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Intersected Sky

By Andrew Najberg | https://www.khoreomag.com/author/andrew-najberg/ | Andrew Najberg
Edited by Kanika Agrawal || Narrated by Patrick Langner || Produced by Lian Xia Rose
References to the death of a child
4700 words

Ebsa was running late, and Demetri, tired of watching the bitter clouds of his breath, had just about given up on her. Like one might check a watch, Demetri cast a habitual glance to the incandescent blue beam that crossed the sky. Most people had developed the habit of checking the beam as it had changed from another twinkle in the night sky to a cylindrical tube of light growing closer by the day, like a shooting star that never stopped shooting. When the beam crossed past Earth and caused the Night of Satellite Rain, it was all people talked about in their darkened living rooms and basements, in their stairwells and storm shelters, as debris fell and fires raged. 

Now, the beam was almost static, entering the solar system on one side and exiting out the other. Demetri let his gaze linger on two buildings whose facades were never rebuilt, one whose roof was never reraised. In the park, two folks held pads and one stood at an easel, and they all drew their renditions of the landscape with the beam through the sky as a key feature. One made a self-portrait with a statue and the beam. Still life with tea pitcher and beam. Couple kissing under beam. The bench upon which Demetri sat bore a crude drawing in which the beam was a galactic deity’s penis.

Demetri stomped his feet and flexed his knees. His thin and ratty coat was frayed at the cuffs, and the chill seeped into his bones like mold into a cellar. He cursed his sister under his breath until, finally, she descended the concrete stairs into the park, her gloved hand dragging along the iron rail. She wore a thick shawl wrapped over her shoulders and around her neck so that the bunched wool covered her chin. Goose down likely stuffed her puffy coat. 

Ebsa paused on the bottom stair and looked about. Though they’d not seen each other in some time, Demetri could see Ebsa looked tired, her eyes weighed down by dark bags. She’d sounded harried on the phone but had not disclosed the reason she wanted to meet. It had to be important.

Between them, pigeons bobbed and pecked. A scatter of leaves swirled. In the garden beds, everything had withered for winter, and along the park edges, even the evergreens were dead. Their needles lay in the dirt. 

Demetri waved his hand overhead, stood, and rose on tiptoe. Ebsa raised her chin at him.

“It’s been too long,” Demetri said as Ebsa stepped into the cobblestone square. 

Ebsa looked up at the statue of the man on horseback holding a spyglass, glancing at the beam as she did so. Demetri regarded the statue base. Vandals had filed off the inscription on the copper name plate, and gouges in the marble indicated that someone had even tried to pry off the plate itself.

“I suppose it has,” Ebsa said, “and I suppose it hasn’t.”

“Is that any way to greet your brother?” Demetri said.

“No, but it is the greeting I chose.”

Demetri shoved his hands in his pockets. He sat back on the bench and looked straight ahead, focusing vaguely on a dead cell tower peeking above a rooftop. Beyond, smokestacks that no longer smoked rose from the vacant polymer plant where Demetri had once managed to rise to floor supervisor. He’d felt strong then. People would ask his thoughts. Even his permission. Ebsa would sound proud of her brother. Now, when Ebsa talked to him, it never felt happy or relaxed or sisterly. She spoke to him like he would picture her talking to a shrub.

“So, how is living with Aleksander?” Demetri said after a moment. 

“It is living with Aleksander,” Ebsa said. Then she turned from the statue and leveled her gaze at Demetri’s ear. “Except harder.”

“Oh?” Demetri asked.

In his pockets, he twirled his fingers through a piece of loose string. He wove the string in and out of his fingers to feel it tug against the webbing between.

“He’s been more abrasive of late,” Ebsa said. “Ever since the layoff scare.”

“He’s never done well with instability,” Demetri said.

“No,” Ebsa said. “That’s why he keeps his papers solid.”

Demetri spotted the yellow bruise on Ebsa’s wrist, half under the cuff of her coat.

