Author: Ken Carlson
I was scrambling around my apartment for my shoes. How does anyone lose his only decent shoes in a suburban studio apartment? That’s what Deanna would have asked before she walked out. How does anyone lose his shoes, lose his keys, lose his job, just lose all the time?
I tried to dress up a bit for Kelli. Kelli wouldn’t have cared. When you tell your sister you’re picking her up for dinner, you want to look nice. When your sister has to be signed out of her sanitarium for what might be her only time past the security gate in the next couple of months, well, I’m not sure how you want to look. In my car, I sped up to make up time.
Kelli’s my big sister. My parents weren’t much for reading bedtime stories or attending grade school band concerts. Kelli always made sure I had a good breakfast, and that my homework was done. When our folks died, she transferred home from college and did even more. I repaid her by going nowhere in my life and standing idly by while the State locked her up.
One morning she was driving into Pittsburgh for work; managing reading programs for underprivileged special needs kids around the city; a job she loved. That night state troopers found her wandering by the side of I-376; bruises and cuts all over her body; a stab wound in her thigh; wearing strange tattered clothes; filthy; malnourished from a drop of 30 pounds.
Doctors at the hospital wouldn’t believe me, or her frantic co-workers, when we argued this wasn’t Kelli’s regular state, a battered vagrant. She was Kelli McDonald, dammit! She had been fine yesterday; healthy, active, a leader in everything she did. The physical and emotional damage could have been attributed to an attack, but the layers of filth and decay to her body over the course of 24 hours was impossible. Her fingerprints proved it was her, but the rest…
Every time I visited Kelli, I could find bits and pieces of her trying to surface. As they wheeled her out to the lobby, her face showed elements of recognition, but not in a happy way.
I helped her into our parents’ Chevy and we drove past the trappings of which we’d been accustomed; the Eat n’Park we could only afford on special occasions, the Waffle House, cozily grubby for over sixty years.
She rarely spoke at all when we went out. To mix things I thought I would take her into the city, maybe drive past the ballpark and stadium. The radio was playing classic rock and I sprinkled in remarks about what we were doing when a song was a hit to try to get some reaction. Nothing.
We turned onto the highway toward the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Kelli shook her head slightly, focused her stare, and gave almost a wry smile.
“You think you’re ready for this?” she asked.
That was the longest sentence I’d heard from my sister in two years. I almost lost control of the car.
“Sh-sh,” Kelli said, “They’ll be here soon enough, and I’ll try to help you any way I can.”
As we headed into the tunnel, I was bewildered, mumbling questions. She spoke in a low, calm tone. “Just stay close. When we get out of the car, grab what you can from the trunk; a tire iron, maybe.”
Kelli’s eyes were dark and alert. She held her fists tight and whispered, “Watch out for their tentacles, swing as hard as you can, and go for the eyes.”
– “Mind if I sit here?”
– “Go ahead,” I mumble as I look up. Then do a double take. Hey, this guy is gorgeous. I look around the small café and I see that there is nowhere else to sit. Figures. This guy is sooo way out of my league, he can’t be trying to chat me up.
– “Maybe you can help me decide?”
– “Sorry, decide what?”
– “Decide on the fate of the world.”
OK, this guy is round the bend, loopy, nuts – or just really bad at chat-up lines?
– “The fate of the world over coffee?”
– “You see…,” he tells me.
– “See what?”
– “Well, it’s really hard to decide whether a whole planet should be decontaminated now, or if its peoples should be given some time to prove they can do better?”
– “By planet, I’m guessing you mean earth?”
– “Of course. I’ve been here almost a year and I can’t make up my mind. One moment I think you are an infestation that deserves to be eradicated because you’re all rotten to the core, like mindless, vicious rats running around a self-constructed cage.”
– “Hey, rats are supposed to be intelligent and quite affectionate!”
– “The next moment, I see an act of valour or selflessness so pure, it makes me want to give you another chance.”
I have officially joined the weird-O-s of this world because I find myself arguing back:
– “Look, you’re sounding very judg-y here. It isn’t all damned or saved by one shining action, there’s a lot of ordinary courage in between, you know?”
– “Please explain.”
– “OK, well look at me, I’m unemployed, my dog died, my boyfriend slept with my best friend and I’ve decided it would be better to be orphaned than put up with any more of my family’s bullshit. Yet today is a good day.”
– “How is it a good day?”
– “I’m sitting in a café with free heating, the radio played my favourite song on my way here, my remaining friends are throwing me a surprise birthday party tonight (and I plan to win an Oscar in acting surprised), the coffee’s good and a sexy guy is chatting me up.”
