Some people thought it looked more like an armadillo, while others thought the strange armored truck resembled a trilobite, but Fed literature classified it as a Scarab M125.

Imani explained it to Xavier just as they entered the edge of the City. “It didn’t always have tires, because the greys would try to shoot them out. At one point it had whegs, and it looked more like a bug then.”

Xavier turned in his seat, his brow creasing. “Why equip them with whegs, though? They didn’t have run-flats back then?” He’d seen the canned sealant they kept in the Fed depot and had even viewed a demonstration of its power. Another groundling (Second Year) had sprayed half of the aerosol can’s contents onto the door of a junked car, then shot unholy hell out of it with a chain gun. Afterwards, the smiling groundling had proudly displayed the door, which Xavier had expected to be Swiss-cheesed with bullet holes but instead showed nary a scratch in its paint job.

“They didn’t just shoot,” Imani said, shaking her head. “They’d lay down improvised stop sticks or chuck Molotov cocktails.” She clenched her jaw, making her already pug nose scrunch up into an even smaller nub. “I got third degrees on one of those runs.” She put the scarab on auto so that it would steer itself the rest of the way into the City. Then she rolled up the right sleeve of her olive drab scrim-weaved bulletproof leotard. Xavier stared, saw the perfect gloss of her mocha skin interrupted by a welter of burnt flesh that rose, like a topographical ridge on a map, white and hideous, from wrist to elbow.

She saw the face Xavier pulled, said, “Still nowhere near as ugly as a grey’s skin.”

“You got that right,” he said, though she had to know he’d never actually seen one. Not in the (translucent) flesh at least. In books, sure. Everyone at Fed was acquainted with their rapine and barbarous ways: how they had once razed and exterminated entire civilizations; snuffed out the noble savages who’d taught them to plant corn; brought pestilence to the blue water shores they would later choke with waves of their dark crude and non-degradable detritus.

Now it was their turn to receive rather than dole out the pain and poison. Xavier smiled, surprised to feel this sadistic streak in him (if it could even be called sadism). He’d been afraid that when he made his maiden voyage, he might choke, see some kind of residual humanity in one of the slimy grays, which might stay his finger from the trigger. He expected the feeling to be a bit like the distant kinship that humans felt standing before the guardrail at the monkey enclosure at the zoo, staring into the sad and wide amber pools of some frowning simian’s eyes.

Then he remembered a block of instruction back in his mid-Fed matriculation with Professor Dr. Gater, that divinely dapper old eccentric with his shock of white tufted afro. He recalled the mixture of shame and rage he’d felt as the sartorial old prof had explained how the greys once had the audacity to draw direct (and pseudoscientific) lineage lines between the “lesser” races and apes. He smoldered anew and found himself wishing that any greys they found on this run didn’t come willingly. Prayed they’d give him an excuse to send some lead downrange.

“Welcome to the City,” Imani said, more than a twinge of sarcasm in her voice.


Xavier looked out the window through the glass eyes of the scarab. The city was a collapsing mausoleum, a paean to self built by a people not only in steep decline, but in deep denial. The massive big box stores and warehouses stood like crumbling castles by the sides of the highway offramps, threatening to subside into weeds high as corn stalks and piebald with noxious yellow blotches.

Hotels, long vacant, stood missing most of the glass from their windows. Their neon signage had been dark for decades, and their facades were pocked where chunks of mortar had gone missing so that the edifices were as hole-ridden as morel mushrooms. The white elephants had long ago lost even the faux majesty they once possessed and now wept plaster flaked into piles high as snowdrifts. They stood en face, exposed and especially ugly under the harsh X-ray glare of a midday sun.

On the tangled knots of highway interchanges, rusted cars stripped of engines and gutted of leather lay in serried ranks, looking like bugs that had shed their carapaces all at once in search of new homes.

“We’ll try the sardine cans,” Imani said, just barely stowing her smile of contempt. Destroying one’s enemy was pleasurable, but to gloat in it was a bit of a sin.

Xavier, seeing her smile, broke out into a wide grin. He cradled his brow in his hand for a moment, shook his head from side to side, said, “I’d heard about the trailer parks, but I thought that was just Old Gater having a go at the greys.”

“You had Gater, too?” She looked over at him and Xavier noticed for maybe the tenth time today that she was beautiful. Her jade eyes smoldered, flecked in the irises with a tinge of lime, hinting that her eyes might be like mood rings, and could change color based on how savvy or tactless he was with his words. Her forehead sloped in a perfectly rounded globe, like a chunk of alabaster smoothened by a master sculptor. He couldn’t see her hair because of the helmet. But when she’d suited up, he’d seen it, cinnamon-colored tightly coiled spirochetes, curls that didn’t so much bounce as dance, as if she were a female Kokopelli whose every shake of the head were a furtive fertility rite.

