To Your Health

The science officer and her aide came to my office late in the cycle, past 14th hour. Normally I wouldn’t take meetings that late, but there was something stilted and overly formal in Doctor Palu’s request that put me on edge.

I re-read her message while I waited, trying to keep the anxiety in my gut from spreading. Was it the nature of this job to always be worried, or was it just part of getting older? Even on Earth it seemed like there had always been something keeping me up at night, and that was before I had two dozen lives relying on me.

They entered my office exactly on time. Palu gestured to Dom, who was trying to pretend the crate he was carrying wasn’t too heavy for him. He slid it onto my desk with a grunt.

“Doctor, you know my birthday’s not for another two months.”

Palu’s arms were tightly folded. “Open it.”

I stood and took off the crate’s lid. Inside was a dented rectangle of mesh that looked horribly like…

“Is this a water filter?”

“This is the water filter, Jessica.” Palu’s jaw was tense. No wonder her message was so carefully worded: there’d be panic if the contents of this crate were publicized.

“What happened to it?”

“Tell her, Dom. It’s all right.”

The aide glanced at her and cleared his throat. “It was George. He had an idea for increasing efficiency that required putting a special coating on the filter. None of the usual techs were available, so he tried to do it himself.”

“He told me it hadn’t broken the first time he’d dropped it,” Palu said sourly. “Not that that excuses it.”

“And the backup?” I asked, heart pounding. My voice held steady, miraculously – of all the crises a space station could endure, running out of water was the worst.

“Contaminated. Technically that one’s the backup – the original failed during construction of the second ring.”

“That was weeks ago!”

“We don’t have the solvent to restore the original filter. It’s scheduled to arrive on the next resupply shuttle, along with two more filters, but…”

“They’re four cycles out.” I sighed. “What are our options?”

“Rationing,” Palu said promptly. “We have to be careful, though: too conservative and we cause panic, too light and we run out of water before the shuttle arrives.”

“Right.” I stood. My fear throttled down to standard anxiety. “’The water filtration system is undergoing maintenance to improve efficiency’ – it’s more or less the truth. I trust you to establish the ration amounts.”

Palu nodded. “We’ll have the numbers later tonight.”

“What will you do about George?” the aide asked. It was the first time he’d spoken since Palu had ordered him. Clearly George was his friend, and he’d been gathering the courage to ask about his fate.

A brief glance at Palu told me what she would like to do with George. I smiled at Dom. “I’ll have a talk with him. Do you know where I can find him?”


George was sitting in the far booth in the commissary. His face was blotchy, his eyes swollen. In front of him sat a can of fizzy grape-flavored vitamin beverage, something concocted by the nutritional biochemists.

“Drowning your sorrows?” I asked.

He jumped. “Ma’am?”

“Drinking. It’s a joke. A bad one, obviously.”

“Oh, no, it’s not open, ma’am. I thought…maybe I should save it.”

I sat down across from him. “There’ll be plenty of water, George.”

“I knew the shuttle was coming,” he said desperately.

“Keep your voice down,” I replied, smiling. The commissary was practically empty this time in the cycle, but it was a small station.

“I knew if something went wrong,” he continued in a no-less-suspicious whisper, “the shuttle would have fresh supplies, and everything would be fine.”

I gestured at the view outside the porthole: blackness, a distant star, and the ochre curve of our uninhabitable anchor planet. “’If something went wrong’ is not a viable experimental parameter up here. There’s too much at stake.”

“I couldn’t – ” George was a smart kid; that’s why I hired him. He knew defending himself was moot and now he ought to listen. “I’m sorry, ma’am. It won’t happen again.”

“Wait to work with the staff next time you have a great idea,” I said. “We have plenty of time for innovation, just no time for disasters. Okay?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I stood. My anxiety hadn’t disappeared, but it diminished; that was good enough. “Cheers, then.”


