By David Bowles
Seven-year-old Rodrigo ben-David sat alone in the hovel, spooning the last bit of last Shabbat’s chamin into his mouth and using a hard bit of crust to scrape the pot clean. The thin, cold wind rattled the aluplaz walls mercilessly. Winters in the Hellas Region were tough, and in Babulandia, one of the most notorious shantytowns on Mars, the lack of municipal infrastructure made it nearly impossible for the residents to keep themselves warm.
As he moistened the crust in some weak, tepid coffee and slowly chewed that soggy staleness, Rodrigo prayed his father would finally return today. The food was now gone, and the boy had already pushed the limits of his neighbors’ meager hospitality well beyond their accustomed limits. Babulandia had accreted into existence during the exodus from religious oppression on Earth earlier in the 24th century, and its inhabitants, a jumbled-together pastiche of cultures and languages, were mistrustful and not particularly giving. Another day of being alone and Rodrigo would have to strike out for Malacandra City, where he believed his aunt lived and worked, though he had never met her.
Isaac ben-David had left a week ago, returning to Nirgal Vallis, where he’d been scavenging a century-old, abandoned research station. Rodrigo’s dad scraped out a living this way: hunting through what others considered junk, looking for bits and pieces that could be resold or repurposed. With the station, he claimed, he had finally found his mina de oro, his gold mine.
“Las kozas van amijorarse, fijo. Ya topo algo,” his father had muttered in Djidio before leaving. “I’m gonna find something good, promise it, and we’re gonna be set, muchacho.”
Rodrigo had tried not to cry, but his eyes had gone damp, and his father had grimaced. “Hey, life of the Sefardis, no? First the katolikos run us out of Spain a thousand years ago, and now they run us off the whole planet, got to come to Mars—el guerko ke se lo yeve—and freeze our kulos off. But you and me, we adams are gonna laugh last, yes? So you stay put, light the menorah right before night falls. Shamash, too, so when I come home I’ll see them burning through the window, yes? Come on, no tears. Pasiensia Cohá, ke la nochada es larga.”
Isaac had smiled broadly then and clicked on the holographic image of Rodrigo’s mother, dead these five years. “Your mom would want you to be brave, fijo. And el Dio Barukh, he’ll be watching over you.”
And Rodrigo had tried, really tried, to be brave. He looked at his mother’s face, flickering with the uncertain power source, and tried to remember her voice, singing to him. In snatches it came to him, overlaid with his father’s rich baritone—the song of Avraham Avinu, newly born, miraculously singing to his mother, Amtilai:
Yo ya topo ken me alejasse
mandará del syelo ken me akompanyará
porke só kriado de El Dio Barukh
Wish I had someone to get me out of this shack, Rodrigo thought. Wishel Dio Barukh would send me someone to keep me company.
He had faithfully lit the candles, one more each night. The food had dwindled. He had gone out into the cold with his respirator to panhandle at noon, when people often tossed a few scraps to the bakenekos that infested Babulandia. Sometimes he had even kicked a dozen or more of the mutated felines out of the way to get at a couple morsels, his thick clothing and mask keeping him from their nasty claws.
Two days ago, a dark figure had followed the boy back to the hovel, slinking along the meandering way with what might have been bad intentions. Stopping abruptly, Rodrigo had drawn from his jacket an ancient pistol his father had rebuilt. Pointing it at the shadows of the narrow street, the boy had waited. The gun was enormous in his hands, and heavy. But there was only one projectile inside, and Rodrigo bit his lip so as not to shudder with fear. Wish this was the staff of Moses, powerful enough to break open the street and swallow him all up. The boy, of course, had no such forces at his command, but he stood as if he did.
After a few moments in which despair yawned like the grave, the presence had withdrawn. His heart pounding so hard he began to sweat despite the cold, Rodrigo had dashed the last few meters to his home and sealed himself within. Since then he had lived off the nearly nonexistent stores his father had left behind.
And now they were gone.
So Rodrigo lit the shamash and used it to light each of the other eight candles of the hanukkiya. He couldn’t remember all the words his father would say, but he repeated what he knew as he dipped the longer candle to share its flame. “Like you protected them backadays, please protect me now. And bring Papa home.”
