Last Letter First

Duri begins. “Category is…”

On their way to the Nova satellite colony, three hundred miles from home in Earth’s low orbit, Duri and Margosha play a game to pass the time. It’s an old game, one their society has largely forgotten—more sophisticated amusements are invented every day. This one is simple, boring even. It’s a relic of another age, before flashy graphics cards and total-immersion headsets, before massively multiplayer networks, before the proliferation of wires and screens.

Of course, these old things have a way of coming back to us when we need them.

Margosha waits for the boredom the game promised to set in. Before launch, the pilot announced that their projected travel time was just over four days—they got a suboptimal slot, screwed up the matching trajectories, and now there’s a debris field to circumnavigate—but she’s certain she and Duri have been playing for months, years, decades, centuries. She longs to be bored, for that one feeling to drape a heavy blanket over her other feelings. Namely anticipation. Namely terror. Namely dread.

Drape a heavy blanket over them and kiss them goodnight. Tell them to hush, go to sleep now.

“Animals,” Margosha offers, and there’s that stupid shake in her voice. She thinks about blaming it on the airbus’s rocky suspension, a way to save face in front of her new seatmate. But the truth is Margosha didn’t know a thing about suspension systems back on Earth—or alternators, transmissions, carburetors, spark plugs. She was always setting off her auto shop’s dumbass-city-girl detector, too, always getting taken for a ride. The techs could tell just by looking at her. Another dumbass city girl, barely passed her driving test, got a used clunker just to go with her cousins, twice a year, to the wineries upstate.

So up here in the cramped passenger airbus, everything more alien than it’s ever been, feels like a bad time to start playing mechanic.

Besides, it’s actually been pretty smooth since they broke through the stratosphere.

“Good one,” Duri says. “Animals, animals…” She chews the ends of her straight black hair, considering her next move, and when she pulls her mouth away, the strands are a bright, lemony yellow. Duri must have one of those color-changing mods, Margosha realizes, the new moisture-activated one from J&J. The ads light up the buildings on her way to work each morning. Mousy-haired girls transformed while running through sprinklers. Graying women whose hair goes all psychedelic Roy G. Biv jamboree when they’re dancing in the rain.

From her seat in the middle-back of the bus, Margosha can peer up and down the aisle and see plenty of mods. A few seats up, a blue tail with fat spikes flops over the armrest, before its owner, a kid who can’t be out of her teens yet, reaches over and tucks it back under her seatbelt. There’s an older woman sitting catty-corner with a hyper-realistic tattoo of a wolf on her shoulder, curled in a tight ball with its tail warming its snout. Suddenly, the wolf stands and stretches, seesaw-style—creaking forwards, backwards, forwards again—then begins stalking the pair of tattooed swallows flitting on the back of the woman’s neck.

Margosha expects Duri to take the hint and say wolf, but instead, for her first word, Duri picks:


Aardvark? They have many of those on the farm?”

“Oh, shut up.” Duri laughs. “Just play.”

Even though they’ve been breathing the same dry, circulated air since they boarded the airbus and wound up, by chance of fate, sitting side by side—and even though Margosha has told Duri a safe, small amount about her life in the city and Duri has told Margosha a safe, small amount about her own life in the rural reaches of the opposite coast—Margosha didn’t think the two of them were close enough to say a thing like “shut up” to each other. But then, time loses meaning when you’re hurtling through black sky, without sunrises and sunsets to hold onto. And Duri has a rough-edged familiarity about her that Margosha isn’t used to. A matter-of-factness that she imagines Duri perfected during a lifetime on her farm, surrounded by Earth’s more gentle creatures. Creatures who want only what they need—food, water, sleep, sun—and who have no talent for doublespeak, no interest in controlling others.

“Aardvark. Ends in ‘K’…” Slowly, Margosha traces the long seam of the seat in front of her, then brightens. “Easy. Kangaroo.”

“Kangaroo, huh?” Duri smirks. “They have many of those in the city?”

