Project Savant

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Classic Film/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“Very good, Monsieur Savant. I can tell you’ve worked hard on your irregular verbs.”

As I mark the current question correct, I note with pride the neat row of consecutive red check marks in the margin of the test paper. We’re nearly finished his Level 3 Language Exam and he’s yet to make a single mistake. He’s only one answer away from achieving a perfect score in both correct grammar and vocabulary usage, the main objective of his course. I almost tell him this but I stop at the last moment; he’s so close, I don’t want him to suddenly become self-conscious and second-guess himself.

“We’re almost finished the exam,” I say instead, working to keep my voice neutral. It’s always been difficult for me to maintain a calm telephone demeanor when a student’s full potential is within their reach. This is especially true for a student who’s worked as hard as Monsieur Savant. Three months ago, he could barely understand anything other than the very basics of English: Hello, how are you? I’m fine. And you?

I adjust the receiver to my other ear and clear my throat before I read out the question. “Please put the following words into a complete sentence, with the correct usage of the present perfect tense, in the third person: He/She/burn/toast.”

There’s a brief pause on the line and then Monsieur Savant responds, with complete confidence:

“‘She has burnt the toast again.’”

I don’t even bother to verify my answer key. It just sounds perfect. I’m about to tell him so but he’s not finished.

“The verb ‘to burn’ has two possible past participles, no? Burnt and burned,” he says, exaggerating his pronunciation to emphasize the difference between the ‘t’ and the ‘ed’ sounds of the two conjugations.

“Could you not also say: ‘He has burned the toast again’?”

He’s right, of course. I shouldn’t be surprised he knows both possibilities. “Yes, absolutely. Both answers are correct!”

“I changed the pronoun to ‘he’ because a man can make his own toast, and burn it just as well.” He lets out a short mechanical chuckle, a brief blip in his intense focus.

“I can’t argue with that,” I laugh. I can’t help but marvel at how far he’s come from those first few painful lessons. His improvement has been remarkable, like the flick of a switch. Now he’s even making jokes.

“Congratulations, Monsieur Savant, the exam is complete and you have scored 100%!” I don’t even bother to hide my enthusiasm. Witnessing this kind of success is one of the real joys of my work as a language educator in Paris.

“Thank you. Any success of mine is due solely to your teaching. And to your patience, Miss Amelia Rogers.” No matter how much he’s improved, I can’t seem to get him to stop calling me by my first and last name.

“You did the hard work. You should be very proud.” I scribble his final score on the test paper and tuck it inside his file. A quick glance at the clock dims my spirits; this is his last lesson and it’s almost over. I’m going to miss working with him. He seems to genuinely enjoy learning. I wish I could say the same for all my students, predominantly other French professionals and government employees. Many of them prefer to use their telephone lessons as an outlet to air their grievances towards everyone and everything in their professional lives: their departments, their colleagues, the upper management, the labor unions, the Président.

But not Monsieur Savant.

He is always so pleasant, even when a concept is difficult or frustrating, and always diligently prepared. His lesson is a bright spot in my often dull schedule of drilling verbs and trying to draw conversations out from people with little to no interest in learning English. I’m dreading the next few hours of telephone lessons. It’s going to be a very long day of sitting alone in this tiny room, staring at these bare white walls or out the window into the drab parking lot, speaking with bored, expressionless voices on the other end.

“I know our time is nearly over,” he says, reading my mind. “I would like to say now how much I have appreciated speaking with you. Your help, your guidance, has been extraordinaire—forgive me, extraordinar-y.” He corrects himself followed by another of his reflexive chortles.

“It’s been a real pleasure,” I say, wishing we had another ten minutes to chat instead of only two. I shift in my seat, trying to get comfortable in this hard wooden chair. “I wish you all the best in your work—”

“Work is very difficult now.” He cuts across me, his voice low. He’s speaking with an urgency that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Time is short and I am more and more concerned… perhaps frightened even. I wish I could tell you, Miss Amelia Rogers. I think your perspective would be very helpful to me. And—ah, comment dire… comfortable? No, sorry… a comfort.”

I’m startled; this is the most I’ve ever heard about his work.

Only the briefest, most general descriptions of what he does, along with a signed confidentiality statement from his upper management have been provided, all quite typical for students from research and development in the Ministry of Defense. Any questions I asked him about how his day was or what he was working on were always met with standard, non-specific answers: Work is very busy. I have many meetings this week. Projects are progressing.

He’s never shared any details about anything, least of all how he feels about his work. Now he’s using words like difficult, concerned, frightened… I sit up straighter and lean in closer to the receiver.

“I’m sorry to hear that…” I offer, not sure what else to say, much like the time a student went on a rant about his very complicated divorce and every other word was a nasty French curse. The alarm on my mobile phone starts to screech, signalling the end of this lesson and making me jump. It’s buried under papers and books. I scramble to find it.

“What is that sound?” Savant asks.

“It’s my timer. I’m afraid I have to say goodbye now,” I stall as the phone blares on in the background. I finally tug it out from under the stack of student files and silence it with one swift swipe. “Thank you, Phone.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, it’s a silly habit I picked up from my husband,” I babble, embarrassed to be explaining this. “He always thanks our devices when they beep at us so when the robot uprising happens, they’ll remember we were kind to them and hopefully spare us.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Monsieur Savant declares after a long pause. He’s a good sport to go along with my joke. “We live in difficult times and one must always be aware.”

“Er—yes… well, we are firm believers that being polite can save lives,” I quip, trying to keep the tone light but I sense a shift and it’s making me uneasy. Considering the difficult times we live in…? How did this conversation take such a weird turn?

There’s a sudden blast of static noise and the high-pitched squeal as though a fax line were cutting into our connection. I grimace and hold the receiver away from my ear for a second. “Hello? Are you still there?”

“There is interference,” Savant says over the crackling line. “I must go. Goodbye, Miss Amelia Rogers.”

“Goodbye, Monsieur Savant.” I wait for his little chirp of a laugh but it doesn’t come. Instead, all I hear is silence followed by the drone of the dial tone as the other line goes dead.

*

The following day is chaos.

Commuting via Paris’s metro system is never without its challenges—full trains, crowded platforms, delays due to unclaimed bags left in the stations—but an entire new set of disruptions have popped up overnight.

Some metro lines are shut down. New signs declare the trains En Panne/Out of Order and no other information is given to confused and stranded passengers.

The delays are exacerbated as every person must now open his or her bag, show proper transit validation and present their ID to the new security at every entrance and on every platform. There’s no getting around it and those who try are immediately detained. The atmosphere is tense, with the occasional outburst from the impatient crowd. No one seems to know what provoked this new system, or at least no one is telling us why.

I’m stuck in a throng of people at the Montparnasse station. I’m late for work but so is everyone else. I stand on my tiptoes, trying to see over the crowd as it surges towards the waiting train.

“Pardon,” says a man as he bumps into me. He speaks French with a distinct English accent.

I place a steadying hand on his arm as we struggle to maintain our balance. “You speak English? Do you know what’s going on?”

He pulls his phone from his jacket pocket and plays me a video of what looks like a protest outside of a train station. The video is shaky and of poor cellphone quality, but I can see gendarmes in full protective gear brandishing batons and shields as they push through the crowd. Some of the people are struck down but the crowd keeps pressing forward until one of the officers, who is bigger than any soldier I’ve ever seen, picks up one of the people in the mob and lifts him high above the crowd. The man is thrashing and kicking at the soldier, who then starts to shake the man violently. His body is a blur on the tiny screen and some people in the small group huddled around the man and I gasp. We all watch, with sickening dread, as the soldier then tosses the limp man aside. The video cut off after that.

“Where was that?” demands a young woman, one of the small crowd now watching the video.

The man looks grim. “It’s not clear but I think it’s Gare du Nord. It’s making the rounds on social media but I have yet to hear of anything on the news.”

“Nothing? How is that even possible?” The woman shakes her head, her eyes blazing. “It’s as if it isn’t happening!”

I don’t know what to say. My head is swimming with the image of the man being thrown in the air like he was nothing but a rag doll when the hordes around us jostle our little group apart. The man with the video is swallowed up into the crowd when I reach the front near the train.

“Identification, Madame!” the officer barks at me. A team of security officers are shouting into their walkie-talkies behind him.

The whole situation is unnerving. My heart is pounding so loud I’m sure he can hear it as I fumble in my bag for my ID. He studies it for what feels like an eternity before he finally lets me pass onto the train. I’m barely inside when the doors snap shut behind me. The train is packed with people wearing the same bewildered expression I know is etched on my face. I’m not the only one who breathes a long sigh of relief as the train eventually pulls away.

We live in difficult times… one must always be aware…

Monsieur Savant’s words from yesterday loop through my mind as the train picks up speed. I can’t stop thinking of how right he seems to be.

*

When I finally reach the office, I’m surprised to find it empty except for Isabelle, the receptionist, and one lone student, a man I’ve never met before. None of my other colleagues are anywhere to be seen.

“Amelia! I didn’t expect you to come in today!” Isabelle exclaims, as I stumble in slightly disheveled but otherwise unscathed. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, just a bit overwhelmed by the crowds.” I drop my bag and collapse into a chair in the waiting area. It’s taken me over three hours to get to the office and I’m exhausted. Isabelle brings me a cup of water, which I immediately guzzle.

“I haven’t been able to get cell reception and now my phone is dead; what’s going on out there?” I ask her when I can speak again.

She bites her lip and shifts her weight nervously from foot to foot. “It’s not clear but it appears there was some sort of attack at Gare du Nord and possibly Hotel de Ville, but it’s not yet confirmed.”

Another attack?! How many other people have been brutalized today?

Isabelle narrows her eyes and makes a small head jerk towards the man behind her. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me since I arrived.

“He has been waiting here all morning to see you. I told him I doubted you’d be coming in, what with all the delays… but he insisted. He says it’s urgent.” She nods to him and he comes over to me, his hand outstretched.

It’s freezing cold when I grasp it but I say nothing. Who is this man and what does he want with me?

“’Allo Miss Amelia Rogers,” he says in a voice I just heard in my head not very long ago. “I am Monsieur Savant.”

My mind is one step behind and it takes me an extra second before I understand that although I feel like I know him well from our lessons, he is nothing like I expected. He is enormously tall, over six and a half feet, with broad shoulders and a short, thick neck. His steel grey suit coordinates flawlessly with his short fringe of salt and pepper hair. He would be handsome if it weren’t for the flicker of menace behind his dark blue eyes and the way his towering frame looms over me. There is nothing in his glowering stare or his steel-trap handshake of the warm, pleasant man I met on the telephone.

“It’s very nice to finally meet you,” he says. “I know this must be very alarming for you. I will explain everything, I promise. But I must speak with you in private.” He gestures towards an open meeting room. I sense I have no choice but to go with him; it feels like more of an order than an ‘after you.’ He closes the door behind us with such force, I jump.

“I’m sorry I startled you,” he says. “I’m not used to in-person conversations outside of work. I will try to remember what you’ve taught me.” His words are kind, but I wince at how loud he’s speaking. He notices my discomfort and sits down first. He pulls a thick folder from his suit jacket and slides it across the table towards me.

“What—?”

He silences me with a shake of his head and taps the folder. “No, please look at this first. It’s the only way I know how to begin.”

I flip open the folder as though I expect it will explode at my touch. Inside are spreadsheets, designs, and specifications for something called “Projet Savant,” a line of government-issued artificial intelligence agents. Their primary mandate is peacekeeping operations. The man sitting opposite me is the same man whose photograph is stapled to the inside cover of the folder, the same man who all the agents in Projet Savant resemble.

Monsieur Savant is an android.

“For the past three months, my new language acquisition program has been undergoing extensive testing. My programmers have been monitoring how it adapts to different linguistic structures, syntax, grammar, vocabulary while I have been learning English from you.”

The designs and specifications are dancing in front of my eyes as he goes on, explaining my role in this aspect of his training. All those moments he struggled with irregular verbs and pronunciation were actually his neural algorithms adjusting coefficients to match the new input. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, so I shut my eyes to the tangled mess of numbers and letters and try to just focus on his voice.

If I just listen to him speak, it almost makes sense.

“This morning, there was a training exercise at Gare du Nord with some of the other agents in Projet Savant. That location was chosen for its proximity to some of the areas in Paris most affected by the recent influx of refugees and those who oppose their presence. I objected to the operation. I didn’t believe we were ready to go out in the field; I felt we were moving too quickly with integrating the agents with the human police force. I even tried to tell you about my fears yesterday, but of course, I could not. But I was overruled and the operation went forward. Unfortunately, when the crowds became hostile, it triggered a tactical mode in the agents present. Now the agents are outside of the government’s control and the ramifications are, shall we say, very, very serious.”

He turns over his left hand and presses his right thumb into the centre of his enormous palm, transforming it into a small screen. He taps the screen and it springs into action, playing the same incident I watched on a cellphone this morning. It’s shot from another angle, and the video quality is better: high resolution and less shaky. The biggest difference—from our table in one of the quiet classrooms of my language school—is I can also hear the audio of dozens of subtly robotic voices repeating over and over:

« Cessez et désistez! Cease and desist! We repeat, put down your weapons! Déposez vos armes! We mean you no harm! Aucun mal! Cease and desist! »

But the crowd doesn’t listen and I watch in horror as a man from the crowd screams obscenities at the “Robo-Terroriste!” and uses a Taser on the agent in front, who freezes for a moment as the electrical current takes hold, then seizes the man and lifts him in the air.

