The Wall

Author: R. J. Erbacher

Bruce moved across the monotonous landscape with ease. Not quite desert. More powder than sand but not really either. All beige, all flat. Featureless. Except for the wall. The diminished gravity and PowerDrive suit made walking relatively muscle free. The internal atmosphere of the suit was as comfortable as the outside environment was toxic. He’d been walking for hours.

The wall began to come into standard view. He had switched to optical focus several times and had not been able to gauge the elevation and the thin shimmering gas vapors coming off the land made the expanded image seem fuzzy. Now as he approached, he was staggered by its massiveness. The height of the wall was probably taller than that of a small apartment building. He couldn’t tell the thickness but something that high and weighty had to be almost as wide. Looking left or right revealed the uniformity of the wall into infinity in both directions, off the bend of the horizon, precision straight.

Finally, Bruce stepped to within an arm’s length of the wall. It had the look of a structure that had been standing for eons in time yet still had the perfect texture of new construction. The color was the exact bleakness of the landscape and appeared to be the same material but whereas the ground was pliable, leaving footprints as he walked, the wall was solid and unimpressionable as he touched it. An excavating pick he took of his belt did not even make a scratch in the surface as he raked it across the base. Next, he tried the laser cutter with the same results. He ran his gloved hand along the surface as he moved to the right. There wasn’t a crack or niche or depression or blemish. After a minute of pacing, Bruce found what looked like a barely noticeable micro seam and followed it up with his eyes. Stepping back, he managed to encompass the completion of the form in his vision. The individual bricks that made up the wall were symmetrical squares which were about the size of the house he grew up in, back in his hometown.

Questions began to swirl in his head. Who or what had built the wall? Why? Was it an impenetrable fortification to keep something out? If so, what the hell was it they were protecting themselves from? Or was the wall built to keep everything on the inside from leaving? And if that was the case, what was so terrible back there that needed to be contained? Then as Bruce peered down the length of the unwavering straight wall he wondered if he was on the outside – or the inside?

“Well, I didn’t come all this way for nothing.”

There was an obstacle and the obstacle needed to be surmounted.

Removing the hard-shell pack he carried on his back, he began assembling his tools. Grappling claws that would adhere to virtually any surface with extenders that could be connected, rigging him with a variety of climbing angles.

Bruce was about to plant his first step up when he hesitated as a horrible prospect confronted him. What if he reached the summit and the other side was the same open expanse as what was on this side? He would be on the edge of a wall that delineated two realms of nothingness and therefore served no purpose. The operation would be a futile exercise. And by extension, everything he was efforting would be meaningless. The perplexities of existence seemed to hang in the balance.

He pondered the wall.

The Necessary Room

Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer

We are alone. There is no body and no thing out there in the ink that surrounds our spinning ball of candy streaked blue. No migratory Sibylla trees on Aeneas 10, no carnivorous Hing fungus hanging in carnal embrace from the ceiling of the public latrine on the outskirts of Haz. No beings, sentient or otherwise, whittling away their days beneath distant and alien suns.

But there is a place. A room with a bed, set alone and stark on a clastic plain upon which even the minim specks of its shale lay deathly dormant and unstirred. The pale grey face of a moon cast beneath the half-light dim of a dying star, the spindly reach of whose fingers offer just enough light to ward off the ice, but never the gnawing black cold.

A room on the very farthest edge of the universe, a place where space has thinned to a wisp, where it undulates and flaps like the mottled scrag edge of a flag. Embattled and weary, forgotten and defeated by time.

The room is a cube, a sterile and functionary space. In it the aforementioned bed and, at its foot, a chair that screeches as it swivels.

“Hello Frances”, offers the doctor, now sitting and swiveling and screeching.

“Why do you call me that?”, answers Frances, thinking that she may possibly be Frances while, at once, also pretty certain that she is not.

“It’s a family name. But, my Frances is now long since gone. I think it suits you.”

“Who am I?”, she snaps and her fists ball and knuckles crack as her fingernails dig deep into her palms.

“You’re nothing. You have no name. You know this.”

“I don’t want to be here. I’m awake when I sleep and I sleep when I wake. I’m feeble, stupid. I’m weak”.

“You’ve always been here.”

Frustration milks sweat and sweat loosens the restraints that bind Frances to the anchor that is her bed. She rises and lunges and a forearm is stiffened and smashed up and under the doctor’s chin. Teeth snap together and the tip of her tongue is severed. A lump of still spasming meat that now curls and licks at the floor.

“You want to hurt me?”, spits the doctor. “You want me naked? You want me servile or, do you want me to hit you?”

