The ongoing weekly serial continues. Click here for the introduction,  here for Part 1, here for part 2, here for part 3, here for part 4, and here for part 5.


Chapter Ten


The day before I left Earth, I died fishing in Lake Manitoba. 

I had to. Gebian immigration authorities would never let a former DF soldier whose parents had been killed in a Prostie attack set foot on the planet. 

Gabriel arranged the whole thing, but the location was my idea. My parents loved that lake. They’d taken me fishing there almost every summer when I was younger – before my general aversion to all things outdoorsy took hold. We always stayed at the same lodge, rented a boat and fishing gear from the same shop, and motored out to the same part of the lake to fish for walleye. I never looked forward to the trip. When my father announced it was time to go, I would roll my eyes and stomp my feet and complain the entire way there. But then, at some point, I always discovered I was having a wonderful time, despite the mosquitoes and the cramped accommodations and the lack of VR. 

It was an appropriate way for Daniel Lyon to spend his last day on Earth.

I checked into a room at the lodge and walked down to the dock, introducing myself to everyone I met along the way. But out on the lake I stopped the boat at a different – deeper – spot. I pretended to fish for a few hours, waving to everyone who passed, until I found myself entirely alone. Then I slipped, quietly, into the near-freezing water. 

I know people who do it for fun, but it’s not my idea of a splendid Saturday morning. 

As I submerged, a numbing pain paralyzed my body, and I instinctively fought to stay afloat. 

Then I felt something grab hold of a flailing leg and pull me down. It was Kyle. He forced a regulator over my mouth, and I choked on lake water for a few seconds before breathing again. We’d rehearsed this in a pool – a heated pool – a few times, but it didn’t prepare me for the real thing. 

He guided me down into a submersible waiting thirty feet below, then drained the water out of the airlock. I couldn’t keep myself from shivering for the next hour, even wrapped in a blanket and tucked in next to the heater, as he directed us north to a remote part of the lake where we surfaced and stepped out onto a decaying wooden dock.

My body temperature had still not returned to normal by the time Kyle and I climbed the stairs of the plane waiting for us in Winnipeg. Somewhere over Missouri, after a couple of drinks and a nap, I felt human again. 

When we arrived in Houston, Kyle and a diminutive man named Aaron Moses checked into a hotel a few kilometers away from the spaceport. 

The name was Sister Hillary’s idea. The Prosledite religion claimed its origins in the Abrahamic faiths of Earth, of which Moses is a prominent figure. As I understand the legend, Moses was afraid of public speaking and let his brother Aaron do all the talking. Sister Hillary said the name suited the mission perfectly and then cackled as if she’d made a hilarious joke. I didn’t think it was that funny.

Gabriel’s people fashioned an identity around the name. A Gebian identity. My new mother, Rachel Levi, was a prostitute on Geb who found her way to Earth as Sister Hillary did, through Gabriel’s network of shelters. She, too, had been abandoned by her wealthy family and forced to fend for herself. On Earth, she took up with another refugee and gave birth soon afterwards to a son, who died a week later of unknown causes. The birth certificate listed no father and a birth date two years earlier than my own. It was close enough. All Gabriel needed to do was arrange for my DNA sample to be switched, which is apparently not as hard as it sounds, especially for someone with more money than God. 

A child born to a Gebian refugee on Earth is, by law, granted citizenship on both planets, so armed with these documents and my own DNA, I walked into the Gebian consulate in Winnipeg and obtained, for a small fee, a passport allowing me to enter my new home planet. 

The tricky part was learning to answer to Aaron Moses.




Kyle beat it into me. He moved into my house a week after I left the Defense Force for good. A ten-year DF veteran of the elite Special Corps, he was big and burly with curly red hair and a scruffy beard. He could – and sometimes did – pick me up like a child and put me down wherever he wanted. His default reaction was always physical, but he wasn’t stupid. There was an insightful mind on top of his substantial neck. 

Sitting around a dinner table scattered with Chinese food boxes the night he moved in, I asked him why he’d resigned his commission and left the DF.

“Creative differences,” he grunted. “I wanted to kill terrorists and they wanted me to be a prissy gentleman instead.”

“Fair enough.”

“I was born on Geb,” he said spooning rice onto his plate. “My father was a repairman. He fixed things like dryers and dishwashers.”

“Anything beginning with the letter D,” I said, thinking it might get a laugh out of him. 

I didn’t know then that Kyle never laughed.

“There is no letter D in Gebian. They use different characters.”

“Bad joke…sorry. Keep going.”

“We were workin’ class, livin’ in one of those shitty low-rent, high-rise apartment buildings in Indium. I learned to walk late. The doctors thought I had Pompe disease. Ever heard of it?”

“No,” I said, pushing my empty plate away.

“I tried to run around with the other kids, but I couldn’t get up the stairs and was always out of breath. They home in on weakness early up there. They try to beat it out of you. It got so bad I only left the apartment for school and dreaded every second.”

“Sounds a lot like me growing up.” I lied. My childhood wasn’t awful – I was more a curiosity than an object of ridicule – but I was trying to find common ground.

“When I was ten,” he ignored me and continued. “My dad decided we had a better chance of makin’ it on Earth, so we came here. I don’t know if I grew out of it or if it was the gravity or what, but I got here and gained weight and muscle like that.” He snapped his fingers. “I started beatin’ up on other kids instead of gettin’ my ass kicked.”

“Doesn’t look like anyone could kick your ass now.”

“Here maybe, but on Geb it’s a different story,” he finished his rice and took a swig of beer. “You don’t think gravity makes much difference but it does. They’re big and strong and mean. I got a lot of work to do before we get there. We both do.”

He stood and went into the kitchen to get another beer. 

“You want one, Moses?”

I hadn’t heard him. My ears were not attuned to the name. I got up to clear the plates and felt him smack me, hard, in the back of the head. 

“Moses! Do you want a beer?”

“Yes,” I said, rubbing my scalp and glaring at him.

He took a second beer out of the fridge and sat back down. I put the dishes in the washer and joined him.