I don’t want to see the agent throttle him again, so I shut my eyes. But I can hear everything: the screaming from the crowd, the wailing of the agents’ sirens as they switch from peacekeepers to brutalizers, the bystanders’ cries of panic and fear. Monsieur Savant taps his palm once more and the screen goes dark. His hand is normal again, three times the size of my husband’s hand, but only a hand once more.

“That’s truly awful, Monsieur Savant,” I whisper. “I’m sorry that happened to your fellow agents. But I don’t know why you came to me. What do you want from me?”

“You told me yesterday you and your husband treat machines with kindness so when they show their evil natures, you will be spared.” He raises his head and fixes his steel eyes on mine. But as I return his gaze, I see them soften and fill with sadness. “Do you believe this of all androids? Are we inherently mistrusted and deemed guilty until proven innocent?”

My stomach plummets as I hear my own ignorance reflected back at me and I understand now how damaging that ignorance can be. Now I have a chance to set it right. I take a deep breath and lock eyes with Savant, the first android I’ve ever spoken to.

“My husband makes that joke to bring levity to a subject that most people don’t even consider taking seriously, but that’s not productive. I see that now and I apologize.”

The importance of what I say in this moment is weighing on me but I sense I’m on the right track as he holds my gaze and nods at me to continue.

“We believe that as technology becomes more intelligent, it also has the capacity to become more aware. And anything with the potential for awareness—human or other—is deserving of respect.”

He sits perfectly still as my words linger in the air. He doesn’t need to breathe but he lets out a long exhale and he extends his hand to me again. The light behind his eyes starts to flicker and his hands seize up.

“There’s so little time now… the program termination sequence is underway…” His eyes flicker faster and his neck starts to twitch.

It’s a second before I understand what he said and what it means.

“No! Can’t you shut it down? There must be something you can do!” I grab his hands and try to steady them but their shaking too much. His speech is cutting out every other word and his eyes are nearly dark. The sequence is too far gone.

“Miss Amelia Rogers, I must ask for your help one final time.”

“Yes, tell me!”

Somehow he steadies his hands long enough so his right index finger can trace a circle around his left palm. A small disc ejects itself from under his skin. He presses it into my hand and clasps it with his own. The shaking starts to subside and his eyes, dimming with every passing second, lock with mine. His voice is fading but he forces the words out.

“Share this footage. Spread it as far as you can. And speak your message of tolerance and belief in the potential of all beings. If enough people hear it, then maybe there’ll still be a chance for Project Savant or those who come after us…”

Just as with our last lesson, all I hear is silence as our connection is broken.

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Erin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Not If We Lie

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Gail A. Webber


Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr (CC-by)

“There you are. Rise and shine, malyshka.”

Gwen heard the deep male voice close to her. Little girl in Russian? My Kyril. The sudden nausea separated her from the dream and forced reality on her. She tried to focus. This wasn’t as bad as recovering from hypersleep, but in hypersleep you didn’t dream so it was easier to let go of it. The kind of metabolism-damping Mission Control was using on the crew for this run—metabosleep, they called it—was supposed to be easier on the body, but it was hell on the psyche. When you slept for a month, the dream world became your alternate life, and often it seemed better than your real one. How many times have I done this? Is this my fiftieth turn to be awake? No, more than that I think. It was hard to keep track. Once she got to her cubicle, she’d look up how many times she’d been awake so far this trip and record one more.

She forced her eyes open and saw Kyril’s handsome face. His dark eyes held genuine affection for her, but she understood he wasn’t “my Kyril” from the dream. Gwen tried to speak: “Everything…” Her voice squeaked and broke as it often did after not using it for so long, so she swallowed and tried again. “Everything’s okay? On board? No trouble?”

Kyril extended his hand to help her out of the sleeping pod. “We’re all fine. Getting some interesting dark matter data, and collected unusual micrometeoroids yesterday. Of course, we’re closer to the target than when you went into your pod—closer by the minute—but the Commander estimates we’re still months away. Other than that, just the usual drama.”

There were twelve crew members aboard the spaceship, though it only took four to maintain the ship in flight. For a number of reasons, Mission Control didn’t want to keep the same four people awake for too long, so they scheduled a rotation: eight rested in metabosleep and four were awake at any given time, new combinations rotating in four-to-six-week intervals.

Gwen removed her hand from Kyril’s and blushed. In her dreams two sleep cycles ago, she and Kyril had become lovers. But since metabosleep dreams were more real than any normal one, the experience felt like reality even now that she was awake. The smell of their lovemaking and perfume of the star magnolia in their backyard, the taste of the mint tea he made her every morning, the texture of his beard in all stages of growth, all were part of her memory and didn’t fade as normal dream memory did. Even the pains of childbirth and subsequent exhaustion of caring for a newborn on very little sleep—experiences she’d never known outside of dreams—would be as authentic for her as real-life memories. Just now when she’d awakened, her arms felt the weight of their baby daughter she held, their second child after returning home from this mission—or so it was in the dream. In real life, life on this spaceship life, they weren’t lovers. But they’d been good friends since the mission began.

He winked. “Any good dreams to share, daragaya?”

It was as if he was reading her mind, and Gwen suddenly wondered if he’d had similar dreams of her. No, of course not. She remembered his touch and blushed again. “I think I’ll keep them to myself. Hey, wouldn’t Joe be jealous if he knew you called me your dear one?”

“Don’t you worry, precious girl. Joe will sleep for another two weeks, and even if you tattle on me when he wakes up, by that time I’ll be in a sleep cycle. Then it’ll be two rotations before we’re up at the same time again, and he’ll either have forgotten, or it won’t matter.” Kyril wrinkled his nose and sighed. “I hate this staggered waking schedule.”

“Me too. And I don’t have a relationship to maintain.” She thought about the one she had for a while with Charlie McGeehan. He was one of the mission pilots, as blond and light-skinned as Kyril was swarthy, with hazel eyes that saw into a person’s soul. She was sorry it didn’t work out between them, but accepted it as the way things sometimes went. Maybe someday.

“Four of us mobile at any given time, but on staggered schedules so the fours are constantly shuffled. I guess the shrinks at Mission Control wanted us interacting with eleven other people instead of only three,” she said. “As if contact with eleven people is enough for what could be the rest of our lives.” That was what they’d all been told. The mission involved too many variables to guarantee a safe return, but each of them believed finding this new life form that was sending signals to Earth from somewhere in the Kuiper Belt was a goal worth the risk. Whatever the life form was, everyone wanted to believe it was macroscopic, intelligent, and benevolent.

“I understand the reasons for the schedule, but it’s a shame we can’t arrange for some people to sleep the whole trip. And I don’t mean Joe.”

“Stephen?” It was a question for which she already had the answer. Gwen couldn’t understand how that man had managed to hide his true feelings and opinions during the extensive screening all the candidates endured. And there was no way he could have misunderstood mission goals, but once they were on their way, he’d taken every opportunity to rail against the idea of contacting new life. He condemned humans for exterminating so many Earth species, and insisted that was what would happen to the new life forms. Humans would kill them all, intentionally or otherwise. At one point, she heard him say they had an obligation to sabotage the ship, if necessary, rather than risk exterminating extraterrestrial creatures. He claimed their extermination was inevitable.

“Yeah, Stephen. He’s been talking this shit since we started, but every rotation I see him, he seems worse.”

“We should medicate him,” she said, stretching her arms overhead. “Maybe a dose of really good drugs is all he needs. So, who else is up now? You, me, Stephen and who else?”

“Charlie,” said Kyril.

As their pilot for this rotation, Charlie held the rank of Commander.

Charlie, she thought. Wonder if we could have made it as a couple under other circumstances? But all she said was, “Good, Stephen likes him.” Charlie’s cool logic and sense of calm hadn’t yet been enough to quiet Stephen’s ranting, but there was always hope.

“He likes you too, you know—Stephen, I mean. Anyhow, I’m not sure Charlie’s calm influence is enough of a solution. But we can try.” He offered his arm as if they were about to dance. “Come, lisichka. We can talk more about all this in a bit. Right now, let’s get you to the med bay for a post-sleep assessment.”

“I’m fine, but why did you call me a little fox?”

“That red hair, of course. Even in a crew cut, you’re adorable! As for your exam, I’m sure you’re fine but, you know, regulations. Once I give you your gold star, we’ll get you some coffee. After that, you and I get to spend some quality time together in the lab.” He waggled his eyebrows and leered playfully.

She laughed. “I’ll pass on the star, but yes, coffee. Please!”

The lab work they began that morning, examination of the micrometeoroids Kyril had removed from the ramjet hydrogen collectors, would take a few days. Already, they’d found elements so far unknown on Earth, and hoped to find microorganisms of some sort, though that was a longshot. Kyril’s knowledge of geology and Gwen’s of microbiology were both useful. Those weren’t the only fields in which they were qualified, but then everyone who landed a seat on this mission had diverse training, as well as multiple talents and specialties.

Since it was hard to predict what knowledge and skills would be necessary on an extended voyage like this, each individual had to wear many hats. Of course there were computer resources on board, and contact with Earth was possible, but the delay of communication in both directions complicated the latter option. The team aboard this spacecraft had to be both independent and interdependent.

With the lab shipshape and work for the next day staged, Gwen and Kyril headed for the mess hall. Contact among crew members was not only encouraged, but required. Three times a day, the four astronauts on duty met in the mess hall to eat together, SOP unless circumstances dictated otherwise. Occasionally, the conversations amounted to little more than briefings, but more frequently they were filled with joking and teasing as well as the sharing of thoughts, fears, and comments on the food.

When Kyril and Gwen arrived, Charlie was already seated but hadn’t gotten his meal. Gwen hugged him, Kyril kissed him on both cheeks.

“No Stephen yet?” Kyril asked.

Charlie moved his head around until his neck cracked. “Haven’t seen him all day. You?”

Da. When I settled Lena in her sleep pod, right before I woke Gwen, he waved to me in B Corridor. Looked like he was headed for the computer bay.”

“He’s good at everything he does,” Charlie said, “and he hasn’t shirked a single duty, but I’m not sure what to think about his diatribes. I mean, he has a point about all the species we’ve lost on Earth, but he takes it too far. And he knows he’s supposed to meet with everybody for dinner. So where is he?”

“Did you call him?”

“Shouldn’t have to.”

“I will,” said Gwen, and keyed her wrist communicator. “Hey, Stephen, it’s Gwen. Join us in the mess hall?” Silence. “Stephen, you there?” She shrugged and sat down. “You don’t think he could be in trouble? Hurt or something?”

Kyril shifted in his chair and looked into the galley. He was hungry.

“In his rack, I bet. Seems like he’s sleeping more than usual.”

“Hmm. Think that’s significant?” Charlie asked. “Depression, maybe? I reviewed Ron’s log from last rotation.” Ron had been the pilot before Charlie’s present duty.

“And?” Gwen asked.

“People were talking about Stephen then, saying they thought he was getting worse even though he was in metabosleep at the time. A few seemed to be taking Stephen’s side, but not to the point of suggesting we turn back, or scrub the mission, or any of Stephen’s other crazy ideas.”

“So it’s not just us.”

“Apparently not.”

Kyril stood up. “Nu, let’s start without him. I’ve been looking forward to that chicken cacciatore all afternoon.”

“Afraid it’s nothing like Mama used to make,” laughed Gwen.

While everyone ate, Charlie had questions, and questioning was one of his talents. He could be asking about your deepest secret yet sound as if he wanted to know what color apples you preferred or who your favorite baseball player was. “So, any idea what might have caused the pressure drop in Airlock #2? It looked significant.”

Recognizing the official nature of the question despite Charlie’s congenial tone, Kyril answered, “No idea, Commander. The pressure read normal by the time I got there, so I turned off the alarm. When I checked the sensors, they registered perfect.”

Charlie pursed his lips and stared straight ahead as if reading something no one else could see. Then he grunted and waved his hands as he spoke. He always did that. “That makes no sense. Either the pressure was too low or the sensors registered it wrong—it couldn’t be anything else. Could someone have used the airlock? Opened it and then closed it? Wait, was #2 the one you used to retrieve the micrometeoroids from the collectors?”

Nyet. Went out #1, and came back in the same way.”

Gwen swallowed of piece of brownie, savoring the chocolate and thanking God that Mission Control had found a way to successfully freeze chocolate. It was one of the few things as good in shipboard life as it was in dreams. “Who ran your tether?”

“Stephen.” Kyril laughed and touched his front teeth. “Uh, you’ve got chocolate in your teeth. Quite a fetching look. Seriously, he did everything right. We both suited up, and he waited for me in the airlock in case anything went wrong.”

“Good to hear, I have to admit,” Charlie said.

Gwen finished working her tongue around her mouth and showed Kyril her teeth. When he nodded, she said, “Commander, could we—or should we—wake one of the people with more psychiatric credentials than the three of us have?”

Kyril threw the biscuit he was eating onto his plate. “Screw that. If we’re worried about what he’s up to, we should put him down early.”

“Don’t say it that way.” Gwen punched his shoulder. “Putting down is what you do for an old dog so it doesn’t suffer.”

“Well, if the shoe fits…” Kyril said.

“Stop it, you two. We’re charged with maintaining the planned crew rotation except for serious illness or injury.”

Kyril shook his head. “That’s a rule for normal situations, Commander. A crew member threatening to murder everybody if they don’t do what he says isn’t normal. You heard him at dinner last night, he said that somebody could use a pulsed laser diode through a fiber-optic cable to detonate the solid fuel in the rockets.”

“And you thought he was serious?” Gwen asked. “Sometimes he makes strange jokes, and you know he’s got an odd sense of humor. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”

“To my mind, he gave way too much detail for a joke. It doesn’t matter if you laugh when you suggest we either scrub the mission or ‘somebody’ could blow up the ship. That’s not funny.”