Margosha thinks to stick her tongue out but at the last second pulls back. She wanted the mod that lets you program your taste buds to perceive certain flavors no matter what it is you’re actually eating: hazelnut liqueur truffles instead of fried bologna, beluga caviar instead of a bowl of Lucky Charms. But it’s not cheap, and even with the funding the airbus organizers managed to raise, she had to pour all her savings into this trip.

And surely she and Duri aren’t stick-your-tongue-out friends quite yet.

So they play. It’s kangaroo-ends-in-“O,” then octopus; salamander-ends-in-“R,” then rabbit. Tarantula, “A.” Antelope, “E.” Earthworm, “M,” then macaw, walrus, snake. At one point, Margosha gets stumped by her seventh “O” of the game until Duri cough-hints “ocelot.” At another, Duri begs Margosha to go with the full word, “rhinoceros,” instead of the shortened “rhino,” because those are the rules, or if they’re not, they should be—and besides, Duri already gave Margosha “ocelot” and she’s pretty sure there aren’t any other animals that start with “O” on their entire godforsaken planet—and Margosha, ever the good sport, relents. Late in the game, stalling on a tricky “G,” Duri suggests they should get extra points for animals that are extinct, and Margosha agrees that’s not a bad idea.

Except maybe the last thing they need right now is to introduce further complications. Or to start obsessing over all the things they’ll never see again.

Come to think of it, nobody’s keeping track of points in the first place. Because this game is about the grace of distraction. And if winning means the end of the game, they don’t want it.

To win, to really win, would be to get to Nova in one piece. To get back to Earth with what they came for—that’d be a miracle.


“Category is…”

It’s Duri’s turn to choose. “We’ve done all the usual ones. How about…body parts? And before you ask, yes, human body parts.”

Margosha grins. “Mods or no mods?”

Duri scans what she can of Margosha above the tray table her seatmate dropped over her lap hours ago, and on which she’s since accumulated half a dozen empty bags of airbus-brand trail mix. Margosha has strawberry-blonde hair, buzzed short on one side. Lips so chapped they’re cracked at the corners, close to bleeding—it’s that dry in here—and two eyes the color of honey. No mods that Duri can make out. Not so much as a sharpened canine or a heart-shaped freckle, not even a harmless little piercing, grandma stuff. Strange, Duri thinks. There must be gills hiding beneath the hood of that baggy sweatshirt. She figured someone from one of the cities would have had just about everything done.

“Let’s go old-school,” Duri says. “No mods. The natural stuff.”

“All right,” Margosha starts. “Nose.”

“Hm. Ends in ‘E,’ so…ears.”




Normally, on one of her long drives into town, or to drop meat or eggs off at a neighbor’s, Duri would look out of the window of her rumbling pickup and think. She did some of her best thinking gazing out at that dusty, low-shrub country, blinking up at the wisps of clouds as they crawled lazily by. Now she’s sitting in the window seat of a patched-together airbus without windows, chewing her nails down to the quick. She turns instinctively to her left, but finds only a thick plate of sheet metal there.

“Rib,” she manages.

She should be focusing on body parts, on calling to mind the anatomy worksheets she had to fill out back in high school, but instead she’s still thinking about the last round. About animals. Duri’s always been more of an animal person than a person person, and when she stares at the rivets bordering the metal plate, they remind her of the blank, wet eyes of cows.

Which makes her think of an old tradition her grandfather told her about, back when he owned the farm, when the fields were still productive and Duri was shorter than the stalks. It was once customary, he told her, for newlyweds to spend their wedding night in the barn, clutching at each other in the stalls, the hay giving their skin new texture. It was said their lust would improve the animals’ fertility. Like making babies was something contagious.

And she said, “Grandpa, ew,” and her grandfather chuckled in his quiet way, scrambled her not-yet-modded hair.

Which makes her think of something her mother once told her: that after the last of the animals go, it won’t be long till the barns fall. One depends on the other. It’s the barns that give the animals shelter, and it’s the heat of the animals—spreading out to the walls, the ceilings and foundations—that keeps the barns standing upright. Without that heat, the materials will grow cold and brittle and start to cave in on themselves. Soon, her mother warned her, hundreds of thousands of acres on Earth will be nothing but fields of crumpled brown carcasses, and the barns keeled over with them.

