â€œIâ€™m sorry, will you repeat that?â€ Admiral Bunka was squinting to hear, even though his very nervous ensign was right beside him.
â€œWe, uh, are at full stop sir. Thereâ€™s nothing left.â€ The young man was sweating and the two continued to look out the viewfinder towardsâ€¦well, nothing. The whole crew was there, staring out into what should have been space but where space stood it wasnâ€™t black. It wasnâ€™t white. It wasnâ€™t molecules. It was nothing.
â€œNothing?â€ The Admiral began to blubber off non-sense like an ancient car tries to shoot off its muffler when it starts. He pointed at the viewfinder and glared at his ensign with a twitch just above his left brow. â€œBaâ€¦dâ€¦ erâ€¦ donâ€™t give me that nonsense, ensign! Move us forward at once!â€
The ensign nodded nervously and returned to his post. Theyâ€™d been traveling for seven years now, at about five hundred times light speed, when they suddenly came to this rather impassable juncture. The ship just stopped, and the crew had been clueless for the past hour trying to decipher just what was in front of them.
Someone from across the room yelled out, â€œEnsign! Donâ€™t! Weâ€¦ we canâ€™t!â€
Bunka rose up and cleared his throat, â€œAnd why not, Sergeant Gimble?â€
Gimble was a stout man, but his eyes glowed with the seriousness of his words, â€œWeâ€¦ we canâ€™t just go forward into nothing! Then it will cease to be nothing!â€
â€œWhat fimble-tossle! Of course we can go forward. Itâ€™sâ€¦itâ€™s just a cloud.â€ The whole crew heard the Admiral, but they knew that he was lying. It was like telling someone who just had their arm cut off that they still had use of that limb. The ensign glanced at his Sergeant.
â€œWell, if nothing is nothing, then maybe if we go into it weâ€™ll change it into something.â€ In any moment other than this, those words that the ensign spoke would cause any man to bleed from the eyes, nose, and ears. As it was, the words unfolded a debate in the main cockpit.
Admiral Bunka was the first to try and add in his opinion, â€œWell, if weâ€™re next to nothing, then nothing is next to something. Therefore, nothing would be something. It canâ€™t be something if itâ€™s nothing.â€
â€œArenâ€™t we looking at nothing? Isnâ€™t it something weâ€™re looking at?â€ said the Sergeant as he stood up to get a better look at nothing.
â€œUhm. No. We canâ€™t describe what weâ€™re looking at. We may not even be looking at it. Itâ€™s barely even an it. Nothing, people. Weâ€™re talking about nothing here.â€ Now that the ensign had everyone thoroughly confused everyone on the deck, the three took a moment to look at each other before turning back to the viewfinder. The definition of nothing had these men absolutely confused, and they were suffering from a mild case of brainpan rupture.
Admiral Bunka appeared understandably perplexed, and rather upset at the whole situation. He stood up straight and nodded in personal acceptance of the decision he had made. â€œFull reverse then! Weâ€™ll go back the other way.â€
The Ensign returned to his seat and began typing the orders until he stopped and glanced back to Admiral Bunka, â€œSir, wouldnâ€™t that be going away from nothing?â€
To the farmers the two monks looked like the comedy/ tragedy masks that adorned the theater in town. The older monk was bald, and smiled beatifically, as if every cold breeze was a kiss. The younger monk had a mop of black greasy hair and he frowned, looking again and again at his wet boots.
â€œFarmer Kerr!â€ said the older monk joyfully â€œFarmer Rae, thank you both for coming out here on this day.â€
â€œAnything to catch a thief.â€ Muttered Farmer Kerr.
â€œPlease! Please!â€ said the older monk. â€œNo name calling! My apprentice and I have come from very far to resolve the disputes of your world, and it would be very difficult to reach a consensus on this when we start from a place of bitterness. Let us give thanks to the light in each thing, and the blessings of this day.â€
â€œMaster, can we just get this thing over with?â€ said the apprentice. The Master smiled.
