CARGO, by Jen Castleberry — Excerpt



Check out this Excerpt from YA Sci-Fi Novella CARGO!


The extra-terrestrials are aggressors. They're hostile, right from the start. That's what my father tells me. He says hostility is potent when it's quiet; he says the ETs are as quiet as mice.

My mother doesn't like it when he says things like that. "You'll scare her," she says. "She's a child, for god's sake."

"For god's sake? God's sake?" He throws her bible on the ground. He likes to do that when he's having a fit. Sometimes, I think he only does it to get her hackles up, to see her scowl.

They didn't always fight like this. I'm sure I can remember them loving one another once. They were silly when I was very small; they made each other blush.

Now I think they'd say good riddance to each other if they could. But neither one of them can say it to me. I'm all that holds us together anymore.


The world used to be much bigger. My father tells me that. It's nothing but a continent now, a hub for the refugees of fallen countries.

The ETs have taken control of the Continental Order. Their hybrids enforce a new law. I'm too small to remember what the old law was; what life was like when we were alone on the continent. My father remembers, though. He says life was better before the Order reigned supreme. He calls the ETs names that would put soap in my mouth, if I said them.

The Order says that mankind ruined the Earth. They say we flagged them down with champagne and roses, whatever that means. They say they'll restore the vitality of Earth, that they'll make a better home for us, that they'll save the very best of us.

Some people believe them. Not my father. He doesn't believe in anything, I think. My mother believes too much. I just want to believe something, but I'm not sure what it should be.


I haven't seen an ET before. They don't mingle with mankind. I don't think I've seen a hybrid, either, but some people say they look like us.

"How do we know we're not hybrids, then?" I say.

"We're people," my father says, like being people is a lofty, unobtainable thing.

My mother says the ETs and the hybrids are people too. My father goes at her with teeth and talons whenever she says something like that.


The Order wants peace. That's what they say, anyway, and some people believe it.

"Peace," my mother says. "We have peace. The North has always had peace."

"We do not, and we have not," my father says. He always sounds like he's scolding her. "There's never been peace in the North, or in Central, or anywhere else. It's a nonsense word." My father doesn't believe in peace.

My parents still call the three states by their old names: North, Central, and South. Once, before what was left of the world encroached on our continent, we were all Americans. Now we only call ourselves American in the North. The central region speaks French. That's Nouvelle France now. The southern region is a dead territory, smoking and flat, wearing the blemishes of many bombs. Nobody lives there anymore.

It doesn't matter where we reside, if we call ourselves American or French, northerner or southerner or something in between. We're all citizens of the Order. We're all that's left of mankind. We should all be special. But the Order says the very best of us will carry on without the rest.


Under the Order, hybrids and men work side by side. Government jobs are granted by selection, and it’s highly prestigious work. I'm just learning to tie my shoes when the Order asks my father to join them. They send a benefits package by courier. It's an offer that could set us up for life, my mother says.

He turns it down, with choice words, and my mother calls him a fool. She watches the courier leave. She presses her nose flat against the glass of our living room window like a child looking after an ice cream truck.

My father doesn't like that. He prefers to keep the blinds shut. He says we're safer that way. He keeps the curtains drawn too. Our house is muggy and dark and the three of us are sardines in a can. 


Our house was bright once. I think I can remember that. Now my father keeps the sun outside. All we have of it are dusty bars of light, bronze threads that filter in through loose stitches in the drapes.

My father was bright once, too. He had bright eyes and a bright, sun-washed face. He made my mother smile. Now there's a shadow over his eyes, a shadow underneath them. He used to sing, but nothing comes between his teeth anymore unless it's a spitting, spiteful thing.


My father hates the ETs. He hates everything they touch, which is everything. He hates the North, but Central is the same and there's nowhere else in the world to go. All the disagreeable nations of the earth have convened here. There's nowhere to ex-pat; there's nothing but death in the old ruined places. Apart from the continent, there's only desert and ice. We're all stuck, really, but my father minds it more than most.

My father stays up late some nights, packing a suitcase, but he always unpacks it in the morning. He wants the tomorrows of his childhood back. He talks about the old days, but they're as stale as old crackers, as stale as the South. He's not happy, regaling memories; he has too much remorse to fawn over nostalgic things. He never smiles, telling the tales of his youth. He's angry, and my mother is angry and I'm angry, too. But I think I wouldn't be so angry if my parents weren't around.


My father likes to shout. I don't know why; he's only angrier after he's done it, and our house is as hot as the blood in his cheeks.

My mother doesn't shout back when he's shouting at her. She knows how to cut him down in a quiet way, like catching a wildebeest in a snare.

They fight all the time and I watch them do it: two dark figures and a stark divide. The Offer cameos in almost every argument. My mother won't let it go; not till the mists fall, and by then she's got plenty of spite up her sleeve.

I dislike the both of them more and more, the older I get. Every argument, every hot glare that brings them nose to nose, like rams caught by the horns, makes me pine for a parentless existence. Maybe that's why I don't cry when Dr. Brant takes me away.


The ETs procure continental annihilation in stages. The mists come first, in waves that make everybody sick. I don't get sick, my parents don't get sick, but most people do. And then the air raid begins. Bombs fall like asteroids, the way they fell on the South. They pock-mark the earth, making craters where towns and cities used to be.

"We should've left," my father says. "We should've left the North. Now we're going to die."

"We're not," my mother says. "Look at us! We're not dying. We're not."

It's true. We aren't dying. Everyone else seems to be, but we aren't. We're as healthy as we ever were. The mists have no effect on us. We take up residence in the basement whenever a strike begins and no shrapnel finds us there. But we miss the upstairs. We miss the outside, too.

"I don't understand it," my mother says, like she could fix things herself if she could figure it all out. "I don't understand what we've done. We're good people."

"There's no such thing as good people," my father says. "Or good aliens. We're all going to die."

"Language," my mother says. She doesn't like to talk about death in front of me, but I know it's everywhere, now. Everyone is sick since the mists came. When the air raid started up, some people died straight away. Everything that was green in the North turned to sand, and people's bodies flew off on the wind like dust.


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