My Broken Star

Author: Frederick Charles Melancon

Only at night could we have the memorial service for Ben. Well, as long as, we kept it far enough out in the desert so that none of the locals could bother us.

The vat of still water in the center was a nice touch. Back on our home planet, all the chairs would’ve surrounded a fire pit, but that tradition doesn’t resonate like it once did. I don’t know if I could speak in front of the flames, and really, if this woman, Sandra, from the coast, not this one, hadn’t reached out five times, I wouldn’t be speaking at all.

But, after the fourth time I said no, she pleaded, “He spoke of you often.” I still don’t know what to do with that.

I’m all but sure that he didn’t. Just for some reason, Sandra decided to know what I knew of Ben. She sits next to me now with her hand on top of mine. Our star, once home, shines above us brighter than any of the ones the locals ever knew. They’ve even started calling it their New One.

I don’t pay attention to the others speaking because I don’t know any of them. At some point, Sandra’s hand lifting from mine lets me know that it’s time to speak. No one claps at these things and maybe that’s a blessing. My speech will end like every other, with silence. Of course, it still feels wrong to do nothing after each speaker.

I tell them how we met, playing with fire. Both of us doctors in the thermal consortium. These days, I’m a journalist. Luckier than Ben, janitor, because on arrival there was a need for a fresh perspective of our kind as long as it didn’t contradict theirs. That was Ben’s problem always too honest. I tell them about his daughter, but I don’t talk about the spaceship and the journey here where we realized that we were both the wrong type of doctor. In that way, three people who knew each other like family got on a spacecraft but only two strangers got off.

Instead of this, I speak of the nights back there, our wives and us playing games and pretending on the screens with his child. After every game, whether we’d win or lose, we’d cheer and applaud. Even in front of the water, it’s hard to talk about the last game. At that point, it was just Ben, his daughter, and me. We did so well that night. And despite the rest happening all around us, we roared and pounded hands until they stung.

One of his coworkers comes up next. He’s not one of us, but he has stories. He speaks of a collection they picked up after the local fair was over, a cat that Ben took care of. He talks about his daughter who contracted the GH virus. Choking up, he speaks of the support Ben gave when the local couldn’t pay all the doctor’s bills. Ben even waited up nights with the man, and the local’s girl lived.

When he steps away from the water, I begin to move my hands together but stop before I make a sound. Stepping around the vat on the way back to his chair, he bumps into it and grabs the rim. Apologizing too much, he thinks he’s committed some cultural insult. The water spills out over his hands, and inside, our star, the one that Ben named his daughter for, breaks into tiny fragments surrounded by black waves. And everyone, but me, gets up to lend a hand.

Quantum Jitters

Author: Majoki

“Did you feel that?” Gilly asked.

A few steps ahead, Sampson sunk his ice axe into the crusty snow. “No. I didn’t feel anything.”

The couple was at nearly 9,000 feet resting on the edge of the glacier that corkscrewed precipitously to the top of Guth Peak, elevation 10,627. It was mid-morning, the early September sun bright and dangerous.

Gilly frowned, and he smiled serenely back, and she remembered why she was here. That smile. Sampson wasn’t all that memorable as a doctoral physics lab partner, but when he talked about climbing, he glowed like the Milky Way. Like she was staring into immense and mysterious power.

Gilly had wanted to experience that power first hand. Her work at the linear accelerator lab wasn’t enough anymore. It had opened the doors to mind-bending wonders of inflationary cosmology and the hidden realities of bubble universes.

When she had first been wrestling with the concept of cascading realities, Sampson had used the analogy of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay standing atop Everest. Their potential energy, should it be tipped by a small quake or gust of wind, could send them hurtling five hard miles down. The potential energy released in such a calamitous fall would engender a slew of realities. Inflaton fields such as these existed everywhere waiting for a quantum jitter to form one or more pocket universes.

Gilly had wanted to stand atop a mountain and feel that potential energy. And, yet, a dozen times during their ascent this morning she had felt a tremor, a jitter, rushing up her spine and spreading out along her shoulders and arms. Each jolt had left her tingling with trepidation. When she told Sampson about the sensation, he’d merely chalked it up to nerves.

She was sure it was nerves, though there was more. Her vision had begun to waver. As Sampson started to probe the path ahead of them, she began to see two of him. Two Sampsons, poking at the snow with his ice axe. One finding the safe path, the other plunging down the steep mountainside. A strange double vision, a splitting probability wave. Gilly knew she was sliding to the edge of what was real.

And here she was on a literal edge. She wondered if she was suffering from altitude sickness. Was she oxygen deprived? She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Thinking about Sampson’s cobalt blue eyes could leave her breathless. A strange sensation ran up her spine. She shivered and dug her fingers into the snow trying to steady her nerves.

