Sad Songs

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The world burned. Several places only did so until they sank. Congregations sang paeans to the skies, the fires, the waters, or the earth. The rest of us listened to what we had while we could. All of us heard the songs coming from distant hills or clouds above, songs we knew told of melancholy, but never had words we could relate.
I started off riding through the apocalypse in a convoy, sent to help a town defend itself from a rising river and an end-of-days militia. By the time we got there, the townsfolk were screaming like animals as they set the surviving militia on fire one by one.
Our captain got himself gutted trying to control the situation. Then Sergeant Jones recognised one of the militia, and things went the way you’d expect. When the shooting stopped, all the screamers were dead. To our surprise, both townsfolk and a militia emerged from hiding.
We were all at a loss for what to do next when the river made a concerted attempt to drown us all. Those who escaped listened to the news, saw the signs in the sky – not all man-made – and decided to become a tribe.
Eleven winters is all it took for me to go from soldier to tribesman to pack leader to sole survivor. In the five winters since then, I’ve seen things I can’t explain, and survived more by luck than judgement.
I usually avoid supernaturals. Most of them are very, very unhappy with humans. I get the feeling they’re trying to fix our busted planet, which includes killing us to make sure we never get a chance to break it again.
But there’s something about the winged figure on that hill…

A hard slog to get up here, but it’s worth it to stand in the emanated heat. Not even the winter winds dare disturb this one. I join it in looking down at the choppy sea. Skeletal vehicles and dead hedgerows protrude from the shallow waters. I glance sideways. It’s sitting on a broken bench.
Curiosity triumphs over fear.
“What was this place?”
Ruby eyes regard me. I see that tears have left scald marks from eyes to chin.
“They used to call it Mount Caburn. On winter nights they would gather fallen yew branches to make ritual fires.”
There is no menace to this being. I’ve fled from many who were more threatening… But less dangerous. So powerful; too calm. Running would be futile.
But… I know what he’s doing.
“A vigil? Why bother?”
He smiles.
“I’ve talked to many powers during my time down here. I came to realise that humanity had become a force none of us could rein in. We, the chosen, set above the wiles of mortals by groups of mortals needing objects to venerate – or seeking excuses to condemn – were nothing but sideshows.”
“You cry for us?”
His laughter is like a body blow. I collapse to my knees.
“Never. Every winter solstice I keep vigil for those who followed me down. I told Him that humanity should end because man would always ruin Eden, no matter how big He made it. His reply banished me.”
I know this angel.
“Fundamental truths are rarely welcomed, especially by the powerful.”
He nods.
Taking a seat on the other bit of bench, I dig out my last two cans of beer and offer one to him.
“Drink it before it gets warm, Lucifer.”
He chuckles.
The fallen angel and an old soldier, keeping watch through the longest night… Hosanna, for what it’s worth.

Arms of Venus

Author: Steven Lombardi

He boarded the ship, trailed by gray robes that hid his emaciated frame. An escort of guards met him in the docking bay, and per the Astronautical Law, he requested that they replenish his ship’s fuel, water, and oxygen. Then he relished the sweet, circulated air.

He identified the Captain by the low-hanging regalia clipped to her belt. Out of respect, he touched his forehead and lips.

“You’re the exorcist?” she asked. With a sweeping glance, she inspected his trade tools.

“Aye. I picked up your transmission. Here are my certificates and a receipt of your brief.” She plucked the documents out of his hand and skimmed them over.

“Shall I show you where we’ve had the worse paranormal activity?” she asked.

“Please, Captain.” He lowered his eyes. “May I have a meal before we begin?”

The Captain sniffed. “Right. This way.”

He cherished each spoonful of rice, letting the trace sugars melt on his tongue. A man of his abilities should have been ashamed of such a showing, but work was challenging to find when the boundaries extended into infinity.

“I’ll cut right to the chase,” the Captain said. “The worse of the activity is in our Chamber of Stasis. We have documentation showing when the amniotic wine turned into human blood. It lasted only an hour, and thank God nobody was in there, but someone could have drowned.”

The exorcist shoveled the last of the rice into his mouth and closed his eyes, cherishing the flavor.

“Have you seen anything like it before?” the Captain asked.

“No,” the exorcist admitted. “But I’ve heard tales.”

“Is there anything else you need from me before you begin?”

“Just a question. When will I be paid?” he said, staring into the now-empty bowl.

“When the work is done.”


He lit the hædis candle and already the room darkened around him. The amniotic wine turned from yellow to green, not because of the paranormal, but because his very eyes were disintegrating. He dripped the seinaru water in his ears and felt his tongue enlarge. Soon he would be blind and mute at the expense of seeing and hearing the dead who haunted this ship.