“Let me lay this out for you,” he said. “It’s just you and me for the next few months. You have to get your shit together. I can teach you language and tactics and book learning shit while we’re on the ship. We have a whole year. But I can’t show you how to make weapons or explosives, and you can’t show me how to fly them damn birds, so gotta do it here. You gotta promise me six days a week in the VR room, and I’ll promise you one day a week to fuck off.”

“Why am I learning weapons and explosives? Nobody said anything about that. I’m the spokesman. I’m the guy who looks like Augur. And,” I stood up on the chair, “have you seen me? Do you really want to go into battle with this next to you?”

“Sit,” he drank with one hand and waved me down with the other. “There’ll be ten people waiting for us on Geb. I know them. I trained most of ‘em and have worked with ‘em all. I trust them and they trust me because we’ve done the same shit and speak the same language. Now, I know you’re, ahh, special. And I know why you’re taggin’ along. But do you know what happens to geeks who get mixed up with a group of operators in a remote combat zone?”

“What happens?” 

“They get bullied and resentful and end up like me before I left Geb. Now, I don’t expect you to do the same things I can do. But if you can carry a weapon and cook up some explosives and take care of yourself, them other ten will give you a little bit of respect, and I’ll have a team that ain’t fightin’ with each other. Does that sound like a deal?”

“It does.”

“I’m the leader, you’re the follower. You do what I say when I say. Got it?” He was being overly pedantic, but I understood why. 

”Got it,” I answered.

“In the middle of an op, there can’t be any doubt about who’s giving orders and who’s taking them.”

“You’re giving. I’m taking.”

“Good. I hope you mean all that, because what we’re about to do….” He took a long pull off his beer and looked me dead in the eyes. A chill ran down my spine. His deep, auburn eyes looked straight through me. “I’ve done a lot of shit, Moses. Some things I want people to remember, and some things I can’t forget. But this. If we do this right, people will remember this forever. And I wanna do this right.”

“So do I.”

I trusted Kyle. He was a consummate professional. Dedicated. Loyal. Selfless. And if we’d gotten a chance to execute his plan together, I think the whole thing might have gone much smoother and caused less heartache than it did. 

But we didn’t. 

Kyle never made it to Geb.




Kyle and I spent most of our days and nights together in the VR room. Kyle ran me through an extensive training program, teaching me how to shoot, work with explosives, and even a little self-defense for the vertically challenged. It was quite…testicular-focused. Done right, it’s immensely satisfying, but if I’m ever accosted by a woman, I’m in trouble. 

He also taught me common Gebian phrases through brute force memorization. I tried to tell him that wasn’t the way I learned best but he persisted. He only had one gear and it was impossible to get him out of it. 

Pure memorization isn’t a problem for me. With enough repetition, I can say anything in any language. But, like a parrot, I’m just mimicking sounds I don’t understand. I need to know what each syllable – or as is sometimes the case in Gebian, each letter – means.

Take the popular phrase, ‘whatever God decrees, will happen.’ It’s spoken as a single word: ‘asmatzenbadu.’ How does that one word capture the meaning of five? Kyle didn’t explain. I had to figure that out later, on my own. The trick is to drop the second clause. Asmatzenbadu means ‘God decrees’ but even the structure isn’t intuitive to an English speaker. ‘Badu’ means God and ‘asmat’ means to command.

It sounds like a tautology. What does God decree that doesn’t happen? The Prosties use it to describe future events. For example, someone may ask you “Will I see you at the temple for prayers tomorrow?” The standard response is, “Yes, asmatzenbadu.” Of course, God commands everyone to pray at the temple, but what the phrase captures is the idea that if the person is not at the temple, God has commanded them to do something else instead. It has the dual effect of signaling a person’s commitment to God while simultaneously saying you can’t count on them to do anything they say. 

Language is funny. It wasn’t designed by a central committee, it’s an emergent phenomenon. The government may have codified English as the official language of Earth, but it was only a recognition of what people were already speaking. Since the dawn of time people alone have created language, sussed out the rules, imparted meaning and changed it whenever necessary. 

Which is probably what happened with asmatzenbadu. The full phrase was too unwieldy to include at the end of a sentence, so one day someone decided to shorten it. Other people heard it, decided it imparted the same meaning with less effort, and started using the word themselves. Before long the whole planet was doing it, while a few stodgy, pedantic holdouts shrieked about how improper it was. 

I forbade everyone in my organization on Geb from using the word, but not because I’m stodgy or pedantic. I didn’t like the implication. We needed to count on each other, not God. 

Kyle didn’t see it that way. He wanted me to fit in with the prevailing culture, so when he wasn’t smacking me around for forgetting my name, he drilled asmatzenbadu and dozens of other phrases into my head. 

He stopped teaching, however, and started learning when the birds arrived, two weeks before my plunge into Lake Manitoba. 

I’ll never be insanely wealthy, but I think if I were, the thing I’d enjoy the most would be the ability to buy whatever I wanted. A short time after Sister Hillary convinced me to join and I signed the contract with Gabriel, he turned around and bought Origins, Inc., the Defense Force’s supplier of robotic Starlings. 

The birds that arrived a few months later were newer models compared to the ones I’d used in Cairo. Designed to resemble Gebian Starlings, they had increased range, more maneuverability, and advanced visual and audial sensors. I played around with them for a bit, then showed Kyle, who immediately saw the possibilities. 

“How much can they carry?” he said, sitting on the couch with his arms crossed after my demonstration.

“Depends on the flight mode,” I replied, “and the atmospheric conditions, the wind—” 

“How much can they carry?” He asked again, louder.

“About five kilos each.” I kicked myself, knowing I shouldn’t have injected nuance into a conversation with Kyle.

“Can them team up to carry bigger loads?” He asked, his mind churning.

“Sure, but multiple Starlings teaming up to transport anything through the air is bound to attract some attention.”

“There’s ways around that.” He closed his eyes and appeared to lose himself in his version of deep thought. 

“I don’t have much more time tonight,” I said, glancing at the time. “I’m having dinner with my Grandparents tonight. You’ll have to fend for yourself.”

“That’s a bad idea.”

“I haven’t seen them in weeks and I’d never go to the lake without letting them know first.” That wasn’t entirely true, but it was true enough. Besides, I felt I owed them one last visit before I left. 

