By Brandon Daubs
Ohme felt her eyes drawn to the wrong-colored
flash and the plume of smoke just beyond the edge of
the fields. Nobody else turned to see; had they not
noticed? Well, better for Ohme that they hadn’t. She
would be the first one there, and all the credit would
go to her. Ohme the Blind, they called her. Let them
enjoy the irony of their cruel name when she was the
only one, out of an amphitheater filled with arguing
diplomats, who noticed the explosion and went to
“Their visits are becoming more and more
frequent,” shouted a man from the seats.
“These visits are accidents,” argued a man
from the stage. “Never intentional. And even if they
were intentional they never survive long.”
The argument faded to a dull buzz in Ohme’s mind,
the way it always did. With a quick glance at her
mother, whose char-patterned cheeks and marble-white
eyes were still serene with concentration, Ohme
reached small fingers up to adjust her goggles and
She heard the first shouts as the wind picked up
and the storm clouds in the sky began to roil in a
hypnotizing pattern of crimson, mustard and ash.
“Get those rods up, for Christ’s sake!” somebody
cried, from up ahead.
Lightning arced close by, splintering an old tree
from bough to root. Dust and stone chips showered from
the crest of a ridge that dared to rise above the
trees. Ohme’s hair tried to lift itself up off her
scalp as lightning came down on her a few times, too.
Her heart raced like it had that time she tried to
speak with Johrren in her chemistry class.
The voices continued.
“We can’t run around trying to jam up debris. The
“It’ll get worse. Do it!”
They screamed at each other with such
desperation. Ohme crept to the edge of an ash-rimmed
gulch filled with gravel and smoke as more lightning
came down. Below, a handful of men scrambled in their
haste to grab debris from… something… that had
apparently half-buried itself in the ground and caught
fire. Thunder rattled small stones down into the gulch
as lightning struck the wreckage again, and again.
Sometimes it hit one of the people. Why did they just
lie there, afterward?
Some of these people could barely stand. Ohme
thought, this was her chance -- she would be known for
rescuing these travelers when nobody else had even
noticed the crash.
“Hey!” she called, and reached a gloved hand out
in a quick wave to get their attention over the roar
of the storm. “If you’re hurt, there’s a city not too
far from here. Just… follow … me.”
Her voice trailed off. There was something wrong,
here. The people froze like startled animals when they
saw her. Their faces were too clean. No char marks
anywhere. Lightning lashed down again and another one
of them collapsed to the earth without even a scream,
to lie still as a smoldering husk. That shouldn’t… why
was that happening?
“Stop!” one of them shouted.
Ohme realized many of them had drawn some kind of
weapon. She picked out the speaker, looming a head and
shoulders taller than the others. His hair was much
darker than it should have been. He was so tall.
And his eyes….
His eyes were green. All of them had
eyes with color -- blue, brown, shifting gray. Ohme
reached a shaking hand up to her goggles and
remembered a day at the optometrist, long ago; her
mother’s unsettling calm, Dr. Korsen’s disgust as he
wagged a light in her eyes. Oh, how it hurt.
“Birth defect,” Dr. Korsen had muttered.
“I’ve never seen it before.”
“You’ll take us to your city,” said the tall man.
He tossed his own weapon into the gravel. When he
reached his hand toward Ohme, she saw two of the
fingers were bent at a crazy angle. “Please.”
“You can’t be serious, Atwood!” someone else
shrieked. “We can’t trust her, and you must be crazy
if you think I’m going anywhere in this storm. Who put
you in charge, anyway?”
“That’s a protorium vein you crashed on,” Ohme
blurted. There was something about that man --
Atwood, she guessed was his bizarre name -- about
his smooth skin free from char-marks, and his eyes,
and how tall. “You can’t stay here,” she went
on. “That gulch was carved by electro-static trying to
get to the ore. Lightning.”
There was no more argument after that. Atwood
helped the others scramble out of the gulch just as
lightning began to crash down into the gravel again
and again and again in what seemed an endless shower
of gravel and sparks. Atwood glanced back once as
lightning struck not more than twenty feet from
him—and he snapped a hand to his eyes with a curse and
a snarl of pain.
Ohme would have taken his hand as he stumbled
along, but… her cheeks flushed as lightning found her
over and over until she felt a little dizzy. At least
it wasn’t hitting the others, though. The….
Humans, she realized.
Boy, was she in trouble.
As they neared the amphitheater, a small crowd
had already gathered with Ohme’s mother at the front.
Ohme slowed to a walk as she saw her mother’s
porcelain face molded into a mask she didn’t recognize
-- pride. Grief. Anger.