Photo by Nick Cooper on Unsplash

The Carson Girls

Bee found Beth sitting on the front steps, looking up at the night sky even though there were no stars. She was smoking; she must have stolen a cigarette from Wholenuther. Hortense, their host, looked as though only the purest of water and food had been allowed in her body during the sixteen hundred years she’d been on Earth, so there was no way the cigarette came from her. Wholenother, on the other hand, wouldn’t have missed one smelly cigarette if it disappeared from his jacket.

“You smoke?” Bee asked, sitting down gingerly on the step.

Beth tapped the ashes into Hortense’s rosemary and shot her a glare. Bee shivered. She still wasn’t used to seeing her eyes in another girl’s face. “Since I was your age. Maybe even younger.”


Why?” Beth repeated. “Our parents have been running around the world our whole lives, hunting down magical whatsits and getting into fights with ancient magical beings, and you need to ask why I smoke?” She took a long drag. “Oh, yeah: because you actually saw them occasionally.”

“They never told me about you.” Yet another question to add to Bee’s growing list of things her – their – missing parents never told her. “If I knew, I would have wanted to meet you.”

“They never even told me they had you. I guess I would’ve been, what, four?” She flicked more ashes into the garden. “Let’s see: from age four to six, I was in seven different foster homes; then I ran away and was in an orphanage for a while. Maybe they just couldn’t find me. We’ll go with that.”

Bee knew exactly where she was at that age: with Grandma Susan, before she died, then the Allens. Then her parents had gotten an apartment in Boston when Bee was seven. They’d lived there together, all three of them, for almost a whole year. Then her parents got a lead for another expedition, and it was back to the Allens. Bee had cried for a week.

But she didn’t tell Beth any of this – she suspected it wouldn’t help. “I’d be mad, too,” she said. “It’s not fair.”

Beth grunted and stubbed the cigarette out on the flagstone step. Slowly the icy breeze began to clear the air around them.

“How did you know they were missing?” Bee asked eventually. “Mom stopped writing to me, so that’s how I knew, but if you weren’t in contact – ”

“I overheard some Remnants bragging that the Carsons had finally been ‘brought in.'” Beth pulled her coat tighter around her shoulders. “I questioned them, but they didn’t know much, so I started checking out the Markets. That’s when I ran into you.”

Bee decided not to ask what Beth meant by “questioned.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but…why did you come looking for them?”

“You mean, since they clearly don’t give a damn about me?”

“They do, too,” Bee said stubbornly. “You’re their daughter.” They had to care, didn’t they? They must have had their reasons for separating their children, for keeping each other secret. But Beth was starting to annoy her – she was twenty, an adult, and here was Bee trying to comfort her when it ought to be the other way around. Even Wholenuther had been more sympathetic, and Bee’d had to pay him to help her.

“Guess we’ll find out when I find them.” Beth stood and stretched. “Hortense is probably gonna be mad that I got ash all over her garden, huh.”


“Ah well. I’ll be out of her hair soon.”

Bee jumped up. “You’re making it sound like you’re going to keep looking alone.”

“Yeah. Duh. No offense, but you’re new to this, and Hortense may be Remnant but she’s just a gardener.”

“But Wholenuther-”

“Wholenuther might be good at tracking his kind, but he’s only going to stick around as long as he’s contracted. I’ve been on my own for a while; I can handle this.”

She started to go back up the steps.

“What about me?” Bee cried. Beth froze, her hand on the doorknob. “We could find them together. We could start to be a family.”

Beth looked back, her expression obscured by the shadows of the porch. “I don’t know what that is.”

She pulled open the door, bathing them both in cozy golden lamplight. Sighing, Bee sank back to the steps.

Beth hesitated again, framed in the doorway. “But I guess I’d like to find out.”

For An Orange

“They still won’t eat the oranges?”

Elena sat with her hands folded in her lap; her host, Princess Kilar, sprawled across her daybed. It was hot, too hot for proper posture – unless it was expected of you. No one expected anything of a princess in her own rooms, but of Elena, a great deal was expected, including some discomfort.

