This story was first published in James Gunn's Ad Astra (Winter 2014); we are grateful to the author for permission to reprint it here. The story was selected for this week's issue by Sabrina Vourvoulias, and you can read her introduction to the story here.
Seven-year-old Rodrigo ben-David sat alone in the hovel, spooning the last bit of last Shabbat's chamin into his mouth and using a hard bit of crust to scrape the pot clean. The thin, cold wind rattled the aluplaz walls mercilessly. Winters in the Hellas Region were tough, and in Babulandia, one of the most notorious shantytowns on Mars, the lack of municipal infrastructure made it nearly impossible for the residents to keep themselves warm.
As he moistened the crust in some weak, tepid coffee and slowly chewed that soggy staleness, Rodrigo prayed his father would finally return today. The food was now gone, and the boy had already pushed the limits of his neighbors' meager hospitality well beyond their accustomed limits. Babulandia had accreted into existence during the exodus from religious oppression on Earth earlier in the 24th century, and its inhabitants, a jumbled-together pastiche of cultures and languages, were mistrustful and not particularly giving. Another day of being alone and Rodrigo would have to strike out for Malacandra City, where he believed his aunt lived and worked, though he had never met her.
Isaac ben-David had left a week ago, returning to Nirgal Vallis, where he'd been scavenging a century-old, abandoned research station. Rodrigo's dad scraped out a living this way: hunting through what others considered junk, looking for bits and pieces that could be resold or repurposed. With the station, he claimed, he had finally found his mina de oro, his gold mine.
"Las kozas van amijorarse, fijo. Ya topo algo," his father had muttered in Djidio before leaving. "I'm gonna find something good, promise it, and we're gonna be set, muchacho."
Rodrigo had tried not to cry, but his eyes had gone damp, and his father had grimaced. "Hey, life of the Sefardis, no? First the katolikos run us out of Spain a thousand years ago, and now they run us off the whole planet, got to come to Mars—el guerko ke se lo yeve—and freeze our kulos off. But you and me, we adams are gonna laugh last, yes? So you stay put, light the menorah right before night falls. Shamash, too, so when I come home I'll see them burning through the window, yes? Come on, no tears. Pasiensia Cohá, ke la nochada es larga."
Isaac had smiled broadly then and clicked on the holographic image of Rodrigo's mother, dead these five years. "Your mom would want you to be brave, fijo. And el Dio Barukh, he'll be watching over you."
And Rodrigo had tried, really tried, to be brave. He looked at his mother's face, flickering with the uncertain power source, and tried to remember her voice, singing to him. In snatches it came to him, overlaid with his father's rich baritone—the song of Avraham Avinu, newly born, miraculously singing to his mother, Amtilai:
Yo ya topo ken me alejasse
mandará del syelo ken me akompanyará
porke só kriado de El Dio Barukh
Wish I had someone to get me out of this shack, Rodrigo thought. Wish el Dio Barukh would send me someone to keep me company.
He had faithfully lit the candles, one more each night. The food had dwindled. He had gone out into the cold with his respirator to panhandle at noon, when people often tossed a few scraps to the bakenekos that infested Babulandia. Sometimes he had even kicked a dozen or more of the mutated felines out of the way to get at a couple morsels, his thick clothing and mask keeping him from their nasty claws.
Two days ago, a dark figure had followed the boy back to the hovel, slinking along the meandering way with what might have been bad intentions. Stopping abruptly, Rodrigo had drawn from his jacket an ancient pistol his father had rebuilt. Pointing it at the shadows of the narrow street, the boy had waited. The gun was enormous in his hands, and heavy. But there was only one projectile inside, and Rodrigo bit his lip so as not to shudder with fear. Wish this was the staff of Moses, powerful enough to break open the street and swallow him all up. The boy, of course, had no such forces at his command, but he stood as if he did.
After a few moments in which despair yawned like the grave, the presence had withdrawn. His heart pounding so hard he began to sweat despite the cold, Rodrigo had dashed the last few meters to his home and sealed himself within. Since then he had lived off the nearly nonexistent stores his father had left behind.
And now they were gone.
So Rodrigo lit the shamash and used it to light each of the other eight candles of the hanukkiya. He couldn't remember all the words his father would say, but he repeated what he knew as he dipped the longer candle to share its flame. "Like you protected them backadays, please protect me now. And bring Papa home."
