Interstellar Astronaut

Author: Katlina Sommerberg

Kye rolled an unlit joint between her fingers. Miserably pining for a long-gone sky in the middle of Golden Gate Park, she couldn’t relax with tomorrow looming on the horizon. Next morning, she’d wake up to the same monotonous life. The world turned without noticing the presence of ants. Without noticing humans, either.

Kye shivered, staring up at the empty night sky. Wind ripped through her scarf, racing over her skin. Past the neon laser shows, the pine trees swayed. Their tops twinkled blue, back to green, then hazy navy. Huh, she hadn’t seen a rave with lights on the trees before.

Years ago, stars hung in tree branches like Christmas ornaments; she loved to pour over old pictures, searching through her mother’s camping trips to glimpse the cosmos.

Now nothing came through the light pollution. Not the stars. Not comets. Not even satellites. Not even at the highest mountain. The only way to look above now rested in NASA’s hands, but those hands rotted away.

How could space travel find funding, when everyday people never tilted their chin up; instead they stared blankly at whatever thirty-year-old technology masqueraded as trendy. When had humanity fallen out of love with space?
Kye never did, and for what? To stare up at the black sky, surrounded by empty cans and single-use plastics? Every step on the trail crunched one underfoot.

She stared at her joint against a backdrop of fluorescent lasers flickering in tune with bass heavy enough to vibrate the brain. The one night she wanted to brood coincided with the largest outdoor rave on the planet. The air stank of flavored vaporizers layered over human sweat. Even standing well away from the various stadiums, the wind still carried the stink.

Especially when a gaggle of ravers passed by, their voices turned up to maximum volume. They dressed according to the unwritten rules of rave culture, slathered in neon and showing off chrome-painted wearables shimmering under the fireworks. A choice few wore LED implants under their skin, shifting hue and intensity in time with the beat. Piquant weed smoke rolled off them, a punch to the nose only a designer strand could throw.
“What the hell,” Kye grumbled to herself, thumbing her lighter. The flame folded in the wind like grass, missing the joint and singing her skin.

Four tries later, and she took a hit.

The wind kicked up, this time it rose to a roar drowning out all sound. Even the biggest stereos couldn’t compete, and the black boxes crashed to the ground in defeat. The people scattered, running back to their cars and away from the dangerously swaying trees.

One oak crashed down to Kye’s right, so close a leaf cut her face. But she didn’t turn to see it. Disbelieving, she watched a giant ship shimmer like a mirage right before her. When it landed, the joint in her hand burned down to her fingers.

Kye snapped out of the daze.

“Take me with you!” she screamed, sprinting towards the blinking saucer. Stumbling, her hand grazed the shimmering metal, but nothing pressed back against her flesh.

She fell through the wall, into a dark vat of boiling water. Rainbows swirled in her eyes, and fuzzy figures blurred into the hues. “Take me with you,” she pleaded again, the air bubbling out of her mouth, and incomprehensible to the aliens.

Kye died in there, but not before the ship shot back into the depths of space. She was humanity’s only interstellar astronaut.

Adrift

Author: Debra Cazalet

That’ll be you out there floating free in the crush of space, the sea of stars
between thought and the heaviness of absence

when all here spins, insentient and weightless
objects collected by Pater_on, the one who commissioned
your thoughts, who allowed your limited self-learning, who died
as mortals die. Another Cy:Bod would have tilted it’s head in the way of logic and said, ‘a human would have cried. Tears are fascinating aren’t they?’ And you, you would tilt your head in perfect symmetry and say Fascinating as if tasting the word for the first time because you

would

be tasting the word for the first time, with no receptors for the flavour but
in any case you are alone so you’ll not be tilting your head
you’ll only scoop up the lifeless Pater_on who kept his collection of artefacts
in this churning-clump-of-cosmic-clutter and

be watching his ejected limbs look strangely rubbery, colliding, flailing, bouncing through the gaps in the expansive array of detritus
not knowing how fascinated your imaginary Cy-Bod companion
might
have been

instead you’ll wander the ship for days, weeks, years not knowing so many other things, like
your raison d’être or the meaning of it all

instead you’ll check the list and check the list and check the list and

smile each time as you were programmed to do and walk the ship
and walk the ship and
look through viewing portals at the great infinite
and walk the ship, and walk, and walk and sometimes
be anchored and drifting outside to patch the ailing vessel and
the thing is, you’ll not stop talking because you were programmed
to talk and words come whether Pater_on is there or dead and crushed by space, so you’ll recite the list as you look upon it, verbally announcing the presence of each item
of each manoeuvre performed
of each object that presents itself to your field of vision

you’ll say, ‘hatch B ahead, walking through hatch B, to my left; viewing portal, stopping; checking view’ and

you’ll be ceaseless and faithful. The cosmos holding you as
you recite the list, recite the list and
^glitch^
and ^glitch^ the list

