Milo looked down at the dying security officer. The only person who could save this man was Milo with his one pill, the pill that was meant for Lianna. He could still save her if he hurried. The infection might not have reached the meadow yet.
“Help me…” the officer wheezed.
Milo took a deep breath and started climbing the fence again. He didn’t want to. He knew he’d hate himself forever for doing this, but he dropped to the ground, leaving the balloon tree forest behind, and cautiously approached the half-petrified man. His nametag identified him as Sgt. Segrus, with skill-marks for combat, law enforcement, and military tactics.
“Sergeant,” Milo said, kneeling beside him, “can you open your mouth?”
Segrus’s jaw twitched.
Milo opened his little pillbox and squeezed the last remaining dose between Segrus’s hardened lips. Hopefully the officer was strong enough to swallow. The muscles of his throat seemed to be fighting whatever this illness was.
Milo sat in the orange dirt and waited. The distant screams faded into painful moaning, which then faded into silence.
* * *
A few minutes later, Segrus was dead. His convulsions ceased. His skin and muscles shriveled tight over his bones, and a crusty substance covered his eyes. Milo had never seen a dead body before, but he didn’t think they were supposed to be so rigid, like stone. Segrus had transformed into a twisted, ugly statue—a lump of rock dressed in a white uniform.
Wiping away tears, Milo headed back toward the habitat zone. He passed another dying colonist, a woman curled into a ball, her limbs still trembling, and another, a man standing near the medical complex, the pain etched into his wizened and desiccated face. Milo found dozens more, some kneeling, some huddled together, some crumpled on the ground alone. A few continued to twitch and shiver, but their suffering soon ended, and they too became sculptures of total agony.
Maybe history would call this the Maroon Death, Milo speculated. Everyone’s skin had turned a rusty color like dried blood.
Prefabricated houses lined the streets, each coated with thermal insulation panels. Large signs marked the district boundaries. Milo wandered toward Delta District, the district where his own family lived.
At first, Milo could pretend the dead were all strangers. Their tortured, emaciated faces concealed their identities. But then he recognized Dr. Pellman’s lime green shirt and Tyro Unicus’s sandy hair. He recognized Professor Miranda’s gaudy necklace and her five separate skill-marks in education. By the time Milo reached Delta District, he realized he could recognize almost everybody. Small details revealed them one by one.
Entering his own home, Milo found his mother by the door. Her solidified body had tipped forward, shattering on the graphene-coated floor. All that remained were a pair of legs, a torso, and fragments of other body parts. Nothing liquid. Her blood had crystallized.
Milo’s baby sister lay on the kitchen floor, surrounded by her toys. Dry tears stained her stony cheeks. Her arms, frozen in place, reached out for someone—anyone—to pick her up and make it all better.
Milo staggered to his room, collapsing in the corner behind his bed. He didn’t want to live anymore. He wished he’d left that pillbox where it fell and crushed it with a gardening hoe. Who’d want to survive something like this? Who’d want to see so much pain carved forever into the faces of friends and loved ones? Who’d want to live and bear witness to such horror?
Outside, the sun began to disappear behind the planet. The light from the window dimmed, and Milo’s sobbing became whimpering and then a pitiful sniffle.
* * *
Milo left Delta District and went searching for Talie. He didn’t know what that might accomplish. She’d never offer any help nor even a bit of comfort. Milo just wanted to see another living person so he could remember what they looked like.
“Where’s the interview with the pregnant lady?” Talie was asking when Milo stumbled upon her.
Cognis recited a chain of numbers, and Talie nodded. She was sitting on a bench right in the middle of the colony’s main plaza, typing away on a datapad while video played on the screen. Bodies littered the ground around her, frozen in the final throes of death.
Milo stormed past the other colonists where they’d fallen and shouted Talie’s name. Cognis stepped in the way, motioning for Milo to be silent. Milo ignored the cyborg. Those mechanical muscles no longer frightened him.
“Are you getting a good story out of this?” Milo said. “Think you’ll win another ‘Eye on the Galaxy’ Award?”
Talie continued to type, finishing whatever thought she’d started, before glancing up and regarding Milo with a puzzled frown. “You’re alive?” She seemed surprised, but this time she wasn’t enjoying the experience. Talie rose to her feet, setting the datapad aside, and glared at her cybernetic cameraman.
“You gave him the extra medicine, didn’t you?”
