To be completely honest, I’m still shocked that my submission for Round 1 of NYC Midnight’s 2015 Short Story Challenge, ‘Till Death Do Us Part, A Ghost Story’, placed 4th in my heat. There were forty-eight heats in the first round and I was one of thirty entrants sorted into Heat 9. I was one of 5 writers in that heat to advance, reducing the total number of entrants from 1,440 in Round 1 to 240 in Round 2. Those 240 remaining writers were sorted into 8 heats with each heat again containing 30 writers.
For Round 2, I drew Heat 7 and these were my prompts:
Subject: A one-way ticket
Character: An amputee
This is my story:
Girls Go To Mars To Get More Candy Bars
Synopsis: A Global Union soldier on a transport with a one-way ticket to forced retirement shares his story with a fellow soldier as he tries to retrieve a lost memento from the life he left behind on Earth.
Jaime limped slightly as he walked down the corridor toward his bunk. The leg hurt but it was better than it had been in the weeks after he’d awakened on the hospital ship with no memory of the battle.
He’d been told that G.U. forces had picked him up after he’d crashed onto one of Kepler 19’s moons. Had a rebel 4A ship happened upon him first, the Aussie, African, and Arabic Alliance dogs would’ve tossed him out into the vacuum of space and taken his ship for scrap.
The crash had almost killed him; he’d lost his spleen, his left eye, his left elbow, and most of his left leg. The permanent-prosthetic leg had been attached mid-thigh and fused with his body without complications. A perm-pros had also replaced his elbow but he still had half of his forearm and his own hand, thank the gods. Those bio-hands just weren’t natural. He’d heard that they didn’t work properly and couldn’t feel things like a real hand.
With his new perm-pros eye he could capture images and video and then view them. It had the usual illumination feature but it also had night vision. He loved it. He wished he had two of them.
Plenty of injured soldiers re-joined their former units once they’d healed and though he’d been badly hurt, he’d be good as new in no time. No, he’d be better than new. Unfortunately, he had three permanent-prosthetics now, and three was one too many. So instead of returning to duty, he’d been discharged and moved to this transport where he’d spent months in suspended animation on the way to the retirement colony.
Distracted by memories, Jaime thumbed his wedding ring as he walked. Too late, he felt the ring start to slip from his finger. He tried to curl his hand into a fist but the perm-pros elbow was relatively new and the artificial nerves were still optimizing. His fingers moved too slowly and the ring fell to the deck and rolled away.
Jaime hurried after the ring but his limp slowed him. Heartsick, he watched it drop through a floor grill. He cursed as he bent to peer through the grill.
“What are you doing, soldier?”
Jaime jerked his head up to see a Euro-Asian officer approaching. He experienced occasional gaps in his memory since the crash so he frowned for a moment before he recalled that Euro-Asia had joined forces with New America. The resulting Global Union was stronger and more formidable, but the treaty was only seven years old. Trust was difficult when your would-be oppressor was suddenly your friend.
He wasn’t active but he was still a soldier, and he was outranked. He straightened and saluted.
“No need for that,” The officer paused and peered at his chest. She blinked. “Captain Salazar. I was only curious.”
“Apologies, Colonel Mori,” he replied, having taken note of her rank and name. “I just dropped something and it fell through this grill.” He glared at the offending grill. “It’s… valuable to me. Sentimental. I need it back.”
“Let’s have a look, then.”
To Jaime’s amazement, the colonel knelt before the grill. “I’m not looking by myself, Captain.”
“No, ma’am,” Jaime said and knelt beside her, his perm-pros knee clanging against the deck.
She looked up at the sound. “Perm-pros?”
“How were you hurt?”
“I crashed during the battle at New Tokyo.”
“On Kepler 19?”
“If there’s another New Tokyo, I don’t know about it.”
Colonel Mori did not grin.
Jaime stopped grinning.
“Apologies again, Colonel. No disrespect intended.”
She shook her head and looked down at the grill once more. “Not at all. It’s just that… my parents would have liked New Tokyo.”
“It’s still there. The 4A bastards didn’t destroy it.”
“I’m aware.” She sounded amused. “So what did you drop down here?”
Jaime thumbed his newly bare finger. “My wedding ring. I’ve lost weight recently and it was loose, but I had to wear it. Now it’s gone.”
He hated sounding so forlorn, but the ring was all he had of Alayna. He tugged on the grill, he could not lose it. Feeling the colonel’s eyes on him, he looked up.
“No need for ‘ma’am’, we’re discharged.”
“Yet we’re headed to a military facility… wearing military uniforms… displaying ranks. Colonel.”
“Please, call me Maiya. I miss the sound of my name.”
“Sure,” Jaime nodded. “Maiya’s a lovely name. My name is—”
“Jaime Salazar.” She pronounced his name ‘Jay-mee’ and he smiled. “Everybody’s read of your heroism in the skies above New Tokyo, and anyone can see the medals on your chest, and why are you smiling at me like that?”
She frowned. Suddenly, the thought of someone coming along the corridor to find the two of them on their hands and knees struck him as funny.
He laughed aloud. It had been years since he had truly laughed.
So many years.
Maiya’s frown deepened. “I don’t know what a ‘high may‘ is,” she said angrily. “And why do you have a wedding ring? Nobody retiring to Mars has attachments. This is a one-way ticket for singles, Captain. Couples and families go to Kepler 11.”
His first one-way ticket had been the one that had taken him from Earth. The distance had helped dull the pain somewhat. He sighed as he turned and sat, leaning his back against the corridor’s curved wall.
“‘High-may’ is the proper pronunciation of my name, not ‘Jay-mee’.”