Maybe it was moving too fast, but he thought she was the kind of woman he’d like to bear his children. Together they could be part of the effort to repopulate this world along with the rest of those who believed in love rather than hate, those of the sun rather than ice.

Xavier would check her file when he got the chance upon return to Fed Depot. She was his senior by three grades and five years, so she could yank his dossier with a few keystrokes; he would have to be a bit slier about getting hers, but hoped (if he didn’t get caught) that her file would show her to be single and heterosexual (not that he had anything against lesbians).

Then again, he could always ask her himself (about her marital status, not her sexuality). He took a deep breath, gathered up his strength, searching his mind for a roundabout way to broach the subject Does your husband worry about your safety when you go on a grey hunt? No, too obvious. What’s more, too intrusive and perhaps a little patronizing. It would imply she couldn’t take care of herself when she obviously could.

He was still racking his brain when they finally made it to one of the sardine encampments. “I’ll be,” he said, grinning and shaking his head.

The house trailers were staggered in herringbones formation, boxlike hovels thrown together hastily from welded sheets of corrugated metal. Black mould, green verdigris, and red rust all fought to consume what was left to eat in this desiccated shell of a pathetic colony.

An allergic itch started in Xavier’s nose. The burning sensation in his mucus membranes probably had something to do with the decades of amphetamine cooking that had gone on here.

Xavier continued shaking his head, and said what he knew she had to be thinking, what they all thought when they stumbled across these habitats of the lower-order greys. “All of their advantages, and they still couldn’t rise above this muck.” Maybe his words were cant, but that didn’t make them less true.

Imani sneered, exactly as she had when recalling the burn she’d gotten on her arm after some pale vampire had chucked a Molotov cocktail at her. Xavier gripped the polymer handle of his rifle, choked up. Then he checked the sallyport flaps on the door, ceiling, and sides of the scarab, just in case he had to lay down fire, either suppressive shots or direct rounds.

“You ready?” Imani flipped the Bakelite bubble over the siren toggle switch overhead.


“Shooting’s your job,” she said. “I press.”

The scowl she wore for the greys softened into a tighter smirk for him. Xavier liked it, how sassy she was, in command.

“Press away,” he said.

She hit the button and the loudspeakers deployed, raising up from the rugose and chitinous outer skin of the scarab. Once the speakers achieved max length on the Zylon periscope pole, the standard message blared.

They listened to it, basking in the mantra as if it were a fresh lecture being given by Gater, the double-titled Doctor-Doctor, his tweeded eminence grise expounding on the evils of the greys between puffs on his Meerschaum.

“Your torment is at an end. Your salvation is here. By coming forward now, you can finally put a stop to the pain you feel, the guilt that has been your rightful lot, lo these many years. In your heart of hearts, you recognize your wickedness, and recognize that what we do, we do out of love. Love, incidentally, which you were always incapable of showing us in return. There is something innate in your cursed nature, absent in your very DNA, that always caused you to feel estranged from your fellow brothers and sisters. It once caused you to conquer, pillage, and exploit, and then caused you to turn on yourselves in a justified fit of self-annihilation. But this path was slow, the opiated drip-drip of a program of state-sponsored euthanasia which feared to call itself by its true name. We will call it by its rightful name. We will deliver you from your pain. Come to us, step out of the dark and into the light, and we will receive you, give you the surcease which you know, in your putrid pale hearts, you so richly deserve. But if you come to us bearing arms, we will cut you down like the descendants of the cave-dwelling, genetic recessive neanderthal hybrids you know yourselves to be.”

The message echoed around the trailer park, susurrated through the leafless branches of the dying trees. It moved past the tin sign on its rusted stanchion chain wagging back and forth in front of an old gas station with its pumps covered in cobwebs tangled thickly as concertina wire.

“Never gets old,” Imani said, leaning back in her calyx chair.

Xavier was tempted to say something, anything, but his attraction to her kept him in check. Best to say nothing, cultivate an air of mystery, lest he broach some subject that was a peeve for her, lose his chance, talk himself out of her good graces (assuming he was even in them).

Let her speak first.

A second later and it was too late to give her the chance to break the ice. A grey was emerging from between two of the corroding house trailers.


The pathetic creature held its hands up, weeping, blubbering words that Imani and Xavier couldn’t hear over the repeatedly blaring sound of the speaker message. She flipped the toggle, the sound reverberated, and the last echoes of the speech trailed off, lost in the keening wind that had picked up sometime after they drove into the heart of the trailer park.