â€œYou have to excuse my apprentice, he is going through the stage of Philosophical Disillusionment. Heâ€™ll get through it soon enough and move on to Transcendence.â€
â€œI donâ€™t see how. Nothing actually means anything.â€
â€œHe is such a joy.â€
The apprentice rolled his eyes. â€œWhat exactly is the problem you people have here?â€
Farmer Kerr pointed at Farmer Rae. â€œRae stole my sheep.â€
â€œPlease!â€ The older Monk waved his hands. â€œStealing is so harsh a word. Can we say instead that the sheep seem to reside in his stable now, and you would like them to reside in your stable?â€
â€œMaster, if he took them, itâ€™s stealing.â€
The old monk pushed up the sleeves of his brown robe. â€œYoung and delightful apprentice, please observe the rite of joyful silence, the breaking of which results in the most excellent slapping of my stick on your spine!â€
The apprentice made a face and tried to scrape the mud off his boot on the bark of a nearby tree.
The monk turned to the farmers. â€œWho would like to tell me the tale of how the sheep moved from one field to another.â€
â€œWell,â€ said Farmer Rae â€œLast winter was harsh, very harsh, and some people did not have enough grain saved from the summer and their sheep were left bleating and hungry in the field. I could not stand to see the creatures suffer, so I took them into my stables â€“ with no complaint, I may add, from this man â€“ and I fed them, and kept them warm under my heat lamps, and the sheep survived. Now, here, in the early spring, someone wants his sheep, the sheep that without me would have died, back in his stables. These sheep would have died without me, therefore, they live because of me. I should keep them.â€
Farmer Kerrâ€™s face had turned red. â€œHe never asked me if he could take them! They are mine, he should give them back.â€
â€œYou do realize that you are arguing about sheep.â€ said the Apprentice. â€œThatâ€™s all you people do! You argue about sheep and land and fish. Donâ€™t you ever want to see what else is out there in the galaxy? Donâ€™t you realize that we live on the precipice of a black hole? Doesnâ€™t it bother you that the universe circles an orifice of nothingness? Of death?â€
The old monk shook his head, laughing. â€œMy apprentice, he always makes me laugh. Farmer Kerr, by taking in your sheep for the winter, and feeding them, Farmer Rae did you a service. Farmer Rae, you did take these sheep in unsolicited, which was not wise of you. Farmer Kerr rightfully owes you payment of half his flock, but since you did not ask permission for your deeds, your payment is lessened. Unsolicited acts should be those of goodwill, my friend. You, Farmer Rae, shall divide the flock into three parts, and you, Farmer Kerr shall pick the two thirds you desire for your own, leaving one third with Farmer Rae in payment.â€
They both grumbled.
â€œConsensus, my friends? Are you in peace with the settlement?â€
â€œFriend speaks my mind.â€ They muttered, not exactly in unison, but somewhere close.
â€œCan we go now?â€ asked the apprentice
â€œYes, my good and disillusioned apprentice. We shall go. Hold each other in the light, my friends!â€
â€œThose people will be dead in fifty years.â€ Said the apprentice, as they trudged against the swamp towards their ship.
â€œPerhaps less.â€ Said the Master â€œThis does not mean that we do not have this moment. Ah, look! The second sunrise!â€
The land in the west glowed green as the second sun bloomed on the horizon.
â€œCan we say that on television?â€ Mool asked. He narrowed his eye at the monitor and raised a turquoise tentacle to his mouth as his other three appendages worked the digital controls.
â€œMistep? Sure. Itâ€™s been clear for a decade.â€
â€œBut what about the Xedrin colony? We got an eight percent pull there last season.â€
Nick pondered this for a second. He pushed his rolling chair away from the desk and slid over to the other tech. â€œIf theyâ€™re going to bar us for mistep theyâ€™ll bar us for having a Relana, period. Leave it. Itâ€™s edgy.â€
Mool sighed, a sound that hovered in the air for nearly thirty seconds due to his third lung. He dragged a tentacle over the trackpad and a scantily-clad blue female broke into pixels before reassembling at a different time signature.
â€œMolting season is just an excuse for her to turn down the environment,â€ the Relana complained as her overdue feathers bristled beneath the old ones. Her bare cheeks flushed to an irritated magenta. â€œâ€™Oh, itâ€™s so hot!â€™â€ she whined in a horrid approximation of a Terran accent. â€œYeah, maybe on your ice planet, you frigid mistep.â€
A tap to the panel, and her image froze. â€œNice,â€ Nick said. â€œDo we have a retort clip?â€
â€œWe can skink one. Kelly was malko about the feathers in the sink last week.â€
The cutting room filled with relative silence as the two techs pondered the next scene, Mool still sucking on his fourth tentacle and Nick gnawing on his thumbnail.
