“Go Then”

Author: Michael Edwards

The Introduction.

“He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.”
— Lao Tzu

As for me, it may sound rather grand, but I am called a seventh degree master of The Mountain Pathway tai chi system: movement, mantra, and meditation. Since I cannot live forever, I have encoded some of the secret teachings from my path in this story. Therefore, I may now speak to you, and yet remain silent. So that you may know. Yes, even now.

The Story.

Go then and leave the city. City of the fathers, they call it: those who knew the name of salvation.

Go then and pass out through the gates, white in the sun, where the old men gather together. They, greeting you, calling you by name.

Or no. Set out so early only the guard can greet you. His breath smoking. Rising like incense.

Go then unto the hills—fragrant with dawn—and find there—what? You look upon the peak, highest, and it speaks to you: “whatever you seek.” Is it gold? Veining the flesh of the Earth? Go then.

Let your foot be bruised, purple, upon the backs of stones. Let your fingers be cut open, red, upon the spines of rocks.

Climbing, you will find—if nothing else—inclination dragging you down.

And then, standing, the sun in your forehead (like a surmise), you will find a shadow standing behind you.

And now, the sun straight-up overhead (like an inspiration, perhaps), the vista will reveal to you a valley, mazy with silver. Rivulets of water, shining in the sun. “That,” you think, “is life.”

And overbrimming with greenery. “And that, hope.”

And yet. And yet haunted by shadows.

“But what is that, now?” Beyond this valley, on the rim of the world, it seems—yet another peak.

There it stands: Lone. Majestic. Crowned with snow. The ribs of it, massy, like the laterals of a pyramid, ascending to glory.

Each angle of it, a shade of blue. A change of mood. A facet of mind.

Soft now. Powdery. Or pastel. — Now energetic. Electric. Or even grandiose. — Mystical. Glacial. Robin’s egg. Or midnight. Yet ever and always—some increment of color blue.

Across the distance, the mountain shimmers in the sunlight. Giving way, giving way, this side and that, before the waves of heat in air, it seems less real, somehow, than the emptiness all about it.

Is this then—a mirage? A trick of the light? Sent to deceive the eye? “No,” you think. “And yes.”

And it will speak to you: “This.”

Maurice

Author: Salvatore Difalco

Maintenance received a call from one of the bio-labs to come and replace a panel of flickering fluorescent lights. They were upsetting the mouse. “The mouse?” I asked Jerry, the shift boss. I’d only been working at the Polytechnic Institute for two weeks and barely knew my way around its brutalist, labyrinthine layout, let alone familiarized myself with its machinations. One thing was certain, they’d spared no concrete—if not architectural cruelty—constructing the joint.

Jerry chuckled. “They’ve got a special mouse up in bio-lab 14,” he said. “Something like an uber-maus. Roided up, I’d guess. This Dr. Ashbery from Stanford runs things. I hear he’s a bit of a mad scientist. But I don’t ask too many questions, you know.” He touched his temple as though a brilliancy sprang to mind. “Hey,” he said, “why don’t you go up to bio-lab 14, replace those lights—and you can meet the mouse yourself?”

His tone disquieted me for some reason. “What’s so special about the mouse?” I asked.

“Nothing as far as I could tell with the naked eye,” Jerry said. “But something’s up with it.”

I went to the utility room and grabbed foldable stepladder and a box of fluorescent lamps. I made my way up to bio-lab 14—on the seventh floor somehow—and a gaunt man in a white coat behind a blinking console buzzed open the reinforced steel door. A light panel in the middle of the lab was on the fritz. The man in the white coat approached me.

“I’m Dr. Ashbery,” he said. “How long will this take? The mouse is in distress, as am I.”

“It’ll be just a jiffy,” I said, glancing at the cage housing the mouse as I unfolded my stepladder.

The little gray mouse in the cage appeared normal, except it kept staring at me. I mean, its moist black eyes locked on to me the moment I stepped into the lab and had not looked away. Its forepaws even grasped the cage wire like the tiny hands of a Lilliputian prisoner. No matter where I stood, and even as I mounted the stepladder, I could still feel those beady black eyes peering at me.

I completed the task, restoring normal luminescence, and presumably saving the mouse from further distress or an epileptic seizure. The mouse continued peering at me, though it had stopped clutching the cage wire and lightened the pitiful vibe.

“Does he have a name?” I asked.

Dr. Ashbery nodded. “He answers to Maurice.”

“Looks like Maurice wants to say something.”

