—      How Your Mother Killed Me      —

by Evan Dicken


They say you never forget the first time you die. Mine might’ve been when the Mars domes exploded. I remember spinning above the rusty landscape, carried like a mote of pollen on winds of fire. Sometimes I dream about the Parity Riots — the Siege of Wall Street, of storming McMansions with the other 99’ers — but there’s no way I’m that old. I think it’s just because I really like that trideo, you know, the one with the guy who played Comrade Kim in All Hail Glorious Leader. I can’t remember his name.

Damn, that’s going to bother me all day.

It could’ve been cancer. The Big “C” got me a couple of times back before we pinned down the transcription algorithms. I got sucked into space once or twice, and there was that time I drowned.

Okay, so I can’t remember the first time I bit it, but I’ll never forget the first time your mom killed me.

Even now if I close my eyes I see it clear as a Martian sunrise. It was during the first Red Surge. I was a commissar with the 211th Steel Reserve. We’d been fighting through the Tharsis, and the Syndics were making us pay for every ridge. Most of the division was pushing for Olympus Mons, but my battalion had stumbled across a whole swarm of manticores in an area Intel assured us was empty.

First thing I heard was that damn hissing, then the air was full of metal. Colonel Okoye spammed the command override as he fell, so we all got an earful. I’m not complaining. I know a lot of soldiers had it worse, but you try to restore order over the sound of your commanding officer being eviscerated by sentient razorblades. Thankfully, we’d hooked up with the remnants of an armored company a few hours before, and the tanks made short work of the bots.

Soon as we hit the manticores I knew we were onto something. The Syndics didn’t waste smart mines on empty canyons. Sure enough, I spied plasteel poking from under a scabby overhang. Even if Intel had done a low flyover, they would’ve never seen the bunker. Hell, if we hadn’t blundered into the canyon I think it would probably still be there today.

No one wanted to charge the crossfire. I know it sounds strange, but good bodies were worth a lot back then. Get popped and you could go months, maybe even years before HQ fished you out of the Wikifont, and don’t even get me started on mistranslation. I had some buddies come back bleeding other people’s memories or stuck reliving the moment of their death. Still gives me shivers some nights.

My comrades were probably thinking the same thing, so I promised I’d put in a good word for anyone who followed me into the breach, and a flechette in the head of anyone who didn’t.

That got ’em moving.

A lot of people think Mars is covered in sand — coarse, grainy stuff like on the beaches back on Earth. The reality is more like dust. Imagine charging into a hail of railgun spikes through knee deep drifts of talcum powder. Most of us went down in the first few seconds, but apart from a slashed rebreather hose and a twisted ankle, I came through in one piece.

A breaching charge made short work of the airlock and we went boiling in, all hopped up on borrowed adrenaline and thoughts of the biotokens we’d earn for taking a Syndic command post. There were about a score of node rats inside–a few still hooked up to their consoles, the rest cycling up the minigun they had pointed our way.

That’s when I saw her.

It’s cliché to say everything stood still, or that it was like we were the only two people in the room, but that’s how I remember it.

She wasn’t much to look at, just another node rat with a headful of jack scars and eyes hard as shell casings. The Syndics were cloning a lot of women’s bodies back then–not as strong, but cheaper to grow, and hell-on-jets in a firefight. Although her combat unitard didn’t leave much to the imagination, there really wasn’t much to imagine.

No, it wasn’t like that. I’ve been with plenty of women, hell I’ve been plenty of women. There was just this feeling, I can’t really describe it. Like when you’ve had something on the tip of your tongue for hours, and your brain just sort of clicks.

Gordon Wong — that’s his name. You know, Comrade Kim from All Hail Glorious Leader. I wonder what ever happened to him.

Anyway, I was still staring when the minigun burst tore my leg off. Although there was blood all over my faceplate, my suit sutured the wound so I don’t think too much of it was mine. I could see blurry shapes through the crystalized gore–my squad folding like wet paper.