â€œDonâ€™t we have a Penguinair ad?â€ he finally suggested. Moolâ€™s skin tightened to inspired attention.
â€œA Texaco heating one, too!â€ he said, and his second tentacle yanked to the advert box. The clips were found almost immediately, and he slid the first cartridge into the control station. â€œWe could run this pleb for centuries,â€ he said, as his mouth opened to a grin. â€œItâ€™s like it never gets old.â€
If you had asked Tyrone’s father why he kept horses, why he rode them with his three boys down Carnaby Street to South End and back, and why he never seemed to use a car, he would remove his Red Sox ballcap, run his hand over his coarse dreadlocks and proceeded to lecture you on the relative cost of equine upkeep versus the rising cost of gas per gallon. The crux of his argument was that expense is in the eye of the beholder, and a proper investment is worth a million shortcuts. Tyrone’s father was an economics professor; he lived for such questions.
Now that he was gone, Tyrone often wondered if his father knew something more than just relative costs and exact change. If those years of prospective financial reports had given him some sort of insight into the future. If he knew the Still would come. If he knew his boys would thread through the rusting hulks of abandoned cars and trucks, just as they had when there had been traffic.
“Is it ever gonna stop snowing?” Jamal, the youngest, asked.
“It’ll stop when you shut up for five minutes!” Curtis said, his horse and his body slouching behind.
Tyrone turned back to look at his younger brothers, unsure of what to tell them. He was enough of an adult to understand he should be grateful that the nuclear missile, detonating where it did, only spread the Still and the snow, and the worry of fallout had evaporated so quickly. That the electrics would work again one day, and the snow would stop. He was enough of an adult that he knew that.
But the parts of him that were still a child felt that three years was far too long a winter already, and Tyrone was afraid that he would live the rest of his life under snow and ice.
They were hauling this weeks supplies back from the Save-A-Lot down in South End. The store was shut down, but its immense parking lot had evolved into a type of barter market since the Still. Tyrone and his brothers were the only ones from Carnaby Street who could make it all the way down to South End, so they often loaded up their mounts with neighbors’ pots and knives and clocks with gears, to trade for canned vegetables and freshly caught pigeons.
“Catch up now, you morons,” Tyrone called back to his brothers. “Let’s not be out longer than we have to. Not good for the horses.” Not good for us, either, Tyrone thought. The weather was harsh that day and had forced them to take the Martin Luther King Highway. The MLK’s lack of surrounding buildings made them sitting ducks for any gang that wanted to pick them clean. The stunted trees that lined the MLK would not be enough cover for Tyrone’s brothers and horses–much less the haul–but an abandoned SUV could hide damn near a dozen highwaymen before they chose to strike.
“You spooked of the highwaymen, Ty?” Curtis called out, far too loud for caution. “You scared of the boogeyman, too?” He and Jamal laughed, an echoing bray that bounced off the icy metal and glass.
“P’raps hes gotta r’son to be skeered,” came a voice from behind a car. Tyrone cursed his luck and his brothers’ laughter, as a mess of ragged men and women slithered out from around the rusting vehicles. All carried the crude, haphazardly fashioned knives indicative of the highway-folk. Tyrone had heard that of some of the gangs uptown carried guns, but he doubted they used them much. Bullets were far too expensive to replace.
Keeping that notion in mind, Tyrone pulled out his own pistol and aimed it at the closest would-be robber. He tried very hard to keep it from shaking.
“Do you like my hat?” Tyrone asked the highwayman, staring down the barrel. “No? Not a Red Sox fan? I’m not much of one either, though my father was. Despite their losing streak. He was always so sure they would win the World Series one more time. Went to all their games, Dad did. As an investment, he called it. Though my mother always claimed it was more effort than they were worth.”
Tyrone had the entire gang’s attention now, if drawing the gun didn’t get it before. He cocked back the hammer with his thumb, surprised at how easy it was. “Some would argue that placing a bullet in your brainpan would be more effort than you’re worth. But I’m willing to look at it as an investment.”
“Y’gonna get’sall, horseman?,” the highwayman said through rotting teeth. His posture was strong, but his eyes weren’t. They worried back and forth.
“Curtis, how many are there?” Tyrone called out, not moving his eyes one bit.
“7…no, 2 more behind that truck.”