“Mom,” Ohme called. Her hand seemed too heavy to
wave but she managed to flap it around a little,
anyway. “I found, uh, I guess… humans. Some of them
are very hurt.”
Ohme’s mother raised a hand to her mouth, and
turned away. “Ohme,” she sighed. “My child. You
The minutes ticked by painfully slow in chemistry
lab, and more than once Ohme almost burned off her
eyebrows touching manganese without her gloves. Her
mind kept drifting back to Atwood. Had he measured
manganese into tiny increments, too, in another
engineering school? He was so far from home. Ohme
tried to imagine what it would be like if she
crash-landed on Earth, where the humans
apparently came from. A planet that was mostly water,
they said. A planet where the sky was blue….
Ohme’s manganese exploded in a flash of light in
her hands again, and this time Dr. Korsen cut off in
mid-lecture to jab his pointer in her direction.
“Ohme, you are obviously good for nothing this
evening,” he snapped. “You’re lucky you’ve got those
goggles on or you’d have blinded yourself by now. Why
don’t you go see if the humans have all died off yet?”
The other students laughed… even Johrren, who
suddenly did not seem very handsome at all. Ohme felt
her apology die on her lips.
“That was cruel,” she said.
Dr. Korsen muttered something under his
breath. “Impetuous -- just like your mother. Very
well, Ohme, you may be excused… and I would suggest
you think of some extra credit to make up for missing
Ohme didn’t really care about extra credit. She
didn’t really care about chemistry at all. As she
gathered her books and rushed out, she knew there were
better secrets out in the city than stupid manganese,
and when she unlocked the secrets of the humans and of
mysterious Earth, everyone who wasted their time
finishing chemistry with an A++ would look like an
Atwood wasn’t hard to find. At the produce stand
in front of the grocer, he towered over the others
like a dynamo spire. Ohme watched him reach bandaged
fingers to pick a fruit from the stand, pay for it,
and peel a little. When he noticed Ohme approaching
from the crosswalk, he raised the fruit in salute and
took a bite.
“Ugh! Yuck.” He spat a mouthful of rind into the
street. “I thought this would be more like…
grapefruit. Do you have anything that doesn’t taste
like battery acid?”
Ohme padded up to him. She really had to crane
her neck to meet his eyes. He was just so tall.
“I never got to introduce myself,” she said. “My name
is Ohme. I’m a student at the engineering college. I
thought maybe we could talk a little about your… you
know. Being from another star system and all. More
specifically, how you got here.”
Atwood regarded her in silence for a moment. At
first, Ohme was afraid he would tell her to get lost…
but at last he fished a glove out of his coat, slid it
on, and reached out to shake her hand. “A pleasure,”
he said. “You saved my life and the lives of my crew.
I’ll admit I never expected an alien race to be so
hospitable. What can I do for you, Ohme?”
Ohme tried to keep the color from her cheeks but
a little crept in, anyway. “You can let me take you to
dinner,” was her response.
“Hopefully not fruit,” said Atwood, as he
gestured for Ohme to lead the way.
The Conduit wasn’t the fanciest restaurant
in the city, but it was the best Ohme could afford --
she wasn’t an engineer quite yet, after all. Even so,
Atwood couldn’t seem to keep his eyes off the
decorations, as he watched the pinpricks of light
working their way over the ceiling like stars in the
“Your people are far more advanced than I
expected,” he said at last.
Ohme laughed. “What did you expect?”
She reached up to adjust the collar of her lab-coat
and decided she wasn’t going to return it. “Did you
hope to find us chiseling stone into wheels? Did you
hope to be our God, come down from the heavens with
tech indiscernible from magic?”
Atwood laughed. It was a rich sound that
did not reflect the fatigue in his eyes. Ohme pushed
the plate of appetizers toward him. He leaned over the
bowl as though expecting something to jump out and
“It’s just bread,” Ohme said. “You look
exhausted. Please try some.”
Atwood plucked out a slice, bravely
slathered it with the spice-paste by his plate -- too
bravely, although Ohme did not have time to warn him
-- and pushed it into his mouth. He did not react the
way she feared he would, though.
“It’s good,” he said. Crunch. “Like
sourdough. And I have a hard time finding jalapeno
butter hot enough at home….”
“We don’t have flight,” Ohme cut in.
Atwood had been reaching for another slice
of bread. He let his hand stop at the basket.
“Oh, we’ve kind of got it down,” Ohme went
on with a sigh, as she poked at her own piece of bread
with her butter knife. “You know, the aerodynamics.
The theory. But it’s just… you know the difference
between an ideal science and actual….”