He set the menorah on the ledge of the window, nine flickers refracted by the thick, transparent pane. Sitting at the table, he quietly spun a worn, lopsided sevivon and waited. For his father. For the candles to burn out. For the darkness to overtake him. He was so utterly alone, so close to an amorphous nothingness that threatened to snuff him out like the tenuous flames. Exhaustion and hunger prevailed in the end, and he slumped onto the table, dropping into sleep like a silent stone released from a great height.
Hands were on him, pulling, pushing, grabbing. Someone snatched the pistol from his jacket pocket. He was thrust onto the bed. Rodrigo’s eyes were open, but the candles had burnt out, and so it was as if he struggled with darkness itself, with some demonic entity congealed from the night. The guerko, he thought, shuddering to the roots of his being. He cried out, screamed. There was no honor in silence, now, nor cowardice in his weeping. Like an animal he thrashed against the swirling black around him, kicking, scratching, biting. With every blow from his assailant, who seemed desperate to rip off his clothes, Rodrigo’s howl grew into a shriek that surely must have reached the ears of God himself.
A bang, and light streamed into the hovel. Rodrigo felt despair begin to rend him, for more of them had arrived, and soon they would truly hurt him in ways his young mind did not want to grasp. But then his father’s voice thundered through the cold, darkling air.
“Get away from my son, damn you!”
And there came an unholy, low moan from his father’s hands, silhouetted against the faint exterior light. He was holding something, and it was thrumming with the sound of a thousand angels’ wings. Suddenly the air itself felt like it was cracking open, and the figure pressing Rodrigo to the thin mattress was hurled against the wall, though nothing appeared to have touched him.
Isaac rushed to Rodrigo and pulled him from the bed with one arm while gripping some strange machine in the other. As they reached the entrance of the hovel, Rodrigo saw through tears of anguish and relief that the device looked like nothing he’d ever seen. Its shape didn’t fit his geometrical expectations. Its strange blues and greens seemed drawn from a spectrum alien to human eyes. Thin cables like tendrils twitched and wound themselves around his father’s arm.
“What…?” the boy began, hoarse. His father hushed him and led him to their battered transport. Activating its external illumination, he checked his son thoroughly.
“He hurt you? Son? Did he…”
Rodrigo shook his head. “No, Papa. No, you came just in time. I was…I was so scared.”
“It’s alright, fijo. Don’t think he’s gonna be getting up for a while now.”
Rodrigo looked at the device. “You found it? At the vallis?”
“Yes. I’d just about given up. Saw a strange cave and felt, I don’t know, drawn to it. Went inside, found this. It’s our ticket, Rodrigo. I told your mama we’d find something like this someday. Something that changes everything.”
“It, uh, it ain’t human, is it, Papa?”
Isaac gave a strange smile. “You’re a smart boy. No. I’ve seen just about every machine man ever made, and this ain’t ours. So far beyond us that…well, it’s a miracle, let’s just say.”
Vague intimations of power stirred a desperate hunger in Rodrigo, a yearning for safety and protection that made his chest ache.
“Can I…can I hold it?”
Isaac bit his lip, doubting. Rodrigo stared at his dad, watching the indecision.
Clearly ashamed of his near failure to protect his son and recognizing the boy’s need to dispel his powerlessness, Isaac pulled the device from his hand and passed it to his son. “Be careful. Don’t squeeze the rod. That activates it.”
It was heavy, but not like the pistol. It was almost a living weight. The tendrils slipped around Rodrigo’s thin forearm, and the rod slid easily into his palm. A great sense of peace came upon him then. This is how Moses felt. Lifting his staff above the water. His enemies didn’t scare him no more.
The boy regarded the hovel in which he had huddled in fear, in which he had been attacked, in which he had felt despair. Inside was the darkness. The loneliness. Death. Abandonment.
Raising his arm, he squeezed the rod with all his might. A groan wrenched the night, and a ripple of nearly invisible energy pushed. The hovel crumpled like wet paper, smashed brutally into the ground and against the outcropping of rock that stood just to the west of it.
His father gasped. “Rodrigo! What did you do, boy? Our home! That adam!”
The seven-year-old turned to his father. “Now you ain’t got a choice, Papa. You got to take me with you.”
Without another word, Rodrigo ben-David walked to the vehicle’s door, cycled it open, and climbed inside to wait.