurred.

Tessa was thirteen at the time and had been tossing in the heat for hours, as if her mattress was a lifeboat adrift on an ocean of sweat. She froze when Aunt Fancy opened her bedroom door because Tessa had been reading old Godzilla comics before climbing into bed and had left them on her desk.

But in the dark Aunt Fancy didn’t notice. She leaned on the desk, placing a scrapbook over the comics while sipping from the whiskey bottle in her other hand.

“I know you’re awake,” she said. “Too damn hot to sleep.”

Aunt Fancy held up the scrapbook so Tessa could see the pictures by the light of the trailer park’s streetlamp outside the bedroom window. Aunt Fancy was in her late seventies, wrinkles and liver spots making her look far frailer than she was. But the Aunt Fancy in the photos was still beautiful and young. Fancy looked like Tessa’s mom, which turned her stomach slightly, the family resemblance with this evil grandmother tainting Mom’s sacred memory.

Aunt Fancy told Tessa that back in the twentieth century she’d been a showgirl. Modeled once in a swimsuit with a cotton mushroom cloud pasted on the front. The newspapers called her Miss Atomic Blast. Her one brush with fame. Other photos showed Aunt Fancy posing beside a casino with men in suits and fancy hats while the mushroom cloud of an atomic test rose in the distance.

Tessa stared at the picture of the mushroom cloud and imagined radiation twisting a lizard into new shapes and desires. She imagined the lizard turning into a giant and striding across the desert to squash Aunt Fancy’s trailer to dust.

“You should have seen Nevada then,” Aunt Fancy said. “This was where you came to escape. To create a new life.”

Aunt Fancy laughed as she waved her whiskey bottle around the room, as if indicating the results of her new life. Tessa wasn’t sure if Aunt Fancy meant the beat-down trailer around them or the granddaughter she hated.

“I’d like to see it,” Tessa whispered.

“See what?”

“Where you took the photo. The bomb craters.”

Aunt Fancy giggled, sounding for a moment like the girl she’d been. She said she still had connections with people at the Nevada Test Site. Said she’d call in favors so Tessa could see the massive crater left by the Sedan nuclear blast.

Aunt Fancy stood up and carried the scrapbook with her, leaving the now-empty whiskey bottle on her desk and the Godzilla comics undisturbed. “Get some sleep, shithead,” Aunt Fancy said as she closed the door.

Tessa dreamed of the coming trip. Wondered if she’d see any mutant animals.

But the next day Aunt Fancy denied her promise. Denied ever being a showgirl or Miss Atomic Blast. Besides, she hated Tessa so why would she promise her anything?

When Tessa finally ran away from home she took the Godzilla comics and stole Aunt Fancy’s scrapbook. When she reached Las Vegas she tossed all of it in a dumpster, pleased everything would be incinerated with the rest of the trash.

*   *   *

It took the army another day to locate a name for the dead girl—Mae Song Carmichael, a runaway who’d last lived in the dried-out ruins of Las Vegas.

Tessa froze when Hix spelled the name in holographic letters across the sky, forcing her face to not react. Perhaps the army was yet again playing one of their inane games or testing a new theory on her.

Mae Song Carmichael had been her grandmother’s original name.

Tessa looked at the dead girl who resembled a young Aunt Fancy, looked at the army trucks as Hix asked if she knew the name. Tessa shook her head.

Tessa wondered how good the army’s databases were these days. Hix had always limited the information they shared with her, but Tessa had still learned life was rough in much of the U.S. since the water wars of two decades before. The army units she saw were badly equipped and it appeared technology hadn’t advanced significantly since her time. How likely were they to maintain complete records from when Aunt Fancy legally changed her name way back in the twentieth century?

“Who is Mae Song Carmichael?” Tessa wrote in her notebook.

“Best we can figure she lived in Las Vegas,” Hix said, “doing make-work for a reclamation project. They’re using gened plants to bring the desert back to life. The work attracts runaways and those searching for a new life.”

“How’d she reach me?”

“Not sure,” Hix said. “We have remotes and detectors everywhere in this area but nothing picked her up as she approached you.”

Tessa looked at Mae Song Carmichael. The dead girl was the same age as Tessa was when she ran away from her aunt’s trailer. She remembered a few bits and pieces of her grandmother’s stories. She knew Aunt Fancy had fled to Las Vegas to escape something. Maybe family she hated? An abusive life? Tessa had never learned the truth.

But if this was indeed a young version of her grandmother, this was a sign. The signal she’d waited for all these years.

“Where did she live in Las Vegas?” Tessa asked, hoping the army’s binoculars and scanners couldn’t detect her nervous need for the answer.

“The top floor of an abandoned casino on the strip,” Hix said. “Our probes found her ident chips and other belongings there.”