“Did he—”

“No,” Ebsa said again with a shake of her head. “I did that to myself. An accident.”

“Always an accident,” Demetri said. “Always your fault.”

“Sometimes it is, and sometimes things are.”

“That is no way to live,” Demetri said.

“It is living nonetheless,” Ebsa said. “And a shoe that won’t quite fit is better than no shoe at all.”

Demetri took a long deep breath through his nose. Just as his shoulders rose high enough to make him look like he had a broad, strong frame, he burst into ragged coughs. He threw his face into the crook of his elbow as his torso shook. 

When the hacking subsided, Demetri wiped the spittle from his beard with the back of his hand and smeared it on the knee of his pants. He looked at the beam, then at his sister’s face. When he spoke, phlegm thickened his voice.

“Are you going to tell me why we are here?”

Ebsa took her own deep breath. Her fingers found each other.

“I am pregnant,” Ebsa said. 

Demetri’s frame jolted. Unconsciously, his hands slid from his pockets and began patting about for cigarettes and a lighter even though he’d not smoked in years. He scuffed his heel on the concrete. 

Then, he nodded. Still hoarse from the episode, he said, “Aleksander’s?”

“How can you ask that?” Ebsa scowled.

“I wouldn’t have judged,” Demetri said. “People need to be human.”

“Aleksander is human,” Ebsa said. “And his baby will be a citizen.”

Demetri shoved his hands back into his pockets and twiddled with the string again, glancing towards the park gate. Towards the restaurants across the street with the barred windows and graffitied doors. Towards the car that’d had its tires boosted. 

“So I ask again,” Demetri said. “Are you going to tell me why we are here?”

“Is the news not enough?” Ebsa said. “Can you not be happy our family grows bigger?”

“If you wanted this to be a happy moment, we would have met someplace happier.”

“There is no happier place,” Ebsa said. Her bottom lip quivered. “Only places that take you and places that won’t.”

Demetri sighed.

“Then this baby will be welcome wherever it goes,” he said.

“This baby will not know happy places.”

Demetri stood and put his hands on Ebsa’s shoulders. He gripped as firmly as his aching knuckles would allow. With the bulk of her bundling, she appeared substantial, but under closing fingers, she narrowed to a wan twig.

“Sister,” Demetri said. “We will make sure you’ve just spoken lies.”

“Psht,” Ebsa said. “What will you do, break some more?”

Demetri opened his mouth to say something, but his body betrayed him. His diaphragm convulsed. He sucked in a breath through gritted teeth. Something wet and thick rattled in his chest. The tendons of his neck bulged, and his face reddened at the effort of controlling his lungs.

“It would be easier if I just got rid of it,” Ebsa muttered.

“Easy has nothing to do with it,” Demetri rasped. “I will open my home to you and the baby.”

“You’d collapse before the end of the first night with a squealing babe at your ear,” Ebsa scowled. She gathered herself, checking the security of her bag and jacket, checking that she still had her ration card and a few wrinkled bills. “I’d best depart.”

“Perhaps I can walk you as far as the station,” he said.

Ebsa rolled her eyes and bent her wrist by her chin in a mock-helpless gesture. The bruise caught the light again, yellow as wheat. As they walked, she set a brisk pace that left Demetri gasping for air. He bent over and placed his hands on his knees as blood rushed to his head, blacking the edges of his vision. Spittle dangled from his lips, and his heart pumped unevenly in his chest like a mouse in a shaken box. A few shuffling steps brought him to a low retaining wall that once held back a flowerbed. Now the soil it held back was used up, hardly good enough for squirrels to bury their seeds in.

Ebsa stepped beside him and watched him down the bridge of her nose. After a moment, she sighed and propped one foot back against the retaining wall and let her gaze wander to the beam. Demetri’s eyes struggled to focus, and the beam blurred wide as a road and then split into two wobbling threads. Something in his nose whistled as he sucked in a long breath, and the streak of light resumed its constancy.