“Just don’t say anything stupid.” He stood, still mulling over whatever plan was coalescing in his head for the Starlings, and walked out.




I felt horrible for what I was about to put my Grandparents through. They only had one child – my father – and one grandchild, and were about to outlive both of them. The least I could do was give them one final memory of me. 

Grandma cooked meatloaf, a dish she always made, and Grandpa complained about the onions the same way he did every time she made it. After dinner, we retired to the den for a drink and Grandpa asked about my future prospects.

“Have you found a direction yet?” He asked, handing me a glass and sitting in his rocking chair. 

“A general one, yes.” I expected the question and had a lie planned. “I want to work with refugees from Geb and help them make the transition. I spoke with a Benedictine Sister a while back, and she gave me the idea.”

He was silent for a long time. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He stared straight ahead and rocked gently back and forth.

“I think your parents would be proud, son,” he said finally. “I know you’ve never been very religious. Maybe this will set you down that path.”

My Grandparents were the closest thing to believers that existed in our family. Raised Lutheran, they only attended church sporadically and had never forced their beliefs on my father or me. But, in the years since my parents died, I got the sense they’d become more religious. They began saying a silent prayer and crossing themselves before mealtimes. Sunday mornings were now blocked off on their calendar. And a Bible conspicuously made its way from the top right corner of the bookshelf to side table next to Grampa’s recliner.

“I have been more interested in religion lately,” I said, telling the truth. “But I wouldn’t call myself religious.”

“For a lot of years, I said the same thing. But then something happened to me and your Grandmother that changed us forever.” He set his drink down and leaned in real close until I could smell old man and whiskey. “Your Grandmother and I won’t be around very much longer.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“No, no, no.” He waved off the thought. “I mean we only have a couple good years left. Maybe not even that. And death would bother me if I didn’t believe in God. I wouldn’t be ready to lose this life. But I’m ok with it now. We’re both ok. Looking forward to it, actually. Because of something your father told me.”

“What did he say?” My dad was not a font of wisdom. He was smart in a technical, geeky way but I couldn’t imagine him imparting the meaning of life.

“Remember, right after the plane crashed, your Grandmother and I went to Florida.”

“Yeah, about that. I–”

“I understand why you didn’t go. That’s not what this is about. We were standing in an area they had roped off for the families. We could see the debris. The smoke still rising into the air. Hundreds of people were inside, sifting through the wreckage, looking for bodies. We knew your parents were there somewhere, but we didn’t know where. And then for some reason, I don’t know why, I looked up and spotted a bird, a single, lone bird, flying high overhead. Just circling. I watched it for a time and then saw it dive straight down, right into the middle of the crash site.”

Grandma appeared over his shoulder. She put one hand on his rocking chair and wiped away tears with the other. 

“When it got close to the ground, I lost it. A second later, it climbed again, flying straight back up. It didn’t stop. It kept going up and up and up until it disappeared into the clear blue sky. After it was gone I heard your father’s voice. She heard it, too.”

“I heard it, too,” Grandma murmured.

“He said ‘Do not be afraid. Ginny and I are with God. We love you and we will see you again soon.'”

Tears streamed down Grandma’s face but my Grandpa’s eyes were dry. In fact, I’d never seen him look more serious in my life. 

“My father,” I said, searching for a string of coherent words to put together, “spoke to you from the grave?”

He shook his head. “No, he spoke to us from heaven. And I think he would speak to you, too, if you’d open your heart and your soul to God.”

I smiled reflexively and looked down. “I believe you, Grandpa, it’s just…hard to believe at the same time, you know?” 

“I do know. I haven’t lost all of my faculties just yet. But I want you to promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Don’t close your heart. Don’t steel yourself against God. He’ll find you when you least expect it. When he does, don’t say no.”

“I won’t, promise.”

Grandpa died before I landed on Geb.

Grandma followed two weeks later. I can’t be certain my ‘death’ had anything to do with it, but I suspect it was a factor. I am certain they both died at peace, secure in the knowledge that they would both see their son once again. 

I’m far less certain they’ll ever see me again.




Early on the morning I left Earth, Kyle and I checked out of the hotel and took the train to the airport terminal. Houston does security right. There are multiple layers of checks so unobtrusive you wouldn’t even know they existed unless you were looking for them. The only problem is those defensive measures begin at the airport. They don’t extend to the train station.

That’s were Kyle saw the man. 

If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. My thoughts were consumed with the menial tasks of the day, leaving the planet primary among them. Kyle did have the advantage of being so tall he could see everyone in the train car, while I was limited to the belt buckles immediately in front of me.

I glanced up at Kyle and knew something was wrong. His jaw was set. His body, tense. His gaze was locked on something over his right shoulder as the train jostled us gently back and forth.

I tugged on his pant leg. “What is it?”

He nodded in the direction he was looking but said nothing. 

I leaned around the distended abdomen on my left to try to catch a glimpse, but couldn’t see anything unusual.

I looked up and shrugged my shoulders.

Kyle bent down and whispered in my ear.

“Geb male. Early twenties. Big jacket. Looks doped up.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Just talk.”

“We are leaving. We can’t get involved.”

“When the train stops, get as far away as you can. I’ll meet you at the gate.”

Kyle pushed through the people standing up in the aisle. I leaned forward and watched through the gap in his wake. Twenty feet away he stopped and began speaking to someone sitting on the right. I couldn’t see the man’s face. Kyle blocked my view. 

As the train slowed to a stop, their conversation became more animated. The man gestured wildly with his hands, then stood suddenly, allowing me to catch a glimpse. He was definitely Gebian, with pale, almost translucent skin. Taller than Kyle by a few centimeters, the man outweighed him by at least ten kilos. He had a wild look, eyes too wide and eyebrows arched too high. 

The doors opened and people began pouring out of the train. My view was obscured and I hesitated for a moment, trying to hold my position, but the flow of human traffic forced me out of the car. I let it happen. Kyle told me to leave anyway. 

When I reached the staircase, I heard a woman scream. I turned back around and saw a small group of people struggling to push a sea of humans up against the stairs and away from the train. Something bad was about to happen. I knew it, and those frantic few people at the back knew it, but no one else did. 

