Before the Burst

Edited by Julia Rios

April 2018

With the thunderclap, I dropped my spoon. Sinigang soup bled into my jeans, spreading in darkness, like the shadow covering us all.

Everyone looked up. From the spacecraft, a creature emerged.

She was radiant, whirlwinds of color on evanescent skin, doused in virtual ink. Her beady eyes darted, taking us in.

Her mercury vapor mists swirled within the clear bubble.

Mike, who was sitting beside me, twirling a strand of saimin noodles, clenched his chopsticks hard. His knuckles paled around the tapering oily blades. As She descended, he ran towards Her.

The bubble burst, solar UV striking Her. An undulating screech filled the room, along with a strong scent of cleaning fluid, acrid like bleach. Palm trees shook. She erupted into bioluminescence.

Mike stood, hesitating, a look of fear passing his eyes as he dropped the chopsticks and ran.

For a second, I thought of my childhood, blowing soap bubbles in the wind and popping them with an index finger. Inquisitive looks from my neighbor friends, Leilani, Kana, and Josh, a flurry of short legs and innocent laughter accelerating my way, jumping to catch the opalescent orbs before they reached the branches of the sprawling plumeria tree.

A wetness descended, permeating the air. The sense of alarm overtook me and peaking adrenaline stopped my reverie short. I stared at Mike’s feet flying away from the destruction, wondering if he realized what he had done.

Everyone else followed suit, except me and the chemist, Kimo, who I see every day at the corner of the open-air cafeteria A-2, drinking his noon Kona coffee. He put down his Aloha kakahiaka! mug with a clink, an acute sound that momentarily broke through the screech.

He sprinted towards the mess, pulling up the collar of his shirt to cover his mouth and nose. He nodded at me. Maybe he thought I was brave for staying and helping him. Perhaps he didn’t catch my stunned expression, quavering legs, and my exasperated breath. My eyes that cried, “Make it stop!”

He whipped out a handheld analyzer from a back pocket. In a strangled murmur, he told me what the discharge was.

Mercury spill.

“Grab a liquivac,” he said. He paused, putting his hand over his eyes, squinting, his expression far away. “No, never mind, call the cleansing tanks. This is going to be one helluva job. We should leave.”

I dialed from my wrist patch. A quick relay of words and the line went dead. I commanded my legs to make their way to the liquivacs in the corner, just to do something.

I should leave, I thought. But my hands felt secure, grasping the firm liquivac handles. I waffled, stepping forward, then back, holding onto that liquivac like it was the only solid thing in the world.

When the alarms sounded, I noticed Kimo was gone.

My mind reeled; having a task would be nice. I turned the vac on. It whined louder than the screech. Its aggressive howl calmed me. I could see the self-driving tanks, far-off in the mountainous horizon, gliding towards me.

I stood in line to scrawl my name on the page. Kimo stood in front of me, giving me as reassuring a smile as he could muster. He still remembered what he considered my act of bravery; my performance with the vacs, a macabre dance with the tanks—a holoclip that newscasters continue to broadcast throughout the islands.

Once a week, on alternating days, our citizens file up for our checkups. We suffer kidney malfunction, collapsed lung, and a host of organ failures. My stash of stocks in the medical industry soared in value, leaving me as one of the relatively lucky few who can afford to pay for all the procedures. Other residents, like Mike, now rebranded as hero for protecting our kind’s safety and integrity, wallow in debt.

Sometimes we gather to discuss the Event. The bioluminescence, the explosion. Revisionists cast Her as evil. She needs no name; just the downcast look of ire when we speak of Her.

Still, when I let my eyes glaze over and think back to that room of folded chairs and impassioned countenances, some details stand out. I remember the twirling of the chopsticks, the uneaten squiggly noodle dangling from lips. The very human look of disgust and fear creeping along our faces before the burst.

Inside, we know who the real monsters are.

© 2018 D.A. Xiaolin Spires

About the author

D.A. Xiaolin Spires

D.A. Xiaolin Spires counts stars and sand, residing currently in Hawai’i. You can find her embarking on olfactorial odysseys as she inhales plumeria blossoms, poke, and poi. Her work appears or is forthcoming in various publications such as Fireside, Clarkesworld Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Terraform, Nature Futures, Grievous Angel Poetry & Fiction, Reckoning, Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine (selected for the Year’s Best issue), Mithila Review, Issues in Earth Science, Factor Four Magazine, Star*Line, Liminality: A Magazine of Speculative Poetry, Eye to the Telescope, Atlas Poetica, Outlook Springs, Gathering Storm Magazine, Polu Texni, and Story Seed Vault; as well as anthologies of the strange and delightful, such as Sharp & Sugar Tooth, Broad Knowledge, Battling in All Her Finery, and Ride the Star Wind. You can find her on her website at or on Twitter at @spireswriter.