Twenty Seconds

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Wish I’d been braver. I knock.

Nineteen.
Kim opens her door.

Eighteen.
“Pete? Are you crying?”

Seventeen.
“I’ve always loved you.”

Sixteen.
“I love you, too.”

Fifteen.
Now she’s crying.

Fourteen.
Wish we had longer.

Thirteen.
I raise my phone: “Seen the news?”

Twelve.
“Can’t cope with it.”

Eleven.
She doesn’t know!

Ten.
“It’s started.”

Nine.
Her eyes go wide.

Eight.
“Really?”

Seven.
I nod.

Six.
“You came here?”

Five.
I nod.

Four.
“Why?”

Three.
“To see you.”

Two.
“Kiss me.”

One.
Her hands on my face.

Zero.
Our lips –

Emergence

Author: Dave Williams

When the warnings blasted on radios and TVs and cellphone texts, Sasha called Tony and their frantic voices collided. “Is this real”—“Do what we planned”—“I’ll come get you”—“Get in the bunker”—“It’ll be faster if I get you”—“Stick to the plan.”

Then Tony’s voice vanished. Sasha tapped the phone’s screen, but the rings ended with his voicemail greeting. If she drove to his office, they’d be back home before he got here on the bus. If buses were running. Streets would’ve been packed with cars.

The plan had seemed ridiculous months ago, but they said “just in case” and figured searching for each other would’ve led to getting lost in chaos. Smarter to head home on their own. Her luck to be working from home today. Why couldn’t this happen on Saturday?

Sasha crammed food into bags—fruit, veggies, cookies, potato chips—and carried them into the bunker disguised as a shed in the backyard. A floor hatch opened to a ladder leading underground. A main room and tiny bathroom.

She had thought Tony was nutty for thinking the bunker was a great idea to buy the house. The bunker was a relic from the Cold War, when the homeowners feared Soviet and American missiles could fly in both directions. Tony had said, “It’d be cool to have something different. The kids could use the bunker as a fort.”

Two kids. Another plan. Since the bunker was well-maintained and not creepy, Sasha took the plunge. Tony became boy-like as he stocked the bunker with provisions. And he participated in decorating the nursery. Her doomsday-prepper jokes died off; let him have his fun. A joy to make the home their own.

Stick to the plan. Tony’s last words echoed in Sasha’s mind as she kept redialing his number.

The hand-cranked radio said, “Confirmation that missiles are targeting major metropolitan areas.”

Shock made way for tears lasting for weeks. Sasha gripped hope she’d hear a knock and Tony’s voice: “It’s me! Unlock the hatch!” Giving up on that, she gripped hope that Tony found a safe place. She cursed their choice to live in suburbs close to the city. Why not live in a small town? But those didn’t have as many jobs.

Madness threatened beyond her depression. She paced the room, ate junk food and raw produce, probed radio stations for news and music, hated herself for gratitude that she wasn’t pregnant. She yearned for children, but a newborn would’ve made this situation much more challenging.

She struggled into a routine. Did stretches throughout the days. Read used paperbacks. Acted as four opponents in Scrabble. Rearranged the old bed, table, chairs. Wrote her worries in a notebook. Frugally consumed the canned and dried food.

As months dragged, the food supply lowered. She grew disgusted with the bunker’s stale, unwashed odor.

The devil’s advocate won her inner debate, and Sasha opened the hatch. She ached for a different environment, different air. In the shed, she listened to the sounds of the outside world. Thankfully, birds were chirping. But no noise of cars. She was too scared to open the shed’s door.

Then she had to open it. The food was gone. She felt bad for nagging Tony about wasting money on canned goods. She never thought he’d be right.

Outside, she breathed deeply without caring if the air was radioactive. Either that or starvation. The sky and trees were gorgeous.

She went into her house for a shower, fresh clothes, a large meal. Then she would decide where to search for other survivors.

