io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Six Months After All Life on Titan Died” by JB Park. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on LIGHTSPEED’s website. Enjoy!
Six Months After All Life on Titan Died
I need a binge-worthy banger about the incident on Titan. Let’s start with that one picture from Titan that leaked, the one of the weird fishes in those underwater ruins dying. Let’s get going with a second-person narration of You looking at it, thinking about how extinction just happened, and your hands are trembling, and history—your memories of all the tragedies and scandals past—informs you that everyone will forget about it in a few weeks. Insert some beefy workplace drama in the background that maybe we use later as the motivation for some of the hits. Someone hates our protagonist; they hate, perhaps, that she was born poor.
Next, let’s hop into the head of Tristiana, the whistle-blower. She didn’t kick ass enough in real life. She kicks ass now. She’s standing there in the briefing room, and the You was Her all along. She’s standing there watching the last transmission from the probe. Flashback: She helped develop the AI as a manager of the Cradle project. Tension. A bit of horror.
Then bam, back to reality. She realizes, with horror growing in her heart—tension is up, frame the scene with the screens going haywire behind her ticking down a bunch of science stuff as she’s all alone in her own head—and all she can see is the close-up of the fish-alien thing, its mouth-open and going belly-up in the waters of Titan.
Workplace stress, civilization stress, existential stress, anxiety, depression, despair.
We discovered sentient life and proceeded to wipe it out in the span of two days. Let’s get some history of the probe’s journey, it dropping into the atmosphere, the reactions from people around the world (or the lack thereof). For a day it was a thing. Some people are crying, they’re weeping like their family just died. Name drop the people that actually did die.
The building is rigged against connections in both directions and no independent daemons are allowed so Tristiana downloads the pictures onto her phone. Secret agent vibes. Her heart’s pumping, it feels wrong to keep this secret, like someone should know about this. She knows it’s basically suicide. NDAs were signed—and these days they’re enforced with bullets—so she knows she has to move fast, get outside, and upload. She figures she’s got maybe thirty minutes, so she goes to her car with the excuse of needing a break, and that’s when she notices three goons following her. They all have small hitboxes; it’s terrifying the way they’re walking up to her three deep with SMGs in hand. Maybe fill in with some killing details about the goons, maybe they’re ex-Special Forces, but now they’re operators who hunt enemies of something. The cage being closed behind you as you walk in. The noise of the creaking hinges. Boots tapping away on concrete. Good climatic action scene here. We need a way for Tristiana, a scientist with a civilian flechette gun, to handle three hardened operators who survived wars on five different continents and also that one time on the moon (and those are the ones we know about). I want Heat, true-immersion, a real-enough-to-smell-the-gunpowder kind of an action scene.
I want each of the goons to have entire family trees behind them; we need lore. Every single life she takes here will have people coming after her from up and down those trees. She will kill brothers and sisters, cousins, nephews never seen. Entangling vines around her ankles. Really dig in and describe every bullet and every shred of flechette fire like each thread snaking through skin matters. The armor stops most of the flechettes but the ones that make it into flesh tear it apart. The bullets bounce off the armor she’d built into the car and spiderwebs across the bulletproof windshield.
So now those three are dead. Tristiana has some injuries, but she quickly digs the bullet out with a heated knife and wraps it up with a torn shred of cloth from her jacket. One of the operators died in her car and there’s pink arterial spray across the back windows. Body horror. She digs in the operator’s pockets and finds the key for a gas vehicle nearby. Then she’s off and the alarms are blaring as she burns rubber out of there.
Now that she is off the lot, her daemon comes back online. She instructs it to upload the pictures online. Only one goes through. The daemon is terminated remotely and she feels the onset of post-daemon stress. Just then, her gas vehicle starts sputtering, and her intuition that’s been honed from fighting in warzones since she was sixteen tells her that she’d better ditch it. So she brakes and comes to a quick halt by the side of the road where the vehicle starts glowing red-hot. It explodes a little later, it sends up a big black plume of smoke, and now she’s on foot. She flees from the scene and she searches the air for circling birds or the whisper of popcorn drones in the sky. There are no sirens. There is nothing and the silence is the most unnerving thing.
Fugitive. On the run. Fear. Anxiety. Panic.