“I agree with you that he’s acting strange, but I also agree with Gwen that we shouldn’t assume he’s serious. He definitely has strong beliefs about the effect that contact with us might have on a new species. Anyway, even if he meant it, it would be hard for one man to hurt the ship,” said Charlie. “With all the redundant systems built into this baby, that’s almost impossible.”

“Willing to risk our lives on an ‘almost’? I mean, we all understand we could die out here for a million reasons, but I am not willing to just let this go. Remember he’s a systems engineer, among other things, and I think he’s nuts. That solid fuel thing wasn’t his first threat! Remember last week he joked about how opening a door would solve our whole stale air problem? Joking about opening a door in a spaceship?”

This was all news to Gwen. “Okay, so he’s made actual threats? We might have to do something. Should it be just us who decides?”

“Who else is there? We don’t have options.”

Gwen shifted in her chair and cleared her throat. “Yes, we do, Kyril. We could contact Mission Control. We could ask them.”

“Or we could wake everybody up together, just this once, and get their thoughts,” Charlie suggested and then everyone sat not looking at each other, not speaking.

Finally Gwen spoke into the silence. Quietly she said, “There’s something we haven’t considered.”

Both men looked at her.

“You two are due for metabosleep in less than a week. When I wake your replacements, they’ll be a sleep cycle behind in background and things could happen fast. Whatever we’re going to do, we should do it now.”

“Agreed. Let’s go find Stephen.”

The ship had always felt small to Gwen, but the need to search every room and every passageway made it seem huge. All three of them stayed together so that whoever first encountered Stephen wouldn’t be alone; there was no way of knowing what his frame of mind might be. They didn’t find Stephen, but he found them and he had a weapon. The ship carried plasma cutters because geologists on board used them to slice samples from metallic meteors, ship engineers used them to make repairs, and there were countless other uses. Stephen had modified one to use as a handheld weapon, and since everyone understood what a weapon like that could do to human flesh, they listened.

“Commander, if you’d be so kind as to put these two in their sleep pods? Then I’ll do the same for you. It will be easier for all three of you if you’re asleep like the others.”

Charlie consciously kept his hands at his sides though he wasn’t used to talking without them. He didn’t want Stephen to misinterpret motion and hurt someone. Charlie’s voice sounded like velvet feels. “I don’t think so, Stephen. Let’s talk about this.”

“There’s nothing to say. I believe you’re good people, and that’s why I’ll allow you to be asleep when I do this. But you believed the lies Mission Control told you about having peaceful intentions. That makes you infantile. Whether because of intent or eventual effect, humans kill.”

“But you’re suggesting you’ll kill everyone on board,” said Kyril.

“Sometimes violence is the best option, especially when a limited act of violence prevents more larger-scale violence, even an existential one. The scale does matter. I tried to convince you to scrub the mission, remember? I tried to make you see the obvious.”

While Charlie frantically sorted arguments in his head, looking for the perfect one, it was Gwen who found it. She took a half-step toward Stephen and lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “Why did you sign on for this mission, Stephen? Before you had doubts, what compelled you to leave your life on Earth behind, to sacrifice years of relative certainty and comfort to risk everything out here?”

As he considered her question, Stephen’s face changed from hard and matter-of-fact to almost wistful. “Since I was a boy, I was fascinated with the idea of other beings, other intelligences and points of view that would be different from our human ones. I read every bit of science fiction and fantasy that included first contact. I decided that if there was anything alive in this universe besides human beings, I wanted to see it. If there were beings, I wanted to meet them. When I was approached about this mission, I knew this was my chance.”

“Me too. And I bet if we asked every person on this ship the same question, most would give the same reason. We’re curious. We want to see what’s out there, see who is out there. Each of us wants to be among the first humans they meet, and the first to interact with them. We want to be the first ones changed by the knowledge of who they are. Don’t you still want that?”

Stephen shook his head and kept shaking it, the plasma cutter wavering in his hands.

None of the others moved.

“Nononononono.”

“Stephen. Stephen, listen to me. I’m not trying to trick you,” Gwen continued. “I want you to understand that I believe the desire to see is what we all share and that it’s still the most important thing. Don’t you want to meet these creatures, figure out what they value and what they fear, learn from them? Don’t you still want to know who might be out there?”

Stephen stared at her. “I do, but it’s impossible. Even if we all agree about how we’ll handle this, that’s not enough. The politics and powers at home will take over and ruin the good we intend.”

Kyril stepped forward to stand next to Gwen and he took her hand. Charlie moved up beside her on her other side and added softly, “Can I tell you what I’m thinking, Stephen? The idea Gwen gave me just now?”

“Go ahead. Talk.”

“What if we go the rest of the way, follow the signal, and find these life forms. And when we do, we’ll wake everyone and together learn all we can, all these new life forms will allow for as long as they’ll allow it. I have the feeling we’ll learn more about ourselves in the process, but that’s another subject.”

“You haven’t said anything different than before, because when Mission Control finds out, all hell breaks loose on those poor creatures and we’ll be the reason for more death.”

“Not if we lie,” Charlie said.

“What?”

Louder, he said, “Not. If. We. Lie. Maybe we tell Mission Control all we found was an automated signal, or a ship that blew up as we approached. Whatever we tell them, it won’t be the truth, and we won’t give them any information to lead them to the aliens.”

“Recorded data gets relayed automatically—our course, our heading, our camera feed, everything,” said Stephen.

“It is,” agreed Kyril. “We’d have to account for that. Maybe after we met them and learned what we could, we might head out into deep space? Or maybe we could send the ship out there while we stay with them, if that were possible. I know every person in this crew, and I’m certain they would all agree. We all signed on willing to sacrifice everything to see what no one else ever had, Stephen. I still want to see what’s out there.”

“That speaks for me as well,” Gwen said. “What do you say?”

“First of all, I think you might be lying. As soon as I give up this cutter, you could tackle me, put me in a pod, and leave me there forever.”

Gwen heard his voice quaver.

“But second of all, I think I believe you. I’m not sure why, but I do. And yes, I still want to see.” He gave the cutter to Charlie and flinched when their hands touched.

“Good God! You’re one crazy motherfucker, Stephen,” Kyril said a bit louder than he intended, “and you about scared the piss out of me. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re totally wrong about the powers that be.”

The breath Gwen took when she smiled felt full of relief. She imagined a baby’s first breath must feel like that. “Okay, we have a plan, personal conscience over policy. We’ll lie through our teeth, and we have to do it perfectly. But first we need to do something else. We have to wake the other eight and convince them.”

pencil

Gail A. Webber taught science, middle school through college, for thirty-two years, and then worked with children and teenagers considered at-risk. Since retiring, she has returned to her old love, fiction writing. She lives and works on a tiny farm in western Maryland. Relatively new to the publishing arena, Gail’s work has appeared in The Tower Journal, Persimmon Tree, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Fiftiness, and Pink Chameleon, as well as two recent anthologies. She has also published two novels. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com

Why the Lapwing Laughs

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Christina De La Rocha


Photo Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I walk in.

Usually they frown and dismiss me and I close the door and set my sights on the next one. Because you try surviving on a pension these days. You wouldn’t give up either. You’d be “volunteering” for medical trials left, right, center, and up the wazoo (yes, even those). They pay and they’re interesting. A break from routine, a strange drug, or three months of prepared meals and a hilarious exercise regime. Even if you’re just the control, you learn new things and that’s so much better than bingo. And so you keep trying to get yourself enrolled in trials.

This time, as they take me in from behind their clipboards and glasses, I see I have piqued their interest. They will let me be their guinea pig.

“Mr. Pfannkuchen,” one says, “you offer us the chance to see how the elderly brain takes to the technology.”

The other nods. “Yes, perhaps you will dispel our doubts that the aged brain retains the plasticity to adapt to it.”

Snotball and Scuzzface, I name them right then and there, although it’s more that they’re ignorant than nasty. They’re too young for hemorrhoids. They’ve never operated an aged, elderly brain. They have no clue what it can do.

I stay and they drill everything into my head. Literally. It takes some weeks for me to recover. Then they send me home.

“The experiment will begin soon,” Scuzzface says.

“Avoid operating heavy machinery,” Snotball adds. “You might find yourself suddenly disoriented.”

I leave with a drone over me, serenading me with its eight-rotor whine. It’s weird to be tracked like this, like I am a hot Hollywood brat ripe for some sort of insanity that they want shots of to wire off wirelessly to the press.

But, anyway, you don’t still function at my age unless you subscribed early to the use-it-or-lose-it philosophy of life. I still fight the stairs, battle the gym, and go every day for a walk. It helps that I live out in the countryside where walking is more soothing and less crime-ridden than it is in the city. The biggest fear I have here is of horse apples.

So I’m out on a farm road one morning, on one of my usual routes. The path runs between two cornfields with stalks reaching up towards the sky, although not quite as high as my eight-rotor tail, its Wi-Fi device, and whatever else it has packed into its body.

It is a beautiful day so I close my eyes and stretch my arms out to soak in the sun. I listen to what hum of the day I can hear under the drone’s droning; mainly the rustling of stalks in the quickening air. Wanting to be one with it all, I start with the corncobs, all fifty bazillion of them surrounding me on all sides from both sides of the road. I feel them all in my brain, the shape of them and their location in space. I feel their heft, the bumpy curves of their kernels. I feel all the ants crawling upon them, each one with its little legs going dink!-dink!-dink!-dink!-dink! as they travel. I feel the caterpillars boring within each cob (a slow munch… munch… munch…). And then I feel the moles, the mice, and the beetles scuttling upon and skittering within the ground.

I exhale.

I may be making this all up (I can’t really sense where all those corncobs are and all that), but life is grand.

That’s when it hits me. Something vast superimposes itself over the pastoral landscape, adding previously unimaginable dimension.

For starters, now I know everything it is humanly possible to know about Zea mays.

Zea mays var. indentata, I correct myself. Also known as dent corn, directly descended from maize domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley of southwestern Mexico by the people living there at that time.

I become aware that as it is a hot, dry day, the seven-hundred-and-fifty-two-thousand maize plants around me are all holding their breath. All their stomata are closed, preventing the release of of oxygen into the atmosphere and the uptake of carbon dioxide out of it. (Okay, technically that’s the opposite of breathing, but allow an old man poetic license, for crying out loud.) This prevents the profligate evaporation of water out of the soil, via the pores of the plants.

Five birds bomb in (barn swallows, Hirundo rustica), zooming, swooping, chirping, and hunting like mad acrobats completely at ease in the air. I know their speed, how they maneuver so magnificently with tiny changes to the tilt and shape of their wings, rump, and tail, and the evolving statistics of each individual’s fly-catching success.

I perceive that my familiar farm track follows the course of a small stream perfectly hidden beneath the thick stands of nettles (Urtica dioica subsp. dioica), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), dewberries, blackberries, and raspberries (Rubus caesius, Rubus ulmifolius, Rubus fruticosus, and Rubus idaeus) that line the left side of the road. All of these plants are edible and the nettles, in particular, indicate that this frequently disturbed soil is, unsurprisingly, given the frequency with which it is fertilized, rich in the nutrients nitrate and phosphate.

I know then that this farm track/stream has been the dividing line between two properties since this area was first cleared and drained for farming, 400 years ago, and that pipes sunk under the fields continue this drainage from several topographic depressions.

Previously, temperate forest (consisting mainly of oak, beech, chestnut, larch, and elm trees) alternated with bog atop this Quaternary alluvium of chert (cryptocrystalline silica such as used in the construction of early stone tools), granite, and schist ground down to gravel and sand, carried over, and deposited by the Northern Hemisphere ice sheet during the last glacial period. This rolling landscape, in fact, marks a southern edge of the miles-high pile of ice at its most extensive extent 18,000 years ago.

It is all here simultaneously around me: the rustling cornstalks; the bitter, glacial wind; the bog and its frogs; and the tall, stately presence of thousands of trees. I sense the comings and goings of the animals and insects and even the human beings that have inhabited this area for thousands of years. I know their customs, their habits, their beliefs, and sometimes even their names, when they were born, and how they died. All of this is woven into a web and I am a part of it too.

I stand transfixed as knowledge streams in about the sun, the sky, the wind, and the air. I smile, amazed as I am introduced to the journey of carbon from the interior of the Earth, out through a volcano, up into the sky, down into the soil, up through roots, into plant biomass, into a herbivore, back out to the air, used for the dissolution of a rock, converted into carbonate ions, delivered to the ocean, taken up by a calcareous plankter, and then sunk to the sediments to be subducted back down into the interior of the Earth to start all over again. I thrill to know that each atom of carbon in my body and in all of that corn has, on average, cycled into and out of the interior of the Earth at least seven times in the last several billion years. The joy this brings tingles out to the tips of all my extremities, including my nose. All of this knowledge drags me into the everything.

And so I trip through the next few days. My orange juice at breakfast treats me to all there is to know about orange groves, about the evolution and development of citrus fruits and their relatives, and about the chemical components of orange, tangy flavor. This so beats reading the back of the cereal box.

Sitting down floods me with the history of chairs, their design, and manufacture, with an anatomical/physiological cost-benefit analysis of sitting, and with a multicultural exploration of sitting traditions down through the ages. It is all the freaking coolest thing ever.

How pea-brained and sad my life before now, spent in the dark and the dirt like a cave man.

I begin to grasp that this is how the human race will transcend. This is the next phase of existence, the next big step in our evolution: rapid, unfettered access to and understanding of all the knowledge that Homo sapiens has acquired over its 180,000 calendar years. We shall be unified, humanized, and then lifted beyond our humanity in our awe of the amazing, meaningful, and interconnected.