He set the menorah on the ledge of the window, nine flickers refracted by the thick, transparent pane. Sitting at the table, he quietly spun a worn, lopsided sevivon and waited. For his father. For the candles to burn out. For the darkness to overtake him. He was so utterly alone, so close to an amorphous nothingness that threatened to snuff him out like the tenuous flames. Exhaustion and hunger prevailed in the end, and he slumped onto the table, dropping into sleep like a silent stone released from a great height.
Hands were on him, pulling, pushing, grabbing. Someone snatched the pistol from his jacket pocket. He was thrust onto the bed. Rodrigo's eyes were open, but the candles had burnt out, and so it was as if he struggled with darkness itself, with some demonic entity congealed from the night. The guerko, he thought, shuddering to the roots of his being. He cried out, screamed. There was no honor in silence, now, nor cowardice in his weeping. Like an animal he thrashed against the swirling black around him, kicking, scratching, biting. With every blow from his assailant, who seemed desperate to rip off his clothes, Rodrigo's howl grew into a shriek that surely must have reached the ears of God himself.
A bang, and light streamed into the hovel. Rodrigo felt despair begin to rend him, for more of them had arrived, and soon they would truly hurt him in ways his young mind did not want to grasp. But then his father's voice thundered through the cold, darkling air.
"Get away from my son, damn you!"
And there came an unholy, low moan from his father's hands, silhouetted against the faint exterior light. He was holding something, and it was thrumming with the sound of a thousand angels' wings. Suddenly the air itself felt like it was cracking open, and the figure pressing Rodrigo to the thin mattress was hurled against the wall, though nothing appeared to have touched him.
Isaac rushed to Rodrigo and pulled him from the bed with one arm while gripping some strange machine in the other. As they reached the entrance of the hovel, Rodrigo saw through tears of anguish and relief that the device looked like nothing he'd ever seen. Its shape didn't fit his geometrical expectations. Its strange blues and greens seemed drawn from a spectrum alien to human eyes. Thin cables like tendrils twitched and wound themselves around his father's arm.
"What . . . ?" the boy began, hoarse. His father hushed him and led him to their battered transport. Activating its external illumination, he checked his son thoroughly.
"He hurt you? Son? Did he . . . "
Rodrigo shook his head. "No, Papa. No, you came just in time. I was . . . I was so scared."
"It's alright, fijo. Don't think he's gonna be getting up for a while now."
Rodrigo looked at the device. "You found it? At the vallis?"
"Yes. I'd just about given up. Saw a strange cave and felt, I don't know, drawn to it. Went inside, found this. It's our ticket, Rodrigo. I told your mama we'd find something like this someday. Something that changes everything."
"It, uh, it ain't human, is it, Papa?"
Isaac gave a strange smile. "You're a smart boy. No. I've seen just about every machine man ever made, and this ain't ours. So far beyond us that. . . well, it's a miracle, let's just say." Vague intimations of power stirred a desperate hunger in Rodrigo, a yearning for safety and protection that made his chest ache.
"Can I . . . can I hold it?"
Isaac bit his lip, doubting. Rodrigo stared at his dad, watching the indecision.
Clearly ashamed of his near failure to protect his son and recognizing the boy's need to dispel his powerlessness, Isaac pulled the device from his hand and passed it to his son. "Be careful. Don't squeeze the rod. That activates it."
It was heavy, but not like the pistol. It was almost a living weight. The tendrils slipped around Rodrigo's thin forearm, and the rod slid easily into his palm. A great sense of peace came upon him then. This is how Moses felt. Lifting his staff above the water. His enemies didn't scare him no more.
The boy regarded the hovel in which he had huddled in fear, in which he had been attacked, in which he had felt despair. Inside was the darkness. The loneliness. Death. Abandonment.
Raising his arm, he squeezed the rod with all his might. A groan wrenched the night, and a ripple of nearly invisible energy pushed. The hovel crumpled like wet paper, smashed brutally into the ground and against the outcropping of rock that stood just to the west of it.
His father gasped. "Rodrigo! What did you do, boy? Our home! That adam!"
The seven-year-old turned to his father. "Now you ain't got a choice, Papa. You got to take me with you."
Without another word, Rodrigo ben-David walked to the vehicle's door, cycled it open, and climbed inside to wait.