I hurried up the stairs as fast as my legs could carry me, holding tight to the bag over my shoulder. 

A man yelled, “He’s got a bomb!” 

A school of heads that had been mindlessly climbing perked up and turned around in unison. 

“Run!” A woman shrieked, and the stampede began. 

I couldn’t keep up. I stopped and crouched low against the marble wall to my left as legs flew past me. A woman’s foot hit me in the ass, sending her sprawling to the stairs beside me.

This may or may not have saved her life. 

At that moment, the bomb exploded. 

I was well shielded from the blast. The tall weed is sheared in these situations and I made myself as small as a field mouse. 

I stayed small for a while, sucked up against the wall, wondering what to do next. 

I know what you’re thinking: the only thing I could do was get up and help the wounded. That’s eventually what I did, but in my mind, it wasn’t that simple. I had just ‘died’ the day before. My partner Kyle – which wasn’t his real name – was almost certainly dead. I was supposed to get on a spacecraft in a few hours and it looked like our mission was over before it ever got started. So I sat there for a while, thinking all this through, before I eventually asked myself, ‘What would a human do?’ 

The answer was obvious. 

I left my bag and ran down the stairs as people scrambled to climb up. I don’t know if they were worried about another bomb or if they were just running away. I didn’t judge. 

The train car was a twisted pile of metal. Anyone inside was dead. There was a mass of people on the ground at the foot of the stairs, the unlucky few who caught at the choke point. I stopped at a woman sitting up on the floor. Her lower right leg was blown off and several inches of bone protruded from mangled, oozing flesh. 

“I lost my handbag,” she said, her eyes searching the area around her. 

“Here, let me grab this,” I took her scarf from around her shoulders and wrapped it around her leg above the stump, pulling tight to stave off the flow of blood. She didn’t flinch or cry out. Shock gives us an amazing ability to cope with insanity.

“Thank you,” she said, her eyes continuing to search the floor. “Can you find my handbag?”

I moved over to a man lying on his stomach with his arms stretched out above his head. I put my finger on his neck and felt a pulse. All of his limbs were intact and he didn’t appear to be bleeding, so I left him alone. 

A woman next to him in a skirt was lying on the ground in the fetal position, crying.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

I don’t think she heard me. Her shoes were missing and her bare legs had taken shrapnel from the blast. She was bleeding but it was under control. 

Then I heard a child screaming. I looked up and saw a boy standing against the far wall. He was maybe six or seven, a look of sheer terror on his face. 

I recognized it. His world had just been shattered. His parents were somewhere around me and he had no idea whether they were alive or dead. 

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t turn away. 

He shook uncontrollably, tears and snot falling down his face. 

I fell to the floor and closed my eyes and put my hands over my ears but could not block out the sight or the sound. The boy’s cries rang in my ears and his helpless, pathetic face burned my eyes.




The police and the paramedics arrived at some point and sifted through the carnage. When they pulled me off the floor I told them I was unhurt but they directed me to a triage area anyway, up the stairs near the terminal entrance. I found my bag and joined everyone else who wasn’t in need of immediate medical attention. 

I looked for Kyle, hoping there was a chance he lived through the blast, but I didn’t see him or the Gebian man he’d confronted. 

They were the only two casualties of the attack, I learned later. I didn’t watch the surveillance stream, but heard investigators say the Prostie terrorist had a bomb strapped to his chest. Kyle tackled him before it went off, and his body shielded the innocent people behind him, muting the effects of the explosion. He saved twenty or more lives.

He’ll be remembered for that much, at least.

I sat in the triage area for twenty minutes, trying not to think about pressing on with the mission. Trying to talk myself out of it. But I knew I had to get on that flight. Kyle had drilled this into my head along with so many other things.

I had no idea how I would do it. Kyle was the leader. I was the follower. But there were ten other people waiting for us — now just me — on Geb. I couldn’t let them down.

Besides, what was left for me on Earth? Daniel Lyon was dead. I couldn’t go back home. Couldn’t see what remained of my family. Cortez burned his ships, but I’d taken a torch to my entire existence. There was no way to go but forward.

Once I reached this conclusion, I stood up, slipped under the emergency tape they had erected to keep all the survivors penned in, and walked to the restroom. I washed the blood off my hands and face and then made my way to the check-in counter.

“Is the flight to Ceres still scheduled for today?” I asked the bot and handed it my passport.

“Yes, it is Mister,” it looked down at my passport, “Moses. Do you have any bags to check?”

“They should have arrived yesterday.”

It consulted the screen for a moment before turning back to me. “They are already on board, sir. Please make your way to gate thirteen. Have a wonderful flight and thank you for choosing Ceres Space.”


Chapter Eleven


It’s easy to kill people who aren’t expecting it. Even soldiers. They congregate in confined spaces, they don’t have their heads on a swivel when they’re off duty, and they panic in predictable ways. Add an explosive device to the mix, and the result is lots and lots of casualties.

The hard part about killing people is living with yourself afterward.

I don’t think much about the soldiers. They signed their lives away — just like I did — when they joined. They made a choice. So did the government officials, and even though they never expected to engage in direct combat, they were part of the combat apparatus. I feel bad for them, but not as bad as I feel about the civilians I killed.

Every single one was an accident. Bomb-making isn’t an exact science. Sometimes you do too much or too little. Sometimes you misjudge the structural integrity of a room or a building. And sometimes, it’s just a fluke. A stray piece of shrapnel flies into the air and hits a six-month-old in the head a kilometer away.

That one haunts me. That kid had her entire life ahead of her, and I took it away.


When Kyle and I were training at my house, I had Sundays off. Sister Hillary would come over for tea, and my thoughts quite often turned to this subject. It had become more and more apparent with each passing day that I was preparing to do something ‘real.’ It wouldn’t be a game. I couldn’t just re-boot the VR simulator if I didn’t like the outcome. I couldn’t get drunk and go to sleep and wake up the next morning having forgotten everything. I was starting to wonder if I could do it.

Then, one Sunday, when I felt particularly gloomy, Sister Hillary gave me a homework assignment.

“Have you ever heard of an atomic bomb?” She asked, sipping her tea.