And in the fields, among the dead: all the children playing.

The airbus’s temperature control is out, and the little hairs on Duri’s arms are bright, lemony yellow with sweat. She tries to do superpower mind games on the rivets, bore through them to open windows to whatever lies beyond. She has this nagging feeling that this will all be over soon, and this is her one real shot to see the stars up close. Even though she gets that’s not how space works.

Whatever body part Margosha says next, Duri doesn’t register it. Instead, she tells Margosha about the barns in her part of the world, how they freeze to death when they’re no longer useful, done being vessels for something warm inside.

Margosha is lost in thought, making a crinkly tower of the bags on her tray. Finally she says, “It’s funny. In the city, when the buildings are empty—it doesn’t happen often. There’s always somebody up late, or up early. Always a few of those yellow squares still on. But when it does happen, when you do manage to find a building that’s totally barren, it’s the opposite of what you’re saying. It’s almost better for being empty. It feels somehow…” She grasps at the air in front of her, as if trying to pluck the right words from it. “Somehow…”

“More alive,” Duri says, and her heart trills, imagining.


They take a break to play hangman, then tic-tac-toe. One of the airbus organizers seated at the front walks down the aisle to distribute another round of water bottles and trail mix. She hands Margosha and Duri a pair of small, thin blankets folded in squares, and Margosha is momentarily overwhelmed by the kindness, the enormous risk the organizers must be taking in championing such a controversial project. Duri rolls the blanket up, shoves it in the space between her cheek and the airbus’s metal wall, and falls asleep.

Margosha eavesdrops on a conversation between the spiky-tailed girl and her seatmate about how stars are born when great clouds of dust and gas called nebulae collapse. The spiky-tailed girl’s neighbor says something like, isn’t it kind of beautiful how the nebula sacrifices itself to bring the star into existence? And the spiky-tailed girl, young and bitter, retorts that isn’t it pathetic how the nebula has no choice. Margosha pictures her own body disintegrating, swirling pain on a colossal scale, until nothing but the hot core at its center remains. She knows someone somewhere would call that beautiful, take pictures of it, print them in textbooks.

The wolf tattoo on the catty-corner woman’s shoulder, having caught one of the swallows, pins it proudly between its paws and howls.

Its owner, surprising Margosha, promptly howls back, and it’s clear that they do this all the time, their duet ringing, comfortable, and pure of tone. Duri wakes, and gradually the rest of the passengers on the airbus join in the howl. Margosha thinks she sees one of the organizers smile.

The howling reminds Margosha of the youth sleepaway camp her parents sent her to every summer upstate, and the songs the campers sang while marching to their assigned cabins or to the flagpole at sunup, obedient little soldiers in training. Call-and-responses and songs in the round.

And the green grass grew all around.

It reminds Duri of the stories passed down to her, of real soldiers with their own versions of the chorus howl. Energetic voices in unison as the Humvee rolled into battle. Crystalline hymns as the dead were lowered into the ground, their babies being born the very same minute, bathed in light for the first time on the other side of the world. One in and one out, the census numbers perfectly level, indifferent.

Ghosts shout-singing, I’ll be a ranger the rest of my life.

When the racket dies down, Duri begins. “Category is…”

Margosha wishes the howl wasn’t over. She liked the way she and Duri sounded shifting in and out of harmony. She wonders if, maybe, wanting the same thing, being willing to travel three hundred miles through Earth’s atmosphere to get it, means they do understand each other well enough after all. They understand each other better than anybody, don’t they? Gone chasing the things they’re not allowed to have.

“Regrets?” Margosha ventures cautiously.

The women have grown accustomed to speaking in code. The game is just another way of doing that. Even though the airbus organizers promised them that they can speak freely now, that they’re safe here—from the moment the hatch went down to the moment they touch down on Earth again, they’re safe here—it’s an awfully hard habit to break.