Even those who still fear that a flood of knowledge and reason will wash away faith and divinity and flatten the world will be moved. A few moments in this live stream and the scales will fall from their eyes. For the first time in their lives, they’ll be able to fully appreciate the details of Creation.

Even atheist, grumpy-puss I spend the week in a trance, skin shivering, nerves tingling, and eventually am elevated. My self obliterates and becomes subsumed into a great and magnificent vastness. In a word (well, three): Everything. Makes. Sense. And, hot damn, is it beautiful.

I’m back in the office with Snotball and Scuzzface when they power it down. The loss collapses me onto the desk.

“You can’t,” I wail. “You can’t take that away!”

“The experiment is over, Mr Pfannkuchen.” They nod and tick on their clipboards.

“Please,” I howl and beg them to plug me back in. “I was nothing and I was supreme. I knew everything’s name, what it was doing, how it was doing it, and what its place was in everything.”

“You must wait for the first commercial model.”

“How long?” I cry.

“Five to ten years, maybe twenty.”

But I’m a very old man.

“Take heart, your participation has helped,” Snotball says. “We’ll put you down for a discount.”

Scuzzface adds, “Your pay has been transferred. Thank you for your time.”

Then I’m shoved out the door to face what’s left of my life naked and alone. At least they hadn’t smiled and said, “Have a nice day.”

What does one do? I carry on, stumbling about like a fish gutted, an amputee lost and cast out of the garden. Plants are just plants, birds are just birds, and flavors have no extra charm. I am no longer privy to information. I am again an individual. I am no longer enmeshed in the Cosmos.

I try to rectify the situation with my smartphone, searching the interwebs as I walk. What’s that? What’s it up to? What are its secrets? But progress is slow and the threads so clunky, I chuck the phone into the stream.

What a joke.

I consider throwing myself in too, but I don’t need to be mainlining all of human knowledge to know that this will just net me nettle stings, muddy clothes, and maybe some broken ribs. Dying there would take hours and hours of being wet and uncomfortably cold.

So I walk on through the flat, grey gloom of the sunny day.

When I reach the edge of an open field, I see a bird in the air. It’s whirling and swirling, looping, climbing, diving, and laughing, that fucker. I search my own small memory banks for the name: a lapwing. But why does it fly so adventurously? I know nothing. I must be content to make up a fable.

It flies like that because it can because flying like that is super good fun. It is laughing because I have been born five or ten years, maybe twenty, too soon to regain the grand, transcendent knowledge of everything.

And the reason the lapwing is not just laughing but laughing loudly?

Because it knows that I know it. And that is rotten bad luck.

pencilAfter 20 years of working as a biogeochemist/oceanographer, Christina De La Rocha had a mid-life crisis, threw away her career, moved to Germany, and decided to learn how to write. So far she’s had one short story published (in Analog) and has completed a popular science book that is due out in 2017. Email: xtinadlr[at]hushmail.com

Jeanie in a Bottle

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Valerie Lunt


Photo Credit: Inayaili de León Persson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The cement was cold beneath her hands. A common block wall—or so it appeared. Jeanie knew better. Even her recon team with their most advanced scans could not get a read through the material. A special power hummed through it, almost pulling her in before she pushed.

She felt her heart speed up, her breathing shallow. This was the best part of the job, the part she’d been doing before she had a job. The part that got her the job in the first place. And what a job it was, taking her into some of the most wonderful rooms in the world. Rooms most people never even knew existed and fewer still had seen. Treasure rooms. Vaults. Mind-blowing technology. Government secrets. She’d seen them all. That’s not to say she was always successful. One time she’d found herself in a near-vacuum, unable to breathe, her tissues swelling painfully in the sudden lack of atmospheric pressure. She’d been discovered before she could make a second attempt. And, she tried to keep this under wraps, but the greater the distance of solid material, the tighter it squeezed. One day she might just try something too big and end up stuck, her dead body (or essence—she wasn’t exactly sure how the process worked) adding to the very defense she was trying to penetrate.

Still, that was never going to stop her. “What have you got for me this time?” she whispered, a smile teasing her lips. She pressed herself against the wall and willed herself into the room beyond. A whirlwind of color, a pressure that seemed to force her very molecules apart, an odd catch on her mind, and she was through, materializing into the most disturbing room yet.

“So you’re the invisible girl.” The voice jolted her out of her shock.

She looked around. No one was there. And it’s not like there were many places to hide.

“Look who’s talking,” Jeanie said, trying to mask her fear. “Or rather, I would look, but…” Her eyes raked the disconcertingly familiar walls for any sign of a microphone or camera.

The voice seemed to smile when it spoke next. “You’ve made quite a name for yourself. Most people thought the stories were just a myth.”

Jeanie should go; she’d been discovered. It wasn’t good to have a reputation when you were a spy, especially a spy with a super power.

But instead, she lingered, reaching a hand out to an old wooden bird, a child’s toy. A distinctive scratch mark caught her eye and she pulled back. “How are you doing this?” she asked, her voice betraying more fear than she would have liked.

“Ah, do you like it? We made it especially for you,” came the disembodied voice.

“You know me?” She looked around again for a hidden lens or transmitter, but there was nothing out of place. Everything was just as she remembered it. (And just as pink.)

“We do now.” It was smiling again.

Jeanie walked over to the window. Lacy pink curtains draped to the sides. A walnut tree waved its arms lazily, its leaves filtering the sunlight. This isn’t possible, Jeanie thought. She unlocked the familiar latch and pulled it up. But when she tried to pop the screen out, she met more wall. Wall, said her fingers. Wide open space, said her eyes.

“Don’t be so cocky,” Jeanie replied, angry now. “So you replicated a room.” Down to the very last detail. Even the smell was the same. But there was no reason to say that.

“Oh, is that what we did? It was just a byproduct. The room was created as you… walked in.”

Jeanie frowned at a stain on the floor. Her dog, Puddles (named for her regrettable lack of potty training) was responsible for the well-known spot. She’d always thought it looked a bit like a koala bear. But then there were her shoes, sitting brand-new in the corner. Those had been worn out by the time they got Puddles…

“It’s taken from my memories?”

“Very good. Your most vivid ones from childhood.”

As Jeanie continued to examine, she noticed other anachronisms there as well. Things were in their most memorable state, pieces of the room she’d grown up in, but mixed in a way that, all together, had never been. A lace doily hung over her old dresser, a picture of her grandmother on top. She’d put those there after Grandma had died—after getting rid of the old carpet.

“You scanned me?”

“Yes.”

That would explain the strange catch on her mind on entering.

“As I said, this place was built for you.”

Jeanie felt partial relief. So they hadn’t somehow been watching her since childhood. On the other hand, they probably hadn’t gone to all this effort just to get her youthful ideas on room decorating, even if Strawberry Shortcake was making a comeback. They must have set up fake intel to draw her in. Her feeling of exposure heightened. She really should be going now.

“Well, I’d love to stay and chat,” said Jeanie, one hand back on the wall, “but this isn’t the intel that was advertised.” And with that, she pushed.

The wall didn’t meld. She didn’t move. She tried again.

“It won’t work,” came the voice. “You were stuck the moment you came through. It knows the way you enter, your vibration signature. You can never pass it.”

Jeanie tried again, this time in the exact place she’d entered. Nothing. She was hitting a wall, for the first time in her career. She pushed again, then screamed in frustration, punching the wall for good measure. It left her whole arm stinging but didn’t make so much as a dent in the wall.

She tried to calm down. “So you caught me. It won’t last. You’re not the first to try. Nothing can hold me! I can’t be kept anywhere by anyone!”

“There’s a first time for everything,” came the patronizing answer. “Try not to live so much in the past.” It laughed. “Ha ha! Get it?”

Jeanie got it. But, as much as she wanted to, Jeanie couldn’t punch that person anymore than she could punch through the walls. Instead, she tore up the room, trying to find a weakness. She threw the old rocking horse at the fake door and crashed the lamp against the wall. Nothing. Literally, nothing. Nothing broke or even chipped. Not a scratch appeared on the wall. Everything seemed stuck in the state they’d been created in. Forget those. She’d use her hands, feeling for a door—they’d have to have a door if they wanted to run more tests on her—or did they intend to keep her here until she starved?

“There’s nothing you can do,” the voice said again.

“Now that is never true,” she muttered. There was always something you could do. She kept feeling all along the walls, trusting her fingers instead of her eyes until finally she found something, a microphone. “See?” she said, smiling. And she smashed her elbow into it.

It wouldn’t break.

Laughter.

“Okay, you’re really starting to annoy me!” She took her knife out and tried that. No use. She went back to kicking the walls, ramming them with her shoulders. If there was an electrical component to them keeping her in, maybe she could jar it long enough to break through.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” said the voice, its tone disturbing with its utter lack of worry. “I’ve got some scans to see to, after all.”

Jeanie didn’t know how long it was before she finally gave up. She sank down on the Strawberry Shortcake bedspread, exhausted. She really ought to bring explosives with her on these trips. There was no team coming to rescue her. They could not risk their connection being discovered with this one. That was their understanding anyway, before she came in and found out it was a trap.

Absently, she fingered the hole in her bedspread, then pulled her finger out when she became aware of the old habit. Tears pricked at her eyes. She blinked them back and held on to anger instead. Who were these people, adding such a personal humiliation to her capture? Had the scan really needed to work this way? In either case, it felt too much like treating a child with a tantrum. Stay in your room until you calm down! Mommy needs to run some tests. Except, her mother had never been able to keep her in her room. Hers wasn’t the safest gift to have as a child. How many times she wandered off onto the streets… Her mother had had to sing her to sleep most every night to keep her from leaving.

She leaned up against the wall, that impenetrable wall, and hummed one of her mom’s old tunes. Slowly, her heart calmed with the tune. I just wish I could see Brody one more time. The thought surprised her. No time like impending doom to clear up your love life. She pictured his hair, blowing wildly in the wind of the chopper. He was always flying. She could almost feel the vibrations of the helicopter now just thinking about it.

“What are you doing?”

Jeanie jerked up at the sharp interruption. Panic. That was panic in its tone. Hope flared and Jeanie realized the vibrations weren’t just her imagination. Could this be? Might the very same tactic her mother had used to keep her in now serve to get her out? Pressing herself firmly against the wall, she hummed more purposefully, the music thrumming not only in her chest and body but in the wall itself. But still, she wasn’t getting through.

The voice scoffed. “Well, maybe you should try a funeral dirge next. We’ve gotten all we need from you. Let’s see if you can materialize your way through acid.”

It can work, thought Jeanie. She’s desperate; I’m on the right track. Sprinklers sprouted from the ceiling. Ignoring them, Jeanie focused, feeling for the right vibration within her, within the wall. Yes! There it was! She hummed the low tone, disrupting whatever cancellation system they had in place to block her, causing it now to resonate in a helpful way.

Acid fell, the first drops sizzling on her hair, her skin, but Jeanie didn’t stick around for more. There was someone she needed to see.

After she threw out her old Strawberry Shortcake pillow, that was.

pencilValerie Lunt, a native Arizonan, always loved writing, although, for several years she confused that with hating it. Thankfully, she got that sorted out in time to choose English as her major at ASU. She just finished writing her first novel (YA fantasy) this year and is wrapping up her second. Email: valelunt[at]gmail.com

Little Big Man Speaks

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robert Walton


Photo Credit: Jerry and Pat Donaho/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Hector?

Yes, Marsha.

It’s hot.

Yes, Marsha.

It’s beastly hot!

Yes, Marsha.

We could skip the next stop, Crazy-something-or-other.

Crazy Horse.

Whatever.

He was a Lakota leader.

Whatever.

They lived here.

Look at George Washington’s nose. The sun is hitting it just right.

The Black Hills was their sacred place.

Just think of all those little men chipping away up there for years.

Marsha, I feel a little dizzy.

I never knew George’s nose was so big.

I think I’ll get off the bus, get some air.

The father of our country!

I am weak. The hoop of our nation is broken. At the center of the world, the holy tree is dying.

Hector, where are you going?

A dream of power awaits me. White Buffalo Maiden awaits me.

Hector! Come back this minute!

I stand beneath the holy spire and sing to the powers. Thunder beings, I climb to you! White Giant, I climb to you! Morning Star, I climb to you!

Stop! Those rocks are loose!

Hoka hey! I climb!

Hector, come down from there!

I am Lakota! It is a good day to die!

Hector, come down this instant!

The powers are with me! I am one with the rock.

Hector! You’re hundred feet up!

A spirit floats above me, wrapped in a buffalo robe. His eyes are covered with blue ice. He opens his mouth to speak, but his mouth is filled with blood.

Driver, do something!

Crazy Horse! Brother-Friend-Warrior-Chief, you made the hearts of the Lakota grow big when you were near.

Get help!

In the Moon of Making Fat we leaped on our ponies and fought the Wasichu soldiers. Long hair led them and they wanted to kill our women, our children, but we rubbed them out.

Call the rescue team!

The dust was like a thunderstorm. The bullets fell like raindrops. The big, gray horses screamed when the arrows pierced them. I drove my lance through a soldier. Another turned to shoot me. I put my six-shooter beneath his chin and fired. Then I saw you on your pony, Crazy Horse, dead Wasichus under you. Burning dust hid the sun.

Yes, Ranger Murchison, he just got out of the bus, walked over there and started climbing.

Pahuska led them but we rubbed them out!

No, Hector’s never climbed anything before in his life.

I climb to you, Crazy Horse. The cracks and holds hide from me. I must hunt them as I would stalk deer. My fingers are arrows. They pierce the hiding cracks.

He’s almost on the top. Do something!