As the battered transport shuddered to a landing, Rodrigo ben-David bookmarked the physics text he was reading and set the pad aside. Climbing out of his sleep-nook, he walked the few steps to the cabin, where his father was already unsealing his safety harness.
"Why did we stop? I thought we were headed to Malacandra City to sell the generator we dug up."
Isaac ben-David winced and rubbed his temples. "Always you're asking the questions, fijo. Go get me a pill from the kit. Me arguele la kavesa."
Grumbling in adolescent frustration, Rodrigo walked back to the head, palmed open the medkit, and scrounged around for analgesics, thrusting aside grafters, gauzes and creams. There was one last packet hidden behind the cauterizer, wedged into a crack in the cheap paneling. He snatched it free and stomped back to where his father was lifting open the trap to the storage compartment.
"Here. Now tell me what we're doing, Father. You know I hate it when you make decisions without consulting with me."
Isaac swallowed the pills quickly and made a scoffing noise. "Ah, fijo. 'Father.' 'Consulting.' You're sounding more like a book every day."
"Quit evading the question. Para ke mos arrestamos?"
"Alright, alright. Vos sos komo la mula de Cohá." He pointed at the opening at his feet. "I found a buyer."
Rodrigo's stomach tightened. "For that?"
"Yes, for that. And don't be starting, fijo. You maybe are 15, but I'm your papa, yes? For near seven years I've went along with your kapricho."
"Whim? You think I was acting like a little spoiled kid when I begged you not to sell it? What would the government do to us if you tried to sell it to them, huh? And who else is gonna pay what it's worth? The Brotherhood? The Qabdat Ar-Rum? Some other crime syndicate? Damn it, they'd kill us quick as spit, Father. I swear, it's like you're the child here."
"And what, you want we should just keep on using it to blast away sand and rock, scraping by on hardly nothing, just what we get for selling scrap?"
His heart hardening despite his love for the old man, Rodrigo shrugged. "That's the life you picked for me, Isaac. You left Earth with Mother, came to this cold, God-forsaken planet . . . "
"El Dio Barukh ain't forsaken nobody, Rodrigo. And what would you want me to do, eh?" Tears stood out in his father's eyes, and suddenly his face twisted in grief as he shouted. "They obliterated Israel! They scattered us! Again!"
Part of Rodrigo wanted to reach out and embrace Isaac, but he continued, implacable. "Then how can you say He hasn't forsaken us, Isaac? So you fled here. A new life for Jews, for Sefardis. But Mother died, didn't she? I spent my childhood alone in that shack in Babulandia while you eked out a miserable existence." Stepping closer to his father, whom he dwarfed by a good 25 centimeters, he dropped his voice to a quiet rasp. "That device is the only thing Mars ever gave us. The only thing God ever placed in my hand. If you just give me time to learn some more, I know I can crack it. The way out of this miserable life isn't selling the thing to some ignorant kaseijin. It's figuring out the technology and reproducing it."
Isaac dropped his gaze for a second, rubbed the dampness from his cheeks. For the past few years, Rodrigo had found it easier and easier to impose his will on the older man. A father's devotion to his son tended toward reverence at times, and Rodrigo had instinctively taken advantage of that weakness. But now Isaac's eyes grew flinty, and he thrust a bony finger at the teenager's chest.
"Ah, so you want to have it out, eh? Adam to adam, like equals. Well, let me make this clear. We just landed in Isana Singu, little fishing village on the coast of the Hellas Sea. In about ten minutes, a buyer is gonna show up. Renhou Jimi."
"Renhou Jimi? Really? Are you out of your mind? RenTek is basically a front for yakuza activity in Hellas, Isaac. You think he isn't going to have a couple of gunsels in tow?"
Isaac half-closed his eyes and spoke over Rodrigo's last words. "He's going to pay us 25,000 New Yen, muchacho. Would take us ten years to make that much paras doing what we do. We're gonna take it, buy a little shop in Malacandra City, fix makinikas nice and calm. I see what it's doing to you, that thing. Every time you use it . . . it's like . . . I told you about your uncle Judah, yes? How the katolikosof the Nuova Pace Romana chipped away at him day by day till he converted? Turned his back on the ways of the Sefardis and el Dio Barukh. That's what I see in you, fijo. That device is changing you."