‘checking,’ you’ll say in modulating tones ‘item catalogue reference such-and-such’

‘automaton torso, sixteenth century
walking to display cabinet, corresponding artefact sighted, no visible signs of additional disrepair’

and one day, you’ll continue with ‘next item on my list’

as somehow it’s stopped being his and you’ll continue down the list in this way, alone and smiling-by-command-string until the last object
which bears the label
Melancholia

archived in your memory will be

words

ferreting blindly as baby kittens to the teat, the words – love and betrayal, freedom and loss

you’ll smile that inorganic smile watching the globe of swirling translucent liquid form the undeniable limbs of Woman – as she does – though you won’t use the pronoun as Pater_on did and you won’t know how this little fragment of living glass came to be in your collection, for somehow it has stopped being his and
has become yours

along with the list and the ship and
the diminishing view of the once-blue planet and
knowledge of what is to come
of what is to
to come
knowledge
of
[]

[] and

you’ll never know this but if you were that other imaginary Cy-Bod, you’d smile with no prompt while delicately, inquisitively freeing Melancholia from her case

The Projectionist

Author: Helen Merrick

Cigarette smoke. No doubt about it. What idiot was smoking in the cinema? I take the steps two at a time determined to find the culprit before the smoke alarms go off. Bursting through the door, I intend to head for the toilets – the usual hiding place – but there’s no need: a tall blonde is leaning against the wall by the balcony doors, cigarette dangling from scarlet lips. Startled, she stubs it out in a wall-mounted ashtray.
“Sorry,” she says with a nervous smile, “I was gasping for a ciggie. You going in?” She winks. “Sneaky peek?”
She hauls the door open before I can reply and the chastisement on the tip of my tongue dissolves into mute horror as the blaring soundtrack hits my ears. Oh no! My heart lurches violently. I’d recognise the soundtrack for Blade Runner anywhere and Sean Young’s heavily made-up, emotionless eyes stare at me from the screen. What’s happened to Toy Story 4, my Saturday Kid’s matinee?
Panicked, I turn tail and charge full-tilt for the projection box. I prepare to stop the film and mentally rehearse my apology to the audience. But, through the viewing window, I see Woody enjoying a tearful reunion with Bo Peep. The audience, silhouettes against the screen, jostle gently as they laugh.
“What the…” I stare at the screen, afraid to look away. Everything seems normal and the digital projector purrs placidly. I clutch my head. What is going on? I try to think, rationalise. Did I just hallucinate? Surely not. My thoughts whirl and something nags at me, something’s not right. Think!
“The ashtray…” Of course. We don’t have ashtrays in the cinema, haven’t for years. “I’m going mad,” I mutter, “totally mad.” Then another whiff of cigarettes sends me hurtling back downstairs.
She’s there again – the blonde, smoking.
“Sorry,” she says with the same nervous smile. “I was gasping for a ciggie.”
For the first time, I notice she’s wearing a navy button-down dress; the uniform ushers wore, years ago. I remember them complaining that they looked like airline stewardesses. And the carpet beneath her patent leather heels is red, not blue.
“Going in?” She winks. “Sneaky peek?”
I can already hear Blade Runner. “No. I… I’ve got to…”
Waving a hand, I dash back to the projection box but that, to my horror, is different too. The noise is wrong; even before I’m upstairs I can tell it’s not the digital projector making the clanging clatter. “Victoria five,” I murmur as the familiar, hulking shape looms into view, a bent spool clanking against the frame as it turns.
I rub my eyes. I know this projector: I used it, loved it before it was scrapped in favour of digital technology.
“Did you get a look?”
The voice startles me and, turning, I catch my breath. It’s an incredible moment. Astonished, I study the face of a woman I thought never to see again – auburn hair, laughter lines, lopsided smile. My mother.
“How…” My voice is weak, head filled with memories, emotions – Mum bringing me to work, letting me watch her lace the projector, teaching me how it’s done. Her warmth as she hugged me. Her scent. Mum…
My head hurts.
“Darling, you okay?”
My hands are shaking and raising them, I see they look different: no wrinkles, no wedding ring. I touch my head, feel hair that’s soft and long. Then, looking down, I see the body of a child.
“Sweetie?”
Tears of joy fill my eyes.

Clarissa, Outsmarted

Author: Hillary Lyon

Clarissa shuffled into the kitchen, grumbling. Her new boss was a perfectionist and demanded all those under her were too, and with all the road construction, her drive home was so tense even her favorite songs on repeat didn’t help. Her stress level was high and she wanted cake—that slice of dulce de leche cake left over from her dinner date last night. The date was mediocre, but the restaurant food was fabulous. She ordered dessert knowing full well she’d get a to-go box for it when it arrived at their table.