“You and your people need to move back,” Tessa wrote. “And keep everyone away.”

“Why?” Hix wrote in rainbow-sky projections.

“I’m going to Las Vegas.”

*   *   *

Stephan’s was the last face she saw before stepping into the portal. The two of them had joined NASA together and competed to be the first to step into another dimension. After she was selected he’d become her backup, meaning he also stood there on the launch pad when the portal opened. The launch pad rested inside a massive sealed hangar, designed to keep anything dangerous—be it a microbe or larger creature—from escaping into Earth.

Both Stephan and Tessa stood awkwardly in their spacesuits as the portal shimmered and opened. Before them flowed red skies. Strange purple vegetation waved in an alien breeze.

Tessa started to step through the portal, but Stephan grabbed her hand and touched helmets so they could talk without using the radio.

“You see anything exciting,” Stephan said, “keep quiet until I come through to discover it.”

She laughed as she discreetly gave him the finger.

With that Tessa walked onto an alien world. The first human to do so.

She stood under red skies with purple vegetation waving around her. The land before her rolled up and down to small hills the size of houses. In the distance stood impossibly tall and vertical mountains gleaming like glass.

Tessa laughed in happiness before something knocked her back through the portal into the hangar. The portal exploded in a burst of rainbow spasms and fireworks.

When Tessa stood back up she found Stephan frozen stiff before her. The large mission clock on the launch pad’s control station shimmered at exactly 38 seconds since she’d entered the portal. Stephan stood with his mouth open as if to shout a warning which no longer came.

When she touched Stephan’s spacesuit he came back to life. “What happened?” Stephan asked. “I saw something moving toward you in the portal.”

Before she could answer, Stephan gasped and held his breath.

“Something’s wrong,” he said. “My body feels like it’s on fire.”

“Hold on. I’ll get first aid.”

Tessa waved toward the emergency responders. She tried radioing them, but they didn’t move. Tessa glanced toward the main control room, where people ran about and shouted at each other. Red warning lights flashed across the sealed hangar, but she couldn’t hear the sirens shrieking. The mission director stepped from the control room and yelled something she couldn’t hear.

“Wait here,” Tessa said. “I’ll bring the medics. Probably some issue with the portal.”

Stephan nodded, falling to his knees in pain while Tessa ran across the hangar to where the medics waited.

She was halfway there when the director outside the control room screamed, although Tessa still heard nothing. The man waved for her to stop. Before Tessa could do so, the man froze with hands outstretched.

Tessa glanced back at Stephan and the portal. Only dust lay behind her. She ran back to search for Stephan and the director turned to dust, along with half the hangar, which collapsed in on itself as people ran for safety.

After the accident Tessa thought repeatedly of her few seconds on that new planet. Of purple plants waving under red skies. Of the cost she paid to experience those seconds. Of whoever or whatever had damned her for reaching beyond Earth and now kept humanity from ever again reaching beyond their home.

Tessa hadn’t wanted to harm anyone else, so she stayed isolated in the desert for the next four decades.

Aunt Fancy changed that.

*   *   *

Tessa laughed, imagining herself as Godzilla as she strode toward Las Vegas. Hover tanks and armored mech suits and clouds of drones surrounded her, staying carefully outside her influence horizon. Hix rode in the communications truck shouting giant red words across the sky, warnings to STOP and RETURN TO THE CRATER and TURN BACK OR THE ARMY WILL BE FORCED TO TAKE ACTION.

As if they could.

Tessa knew Hix wouldn’t make such statements on his own. He was likely repeating words from furious superiors, just as the tanks and mechs and drone swarms were likewise ordered by officers who didn’t understand that all their military might was helpless before her.

Tessa pulled the young version of Aunt Fancy behind her, using the old dolly she’d transported her shack and mattress with when she’d occasionally wander around the desert. She’d first tried carrying Aunt Fancy’s immovable body, but that’d been awkward and exhausting. So she’d tied Aunt Fancy to the dolly with her blanket and dragged her through the sand to the old road. Tessa winced every time the dolly bounced off a rock or pothole, but she couldn’t leave Aunt Fancy behind to turn to dust.

They passed the weathered craters and sinkholes from those ancient nuclear tests. Behind Tessa the old asphalt road turned to dust and blew away.

When they neared the boundary of the Nevada Test Site, the army attacked.

Swarms of drones fell at Tessa, ready to rip her meat from bones. Instead, the drones passed through her bubble without doing more than tickling her before they exited and turned to dust.

The mechs opened fire next, but their lasers passed through the bubble like harmless sunlight. The hover tanks also fired, followed by a bombing attack from ground attack drones moving so fast Tessa barely saw them. Most of the tank rounds and bombs passed harmlessly through the bubble.

Still, a few rounds passed close enough to Tessa to return to time and explode.