Rodrigo shook his head in disgust. "What's changing me, Father, is a very strong desire not to end up like you: a victim. And a willing accomplice to your victimhood. I don't think a tinker's shop is going to give you any power over your own life. I think you're going to have to pay protection to the yakuza clowns who're going to buy the device, and we're going to be tied to them and their corrupt, predatory ways for the rest of our lives. You're about to make a very big mistake."
"Well, the device is mine. I found it, boy. I hunted the caves of that vallis and found it, and now I'm gonna do whatever I think is best, you hear me? So that's it for the discussing."
With a dismissive wave, Isaac clambered into the storage hold and emerged with the metal container they kept the strange contraption in. Rodrigo gave an exasperated snort and sat at the dining nook. "Don't expect any help from me. If you want to make a stupid decision like this, you can handle it by yourself."
Isaac closed both hands into fists and looked at his son with barely bridled anger. "You do what you want, adam," he muttered in a tone he'd never used before with his son. Rodrigo felt a spasm of shame, but said nothing. When the older man irised open the lock, the teen stood up and followed him out, the two of them slipping on and sealing up thermal coats as they disembarked.
Outside, Rodrigo saw they had set down near stone piers that jutted into the ice-clogged waters of the Hellas Sea. The pylons had been fashioned from the same red andesite that made up most of the sand on this particular stretch of beach, and the effect was unnerving: a shocking crimson foreground against the pale white-rimed blue that spread across the horizon. A few battered wooden boats stood out in silhouette, black forms drawing nets from the sea. To the south, Rodrigo could barely make out the dilapidated shacks that presumably made up Isana Singu, one of dozens of fishing villages that clung tenaciously to the Martian soil at the edge of the vast southern sea, in fruitless defiance of the brutal, cold winds that shrieked shoreward from the floes.
Isaac reached back through the lock and dragged the metal box out, setting it on the red sand in front of them. As he knelt to thumb open the clasps, an ostentatious transport descended some 40 meters away. Within seconds, four men exited, casting their eyes back and forth as they descended the gangway, three of them with weapons drawn.
Renhou Jimi and a trio of yakuza mademen, Rodrigo concluded. As they approached, Isaac stood to greet Jimi, a pallid, skeletal man with a constant, smug smile.
"Isaac-san," he barked as his companions arrayed themselves in a semicircle around the meeting place. "You have brought the device, yes?"
"Yes. Here." From his thermal coat he pulled a pad. "You can transfer the monies onto this."
Jimi accepted the thin, battered rectangle. "I'm gonna want a demonstration first, as agreed."
"Of course." Isaac went to open the box, but Rodrigo spoke up suddenly, compelled by something he didn't quite understand.
"I'll do it." He flipped the lid up with his left foot. Jimi leaned in to regard the demented, alien angles of the device resting within the box. If anything, it resembled some sort of nightmarish squid, nauseating blues and greens tapering to a shock of black cables that even now seemed to move of their own accord. His heart quickening, Rodrigo plunged his left arm into that squirming morass, wincing as the device gripped him almost eagerly. The trigger bar was warm against his fingers despite the biting cold.
Jimi took a step back. "So this thing, it can blow stuff up, yes?"
"Not really," said Isaac. "Like I told you, it shoves things. Don't know how. Maybe it messes with gravity or something. But, anyways, squeeze hard enough on the mechanism inside it and whatever you're pointing at gets . . . well, Rodrigo is gonna show you. Adelante, muchacho."
Rodrigo turned toward the west, away from the transports and the men, and angled the device so it pointed at the ground a few meters distant. Then, with a grimace, he squeezed.
Gouts of sand and rock shot into the air in a violent, arcing stream. When the wind had shredded the dust, a large hole was left in the beach. Rodrigo and Isaac were not at all surprised; this was how they'd made a living for years now, using the device to uncover salvage that other scavengers couldn't get at. But Jimi and his companions were visibly excited and wary. Two men moved closer to Isaac with deceptive casualness.
"Good, that. What's the range? You could, I don't know, hit one of yonder pier pylons?"
It was farther than they'd ever attempted, but Rodrigo shrugged and moved away from the group, his back to them as he regarded the ice-rimed sea. One of the piers seemed to be in disrepair, and he aimed at it. Closing his fist around the bar with greater violence than he'd ever used, the teen sent its imperceptible force thrumming through the air. The pylons were ripped from their moorings and cast into the water. A nearby pier also collapsed and a wave some five meters in height rose and shattered itself against a distant floe.
