Alice in the Machine

Author: Bryce Paradis

“Please hold still.”

Why am I here, in this machine? The dim tunnel enveloping me sings crazy, electric birdsong. It twangs like a guitar, screeches like a klaxon, hisses like radio static, and screeches again.

“We’re establishing your baseline. Please try to think of as little as possible.”

I think of nothing except thinking about nothing, which will have to be good enough.

“Okay, now we need you to focus on a poorly performing memory. Something that doesn’t come easy. Anything that feels confusing or hard to grasp.”

When I was a child, I had a church dress that I hated wearing. On my wedding day, I wore a strapless dress that my mother disapproved of. I married Derrek, whom she didn’t approve of, either. We have two daughters. Their names are … The eldest … She’s twenty-five? Is she married, or is that me in the strapless dress? She must be married, I’ve seen her with her husband. She has gray hairs now, little strands of silver amid the auburn. Only, it’s 2055 … We just celebrated our twelfth anniversary. None of this should be possible.

“We’re building the bridge now.”

Precious light blooms inside my head, warming my body and illuminating the world. The year is 2091. My daughters are Melody and Amelia. They are fifty-two and forty-nine years old. Melody has the most beautiful grandchildren, two boys and a girl. Little Skyler is already in high school, and he’s so tall! Amelia’s paintings, oh … Suns rising out of oceans, white-spotted deer in the trees. And Derrek is here! He’s in the other room. They got him to come!

The machine twangs. It screeches.

“Good job, Alice. We got a nice map. We’re going to try a different bridge now.”

I’m in a tunnel, why are they saying it’s a bridge? My hands are cold. Why are there such terrible sounds? Humming and squawking … An electric bird? A snapping guitar? Why am I alone? Where’s Derrek? I want to see my mother. Why did they take me away from my mother?

The light blooms inside my head. My hands warm. I take a deep, calming breath.

“How’s that, Alice?”

“Very good, thank you.”

This rickety brain of mine, it’s done me wrong. Too many poisoned neurons, too many dead wires and frayed connections. It’s been so long now, more than half my life. Everyone has worked so hard to get me here, inside this tunnel, inside this MRI that can talk to nanomachines. It’s such a wild gamble, such a desperate attempt, and so expensive! Then again, Derrek’s paying with his money, so that’s fair. If you don’t stay, the least you can do is pay.

Maybe that’s too harsh. I wasn’t entirely there, either.

“This all looks very promising, Alice. We’re taking you down to baseline.”

The light fades. I’m cold.

These terrible sounds … like a klaxon, like a bird gone mad …

Why am I here, trapped in this machine?


Author: Faye Zhang

Warm sand on the beach. The remnants of dead volcanoes, smooth and sharp all at once. Rows of the shadowed silhouettes of pine trees, jutting up into a blushing evening sky. Her house, shaky on stilts, bleached bone white by ocean sun. Home.

The tinfoil craft begins to shake and sputter. The low fuel light blinks persistently in the corner of her vision. She looks up from the faded photograph, clutched tight between trembling fingertips. She swallows down the fragile understanding of a landing sometime in the very near future, and holds on to the metal rails that encase her more fragile body.

Soon, she will step out into a world newer than new. She will find moss green lakes or perhaps scarlet sky. Perhaps wasteland mountains, rocks stripped bare of life, a world raining dust instead of water. Perhaps.

A pink light floods the window of the spacecraft. To be the first. That thought drives an insatiable, cavernous hunger that threatens to swallow the space between her ribs. She focuses on the dark, blurred horizon that begins to come into view. Begins to take shape and line, begins to resemble rows of jagged teeth.

The first, she thinks, and maybe the last. Her fingers curl tighter around the cold metal of the bars. The thought leaves her breathless. Eager, maybe. Scared, almost. Her eyes flutter shut. She can feel the pull of the land beneath the craft. A new gravity, a stronger gravity, drawing her in, daring her down.

She waits for the painful jolt and anticipates the sudden stillness. She gets what she waits for.

Her tongue darts out, licking the dryness of her lips, tasting the salt of her sweat. Her grip loosens. In, out. In. Her lungs are full to bursting.

The door clicks open.

Warm sand. Rows of pine. A pink light so bright it threatens to blind.