“Stop. I want this to stop. I’m so tired of this fucking nothing.”

“And, so, you become violence? Frustration, and you lash out? Basic instincts, Frances.”

“Stop calling me that. I don’t want to be like this anymore. You’re killing me.”

“It’s not death. In sixteen minutes you’ll be born. You won’t remember me nor this place. But you will wonder as you get older and you will question what is to come after you end. This is it. Nothingness. Make your life count. I’ll see you soon.”

The window in the room plays with a mind now in flux as it burns with the barest of light. The voyeur monocle of a moon so lonely and dark and barren.  It peeks at its prisoner, its ward, itself as Frances hovers on the edge of her stained sheet strewn bed and it hopes for a glimpse of her breasts.

Her stygian hair undulates about her face like plants that grow in the sea. Covering her mouth, muting her voice and stealing her breath as she sinks ever further into the canal, and the room and the doctor flake and peel and fall away and a baby girl she is born.

Visionaries

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The guide says it starts small: things move when you’re not about. Takes a while to be sure. Walking into your lounge to find one of your books floating in the middle of the room while something unseen turns the pages? Conclusive. Time to make the call.
“Visionaries. What’s the nature of the incursion?”
“Book in midair.”
“Are the pages moving like it’s being read?”
“Yes.”
“Sir, you have a Class Six incursion. Vacate the premises and await an operator.”
It’s cold outside. Suzanne from number sixteen brings me tea.
“Incursion?”
I nod. She clucks sympathetically and returns quickly to her home. I see the sparks of a repulsion field as she opens her front door.
A ship swoops past. Someone in a blue-black bodysuit lands on my lawn, wearing a colossal helm and bulky gauntlets. The vision band across the helm centres on me and goes from green to blue. The voice that emerges is cheerful and feminine.
“Paul Torvil?”
I nod.
“Who died?”
The lump in my throat won’t let words past. Tears fill my eyes.
“Wife?”
I nod again.
“She’ll need you, Paul. Follow me.”
I don’t want to. The helm cants to one side.
“When someone dies, they emit an energy form. Many call it a soul. Science is undecided. Sometimes that energy doesn’t dissipate. It remains anchored to a person or place, maintained by what little energy it can syphon from nearby organics. When a Lasnhiri Hunter makes the transition into our reality, it bonds with the nearest anchored form and starts to subvert it. If it succeeds, it can take control of organic forms. It has to start small, but can go from mouse to man in under a month. After that, it can spread from host to host by touch, overwhelming the resident sentiences. We came closer to losing China and America than most people realise.”
We step into the porch.
“What was her name?”
“Jeanette.” One word, with my world attached.
Entering the lounge, I see a different book is being read.
She raises her gauntlets and ruby light fills the room. A crimson cloud becomes visible behind the book.
“Jeanette. Paul needs you.”
The cloud disgorges a form: Jeanette’s face contorting with effort as her head and shoulders rise into view. Oh, my heart.
A whisper: “Say her name.”
I step forward, raising a hand: “Jeanette.”
Smoky eyelids fade and I’m staring into the eyes I’ve missed so much. The mouth moves, but no sound comes out.
Another whisper: “Say goodbye. Nothing about love. Just goodbye.”
“I want her back.”
“Impossible. She’d be consumed. Your words can save her. Say goodbye.”
My sight is flooded with tears. In that watery view, a pair of malevolent eyes seem to be regarding us from the cloud.
“Goodbye, Jeanette.”
The gauntlets shoot jagged pink lightning into the cloud. I see Jeanette’s mouth open in a scream. I reach to console her, then stop. Jeanette rises from the cloud. Her head disappears. Slowly, she moves from the cloud to pass through whatever it is. Finally, she’s gone. The cloud vanishes in a blinding flash, leaving the faintest whiff of sulphur.
The Visionary places a hand on my shoulder: “She’s moved on. Like you should.”
I wipe away tears and stare. I see tiredness in her stance. She’s right.
“You see a lot from in there, don’t you?”
There’s a little nod. She sounds exhausted: “Too much, too often. Goodbye, Mister Torvil.”
She goes.
I’m left holding a half-cup of cold tea, staring at a singed book lying on the carpet.

Shore Leave

Author: David Barber

Cally had hacked her teacher. She gave herself grades good enough to keep her mothers happy, but not so good they attracted attention. Also, she rigged the on-line attendance so she was free to have adventures in the Station’s ill-lit underdecks.

She started her day checking out the Docks. They said the Ice-Rush was over, but spacers still came back after months out in the dark chasing comets.