“The atmosphere,” Atwood said.
“Yes!” Ohme poked at her bread a little
more forcefully. “The atmosphere shoots everything
down. Listen, um… I was hoping, maybe we could work
something out together. Maybe you could share a little
of your ship’s design --”
Ohme cut off as Atwood reached across the
table to lay his hand on hers. A blue-white spark shot
between them, but he did not jerk his hand away.
“After everything you’ve done already,” he said, “I’ll
tell you anything you want to know.”
Why do you have eyes like mine?
It was the question she should have asked
-- but before she had a chance the entrees arrived.
Curiously, they came with a receipt. Although Ohme had
nothing against a free meal, she didn’t want her guest
to think she was dishonest.
“We haven’t paid yet,” she said, and tried
to hand the receipt back to the waiter. The waiter
waved it away.
“Compliments of table four,” he said, with
a nod toward the back of the restaurant.
Ohme turned toward the booth closest to the
windows, lit only by a single candle -- and she felt
her stomach turn.
“Courteous,” said Atwood when he turned to
raise a hand, because he did not recognize Ohme’s
mother watching them over the rim of her teacup.
Atwood tripped over a discarded can and
sent it rattling over the pavement. The sound made
Ohme cringe and check over her shoulder. Nobody jumped
out of the classrooms after them, thankfully. Nothing
seemed to stir at all -- nothing but shifting shadows
cast by the clouds, rolling over the quad.
“Keep it down, would you?” Ohme hissed. It
was his boots. Those awful boots made of some stifling
polymer with two-inch soles. How could anyone wear
“I’m sorry.” Atwood hefted his end of the
crate with a grunt. “I was under the impression we
Ohme watched the way Atwood’s muscles
rippled beneath his uniform, and she had a difficult
time remembering if she had told him that. She
tightened her grip on her end of the crate, which had
become suddenly loose, and nudged him on toward her
mother’s skimmer parked at the edge of the curb. There
weren’t any other cars in the roundabout, which was
some consolation. The last thing Ohme needed was some
freak stay-until-dawn chemistry student lurching out
of the lab to find them, or even better, Dr. Korsen
As they reached the skimmer, Ohme popped
the trunk with a light touch, and Atwood helped her
lift the crate up into it.
“It’s not stealing,” she said, as she
slammed the trunk shut. “It’s research. Listen, when
you came crashing through the atmosphere….”
“Don’t remind me,” Atwood muttered,
massaging his fingers.
“…if you had hit the ground at terminal
velocity you would be jelly right now,” Ohme went on.
“Which means you must not have completely stalled. You
must have had some thrust left to slow the descent.
I’m very curious to know the design of your engine --
an engine that was still able to function, however
poorly, after passing through the thickest part of our
stratosphere. It’s almost as though it were designed
just for our static fields.”
Atwood was quiet. Ohme watched the shadows
dark against the planes of his face, until he finally
looked away. “Let’s get in,” he muttered, with a
glance over his shoulder. “I think your paranoia is
rubbing off on me.”
The inside of the skimmer was a smooth
landscape of curves and contours, a cool and lustrous
alloy, and Ohme settled into the driver’s seat with a
sigh of relief. As she put a hand on the wheel, the
dash lit up, and a prickle of static washed over her.
Atwood flopped into the passenger’s side dragging his
clunker boots in after him and almost at once began to
fidget, like he was sitting on thorns.
“Get comfortable,” Ohme laughed. “Weirdo.”
She willed the skimmer into motion, and it
slid forward smoothly over the rail built into the
road, with hardly a spark passing between the two.
Once or twice, Ohme caught Atwood watching her in the
light of passing streetlamps. With barely a touch, she
slid her fingers down the edge of the wheel to turn
right. Then she slid her fingers up the edge of the
wheel to turn left. Atwood’s eyes followed her every
move… like he had never seen someone drive before.
She was glad the inside of the skimmer was
too dark for him to see the red in her cheeks.
The hangar where Atwood and the other
humans had managed to drag their ship was only a few
blocks away, but as Ohme rounded the corner she felt
her hair try to lift itself up off the top of her
head. She recognized the rust-red skimmer parked out
front of the human hangar almost at once, and the
silhouette of the man speaking with a few of the
humans through the open roll-up door. He was still
wearing his lab-coat. The char marks under his eyes
made him look exhausted -- maybe he was. Ohme jerked
her hands away from the controls in a panic as he
turned toward them.
Atwood muttered a curse as the skimmer
jarred to a silent halt. The lights went off. Dr.