Dozens of stilts snapped in half, edges rough and splintered like broken toothpicks, forgotten stakes driven deep into the ground.

She steps out into a world newer than new.


Author: Nickola Anne Walker

We sat waiting for him in the kitchen for several hours. Father called everyone, looking for his son. Many of my brother’s friends came and left. He remained seated, his face tired, while he listened. Listening. There was so much to say. Why had they fought over such a trivial thing? Why had he left? Had he taken his girlfriend? Where did they go? Now, father just listened – for maybe the first time ever – his legs quivering in both anger and fear. Guilt was written all over his face. His son was gone. Nobody knew where.

Only after everyone had left did mother turn to father. “You know what he did, don’t you?”

“No. He was angry. He didn’t tell me where he was going to. I have my suspicions. But they are only that. Suspicions.”

“You finally drove him away. He is gone.” Her face was resolute.

“Then his is probably gone.”

“How could you be so terrible?” she stormed off, crying.

“You have made a horrible mistake Father.” I blurted out. “He will leave, and we will never see him again.”

“Everyone comes of age. Everyone must find their own way in this universe.” Trying to sound callous, he just looked small and sad. His son. Gone. Never to return. I had never known my father to show regret but it was written all over his face.

With a tiny bit of pride, he was certain his son would survive where many failed. Together, they’d built heat shields to protect against solar and ultraviolet radiation. Without these, any chances of survival would be burned down and destroyed. But he had helped Brother with his school project. Interplanetary travel. Geological starships. Make a spore that can tolerate the low temperatures and dangerous conditions. Then plunge into space, hoping you eventually hit something. Something that allowed for life. They worked together on it. He knew his son would survive.

The neighbors came. They were crying. Their daughter was nowhere to be found. Clearly, they had run off together. Young lovers. They both yelled at Father; they would never forgive him for splitting up their family. They threatened some sort of judicial something or other. Father just nodded.

“He’s gone.” Father looked tired. He went to comfort Mother.


“After many studies of the Ryugu asteroid, Japanese scientists now believe the origin of life here on Earth might have been brought by an asteroid.”


Author: Phil Temples

“What about her, Joey?”

Dickie and I watch an old lady shuffle slowly down the sidewalk near the park. She looks ancient. Dickie comments that she must be at least eighty years old. I’d peg her as older. She looks as wrinkled as a prune. I don’t have to get close to her to know that she’s probably wearing some stinky old-lady perfume. Somethin’ about old ladies that makes them want to smell sweet. Maybe their noses don’t work right when they get old, I don’t know. She’s wearing a red winter coat despite the fact that it’s a warm spring day. I reckon she’s probably sweating like a pig. The real object of our attention, however, is the oversized handbag she’s holding in the crook of her arm. The strap is hanging loose

Good. An easy mark.

“We’ll probably have to spend five minutes just going through all of the junk in her bag to get at her wallet,” I say.

“Hey, that’s half the fun, isn’t it?”

I shrug my shoulders. Dickie’s probably right.

I check the sidewalk in both directions, and across the street. There are no pedestrians in sight, other than some guy a block down the street walking away from us.

“The coast is clear,” I say. “Ready?”

“Sure. Let’s do this!”

We approach the woman quickly. When we’re about ten feet away, she notices us. She’s defensive. Her hands stiffen around the handbag.
She may be an old fossil but she’s no fool.

“Hey, lady—hand over the purse and you won’t get hurt!” says Dickie.

For a few seconds, there’s no reaction from her. Finally she scowls. Then she asks us, “What would your mothers think of you right now?”

Dickie chuckles and gestures at me. “I don’t know about his mother, but my ma is doin’ five- to ten’ upstate for forging checks. I reckon she’d be proud of me for carrying on the family tradition.”

The woman turns to me. As her gaze meets mine, I suddenly feel embarrassed and ashamed. I look down at my feet.

“Com’on! Hurry it up! Hand over the purse and we’ll leave you alone. If you don’t …”

Dickie uses his most intimidating voice. He lets his words trail off. The hunched woman draws herself straight as she reacts to Dickie’s latest threat.

“If I give you my wallet, will you agree to let me keep my purse?”

Dickie and I are suddenly thinking the same thought. There must be something else in that bag that’s valuable!