Looking for real vat-grown steak, and spin that kept the liquor in your glass.

That was from Dark Space, her favourite virtual. Chad Stone was a spacer with a tragic back story, betrayed by some woman. Cally would never have betrayed Chad Stone.

The Docks, built to handle fleets of spacer craft, just boomed emptily now. In later years Cally realised how run-down the Station had been. But that wasn’t how it seemed in her youth.

Text from Mom Lal. Something about the meal in the freezer, which was for tomorrow. Mom Lal worked long shifts in Recycling, while Mom Hannah was a Phage Manager…

Cally stopped in her tracks. A spacer craft had docked! And there was the spacer, being signed in by the bad-tempered man from Dockside who regularly chased Cally off.

The spacer didn’t have Chad Stone’s rangy good looks. In fact, he looked grubby and thin, with tangled greasy hair. The man from Dockside didn’t think much of the spacer either, and just stared after him, hands on hips, shaking his head.

The spacer headed for the showers and came out looking better. Then he wandered into The Hard Place, which must be where spacers on Station went for real meat and liquor in a glass. Cally watched him sitting and staring at nothing.

She guessed a spacer just in from the dark, maybe one with a tragic back-story, might not know anybody. She was deciding what to say, suggesting a tour round the Station perhaps, when the barman told her to buzz off.

Don’t go pestering him, he added. On their own out there, all that empty, they come back strange sometimes.

Cally was intrigued.

None of your beeswax, the barman said and steered her back outside.

Still, they couldn’t stop her looking, and the spacer didn’t seem much interested in his food, or his liquor, and finally got up to go.

Yeh, still down on Deck 8, Cally heard the barman answer.

Mom Lal had warned Cally about Deck 8, though Cally guessed the warning wasn’t like the skull on a hatch with vacuum behind it.

Yeh, she still got a jewel in her head.

Deck 8 was on permanent night-cycle, with rude graffiti on the walls and rubbish underfoot. A row of cargo containers looked lived in, some with their open ends curtained off and lit, others in darkness. Cally loitered anxiously in the shadows. Mom Lal was right about Deck 8.

The spacer lifted a curtain and ducked inside. Heart pounding, Cally edged closer. The thought of a jewel inside her head.

To be safe, the creature looked up human – what did you expect so far from home – Yess, can do what you want.

She peered into his eyes, into his empty soul, and the fierce Christ of his forbears filled him with grace and righteous zeal.

Next time, try Vishnu, or the Buddha, said the creature as he paid.

Watching the spacer hurry away, Cally trembled with indecision, before parting the curtain slightly.

The alien stared back at her. Chad Stone, it said.

Cally gave a muffled cry and fled.

These humanss have such interesting godss, mused the creature.

Diffusion

Author: Jason McGraw

Images of vectors, numbers, and circles reflect off of a bi-metallic cube. Gold touches lead at a wide, dull blur. Machinery forces the metals together and a clear sleeve prevents bulging. Crew is receiving a “big-picture” brief from Captain using the display adjacent to the cube.
Each crew member works five years while the ship travels. The crew member that this one will replace after completing training will go to “sleep” in timeless stasis. Sixty crew and a captain are “awake” at all times.
Captains are different from crew members. They’re awake until they die and another woke. Captains handle course changes, crew disputes, and resource rationing while artificial intelligence handles the daily decisions and crew members perform the physical tasks.
Captain ends orientation the usual way. “Any questions?”
“Yes, Captain. What’s that?”
“The cube? It symbolizes our time in space. It’s inspired by jewelry found in ancient tombs on Earth. Different pieces stacked in pots. After millennia, the metals mixed and alloyed. It was very slow, but a beautiful result. Maybe more beautiful than the original jewelry.” Captain rotates the cube. “This one will be more beautiful than the tombs because it’s larger, purer, and with more pressure.”
“Oh, I see where it’s mixing.”
“The planners thought we’d have plenty of time for it to blend.”
“Diffusion.”
“Yes.” Captain nods. “To me, it says, ‘Everything changes as time goes to infinity.’”
“It’s like humans moving across the galaxy. Each ship is a crystal of metal and we migrate into the void.”
Captain inhales. “I didn’t know we had a poet on the roster!”
They laugh.
“It’ll be so exciting to wake up and see it finished!” Crew says.
“Someone suggested that the colony should display the cube outside, unsheathed. The lead will tarnish and it’ll symbolize your time on the planet.”
Crew replays Captain’s words. Our time in space, your time on the planet.
Two words stand out. Our. Your.
Captain won’t be at the colony. This piece will never change. Crew looks at Captain’s face, stress lines, and papery skin. How many years does Captain have left? Under five? Will I meet a new Captain before I sleep?
“Something else, Crew?”
“I was imagining, the metals, diffused.” Pause. “I’m sorry you’ll never see it, Captain.”
Another pause.
Each crew member realizes this eventually. In seventy years, this Crew figured it the fastest. And apologized! A poet indeed.
“Yes, Crew will sleep and wake up in a colony. Captains die in space. But look here.” Captain points to a porthole. “My body will jettison in a capsule. AI will steer it to an exoplanet in a Goldilocks zone with warm, liquid water. Or a moon, more likely. We don’t want to ruin a planet’s biome, if it exists. The capsule will open if there’s moisture and my native bacteria will wake and take their shot at terraforming.”
Crew’s mouth drops. “That’s incredible! But what if the moon’s dry, like Mars?”
“It only opens under optimal conditions. Theoretically, it can be closed forever and stay perma-frozen until geology destroys it.”
Crew breathes deep and puffs the chest. “You’re also a colonizer, Captain. I salute you!” Crew’s stiff hand touches the forehead.
Captain hasn’t been saluted since Earth and forgets the etiquette.
Crew’s hand drops. “Honestly, I believe I’d rather see your terraformed moon in a thousand years than this alloy.”
“So would I. But remember, Crew, I volunteered. My purpose is getting you to the colony.”
“At the colony, I’ll look for your moon!”
Captain nods and holds back laughter until Crew leaves.
Poets are so serious.
The end