A driver stops his car on the side of the road nearby, gets out and calls to her to see if she’s okay. Intuition: there’s something wrong about this guy; perhaps it’s his eyes, the way they wander. She figures it out quick after a conversation and they have a Man From Nowhere knife fight there. She’s practiced in knife fighting as part of her self-defense courses along with her weekly Muay Thai session, and she also rolls with the local jujitsu club if she knows there hasn’t been a staph infection in the past week. He’s had some basic training but he quickly falls behind, and the reach advantage is negated by the sharpness of the blades. She parries a slash and steps in to stick it into his windpipe. He thrashes a little, hands to his throat, eyes dulled, soul snuffed out. Make him an alphabet agency with lower than 3.4 stars, have her find a badge or something when she digs through his things after. Maybe he’s a sicko too, gas station dick pills in his pocket and a phone smudged with eager smears. The body gets tossed in the back. She’ll figure it out later. She throws his phone out the window but didn’t know he had another in his boot.
She’s off in his car. She’s already abandoned her phone, but the dead guy’s phone rings, and it’s the number for the hospital her mom’s in. She picks it up, and her mom is crying because they’re moving her out for some reason. She says that they’re saying that the insurance ran out. She has stage four something. Emotional, tension, moving, sad.
Tristiana is going to go get her and they’ll figure something out. Her indenture won’t wrap up for another twelve years. She’s eighteen years into it with a stint here and there working for the Cradle project to boost her resume but she senses that it’s not working, not that it matters anymore. Sixteen-hour shift on a Sunday, looking at bills for rent three weeks past. Her health insurance and her GI Bill debt forgiveness security voucher is all tied up in it. No money for school, existential angst.
She sits there and she realizes how fucked she is. Emotional, tension, anxiety. But she did the right thing, right? But she doesn’t even know if the thing she did worked. Doubt, worry, sorrow. She’s driving down the road when a bullet cracks right through the windshield and smashes into the headrest of the passenger-side seat. Stress. Have her think in a disassociated way, like she’s not really there right now, because the stress of the moment is getting to her. Morning Glory. Her body is leaving her behind, the body is moving on its own, the body is wrestling with the wheel, the car is veering off the road, it smashes against the guardrail and sends sparks flying then one of the tires blows out, and the vehicle tumbles off the road altogether and comes to a stop in the shadow of the massive pine forest whose gloom she has never left, not since the knife-fight. Panic, fear, sorrow, concussion haze, Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket, something like that for Iraq. Find a couple and use the one with the third-best rating overall.
Flashback. It’s the peacekeeping mission she got sent to when she was sixteen. She has a rifle and they’re running down the halls of an abandoned shopping mall, and the ground shakes here and there with the tremors of falling explosives. Music is pumping in her ears. Excitement. All the targets are shaded in red. High score feel; bodies crumple. She thinks about it like—she used to believe in things. Lots of gore, people blowing up, dead children, survivors in rubble. Describe how her eyes get wider and more dead until she’s got the thousand-yard stare. The shriek of something falling from the sky, it repeats with a dull rhythm, a drum that fades as she returns to the present.
Now her soul is back in her body, she’s sitting there dazed staring into the rear-view mirror with the same eyes she once had and will always have while she hears footsteps closing around her in the forest. She’ll have to shoot her way out but that’s not what’s causing this sorrow—it’s all the people she’ll have to kill to find freedom. Resignation, competence. Freedom ain’t free. It’s a lot of people though.
When she’s done, one of the phones that the goons were carrying rings again. It’s her mom. She says that they have her. Tristiana says, I’ll come find you, and whoever is controlling the other line disconnects. Resolve, strength, determination.
The waters of Titan are turning pink as a chain reaction melts down their ruins and an entire biosphere under the crust goes belly-up. People go up in flames outside government buildings and no one even looks. They douse themselves in gasoline and light their bodies on fire because another world just died, just like how this one died. Tragedy, anxiety, nervous, sad, engaging. The fires fade into the water into the blood-spilled flow flowing into the pipes. There she is in the bathroom of a Burger King washing the blood out of her hair when all the lights go out.
About the Author
J.B. Park’s stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Gamut, Lackington’s, Lightspeed, Liminal Stories, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, and The Dark. His website is maybepark.com.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the July 2023 issue, which also features work by Nic Anstett, Sandra McDonald, Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe, Lauren Bajek, Ashok K. Banker, Isha Karki, James Van Pelt, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition here.
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