Korsen’s eyes were bright in the darkness as he
scanned from one side of the road, slowly, to the
other. Ohme was glad the city had never approved
streetlights for this corner.
“Who is that?” Atwood whispered.
“My chemistry professor. And my doctor.”
“What is he doing here…?”
“I don’t know.” She watched Dr. Korsen jab
a finger toward one of the humans… she vaguely
remembered that one arguing with Atwood, after the
crash… and slowly, without switching the lights back
on, Ohme backed the skimmer away and around the
“You could just drop me off,” Atwood
suggested, but Ohme wasn’t about to let Korsen ruin
what might be her last chance to work with human
ingenuity. Her apartment wasn’t far. Even if Korsen
had the council closing in on her, she would get at
least one night of research with a being from another
star system… more than most researchers could say
about their whole miserable careers.
“We’re here,” Ohme said, as she slid the
skimmer into her carport. “You bring the supplies, and
I’ll go make room for everything.”
Ohme’s apartment was sparsely furnished but
comfortable. Although the living room was small, the
kitchen had a nice long counter -- long enough for lab
use. A ceiling-length window looked out over the
engineering college campus and the scrublands beyond,
and a round bed jammed into the corner hid under
rumpled sheets. While Atwood labored up the stairs
with their crate of supplies, Ohme scrambled to pick
up loose socks and underwear. Was there really a smile
printed across the cheeks of one pair? How old was
After jamming the unwanted objects under
the bed, with one deft sweep of her arm Ohme scooped
all her fast-food wrappers off the kitchen counter and
into the trash. Atwood arrived at the door a little
red in the face, but he still had a firm grip on what
might have been 100 pounds of equipment. He had to
stoop to get through the door.
Ohme cleared her throat.
“If you can set up the channels,” she said,
with a gesture to the counter, “I’ll get the test
Atwood set up with very little help from
Ohme. He placed the conductors close enough together
that they wouldn’t try to divert into the counter,
plugged cables from their collection of batteries into
the right network of positive-negative nodes, and
before Ohme had even reached into the crate he had a
static resistance field running that she could feel on
her arms. Maybe he had gone to engineering
“The protorium?” Atwood prodded. Ohme
realized she was just standing there, holding it. With
a muttered apology, she snatched up her paring knife
and began to shave sheets off the block to use as
They ran test after test. Atwood explained
that the human ship didn’t have an engine, per
se, but a power core that diverted energy to thrust.
With a glance at Atwood’s ugly boots, Ohme suggested
they try to insulate the core. It didn’t work.
Atwood’s protorium mini-core still fizzled on its way
through the static field. Atwood reasoned the
insulation of just the core would have to be so
complete that it cut off power to the ship, and
suggested insulation of the whole ship. The result was
a craft too unwieldy to fly that Atwood could barely
lift in one hand.
At last Ohme had the idea to use more
protorium to act as a kind of surge protector for the
Atwood stared at her for a long time.
“Yes,” he muttered. “I wish I’d known you back on
Earth. Maybe we wouldn’t have crashed in the first
Hours later, though, they still had
“This… protorium… functions too
predictably,” Atwood mused, as he tossed a new chunk
of it down on the counter. He glanced toward the light
of the sun beginning to break over the engineering
campus outside. “It will store a spike of excess power
but won’t know when to send it back to keep the core
from stalling. We need a way to control the store and
He reached for the chunk of protorium again
-- and Ohme realized she had seen it pass through the
static field, which had somehow expanded itself to
conductors Atwood had drawn away for the last
experiment. Even a fraction of a second would be
enough for it to take on charge.
As Atwood touched the chunk of protorium,
and his hand seized into a fist, his jaw clamped shut,
and Ohme threw herself at him. She felt the current
pass through her in a torrent that set her heart
racing and singed away patches of her blouse beneath
her lab-coat, but that was not important, and in that
moment while she was locked in that current of power
with Atwood it seemed inevitable Ohme would press her
lips to his.
Hours seemed to pass before the charge
dissipated. It seemed even longer before Atwood pulled
away to hold Ohme at arm’s length.
“You never explained why you wear these
goggles,” Atwood managed to say.
Ohme said nothing. Her heart squirmed between
them when Atwood reached up to her goggles and slid
As Ohme blinked in the sudden light, she
heard Atwood mutter, “They’re… the color of the sea.”
The next experiments had very little to do with
the stratosphere. Lab-coat, uniform, and ugly boots
came off in a pile next to the bed. A blouse and
underwear printed with a smile across the cheeks came
next. Ohme fell into the mess of sheets and Atwood was
so tall, he seemed like an eclipse against the sunset
as he settled on top of her. In the throes of their
passion, Ohme tried to release her static at regular
intervals, so she wouldn’t shock Atwood too badly at
the end of it all… but he didn’t seem to mind the
little jolts as he dug his fingers into the char
pattern of Ohme’s back, like a nebula of stars dark
against soft skin.