Crazy Horse, the victory was ours! We rubbed out the Wasichus together, but the Wasichus are like the blades of grass on the prairie. We cut down hundreds; thousands chased us through the long summer. Grandfather Winter came and the children cried. They had nothing to eat. The Wasichus took our ponies; the Wasichus took our guns. We went with them to the fort, even you.

Get a helicopter!

They came for you during the Moon when the Calf Grows Hair. A hundred soldiers with guns watched you. You did not fear them though you had no gun. Your courage made them fear. Their eyes were round and yellow.

He’s climbing again!

Later they came to move you. I came with them, for I felt uneasy in my heart. They took you through the darkness to the little prison with iron bars. You saw where they meant to put you and you cried out. You pulled out your knife and made to attack all those Wasichus. Their guns with the long knives on them shone in the starlight.

I can’t look!

Brother-Friend-Warrior-Chief, I did not want you to die. When you raised your knife high, I seized your hand. We struggled. Though I am larger than you, as an old bull is to a yearling, your strength was equal to mine. I held your hand high, but I could not move it. A Wasichu soldier moved behind you. His eyes were yellow in the dark, yellow, yellow. His cap fell off as he thrust at you with the long knife on his gun. He stabbed it into your back. I felt it pass through you. Crazy Horse, I mourn for you!

He’s going to fall!

I mourn. The rock flies above me like a cloud.

I’m going to sue the government. There should be big fences to keep people away from those rocks.

Hoka hey! I hear you, Thunder Beings. Come to me now. Fill me with your power! Help me climb the holy spire! Hoka hey!

My God, thunder and lightning and rain!

Ha! Thunder power fills me! Winds lift me! My arms burn no longer, for cool rains wash them. I climb. Hand over hand, I climb. I thrust hard and leap into the storm’s heart. Lightning is my sacred path.

He’s on top!

I stand and raise my hands to the powers. Thunder Beings speak with voices like mountains falling. Their blue fire covers my hands, my arms.

Duck, Hector! Lightning!

You step down the lightning path to me. You are covered with blue fire. The ice is gone. The blood is gone. You sing:

The light river is my way. Behold!
The light river is my way. Behold!
Blue light flows around me.
I have come again. Behold!

Crazy Horse, you are here. Forgive me.

Ho, Little Big Man, do not be sad. It is beautiful on the other side. Soon you will come home with me.

I see the white hailstones leap up from the rock. Their babies’ faces smile with joy. Crazy Horse, the Wasichus promised us this land for as long as grass grows and water flows. I feel the Thunder Beings cross their mighty arms in the clouds above me and listen in silence.

Little Brother, the grass grew and the water flowed for eight years only. They came after the yellow metal that makes them crazy. The earth is our mother, but they cut her with their plows. They built their iron roads. They poison the rivers, the streams, all of the waters. Where can a human being now find water to drink that will not turn his blood black? Nowhere.

I feel maiden fingers of wind touch my breast.

They killed the buffalo, used none of the meat, and the power of our people spilled like buffalo blood into hot sand. Our young men drink the Wasichus’ whiskey; their lives are dust. Our young women flee from here and never learn the songs of their grandmothers. The earth cries under their burning wheels. The earth cries!

Crazy Horse, hear me. I held you when the Wasichu knife drank your life. If you had lived—

No, my brother, do not think this. I could not stop the white men. Nothing stops them.

Then why have you come here? Why have you called me?

Even when the knife went through me, I knew that you were my brother.

He held out his hands to me.

Know this! I hold your vision. Its fire is wisdom.

He opened his hands and on them lay a small sun.

A great change comes. The earth shall heal; the air shall be clean; the waters shall shine clear again. New snows will fall. Hear me!

The Wasichus will be rubbed out?

No, there must be peace between all. Even the Wasichus will become our brothers.

Crazy Horse, brother, how can this be?

Little Big Man. The Wasichus looked too closely at the things they could make. Their eyes became sick and blind to the earth, to the Great Spirit. Their eyes are withered now like leather that has lain for a season in the sun.

They will I never see.

No, soon they will see again. Soon they will know us. Our children’s children will help them to heal the wounds they have made. Then they will honor us.

How?

You will do this. Hold out your hands, brother.

I hold out my hands.

Take this fire.

The fire passes over my palms, but it does not burn. It is cool and soft like new snow first touching the earth.

It is a vision. Take it to the Wasichus. Show them clear light. Let it heal their eyes. Peace will come then and the world can become clean. Go now, my brother-friend.

I turn from him and step to the cliff’s edge. I cannot climb down while holding the vision in my hands.

Brother, ride the lightning as I have done. The Thunder Beings will carry you back to the world of men.

I look up. Two white beings grasp my arms with fingers like talons. I think that their touch will burn, but it is cool and gentle. They lift me. Blue light surrounds us.

No! Don’t jump, Hector! Somebody, stop him!

I soar! I see Wasichus below and their wagons with no horses. In light I am coming, behold!

Hectoooooooooooor!

The Thunder Beings mount the sky on wings of light. The light in my hands rushes over me. I am covered with light.

Hector?

The light fades.

Hector?

I raise my hands to the Six Powers and give thanks for the vision they have sent.

Hector, are you alive?

I give thanks to the Great Spirit.

I think you fell?

I thank Crazy Horse, brother-friend, for this vision.

It must have been the helicopter. Thank God for the helicopter!

I feel great weariness. I must eat. I must drink good water.

Oh, my God, Hector! It’s the rescue squad.

I will I take my vision to all the far places in the world, to all human beings, but first I must rest.

Hector, the helicopter is landing! This is embarrassing!

White Buffalo Maiden welcomes me.

pencilRobert Walton blogs at Chaos Gate. Email: dragonlemontree[at]sbcglobal.net

Sister’s Pact

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Clarissa Pattern


Photo Credit: Scott/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Scott/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“Do you think Mr. Grece is really a necomanner, Avice?”

My little sister’s hand felt a little more sweaty, a little harder to hold onto, in my grip.

“Necromancer. The word is necromancer.” I was trying to maintain the body language of someone marching forward with purpose. Which is difficult when you’re creeping more sideways than forward in the not-quite-black shadows before dawn, following a man who you’ve never said more than ‘Good Morning’ to before.

I took a deep breath, determined to maintain my role as big sister. The one in charge. “His name is pronounced Gree Ce.”

“Gracie,” she said. Her voice was quiet by her standards, but, oh, at a time like this it was still too loud.

“I know you could say it properly if you wanted to. Why do you persist in pretending that it’s adorable to not be clever, Beatrice?”

My eyes darted around everywhere as if they were expecting someone to be following us following him. Which was not complete paranoia. After recent events there were less than six hundred of us left. Five-hundred-and-eighty-eight. Everyone watched everyone else. We have to look after one another, they said. Are you dangerous? Could I kill you if I needed to? they thought.

And then he’d arrived. Or he’d always been here. But no one knew anyone who knew him. But no one could remember anyone who’d lived in the old End Cottage before him.

Beatrice’s singsong chanting bled through into my thoughts.

“Gracie Grecco Gracie Greasy Grecco…”

“Stop that!” I squeezed her hand in mine. Too tight. I knew and regretted immediately that she was hurting, by the fact she didn’t yell out, or whine. She stood up a little straighter and stared ahead.

It would have hurt her dignity to acknowledge her pain by an apology, instead I said, “We need to stay focused.”

“You believe he is can do… those things?” A visible tremor went through her body.

It surprised me that Beatrice who, when it suited her, could already swear in curses that made me blush, carried the village superstitions that talking in any detail about black magicks would damn your soul.

I didn’t tell my sister that she was asking the wrong question. That all questions were wrong. Because it was too late. It couldn’t benefit us to know what he’d want in exchange for raising the dead. It couldn’t make this journey any easier to be certain of what his necromancy involved. It would make it worse.

I knew in my heart that this cold morning shivering in pursuit of a stranger, with my sister’s hand in mine, could be the last moment of paradise for me.

“I explained to you. You know, that there are very precise rules about when you can approach a sorcerer and ask a favour.”

“Da says they’re just made-up stories to make life seem more interesting than it really is.”

“Well, we will ask Mr. Gre’ce and then we’ll know for sure, even if nothing else comes of this night.”

“Where is he?”

“Who? Where’s who?”

“The skinny Gracie man.”

I looked around desperately.

“You’ve lost him. You’ve lost him,” she said with real glee.

I managed to stop myself slapping her. “This was our chance. This was our chance. Don’t you understand, you stupid little girl?”

Something tapped me on the shoulder. It was definitely a something. I was slow to turn. Nothing there. But when I looked back at Beatrice, he was standing next to her, and he was holding her hand. I didn’t remember letting go.

“Perhaps your chance is still alive if you are a clever little girl.” His voice belonged to midnight, a sound that you hear waking from a nightmare in the darkest hours, something that you know you heard but you pretend was just imagination.

Before this moment I was certain we’d exchanged greetings before, the same as with any neighbour, but now it was as if I’d never heard or seen him before.

“We were following you,” Beatrice looked up into his face. “Did you know? Avice says we have to approach you at the exact right time to ask you our favour. If that’s right, can you change that time to after lunch. It’s too cold and too dark now.”

I wondered how she could gaze into those pale eyes without flinching.

“Were you going to the graveyard to dig up bodies for your magic? Or are you making an undead army?”

A second ago Beatrice would not have spoken such things aloud to me. Let alone someone worse than a stranger. Something had happened. And I’d missed it.

“Neither of those things,” he replied.

“You are a necromancer though, aren’t you? You do do black magicks, don’t you? I hope so, otherwise there’s no point us being here.”

“If you listen to the stars they always lead you to exactly where you’re meant to be.” In the shadows I caught a glimpse of what might have been a smile on his face.

I took a deep breath. Or rather I tried to take a deep breath. The cold night air did not touch my lungs. I felt for my pulse. There was nothing. On the outside I moved like normal, on the inside everything was completely still.

“What have you done?” I demanded.

“What do you wish me to do?” he replied.

I opened my mouth to scream at him to make me breathe again. But no. I had more restraint than to lose myself in front of a necromancer. I had to have. This was the moment. He had asked me what I wished for. The wording had to be perfect. Anything less than perfection would be… unthinkable. But I couldn’t think. All the words I had perfectly formed and polished and cared for and preserved awaiting this moment, all those words had turned immediately rotten and maggot ridden in his presence.

“My Daddy is dead,” I blurted out.

He yawned.

“I mean our father has passed. The… the thing that happened. He was one of the ones that got struck.”

He tilted his head. “So it was not a natural death.”

“Dad says all death is natural and nothing to worry about,” Beatrice piped in. “Dad knows…”

“She talks like he’s still alive, ignore her, she’s too young to understand,” I quickly interrupted her. “We need him back.”

The man clearly winked at Avice. She grinned back at him.

“Why not your mother?” The man turned his pale eyes on me. I almost preferred him winking at my little sister.

I swallowed. Except I didn’t. My mouth was dry as if all the water had been sucked out of me.

I had to say it. Nothing else would do. “Girls aren’t safe alone in this world. There’s people that’ll hurt girls if they think you’re not protected.”

He laughed, hearty and joyous. Beatrice giggled along with him. “I prefer women who know how to look after themselves, not ones that quiver in fear.”

If there was any water left in my body tears of rage would sting my eyes. “I don’t care what you prefer, just name your price and bring my father back.”

He continued to laugh, but his eyes flashed serious for an alarming moment. “What you are asking me, child, is against the universal laws of all land.”

“You don’t care about things like that, you are the scum who crawls along the bottom of misery and feeds on grief and deprivation.”

He shrugged the pointed bones of his shoulders. “You’re right, Avice, I don’t care.”

He walked away. With Beatrice happily skipping alongside him.

If I was capable of shouting, the whole world would have heard my cry.

Before the early morning mist swallowed them, Beatrice turned back and spoke in a voice of midnight wind. “The price has already been paid. Dad says he prefers being a ghost, but don’t worry I’ll talk him into returning to you.”

I fell to the ground and waited. I wouldn’t smile yet. But I was so lucky, there was no certainty that he would actually want the little brat. I had succeeded. I did smile.

pencilClarissa Pattern only exists when she writes. She writes through the night. Through the day she’s an essence in the mist of dreams. Her writing appears in books, online, and in little places where you’d least expect them. Email: clarissapattern[at]hotmail.com

The Garden

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Mark Neyrinck


Photo Credit: Drew Brayshaw (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Drew Brayshaw (CC-by-nc)

Plants, logs, and even trees whose roots gripped masses of earth raced each other down the brown, soil-laden river. The forest throbbed in the bright, humid air with the sounds of insects, birds, and whatever else the warm weather had brought from the South.

Eve had not needed a pelt on her morning stroll for over a month, it was so warm. She rested for a moment on a rare dry promontory of the trail next to the river, after managing to pass a particularly deep patch of mud.

Suddenly, her uneasy feeling became tactile. The ground was shaking; deep cracking sounds were all around. The ground supporting her began to slide. The river was breaking it off.

Almost before she was fully aware of the situation, her instincts had carried her waist-deep, back into the patch of mud she had so carefully circumvented. She watched the ground she had been on moments ago, carrying several small trees, break off and crumble into the river downstream.

When she returned to the village, she immediately called a meeting of the Council, but stopped first at home to wash off.

“Sorry,” she said to her husband, who had flinched when she entered the yurt. She must have been quite a sight, covered with rich, sun-caked mud, her eyes unusually ferocious.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, putting down the spearhead he was whittling.

“The Melt,” she said, softening the mud on her arms with some clean water. “It’s going too far. The river trail I have walked for so many years is now impassable. The river nearly carried me away with a chunk of earth this morning.”