“Maybe,” I answered. “Is that a World War Two thing?”

“Correct. It was the first weapon to harness the power of the atom. Quite advanced for the time and extremely effective. The United States dropped two of them on the Island of Japan, killing over one hundred thousand people in the process.”

I whistled, trying to picture what that many people would look like. The Winnipeg Arena only holds twenty thousand. The last time I was there, it was half-full, and that was an impressive sight. Ten times that many people were hard to fathom.

“The man who dropped that bomb was named Paul Tibbets. I want you to look him up. See how he dealt with it. See how the world dealt with it afterward. Then come back to me.”

I made her a promise and hopped into the VR room after she’d gone home. It took some searching, but I finally found a centuries-old interview with Tibbets.

“I knew when I got the assignment it would be an emotional thing,” he said. “You’ve got to take stock and assess the situation at the time. We were at war. You use anything at your disposal. There are no Marquess of Queensberry rules in war.”

I stopped the interview here and spent a while reading about the Marquess of Queensberry, but I didn’t need to. I could have gathered his meaning from context. In war, you don’t play nice. It changes the rules of human behavior. The more I thought about it, the more I realized this should shock no one, yet it shocked me.

One could argue – and some historians do – that Tibbets ended the last real war on Earth. Weapons were more primitive and indiscriminate back then. It was impossible to precisely target a tank battalion, for example, if it stopped in the middle of a village. They solved that problem by bombing the whole village.

But lots of people thought this wasn’t the right way to fight a war, so the international community came together – well before the central government was formed – and agreed on some rules. These are the same rules, with some modifications, under which the government of Earth still operates. And not killing civilians was rule number one.

What happened next was, in hindsight, predictable. If your enemy wants to wage war, and you are prohibited from killing civilians, then they will blend in with civilians as much as possible. Change the rules of war, and an enemy not legally or morally bound by those rules will use them to their advantage.

This, I realized, is what the Prosties were doing. The people who killed my parents didn’t wear uniforms or insignia that identified them as fighters. They hid themselves and their true intentions from peaceful civilians who never stood a chance. The well-intentioned rules against killing civilians had the unintended consequence of killing ever more of them.

I went back to Tibbets’ interview. “We had feelings,” he declared, “but we had to put them in the background. We knew it would kill people right and left. But my one driving interest was to do the best job I could so we could end the killing as quickly as possible.”

End the killing. This was Gabriel’s only goal. It seems non-sensical: to end the killing, you must kill. But if you think about it for more than a second, it makes all the sense in the world.

There were children on my parent’s flight, too. Eight of them under the age of five. The Prosties didn’t accidentally kill them. Killing those kids was their goal.

Intentions matter, but they don’t help you get to sleep at night.

I lied earlier, by the way, when I said every civilian I killed was an accident. I did kill one on purpose. The memory doesn’t keep me awake at night. Not at all. In fact, I’m proud of it.

This man’s name is Alan Johnson.




I met the Johnson clan on the transport ship Columbus after Wanda, their five-year-old daughter, bumped into me on my way to dinner. I felt something hit my right shoulder-blade, hard, and turned around to see her sprawled out on the floor, dazed.

“Are you all right?” I bent down to check on her.

Dressed all in pink, she looked at me through long, dark hair with a mixture of confusion and wonder.

“Wanda! Be careful.” A stern male voice rang out a few meters behind her. Lifting my head, I saw the rest of the family walking toward us. Her father was a borderline anorexic man in a conservative blue suit that was at least one size too big. He had bleached blonde hair that didn’t match his dark eyebrows. When he looked at me, a smile crept up his face.

“Sir,” he bowed slightly but in a way that didn’t appear condescending, “I apologize for my daughter. She wasn’t paying attention.”

Wanda’s mother wore the traditional sun orange dress almost all Gebian women wear, synched at the waist with a black belt. Her dark hair was pulled into a bun at the back of her head. She bent down and pulled the girl to her feet. “Say you’re sorry,” she whispered.

“It’s nothing,” I smiled. “Accidents happen.”

Behind Wanda stood another girl of fourteen. Terrifically skinny like her father, she had long, straight, dark hair that flowed over her shoulder onto the same orange dress her mother wore. She stared at me with unblinking eyes and a half-open mouth. I wondered if I had something on my face. I ran my hand over it to make sure.

“I’m sorry,” Wanda apologized and cast her eyes down to the floor.

“It’s ok, little one,” I bent down again. “You did not hurt me. Friends?” I held out my hand.

She turned to her mother, who nodded at her. Then she grabbed my hand and shook it furiously, a grin on her face.

“I am Alan Johnson,” the man said when Wanda finally released my hand. “This is my wife, Nicole, and my eldest daughter, Tiffany. Wanda, you’ve already met.”

“I am Aaron Moses,” I was pleased with myself for seamlessly using my new name, “it is nice to meet you.”

“Mister… Moses,” Alan stammered, “We are on our way to the dining room. We would be honored if you would join us for dinner.”

“Well, I don’t know,” I looked down at Wanda. “Do you like ice cream?” Her face lit up. “Is it all right if I share some of my ice cream with Wanda?”

“Of course,” Alan bowed once again and guided me down the hall toward the dining room.

When I met the Johnsons, I’d already been on the Columbus for a few days. We were still docked at the Ceres starport, waiting for the rest of the passengers to arrive from Earth. Of the two thousand people who would leave Ceres, about half were middle-aged, retired tourists, and the other half were Prosties returning home, the Johnsons among them.

Sister Hillary said the Prosties would look at me differently, and I believed her. But nothing could have prepared me for this experience. On Earth, I’d often wonder if I was invisible. On the Columbus, half of the ship couldn’t take their eyes off me.

People said hello or nodded as I walked past. Crowded hallways parted in front of me. People stood back to let me walk through doors ahead of them. Food was served promptly and with an apology if something wasn’t right. At times, I thought of Gabriel and wondered if that was what it felt like to walk around all day being him.

So, when the Johnsons all stood behind their chairs waiting for me to sit, I was not surprised. In fact, I was starting to get used to it.

“So,” Alan turned to me after we had ordered, “are you traveling alone?”