Ohme didn’t wake to the smell of breakfast,
although she dreamed of it. She didn’t even wake to
snoring and drool on the pillow beside her. Instead,
she heard the rasp of her apartment door sliding open
and the click of shoes she knew all too well.
“Oh, for… mom!” was all Ohme could think
to say, as she looked up into that serene face, and in
her scramble to cover herself with blankets she almost
left Atwood exposed. He rolled over, muttering.
“Ohme,” her mother whispered, with a slight tilt
of her head toward the door, “come with me, please.
Before he wakes up.”
Ohme wasn’t about to argue with that. The last
thing she wanted was for Atwood to open his eyes after
their long night of “science” and see Ohme’s mom
standing there. With the quiet desperation of one
headed to the magneton chamber, she slipped from the
bed, got dressed, slid her goggles back on and
followed her mother out the door.
“He’s very tall,” Ohme’s mother said as they
climbed into her skimmer, in complete disregard for
everything Ohme had been expecting to hear. “Very
handsome. Beautiful eyes. Smart, too. Maybe the
smartest of the bunch this time.” She looked over, and
her eyes were dim. Hardly any light at all. “Ohme,
he’ll break your heart.”
Ohme felt all her prepared comebacks slipping
away as her mother slid the skimmer over
storm-darkened streets, and lightning streaked across
the clouds above in an intricate spiderweb of light.
“I don’t even know where to begin with that,” she
“Begin by not becoming too attached.”
Ohme’s mother turned left a little sharp. Ohme
felt her shoulder bump against the door. “My little
girl can’t be in love,” her mother sighed. “Not with
Who said anything about love? Ohme wanted to say. “Why not?” she said
“Humans don’t last long here. This world is
a trap to them… it draws them in. It destroys them.
Ohme, sweetheart, even you could kill him, in a
moment of passion.”
Ohme laughed. The sound of it was a little sharp.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “How could you possibly
Ohme saw her mother turn away. The skimmer slid
up to the roundabout of the engineering college.
Lightning hit the car a few times, but Ohme did not
feel the wonder she once had as the energy coursed
through her. It was replaced by something else.
“How do you know?” Ohme said again,
although she thought she could guess. Without
thinking, she raised a hand to her goggles. Her
fingers shook as she pulled them off to clean the fog
from the lenses and her eyes, a freakish cornflower
blue, blinked against the light of the storm.
Ohme’s mother reached over to lay a hand on
her leg. “Dr. Korsen doesn’t know anything about
your…research,” she whispered. “But he has something
he says you have to know, if you’re going to help the
humans rebuild their ship. And sweetie?”
Ohme scrubbed a little harder at her lenses. She
“You know I love you.”
“And… I know your father would have loved you,
When Ohme finally stepped inside the chemistry
building, Dr. Korsen lurked by his blackboard, tapping
at some diagram of the atom with his long pointer. A
few of the electrons were loose, jumping toward
something he had smudged out.
“Ohme,” he said, without turning around. “The
humans say you’ve been to the hangar at least five
times this week.”
Ohme remembered Dr. Korsen’s shadow lurking
outside the humans’ hangar. Looking for her? She
opened her mouth to give him a piece of her mind --
the academic council had ensured her right to free
research -- but before she had the chance, Dr. Korsen
turned and raised what appeared to be a small
micro-processor between his forefinger and thumb. Ohme
stared at it.
“Would you still help them,” he said, “if you
knew they had come here on purpose?”
“Korsen, please,” Ohme’s mother scoffed from the
door. “It’s not important what they came here to do.
What’s important is our reaction. We must consider
Korsen held a hand up to quiet her. “Why don’t we
let Ohme decide, after she knows all the facts,” he
said. Ohme felt her heart begin to pound under the
weight of Dr. Korsen’s empty eyes, set deep in his
network of dark char pattern. “Do you know what this
“Don’t ask me stupid questions,” Ohme snapped.
“Just tell me.”
Dr. Korsen shrugged. “Did you ever wonder
how you could understand the humans, right after they
landed? You didn’t think they had actually learned our
language from the first second you spoke to them, did
Ohme was quiet.