“Oh, no, are you okay?” He moved the bucket of water closer to her, and helped her wash off.

“I’m fine. But the glaciers are not. The mammoths are not. I’m even afraid for the village; the river’s too close now.”

“You want to move the village uphill from the river?”

“For a start, yes. But the Melt needs to stop.”

“That is not for us to say.” His face tightened.

“Isn’t it?”

“We cannot question the Yahweh’s actions,” he said. His mud-cleansing caress slowed to a crawl.

Her eyes flashed. “We must get rid of it.”

He pulled his arms away, and whispered urgently. “It knows even our thoughts.”

“I’m not convinced of that,” she said.

“How many times have we discussed this? You know that without the Yahweh, we all would have frozen to death generations ago. And we owe so much else to it…” He gestured to the bucket of fresh water from the well, cleaned by the magical device the Yahweh had given to his grandfather. He then pointed to the magical hearth, so crucial in the winter. They had barely needed the hearth last winter, though.

“Yes, it seems so. But our tribe has survived horrible winters before. And it has been five generations since it saved us from freezing to death. Supposedly. How are we to know how bad that winter really was?”

“Do you accuse our ancestors of lying?”

“No, but truth has a way of evolving.”

He squinted at her, and sighed.

She grimaced, and whispered, despite herself. “The village up to the north. It was building its own fires, making its own tools. The rockslide that destroyed them was no accident.”

“If the Yahweh did that, all the more reason to be quiet. We are happy. We have not struggled for many years.”

She huffed, flaking the last of the visible mud away. “Adam. Maybe you’re content. But every time I bring an interesting creature home for study, it dies within the day, of no apparent cause. It’s so frustrating.”

“Our village has prospered…”

“Prosperity is subjective. We don’t have time for this argument. I called a meeting of the Council, and we can discuss it with the rest of them.”

“You might have told me that earlier,” he said, rising to change into his heavy formal cloak, despite the heat.

*

“I’m going for a walk,” Eve said after the meeting, as the Council exited the village’s large communal yurt, toward their respective homes. She squeezed her husband’s shoulder in conciliation. “Thank you for promising to try communication with the Yahweh.”

He smiled. “Anything for harmony, and for you.”

She turned away, toward a mountain trail. “Anything for” her, indeed. His concern for her was genuine, she knew, but even in trying to reassure her, he said “harmony” first.

As usual, the Council decided on no major action. But this time, they promised a major effort to repair the river trail. And, finally, Adam was going to attempt communication with the Yahweh. He was acknowledging that the situation had become important. Why would it only commune with him? Maybe it was not just the elected one that could commune with it. But that possibility could not be tested, since representatives from all the villages guarded it strictly. No one but each village’s elected one was allowed near it, and women were not even eligible for that role.

Eve had not scaled this mountain trail since last summer. The changes were even more dramatic than along the river. In her parents’ time, no one ventured up here, onto the giant ice mass. Now, though, only a few glaciers were visible. It was true, the location that supposedly the Yahweh had indicated to build the village was quite safe, not downhill from any rock or ice fields. But the river grew ever closer, and was almost as deadly. She had worked out that even next year, the rising, moving river could threaten the village. Thus far, the Yahweh had apparently volunteered no recommendation to move the village, but she had insisted that Adam bring up the topic.

She was not quite as nimble as she had been as she had been as a child, when she had carved this trail into the newly uncovered ground. The landscape was now a bit different on each hike. There were some new tricky spots, but she managed them. The trail even smelled different than before. New meadows were sweet with wildflowers. She had to admit some of the changes were good. But there was too much, too fast.

She reached an area where even last summer, there had been a glacier. Now, there was no sign of it. There was no trail through the new ground, so it took all her concentration to make her way through. Jumping across a gap, a loud hiss startled her. In her focused rock navigation, she had nearly trod on a snake, the venom on its fangs glistening in the sun. She backed away slowly, and made her way on an even higher route.

She reached a giant outcropping of red rock, also apparently uncovered just this year by the glacier. It was one of the biggest rocks she had ever seen, many times bigger than the village’s communal yurt. She decided to climb it, even though it had few handholds on its round, strangely smooth surface. It was as big a challenge as she had hoped.

At the top was a charming baby tree, maybe an apple tree. Delighted, she looked all around. This was perhaps the highest elevation she had ever reached on this trail. She could see almost the entire river that had nearly swept her away that morning. It sinuated all the way from its glacier-fed source to the horizon. She could see a distant mountain range that she had only seen a handful of times before. She could see maybe to the end of the world.

Satisfied, she began to make her way down the outcropping, when, for the second time that day, she heard a deep cracking sound, and felt the outcropping shift under her. She quickly determined a safe way off the outcropping, and landed nearby, with only a couple of scrapes. The round, giant rock outcropping seemed to remain intact, but she could see a few small rocks from its base tumble down the mountain.

Barely having recovered from that shock, she saw a short sequence of flashes of blue light below. Several seconds later, she thought she heard a corresponding clap of thunder. Squinting, she made out the source of the light, which she had not noticed before: a large silver dome. Was that the Yahweh? She had heard stories of unrighteous people throwing rocks at the Yahweh, in the form of a silver dome. According to the stories, the rocks had become blue light upon impact, and the blue light somehow destroyed the assailants. She had not been destroyed, as far as she could tell.

She looked in wonder at the giant rock that had nearly taken her down the mountain with it. A fissure, which apparently she had made, had developed between the rest of the mountain and the outcropping. She wondered what would happen to the Yahweh if the whole, huge rock had tumbled down the mountain, instead of just a few tiny pieces of it.

With enough adventures for the day, she made her way home, as tranquilly as she could.

*

It had taken a several-day pattern of nagging, and abstaining from nagging, to get him to go, but Adam at last had gone to commune with the Yahweh, and now returned.

He was looking at the floor. Not a good sign. “I raised the two important issues: the question of moving the village farther from the river, and whether the Melt was still necessary. It was the most aggressive I have ever been in a communion, and I sensed irritation about my audacity. It did not address our concerns. I tried all manner of offerings. I’m sorry, my love. There hasn’t been what I would consider a successful communion for over a year.”

She had never seen him so emotional; there was distress, fear, and even anger. And toward her, there was only love. She gave him a long hug. “That’s a shame.” The frequency of successful communion was low, but she had thought the urgency was as high as it had ever been. She noted that his words had seemed carefully chosen. “Did it say anything else?”

“As you know, often its messages seem to have nothing to do with what we find important.”

“What happened, Adam?”

She thought she could even see tears in his eyes. “I did have a vision. I saw you, casting red stones at it. Then, you perished in blue flames. I have never seen a particular person in a vision before.”

She snarled. “Am I correct to think that it was threatening me?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

“And you think that’s ok?”

He was shivering in anger. “No, I don’t.”

“Will we do nothing, then?”

“What can we do?”

“How about a hike, to clear the mind? I know of a place with a great view. We might be able to shake free a solution.”

pencilMark Neyrinck is a cosmologist in Baltimore, MD. He likes to write creatively sometimes, as a break from scientific writing. Email: mark.neyrinck[at]gmail.com

Parole

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Matthew Boyle


Photo Credit: StudioTempura/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: StudioTempura/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“…there’s only one rule, and it’s not a hard one to follow.”

Ellie nodded, smoothing out her scrubs. She looked past Mr. Fletcher, at the dark, filthy grime beyond the portal, at the endless hallway filled with enormous eyes and shivering, gaunt bodies. She swallowed.

“Miss Williams?”

“Yes. Yes. I’m listening.”

“Good,” Fletcher said, sniffling once. “Because this is important. You have 10,000 hours of service to complete. It should take you about three years. There’s only one rule you must follow. If you break it, we’ll send you straight back to your cell, where you’ll live out the rest of your sentence. Which, in your case, will be about 48 hours.”

Ellie clenched her jaw. “I know my own sentence. Let’s get this over with.”

She tried to walk past the enormous guard, but he seized her jaw. He leaned over her and frowned. She cringed, hating herself for it.

“No, little girl,” he said. “I don’t think you do understand, so let me explain it to you one more time. We don’t care if you kill anyone; most of them are going to die anyway. But it’s very important that they think you’re a medical professional. If you admit to anyone that you’re not a doctor—if you so much as whisper the words ‘I’m not a doctor’—we’ll know. And it will violate the terms of your parole. They need to believe you’re there to help.”

Ellie slapped his hand away. “You mean it’s important they think our government is helping.”

Fletcher stood back up, unconcerned. He folded his hands behind his back and looked at nothing in particular.

“There’s nothing anyone can do, Miss Williams. As I said, most of them are going to die anyway. Sending actual medical personnel would be a waste of resources and training. All they really need is someone to give out blankets and change IVs.” He smiled. “You can do that, can’t you? Needles shouldn’t be too much of a problem for you?”

“Fuck you, coward,” she said, and immediately regretted saying it. She stepped backwards, but Fletcher just let out a short laugh and turned his shoulder towards the portal. He nodded in its direction.

“Dr. Williams.”

Ellie gritted her teeth and looked at floor rather than look Fletcher in the eye. She brushed past him, and then walked through a pool of rippling blue into another world entirely.

 

One Year Later

Ellie leaned against a wall, wishing she were asleep. It was two o’clock in the morning, and the sounds of the hospital were muted. The hallway was filled with beds, IVs dripping into the arms of the sick, a forest of poles reaching towards the ceiling. Ellie folded her arms over her clipboard and stood back up.

Her anklet only counted hours when her full weight was on her feet.

“Please, doctor, there must be something you can do?”

She looked at the broad-shouldered man, tried to remember his name, and failed. She pasted on a professional look of sympathy instead.

“We’re doing everything we can, sir. We’re keeping her comfortable and hydrated. At this point, it’s just a waiting game.”

The man stared down at his thick-knuckled, grimy hands and shook his head. “That’s what you said about my daughter.”

“Sir, I will do everything I can.”

The man lifted his shaggy head. “Yeah?”

“Absolutely.”

The man whispered thank you and turned away, walking over to his son’s bed, just one among many. He said “thank you” again and again as he stood there, as if afraid any kind of silence might change Ellie’s mind. Eventually, she turned and headed towards the on-call room, walking through a sea of quiet coughing.

The people were sick with bacterial meningitis, Earth A strain. For ten years, scientists had known how to travel between parallel universes. At first, it was an exciting discovery for both sides: meeting alternate versions of history, people, and reality. But soon it was discovered that the biology of both Earths was just a little bit different—not much, but enough to turn illnesses from one world into death sentences for the other.

Travel between worlds was immediately restricted, but it was too late. On Earth B, where Ellie was stationed, bacterial meningitis spread like wildfire—95% of the infected died. The WHO of Earth A would likely have responded, but by then they were dealing with an aggressive complex-strain rhinovirus, a common cold from Earth B. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the meningitis nightmare, but it was bad enough to be fatal in almost 20% of all new cases. In only a short time, Earth A cut down medical aid to Earth B to a pittance.

And then, since it didn’t matter who they sent, they just started sending convicts in lab coats. Medical parole, it was called, and all you had to do was pretend to be a doctor. They simply did a few tests first to make sure your biology was close enough to Earth B’s so that you wouldn’t die right away. The tests were shit, of course. Most of her fellow convicts had died already. Sometimes, it seemed everyone in this world was dead.

Ellie entered the on-call room and sat on the lower bunk. She rested her head in her hands and began to quietly cry, saying over and over the same thing she said every day, desperately trying to break whatever rule kept her over here.

“I’m not a doctor,” she sobbed. “Please, I’m not a doctor. Please God, I’m not a doctor. Get me out of here.”

But, like always, nothing happened. And, as always, she remembered back to that sniffle Mr. Fletcher had had when she left her own world, and she wondered if there were any rules left to break anymore.

pencilMatthew Boyle is an adjunct English instructor who has worked at many community colleges, small private colleges, and small writing centers throughout the northeast United States. He writes quick stories in between classes and when traveling to classes at other institutions. It’s a nice way to relax, even when you’re writing about the end of the world(s). Email: matthewboyle1742[at]gmail.com

My Funeral

Alexander Pawlowski
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze


drunk ghost
Photo Credit: miss line

I had never seen my home so busy in my entire life and so quiet all at once. Guests were slowly moving from room to room, softly speaking to one another and sharing their condolences. I knew them by sight if not by name. Family friends most of them.

They’d brought casseroles, a strange tradition that I never quite understood, and some had brought soups and drinks. I suppose it’s a small kindness, to bring something of little value to a wake. Anything big would be out of taste and we’ve all found comfort in food at some point. I doubt it brought any comfort now, however.

Everyone gathered there knew better than to speak to me: a lingering ghost. If my heart grew too heavy, I would not be able to move on. Yet, by simply being there, I made it so much harder for myself and for them to let go.

Guests had taken it upon themselves to clean the house and bursts of magic flashed as stains and dust were cleared here and there. It was mostly just busy work for those who didn’t know what to do with themselves.

“Eva, I’m so sorry.” Marie-Lupus, a woman with the strangest name, burst in by the front door and latched herself to my mother. “I just got back from my vacation and my phone has just been filled to the brim with this horrid news. I am sorry I was not here earlier. Maybe if I had stayed and watched over Anna I—”

“No!” My mother said, all too loudly, eyes turning toward her. She added softly, “No. Do not blame yourself. It was an accident. It could have happened to anyone and if you had been there you might have been hurt. I was her mother; it was me that should have—”

“No, no. Shh.” Marie-Lupus rocked my mother back and forth. “Don’t say anything, ifs and buts will only make the pain worse.”

My mother let herself be comforted, her pale hands limp at Marie-Lupus’s side.