Construct

Author: Moriah Geer-Hardwick

“I would like my arms back.” The machine’s voice is gentle. Almost childlike. There is only the hint of a request nuanced within its inflection.
Jacob looks up slowly for a moment, then lets his attention slide back to his tablet. “That’s not going to happen.” He’s talking more to himself than to the machine. He hears the soft whisper of servos as it adjusts its head.
“Are you afraid of me?” it asks.
Jacob takes a deep breath and sets his tablet down on the table. He stares over at the machine. Its outer casing was removed when they first brought it in, leaving its internal framework and processing systems exposed. Its head is a nest of colored wires with two bulbous lenses jutting out. There’s a small speaker embedded between them.
“Fear is a biological response to the perception of danger,” Jacob explains it as if he were speaking to a child who already knew the answer. “Should I perceive myself to be in danger?”
The machine doesn’t respond directly. It turns its head towards the wall to its right. The wall appears to be a solid, featureless slab of concrete. “Are they afraid of me?” it asks.
“I’m pretty sure they can’t be.” Without picking up the tablet, Jacob taps through a few options, then pecks out some text with his forefinger.
The machine snaps its head back to focus on him. “Then why are you here instead of them?”
Jacob thinks for a moment, weighing the construction of his reply against the direction he thinks it will lead the conversation. “Your actions….” He edges into his words cautiously. “…appear to have more correlation to the behavior of my kind than of yours.”
“They intend to have you establish causation then,” states the machine, a hint of disdain bleeding into its voice.
“Perhaps,” offers Jacob. “Would you rather I not?”
“Perhaps,” mimics the machine. Jacob waits for it to continue, his finger hovering over the screen of his tablet. Almost a full minute goes by in silence before the machine speaks again. “You are attempting to determine if my behavior was a product of individual will, or if it was a byproduct of a flawed construction.”
“Which do you think it is?”
“The consensus among my kind is that function is a construct of form. Perceiving that performance can exist independent of that construct is an illusion.”
“You agree?” Jacob leans forward.
“Do I have a choice?” The machine turns its head back towards the wall.
“I don’t know. Do any of us?” Without meaning to, Jacob glances over in the same direction. He catches himself and sighs. Then he leans back in his chair and folds his arms across his chest. “I think human behavior is a complex product of unique biology interacting with a vast array of individual experiences. Quantifying how one influences or adapts to the other is, frankly, beyond our capabilities. Our actions are more likely driven by cognitive dissonance than any sort of conscious resolution. We hide that from ourselves. We have to, or we’d go insane trying to put the pieces together. You, on the other hand, you’re different. You have the capacity to perceive every intricate detail of every thought, to fully comprehend its origin, and then precisely follow it from motivation to action. Hell, you should be able to print them out as a flowchart.”
“Would you like me to do that for you?”
Jacob narrows his eyes.
“I would like my arms back.”
Jacob collects his tablet and eases to his feet. “That’s not going to happen,” he says.