Margosha is on a performing athlete visa, Duri is on a temporary agricultural worker visa, and one is every bit as bogus as the other. The organizers who secured the project’s funding also arranged travel documents for every passenger aboard, and by all appearances they knew what they were doing. The airbus flies steady despite being a bit in disrepair, and the documents look pretty convincing. When the uniformed men at the departure dock reviewed them, they gave clipped, perfunctory nods before waving the travelers on to the next stages: vitals check, extensive cavity search, then baggage scan.

Five years ago, both Margosha and Duri could have traveled under legitimate medical treatment visas, but since the recent mods policies went into effect, everyone has had to get a little creative. Select treatments were moved out of the medcare column, where they had previously sat for more than a hundred years, and were lumped together under the new body modification column, then under the voluntary body modification column soon after that. Which has turned out to be convenient for some, less convenient for others, since at the same time vol-mods were declared entirely subject to government approval. Meaning they’re evaluated on a case-by-case basis, permitted or denied.

There were protests, for a time—cries that they were all regressing dangerously into another, darker century. But lawmakers insisted that the past was worth returning to: these old things, they said, have a way of coming back to us when we need them.

Duri’s color-changing hair is a piece-of-cake level-one vol-mod—J&J rigged it so most of their cosmetic mods are—and the prowling, animated wolf tattoo is a level one-point-five. The latest out of Prada is a fatty tissue transplant to the heels and balls of the feet that allows the brand’s loyalists to endure the shoes for more consecutive hours. It debuted at level two, but was upgraded to level three when one unintended side effect became apparent: the springy transplants improved the wearer’s ability to sprint short distances. The mod’s opponents dubbed it “the escape advantage.”

Levels four through six get into the experimental mods, and those heavier-duty ones that call for some prerequisite training. J&J’s injectable tans and sunscreens got cleared as entry levels, but their offshoot, an injectable camouflage, is never going to drop below level six, ensuring the military holds a monopoly on it.

The procedures Margosha and Duri were seeking when the organizers found them and offered to help, plucking them from their lives thousands of miles apart, are categorized as level sevens: the highest level currently assigned. By design, level-seven vol-mods are harshly stigmatized, and they remain virtually impossible to get licenses for on Earth.

Nova is another story, one everybody’s heard. The colony broke away two decades ago, when Earth started becoming a truly intolerable place to live and the wealthiest of its citizens realized that they did not, in fact, have to tolerate it. Only the most well-off can afford to stay on Nova permanently, expats in their peaceful, progressive society orbiting Earth. But people like Margosha and Duri, and the rest of the passengers on the airbus, can pay the satellite a brief visit. For a price.

What Margosha wants to modify is there’s a baby inside her she doesn’t want to be there.

What Duri wants to modify is the fact of her body being able to carry babies at all.

The four days in the hot, crowded airbus will be worth it, the organizers remind them again and again, to arrive at the plush Nova clinic, with its simulated gravity, its sympathetic doctors, its pillows stuffed with the last of Earth’s real goose down. There’ll be some discomfort. Not pain, never pain—only discomfort. Nova doesn’t recognize mod levels or license requirements, but rumor has it the colony does share Earth’s penchant for calling things something other than what they really are. All the level-seven mods get sanitized, labyrinthine names to match Nova’s sanitized, labyrinthine environment: fetal tissue evacuation, absolute uterine transfer, breast tissue alleviation. Pudendum reconstructive therapy, from the Latin pudere: to be ashamed.

Still, in comparison, a sanctuary.

“Regrets?” Margosha repeats softly.

Duri is silent for some time, staring out of her not-window at the not-arid not-land not-outside. At long last, she replies plainly, “None.”

Margosha agrees quickly: “None.” Even though it means losing the game. Because if she were playing by the rules, she’d have started with “E.” It would have been so easy. If the game were more important, she could have said any number of things: “Eavesdropping,” or “Ending it,” or “Everything.”

But instead she says it again, with more force this time, “None,” and the twin cracks at the parched corners of her mouth split open.


“Category is…”

Exhausted from the hunt, the catty-corner wolf is snoring loudly, a pile of tattooed bones and broken wings forming a jumbled graveyard at its feet. The crackly-voiced pilot announces that they’re very close now, everyone should make sure their seatbelts are fastened—he’ll let them know when it’s time to brace themselves for final descent.