“We found this chip implanted in the skull
of one of the humans who never made it out of the
gorge,” Dr. Korsen went on. “In order for it to work,
someone had to pre-program it with our language
“I don’t see what you’re getting at,” Ohme cut
in, although she thought she did. She felt a little
“What I’m getting at,” Dr. Korsen explained,
patiently, “is that the humans did not crash land here
on ‘accident,’ as you are so fond of saying. They
weren’t drawn in by our gravity and pulled through the
static stratosphere as victims. Their coming here was
not an accident… or else why would they have come so
prepared? Ask yourself -- are you still willing to
help them, knowing they came here on purpose -- but
not knowing why?”
For a moment, Ohme found herself back on the quad
with Atwood in the dark of night, while they
“borrowed” lab equipment.
It’s as though the core were designed just
for that purpose, Ohme remembered saying. The way
Atwood had just stared… and his boots. Those horrible
insulating boots. Had he known he might need them…?
“I have a right to research what I want,” she
snapped, and turned to slip past her mother and out
into the storm. Lightning followed her all the way
across the quad, although she wasn’t going to the
The human hangar was close enough to walk.
“Atwood isn’t here yet.”
It was that human from the gorge again -- the one
who had wanted to stay and die in the storm. He called
himself Barnes. Behind him, the hangar seemed very
“Well, let me in anyway,” Ohme snapped through
the crack in the side door. “And how about you open
this place up? I told you, nobody’s going to try to
keep you here. Repairing your ship doesn’t have to be
some big secret. I mean, we even helped you get
it here, remember? And you won’t finish it without
“Sure, yeah.” The door opened a little wider.
“Fine, come in, if you have to.”
Ohme stepped inside and felt a chill as the door
clicked shut behind her. There was no reason for it,
though… right? She had come and gone from this place
so many times already, and while Atwood was the only
human who seemed excited to speak with her, the others
hadn’t been hostile, really.
At least, they hadn’t seemed that way when Atwood
was around. Now, the men who welded pipe and plating
at the workbenches scattered about the edge of the
hangar seemed oddly large -- like she hadn’t noticed
the biceps bulging beneath uniform sleeves, or the
sharp and heavy tools tucked into broad belts. One of
them reached up to scratch at a chin rough with
stubble. Another ground his cigar into the bench by
his pile of lead shavings.
Men, Ohme realized. All of the humans were men.
“Were you going to help us work on something, or
just stand there?”
Ohme ignored Barnes and ran her eyes over the
ship. It towered almost to the roof of the hangar,
much taller than it had looked half-buried in the
protorium ditch. She was surprised by the progress the
humans had made. They must have been working at this
day and night. Everything seemed the way Ohme had
imagined from the blueprints… almost. There were a few
new additions that she didn’t remember, though.
“What are these for?” she asked, reaching up to
the rods fixed to the underbelly, aft of the landing
gear. The composition of the alloy seemed a little…
“Propulsion,” Barnes answered almost at once.
Um… no. Stabilizers would not be so close to the
main thrusters. Either Barnes was stupid, or…
Ohme stared at them for a while, and the answer
came to her as though Dr. Korsen were standing right
there to spell it out.
She stumbled back to consider the ship a little
more carefully. Armor plating. Shielded thrusters.
Another bay door on the underbelly, close to the
loading dock, ominously round. And those
“stabilizers”… they didn’t need to be that long. At
the edges of the room, the humans grinding powder into
shell casings stopped to watch what she would do.
Suddenly, the door seemed very far away.
“You can’t fly this out of the hangar,” Ohme
“Not without a core,” Barnes responded. “Not
until you help us finish it. Whether you do or not,
though, I’m afraid we can’t let you tell anyone about
Barnes was standing close. Too close. Ohme could
smell the salt of his sweat. He slid something from
his belt and gripped at it in one big fist.
“Why can’t I ever just be right about
something,” Ohme muttered.
“What’s it gonna be?” Barnes asked again. Hissed,
Ohme reached her hands up to massage at her
temples. “Well,” she said, “I’m ‘gonna’ walk out of
here, and get the science commission to dismantle your
weapons, is what I’m ‘gonna’ do….”
Barnes pressed something into the small of her
back. There was a click, a crackling like the hum of a
skimmer across the rail, and Ohme felt a flush of
energy. She offered an apathetic glance down at
Barnes’ flashing stun baton and somehow his face
became even more pasty than usual.
Ohme’s hand crept up, and she suspected
that just one touch would blast Barnes to the
pavement, but… luckily, the hangar door slammed open
before she had a chance to do anything stupid.