Maiya nodded and sat beside him. “Salazar, of course. I ought to have known. Were you from the South, then?”
Jaime knew what she meant but the question annoyed him, so he played dumb. “The South?”
“South New America?”
“That’s not what it’s called,” he said. “But no, my family was from Honduras, which was its own country in Central America. At least it was before what used to be the United States and Canada became one nation and invaded Mexico. When Mexico fell, United North America seized all of Central America with little effort, and we joined the resistance against Euro-Asia.”
“Thank you for the history lesson, but Euro-Asian countries do have schools,” Maiya said with a smirk. “So you’re from U.N.A., that’s all you had to say.”
“Nobody calls it that anymore. It’s all America, both continents. New America. It was, anyway.”
“I don’t understand your anger. Weren’t you proud of New America?”
“The U.N.A. invaded us. They invaded everyone, Maiya. The whole of the Americas, just as China had invaded all of Asia years before. The Americans needed alliances in order to resist Euro-Asia, so they just took what they wanted. Then they went to war with South America when those countries unified in their effort to remain free from U.N.A. rule. I was young but I remember the freedom they took from us all.”
Maiya looked thoughtful. “I was born after China invaded Japan. Before I was two, China conquered Russia, they disabled Europe with the EMPs, and they were in the process of taking over everything. I’ve heard stories, though I’ve never known anything but Euro-Asia. It’s my country, my home. I’m as proud of that as I am of my Japanese heritage so I suppose I don’t quite understand your animosity.”
“It’s not my country I’m not American. I’m not even North American. I’m Honduran.” He shrugged. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
“You joined New America’s military.”
“That was the only way I could leave Earth. I was a single, not eligible for colonization then.”
“You also speak their language very well.”
“Everybody does now. Even Euro-Asians.”
Jaime wanted his ring back. Sighing, he bent to the grill and rapidly blinked his eyes twice to activate the illumination feature in his perm-pros eye. He squinted to focus the beam and cast his gaze around the space below the grill.
To his surprise, the space was suddenly brighter. He glanced at Maiya to see that both of her eyes were illuminated.
He blinked twice more to deactivate his beam. “You have two?”
Maiya touched both temples at the same time, extinguishing her lights. Older models, then. He also had a control panel beneath the skin of his temple, though he didn’t need it to activate most of his perm-pros eye’s features.
“I lost my vision when the Aussies nuked Old Tokyo.”
“Oh, gods,” Jaime said. “That’s horrible.”
“It was worse to lose my parents in the same strike.”
“You must hate the Aussies.”
She shrugged. “We destroyed Australia. They retaliated.”
Jaime nodded. “I lost my dad when he visited my sister in Los Angeles.”
“When 4A bombed the San Andreas fault?”
“Yes, and half of California just dropped into the ocean.”
“I’m sorry, Jaime.” She touched his hand. “Your sister?”
Jaime nodded. “Gone, her whole family.”
“What about your mother?”
“She passed when I was a child. Cancer.”
Maiya sighed. “I had only my parents. When they were gone, the E-A Army offered to give me these if I joined them.” She batted her eyes and Jaime’s heart pounded. “I was also ineligible for colonization. That was before Euro-Asia allied with New America and they started colonizing singles.”
She glanced back at the grill in the floor and then met his eyes. Jaime thought that her older perm-pros eyes looked real. They were beautiful.
“You want to know about the ring,” Jaime said.
She didn’t respond. He told her anyway.
“I was held up by work but my wife, Alayna, went with my father to Los Angeles.”
Maiya sighed again and squeezed his hand. He shivered. They locked gazes for a long moment. She smiled. Jaime grew nervous and tried to fill the silence.
“Did you know that Maia was the Roman goddess of spring?”
“She’s also the fourth brightest star of the Pleiades, which consists of seven stars representing the daughters of Atlas in Greek mythology.”
“Oh,” Maiya said.
“The planet Mars was named for the Roman god of war, of course. What’s really interesting is that in early Roman mythology, Mars was known as a god of spring and growth, and Maia is the goddess of spring—”
Jaime’s words cut off when Maiya’s warm, soft fingers touched his lips. He stilled, his eyes met hers. She smelled of flowers. Before she pulled away, he took her hand and briefly closed his eyes as he smelled her skin again.
A tear rolled down his cheek. “You smell like flowers.” His voice was a shaky whisper, but he smiled as he met her lovely prosthetic eyes again.
“It’s probably my soap,” she said shakily.
“You smell like Earth, Maiya. Like home.” He hadn’t realized how much he missed the smells of Earth. “Goddess of spring, indeed.”
She cocked her head. “When China’s EMPs knocked out Europe’s power grids and things fell apart, people there returned to the old ways, especially in places like Britain and Greece. When their old gods started gaining worshippers again, they’d often reference ‘the gods‘ in conversation, as you did earlier. Do you also worship them? Is that why you wanted to retire to Mars?”
Jaime grinned. “That kind of thing was punishable by death in fundamentalist New America, remember? No, my curiosity is purely academic, and my retirement is reluctant. One perm-pros too many.” He tapped his elbow. “Why are you going to Mars? To get more candy bars?”
He winked but she frowned again.
“Americans. I don’t understand your obscure references.”
“Honduran, right.” She smiled and flexed her hand. “My third perm-pros retired me, too. I chose Mars for the bio-domes.”
“Yes, they’ve cultivated multiple Earth climates. I can’t wait to visit them.”
“I bet they’ll smell like home.”
“Maybe you’ll visit them with me?”
“I would love that,” Maiya nodded.
They grinned at each other.
“Let’s find your ring, shall we?”
They activated their perm-pros eyes and bent toward the grill. Their beams of light crossed in the dark space below and after a moment, reflected gold.