A blast of oxygen from my suit’s reserves brought me back. I pawed for my omnirifle, but another spray of gunfire stippled my chest with burning coals. My memory gets kind of hazy after that. I don’t remember how long I lay there, but I do remember your mom stooping to wipe the burgundy frost from my faceplate. Her eyes were liquid behind the clear glass of her visor, and I could see the maroon slash on her arm where an errant shot had sliced the weave of her unitard. I remember smelling fresh laundry, although I might have been hallucinating. I had lost a lot of blood.

I reached for her hand.

She slit my throat.

Seriously, who stabs anyone anymore? She could’ve just sprayed me with shrapnel until I stopped twitching, but she took the time to do it personal, face-to-face.

I wasn’t able to get back to the canyon until after the battle of Noctis. By then, the whole place had been scoured by orbital bombardments and what remained of the node rats was spread across a few hectares of cratered rock. I found a helmet in the blackened ruins, a few strands of bloody hair frozen to the inside.

I like to think it was hers.

 I chipped some of the blood into a collection tube and wore the damn thing around my neck until I got incinerated in the Mons offensive.



It took me a decade to get her name.

I was on the Oprah-Maru, a damn fine slipship. Everyone got along well, and the crew worshipped Captain Gail like she was the third coming.
We were hunting Syndic listening posts in the Kuiper belt–not the most glamorous work, but necessary. They called me “first officer,” but my actual job was to sit in an uncomfortable chair and listen for patterns in the garble of background radiation. I’d caught a few flickers of chatter as we wandered between plutinos and planetesimals — mostly tightbeam stuff, drips and drabs, nothing we could really sink our teeth into.

Captain Gail was getting antsy. She said it was because she wanted us to be the ones to root out the last Syndics in System, but I think she was still pissed the Oprah hadn’t made it to Neptune in time for the big show. It wasn’t just the Captain. I’d be lying if I said any of us were looking forward to the long walk of shame back to Earth.

There wasn’t really anything special about Makemake — just another dwarf planet frosted with candy swirls of methane and nitrogen. If anything, it was less active than the other rocks we’d scanned. As soon as I saw it though, I knew, I just knew.

I’d cobbled together a Syndic transponder from parts we’d fished from the debris field around Neptune, and when the readings came back cold and dead I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ping the rock just to see if anyone was awake. Even so, I wasn’t expecting an answer.

It wasn’t the carefully planned operation the history downloads describe; we really just tripped over them. Near as I can figure, Makemake was a rally point for the Syndic fleet. Other Neptune survivors must have been slipping in for months, and the Kuiper Belt was big enough for the Syndics to be pretty sure nobody was going to creep up unannounced.

There were enough ships hidden in Makemake’s gravity well to vaporize the Oprah before we could spool up a tightbeam. Even if we could’ve gotten a message off, the closest support vessels would’ve arrive just in time to scrape us off the nearest asteroid. By all rights, we should’ve been scrap the moment we slipped in, but the Syndics didn’t fire.

My best guess is the Oprah was old enough her silhouette matched the earlier Syndic cruisers, and since we were running a friendly transponder they must have assumed we were one of theirs. Still, we almost pissed ourselves when the first hail came crackling through.

Captain Gail rolled with it. A minute of scrambling after that first ping and we’d mocked up the bridge and crew into a good facsimile of a Syndic command deck. Gail bluffed her way past a few coms officers while we sweated through our unitards. I was just beginning to think the Captain might’ve pulled it off when she came on the screen.

“This is acting Fleet Commander Alva. Your passcodes are out of date.”

She was older than the last time we’d met, and she’d let her hair grow out. I couldn’t believe she’d survived Mars. It could’ve been a copy, I suppose. The Syndics had a pretty good handle on cloning even back then and a sense of self-image that bordered on obsession.

The Republic wasn’t that picky. When the Wikifont spat out a soul, HQ just mapped it onto the first viable shell. A body was a body, and it was still cheaper and easier to grow them in mass crèches than the old fashioned way.