“Do you think it is ever going to change again?” she asked.

Demetri wiped his mouth and nose with the back of his hand.

“Another shockwave? Another Night of Satellite Rain?” Demetri asked. “I think not.”

“It’s almost worse that its always the same,” Ebsa said. “Aleksander believes it is a shot fired in an interstellar war that began before humanity.”

Demetri shrugged. Others had suggested similar. The Forgotten War, some called it. Demetri didn’t like the name. When war came on Earth, it was never forgotten. It left scars everywhere. Maybe the beam was really some ancient scar of the universe. Regardless, it seemed beside the point, so he said, “It’s never the same. No light you see is ever the same light you’ve seen before.”

“Looks the same to me,” Ebsa said. “It does nothing.”

“It arrived, didn’t it?” Demetri said. “And it passed on.”

“Do you think either of us will ever do more than that?”

Demetri stood still. He looked at the statue with the spyglass. At the ruined placard. He looked at the woman walking along the far side of the park, wheeling an oxygen tank with tubes running up her nose. At a spruce with bare branches casting shadow on a bed of needles. At the overcast winter sky that the blue, incandescent streak vividly penetrated. When the beam came and the satellites fell and the borders closed, Demetri’s family shrank to fewer than he had fingers. Now, it was just Ebsa and the coming child. More often, though, it felt like just him and the beam.

He mustered a half smile and said, “If not us, then the baby.”

Ebsa nodded. Then, she clapped Demetri on the elbow and gave him a light squeeze. It made his joint throb.

“Thank you for meeting me, brother,” she said. 

She turned to walk off.

Demetri rose with a grunt. The breeze bit his cheeks and made the soft sag of his lower eyelids raw.

“Ebsa,” Demetri said. Ebsa hesitated. “At least come with me to the market. If we won’t break bread together, we can buy it, yes?”

“Do not come visit,” Ebsa said without looking back. “Aleksander will not react kindly to seeing you.”

Then, she was on her way, and Demetri knew he could not call out loudly enough without breaking into brackish coughs. He wobbled on his heels and poked about the top of the retaining wall. He plucked a clean-looking pebble from one of the empty flowerbeds, dusted it off, and tucked it between his cheek and gums. Tumbling it around in his mouth caused saliva to release, almost as if he was taking a drink, and it moistened his papery tongue and raw throat. 

Already, his sister was far enough that she could be just another woman headed for rations. He considered pursuit. He knew, after all, what line she took, and if she stopped for any small errand, he might be able to head her off. 

Instead, he listened to a rumble from his stomach. He counted his change, but when he returned it to his pocket, a couple of small coins rolled off his palm and dropped to the ground. Both seemed worth too little to pick up. 

• • •

The line at the market stretched more than a block, and the cobblestones wobbled enough under Demetri’s feet that he feared he’d turn an ankle. His bones ached to their core. They must be hollow like a bird’s, he felt, and he’d taken to bruising so easily. More meat needed in his diet maybe, or maybe just age. He’d read somewhere long ago that everyone’s heart beat two billion times in their life. Perhaps he used twice as many as normal during his sleep. How many did he have left?

The faded awning overhead, once vibrant purple, bore numerous tears and sagged under the acrid weight of pigeon shit. Tape crossed the market’s plate glass windows in dozens of places, and fingerprints and smudges obscured much of the view inside. Through the clear spots, everyone in line watched the goods nearest the glass, watched as shadows with baskets moved on the other side, taking one item after another. The stock thinned and displays emptied as the wait dragged on. The markets that dispersed immigrant rations never got full deliveries. Never had enough to fill demand.

An old woman in a kerchief ground her molars while a balding man with glasses cupped his hand to his ear and whispered single word remarks periodically. 

Behind Demetri, two women with bristly brunette curls spoke.

“You’d think they’d stop the launches and spend that money on putting food on our tables,” one said.