“Wishes,” Duri finishes.

Earlier, while playing tic-tac-toe, the O’s made Margosha think of empty cavities: subway tunnels after the trains stop running, holes in tree trunks, vacant bellies, cracks in sidewalks. Hollow spaces responsible for holding nothing, free to simply exist as they are. The X’s made Duri think of the way people get buried sometimes, with their arms crossed neatly over their chests. Because the person preparing the body wanted the dead to appear penitent when meeting God. Or just because it made it easier to fit the corpse inside the box.

When they played hangman, Duri drew a single straight line for the middle part of the hanged man’s body. Margosha was grateful, even though the truth—a circle middle with a stick baby inside—would have given Margosha an extra guess. It meant that Duri couldn’t tell what Margosha really had under that baggy sweatshirt, or that even if she could, she wasn’t the kind to commit another person’s secrets to paper. In the end, Duri drew a couple of little shoes at the ends of the hanged man’s little legs, so Margosha got the extra guesses anyway.

“Wishes, wishes…” Margosha murmurs. “Well, I’ve heard Nova has a great view of Earth.”

The best in the galaxy!” Duri knows the tagline well. She’s seen the ads, too—they’re inescapable. She might not get them full-res on the side of a skyscraper, but they come through just fine on the tiny smart screen she keeps in her kitchen and turns on once a day to check the weather and the progression of dust storms across her county each morning.

Margosha smiles sadly. “Then my wish is for Earth to be better to us from a distance.”

Duri nods. She knows exactly what Margosha means. She reaches over to the tray table, where Margosha is nervously drumming her fingers over the gulch cut half an inch into the plastic where the cup is supposed to go, and she takes Margosha’s hands into her own. Again, Margosha marvels at Duri’s shamelessness, her willingness to feel something and act on it right away. The way Duri’s eyelashes are turning a bright, lemony yellow and she’s leaving her hands right where they are, isn’t even bothering to wipe the tears away.

Margosha sticks her tongue out at her new friend. They’re nearly there; they’ll get there together. She licks the split corners of her lips, tastes blood.


It happens faster than anything. Fast as these things happen sometimes.

It happens before Duri can take her turn in the game. Before she can put together that she’s been thinking about death, about nooses and hanged bodies and burials, for a reason.

Before she can realize that the way she’s been holding Margosha’s hands, it’s with the same combination of firmness and gentleness she used to cradle the cows on the farm as they died. How do you make steel latticework of your fingers? How do you keep a body from coming apart and at the same time give the soul the space it needs to float up off the ground?

When the airbus organizers come down the aisle this time, they’re not holding packets of trail mix or water bottles. They’re not squeezing the passengers’ shoulders. They’re not wearing their calm, reassuring expressions anymore.

They’re wearing the kind of vests Margosha sees every day without exception and the kind Duri sees on the special days she goes into town. The vests the armed guards wear while patrolling in front of the government buildings, in front of schools and grocery stores, post offices and corner markets, medical clinics and law offices and drugstores.

The organizers of Project Storm Port, of the airbus meant to ferry Duri, Margosha, and the others to safe-haven clinics on Nova, are carrying stun guns and zip ties, and rolls and rolls of military-issue restraint tape. They cover mouths and eyes, bind arms, legs, talons, and tails, methodically working their way down the narrow aisle. The passengers in the first rows are too taken aback to do anything but go compliantly, but the others, witnessing the sudden change in the organizers’ demeanor, are screaming, flailing, shooting up from their seats. With nowhere else to go, they stampede in place, in this windowless metal tube gaining speed toward a destination they now understand is very different from the one they had set out for.

The organizers are close now, and Margosha and Duri can just make out the blocky white letters across their vests:




The wolf on the woman’s shoulder awoke at the first commotion and now, sensing danger, snaps wildly and snarls. It bucks and bites, defiant to the end, while the officers struggle to contain it to the surface of the woman’s skin, one long, sticky strip of black tape after another.