“We aren’t…accustomed to them.” Elena and her family had been plucked out of the famine-riddled countryside weeks ago after the princess learned there was royal blood in Elena’s family. Kilar thought it droll to have distant cousins visiting; Elena could only think of everyone they’d left behind. “The children are daunted by the expense.”

“But nothing is an expense here.” The princess sat up. Elena suspected she was genuinely confused. “Here they can have whatever makes them happy, the poor lambs.”

Someone always pays the expense, she thought. Instead, she said, “So I keep telling them, Your Highness.”

“Eight weeks is a long time to be a guest,” the princess continued. “Surely they must have settled in by now.”

“They’re children; they miss home.”

“Even when at home there was no food? Devastating heat?”

Elena shrugged. “It was home.”

“How curious.”

Ellen thought to challenge her to some empathy, to imagine how Kilar might feel if she had to leave this castle, but she expected the retort would be that the castle was beautiful and comfortable – a place worth missing. So Elena quietly accepted the cup of chilled wine a servant brought for her and sipped.


The next day, she came across Rohan and Reza sitting enraptured on the floor before the princess. Kilar had just finished peeling an orange, keeping the peel in one complete ribbon, which she curled it back into a simulacrum of an orange, to their amazement. By the boys’ knees were piles of coin-sized chunks of peel, and a tidy pyramid of peeled fruit stood on a platter between them.

“Look, Mama, she can make a snake!” Rohan pointed at the princess’ hollow orange.

“I made a piece this big!” Reza held up a piece of peel the size of her thumb.

“Well done, Reza, you’re learning quickly.” Elena raised an eyebrow at the princess. “How many oranges have you gone through today?”

“It’s no trouble – there are plenty.” Kilar gestured to a bowl next to her. Even after all their practice, at least a dozen oranges were still heaped inside. It reminded Elena of the solstice feast six years ago at the regional governor’s house, when each family was gifted a bushel of oranges. It was expected that they would gorge themselves on fruit before it rotted; everyone in Elena’s household savored two oranges, then she turned the rest into preserves.

“And how many have you eaten?” she asked the boys pointedly.

“Five!” Reza announced.

“I don’t feel good,” Rohan said.

“Perhaps I should take them, Your Highness.” Elena scooped Rohan into her arms.”I’m sure they’ve given you enough trouble for one day.”

“But I want to learn to make the snake!” Reza’s sticky fingers clutched her velvet skirt and she winced. Somewhere in this castle, someone did Elena’s laundry, and she had no idea who. Kilar had assured her that Elena’s household staff would be brought to the castle, but Elena wasn’t sure she’d ever followed through. It was a hallmark of the royal staff to be as unobtrusive as possible; perhaps Chari was here, watching her former family from a distance.

“The princess has responsibilities to attend to,” Elena said. “Come.”

She looked back to see Kilar disinterestedly separating the peeled oranges into segments, laying them out in rows on their platter.

“So how many did you eat, Rohan?” she asked.


Elena frowned. “But you feel sick?”

“I’m not sick at all, Mama.” He parted his vest. Heaped inside his shirt were several oranges – still, mercifully, in their peels.

“Rohan, why are there oranges in your shirt?”

“I wanted to give them to Chari. She hasn’t gotten to have any oranges at all. All Kilar wants to do is peel them.”

Princess Kilar, Rohan.” But she hid a smile. “What about your brother?”

“I let him eat the ones I peeled.”

Beside her, Reza nodded emphatically. “They taste like solstice!”

There had been oranges after that particular solstice, but not nearly as many, nor as sweet. Chari and the other staff wouldn’t have tasted oranges in years.

She set Rohan on his feet. “Give Chari your oranges, then, and my blessing.”

Won’t You Smile

(a filk to the tune of Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby, which goes way back!)