“Remember, Professor Joiner’s lecture on the Inflationary Multiverse?” she asked suddenly. “Do you believe that stuff?”

Sampson stared back at her. “Stuff? We’re physicists. You want to be more specific?”

“Inflaton fields with enough potential energy, so that even a quantum nudge can bring a whole universe into being—birth a new reality.”

Sampson sighed. “Gilly, if we’re going to get into quantum jitters, I think we’re done for the day. You gotta focus on this reality if we’re going to make it safely to the top.”

“But don’t you wonder, if every step we take shakes a new reality into being, wouldn’t we feel it? Wouldn’t it somehow register?”

Sampson’s laugh boomed out over the glacier. “Not here. Mother Nature won’t suffer that kind of competition on a day like this.” He offered Gilly his hand. “Let’s go down. You’ve done amazing for a first ascent.”

Gilly felt an unexpected tingling in her neck that flowed down her shoulders to her fingertips. She squeezed Sampson’s hand firmly. “Let’s finish this.”

He eyed her carefully. “You sure? No jitters?”

“Plenty, but they’re not small enough yet.”

“Small enough?”

“Yup.”

Sampson considered the enigma that was his girlfriend for a moment, then he went into mountain guide mode. He checked her gear and his, then their ropes and, once more, went through the plan before they stepped out onto the glacier.

Gilly, still tingling, followed.

They made the summit in an hour and a half. After taking a few pictures of the magnificent view, Gilly went to Sampson who was carving their names in the ancient snow with his ice axe. She put her arm around his waist. He pulled her close.

A universe jittered. Theirs, too.

Boy with an Aster in His Palm

Author: Jeremy Nathan Marks

There was a little boy in Jeanette’s care whom she called “my last hope.” She said he was unique because he would laugh and shower curiosity on the world. He was the only child who ever tried conversing with her.

She kept a bird feeder by her window that still attracted a bird here and there. She had a few sickly trees in her yard, a clutch of oaks that were the sole tree cover left in the neighborhood. At one time, Jeanette enjoyed seeing dozens of birds every hour. Now, she was lucky to see two birds every few hours.

Whenever a bird showed up at her feeder, the little boy would stop what he was doing and stare. He was mesmerized at how the few sparrows and an occasional finch pecked at the seeds and fat that formed a bell shape. He loved it when a sparrow would hang practically upside down to get the seeds on the bottom of the bell. It made him giggle with delight.

Jeanette told him about other birds of many colors she used to see. She showed him their pictures in a book: Cardinal, Nuthatch, Red-Headed Woodpecker, Oriole, Grosbeak, and Chickadee. He loved the photos, marveling at their brilliant plumage. Jeanette pointed to one of a Painted Bunting, a bird she once saw on a trip down south. The boy ran to the art table and immediately tried sketching one.

One winter afternoon, Jeanette took her troupe of children for a walk. She wanted to find birds and whatever remaining plants might house them. She did not have high hopes of finding either but enjoyed the optimism of the boy who screeched with delight every time something fluttered along the ground, even if that fluttering was a wrapper or synthetic paper. He would shout, “A bird! It’s a bird!” And Jeanette would say gently, “No, that’s not a bird. But you’re right. It is fluttering.”

When they were standing in the middle of a dull brown field, the boy thrust out his palm and asked, “What’s this?”

Jeanette looked at his hand and saw a tiny blue flower embedded in the middle of the palm. The flower, a blue aster, was nestled inside his skin. When she recovered from her initial shock, Jeanette asked, “How did that get there?”

“It show up!” the boy said with a big smile.

“When?”

“Now!” he giggled.

Jeanette immediately called his parents and left each one of them a message explaining what she had seen. She said their son was doing fine, that he was happy, but that she would consult a doctor. When she called her personal physician, he dismissed what she said as lunacy. “Jeanette, you are too old to make crank calls,” and he hung up the phone.

“Does it hurt, your flower?” she asked the boy.

“No. The flower feels good.”

“It doesn’t hurt you?”

“Flowers can’t hurt me,” he said.

When Jeanette stopped to consider what to do next, she noticed that none of the other children had looked at the boy’s hand. They stood and stared off into space or kicked at rocks and other ground litter. Jeanette was surprised. She said to the boy, “Can you hold your hand up for the other children to see?”

When he did, the children looked but said nothing.

“Do you see the flower?” Jeanette asked them.

The children looked confused.

“Do you see the little flower in his hand?” she asked again.

They shook their heads. Jeanette was puzzled and upset.