“I can’t,” the grey said. It held its hands up now, showing pale, almost translucent arms corded with pale blue veins.

“Ugh,” Xavier said. “So it’s true.” He marveled, forgetting his plan to play it cool with Imani.

“What?” She laughed, seeming to find his disgust cute, and certainly understandable.

“I thought it was just a rumor, but you can literally see their veins through their skin.”

“Gross, right?” She giggled, a bell-like laugh like fine silver clinked softly on cut glass. “They have these little hairs on their arms too, silky, like a spider or something.”

“What about the smell?” Xavier made to open the front sallyport so that he could sneak his rifle muzzle through.

“It’s true,” she said, sighing sadly. “They smell. A combination of wet dog and bologna.”

“Hell.” He held his breath, began a strange, half-hyperventilating pattern so that he could keep breathing but would also keep out as much of the smell as he could.

“Don’t worry about the port,” Imani said. “This one’s ready to go.”

“You sure?” Xavier let the slot flap close, and kept his rifle across his chest at the port-arms position.

“I’m sure. I always know.”

She reached above his head, used her slender pointer finger sheathed in fine moleskin to push another button. A high keening sound, against which the scarab was hardened, screeched through the trailer park. If the other greys had sent this ancient grey out as a decoy (and she doubted it) they would now be writhing on the ground, clutching their throbbing temples in agony.

That’s what the grey before them did, his sobs stopping a second after Imani had hit the button. He fell into the dirt, screaming now rather than crying, moving in a widdershins circle as he scrambled to escape the pain in his skull.

Banshee, Xavier thought. In addition to all the other things that the scarab reminded him of, it also resembled a banshee.


Ear protection wouldn’t have been enough to defend their brains from the pulses, had Imani and Xavier hopped down from the scarab while it broadcasted the screech. But the mufflers did enough to protect them after she shut down the speakers and they moved in the shadows of the screaming echo, toward the grey still writhing on the ground.

Xavier slung his rifle, freeing his hands to cinch the flexicuffs onto the grey. He trussed it with the standard double knot they’d taught him in school. He and Imani hoisted the pig-colored, still blubbering creature up and carried it toward the back of the scarab, where the segmented rear of the craft lay open. They set the hog-tied grey into the deeply-berthed rear, and closed the aptly named suicide door.

Then they quickly rushed around toward the front to retake their seats. The screeching song was no longer in the air, and if there were any greys around, they would be able to move again. Not fast, of course, due to their near-absence of fast twitch fibers. The blood of slavers did not harden one for physical labors. The blood of slaves, however…

Xavier turned around in the passenger seat, undid his safety belt, and stood up from the comfortable leather cradle of his calyx seat.

“What are you doing?” Imani asked, cutting the trefoil steerer and describing a donut with the scarab’s tires as she turned, leaving the trailer park behind in a wake of red dust.

“Nothing,” Xavier said, though his single word wasn’t so much an answer to Imani as an assessment of this pathetic creature. It was flaccid of muscle, its slug-pale skin not just translucent and showing networks of blue veins, but of purple spiderwebbed fissures, varicose patches, and even stretchmarks, like on the belly of a woman who’d given birth.

Xavier hocked up a large gobbet of phlegm, engendered it on the tip of his tongue, and let it fly.

“No!” Imani hit the brakes so hard that Xavier lurched forward, falling into the gooey nonsubstance that was the body of the manlike thing beneath him.

“Not like this,” Imani said. And though it was against all protocol to do the release while still inside the city’s perimeter—where the broken remnants of the greys dwelled—she decided it was time to send this one home.

Xavier needed the field training, anyway, and if they didn’t do it here, and now, he might try to kill the poor creature in an unapproved manner and ruin his rating his first time outside the wire. And that could reflect poorly on her own performance report.

She undid her safety belt and stepped into the back, leaving the scarab to idle. She placed her gentle hand on Xavier’s well-muscled shoulder of a piece with the rest of his strapping body. “To treat them as they treated us, would make us as bad as them.”

“What do you suggest?” He picked himself up from the body of the confused and still-sniveling grey beneath him, gasping on the swell and surge of his rage, still not quite calmed.

“I suggest we follow the law. And,” she said, gazing around the confines of the suicide suite, “I think it would be best if we avail ourselves of all the wonderful tools at our disposal to make this process as painless as possible.”

Something about the way she’d said painless had reached him, the plosive, bubble gum pop that accentuated the bee-sting fat quality of her supple and sweat-glossed lips. And as his rage ebbed, the fog cleared enough from his red-misted mind for him to see that her hand was still on his shoulder.

“Okay,” he said. But he cast a final contempt-soaked look back at the whining grey on the ground, as if to say with this last glance, You’re lucky she’s here.