“But if they don’t figure out what it is—”

“They’ll never figure out what it is, and even if they did, I’d rather have my phone back.”

“Or my TV,” the other said, resigned. 

“At least now, we focus on each other, yes?” Demetri interjected.

“At least the beam minds its own business,” the first woman said.

Demetri sighed and checked his watch. He’d been so nervous about seeing Ebsa that he’d forgotten about the launch. He didn’t care about the missions either way, but launches did make a pretty sight against the horizon. None of the probes had reached the beam yet—the earliest launches wouldn’t arrive for another two years—but each one that went up boasted some new array of sensors that hadn’t existed when the prior launched. There was a time when each one meant hope, but now, even if they got to where they were going, who knew what it would mean, if anything? 

The line moved a couple steps as a family filed out the exit. Demetri noticed a jar of imported peaches behind the beets. He licked his lips. Maybe it would be there by the time he got in, maybe not, but it was a good hope. If he could get a box of sweet crackers and some cream to whip…

A man sidled up beside Demetri. Demetri’s hand instinctively closed over his wallet but relaxed as he realized it was an old colleague. The man wore a battered black hat and a coat wearing through the seams. He’d gone into data maintenance. Or was it data regulation? 

“Greetings, Karpov,” Demetri said. “Agreeable to find you here.”

“Not that I’d say,” Karpov said with a deep frown, “though I do not mean that about your company.”

“There are worse places to be,” Demetri said.

“Speak for yourself,” Karpov said. “Look at those bare shelves. Not long past, you’d find me at Venyaville with a basket heavy as I could carry and a wallet full of coupons.”

“The change is regrettable,” Demetri said. He had never been shopping at Venyaville. That was the kind of place Aleksander took Ebsa back when they were dating. “What then brings you here?”

“Firm closed,” Karpov said. “All the firms closed. Almost everyone in data analytics is out of a job now. I keep books for a paving company.”

Demetri snapped his fingers. Data analytics. That was it. “That was the top field when I was in school.”

“Da, da,” Karpov said. His gaze dropped to his feet. “Then, the beam happened. What good is a coding specialty when there is nothing to run code? What is there to analyze when people stop providing data?”

“Just awful,” Demetri said softly.

He closed his eyes. He did not want to say what it had been like in neighborhoods poorer than Venyaville when the lights didn’t come back on. When the refrigerators warmed. When the cars wouldn’t start. When the grocery trucks didn’t arrive. 

When word came that plows were dead and that threshers failed, it came on foot. 

Those who had landlines or whose phones somehow survived the shockwave found that their calls went unanswered no matter which authority they tried to reach. Demetri’s brow broke a sweat as he remembered barring his front door with a chair and his own body when the riots reached his building, shouting voices and pounding feet going up and down the halls.  His wife, Renee, was stranded at work, and he shut Betki in the storage closet. Tears came to his eyes at the passing thought of his family.

No doubt Karpov heard about the riots and murders through the feeds, but troops were sent to neighborhoods like his to ensure some semblance of peace, and replacement supplies were routed to the wealthy first. No doubt the turmoil felt as distant to him as soup kitchens and indigent morgues. When the universe shows you your size in it, it becomes everyone for themselves unless you still have someone smaller to look down on. 

Demetri cast his eye to the side and saw that the peaches were gone. He let out a whimper. The next moment, the women behind him nudged his lower back and said the line had moved. He tried to take a step, but one of the women took hold of his elbow and pointed to Karpov, who had already advanced. 

“Your friend needs to head to the back of the line,” she said. A group of three men behind the women nodded in agreement.

“We don’t plan to miss the launch,” one of the men said.

Despite protests from his knees and ankles, Demetri caught up with Karpov.

“People behind are not happy you have joined me,” Demetri said.

Karpov shrugged.

“Let them grumble,” he said. “Just say you were waiting for me. My time is too pressing to spend longer than needed in a place like this.”