– “I’m not chatting you up.”
– “OK, well then, it’s a mostly good day. Anyway, real courage is getting from day to day, even when you want to curl up and die. You’ve got to believe that tomorrow will be better if you just make it through today with dignity. And maybe if enough people make it to tomorrow making just one good decision, maybe the gift of one small kindness, then the world will be a better place.”
– “Um, so you think I should go for a more micro-reality approach?”
– “Not sure what you mean there, but I suppose so. Hey, if I can believe that today could redeem the rest of my sorry existence, surely you can believe that humanity as a whole can redeem itself given time?”
– “Your logic is faulty but interesting. It is true that complete elimination is so… final. Certainly, waiting a bit could not hurt. Your idea of redemption through micro-reality choices is an intriguing possibility. Thank you.”
He gets up and leaves. I realise he left his wallet behind. I run after him and catch him as he pauses for a moment in front of Cosmic Coffee.
– “Oi, you forgot your wallet!”
– “It doesn’t matter, I don’t need it any more.”
He smiles and winks out of existence.
Author: Leanne A. Styles
Tim spat and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, but the metallic tang of blood lingered. The memory of the hot crimson spray, spurting into his mouth, flashed in his mind. He glanced down at his shirt, suddenly aware of the damp chill down his front. He was drenched in sweat and blood, which explained the horrified looks on the shoppers’ faces as he tore past.
The tracking sirens wailed above him as the facial recognition was triggered on the cameras. He could hear the thunderous pounding of the hit squad’s boots, gaining, gaining. He was clutching the plastic bag so tightly he’d lost the feeling in his fingers. He’d abandoned hope of getting away with the packet as soon as the first siren had sounded; after he and Jake had fought over how to split its contents.
Now, all he could do was find a spot ‒ a hiding place to snatch the last few moments alone with his prize.
He headed for the food court. The diners had all fled, the sound of their screams echoing through the atriums. Diving under a table next to the fountain that marked the centre of the court, he ripped open the packet and gazed down on the glorious caramel dust inside.
He licked his finger and was just about to dip it into the granules when he heard: “Come out from under the table and give me the packet.”
He looked up. A hit squad officer, wearing a shiny black helmet and aiming a rifle at Tim’s head, was standing a few feet away.
Tim froze, his fingertip hovering above the grains. Beyond the officer with the rifle, more were moving in.
“We just wanted to try it,” Tim said. “It was Jake’s idea…” At the sound of his brother’s name, he started to cry. “I never meant—”
“I know,” the officer said, creeping closer. “Just give me the packet, and it will all be over.”
“It’s already over!” Tim cried. “I killed my brother over…”
“A bag of sugar.”
“It’s not even the good shit.” Tim forced a pained chuckle. “We couldn’t get the white stuff.”
“Unrefined cane sugar,” the officer said. “Evil stuff, highly addictive, and just as illegal… I hear it tastes like heaven.”
Tim frowned and peered through the officer’s visor. A sinister smile spread across his face, a goading smile as if he were daring Tim to taste the sugar.
Tim looked to the other officers. They were all grinning, the excitement in their eyes heightening as they inched in closer.
The message was clear.
“Make it count,” the officer said, and Tim drove his finger into the sugar.
He slid his finger into his mouth and the world, like the granules on his tongue, dissolved.
The sugar hit, the sweet rush of endorphins seeping into every fibre, cell, and sinew, and he lost all feeling in his limbs, the floor seeming to sink away. The muffled sound of a thousand beating drums rang out, somewhere, far away it felt…
Then the pain came. And he was burning, the blaze racing outwards, spreading from deep inside his gut. He tried to scream, to cry, breathe, but his lungs were dead, charred by the fire.
The memory of Jake, cheering and high-fiving him when he’d pulled the packet out of his school bag, returned.
Followed by the taste of blood.
Author: Kim Kneen
Recently I have taken to sitting at portholes. I angle myself so I can see my reflection; reach out as if to clutch a hand or stroke a cheek. I choose remote locations where Gala can’t find me and remain as long as I dare.
My eyes ache from focusing on glass rather than the void beyond.
Gala has picked up on my discomfort.
‘Impaired function of the extra-ocular muscles.’ Her soothing tone is a welcome feature of the v.IX. ‘Common in middle-aged humans.’
I concur, pleased to have deceived the bot, and in the spirit of co-operation suggest she adjust the resolution on my screens.
Deprived of the companionship of my reflection I watch the old propaganda films. The splinter of stone as earth ground to a halt. The lengthening days. Broken children hurling rocks at the camera before retreating on all fours shrieking like monkeys.