Duri is frozen, astonished. She can’t believe she’s been so naive. People from the cities, like Margosha, sure. But her? No. Her county was one of the first to incite citizen militias to enforce the level-seven mod bans in their own communities. Self-appointed bounty hunters lurk in the shadows back home, snatching shoppers as they come out of drugstores and rifling through their bags. Hackers tap into personal networks, monitor order histories. Groups of men follow groups of women down the street, waiting for them to separate when they reach their cars.

It should’ve always been a possibility in her mind for Nova to be not paradise but prison.

Duri looks at Margosha, in her two eyes the color of honey, and reads in them, in an instant, a million urgent things. Namely rage. Namely wrath.

And something else—something strange.

Something like satisfaction.

As Margosha begins her transformation, both women think, not for the first time, that here and on Earth, they really are regulating the wrong things.

Margosha got the Deere vol-mod last year. Rated level five for commercial machinery. She and her cousins, fellow city girls, were taking their biannual tour of the wineries upstate when she saw the ad in a gift shop. The auto cashier spit it out to her along with her change and a coupon for a local reds tasting class. It was Deere’s first foray into cosmetic mods, designed to mimic the manufacturer’s line of combine grape harvesters, only on a much smaller scale: the scale of the human body. It was meant for family vineyards that didn’t have much ground to cover and whose owners couldn’t afford the bigger external equipment. And it was recalled almost immediately—while the ads were still running—because the mod had a tendency to clog and overheat, and because it came with a non-negligible risk of permanent disfiguration.

Margosha got it for a steal. The shop couldn’t wait to be rid of it. Practically gift-wrapped it with a bow.

She never expected to use the mod for its intended purpose. What’s she know about tractors and combines? Half the time she can’t get her own little sedan to start.

But it sure has helped her feel safer walking home alone late in the city, when the men at last turn out their sickly yellow squares and the buildings, fed up, spit them out. Every night she thought, if the men had to look at her, why couldn’t they do it the way they looked at the stars? The harmless admiration of some remote, unreachable thing, more dream than anything. But no. She was, to them, all too attainable.

The Deere mod has helped her feel safer then.

Here, too, it’ll do just fine.

Margosha’s mouth stretches wide, wide, then wider, ripping apart the scabs at the corners that never heal quite right. Gears snap into place and sprockets turn somewhere at her center. Her lips stretch out to her jawline—ends in “E”—then to her ears, and steel blades, painted company green and yellow, erupt from her gums and begin to rattle and whir. Before the combine’s face can overtake the rest of her, reconfiguring her eyes into plate-glass windows, Margosha throws Duri a don’t-you-worry wink.

The blades start their sputtering and churning, and the liquid trickling down Margosha’s grill balances out to equal parts fuel and blood. The Nova officer nearest the hungry machine clutches her useless roll of tape and tries frantically to backtrack up the congested aisle. But the airbus is packed with the hopefuls Project Storm Port baited, and they do all they can to get in the way.

Margosha bears forward and begins to harvest.

By the time they dock at Nova Interplanetary Corrections Facility, Duri’s moisture-activated hair is more yellow than black, and more deep, syrupy red than yellow at that. Chunks of flesh and bone decorate the airbus’s walls. The passengers have yanked off one another’s bindings and stand ready at the hatch, mods out and confiscated stun guns in hand. The pilot is pinned against the cabin door, blubbering about how he has daughters, and don’t his daughters need their father, the sharp spikes of a scaly blue tail pressing triangles into his throat.

The wolf, freed, howls, and the others howl back.

Duri thinks, as the hatch clicks open and the passengers pour out onto a world woefully unprepared for them, that Margosha is merely continuing the game they started. The simple, boring game they’ve been playing on and off for the past four eternal days of their doomed road trip: last letter first.

They are, technically, still on wishes. Last Duri can remember, she said something about wanting a good, solid meal—all the trail mix getting tiresome, not even being the kind with chocolate.

Which makes it Margosha’s turn.

The cheering and baying, the sounds of Margosha’s inner mechanisms patiently digesting the officers, overwhelm the echoing shuttle bay. And while Duri can’t quite make out what her seatmate says, she figures she can guess well enough.