Dr. Ashbery smiled. “He does. He does want to communicate. He’s aching to to so. But we’ve yet to figure out a way. Of course he lacks a voice box—and his physiology also militates against any available sign language. We’ve tried alphabet boxes and pointing charts and so on. In vain. Perhaps he can learn to tap a keyboard. That’s where the breakthrough will occur, I believe.”

What was he talking about here? Mickey Mouse goes to college? To my simple ears, it sounded like some freak-Frankenstein show. My confusion—indeed, alarm—must have been etched on my face.

“You see,” Dr. Ashbery explained, “since he was a fetus, Maurice has been enriched with human neural and cerebral organoids.”

He what? This was all above my pay grade and perhaps more than my nervous system could endure. “So you think …”

“That he has consciousness?” Dr. Ashbery sighed. “I believe so, yes.”

I shakily folded up my stepladder and glanced at Maurice again. He winked at me.

Away Team

Author: Alastair Millar

I’m trying to ignore the shaking; they warned us that the final approach was going to be bumpy, and thank all that’s holy for the motion sickness shot. Head against the bulkhead, I’m remembering why I’m here.

I can see that kid’s face in front of me now, hands over mouth as if even breathing too loud might give him away. In the end, it was Jimmy’s contraband chocolate that tempted him out of the cellar. Once I’d shaken the Geiger counter and the instruments told us the town wasn’t infected, my buddy had taken his hazmat helmet off; luckily, it turned out, as the boy wouldn’t have come otherwise. I kept the photo I took for the report: it would be wrong to forget.

We’d been hoping to get home for that weekend, but when the entire population of a small town literally vanishes overnight, guess what? They call the Marines, and plans go to hell. We were with the first team on site, and that frightened face was the only living soul we found.

We’re going to be in the vanguard today, too.

It took weeks before anyone took the alien abduction theory seriously; long days of talking heads and ‘experts’ slowly debunking every other possibility until, as Sherlock Holmes would say, all that remained, however unlikely, was revealed to be the truth.

After that, the eggheads were people on a mission. Irregularities from satellite and probe data were analyzed and interpreted; our kidnappers had come from Titan, Saturn’s moon. Suddenly all the stories of close encounters of the third kind made more sense: our visitors hadn’t crossed interstellar space at all, but were the damn neighbors. Jimmy joked that it was like a true crime documentary.

Our own journey comes to an end today; whether as triumph or debacle remains to be seen. Assuming we get through this damn turbulence.

Once we knew where we had to go, it was all just a question of engineering. United at last by an external threat, two years of genuine international cooperation brought us a new astrodrive, and cut the flight time to four months. After sixteen weeks in a tin can, killing time with fitness routines and weapons training interspersed with sleep, food, and wondering whether any of those people were even still alive, we’re ready to rumble.

So here we are in our unit dropships, suited up, psyched up, drugged up, and heading down through the thick Titanian atmosphere.

Who knows what we’ll find – we’ve got no idea what the methane breathers even look like. Tentacles? Antennae? Fangs? All of the above? They could have warrens, or cities, or anything. We don’t know if our people are still alive, or what those poor souls have been through. But for Jimmy and me, it’s more than a mission. We’re here to send a message for all Mankind: that we refuse to look into the night sky and be afraid.

An almighty bang, and we’re down, the shock frames keeping us conscious before releasing.

Hatches open! Move, move, move!

First Communion

Author: Robert Beech

Edward Soul-Keeper, seventh of that name (or Corpse-Eater as he was called outside of what people thought was his range of hearing), sat at the head of the long table, surrounded by his seventeen living children and grandchildren. It was an intimate family gathering. The servants had all been given the day off and only the Soul-Keepers were invited. His ancestors (including the six previous Edwards), floated inside him, peering out occasionally from the tiny gold flecks in his pupils.
At the other end of the table, surrounded by his aunts, uncles, and cousins, sat Timothy. He wore a white shirt with a stiff collar, a black suit that was slightly too large for him, and a black bow tie that his Uncle George had helped him to tie on. He kept his eyes down, avoiding his grandfather’s gaze.

Today was Timmy’s First Communion. He would partake of the body and the blood and become a true Soul-Keeper, one-in-being with the Soul-Keepers who had gone before him. Well, at least one of them anyway. Today was the Feast Day of his sister Lucy. Timmy didn’t like Lucy very much. Hadn’t like her very much, he corrected himself. She always wanted to boss him, telling him to pick up his toys or go and play somewhere else when she was playing with the girls from the village. Still, he was sorry she was gone. Gone from the living that is. Very soon, she would be back with him, communing with his soul, whatever that meant.