Xavier watched as she settled it into the backseat calyx.

It looked around, marveling at the leather ribbed contours of the seat, probably astounded at how different this pliable throne was from the pathetic and mold-encrusted recliners strewn throughout the trailer park.

It gazed with wide, trusting eyes as Imani set to work strapping its arms and legs into restraints made of such butter-soft leather the grey probably didn’t even feel them cinching closed arounds its limbs.

“Almost free,” she said to it, and it smiled, gazing on her with a beatific look, something like grace overcoming one who had accepted its fate.

Her eyes misted, and she looked at Xavier as if to say Do you see? Do you understand?

He did. The greys weren’t evil; they were an affliction even unto themselves. They had afflicted others—the red man, the brown man, the yellow man. And when they had lost their power and dominion (rationalized by everything from their holy books to their political philosophies), they had turned that loathing on themselves.

“Okay,” Imani said, checking the restraints once more before opening the ruggedized suitcase next to the throne. “Off the record, this is the suicide suitcase. You call it that in a report, there’s going to be trouble.”

“The euthanasia device,” he said, remembering what the trainer had called the mockup back at Central. That one had been a matte gray unimpressive box. This one was a silvery argent, like the briefcase of some corporate drone in the former world, or the kind of luggage nuclear codes might have once been carried in.

Nuclear war. Nuclear bombs. More things to thank the greys for. Still, he kept his bile in check and spleen suppressed, lest he be tempted to spit again and forever lose Imani’s respect.

“Okay,” she said, sliding the beveled needle into the pale blue patchwork of the grey’s intermingled veins.

Xavier grimaced as he saw the skin respond like meringue, yielding as if the flesh were so soft it might tear like angel’s food cake.

Angel’s food cake. Devil’s food cake.

Again Xavier’s gorge rose and again he suppressed it, out of love for Imani (and already it was love), and pity for the creature.

“Now we’re going to let it enjoy some relics from its heyday as it drifts off.”

The suicide suitcase glowed, and the glow intensified as an LCD in-silico screen emerged from its memory foam berth, a luminous flat square that filled the chamber with aquamarine radiance. The blue-green light splashed across the grey’s face and filled its colorless eyes with wonder.

“They love this stuff,” she said. They watched the first series of images unfurl. Music started, a lush orchestral score, sweeping strings as men on horses rode into the red rock canyons of Monument Valley. Cowboys galloped on the open range, sweeping through an untamed and untainted West where the skies were blue and chapparal and scrub-filled desert stretched across a limitless horizon until it seemed to touch the setting sun.

The display lurched through time, showing men in white wigs and silk blue habit habillé waltzing with women in flowing gowns, all wearing Venetian bird-beaked ball masks. The reflections of the dancers repeated through a series of giant mirrors set between arcaded arches in the castle’s main hall. An orchestra, its members dressed in the finery of court footmen, serenaded the dancers from a box loge with flouncy red curtains, and golden light cascaded down from an overhead chandelier.

Centuries passed. The man in this grainy film strip wore a smoking jacket and comfy suede slippers, the mother a pinafore dirty from housework. But for all the changes in details and time the ritual was as recognizably elegant as that which had played out in the ballroom. A spotted little dog with a wiry tail danced on its hind legs, yipping as the couple locked in a loving embrace danced, oblivious to the world around them. A young boy in a coonskin cap ran his fire engine along the kitchen’s linoleum tile while mom and dad kept dancing to the love song that spilled from the cabinet model radio next to the Christmas tree.

Then the scene of domestic bliss in the tract house disappeared.

And finally there was a man, his white spacesuit and gold mirrored visor masking his face but in doing so making him all men, or all mankind (as it was then narrowly construed). He bounced along the basaltic craters of the great grey rock, planted a flag, and made his famous speech.

The grey’s smile widened as a fatal dose of morphine hit its veins. Its eyes remained open, the grin frozen on its face. Imani lifted the sleeve on her leotard to glance down at the watch on her arm, the same arm a bloodthirsty grey once burnt.

“Freed,” she said, “at eighteen oh-six hours.” She and Xavier shared a furtive smile, a grin much more subdued than the wide, near-orgasmic one on the face of the dead white man. “You did good on your first run.” Imani stood up. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”

She turned from the grey dead in its calyx. She reached down to the suitcase, and with a couple of keystrokes the light evaporated from the in-silico’s screen, the astronaut and the moon fading to a keyhole speck before disappearing. The morphine ceased to drip its way through the wending convolutions of the PVC tube.

“We’d better get back to the crematory,” she said, “before this thing starts stinking.”

“Starts?” Xavier asked.

It took her a minute, but she finally got it, and laughed.