“You were feeling compassion, weren’t you? Don’t deny it. Look, there’s nothing wrong with emotions. I have a whole bunch every day, but you have to use them responsibly!”
Cognis flicked a switch on his left arm, and a crestfallen expression formed on his face. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Oh, turn that thing off,” Talie snapped.
Cognis flipped the switch again, and his face returned to normal.
Long ago, when Homo machinae declared themselves a separate species, they banned emotions in their new society. The cyborg leaders considered emotions too dangerous, especially if transmitted over a wireless network. Yet there were always a few who wanted to “experiment.” Sometimes, they became addicted.
“What happened to the last dose?” Talie demanded, unable to switch off the anger in her voice.
“I gave it to a man I found dying,” Milo said. “But the pill didn’t work.”
“The man is dead! Everyone is dead! How is that good?”
“He might have been the One,” Talie said, sitting down with her datapad. “You might have been the One, in which case this whole day in history is ruined. Let’s hope you’re not special.”
“Thanks,” Milo sneered. The way Talie spoke to him, using that snobby, superior tone, made him feel as though all his rage were merely the whining of a petulant child.
Talie went back to writing her script. Another idea had come to her, and her nimble fingers traipsed across the keyboard.
Cognis turned to Milo. “We could use your assistance locating a sample of lithium ore.”
Milo folded his arms.
“Please?” Cognis said, the word sounding odd with all the emotion behind it deactivated.
“Do you see this patch?” Milo asked, pointing to his chest. “It’s a skill-mark. My only skill-mark: gardening. That’s the only thing I’m qualified to do. I know nothing about lithium ore.”
The cyborg’s organic eye blinked. “But the Morton Mining Company employed your father as its chief mineralogist, or so you stated in your interview.”
“Well, maybe you should have saved his life instead of mine.”
Talie snickered. Cognis reached for his arm, eager to join in the laughter, but stopped himself. Obviously he’d had enough emotions for one day.
* * *
Milo started formulating a new plan. There had to be a way to go back in time and undo everything that had happened. Maybe if he could learn how Talie’s time machine worked, he could steal it and become a time traveler himself. So despite his earlier protests, Milo decided to become Talie’s errand boy. He watched and waited and pretended to cooperate with her enigmatic whims.
Cancriph’s second moon had a superabundance of lithium in its crust—hence the name Litho. Every rock, pebble, and grain of sand contained at least trace amounts of the chemical element. Milo knew that much.
“A small sample will suffice,” Talie said. “Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.”
Milo brought back three random stones. Talie held each in turn, examining them for some quality which she never explained. “This one,” she declared, tossing the other two over her shoulder.
Talie led the way through Alpha District, passing the laboratories and prefab homes, walking beyond the habitat zone and out toward the Redlands. Milo noticed Talie’s eyes studying the landscape, searching for something. He paid careful attention to everything she did, looking for clues that might reveal her secrets.
“What now?” Milo asked when Talie came to an abrupt halt.
“Hush,” she commanded, pulling out a compact mirror and fixing her hair.
They’d come to a precipice overlooking the Redlands. From that vantage point, Milo saw the poison desert stretching into the distance. The final rays of sunlight revealed tire tracks in the sand, and the mining equipment erected along the horizon looked like an endless row of jagged teeth. Hot air blew in Milo’s face, carrying with it the bitter smell of alkaline metal, yet Milo shivered. Dead quarry workers surrounded him. They’d been on break, clustered together in little social circles. Milo tried to ignore them, but to stand in a place so crowded and yet so silent felt unnerving.
“The lighting is acceptable,” Cognis reported.
Talie put her mirror away. When the cyborg said he was recording, she began to count.
“Three, two, one. The colonists spent their lives digging for little rocks like this,” she said, holding up Milo’s stone. “Now the colonists are rocks themselves, the result of a vicious and unprovoked attack.”
Talie paused for a few seconds, staring into Cognis’s oversized eye, then said, “Was that good? Should we do it again?”
“What do you mean ‘attack’?” Milo said.
“Maybe you should include one of the deceased colonists in your standup,” Cognis suggested.
“Oh, I like that!”
“Who attacked us?” Milo demanded.
But Talie shushed him so she could do another take, this time stepping toward a man frozen in place, his body all wrinkled and lumpy. The texture and color of his skin almost matched the stone in Talie’s hand. “… the result of a vicious and unprovoked attack,” Talie said in conclusion.