Atwood stood silhouetted in the flashing light of
the storm outside, gripping the engineering college
crate of his and Ohme’s experiments. His uniform clung
soaking to his chest and his eyes seemed to reflect
the lightning as he swept them over the hangar. He
took in the shielding on the ship, the bomb hatch, the
cannons. When he turned toward Ohme and Barnes, he let
his crate slam down to the ground with an echoing
“God… DAMMIT Barnes!” Atwood roared, as he
stormed across the room. Barnes turned the stun baton
on Atwood but its charge had been expended -- Atwood
brought his fist up, and Barnes went sprawling.
“Barnes, you idiot!” Atwood roared. “You stay the
hell away from her! And I told you we were rerouting
the material for those cannons over to the core!
And what are you trying to do with that shielding?
Quadruple the thrust we need to get airborne? Great,
Barnes climbed to his feet, slowly. He reached a
hand up to wipe the blood from his lip. “Listen,” he
spat. “I don’t know when you started to think you
“As soon as I did,” Atwood snapped back, “right
after the captain told all of you that I, being the
chief engineer, was the second on this mission.
Right before he was launched 500 yards through the
cockpit. Remember that? Whatever other
stupid decisions you make once we get out of here will
be on your head, Barnes, but when it comes to
repairing this ship and going home to explain that
it’s our own God damn fault our ships have been
disappearing in this sector, that the civilization we
thought was shooting us down gave us shelter and food,
and even helped us get back into space, I am in
charge. And we can’t do any of that without the help
of the locals!”
Barnes had nothing to say, at last. He shattered
his useless stun baton into the ground with a
pointless scream of rage, and kicked at the pieces as
he turned to skulk away.
“Fine!” he muttered over his shoulder. “So why
doesn’t she help, already!”
Atwood turned toward Ohme and reached out to her.
She stepped away -- and not only because she would
have shocked him pretty badly. Atwood let his arm fall
back to his side.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“You let me believe you landed here by accident.”
Atwood had nothing to say.
“You could have mentioned you were here to
Atwood made one more attempt to reach Ohme -- but
she brushed past him and managed to find her way to
the door, even through the fog inside her goggles.
Ohme’s apartment seemed cold no matter how many
blankets she piled onto the bed, but she didn’t bother
to get up to adjust the thermostat, or take a warm
steam-cleaning, or even to eat. Outside, thunder
rattled the windows and lightning painted the walls in
flickering shadow, but she didn’t get up to watch. She
just burrowed deeper into her blankets.
Maybe she could still pass chemistry and get a
job as a lab monkey, somewhere.
Maybe there was a surgery that could get the
color out of her eyes. Then, someone from this
star system might show some interest in her.
Not like there would be much point in that.
Whenever she dozed off, Ohme could feel Atwood close
against her, and the prickle of the static she stored
and discharged, stored and discharged, in time to
“How can you keep the core stable,” she muttered
in her sleep. “Electronics won’t stand up to the
Something wormed its way into the darkness of her
dream through the mess of blankets, over the sound of
the storm -- a pervasive and building hum out there in
the rain, somewhere. It culminated in an echoing clap,
and the hum became a roar. Ohme opened her eyes.
That wasn’t thunder.
How long had she been in bed? She leapt to her
feet and rushed to peer out her window. Bright against
the darkness glared a beacon of blue flame beyond the
engineering college, past the city, past the council
coliseum, deep in the scrublands.
On her way to the door Ohme almost tripped on a
blueprint someone must have slid underneath. As she
snatched it up she saw through her boot-print it was a
set of schematics -- detailed schematics of a ship’s
engine core, with annotated credit of her
contributions. The core was drawn with a protorium
auxiliary energy bank for absorbing and re-supplying
power to the core as needed, and a regulating computer
to know when to do which.
So I might see you again, it said, printed
at the bottom. Declination +38° 14’ 12”, right
ascension 16h 12m 43s.
Ohme crumpled the blueprints in her fist as she bolted
out the door, not even bothering to close it. Twice
she almost tripped and sprawled down the stairs. There
was a skimmer parked outside, and Ohme kicked out the
window, yanked the door open and slipped inside to
peel out and race for the city’s edge.
By the time Ohme reached the crowd of her people
gathered around the human ship, staring with a mix of
wonder and fear at the thrusters charring a path
through the scrub, her cheeks were flush from the
lightning she had drawn to herself crossing the
plains. She didn’t waste time speaking or even looking
at anyone before beginning to punch random numbers
into the keypad of the cargo hatch—until finally
lightning found her again, and as the keypad exploded
in a shower of sparks, the cargo hatch cracked open,
and Ohme pulled herself inside.
“Atwood!” Ohme cupped her hands to her mouth to
shout over the roar of the chaos outside. The core
pulsed between her and the cockpit, warm, golden. “You
can’t trust this regulator! What were you thinking?”