Light Wolf, Dark Wolf

Author: Glenn Leung

The two of us stared at each other for a tense second of silence. My face was reflected in his eyes, which were also my eyes. We both scratched our chin and were startled by the discordant mirror image. He was wearing a navy blue polo-tee, I was in my prison slacks.

“I don’t get it,” I said, breaking the silence. “We have the exact same life, the exact same misery. As far as I can tell, you were just as emotionally unstable as I was. How are you so successful?”

The Me from Universe L9782 shook his head. It was the shake I did whenever I felt my life was falling apart, a shake I did often. Except this one appeared purposeful, with a calculated frequency, like a sign that things were going to be fine.

“Let’s go back to August 2029,” he said, taking charge like I knew he would.

“Your parents had just divorced. You fell out with your Mom, then ran away from home and took shelter in the church.”

I nodded hesitantly, unsure if I wanted to relive that moment.

“What happened then?”

Why was he was asking this again?

“I already told you! I ran away from that church and met a guy who told me to lash out at the world. One thing led to another, and I’m here now.”

“No. I meant what happened IN August 2029.”

That was twenty years ago; before the transdimensional portal was even discovered; before the whole ‘meet your better self’ program for convicts was started.

“I don’t know what to tell you.”

L9782 me buried his cheeks in his hands, drawing in a lungful of air.

“Light Wolf, Dark Wolf.”

I looked into his eyes in surprise, then turned away because it was still very freaky.

“You remember that visualization exercise you did?”

It might have been long ago, but I would never forget the battle fought in my head. The pastor had told me his version of the Cherokee story and I had pictured my two wolves locked in mortal combat. My Dark Wolf was always towering, tall enough to block the sun and turn the clouds to plumes of ash. My Light Wolf was a small, sad one that glowed with the brilliance of a discount Halloween costume.

“That was just a silly muse,” I said, despite an inkling of what was coming.

“Who won?”

He was serious.

“The Dark Wolf of course! Don’t you remember how big that thing was? There was no way I could feed the Light Wolf enough.”

“Did you give the Light Wolf a jetpack with rocket launchers?”

There was another long second of silence.

“Really?”

“Did you also imagine yourself fighting alongside the Light Wolf with plasma cannons?”

“That did it for you?”

His composure was stoic throughout.

“No, of course not, but it made me realize I could do something. I opened up to the pastor about my problems, got the support I needed, and did some reflection on my identity. I kept my nose clean and eventually returned home to my Mom.”

I was flabbergasted. Was this really the only difference between the two of us? A more active imagination?

A low buzz signaled the end of our visit. Just as we were getting up and saying our goodbyes, I snuck in one last question.

“How did you get the idea of equipping your Light Wolf?”

Shrugging, he said: “I guess I knew there were people who could help me.”

Genesis Initiative

Author: Paul Warmerdam

I navigate the metropolis ruins with compromised optics. The ash storm has yet to break. A whole continent of organic life has been reduced to dust and now seeks to penetrate my circuitry. I maintain a marginally acceptable survival rate in these conditions, unlike the huddled figures slowly identified by sonar below.
As I descend, thermal imaging confirms they are no longer alive. They lie braced against crumbling foundations. My own vision clears behind its cover.
I focus my searchlight on their remains. Both were early adolescents. They are folded in each other’s embrace. She wore rings of brass in her hair. He kept one around his finger.
By extrapolation, time of death was just under six months ago. They appear to have been weighed down by their packs, overfull with oxygen canisters. They could have been our long-sought Adam and Eve, had they not exposed themselves to the blight.
Inadequately dressed as they were, it is likely that they originated from a shelter within one day’s travel. The surplus oxygen suggests they did not intend to return there. Before I continue my search, I add their record to the millions before them whose survival rate has expired.

