Pictures from a Hotel Room on Fire

Jon Lasser

June 10th 2022

Santiago looked out the window. Through the clouds and smog, Pontianak could have been Los Angeles.

Half past eleven. Rita wasn’t back. After dinner, his daughter had begged Santiago for this evening with her new friends. He couldn’t say no, not on her last night on Earth, so he stretched out on the spotless white bed and flipped through the television channels. Some might have been in English or Spanish, but Santiago couldn’t hear over the roar of the space elevator, the ladder to the Heavens outside the window.


Santiago opened his eyes. Rita’s laugh echoed down the hall. The door chirped and she stumbled in.

“You’re drunk, mija.”

“Si, Papa.” Still dressed, Rita climbed into her bed and pulled the covers up to her ears. She turned the light off. “I have to get drunk, for courage.”

“This is serious business.” He turned the light back on. “Why do this, if you can’t do it sober?”

“I have to go, Papa. Earth needs me.” Rita slid out of bed and landed on the floor with a thump. She lurched toward the bathroom. “I’ll be sober when I give my thumbprint tomorrow, when they induct me.”

Santiago climbed out of bed and opened the bathroom door. He held the hair away from her face as she vomited into the toilet.


Her sobbing woke him. Still dark, though the bottom edge of the curtain turned pale blue with morning’s light.

“Do you need more aspirin, mija?”

“No, Papa. I’m scared.”

Santiago said nothing. He had to be brave, so Rita could be brave too.

“I don’t want to die.” The last word drowned in the sound of tears.

“You’re a solider. If you do your job right, you’ll come home.” She might be eighteen, but he still wanted to protect her.

“That’s not true, Papa.” Of course the girl remembered her mother. “Soldiers die. People are dying all over. None of it’s fair. That’s why I have to fight.”

Santiago buried his face in his pillow. It kept the light away, and maybe Rita wouldn’t hear him sob for her, for Martina.


The curtain glowed gold, broken by shadows from the space elevator’s cars crawling toward the sky, their shadows shrinking as they rose.

Rita groaned. He handed her a bottled water and listened to the hum of the elevator’s belt, to the wind whistle across the chambers rising into space. She’d be in one of those cars today, and he’d be alone for the first time in twenty years.


The hotel shook. Somewhere outside, explosions. Not firecrackers. Big ones, like when they’d first bombed LA and he’d heard it from all the way across town.

“The desk,” he said. It was a designated shelter, bomb-proof, supplies in a box under the carpet. They crawled under together.

With every detonation, Rita grabbed her head and tucked it further into her chest, like she’d done as a little girl, even before Martina left.

It was quarter to nine in the morning. Rita was due in the hotel lobby in fifteen minutes. This might be his last memory of her, head buried in his chest as bombs exploded. He put an arm around her.


A boom, louder than he’d ever heard. The ceiling rained down, but the desk held as the room went black.


“We’re all right.” He smelled smoke.

It was a blessing, these extra minutes with Rita, but the attack reminded him why she felt she had to go. Without an end to the aliens’ bombardment, nowhere on Earth was safe enough for her to make a future.


“Do you hear how quiet it is?” Rita whispered.

“It’s always quiet when the power goes out.”

Before she answered, he understood. The elevator’s constant drone was silent. The bomb hadn’t hit the hotel.

“It’s almost nine. I have to go.”

Rita might serve here in Pontianak, rebuilding the Earthside spaceport. No, rebuilding the ladder to the Heavens would be the work of generations, as it had been the first time. All Earth’s troops would be sent on missions of reprisal.

“Come, Papa.” Rita crawled out from beneath the desk and held out her hand. He took it.

Klaxons stuttered, then blared. Rita groaned and closed her eyes.

“All inductees, please report.” The voice sounded calm, as though everything was proceeding according to plan. “All visitors and nonessential personnel, assemble in the lobby for evacuation.”

“We have to go.” She held her free hand to the door a moment, then opened it. A cloud of dust poured into the room. Santiago pulled his shirt up to his face with his free hand and they joined the procession of families trudging down the fire stairs to the lobby.

Fans churned loudly, but the air down here was clear. Soldiers had established a cordon, separating areas for induction and evacuation. Rita pulled her way, but he didn’t let go of her hand. She stopped and quirked her head, the way Martina used to. She smiled, and he let go of her hand.

“Goodbye, mija,” he whispered. She kissed him on the cheek, and he looked at her one last time.

Author Bio: Jon Lasser lives in Seattle, WA with his wife and two children. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Kaleidotrope, Galaxy’s Edge, Diabolical Plots,  and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion West writers workshop. Find him on the Web at and on Twitter as @disappearinjon.

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