“I am. I had planned to make the trip with a business partner, but he died shortly before I left, and I made the decision to come anyway.” I fabricated this story on the way up to Ceres, along with a rather elaborate back-story in case there were any follow-up questions.

Alan didn’t ask any, saying only, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

“Is Geb your home?”

“It is my family’s home. I was born on Earth, unfortunately.” This story I’d practiced with Kyle. He told me to add ‘unfortunately’ at the end since every true Prostie wishes they had been born on Geb.

“It is your first trip?”

“And last, asmatzenbadu. I am going to live there permanently.”

He said something in Gebian but switched to English when he saw the mystified look on my face. “You do not speak Gebian.”

“My mother spoke only English when I was young.”

“A pity,” he sighed. “Truly a pity.”

Then he turned to Nicole, and they had a short conversation in Gebian. I looked at Wanda, who listened and nodded her head excitedly.

“Mr. Moses, Nicole will be teaching the language to Wanda during this trip. And two students are no more work than one. Would you like to learn?”

“I would be honored.”

Kyle had promised to teach me, and after he died, I assumed I would have to find a tutor in-flight. I didn’t think one would find me. A bit of luck, it seemed – in the form of a precious little girl – had stumbled into me.

My lessons officially started three days after the Columbus launched. A series of mandatory training events took up the first two days. The crew introduced the passengers to all the ship’s features and trained us how to use the safety gear, pressure suits, and escape pods. No one hand-waves those requirements anymore after the Magellan disaster, even though nothing we learned would have done any good if the Columbus got into the same kind of trouble.

The Johnsons had a suite six decks above mine. Kyle and I had booked the cheapest double room available, but I have no idea how we both could have lived there. The whole thing was smaller than my VR room at home and contained bunk beds, closets, dressers, a tiny bathroom with a shower, and a sink-toilet combo.

By comparison, the Johnsons lived in a mansion.

Their front door opened into a kitchen and dining room with a table that sat six. Past the table was a spacious living area with two couches and several chairs. The master bedroom and a small VR room were on the first floor, and there were two bedrooms and another VR room on the second.

Luxury, thy name is Johnson.

Wanda began the lessons with a tremendous head start. She could understand most everything already but had a difficult time pronouncing words. It didn’t take Nicole long to realize she would be starting from scratch with me, and if she felt irritated at that prospect, she didn’t show it. She gave me a few beginner-level books she’d found in Wanda’s old things and asked me to read them at night.

Like everything else I’ve tried to do in my life, learning a new language was difficult at first. Nicole is a much better teacher than Kyle, but I could tell she was frustrated with me. Not even a month into our lessons, she forbade me from speaking English in the apartment. That helped, forcing me to rearrange my brain and learn to think in Gebian. Word memorization came easier after that, and it wasn’t long before I could communicate exclusively, if primitively for a time, in Gebian.

I spent most of my time with the Johnsons, even after finishing my lessons for the day. They asked me to stay for dinner most nights and never took no for an answer. They were, quite simply, some of the most generous people I have ever encountered.

This wasn’t specific to the Johnsons. It’s common among Prosties as a whole. Here’s a good example. After Sekmet and I were married, we were stranded in Konstantini at the end of our honeymoon. It was my fault. I booked the wrong tickets home and didn’t show them to her because I wanted the trip to be a surprise. I discovered the mistake as we were checking out of the Oasis Hotel. She was angry, and we fought, but at some point, the owner of the hotel walked up to us.

“Excuse me,” he said gently. “I couldn’t help but overhear. Am I to understand that you require transport back to New Jerusalem?”

“Yes,” answered Sekmet, keeping her fiery eyes trained on me.

“It just so happens I’m selling one of my cars to a buyer there. I dislike the city. The air feels dirty, and, quite frankly, it is far too violent right now. You’d be doing me a great service if you could take the car there and drop it off at the buyer’s address. Would you be willing to do that?”

I was floored. I couldn’t think of a single person back on Earth who would offer their vehicle to complete strangers, but maybe I hung around the wrong people. We could have stolen the car, or trashed it, or did any number of other things to it. And we were, ironically, the very people making the city too violent for his liking, but he couldn’t have known that.

We treated the car as if it was our own. We took it straight to the buyer and dropped it off in better condition than we found it.

We did make love in the backseat, but hey, we were newlyweds.

The Johnsons were like that, always concerned about my welfare and giving without ever asking anything in return. I tried to reciprocate their kindness, but I never felt like it was enough. They had so much, and I had so little.

At first, I tried helping around the kitchen. The dining facility on the spacecraft never closed, but the food got old amazingly quickly. Once it did, Nicole began to cook for the family.


Alan never helped – never did much of anything, really – and the kids were either doing homework or off in their own little world. There were discreet tasks I could do well, like chopping or mixing or blending. I love to blend. But I couldn’t manipulate things on the stove safely. It was too high. And don’t bother asking me to set the table. I can’t reach the plates or glasses without a stool.

I helped in other areas where I could. Tiffany brought schoolwork home almost every night. It was usually at a level I could understand, although once she progressed into complex numbers, I was no help at all. And Wanda always wanted me to read her a story before she went to bed at night.

The stories she had to choose from all had religious themes, and her favorite was “All the Little Children.” She asked me to read it so often we both knew it by heart, and she would scold me if I tried to skip a line. It read:

>All the little children

>All the children of Geb

>Short and tall, fat and skinny

> They’re all precious in Augur’s sight

>All the little children of the universe, He loves

>It matters not to Him

>Whether you’re rich or poor

>He just asks you to believe

>If your heart is worried

>Send your troubles all to Him

>He knows you have heard His call

>And He won’t forget

>In every corner of the universe

>His children sleep soundly

>Knowing He will keep them safe

>From those who wish them harm

>His children are the richest children of all

English doesn’t quite do it justice.

When I wasn’t helping with homework and reading bedtime stories, I also provided some comic relief. It’s hard to get away from when you’re my size. I did a lot of entertaining for my friends when I was younger, so I knew how to make people laugh. For Wanda, licking my elbow was always a hit. I could make her laugh just threatening to do it. When Tiffany sprained her ankle, the doctors gave her a pair of crutches, and I had everyone in stitches trying to walk with them.