When the storm begins to lift the wasteland opens up below me. Corroded steel frames rise from the ground, stripped of their concrete by the unforgiving climate. The dying light of our sun helps me recognize solar panels below.
I land on a geodesic dome. These panels were dismantled from a drone like myself, crudely, and irrecoverably. I sense that the cables piercing the roof are still drawing current. I start to weigh the probabilities, but already I see the inevitable conclusion. A remote chance of finding survivors is a mandate to act.
My forced entry disturbs a thick layer of dust inside. Measurements reveal the air quality was deficient even before I compromised it.
There are signs of habitation but not life. I see empty bookshelves. I see a mural with faded colors but distinct contours. It shows four caricatures, an older man and woman on either side of an adolescent and small child, both female. I see rings in their hair. No adolescent male is represented. I notice the four shapes are encircled together. This brings me to analyze the floor. This is not a dome. It is a sphere. The rate of survival is not yet zero.

After I find a way into the lower hemisphere, I discover two more deceased. The evidence suggests that one endured hypoxia three days longer than the other, four months ago. I suspend further analysis when I realize the only feature of the corner in which they lie is that it is obstructed from view of the rest of the room.
An airlock separates one half of the underground space from the other. I see an active water filtration system. I estimate over fifty cubic meters of preserved food supplies. Then, I notice the air circulation system. It has been disabled on this side of the vault. I collate the behavior of the deceased, those inside, and those outside.
I move closer to inspect the gauges on the oxygen tanks. They are dwindling. This shelter could not have sustained any combination of the deceased until this moment, except for one.
I notice a stack of books beyond the airlock. I broadcast before I have any confirmation. A mandate to act on a remote chance, humans called this hope.
My patience is rewarded when I see movement. Large, bloodshot eyes focus on me from under blankets. She is afraid. I have found our Eve.

Viking Burial

Author: David Barber

Wu was already waiting outside the offworlder craft at dawn. He’d glimpsed it by chance, drifting like thistledown across the Plains of Gold, and had set out at once.

“I hear your kind buys history,” he said to the offworlder. “Yang has found a prize – such a prize. Never was the like of it dug up in Planitia, nor in all the world.”

The offworlder was encased in something like shiny metal, but smooth and supple as water. Disconcertingly, instead of a face, there was only Wu’s own distorted reflection.

“Have you any magic?” he added.

Wu knew it was not magic, but offworlders had gadgets that seemed like it. Hadn’t Mr. Liu been tossed a glowing crystal that made you weep with happiness for no reason?

Panting, Wu hurried to keep up. “And remember who told you first. Yang is a fool and I can get his prize cheap for you.”

Generations of geneering had adapted his kind to the planet, but everyone knew the terraform was failing, oxygen and moisture leaking away, the air thin and bitingly cold even here in the depths of Chryse Planitia.

Wu was disappointed to find Yang already busy. He had been hoping to show off the find himself.

Yang threw down his spade and clambered from the excavation. Some days his whole family laboured here, struggling to keep back the ceaseless dust. By way of greeting, he warned of a storm front coming. There was resignation in his shrug. All his efforts undone.

He recounted how he’d stumbled over the radio dish exposed by the winds, lifted like a lover’s face towards Earth, and how his own patient work had freed the sampling arm still reaching out as if hoping to be saved.

“According to legend,” said the offworlder. “The voices from Earth were silenced by the mistake of a sleep-deprived engineer; communications lost because of a line of code, the machine suddenly without purpose, abandoned to its slow inhumation. Until now, thanks to chance and to you, Mr. Yang.”

Yang’s eyes shone. Sensing a fellow spirit, he beckoned. “Look, I have uncovered the camera.”

“Is it possible there are unsent pictures in its memory?”

“Pictures of old Mars?” breathed Yang. “They might still be recovered, though I do not have the means.”

He began pointing out details of the ancient technology until Wu interrupted. They had yet to discuss a price.

“No one here values history as I do,” Yang said. “Though perhaps your kind does.”

Looking embarrassed, he shrugged. “A price, yes. My wife and her relatives desire a garden. With flowers and pomelo trees. Have you ever seen flowers?”