Looking back on it, I suppose the Syndics must have been pretty hard up for biomass to let one of their officers age like that, but at the time I can only remember thinking the silver streaks in her hair looked like shooting stars on a moonless night. That, and how much I wanted to blow her out of the sky.

Captain Gail tried to spin some line of bull about how our mainframe got derezzed in the Battle of Neptune, but your mom wasn’t buying. In fact, she was staring right at me the whole time.

Alva couldn’t have recognized me — I was younger and smaller than before, my hair was still close-cropped, but auburn instead of black. More importantly, I was a woman. Still, something in the wry twist of her lips told me I’d just been made.

I lunged for the fire station.

There was a moment — nestled like a pressed flower in the milliseconds between Alva’s smile and the Syndic macrobatteries opening fire — when I swear she winked at me.

I woke up gagging on amniotic fluid. After I wrestled my way out of the mass crèche they told me I’d managed to get off a burst to fleet HQ before the lasers vivisected the Oprah. Honestly, I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it — but I let them pin a medal on me anyway.

Captain Gail got mistranslated. HQ plugged her into a top-of-the-line body, but all she did was laugh — not giggles, but these deep, grand mal belly laughs that just rattled her apart. I suppose there are worse ways to go, but not many. To this day, I can’t even hear a chuckle without wanting to grit my teeth.

It wasn’t all bad. As first officer I inherited command of the recommissioned Oprah. I had rank, respect, and more biotokens than I could spend. Even better, I had her name.



You’d be surprised how many Alvas there are.

The only thing the Syndics loved more than unapologetic capitalists were brute-force inventors — Edison was a sort of saint to them. I suppose that’s why they always had the technological edge. My new rank gave me just enough clearance to get names and designations, but not much else. Besides, I was pretty busy commanding a ship. We may have broken the Syndics’ backs at Neptune, but they weren’t going down easy.

I didn’t run across Alva in the slow bleed of years after Makemake, but I knew she was out there. I didn’t like space combat. I would get this sinking feeling whenever I scourged a factory moon or lanced an escape pod — like I’d lost a tooth or something. I wanted her to know it was me who did it, you know, personal, face-to-face. Worse than that, I couldn’t stand the idea she might be killed by someone else.

If we’d been fighting anything more than blockade runners and repurposed merchant marines I probably would’ve gotten everyone under my command slaughtered a few times over. As it was, I barely even noticed the Shanghai bombings.

Internal Security must have been watching me for years. I’d been sniffing around files far above my clearance level. I’m surprised they didn’t just erase my Wikifont entry. Maybe something in my service record raised an eyebrow or two, or maybe some process clerk misfiled the termination order. It happens more often than people think.

Anyway, one second I’m on a three-day pass, the next I’m in an underground bunker having my memories squeezed through a sieve. I suppose whatever they found convinced them I wasn’t a Syndicate spy. I think they were planning to wipe me anyway, but instead they ended up offering me a job. Guess they liked my initiative.

My body was in pretty bad shape when they finished with the questions, so they gave me a better one. I’ll say one thing about IntSec, they never stinted on quality. I could bench press a small car, run for days, even breathe underwater–I never really got a chance to use that last one, but it was still nice to know I could. Better yet, I had my own biotank. No more swimming through asses and elbows in the mass crèche.

I popped out ready to rumble and landed neck deep in shit. The Battle of Neptune had shattered the Syndics into a storm of nasty resistance cells. We couldn’t even pin them down long enough to take a swing, let alone land a solid punch.

It was the war they should’ve been fighting all along. Shanghai taught them that.

I remember once, the Syndics repurposed a whole mass crèche to screw with the brain chemistry of the bodies it created. Damn thing churned out a half-million serial killers before we figured out we’d been hacked.

Although I had levels of clearance I didn’t even know existed, I barely had time to blink, let alone run unauthorized data scans. I caught glimpses of Alva here and there, usually just before she zipped my head off with a monofilament garrote. I must’ve gone through a dozen iterations. It was almost as bad as the Red Push. Almost.