She felt no pain, but the explosions blinded her for a few seconds. Once the army stopped the attack to evaluate its effect, Tessa glanced back at the young Aunt Fancy. She was unharmed, as were the clothes she wore. Tessa was the same, the silver spacesuit she’d been wearing when time stopped as clean and solid as the day she’d first put it on.

But the dolly was damaged and the backpack containing her journals gone. Tessa looked around, desperate to find the journals. She saw the backpack’s shredded remains falling out the back of her sphere of influence. Pages containing forty years of memories and thoughts scattered to dust.

Tessa screamed.

Dragging Aunt Fancy on the now-busted dolly, she ran at the closest mechs and hover tanks, which desperately tried to flee. The people in the mech suits succeeded, but the remote-controlled hover tanks reversed in the wrong direction as their distant operators panicked. Tessa ran through a squad of ten tanks, which burst to dust as she passed close by.

Stopping, she turned to Hix and the communications truck. With no more paper or pens she wrote her words in the desert sand.

“Attack me again and I’ll walk across this entire country destroying every damn thing!”

No words appeared in the sky over the communications truck. But Hix gave a double thumbs up.

*   *   *

To Tessa’s surprise the old U.S. 95 still ran with cars and trucks. She recognized some of the vehicles from her earlier life, but they’d all been altered in different ways. Old eighteen-wheelers rebuilt to run off massive solar collectors and arrays. Smaller vans and buses also powered by the hot sun. Tessa was surprised to see such ancient vehicles still being used. Hix had told her a few times how hard it was in the world these days, but she’d never truly understood until now.

Vehicles were parked up and down the road, with people watching her approach like in an old disaster film. They must have been fleeing the remains of Las Vegas when the road became jammed with vehicles.

“Think this is how Godzilla felt before attacking?” Tessa muttered to the young Aunt Fancy, who likely wouldn’t have understood the joke even if she could hear. Aunt Fancy’s broken dolly had lost a wheel a few miles back and Tessa now scratched a line in the old asphalt as she walked.

Of course, the line only lasted until the road behind her turned to dust.

People pointed and shouted at Tessa from the traffic jam. A few people ran the other way into the desert. Tessa noticed everyone looked thin and ragged with patched clothes. Some people lacked shoes.

National Guard troops stood before the people in threadbare uniforms, clutching ancient rifles which couldn’t begin to harm Tessa.

Tessa turned parallel to the road, far enough away that her influence horizon spared everyone.

The dolly was twice as hard to drag through the sand as on a road. Tessa cursed and kicked the sand.

Tessa dragged the dolly a few hundred meters before stopping to rest. She glanced back at the road and saw people clapping and cheering. Someone’s jury-rigged holoprojector shoved the words THANK YOU and DON’T GIVE UP into the heat waves rising above the asphalt and metal vehicles.

To one side of the road sat Hix and his communications truck.

“I told them you wouldn’t hurt anyone,” Hix said in golden words which rained slowly to the ground like a shower of dust. “Thanks for not making me a liar.”

*   *   *

“Las Vegas is gone,” Tessa said to Aunt Fancy when they reached the city limits.

A week to reach the city outskirts. A week of dragging the dolly though sand because the fools on the road wouldn’t leave her be. Instead they followed in ever-growing convoys, cheering Tessa on, holding signs expressing their love, creating holographic sky paintings of her dragging Aunt Fancy to the last home she’d ever known.

And now Tessa stood before the city, and it was nothing like she remembered.

The sun set behind them as a massive dust storm built up over the horizon. In the distance stood the abandoned gambling towers of Las Vegas, their walls of broken glass still gleaming even after the water wars shattered their ability to attract the money of gullible fools.

The ruins of the subdivisions that once surrounded Las Vegas stood closer in, the houses collapsed and covered in sand dunes, orange roof tiles and stucco walls occasionally peeking out. Over the dunes grew small purple plants that blew in the breeze of the dust storm building on the horizon. Hix had told Tessa the gened plants were grown across the city ruins to both break down contaminants and return the desert to a more natural state.

The dust storm behind Tessa flowed across the setting sun, turning the sky over Las Vegas red. Tessa remembered stepping through the portal four decades before and seeing red skies and purple plants growing over small hills while in the distance massive mountains gleamed like glass.

“No,” she whispered. “This isn’t what I saw. I stepped onto another planet. This isn’t what I saw!”

Tessa looked again. Thirty-eight seconds on that alien world. She remembered every moment of that day. Those memories had sometimes been the only thing that kept her going the last forty years.

But had it instead been this? Merely a glimpse into the future of her own damn life?

“Why?” she yelled. “Why are you doing this to me?”

Neither Aunt Fancy or anyone else answered.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2021. The Dust of Giant Radioactive Lizards by Jason Sanford

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