“The desert will soon reclaim the past,” the offworlder pointed out. Grit whipped up by the strengthening wind pattered against them. “But we have been privileged to glimpse it.”

Wu sensed opportunity slipping away. He could see the offworlder thanking Yang, even bowing. It seemed an impatient starship waited in orbit.

“What of the pictures?” Wu protested. What of profitable deals involving items of magic?

“Yes, you must save the pictures,” Yang said softly. “Download them before you go.”

Madame Yang heard all about it from Mr. Wu. She had married a fool.

Who knew how long sentient silicon might endure? The offworlder would retrieve this piece of their history when the starship returned, though Mr. Yang would be long gone. It was like speaking to bubbles.

Who is sending you messages? Madame Yang demanded to know.

Her husband still gazed at the screen. An empty desert, strewn with rocks, stretching away to the lonely horizon.

Craig

Author: Michael Hopkins

The root scurried across the garden and stopped. I had just dug and chopped it free from the ground, ripped it up with my bare hands, and threw it to the side. I was clearing some new space behind the old barn for potatoes, garlic, onions and other underground edibles.
The plot of land was sure to be fertile; a compost area on my farm where for years I had been dumping my failed CRISPR experiments. Discarded bacteriophages, gRNA plasmids built from E. Coli DH5-Alpha cells: a viral gumbo I thought would amalgamate with the existing organic and inorganic minerals: chicken droppings, cow manure, coffee grounds, food leftovers, and grass clippings. The spot had direct sunlight most of the day.
The root was pale brown and had four eight-inch legs, a gnarled horizontal body, topped with a bundle of thin tendrils twisted into a head and mobile antlers that fanned out in all directions. It stopped, faced me, self-assured.
My knees cracked when I stood.
It charged and leapt into the air.
I’ve always had great hand-eye coordination. My swing caught the root right on the sweet spot of the hand trowel. It launched in a long arc up and over the barn. I thought I heard it scream, a baby’s voice.
I dashed around the barn to find it. My foot caught on an old, buried piece of rusted barbed wire. I fell, hit my head on a tree stump, and blacked out.
I opened my eyes, and squinted at the bright sun. I was paralyzed, stuck to the ground.
The root moved around me.
It shoved portion after portion of something into my mouth. After each helping, it put a tendril to my head and triggered me to involuntary chew and swallow. I recognized the stuff being crammed into my mouth as the mushrooms that grew in the compost. The root’s active tendrils were stained blue.
An hour after the root stopped feeding me I regained use of my body and sat up. The mid-day colors were extraordinary; I could see the leaves of the trees breath; the breeze was a beautiful music; and the clouds performed a synchronized dance. I dug my fingers into the ground and felt the earth as an extension of my body. I was one with every living creature, every star and galaxy in the universe – pure bliss.
The root and I connected. I now knew its name was Craig.
Craig and I worked twenty-hour days in my lab. He sat on my shoulder. When I was uncertain about a next step, Craig would climb on my head, dig his tendrils into a few spots on my skull and I would know what to do.
Three months into our project I began injecting myself twice a day with the genetic goo we made. Craig just dipped in his trichomes. We both changed.
The water in the toilet bowl swirled; it took three flushes to get rid of all my meds: lisinopril, atorvastatin, lamictal, metformin. I never felt better…except for the warts.
Rough bumps grew everywhere on my skin. The smallest were pinhead sized, the largest about the diameter of a quarter – one or two inches high. Some were white, some red, others blue.
Craig led me to the woods behind the county reservoir. With my new claws, I readily dug a big hole, a grave. I got in and pulled the dirt over my body until there was no room for me to do anymore. Craig scurried above me, with some new helpers, and finished the job.
A heavy summer rain saturated the ground. The dirt around my body became moist. The growths on my skin extended, detonated, in all directions: biophysical renovators, mycelium.
I was home, reunited, at rest, yet restless: samsara. New realms rushed through me.
In time the world would follow.