Jeanette brought the group back to her house, and the boy stood in front of the window. He waited for the birds to come to the feeder. To her astonishment, they came immediately; many different birds she had not seen in years. There were cardinals, woodpeckers, nuthatches even blue jays. To Jeanette, this was a miracle, and it made her cry.

The boy with the aster in his palm came over to her and asked, “Why you cry?”

She took a deep breath and whispered, “The birds. I have not seen them in so long.”

“Now they come every day!” he said. “They come see my flower!” The boy raised his hand to the window where a female cardinal, brown and orange, stopped eating for a moment and looked at him. Then another cardinal, her mate in a brilliant red suit, fluttered beside her in the air.

All afternoon, more and more birds arrived. Jeanette went to the boy and asked, “Can I touch your flower?” To which he said, “Yes!”

When Jeanette dragged her index finger across the face of the flower, there was a sudden frenzy of activity at the window. A cacophony of squawks, chirps, and even some singing. She could not recall when she had heard more than an occasional chirp. As the noise grew louder, the boy shouted with delight, and so did Jeanette.

None of the other children noticed.

The Worst Year

Author: Shannon O’Connor

The year I lived on Arachnida was the worst year of my life. It was a real dump back then. People say it’s changed, but I haven’t been back in a long time.

When I lived there, pawnshops selling all kinds of junk filled the town center. The spiders who populated the area where all a bunch of racist drunks. I didn’t feel safe walking around at night. I thought I would be attacked, being an Earthling, and a Black one at that. Alien spiders don’t understand beings who are different.

I had to walk a long way to go to the grocery store, and I had to walk across a highway to get there and back. My life was in a bad place back then. I was ending my career in academia, and I needed another job, but I didn’t know what I wanted. I had wanted to get married, but that didn’t happen, because my boyfriend was eaten by the spiders.

Those spiders are so inconsiderate! They only think of their needs. They don’t care who they swallow, or who it hurts when they do. I began to hate them intensely.

I moved away from Arachnida, and close to the city planet, Rutonia. I didn’t have to go grocery shopping because there were so many restaurants with Earth food close by. I liked the action of the city: the noise, the crowds, the anonymity.

I got a job at the planet clerk’s office, printing birth certificates, and talking money for parking tickets. It was much easier than my old jobs had been. I ate a lot of good food, and lived my life.

I talked to someone who had always lived in Arachnida, who said it had changed. She wasn’t one of the bad spiders, but she couldn’t afford to move, because everything was so expensive. She said a Starbucks was plopped down in the middle of the town center, and everything had become more upscale, with yoga studios, and wine shops and microbreweries. The old spiders were still there, but the surface looked cleaner, and they behaved themselves better.

I still think of Arachnida as a dangerous, depressing place. The worst year of my life was spent there, and it doesn’t matter if they put all the microbreweries or yoga studios there, you can’t put lipstick on a spider and call it pretty. Arachnida holds a dark place in my heart, and I hope I’ll never have to go back.

Bleeding

Author: David Berger

“I hate bleeding,” Nora said to her friend Allison out of nowhere.
Allison screwed up her face in response.
“Don’t look at me that way,” Nora went on. “I don’t mean the tampon stuff! I mean this twice a year shit. They take a pint out, give us a lollipop and fifty bucks. And twice a year we go home feeling all weird and dizzy.”
“Well I don’t get weird or dizzy,” Allison said.
“No black spots or feeling nauseas?
“No-o-o.”
“Well lucky you,” Nora said.
“Remember two years ago when it was only once?”
“Yeah,” Nora said. “And also they’re dropping the age limit to twelve. And I hear next year they’re going to drop it to eleven.”
“Oh shit!” Allison said. “That’s not good. But think about this, Norie. At least, like Mrs. Grant says in History, we’re in the generation who may have finished death.”
“Yeah. But I hear each dose of the stuff cost $5 million. And only rich people are getting it. And as they get older, they’re gonna need more and more. That sucks.”
“Yeah,” Allison answered. But when me and you become rich celebrities, we’ll be able to afford it, and we can help all our families and friends get it too. That’s so cool, isn’t it?
“But Allie,” Nora said. “My Mom says my Uncle Eddie was up to 12 bleedings a year, and he got very sick.”
“Too bad for him, but we all got to donate.”
“That’s cold, Allie. But think about this. A guy gets born with a zillion dollars, and he gets the treatment all his life and maybe lives forever. And most of us just get to donate to make the serum. That’s not fair.
“Who says what’s fair and what’s not fair, Nore? Anyway, you and I are gonna be rich, and we’re gonna help people. Make sure people get the serum.
“But what … .”
“Listen, I gotta go.”
“Als, there’s never gonna be enough for everybody!
“Who says?” Allison asked over her shoulder?
“My Uncle Eddie said it. Before he died!”