Demetri scratched the back of his head. Karpov should speak for himself, he figured. He was half tempted to take Karpov by the collar and haul him to the end of the line, but the man was better fed and exercised. Instead, Demetri fought the urge to look back and meet the disapproving looks and sharp judgments. He wished that Ebsa had stepped up with him. That she’d shown up out of nowhere instead of this cretin from some memory hole. A pregnant sister, the line would have accepted. Then, he and Ebsa could have had a pleasant lunch where they forgot Aleksander, forgot louts like Karpov, forgot the beam. Maybe they could have discussed names for the baby. Powerful names that would ensure a good future.

• • •

The power was out again at Demetri’s apartment building, and he could see his breath in the entry as he checked his mail. The box was, of course, empty. No one sent mail anymore, not even bills, and the hinge of the cubby cried like an alley cat as he swung it shut. The broken elevator had long been converted into the custodial office, so Demetri trudged up the three flights to his floor. The stairwell smelled of mold and the stains on the walls had developed black edges. Still, what better could anyone do without a birth card? If only he’d moved here well before the beam, long enough for his case to be processed. Then he’d be in a citizen block where they’d made genuine attempts at reconstruction. There were some places where you’d think the Satellite Rain hadn’t happened at all. 

Demetri’s apartment was dark when he entered, except for the slight glow around the window’s edge that was, in part at least, from the beam. Demetri kept his coat on. The living area was still arranged as if the TV were the central focus. The set worked; it was a refurb job he’d traded a month’s labor for, but the only programming was propaganda news, low-effort soap operas, and children’s shows. When Betki was alive, it was worth it because she loved to sit in the cool screen’s glow no matter how snowy the reception was, and it lit her face with a thousand smiles. Now, at most, Demetri turned the set on so low that it sounded almost like someone was talking in the other room in order to keep the stillness from overwhelming his home. As he often did, he stood at the room’s edge and wished Renee were beside him watching Betki watch the TV.

He coughed into his elbow. The rasp in his lungs was his forever reminder of the pneumonia that took Betki but somehow spared him. Of that burbling rattle in her tiny chest. The days they did not come to mind were both the best and hardest days. He furiously shook his head as if he could physically throw the thoughts out of his ears by doing so.

Then, he shuffled to the kitchen, checked the stove, and found that the gas still flowed. He put on a kettle in the failing gloom, and once his tea was hot, he filled a mug and walked to his window. The whole block was dark. Black birds lined the rooftops. Above them, the beam cut the sky in half infinitely. It looked like it gently pulsed, as if centuries ago, something had fluctuated in the power that generated it. No doubt whatever had sent it here—or to wherever it was meant to end up—was long dead and gone, or so Demetri believed, because then the beam was just like himself. A purposeless fixture. 

He bit at his thumbnail. Underneath it, the taste of something he couldn’t identify, something that had accumulated there over the course of the day. What would the world be like without the beam? The metal shortages, the droughts, the freezes, the empty fishing nets, the crop blights, they all happened independent of the phenomenon. The news reports never gave real answers, only more questions. What good did it do to know the light seemed to contain every wavelength and none at all simultaneously? Did it matter that its origin was believed to be moving away from Earth at speeds accelerating towards that of light? Or that its destination was doing the same? That the light itself would never get where it was going or that it might no longer begin in the place that it had begun?

Nearly everyone on Earth had stopped and watched with horror and hope for the thirteen hours it took the tip of the beam to pierce into their solar system and cross it. What could provide enough power to generate such a force? Whoever it was must have harnessed the stars—and when one can harness the stars, one has little need for ants. That had never seemed truer than the Night of the Satellite Rain. It was like their little hill had been kicked, and then the beam simply went on, the way a man might simply walk away from the field in which the hill lay ruined.

Then, at the end of the month, when there was still no water pressure and the building’s boiler could hardly gasp a hot breath, Renee had fallen sick and passed it to Betki. They’d wrapped themselves tight in towels and blankets, but in the end, they’d buried Betki together under the light of the beam. 