That voice, outside.
It was her mother. She must have run right past.
Ohme barely had time to turn as the ship lurched
off the ground. The force of its upward thrust almost
brought her to her knees. By the time she found her
mother’s face in the crowd below, it had become just
one more shadow of fear and wonder in a crowd that
seemed much larger than it had when she was pushing
“Mom!” Ohme tried to scream, but all that
came out was a gasp at the vertigo that washed over
her. Instead, the best she could manage was to drop
her crumpled-up schematics out the cargo hatch. She
had a moment to see them swirling down in the rain of
the storm before the hatch snapped shut with the hiss
“There was a breach in cargo bay,” Ohme heard
over the chaos outside, and when she turned her
attention back to the open door of the cockpit beyond
the glowing core she saw Atwood lean out to stare.
“Ohme!” Ohme could barely hear him, although his
face was red from shouting. “How….”
The co-pilot grabbed him by the arm and turned
him back around. “We don’t have enough fuel to try
this twice!” he roared. “You want to be stuck here
forever? Punch that throttle, man!”
Through the windows Ohme watched the cluster of
her people disappear into the gray of the city, saw
the city disappear into the gray-brown wash of
scrubland as the thrusters screamed up to a new level
of desperation and heaved them up farther. She held
her breath as lightning found them once, twice, three
times. Again. And again. The ship threw her to the
ground with a violent jerk as the core stuttered and
faltered, but the regulator pulled power from the
protorium bank and jumpstarted it again.
“It’s going to work!” Atwood shouted, as he
pounded his fist on the dash. “Come on, blue sky, nice
wide open spaces….”
Ohme shook her head. They weren’t even in the
Lightning came from two directions at once and
the regulator didn’t know whether to store or release
the power. The display flickered and went dark. Soon
after, the core went dark, too. Ohme felt herself
growing ominously light as they slipped into freefall.
Atwood slumped back in his chair. His co-pilot
stared at the dials, now dark.
“That’s it,” Atwood muttered. He sounded so calm,
in the eerie quiet. “Ohme, I wish you hadn’t jumped
“Christ!” the co-pilot screamed. “We’re too high
up, we won’t survive a crash this time…!”
Crushed into jelly. Ohme remembered her own words
as she stood with Atwood outside her mother’s skimmer,
parked at the dark engineering campus.
She remembered their night together.
And something drove her to jam herself
between the core and the protorium bank.
“What are you doing?” Atwood managed
to shriek, but Ohme barely heard him. The charge in
the protorium bank flooded into her, an endless
torrent. She pushed it into the core and it flashed to
life in a wash of brilliant gold. The power was
mind-numbing… Ohme felt her heart pound in her chest
and she was dimly aware that her clothes had caught
fire. Thankfully, someone thought to douse her with
the fire extinguisher, but she couldn’t see who. She
was blind from the light of her eyes.
The ship continued to climb. The storm
raged on outside. Ohme could feel each of the
lightning strikes like they were coming straight to
her, and she pushed their power where it needed to go.
The core kept the power it needed to run but was not
overloaded. When it stalled, Ohme flushed it with a
wash of current from the protorium bank. Atwood and
the co-pilot were shouting something, but she could
only hear a dull ringing in her ears and it was
getting hard to focus, she had to focus….
Soon, there was no more distinction between
lightning strikes. The static was unrelenting.
Constant. Ohme was sure she would burn into ash. She
felt so insubstantial -- like it was her
jumping between the core, and the protorium, and the
vast and endless sea of energy in the clouds outside.
Until at last it all went black. There was
still the hum of the core and the protorium bank, but
that vast and infinite sea of energy was gone, and as
it went Ohme couldn’t help but feel an absurd sense of
“Don’t touch her, are you crazy?” the
Ohme opened her eyes and saw Atwood
reaching for her. She saw him so clearly. A moment
passed before she realized her goggles had melted off
her face. It took her another moment to recognize that
slope of shifting mustard, brown and red, churning
with veins of light, through the window of the cockpit
That was her home down there, crowned in
Ohme felt her knees begin to shake.
“Ohme?” Atwood whispered. The thrusters
seemed so quiet, now. “Are you…?”
Are you okay? he was trying to ask. He seemed to realize what a
ridiculous question that was. Ohme did not respond.
She only pulled her hands away from the core and the
protorium bank and with the last of her strength
shuffled over to the window.
Everything she knew was gone. Chemistry.
College. Her mother.
But she was the first of her kind ever to
visit the stars.
She pressed her hands to the window and
watched the stars through the glass.