Except Alan.

If he was around, he always stopped me if I was doing anything silly. He didn’t think it was dignified.

The girls eventually convinced me to play a prank on him. Although, if I’m honest, it didn’t take much convincing.

They told me he loved horror streams, so we worked up an idea to scare him. I pretended to leave one night after reading Wanda her story but hid under the dining room table while Nicole loaded up the scariest stream she could find in the living room. She came and got me while Alan was in the restroom, and I hid underneath the sofa cushions.

I waited for a nerve-wracking moment in the show and popped out with a roar. He levitated above his recliner for a millisecond before scrambling behind it and lying flat on the floor. Nicole’s laughter pierced the air around me, and she doubled up on the floor next to Alan. The girls came out of their rooms and ran down the stairs.

Alan pretended to yell at all of us, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it.

I got him.




The more time I spent with the Johnsons, and the more things we did together, the more they opened up about their lives. It was an illuminating process. As generous and loving as they were, I gradually came to see a sinister side.

It transformed my affection for them into something approaching revulsion.

My first peek came during mealtimes, but I didn’t comprehend it at first. Before we dug into whatever Nicole had whipped up, Alan always said a prayer in Gebian. As my language skills sharpened, I discovered he was praying for his son. Then I started hearing his name more and more around the apartment.

They never spoke about him in English. Only in solemn, reverential Gebian.

I didn’t need to be a quantum physicist to work out he was dead, but until we were halfway to Geb, I didn’t know how he died. Alan shared this with me one night as Nicole was upstairs shooing Tiffany and Wanda into their rooms.

“It is my son’s nineteenth birthday next week,” he began. “We are having a celebration in his honor. I would like you to attend if you can make it.”

“Of course I will be there, asmatzenbadu,” I responded. He knew very well I had nothing else to do.

“He is with God now, but it is tradition to celebrate every year they are gone.”

“I hear you pray for him every night.”

“I’ve never spoken of him with you. It is… difficult with outsiders. But I feel now you are one of the family.”

“Thank you, Alan. I feel the same.”

“Paul died during an operation on Earth. It is because of him we are able to go home and to have all this.” He spread his hands out to indicate the suite.

“Why was he in the hospital?”

“He wasn’t in the hospital.”

“I’m sorry, I am still learning the language. I thought you said he died during an operation.” The word he used literally translates to ‘procedure .’ While it is used in a medical context, it is also used in another context, a military one.

“He did, but not in a hospital.”

“Oh. Was he in the Defense Force?”

Alan scoffed. “No.” Then he switched to English. “He died killing the unbelievers.”

It took a moment for my brain to process this. It was the last thing I expected him to say, although looking back on it, I should have been more suspicious. I tried to keep my jaw from hitting the floor and switched back to Gebian to mask my reaction.

“Please, I don’t want Nicole to hear me speak English. Can you tell me what happened?”

Alan leaned back and closed his eyes. “He was in New Orleans, in the middle of all of the godless drunken debauchery. He delivered twenty-one souls to God before they killed him. I saw the stream. I’m so proud of how he acted. He is the reason we are here.”

“Did he pay for your tickets home?”

“In a way.”

“Forgive me. I have lived on Earth too long. I do not understand.”

“Of course. You are still new to our ways. Geb pays an annuity to the families of heroes.”

Except he didn’t say ‘hero.’ He used a Gebian word which means ‘a warrior who fights for God.’ There is no secular word in Gebian to describe a hero.

“I didn’t know.”

“We will buy a house when we get to Geb and live comfortably. We are very proud of him, and we want you to share in this pride.”

“I am honored.”

I wasn’t, but I didn’t know what else to say.

A week later, we all sat at the dining room table around a cake with Paul’s face emblazoned on it – he was more Nicole than Alan. We prayed. We sang songs. And then Alan sliced off a piece for each of us, and we ate. I got a bit of Paul’s ear.

When we’d finished, Alan asked everyone at the table to share their most cherished memory of Paul. Wanda went first.

“I remember the day he left for New Orleans. He hugged me and kissed me and told me not to be afraid. He would protect me from the dirty people of Earth and then would be with God. I want to be like him when I grow up. I want to fight like he did until God rules the Earth, too.”

Wanda smiled. The same smile I saw in Sister Hillary’s girls. Bile rose in my throat. It was one thing to watch children I’d never met spew hatred in VR. It was quite another to watch one of the gentlest souls I’d ever known profess her desire to kill for her religion. I wanted to grab her and shake her and tell her she’d been lied to her entire life. I wanted to do even worse to Alan and Nicole, the people responsible for those lies.

I missed Tiffany’s speech entirely. The next thing I knew, all eyes were on me.

“Sorry,” I said hurriedly. “I didn’t know Paul, but I do know all of you very well. A little better today than yesterday. You’ve taken me into your home, and your life, and I will remain grateful to you for as long as I live. I, too, hope the entire universe will one day realize God’s truth and his plan for us, and I will do everything in my power to see that day come to pass.”

Four faces beamed at me and applauded my improvised tribute.

I meant every word.




After Paul’s birthday party, I spent much less time with the Johnsons. We still had dinner occasionally, and I read Wanda a bedtime story a couple of nights a week, but I felt the need to put a little distance between us. Disguising my distaste for their religious dogmas became difficult.

The cramped cubicle I lived in wasn’t big enough for VR, so when I wasn’t with the Johnsons, I was usually holed up in one of the public rooms. They charged by the hour, but I wasn’t spending my stipend from Gabriel on anything else.

The first thing I did was look for evidence proving the government of Geb pays Prosties to carry out attacks on Earth. I had no reason to believe Alan lied to me, but I wondered if it was an official practice or some backroom, off-the-books deal. It turns out it was official and well-publicized – in Gebian language news sources. In English, the only mention of the payments came from groups like TVA, who were routinely maligned for pointing it out. Accredited news organizations never mentioned it, which meant few people on Earth had any idea it was happening.

This research morphed into an obsession of sorts with Gebian news. Because I could now read and understand the language, a whole new morbidly fascinating world opened up. The old joke about Earth is that we’re people separated by a common language. Earth and Geb are separated by much, much more.