Won’t you smile for me, lady
Won’t you smile for me, lady
White teeth shine and she sure looks fine
but she’ll never be your lovin’ lady

Won’t you smile, pretty lady
Won’t you smile, pretty lady
Eyes through the smoke so thick you choke
on the curse you wanna tell that lady

Won’t you smile for me, lady
Won’t you smile for me, lady
She’s gone away where the red scarves wave
taking all us unrepentant ladies

The Real Thing

Margo wasn’t surprised to see the visitor hunched on a stool at the card table, breathing deeply, his large hands curled around a chipped mug of coffee. She hadn’t asked his name, and he hadn’t asked hers. She wanted to think he had kind eyes, but actions, not eyes, were what counted these days. Besides, the vote had been taken: the visitor had to move on.

“This is great,” he said, raising his mug. “I haven’t had real coffee in ages.”

“It’s not real.” Margo realized she was scratching her head – she was embarrassed, and pleased. It felt good to have someone compliment something she’d made. They were all so used to flavorless rations that compliments were rendered artificial, so no one bothered to make them.

“It’s just the powdered substitute,” she explained. “They used to give it to the soldiers, to keep them awake longer.”

“Wouldn’t that cause psychosis?”

“Oh, it did. But I don’t drink that much.”

He chuckled and one corner of his mouth lifted. Margo tried to ignore the way her heart fluttered. Nice to know it was still possible, she decided, though it could have picked a better time.

“I drink it, too, when I can find it,” he said. “Guess it tastes better because I didn’t have to make it.”

“Like breakfast in bed.”

“Like breakfast.” He laughed, and Margo did, too, watching the way his smile cut like a sunbreak through his black beard, how his breath made the rising steam dance.

She poured her own mug and sat across from him. The rain had let up; aside from the acidic puddles and maybe a couple mudsnakes, he’d be safe to move on, wherever he was headed. She didn’t ask that, either.

She wished he could stay one more night, now that she was more certain of him. The hidden cameras could capture his smile, his expressions, his words, but not him, the way he radiated help and ease and comfort. If they had – if the others had seen what Margo saw – they’d never have voted him out.

For a moment, she entertained a vision of herself unlocking the door to the basement, throwing open the hatch, and having him meet everyone. They’d like him. It wouldn’t be like last time, when Elle thought that woman seemed sweet and matronly, and then she tried to steal their solar panels. She hadn’t gotten far.

“Well,” he said, and reality asserted itself. “Guess I should get out of your hair.”

“Yeah, I need to…” The usual excuses wouldn’t come to mind. She kept hoping Cooper or Elle would burst through the locked door, announcing he’d been cleared, that he’d been voted in after all. “I should check the roof for rain damage.”

“Need a hand?”

“No, I…I’ve got it. Thank you, though.”

He hesitated only slightly before smiling amenably. In the front hall narrowed by stacks of crates, he pulled on his patched jacket and shouldered his road-stained pack. A blue enamel mug hung from one of the straps. It gave Margo an idea.

She ran back to the kitchen and returned with a tiny tube – a film canister, an antique even before the bombs fell – and held it out to him.

“What’s this?”

“You’ll have to make it yourself next time.”

He popped the lid and breathed deeply. “Sure smells like the real thing.”

“I wish it was.”

“You’d still have given me some?”

“I would.”

He tucked the coffee into the breast pocket of his shirt. She watched his eyes: sea-green and surprising, the contrast even more breathtaking in shadow. He stretched out a hand to shake hers.

“Thanks,” he said, that smile peeking through.

She took his hand and pulled him into an embrace. The pack strap dug into her cheek, but she didn’t care: his back was warm under her hands, and she could feel his, broad and comforting, around her shoulders.

Margo pulled away and opened the door.


Cooper was waiting at the bottom of the ladder, shotgun over his shoulder.

“He’s gone?”


“Never tried anything?”

“Nope. Just needed a dry place to sleep.”

“Wasn’t scoping the joint?”

“No, Cooper.”