It was then that Demetri grew to loathe Renee for bringing the pneumonia home. He knew how rotten he was to blame her. He was the milk that spoiled in a silent fridge. He hated every word he belted at her until he drove her out the door, but he kept them brewing long after it shut behind her.

Most days now, Demetri felt that to ants, he should look up. He thought himself a kind man, yet there moldered a bitterness in him.

The taste of blood startled Demetri from his reverie. He examined his thumb in the beam’s light through the window. His teeth had torn the skin at the nail’s edge and a wobbly drop clung a moment, then ran down his knuckle. 

Looking out, Demetri traced the beam on his window, smearing his blood along its length on the glass. How nice it would be for Ebsa to come and bring her baby into the world. His body probably couldn’t tolerate the strain of helping to raise it, but that would be better than being alone in silence with the beam. He could imagine their shadows crossing their familiar paths—the way Betki would dance in the middle of the living room with her stuffed bird, how Renee would sit with her books or her notepads. Demetri had thrown all their things out long ago in a fit of despair, another thing for which he’d never forgiven himself.

Now, the weight of his home was too much to bear, so he stepped back into the hall. His ears caught the faint sound of voices across the way, and he recognized the tinny, officious tone of a news broadcaster. The light was out under their door, but Vellenya and Milborn had a battery-powered radio. Perhaps they were listening to the launch.

Demetri knocked, and Vellenya answered. She was a tall woman with nearly white hair, and she wore her own heavy jacket. Her eyes wore time heavily, but she smiled and said, “Greetings neighbor. Forgive me, but I’ve forgotten your name.”

Demetri brushed the back of one hand down the back of the other, then brushed the back of that hand down the back of the first.

“Is everything okay?” came a voice from inside. “The launch is about to begin.”

Vellenya looked over her shoulder, letting the motion also half close the door. 

“It’s just the neighbor,” she said.

Demetri’s face reddened. He would not be able to ask for anything. He had earned nothing. After all, what did he have to offer in return? He was without place. Just something passing through, like everyone else in this godforsaken block. His heart sank in his chest, and he clasped his hands together to still their motion.

“Never mind,” he said, turning on his heel.

Vellenya said something behind him, but he did not register the words, though he did hear her door shut. Demetri returned to his own apartment, where, upon entry, he imagined for a moment Betki squealing a welcome, imagined Renee rising from her seat with a smile. He imagined the room was warm and full of light, that outside the sun was setting on a clear sky. He imagined a life where he could call Ebsa and they’d go out for coffee and talk about their gardens or their pets or where they would take their children next.

Demetri turned and crossed to his phone. The circuits were independent, hardened. He picked up the receiver and punched the buttons for Ebsa’s home.

It rang six times before a gruff man’s voice answered.

“Hello?”

“Go fuck yourself, Aleksander Hermitok,” Demetri said.

He slammed the phone back into its cradle and threw himself into his cushioned chair. Through the window, an orange glow bloomed over the rooftops. The rumble reached him a moment later. A breath caught in his throat as the tip of the probe’s rocket emerged from rising smoke. Up, up, up, the device launched on its mission. No doubt it would yield nothing fruitful, but it struck Demetri that it comforted him to know the flame would not stop driving until every bit of fuel was exhausted.

• • •

Andrew Najberg is the author of the novels The Mobius Door (Wicked House Publishing, 2023), Gollitok (Wicked House Publishing, 2023) and The Neverborn Thief (Olive-Ridley Press, 2024) as well as the collection of short fiction In Those Fading Stars (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2024). His short fiction has appeared in Fusion Fragment, Translunar Travelers Lounge, Utopia Science Fiction, Prose Online, Psychopomp Review, Solar Press Horror Anthology, and is forthcoming in Khoreo, Make Your Presence Known Anthology, and the Gods and Globes III Anthology. Currently, he teaches for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
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