“Danger Word” — Steven Barnes & Tananarive Due

Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due are frequent collaborators; in fiction, they’ve produced film scripts, this story, and three Tennyson Hardwick detective novels, the latest of which is From Cape Town with Love (written with actor Blair Underwood). In life, they’re married.

Barnes is the bestselling author of many novels, such as Lion’s Blood, Zulu Heart, Great Sky Woman, and Shadow Valley. He’s also worked on television shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Andromeda, and Stargate. Due is a two-time finalist for the Bram Stoker Award, and her novels include the My Soul to Keep series, The Between, The Good House, and Joplin’s Ghost.

Barnes’s short work has appeared in Analog and Asimov’s Science Fiction, while Due’s has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Dark Delicacies II, and Voices from the Other Side. Stories by both have been included in the anthologies Dark Dreams (where this story first appeared), Dark Matter, and Mojo: Conjure Stories.

It’s a universal human urge to leave the world a better place than you found it, and to pass on to your children a world where they can have a happier, more prosperous life than you had. This has mostly been the case throughout human history, as ever-expanding infrastructure and knowledge have generally made life more secure and comfortable generation after generation, through innovations such as fertilizers, vaccines, antibiotics, indoor plumbing, and electronics. But now adults are facing the despairing sense that today’s youth will experience significantly more hardship than the previous generation, as today’s young people confront a world of economic ruin and environmental catastrophe that they had no hand in creating.

Recent works have grappled with this generational guilt in different ways. One of the best-known examples is Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a post-apocalyptic story in which a father attempts to guide his young son through a devastated landscape, all the while knowing that their situation is hopeless. The notion of enduring anything to protect your children is a primal one, and one of the worst things that most people can imagine is being helpless to aid their children. Our next story deals with this theme in a powerful way.

For a generation facing the prospect of bequeathing to their children a shattered world, one fear stands out even more than being helpless to protect your child: that you yourself might be the architect of your child’s undoing.