Dickie lunges at the purse, but the woman hangs on. She’s surprisingly strong. A tug-of-war ensues. Try as he might, Dickie is unable to dislodge the purse from her grasp.

“Give it here, you old bag!” shouts Dickie. He turns to me. “A little help here, please!”

I step forward and reach out with my hand to grab the purse.

“Stop!” She looks at us with a defiant expression.

“I’ll give you the purse. But first, you have to let me show you what’s inside.”
Dickie seems satisfied with her response.

“Okay. But no tricks. If you try somethin’, I’ll land you flat on this sidewalk. I know martial arts.”

The woman nods. She slowly opens the purse as wide as it will go and shows it to Dickie. He stares in. He’s immediately mesmerized by some kind of bright light shining from inside. My best friend and cohort in crime wears a look of surprise and terror.

I’m getting anxious, too. Just when I’m about to tell Dickie we should leave, an unbelievable thing happens—like we’re in some sort of cartoon. Dickie is suddenly transformed into something resembling a human balloon with all the air escaping! In a matter of seconds, he shrivels itty-bitty. Dickie’s remains fly up in the air then they land smack dab in the woman’s purse.

The woman snaps her purse shut. She seems pleased with the new prize she’s acquired. She smiles at me. I’m frozen by fear.

“Have a nice day now.”

She continues to shuffle slowly down the sidewalk toward the park.


Author: James Callan

Here I am, the last survivor, destined to survive, locked within the lunar colony foodstuffs pantry. Outside the bolted door, the monsters have all died. They’ve expired. Starved. No crew left among us but me, locked away, insufferably safe. No more food for the monsters. The others all devoured, all dead. The banquet is over. I am alone.

Yet here I am. Well fed. Bored, if you can imagine. A prisoner who tallies her days by bulk cereal boxes that have been hollowed out, made into a shelter, the puffed wheat and clustered rice for dinner, the coco flakes for dessert, the canned peaches a calendar event, a rare treat, the ammunition with which to dent the plated metal of a locked door where aluminum-cased fruit has been thrown without effect.

The quiet will kill me, even if the monsters did not. Such is my isolation that I find I begin to miss them. Their six-inch talons and salivating fangs. Their ink-black exoskeletons and armor-plated scales. I even miss the fear, the trauma that lingered for months before finally going dry. I wouldn’t have dared believe it when I ran from them to save my skin, but it’s true: I miss the beasts, missed out on the mercy of death that they brought to everyone but me.

When they hatched from the leathery eggs brought back from the quarry where they had been discovered embedded in the rock, we marveled at the notion of non-human life before we realized it meant all human death. Now it is only me. Me and peaches. Me and Peach Can Pete. We talk for hours. We watch the stars through a narrow window that cannot be broken. We share fluids. His is sweet, from a can. Mine is bitter, salty tears from eyes that cannot unsee what is relived in a perpetual nightmare.

I talk. He listens, even after I have hollowed him out like a ravenous monster. Though he is reserved with his opinions, he shares of himself aplenty. I take what he gives. My words echo in the ribbed lining of his cavernous body. If I pretend hard enough, it sounds like someone else. Someone named Pete.

Sometimes I see him for what he is: an impostor, a fake. Me. Only me. Sometimes I see him for what he truly is: a fucking peach can. But then I snap out of it. I remember I am alone, and unable to face that truth, I create another. I open one more peach can. I dent the plated doors. I cry. Then I devour preserved fruit and make a brand new friend, an old friend.

Peach Can Pete. Pete, like my husband. Like the father of my daughter, Hannah, back on Earth, which occasionally I glimpse from that pesky rhombus of triple-layered laminated glass. I see a sliver of shifting blue, green, and white and wonder why I left such a beautiful world, a beautiful daughter behind. Have the monsters somehow made it back home? Have those leathery eggs been brought back to a planet where they will hatch and thrive? I decide fear is worse than boredom, and convince myself Earth is okay. When I see it, half-visible and floating in space, I kindly lie to myself, preaching with unfounded conviction that Hannah is safe. That I will see her once again.

Peach Can Pete. Pete, like the man I love who lies digested in the belly of a monster which has long since expired. My husband, gone. Everyone gone. I have outlasted them all.

I reach for some peaches. I start anew.