I was still in the habit of skimming the Cairo Times every morning to see what was happening on Earth, so even on the home stretch of our journey, I felt relatively up to date. But the first time I read the Interstellar Section of the New Jerusalem Times, it was like crossing into another dimension. Names and dates matched, but actions and consequences bore no relation to reality as I understood it.

A perfect example was the attack in Houston. I had first-hand knowledge of that event, and English news accounts got the basic facts correct. I took issue with a few details, but the central thrust of the story was a Prostie attack killed two people and injured many others.

This wasn’t the story the Gebian press told.

The NJT story inverted the attack’s causation. In their telling, the Prostie with the explosives underneath his jacket wasn’t the aggressor. He was the victim of a racist former member of the DF who assaulted him and blew up the train. The story called it another example of the campaign of violence being waged by the security services of Earth against refugees from Geb. The funny thing was, in their attempt to smear the person who thwarted the attack, they accidentally got part of the story right – Kyle was ex-DF. But they couldn’t have known that. The authorities in Houston and the press all described him as an engineer, which is what his forged identity papers showed.

My theory is the NJT wrote the story the way they did because the attack was not, in relative terms, a success. Other attacks with much larger body counts were written up in sympathetic, heroic language. When it came to stories about Earth, the Gebian press only ran with one of two slants: Earth oppressing and killing Gebian refugees or Gebian refugees fighting back.

Except the word they used doesn’t translate to ‘refugee,’ it means something closer to ‘pilgrim.’ A subtle but essential distinction. The common perception on Earth – amplified by the media – is that Gebians are fleeing poverty and conflict and trying to find a better life. But the perception on Geb is these same people aren’t fleeing anything. They are traveling to Earth for a purpose: to reclaim it in God’s name.

I decided to ask Alan about this one night a few weeks before we were set to disembark. I’d learned I could be a good actor when I needed to be for discrete periods. Anything longer than an hour or two and my mask would slip, but in the meantime, I could pretend to sympathize with him.

“Alan,” I said as we sat on the couch, “I’ve been reading about Geb, and there is something I don’t understand. I wonder if you could help me.”

“Of course,” he said. “Would you like a drink? Nicole! Get Aaron a drink.”

“Thank you.” He never drank alcohol, but once he found out I do, he always made sure my glass was full – another reason to only spend a couple of nights a week with them. “I have always wanted to travel to my home planet. I never felt like I belonged on Earth. But the more I learn about our religion and how we are to inherit the Earth, I wonder if I have made a mistake. Perhaps I would have been better off staying there and helping to fulfill our destiny.”

Told you I was good.

“This is hard,” he said, stroking his face. “For you, I think, it is best to go to Geb, to pray at the temple, breathe the air and feel the dirt beneath your feet. Then when you have stayed awhile, maybe you can think about going back to Earth.”

Nicole arrived with my drink – Gebian Gin – and set it next to me. “Thank you, Nicole. Alan, after so long on Earth, why did you decide to move back?”

“We couldn’t stay. The girls would have been targets for vigilantes. I could not have found work. Besides, the government would not pay if we stayed on Earth, so we had to do this.” He gazed at the surrounding suite.

“Do you think you’ll ever go back?”

“One day, asmatzenbadu.”

“How do you think this will end, this conflict with Earth?”

“We will defeat them. It is God’s plan. You said you understood the truth of it.”

“I do,” I said. “But sometimes, I am not as confident as you.”

“That is natural. You grew up among the unbelievers. God has been waiting for hundreds and thousands of years.” He turned and grabbed my hand. He interlaced his fingers with mine and stared into my eyes. “God has a special plan for you. I am sure of it. One day, he will show it to you.”

“He may have shown it to me already.”

“Then your path is clear.” He released my hand and patted my knee. “You must listen to him.”

We both said nothing for a few minutes. This is one of those cultural norms people from Earth have a hard time adapting to. For us, anything more than a few seconds of silence starts to feel awkward. After a minute or two, we start plotting our escape. For Prosties, long silences are common. Many use the time to pray, but I never did. I replayed our conversation in my head and waited to hear what he would say next.

“Where are you staying when we reach Geb?” He asked, breaking the silence.

“I have promised friends I will stay with them,” I replied, reaching for my drink. It’s rude to drink during silences. Don’t do it!

“You will come to visit us, of course. Wanda cannot sleep without your stories.”

“I will call on you as often as I can, asmatzenbadu. Especially when you are watching a scary show.” He laughed and tapped the couch cushions next to him. “But I have much work to do when we arrive.”

“You are welcome in my home. We are not related by blood, but we are now related by shared experience and friendship.”

This was a big deal.

Gebians have various circles of people in their lives that they trust. Blood relatives comprise the innermost circle, and trust in them is absolute. Just beyond this circle are people with whom they have a special bond as the result of some shared ordeal. In Gebian culture, one is compelled to help or assist anyone in these two categories. On Earth, it’s an informal designation reserved for close friends and family, but it’s much more formal on Geb.

The fascinating thing is that a Gebian is allowed, even encouraged in some instances, to lie to people outside those two circles. In fact, the farther away you are from that inner circle, the more likely it is that person is not telling you the whole truth. Alan must have placed me in the second circle months before, when he told me about his son, otherwise, he could easily have made up a story about an accident or a rare disease. But he didn’t. He told me the truth. And despite my feelings toward him, it was reassuring to know, just before stepping onto a foreign planet for the first time in my life, that I had someone to turn to in case I ran into trouble.

“I feel the same, Alan. You and your entire family are related by shared experience and friendship to me.”

I reciprocated the sentiment but thought to myself if I saw the man drowning, I would throw a shark into the water.

That was the last night I spent in their suite on the Columbus. We docked at the station orbiting Geb a few weeks later, and the Johnsons disembarked immediately. Wanda cried and gave me a long, wet hug. I promised to read her bedtime stories in the future, and she promised me ice cream when I did. I waved goodbye to them and, over the course of the next week, almost everyone else on board as they all transferred to smaller ships bound for the surface. My lowest-possible-class ticket meant I was one of the last people to finally set foot on Geb.


Photo by Pixabay