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Story 3

Brandon Daubs

Brandon Daubs earned his degree in creative writing from U.C. Davis and worked as an assistant editor for the campus fiction mag, Nameless Magazine, while studying there. Since graduation he has spent some time working as a staff writer for a local group of newspapers, but his real passion has always been fiction.

"The first idea for Conductive came after I read “Surface Tension,” by James Blish, in Volume One of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. I began to wonder what barriers to space travel might present themselves in the atmospheres of other worlds and what kinds of people, similar to humans in their desire to travel beyond the sky, might live there. In a college astrophysics class I observed the eye of Jupiter through an observatory scope, and I thought; how could anything live in that kind of storm? In Conductive, I began to speculate, and a story came with it. -- Brandon Daubs

Conductive is just a good, solid, hard science fiction story. Makes my brain tingle just thinking about. So put on your rubber insulating gloves and protective goggles, sit back and enjoy.





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 investigate.

     “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 slipped out.

     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 storm…!”

     “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.”

     “Oh, no.”

     Ohme’s mother raised a hand to her mouth, and turned away. “Ohme,” she sighed. “My child. You beautiful fool.”


     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 this lab.”

     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 idiot.

     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 night sky.

“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 bite him.

“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 those?

“I’m sorry.” Atwood hefted his end of the crate with a grunt. “I was under the impression we weren’t stealing…”

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 himself.

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 corner.

“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 she, anyway?

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 subjects charged.”

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 school.

“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 shielding.

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 core.

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 place.”

Hours later, though, they still had nothing.

“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 release….”

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 them away.

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 admitted.

     “Begin by not becoming too attached.”

     “Like you?”

     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 him.”

Who said anything about love? Ohme wanted to say. “Why not?” she said instead.

“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 know that?”

     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 sniffed.

     “You know I love you.”

     “Yes, mom.”

     “And… I know your father would have loved you, too.”


     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 carefully….”

     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 is?”

     “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 you?”

     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 library.”

     “I don’t see what you’re getting at,” Ohme cut in, although she thought she did. She felt a little cold.

     “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 skimmer.

     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 dark.

     “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 me.”

     “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… different.

     “Propulsion,” Barnes answered almost at once. “Backup stabilizers.”

     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 warned.

     “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 our… stabilizers.”

     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, really.

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 crash.

     “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, brilliant idea!”

     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 outrank me….”

     “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 destroy us.”

     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 their rhythm.

     “How can you keep the core stable,” she muttered in her sleep. “Electronics won’t stand up to the static….”

     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.


     Signed, Atwood.

     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 through it.

“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 of hydraulics.

     “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 clouds, yet.

     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 on.”

     “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 loss.

“Don’t touch her, are you crazy?” the copilot blurted.

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 behind him.

That was her home down there, crowned in stars.

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.

The End


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