I’ve always translated well, so while other agents came back chewing on their fingers or talking backwards I slowly worked my way up the ranks. I ended up with my own team, then my own division. It was nice to be out of the line of fire, and even nicer to have no one looking over my shoulder.

I found passenger manifests showing an Alvaretta Lin had fled to Mars in the wake of the Parity Riots, which meant she’d grown up on Earth, old Earth. The first diaspora was mostly tycoons and trust-fund kids, but Alva didn’t strike me as one of those. Probably a researcher or engineer like me — Mars wasn’t going to terraform itself. A corrupted registration file confirmed my suspicions. She was listed as a resident of Helium dome. Maybe we had even passed each other in the halls.

A report came across my desk that the Syndics were planning to spike a shipment of biomass heading for Kepler. Normally, this wouldn’t have involved IntSec, but there was this outbreak of food poisoning at the Kepler Port Commander’s daughter’s quinceañera that had your mom’s fingerprints all over it.

I spooled up some doctored report about how Kepler was rife with insurgents. It wasn’t an outright lie. We’d just lost a double fistful of the outer colonies to Syndic-backed rebellions, and I knew there had to be some enemy agents on Kepler. To throw Fleet Command off the scent, I spread rumors the Syndics were building warships on one of the moons of Gliese 278.

HQ was about to rubber stamp the whole thing when this Admiral — what was his name? Oh, yeah, Wong — came barging into the council chamber and started ranting about how I was undermining everything the Republic stood for.

It was a damn good speech, really brought a tear to my eye. Later, under interrogation, Wong admitted he’d cribbed most of it from old films, but his delivery was so good I ended up offering him a job in propaganda. Really, I did him a favor. He was a natural actor, totally wasted in Fleet Command.

The Kepler operation was a thing of beauty — public officials thoroughly bribed, sleeper agents seeded among suspected Syndic sympathizers, rapid response teams staged in sub-orbital drop pods — a thing of beauty. If any of Alva’s agents so much as sneezed within ten light years of Kepler, I heard about it.

Everything was perfect, except she never showed.

The delivery went off without a hitch — much needed biomass gifted to the grateful citizens of Kepler by a stern, yet loving Republic. Somehow, I got all the credit. There was even going to be a parade, but I cancelled it. Too much of a security risk.

I convened a public inquiry to shake out any information leaks among Intsec command. I may have even found a few real traitors, but I don’t remember. What’s important is I got a big promotion, and that the focus was off me and onto Alva. When I revealed she wasn’t just a Syndic, but quite possibly one of the Syndics — still alive and plotting a return to wage slavery — HQ granted me emergency powers.
I was so wrapped up in politicking I missed the bomb.



When I popped out of the tank, mad as hell, they told me I’d been killed by a shaped charge in one of my desk drawers. I could’ve launched another inquiry I suppose, but that’s what landed me back in the tank in the first place. While I’d been wrapping myself in red tape, Alva had sidled up and tagged me again.

It wasn’t totally my fault. HQ was mostly populated by heroes of a moth-eaten rebellion, sipping their iterations like fine wine long ago run to vinegar. I’d never find Alva with their meaningless quibbles, their nattered questions about rights and civil liberties. The Republic needed focus — Rome had its Caesar, China its Huangdi, America its Kim Jong Un. It was time for me to stop pissing around on the sidelines.

There was no point in killing anyone — they’d just be back, after all — so it took me a lot longer then I’d planned. Still, I’ve never been one to let the size of a job get me down. I just kept my eye on the prize and didn’t stop until they proclaimed me Glorious Leader.

That was about the time the Syndic fleet slipped past Neptune.

Turns out I’d been right about the secret dockyards on Gliese 278. For once, Intel gave me everything I could want — fleet movements, weapon complements, which Syndic officers didn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom — unfortunately, my commanders were too busy watching each other for signs of disloyalty to fight the invasion.