Rodrigo stood for a moment, awash in the power he had unleashed. The fishing boats nearly capsized. Faint shouts of terror wafted toward him on the gelid wind.
The muzzle of a gun pressed into his neck.
"Turn slow." One of the yaks.
Rodrigo did as he was told. His father was kneeling on the vermillion sand. On either side of him stood a mobster, lazgats trained on his graying head. Tears were in his eyes. He shook his head slightly in warning.
Behind Isaac, Renhou Jimi was still smiling.
"Thanks for the demo, bozu. I'm gonna need you to hand that thing over now, yes? Otherwise, my friends here are gonna be forced to kill your o-pops. Don't want that, yes?"
Black strands tightened along Rodrigo's arm. He felt he might vomit. The ice, the wind, Jimi's eyes . . . all cold and flat and inhuman.
With a horrifying snap, all warmth left Rodrigo's soul as well.
"You're going to kill him no matter what."
Jimi's smile broadened. "Say again, bozu?"
"There's no way you're going to let either of us live. You've decided there's too many potential problems, us being alive. Complications for whatever plans you're making right now. So if I give the device to you, my father's dead. I'm dead."
The man behind him pushed his gat deeper into the flesh of his neck, twisting it so the sight bit at his skin. "You're dead if you don't, kusobaka, so might as well cooperate with Jimi-san."
The weight of his entire existence pressed down on Rodrigo's chest for the briefest of moments, a black, bloated hand that squeezed the trigger of his mind. And the young man understood that he was a weapon in the blind grip of history.
"Te kyero bien, Padre," he whispered, and dropped to one knee as he lifted his arm to fire. The four men were torn to pieces in a bloody, groaning gale that caught the edge of Isaac's transport and sent it tumbling down the beach. Rodrigo jerked his head away from the devastation in time to see the fifth man bring his gun to bear. The teen swung around to fire, but the lazgat sizzled to life first, its purple beam cutting deep into Rodrigo's bicep and nearly severing his arm. Brain-numbing pain trammeled his entire body, pushing him toward the darkness, but black tendrils whipped from the device and anchored his limb to his shoulder.
Then the device swung itself up without his help and shoved at the last mobster with pulverizing finality.
Rodrigo could stand no more. He fell into the black, unmoored from life and love.
Three weeks later, he stood beside the rough men and rude women who had nursed him back to health, cauterizing his wounds, carefully removing his severed arm from its snare and packing the alien device away in the metal case. They had buried the bodies, hidden the transports, said nothing to the regional authorities. The fisherfolk of Isana Singu had no love for government or yakuza, and they stoically aided this teen whose powerful arm had lain to waste some of their oppressors at the cost of his own father.
They called him Urakaze, the cold sea wind. He claimed no other name.
When they had stood beside the unmarked grave of the young man's father long enough, he motioned them away, back toward their village. Then he thumbed open the case and slipped the device over his remaining arm. Walking unsteadily to the broken hills that shaded into mournful dunes, he found a scarred monolith from which he carved a massive plinth, a cube of red and gray granite, shot through with black webbing. Carefully he used the alien tool on his awkward right arm to nudge the stone across the sand until the monument rested atop Isaac ben-David's shattered bones.
"God," he muttered bitterly, at last able to speak, "since you never gave a sign that you cared, I'm leaving this sepulcher on your behalf. My father lived his miserable, pointless existence, weakened by his faith in you. I'm not saying you don't exist. It's just clear now that you're not going to help the way people want you to. Maybe you already did, but Isaac just didn't understand what your help looked like. But, you know, that's fine. Because I'm ready to help myself.
"No one is ever going to hurt me like this again, do you hear? I swear it on your name. You've put this staff in my hands. I've bought the right to use it with blood. So here's what I'm going to do. Are you listening? I'm not Job. I'm going to use this tool. I'm going to figure out how it works. Not so I can just avenge my father, but so I can bring the justice everyone keeps waiting for you to dispense. Either you want me to do it, or you simply don't care. Whatever. Just keep out of my way."
It was enough. Nothing remained to be said. He turned toward the village and saw his people watching him, like grains of sand awaiting the wind.