“Your child deserves a better life.” I mouth the words in perfect time with the narrator. I must have watched this film a thousand times. When I was six, broadcasts like this persuaded my parents to move to a camp, like the one on the film. The race was on to find The Bridge; a child with the attributes required to reach old age.
The morning the army came, Mum tied a bright scarf to the door of our tent. She ran alongside the truck for as long as she could, shouting, “When you get back, Lena, look for the yellow.”
My results were so promising I made the shortlist with six other children.
I never went back.
“Congratulations, Lena.” Sally, our tutor, crouched by my desk. “You’re going to save mankind.”
I never saw Immy again, or Dai, or any of the other four Select. I often wonder if they were returned to their families, to the tattered tents on what was once the ocean floor.
It was the first time I’d been above ground in three years. This time I wasn’t bundled in the back of a truck but seated up-front, next to Sally, at the head of the convoy.
The Core rode in the vehicles behind. One hundred strangers I had pledged to maintain on the journey to Hydrax. They would lie dormant. It was my job to ensure their survival, to bridge the seventy-three years between this world and the next.
A gate opened in the perimeter fence. The ship hovered above the bedrock, edges undulating in the heat.
Sally described how the launch site had once offered rich pickings for redshanks; the shellfish that used to live in the mudflats and sustain the migrating birds now long gone.
“Safe trip, Lena.”
I succumbed on my birthday, seven years after Comms ceased.
The Core slept silently; the tranquillity broken only by the occasional drip of condensation that fell from their respiration tubes. I whispered their details.
“Daria, nineteen, Triage Nurse. Samuel, thirty-six, Architect.”
I bent over Samuel and probed the transparent wrap that clung to his face; the need for human contact overwhelming. I hooked my index finger beneath a crease and pulled, slid a finger inside the hole I’d created. His skin was cold and rough. Disappointed, I breathed warm air against his cheek, pressed my lips to the pink that bloomed on his skin.
When Samuel opened his eyes, I stayed calm. I couldn’t risk him waking the others. I hooked my finger around his respiration tube and squeezed.
Still nine years from Hydrax, I keep up the pretence of maintaining The Core. They’re almost all dead, of course, eased gently by me into the next world rather than the new world.
I resolve to stay away from portholes. If Gala found out about my on-going struggle with loneliness she wouldn’t hesitate to initiate behaviour mod. My state of mind is her priority after all.
For I am The Bridge.
Author: Ajith S Nair
It was a Friday and in Saudi Arabia, Friday is a holiday for most people. I just got home after finishing the night shift. I am not supposed to be back for work until Monday night. Though I was tired sleep eluded me. I turned the TV on to see if there was something interesting on.
The TV was not working. The screen was showing a white background. I changed the channel, nothing happened.I turned the TV off unplugged everything, plugged everything back and turned the TV on.No change. The white screen mockingly stared at me.
I absentmindedly picked up my phone. Maybe I will stream something on the phone. And the phone also was showing a white screen. This sometimes happened with my phone but what are the odds of it happening to my phone and TV at the same time?
I turned the TV off and went to the kitchen. I needed some tea. While making tea I noticed that something was running down my face. I rubbed my cheeks and was astonished to see blood on my fingers. I ran to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I was weeping blood. But there was no pain. My eyes looked the same but this was obviously something serious. Maybe I had an internal injury or a tumour?? I was panicking.
There was something else. A part of my mind was impassively observing these things. That part of me was not alarmed but rather amused. I found a large towel and kept it pressed against my face. I needed to get to a hospital. On the way out I couldn’t help but glance at the TV. There were parallel red lines all over the screen now. For a moment I forgot my bloody eyes and I walked towards it. My fingers touched the red lines. It felt like I was touching something which had life. My vision became blurry and I lost consciousness.
When I came to I was in the bathroom removing my eyeballs with a screwdriver. I felt no pain but could hear inhuman screams escaping from my mouth. The impassive observer in my mind was devising things now. Even without eyes, I could see where everything was. After finishing I covered my empty eye sockets with the towel which soon turned crimson.
On the way outside I had no difficulty anywhere. Everything around me was white like the TV screen. But I could sense everything around me and navigate accordingly. There were others like me. I could sense it.
The folks whose eyes were not opened came for us. Their attacks did not affect us. They were so few in number and we are so many. Soon they were extinct.
Soon we all heard the call. Something was coming to free us.
I lied down and removed the towel covering my eyes. The sky was blood red. There were white lines in the red sky which appeared to be flowing. Slowly the whiteness engulfed the sky and we all were no more. We are the whiteness…