“Looks like I am,” Tyrone said. “Might even shoot you again when it’s all over. Unless you and yours decide to leave us alone, and then I get to save this clip for another day.”
“Can’t letcha guh. Not for free.”
“Fair enough,” Tyrone said, and shot the man right between the eyes.
Tyrone said his brothers’ names and reined his horse up, and the ragged gang scattered from beneath the powerful brown steed’s hooves. The three horsemen galloped back to Carnaby Street, full load in tow, aware that their “investment” would only last so long.
Tyrone’s father had always said that expense is in the eye of the beholder. When Tyrone caught the way his brothers now looked at him, he felt he understood. The adult in him figured that the expense was not too high, that their coldness would past, and the fear in Jamal’s eyes would one day leave. But he was still enough of a child to know it would be far too long before it did.
Tyrone wondered if it was enough to be able to walk down a path, even if the snow made it impossible to know where you were going.
It was two hundred miles to the temperate equator, across the frozen tundra of the planet Dera. At the start of the trip, in front of the mangled ship, the colonists had cursed the planet, cursed their dead pilot, cursed the persecution of the government that forced them from the center worlds and cursed the faulty engine that crashed them two hundred miles from the land where they could farm, worship their pantheon, and live free.
Ten cold nights had finished the cursing, and settled them into a slow march as their supplies dwindled, and the cold sunk deeper into their bones. Helen, the hearth keeper, and Apollo, the unofficial leader of the expedition, lead the colonists forward, following their doctors navigation towards the warmer climate, that thin warm belt around the belly of the world. So when Helen, usually serene, cursed, it stopped the seventy colonists cold.
â€œHoly shit! What is that?â€ screeched Helen, pointing.
A thing, with eyes, many eyes, glassy and yellow, ran across their path and froze, looking back at the colonists curiously.
â€œThatâ€™s a.. .â€ the doctor paged through his handheld record keeper â€œActually, itâ€™s not in the records for this planet.â€
Helen grabbed the doctors arm. â€œHow does it even live out here, it doesnâ€™t have fur and itâ€™s freezing!â€
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ The doctor put his scanner back in his pocket. â€œIt looks like itâ€™s walking on little mouths.â€
Apollo cocked his rifle. â€œI know what it is.â€ he said, aiming the rifle with both eyes open. â€œLunch.â€
“Simply put, I do not, under any circumstances, want your filthy fingers near me.” Alison was near hysteria by the time Timmy called her. Both had been having a relationship for three years now and it was always the man who made things awkward. Nothing killed a relationship more than wanting to meet the person you’re in love with.
Alison’s face scrunched up as Timmy went on with the video call, “How can you be so ignorant? I mean, this is how people before our time did things and I don’t consider it political. I just – want to see you and touch you.”
“My God, that’s fucking creepy. Tim, can you even hear yourself? I’m calling the police if you keep this up.”
“What? No, no. Listen! Sweetie, I’m just bored of this whole cyber thing and phone thing. I want to feel warmth I want to feel you. Can’t you understand what I’m going through?”
A sigh came from her lips. The girl was losing her interest already. “Timmy, that’s why the internet gives you porn: so that girls like me don’t get pregnant. No one has to move and lose their job, and when we get married we can set up for insemination. See? Simple.”
The signal ended with Timmy’s frowning face etched on the plasma reader. How could she do this? He was furious. Already, his computer screen had been buzzing with offers from girls in far, far away places. They knew better than to be located in the same time zone, let alone the same country. Sex became sterile and love was the plastic bag they held it in.
His fingers went to work, and not the way you would think. He typed and he typed until he found what he was looking for. Little clicks of fingertips tapping at a plastic board led him to an illegal escort service that did, indeed, promote ‘touching’ and even ‘mouth to mouth playmates.’ Myspace had been around for almost a hundred years.
Timmy worked his magic and made sure the ghost-bot was up and running. First offenders got minimum of five years for even thinking of doing a spit-transplant with another humanoid. Things were sketchy and Tim knew the risks when he dialed the supposedly free website.
Search upon search turned up old advertisements. Some were funny, and others had become obsolete like penis-enlargements and physical enhancers. Soon, however, he spotted a few girls still active, fishing their lines and listing the interests that piqued more than his curiosity. Timmy knew he was crossing the line, but something told him that living in a box was wrong. These girls wanted to get what he wanted to give: touch.