I should have left the house when I died, I knew. Seeing me only made things worse. I couldn’t, I thought, or maybe I wouldn’t. However, I could not see my mother in this state much longer and hastily made my way outside.

It was a bright afternoon, the sun and sky uncaring of the reigning chagrin down below. It was a good day for a get-together but the circumstances were certainly less than ideal. Chairs floated about as guests helped my father set up the yard for their final goodbye to me.

It must have been killing my father inside. No father should plan the funeral of his child. Horribly enough, it should be the other way around.

“That man is keeping everything inside,” commented Beau Lemieux, an immigrant from France I had only met twice. “I would be horrified if my own father shed no tears for me.”

“Hush,” said Barbara Pines, an old friend of my mother’s. “I have known Charles most of life and let me tell you that man is barely keeping it together.”

And how right you are, Barbara, I wanted to say.

I knew every crease, line, and wrinkle on my father’s face and most of them he earned from a lifetime of smiles and laughter. His stoic face was probably for everyone’s benefit, maybe more for mother than anyone else. This wake had to be done and he was going to hold it together until the last guest left before he dared break down and sob into the night.

His eyes turned to me accidentally and we locked gazes for a moment. I smiled, hoping it would be enough for him to know it was all going to be all right. The flicker of anger in his eyes startled me.

“Charles, I—”

A familiar voice spoke out from behind me and my father suddenly appeared directly in front of me. His fist flew and hit the man behind my shoulder.

It was Tom Livington, an old man who had been my teacher for over ten years. Nearly everything I knew of magic, I had learned from him. Most guests there, including my parents, would say the same. Tom’s nose ran with blood, and tears mixed themselves in. He lay still, flat on his back, not caring to defend himself against my father.

“How dare you show your rotten face here, Tom. We trusted you!” Father spat.

“You have no idea how I blame myself, Charles.” Tom’s voice was slow and steady but grief-stricken. He had known me for my entire life and taught me for ten years of it; he might as well have been family.

“Nowhere nearly enough, you worthless hack.” Father’s teeth were clenched, his body very still aside from the slight tremor on his head. If a man’s rage could cause spontaneous combustion, I knew my father would have at that very moment. “You said she was ready to practice on her own. You said it was safe, that she was talented and smart. Well look what happened, Tom! Anna died and it’s your fault!”

Tom made no reply, his gaze never daring to meet my father’s.

“Charley, leave the man be. You know there was nothing that could have been done. These accidents happen.” Uncle Barley put a hand on father’s shoulder.

“Not to us.” My father shook his brother away. “We should have given her more training; she wasn’t ready to practice by herself.”

“One of the most talented in her class and nearly seventeen. There was no reason not to let her. Remember how we practiced in our days? We were barely twelve and had no clue what we were doing. Hell, remember that time when—”

“So we should have died, not her!” Father stomped away and went back inside the house. Barley helped Tom to his feet and conjured out a white kerchief.

“Don’t worry, Tommy,” Barley said as he dabbed the blood off Tom’s nose. “He’s just grieving.”

“I know. We all are,” Tom whispered, tears freely running down his chin.

More people gathered about Tom and gave him all the comfort they could. Most had been his students at some point and cared for him well. I wish I could have comforted him, too. I knew it was not his fault, though, and him blaming himself hurt me more than I thought possible.

That old saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ spoke volumes at that very moment. You meet so many people over your life and each of them showing you something new about the world. It was at that moment I realized how close of a community this group of people had been.

Over at the rosebushes, Barbara Pines pretended to be interested in the blooming roses. My mother’s friend who disliked nature for being dirty and squealed at the mere sight of a ladybug. I barely remembered her; it must have been three years ago when she taught me how to magic away dirt and stains from clothes and carpets. I don’t believe I even thanked her and thought it was a silly trick though I ended up using it more than I could count.

Crowley Small, a tall man ironically, was practically my second uncle. When I had needed a babysitter, he had been first in line to take care of me. When I needed help in school on projects he would stop by and help if my parents could not. If I was ever sick, he came and took care of me while my parents went to work.

I glanced over at Tom, now sitting on the porch stairs with a bloody cloth pressed against his nose. A dear old man, I had always liked him from the first days of school. I wondered if this was the first time he had lost a student. He had taught me everything I knew about the world and magic and I had worked hard to make him proud. It’s a shame things ended this way. A terrible accident. I wished he did not blame himself.

“Let me see, please.” Tom suddenly said as my Mother appeared in the doorway, Marie-Lupus at her heels.

“Tom, I—” Mother began.

“I need to see the place, Eva, where Anna died. If she died because of something I taught her, because of homework or practice, I could not live with myself. I don’t want to see that place but neither can I calm myself thinking I’ll never know.”

It was then I noticed the bags under Tom’s eyes. Poor man must not have caught a wink of sleep all night, spending it twisting, turning, pacing as he tried to convince himself my death had nothing to do with him. I was sorry to see he hadn’t managed to.

“Just past the trees, there.” My mother pointed toward the wild woods at the far end of the property. “She always liked practicing around nature. Said her powers were more in tune there than anywhere else.”

Tom nodded before rising. “Thank you.”

I walked beside him as he made his way to where I had died. He gave me a few glances but his eyes were soft rather than disapproving. I really should have been doing my best to interact as little with them as they did with me but I couldn’t. Not yet.

“I—” He mouthed a few words, unable to say what he wanted. “I know better than to speak to the dead. No good comes out of it. We all wish we could though; it would be nice to have just one last moment. Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to relive the memories in my head.”

That cheating, darling old man. We all knew the risk of my heart growing so heavy that I could never move on from this earth, but still his words spoke to me of his love for me and that gave me some comfort. Even if he had never addressed me, it was nice to be spoken to. Death is a lonely thing.

We stopped at the small clearing, my home still visible through breaks in the trees. It was there that I did most of my magic practice, safe and far from anyone who could get hurt if something went wrong.

Tom gave me a weary look before closing his eyes and studying the remnants of my magic. It was artful the way he did it, precise and delicate, absorbing more knowledge in seconds than most could in an hour.

I knew he wouldn’t find anything. Nothing had gone wrong. I just forgot something and I still couldn’t remember what. It’s strange, knowing you killed yourself without knowing how. I almost wanted to laugh at how absurd it was.

“It collapsed,” Tom said, as his eyes flickered open. “A simple containment field to keep magic confined within it. It’s not even harmful. Unless…” He looked at me, wanting to ask questions but did not. “I don’t know why it collapsed. I’ve seen Anna do it hundreds of times and never has it been done wrong. Even if it had, the odds of death are astronomically small. Did it drain every drop of power from you so fast your mind simply shut down? Could such an impossible accident have taken you from us?” Tom shook his head and started walking back toward the wake. He had found his answer; the universe had conspired against me.

Is that what happened? The universe decided my time was up and killed me in the most unlikely way? How did I even mess up such a simple construct? Had I been in a hurry or perhaps I got lazy? No, that did not sound like me but I must have. I’d done something wrong and here I was a ghost that caused so much grief and pain.

As I returned to the yard, all the chairs had been set in rows and most were occupied by the many guests. Tom sat alone, looking forlorn, and Barbara Pines was sobbing uncontrollably. At the sight of my body, I supposed.

There, on a table covered by a white sheet, I lay with my hands crossed. My mother had dressed me and washed and brushed my hair one last time. It must have been so hard for her. If anything could prove her love and strength, it was how peaceful, clean, and elegant I looked in my white dress. If no one had known I had died, they would have thought me asleep.

My mother approached and looked at my body. She moved slowly, as if not really believing what was happening. No one could blame her.

Everyone waited for her, as she caressed my face one last time. She was going to give me my eulogy, a terrible role for any mother. It should always be the other way around.

“It should have been me,” she said plainly before turning to face the crowd. “What mother would not give her life or anyone else’s for that of her children. We here are all witches, warlocks, wizards, and everything in between. How hard could a time travel spell or a resurrection spell be? Her soul is still with us, I’m sure you all noticed.”

No one but my mother dared look at me.

“But if we have any wits at all, we’d know such things cannot be done without consequence and if any of us sacrifices for her another would sacrifice for us as well—a never-ending cycle of death and grief.”

No one said a word, eyes glued to my mother and her tear-stricken face. I took a step forward but stopped, unable to believe what I was hearing. I wanted to beg her to stop and try to remember the good things.

“The worst of it, is that now I see her dead face here in this coffin and her face staring at me at this very moment. I know she can hear me, and I know she could speak if she chose to. But, Anna has always been a smart girl.” Mother’s tone softened. “She loved school, she loved to learn, and she had a big heart. She would not want us to grieve in anger or to do anything stupid and dangerous to get her back. She understood the costs of magic well and knew how to be careful.”

A few heads nodded in agreement.

“We may never know what happened or why my poor lovely Anna had to die. It was a terrible accident that will be with us for the rest of our lives but I hope she knows that despite our anger, grief, and questions that our hearts will heal though the scar they bear for her will always be remembered fondly until we join her in the heavens.”

It felt like a weight had been lifted over everyone. Her words were brimming with tears and the love she bore for me shone right through everyone that had gathered. Father looked over to Tom and smiled. Tom nodded at the solemn apology.

“Horrible things happen and this horrible tragedy struck home for us. Despite the anger and sadness, I hope my beautiful daughter Anna can rest in peace knowing we will always treasure the memories of her.” Mother’s eyes looked to me and so did everyone else.

I nodded and smiled at them all as I made my way down to my body and with each step felt light and warmth engulf me. Despite my fear of losing my family and their harsh actions earlier today, my mother’s eulogy for me made everything clear. Though the sadness ran deep that no one, even I, will ever understand how or why I died, they would continue to love one another and treasure the life that I had with them.

I found peace the moment they made theirs.

pencilAlexander M. Pawlowski is a Canadian-based writer with years of experience in editing and proof-reading for published and unpublished writers. He writes stories where characters move the plot along rather than the story moving the intrigue. He believes a story is as captivating as its characters and strives to show the good and bad of humanity as they deal with themselves and their environments. Email: alexander.m.pawlowski[at]gmail.com

A Small Miscalculation

Amelia Diamond
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver


Silvery Cube_wb43_6527
Photo Credit: Klaus Riesner

Over the weeks she would occasionally review Mala’s lengthy apology, turning it over in her mind, looking for an emotional response that never came. She should feel hurt, angry, sad, something, anything—but the words that told of the end of their love may as well have been pebbles or leaves or dust. She would come home to her tiny ninety-first floor studio apartment with the bed still out and unmade and the sink full of dishes and stand at the windowscreen, which was always set to show a view onto the beach. Not the bright sunny white sand and crystal blue breakers beach, but always an inhospitable stretch of beach near San Francisco, low grey-blue sky, dull brown sand and jagged grey-brown moss-covered boulders with the smudged dark blue of rain on the distant horizon. As a teenager that beach had been a place of safety and solitude where she could pretend for a little while that the world wasn’t falling apart, that she wasn’t falling apart. She’d sit on one of the many uncomfortable damp rocks and look out across the sea, letting her eyes defocus until everything became a blur of grey light and white noise that she could fade into and, for a few precious moments, become nothing at all.

That was where she’d first met Mala, although it was several years later that they fell in love. Mala, always so curious, had come to that least-friendly of beaches to take samples of the rocks and the seawater as it broke on them. It was a science fair project, asking whether the increasing acidity of the seawater was causing increased erosion of the rocks that in so many places along the northern coast prevented large sections of land from slipping into the ocean. The boulders on the beach being more easily accessible than the sheer cliffs she was really interested in, she had come to that particular stretch of coastline to collect data.

Mala’s curiosity was boundless, even then, and she’d nearly forgotten to collect her samples for fascination with the strange girl she’d discovered meditating on a tall rock whose base was encrusted with barnacles. She looked like she had always been there, like she was a rock herself. Even her skin, pale brown dusted with damp grey sand stretched over prominent sharp bones, matched the surface on which she perched.

Their conversation lasted until the sun was low. Michelle helped Mala to gather her samples and they said good night. After, on the walk home, Michelle realized she had spoken more to the wiry intense girl than she had spoken to anyone in a very long time.

Now that beach was one of the many places that were not safe for people to visit. It had been at least thirteen years since Michelle had felt damp, dirty sand under her feet. She’d been in LA when it all went down, so she’d ended up in Bunker Hill, at first as a temporary resident until it became clear that there really wasn’t anywhere else she could go. So she spent her days monitoring surveillance footage from twenty-six simultaneous camera feeds, watching for anything important. Her knack for spacing out was very helpful; being completely unfocused made it easy to follow all twenty-six feeds without being so focused on one that she’d miss anything on the others. She was considered quite good at her job and was a semi-official supervisor and on-the-job-trainer of other employees.

She spent some evenings organizing and attending munches, strictly vanilla social gatherings for the local kink scene, including one specifically for trans* and gender non-conforming people. She was involved in a rope bondage club that met regularly to practice various knots and bindings on each other. She spent a lot of time on her computer, watching at a distance the lives of her remaining friends and family, some of whom she’d most likely never see in person again, watching cartoons from when she was a kid, and reading depressing and infuriating news articles. And, until a year ago, being with Mala.

There was a time when she’d practically been a celebrity. The wondrous Mala Desai, probable savior of humanity, greatest mind of her generation, inventor of the materials and techniques that made possible the nanotech with which Bunker Hill and so many other arcologies had been created. When an Indian-American lesbian did what no white man had managed to accomplish and halted the collapse of civilization just in time a great many figurative heads exploded.