When the Syndics landed troops on Mars, I watched the reports from my bunker under Olympus Mons, feeling like I had something stuck between my teeth. Your mother was in a lot of the trideos–charging into gunfire, raising Syndic flags over crèches and biomass farms, and liberating, yes liberating, my cities. I know it’s all fun and games now, but back then, war was serious business.

I studied the reports for weeks, months. I’d keel over from exhaustion then pop right back out and keep working. Slowly, patterns began to form in the marches and battles, irregular pieces slipping into the shape of things to come.

Alva was marching on Mons. She would crack my bunker with artillery, or send waves of Executive Guards to overwhelm my defenses, or maybe she wouldn’t even bother–a few orbital strikes and the mountain would do the work. She could kill me without slitting my throat, without even lifting a finger. Except I knew she wouldn’t.

Just like that, everything clicked.

I walked into the Tharsis alone, naked but for a knife and my old combat unitard. Your mother didn’t make me wait long.

Alva came boiling out of the dust like a tarnished devil, rivulets of verdigris trailing from her hair. Her first stab caught me in the shoulder. I remember because I’ve always kept the scar. I think I cut her arm, right or left, you’ll have to ask her.

I’d like to say it was climactic — my lives’ work culminating in an act of perfect murder. But, you see, it wasn’t like that at all. As I worked my blade into Alva’s guts, felt hers scrape across my ribs, I realized this was it — if I walked away, I would do it alone.

I always thought I’d made it through so many iterations because I was easy to translate, but the fact of the matter is, you’ve got to really want to come back, more than anything. Dying wears holes in you. It was the striving that had kept me going, not the goal.

Promise me you’ll never tell your mom I fumbled the knife on purpose.

I remember staring up at her — silhouetted against the Martian sky, her lips bright with blood, every line of her face etched in dusty filigree — and thinking I’d rather be here, dying at her feet, than anywhere else in the galaxy.

She looked around, then tossed her knife away, blinking like she had something in her eyes.

“You remembered.” They weren’t the first words I’d ever heard her say, but they were the first she’d ever said to me.

That was when I realized just where in the hell we were.

The canyon hadn’t changed much. Sure, the talc was mostly gone and the ground was covered by a fine layer of aerobic moss, but I could pick out the explosion scars, the canted rock Colonel Okoye had painted with blood, and the low, lichen-covered mound that marked where my men had fallen, where I’d fallen.

She swayed, then collapsed with a puff of dust. I propped myself up on Okoye’s rock and reached for her. There was a time when I would’ve gritted my teeth and tried to hang on until she died of blood loss, but it just didn’t seem so important anymore.

It took a while for her fingers to find mine.

We lay there, hand-in-hand, watching the sun slip behind Olympus Mons. I swear I smelled fresh laundry on the breeze, but I may have been hallucinating.

had lost a lot of blood, after all.




“How Your Mother Killed Me”, © Evan Dicken
Bio By day, Evan Dicken studies old Japanese maps and crunches data for all manner of fascinating medical experiments at the Ohio State University. By night, he does neither of these things. His fiction has most recently appeared in: Analog, Escape Pod, and Flash Fiction Online, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Chaosium. Feel free to look him up at: http://evandicken.com


Illustration:  “Star Citizen” © Enrico Frehse, Phantasmal Image, photomanipulation credits: Model: Catherine, photographer: Shamaniac
Born in 1984 in Zittau, Enrico Frehse has always been highly interested in all form of arts, seeking his own way of expressing his innermost pictures, feelings, dreams, and diverse perceptions. He trained in printing, advertising, package design, typography, painting, and digital works and during that time discovered a talent for photography. He soon realized that combining all these subjects gave him the chance to work multilaterally and with self-directed creativity.  He seeks not a depiction of reality but a visualization of fantasy, emotions, and dreams. Pictures instead of photographs.
www.phantasmal-image.de   www.facebook.com/phantasmal.image   naitachial.deviantart.com


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