“Just checking.” They went down the tunnel, Cooper’s flashlight beam leading the way. “Too bad. He seemed nice.”

“Yeah.” She pictured him down the road, alone, popping the lid off the canister to breathe in the smell and maybe think of her. “I think he was.”



The bar is loud tonight, crowded with paunchy men in faded sports tees and flannel shirts. They’re from out of town, here for the big tool expo, but they’ve claimed ownership of the bar and driven out almost all the regulars – except me. Jenna is the only one working tonight, but she refuses to let me help, even though we both knew before seven that it would be a hectic night.

“Your license is expired, Jess,” she whispered when I offered. “You got your new job, what, six months ago?”

“So? My license lapsed, not my ability to pour a beer.”

A group of six entered and her shoulders sagged briefly. “Maybe later.”

So here I am, sipping a two-hour-old porter, waiting for Jenna to crack and accept my help.

One of the out-of-towners, his head shaved in an attempt to outflank his baldness, accidentally elbows me when he comes up for another round.


I say nothing. He forgets about me immediately. His Red Sox tee is too small for him. He and his friends have taken over the dart board right next to the bar. While he’s gone, one of his friends sticks a fresh hole in the wall. I helped repaint that wall just last year.

“Hey, sweetheart,” he calls to Jenna. “Three more?”

Jenna is down at the other end, serving another horde of outsiders.

“Hey!” Red Sox barks. Jenna looks up, two pint glasses in her hands. Red Sox taps his wrist with one finger – today, sweetheart.

I look up at him, debating intervening. He stares at Jenna – all over Jenna – as she fills his glasses and slides them across the bar.

“Better be faster next time if you expect a tip.” He raises an eyebrow as if he just benevolently imposed some wisdom on her. Jenna’s smile never fractures, but I recognize the furious tension of her eyebrows when we exchange a glance.

People say we have the same smile, but that’s where the similarities end. She’s taller, blonder, and older by eight minutes. We probably weigh the same, but hers is distributed in a way that racks up more “sweetheart” and “baby” in one night than I’ve heard in a lifetime. We both worked behind that bar for almost three years before I started at the bank.

“Hey, sweetheart!” Red Sox is pointing at a bullseye, presumably his. I glimpse gold on his finger – a wedding ring he hadn’t even bothered removing. “You got a nice prize for the winner? A kiss, maybe?”

Whooping all around the bar. Jenna’s smile becomes icy before she teasingly waves him off. If any other regulars were still here, he’d be thrown out, or at least shouted down. But it’s just me tonight, and while I can bench 150, I try not to get in bar fights with strangers anymore.

Besides, like Mom always said, violence isn’t always the answer. I got real good at darts while I worked here, and when this place isn’t overrun with entitled outsiders, the other regulars and I play at least once a week.

“I’ll take that bet,” I say, standing.

A different kind of whooping, now. Jenna winks conspiratorially – neither of us feels inclined to tell people we’re related.

Red Sox yields the floor with a smirk. The friend who put a hole in the wall is too young for the Pink Floyd shirt he’s wearing, but not too young to snicker at me with the others. They sound like chimpanzees.

But they fall silent as I rack up t15, ring, d17; d20, bull, t18. It’s over quickly.

The rest of the bar has already gone back to hollering at each other over their cheap beers, the contest forgotten. Red Sox flushes to match the faded letters on his shirt.

“Hey, Jenna,” I call. “Smoochy, smoochy.”

She rolls her eyes as I tap my cheek. I am rewarded with a kiss, an exaggerated “mwah” like our aunt used to do, and a smirk aimed over my shoulder at Red Sox.

“What is this, some kind of hustle?” he snaps.

“Just good, clean fun.” I drain the last of my lukewarm porter. “Wouldn’t want to upset your wife…”

Red Sox leaves as I reclaim my barstool. He mutters something I don’t quite hear – probably for the best – as he passes. Pink Floyd, though, bobs his head ruefully at Jenna and leaves a twenty on the bar.