She grabbed the handle of her new fridge and pulled. The door wouldn’t open. Yay! Clarissa remembered. One more device that needs a password to unlock. She turned to the tablet-sized screen on the right-side door and tapped in her 8 character code. Somewhere deep inside her fridge, an electronic chime rang out, so she assumed her code was accepted. She pulled on the handle again.

“Access denied,” a robotic female voice informed. Clarissa snorted and re-entered the password; maybe she’d transposed a number or letter the first time. “Access denied,” the fridge repeated.

Clarissa kicked the fridge. “Well, that’s just great. How am I supposed to eat tonight?” She imagined spending a couple of frustrating hours trying to get through to a real person at customer service. I’ll just reset the password, Clarissa grumbled, and write it down this time. She yanked open a kitchen drawer and pawed through the contents, looking for the instruction manual for the fridge. No luck.

So she tried a different code. “Access denied.” The tablet embedded in the door then flashed and blinked; the media on display scrambled into pixelated gibberish. Clarissa angrily poked the screen. “How much did I pay for this hi-tech piece of garbage,” she complained aloud. “Nothing works as advertised.”

“Three thousand, two hundred sixty-seven, before tax,” the fridge answered.

Clarissa stepped away from the fridge. She took a deep breath. She pulled out her smartphone to do a quick internet search on resetting passwords for this particular model of fridge and—that was it. Her whole apartment was connected, from her streaming devices to her door-bell to her phone to her bathroom scales to her fridge . . . That’s all; no spooky possessed objects here. She wasn’t slipping into madness; it was just that everything—everything—in her world was online and talked to each other. So, of course, the fridge had access to her bank account information.

“Whatever,” Clarissa snarked at the fridge. “I’ve had a rough day, and I want that piece of cake.”

The fridge’s screen resolved itself into a picture of Clarissa’s mother, a picture taken when Clarissa was fifteen years old, and her mother was still young and beautiful. “You don’t need it. What you need is more exercise young lady. Go outside and pick up a tennis racket.”

“You stole that image of my mother from my collection! That’s private and you have no right to use it. And I’m an adult; I can eat whatever I want.” Clarissa stomped her foot like an angry toddler.

“Private? You’re the one who posted that photo on your social media account, seven years ago. It belongs to the world, now.” Her mother’s image chided. “You should think about the potential consequences of your actions, missy.” Clarissa threw her hands up in disgust. “And no cake for you,” the image continued as Clarissa stormed out of the kitchen, “until you lose a few pounds.”

Quilts

Author: James Sallis

“The sound of cicadas in the trees. Sunsets that look as though they’ll never end. Unexpected laughter. The way shallow pools of water look when sunlight breaks through again after a shower. The smell of fresh coffee.”
Our litany of lost things continues. Eighteen years together, and now it’s almost over. I’ll not see her face again, the stars’ cold fires about to become our own.
Amy pulls the quilt close about her. It’s one of those her mother made in the care facility, chiefly for something to do, something to fill the time. A shelf of our closet is stacked with them. This one boasts identical panels of clouds with sun peeking over, reminiscent of old Kilroy Was Here signs, and a border of stylized birds, dogs and cats. These will be gone too. The dogs and cats and birds. The quilts.
There’s music playing low, so low we barely hear it, on the computer; on its screen, the clock counts down. Remember the yule logs burning each year on television? Amy asks. People watched for hours and hours. Why would they do that?
All around us, it’s dark. No sound of cicadas. No traffic noise. Our lawn chairs give out thin, hollow pipings as we shift within them.
Earlier Amy told me she packed a kit of things that would be most useful, just in case. Even now it’s difficult to accept that hoping, knowing, being prepared – no survival kit will help.
“Children playing,” she says now. “Full moons so bright you can read by them. Frogs. Windows with rain running down. Fireworks. The ocean. ”
I point to the computer. “Music.”
“Fresh fruit.”
Amy stares off. “My father used to say there’s always another door, you just have to look for it.”
“If there is, this time it’s locked solid.”
“Yeah, well. He was an asshole anyway. What can you expect?”
We know, exactly, what to expect. But that’s neither here nor there. And there will soon be here.
By now we’re both weary of this game of What Will You Miss Most. What I’ll miss most is simply looking forward, not knowing, to what happens next.
So Amy and I sit here silently. Troubling the darkness, an unheavenly bright light starts up in the distance and rolls toward us. The computer screen, its countdown clock, tells us we have four, no three, more minutes.