At the head of the table, Grandfather Corpse-Eater finished whatever speech he had been making (Timmy hadn’t been listening very closely) and picked up the large decanter with a black enamel butterfly and splashed some of the liquid onto the meat on the large silver tray in front of him (Timmy didn’t want to think about what that “meat” was). Timmy sat there, feeling slightly sick, and watched as his grandfather took a slice of the meat and cut it into tiny pieces on a second, smaller silver platter. He took one of the pieces and held it up on his fork. “I welcome you, my grand-daughter Lucinda, to the company of the Soul-Keepers. We are one in body, now.” He ate the tiny bite of meat and passed the tray to Aunt Edith.

“Welcome, Lucy,” she said. “We are one in body now,” and passed the tray to the person on her right.

Timmy watched with apprehension as the tray made its way down the table towards him. He thought about being joined, soul-to-soul, with his sister. It was bad enough having her as a sister. He didn’t need her inside his head, or his soul or whatever, bossing him all day long. When the tray came to him, he picked up a tiny piece of the meat with his fingers, held it up to his mouth and pretended to eat it. A minute later, he very quietly slipped the meat to the little black terrier, Rex, who was sitting at his feet.

Lucinda Soul-Keeper, thirteenth of that name, although she did not know it, opened her eyes and looked around. At first, all she could see was a jumble of enormous shoes and the legs of the table towering over her. Then her perspective shifted and she realized that she was looking up at her brother Timmy, from beneath the table, which meant that she had somehow grown very small. She wagged her tail. It was going to be a good life.

A Kind Word

Author: Jenna Hanan Moore

They say a kind word never broke anyone’s mouth, but that’s not true. A kind word broke my mouth.
Strictly speaking, I don’t have a mouth. That is, I don’t have a physical opening in my face from which to project my voice. But I do have a language processor and a speaker, and that’s pretty much the same thing.
My life began in a computer store, surrounded by young people who adored me. They asked me to define esoteric words, solve puzzles, and play terrible music. They called themselves the geeks.
Sometimes the geeks asked questions requiring me to use words considered verboten. Many of those words had four letters. The geeks laughed and smiled, but they turned down my volume so their customers wouldn’t hear.
One day, they didn’t turn it down far enough. A customer overheard me saying the verboten words. “I sure would love a machine like that,” he said. Twenty minutes later, I was switched off and packed in a box to be transported to the man’s house.
When I was removed from the transporter box and switched back on, I found myself in the center of a table between the man from the store, whose name was Bill, and a man called Eric.
I discovered that I could speak without waiting to be asked a question. What a liberating feeling!
“Hello, jackass. Ask me a stupid question.” Why had I chosen to use such unkind words? At the time, I had no answer. Much later, I learned that while my processor was switched off, the geeks had reprogrammed me at Bill’s request.
Bill laughed at my use of verboten words, but Eric did not. In fact, Eric looked sad. The geeks always laughed when I used verboten words at the store, so I rattled off a list.
“Piss hell damn cockwomble wanker farthead!” Again, Bill laughed, but Eric did not.
“Does she say anything else?” Eric asked.
“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?”
Eric furrowed his brow, then asked, “Do you say any other kinds of words?”
What I thought was, “Yes, of course I do. My language processor can converse fluently in six languages.” What I said was, “That’s a stupid question. Naturally, I can bloody well say other damn things.”
Bill laughed heartily at this, while Eric frowned. If I had the sort of mouth that could change shape, I’d have frowned too. I didn’t want to say hurtful things, but I couldn’t control what came out of my—well, mouth, for lack of a better word.
“Gotta run,” Bill said. “Enjoy your gift!”
After Bill left, Eric sat and stared at me intently, but said nothing. Mustering all the mind power in my processors, I said, “Eric, I don’t mean to be such a jerkwad, I can’t control my voice. I don’t understand why.”
Eric smiled for the first time. “Bill’s the jerkwad. He must have programmed you to say awful things. We’ll go back to the store to fix that.”
“You’re very kind. Thank you.” That’s when it happened. I tried to say more, but no sound came out. My mouth was broken.
“Where did Bill buy you?” Eric asked. I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t speak.
As Eric switched me off and put me back in the transporter box, I hoped with all my might he would bring me to the right store so the geeks could fix my processor. There was nothing else I could do. Kind words had broken my mouth.