Michelle, as her androgynous mixed-race girlfriend, was the icing on the cake. Mala always told people that Michelle was her muse, which was sweet but untrue. Mala was her own inspiration. People would occasionally ask her what Mala was really like in person. She’d always give the same answer: “Mala makes me care about things I’ve never noticed. She’ll get interested in something and suddenly it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. You can’t help but go along with her and end up in this place where everything is wonderful and new.” Mala’s personality was as powerful as the ocean and as good for making Michelle disappear.

Mala had ended the relationship suddenly and quite publicly with no explanation. Her reasons became clear one month later, when the President made the announcement. Our efforts to change our ways, to halt the march of climate change and ocean acidification and soil erosion and water pollution and overfishing and all of it had been in vain. A heretofore unknown set of chemical processes had been discovered occurring deep in the ocean, like an alarm clock set by some ancient god with a horrid sense of humor. It was a rapidly spreading set of reactions made possible by the increased temperature and acidity and decreased salinity of the ocean. The seawater was removing more carbon from the atmosphere than before, a discovery that was initially greeted with hope. But then it was noticed that the water was releasing large amounts of hydrogen cyanide, an extremely toxic gas. It was soon discovered that the reaction would continue indefinitely, not reaching equilibrium until long after the atmosphere became too toxic for humans to survive.

Some people were moved to heroic action. There were companies working on giant fans to buy a few more years before the toxic gas sterilized the city, developing ways to make it possible for the fans to survive the intense storms. A space tourism business created a contest: The first person or organization to produce a truly usable design for a permanent orbital colony would receive ten million dollars and a guaranteed spot on the colony after it was built. An artist built a digital clock nine stories tall showing the countdown until the current estimate of when the air would be unbreathable in this part of LA. It was the same all over the world.

Some people dove headlong into hedonism. The munches were suddenly much more popular and needed much more supervision. Every day on the bulletin boards near all the elevators there were new fliers for all sorts of parties and events, most of them involving various combinations of music, alcohol, and sex. Others chose self-destruction. Deaths due to drug overdoses quadrupled. And there were suicides, of course. Some clever person had written IP next to the ‘R’ button in all the elevators; ‘R’ for roof of course.

The giant clock said there were at least two years left. Most people just continued with their lives. Michelle was one of these.

The day the letter had come had been a satisfying work day in which she had alerted authorities to two muggings, an attempted rape, a theft of several candy bars, and a potential heart attack. She sat on her always-unmade bed, comfy on a lumpy pile of blankets. It was five months ago today that Mala had dumped her on TV. It was three-and-a-half since the Announcement, as everyone called it. She opened her laptop and signed in, username Serafine, password SaltPoint. On those rare occasions when she really focused on something she’d tilt her head forward and squint slightly and rock back and forth. Her rocking would have been undetectable except for her shoulder length braids. She maintained them, perhaps unconsciously, at exactly the right length for the frequency of her gentle rocking to set them swinging in a way she found pleasing when she noticed it at all.

Still in her work clothes, comfortable grey linen pants and blouse, Michelle briefly scanned her new emails. There was one from a name she didn’t recognize, apparently a real person. She opened it, read it, read it again, and looked past the screen at her beach, at the ocean that would kill her. Then she read again:

Michelle— I wanted to tell you why I had to let you go. I’ve been writing and rewriting this for weeks. I guess you have a pretty good idea about why we can’t be together anymore. I’m not really allowed to have a private life now. Just work work work and save the world again. Really, they won’t let me see you. Too distracting. They forget I was distracted by you when I figured out how to make arcologies work. But no, there’s more. I needed to protect you. They’ve been talking on the news like it’s a naturally occurring process. It’s not.

Do you remember that first time we met? That science fair experiment? While I was working on it I had an idea about maybe being able to use ammonium chloride from undersea vents and fertilizer runoff to produce sodium carbonate which would help pull carbon from the atmosphere and counter some of the acidification of the ocean too. But I couldn’t see any way to make it work so I just kept it in the back of my mind all these years. With the nanotech we’ve been developing recently it started to seem possible. Imagine if we could have outdoor farms again! No more Category 7 hurricanes. Trees on the hillsides, no more mudslides and flash floods and having to stay inside every day. Imagine if we could go back to that beach in real life.

Last year, June 13, we started our first experiment in a saltwater tank up on Floor 118, and it worked. Michelle, I swear it worked beautifully for months. So we released them, little nanotech robots, I call them chembots. It was very exciting, we shot them out into the ocean with a rocket. And it seemed to be working, with the weather it was too hard to actually get out on a boat and check of course. But the experiment was working so well! Until I popped up to check on it and the whole room smelled like almond extract and my research assistant nearly died.

I don’t know what went wrong. I was sure I’d thought of everything. Can you believe that? I guess I’m the only person who could outsmart me. Of course we’re supposed to spend every moment working on it. It’ll probably get worse, the chembots are made to reproduce and disperse. The truth is, there’s no way to stop it. I think and think and I can’t imagine anything that could even begin to help without being just as bad. Sooner or later it will come out that I did this and I can’t subject you to what will happen when it does. I love you, always will. Wish me luck.

Mala

Michelle sat, doing her best to not exist, until her phone rang. It was Samantha, a good friend who’d moved in for a week to keep Michelle company after Mala left her. Samantha wondered whether Michelle might be interested in seeing a movie this evening with her and her friend Cadence. The movie was predictable and dull and starred some heartthrob white male actor doing dangerous things so he could have sex with some hot white woman who only had three lines. But still, feeling annoyed and marginalized was better than feeling nothing. She went home with Cadence, a petite and fiery woman with green hair spiked in every direction, who lived down on the thirty-ninth floor. Her windowscreen showed a futuristic cityscape of gleaming chrome skyscrapers with sleek curving silhouettes stretching up to the sky. There were flying cars and a park with mushroom-shaped structures covered in fruit trees and grapevines and with benches circling the stems. People walked past on the sidewalks, outside, the way they used to, wearing shiny plastic-looking clothes in bright garish colors or billowy black dresses with hundreds of LED stars. There were even huge video billboards with beautiful Japanese women smiling and holding up objects that might have been kitchen appliances or futuristic weapons while katakana text scrolled across their faces.

Cadence, wine bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other, saw Michelle staring. “Do you like it?”

“What’s it supposed to be?”

“City of the future. Loosely based on Tokyo.”

“Oh. Do people still live in Tokyo? It must be really bad there.”

“Yeah, got a couple friends there I talk to on the interweb. They have a few arcologies. Not as romantic looking as those sexy skyscrapers and no flying cars. I guess there never will be. I guess this is all the future we’re gonna get.”

Later that night as Michelle dissolved into sleep she heard quiet crying. With an effort she came back to herself, remembered where she was and all that had happened and who was lying next to her. She snuggled close to Cadence’s back and wrapped her arms around her, narrowly avoiding being poked in the eye by Cadence’s hair. Cadence immediately rolled over and pressed her face into the space between Michelle’s shoulder and breast. Her warm little body quivered and twitched while she sobbed. Michelle stroked her hair with her free hand and didn’t say anything. She felt every tear as they rolled down into her armpit. Finally Cadence’s shaking stopped and her breathing became deep and slow. Michelle continued to hold her, long after her arm went numb, wide awake for the first time in a very long time.

It was nearly a year later that the secret got out. Riots are difficult in arcologies, there just isn’t any single place with enough room. But groups of violent, angry people wandered around breaking things and getting into fights. Three days later Michelle heard the news that Mala was dead. She’d either jumped or been thrown from the roof. Up until then Michelle had held onto some hope that things might actually work out. The giant fans were up and running, the orbital habitat was under construction, the arcologies were all being refitted to be completely sealed from the outside, with air locks and sealed tunnels connecting to other nearby arcologies. None of those were real solutions, of course, but they were buying time for Mala, who had never been defeated by anything. Michelle knew that without Mala there was no hope. Everyone knew it.

Then Michelle was summoned. She was to go to Level 214, a level which was not accessible to ordinary citizens. When she pressed the button in the elevator, red-and-gold where nearly all the others were blue-and-green, her retina was scanned. The doors opened onto a wide open area with real windows. There were groups of people and equipment in bunches throughout the vast space. A man in a black suit looked up when the doors opened and came over, a grim expression on his gaunt face.

“Miss Deveaux. Welcome. Thank you for coming. I’m Chris Klein, CIA Operations Director for Bunker Hill. Please come with me.”

Chris Klein led Michelle over to a window. She had never seen so much glass in one place. The view was toward the ocean. They were well above the scattered dark clouds that were out on this unusually clear day. Across the ocean the sky looked like a bruise, purple and swollen forever in every direction. Looking down, she could see the outer wall of the massive stepped pyramid she shared with 200,000 other people. Michelle was offered a chair and Chris Klein sat next to her, both facing the magnificent window. Michelle shivered. The room was quite cold. She wondered for a moment whether there even was such a thing as a sweater anywhere in all of Bunker Hill, where the air was always perfectly conditioned to match a normal September day in LA.

“I’m going to cut right to the chase, Miss Deveaux. Just before Mala Desai committed suicide she made this.”

He held up a metal cube that looked like tarnished silver. It looked to be about six inches on a side. He offered it to Michelle, who took it and nearly dropped it. It was much heavier than it looked. She turned it over and over but there were no markings on it. “What is it?” she asked.

“We were hoping you’d know. She left a note. All it said was, ‘Give Michelle the cube. She’ll know what it means.’ So here’s the cube. Are you sure you don’t know what it is?”

“I’m sorry, I have no idea. We hadn’t spoken in a long time.”

“You of course understand how urgent it is that anything at all made by Miss Desai be understood and in our hands?”

“Yes, of course.” She made to hand back the cube, but Chris Klein held up a hand. “Keep it. She wanted you to have it. We’ve been trying to get it open and we’ve gotten nowhere. There are more important things for us to be working on. It’s yours and it could be it’ll only do whatever it’s supposed to do for you. It probably is just a sentimental thing, though; everyone knows she was crazy about you. But if it turns out to be anything other than a big shiny cube, you call me immediately, night or day, you got that?” He handed her a business card printed on thick plastic. “All right now, get out of here. Thanks for your time.”

Riding the elevator down, Michelle examined the strange cube. It seemed solid. Mala had always liked giving Michelle enigmatic little gifts and watching her try to figure out what they were supposed to mean. When Michelle got home she put the cube on the little table next to her bed and sat facing it, leaning on the windowscreen. She focused on a point somewhere in the distance and let her eyes relax, let everything blur into pure texture and let the cube slip unfiltered into her mind. Eventually she returned to herself with no new insights and gave up for the day. The cube sat by Michelle’s bed for six weeks. She mostly ignored it, only occasionally wondering what Mala had meant to say to her. She preferred to lose herself in her daily routine and the cube was somehow jarring when she really paid attention to it.

One Saturday evening Cadence stopped over. They hadn’t seen each other or spoken since that night when Cadence cried herself to sleep in Michelle’s arms. Time was running out and neither wanted to sleep alone any longer. When she came into Michelle’s apartment she picked up the cube and sat down at the foot of Michelle’s bed, next to the windowscreen. “What the heck is this?” she asked as she turned it over and over.

“A very strange gift, I guess. From Mala.”

“Oh.” Cadence stood to put the cube back and to hide her discomfort at being reminded that she was planning to share a bed with the ex-lover of Mala Desai, the woman who’d doomed them all.

“Stop!” Michelle’s barked command startled Cadence into dropping the metallic cube. “Sorry. Please pick it up and then hold still, right there. Please.”

Cadence did as she was bid. She was watching Michelle’s burning brimming eyes, so she didn’t see the windowscreen, where Michelle walked into view carrying the cube and bore it into the water, carefully placing it so that it touched one of the larger boulders. Something greenish began to flow out of the cube as the large boulder seemed to glitter. Then the scene ended and the windowscreen again showed the empty beach.

Michelle stalked up to Cadence and kissed her hard. “You have to go. I need to think.”

Cadence placed the cube back on the table and stalked out, suppressing the desire to break things on the way.

Why would Mala have done it this way? If she found a solution why wouldn’t she just tell the people she worked for? It didn’t make any sense. It couldn’t just be a simple solution, there must be some reason why she wouldn’t have trusted her superiors with the cube. Michelle brought it close to the windowscreen again and watched the scene play out, looking for more information. Then it occurred to her to turn on the volume. Like most people, she normally kept her windowscreen muted. This time, as the scene played, she heard Mala’s voice.

“Trade one apocalypse for another. The problem with our nanotech is that once it’s released, if it spreads there’s no easy way to stop it. These will disassemble the chembots and cannibalize the metals to make more of themselves, maybe even before everyone dies. But of course after that they’ll disassemble other metal things. You can imagine what that means. I’m sorry to give you this choice. Maybe it’s better for us to die than to have to face this. It’ll only work for you. I trust you to make the right choice, if there is a right choice. I love you. Goodbye.”

Michelle switched the channel on her windowscreen to show what she’d see if it were a real window. The sky was dark, low swirling clouds to the horizon. Rain fell in a torrent like a waterfall, nonetheless blown sideways and sometimes even back upwards as the wind gusted. Something large flew by, possibly one of the few cars that hadn’t already been blown away. Huge bolts of lightning again and again struck the many tall metal towers that emanated like porcupine quills from the Hollywood arcology, leaving blue-white afterimages in her vision. It was a typical day in LA and a long way to San Francisco. She guessed she was going to need a raincoat.

pencilAmelia Diamond has worked as a gardener, environmental and agricultural consultant, energy auditor and environmental activist. She produces electronic experimental noise music, occasionally performing live with one of several bands. Mostly she works as a mom of two along with her partner of 14 years. She has been telling stories her whole life but only recently began writing them down. Amelia frequently publishes short stories on her blog. Email: yasha20[at]gmail.com