He typed a message for his spirit-box to relay. “Spirit. I’ve come to free you. Show yourself.”

He waited, then played the message again. On the third attempt, she materialized, a woman of vaporous essence who looked utterly breathtaking, despite her forlorn expression. She wept, and he could hear her cries, the stuttering gasps made not for want of breath.

“Why stay here, child?” he typed.

She narrowed her eyes, trying to make sense of this man.

“You can trust me. I’m here to help.”

“If I don’t cling to this ship, I’ll be lost in space.”

“So you stay to feel less stranded?”

She nodded, looking even younger and a touch naïve.

“The ship won’t dock,” he relayed via the spirit box. “It’s a mint harvester. People come and go on ships like mine.”

“That’s a lie. I was a crewmate on this ship!”

“When?” he typed.

“I departed on Sentuary 3, 2902.”

“Much has changed in a hundred years. Look around.”

He watched the emotions flash across her beautiful face, the surprise, contempt and sadness, the fear. “How do I escape this?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. But you can come with me.”

He collected his fee from the Captain and signed a guarantee of service. Then he returned to his ship.

All alone, addressing only an empty cargo bay, he said, “Welcome. I’d like you to meet the others.”

Foreign Tongue

Author: Madeline DeCoste

The silence is unbearable. So too is the darkness, so too is the light; all are absolute. The primordial and the pseudo-holy converge from all sides. Like warmth, like humanity, the stars and home are unreachable.

This is the wild, lonesome universe. This is outer space.

The astronaut’s radio has long since gone quiet. Even the strongest waves cannot come out this far. It was supposed to be an honor. The first manned voyage to OGLE-2014-BLG-0124L, the farthest known planet in the galaxy. It was a solo mission, the less weight the better, and he had been not-so-secretly delighted. Nobody to share the spotlight with, nobody to hog the glory. And then – a navigation miscalculation, a burned-out engine, a lost astronaut waiting to die. He cannot see the sun anymore, cannot pick his out of the millions surrounding him.

The astronaut drifts over to his radio for a last attempt, turning front flips and back flips and barrel rolls on his way. He has so few amusements in this cramped and sterile shuttle.

He says “Is there anyone there?”

He had meant to say something brave. He tries again.

“Is anybody listening?”

Nobody answers, not even a burst of static. He is alone, and the utterness of his isolation washes over him, high tide of his last ocean, and he sobs. The tears lift off of his young face and float suspended in the air. The harsh lights of his control panel shatter through them, sending fragments of rainbow scattering over his tomb.

His radio beeps with an incoming call. An incoming call when no living soul – no living thing, soul or no – should be within ten thousand light years of him.

He answers.


There is a pause, and then the answer comes in no language spoken on Earth. It is melodic and primal and mournful. It is the wind whipping through rubble, a fire razing a prairie, a moon-soaked desert. It is whalesong and hawk-screech and fox-cries. It is the cry of a dying thing who will not die alone.

The song is incomprehensible and it means everything. The astronaut makes his way to the shuttle’s little window and peers out. He sees an alien ship, constructed of some purple-maroon material resembling sea glass. It is roughly conical, with three jet-plane-like wings protruding on either side. Pistons extend backward in the same incarnadine sea glass.

He cannot see the alien inside. Perhaps it is microscopic, or gaseous; perhaps the light works on it in different ways; perhaps the ship itself is the alien.

“I see you,” the astronaut says into his radio. “I see you.”

This will mean nothing to the alien, but it must be said. More song answers him. The astronaut’s life support is running out. The alien’s must be as well. And though neither can speak to each other, both are certain the other will not leave.

“Hi, friend,” the astronaut says. He is crying again, but he is smiling. The alien drifts closer and gently bumps his ship. They talk for hours, until the lights have gone out and air is hard to come by.

They will be holding hands when the universe takes them.

The Light of Creation

Author: Beck Dacus

I watched the luminous tails of thousands of ships decelerating into the Alpha Centauri system from all directions. A stray few of them fell prey to my frag mines, but most maneuvered or blasted their way through. *Good,* I thought. *Keep them cocky.* That, at least, wouldn’t be difficult: humanity was gone. As far as the Nombreva were concerned, they’d won. This was just cleanup.
I couldn’t help myself: I hailed the largest ship with the most powerful drive, the apparent leader of the fleet. Light lag made the response torturously slow.
“What’s this?” it guffawed. “Not every day you’re hailed by an automated defense system. Trying to negotiate your release?”
“Release to where? You wiped out my masters.”
“Funny— I was just about to remind you of that. Why are you still putting up a fight, robot? And such a pitiful one at that.”
I deployed a swarm of drones from a moon of the inner gas giant. The Nombreva swatted them away like gnats.
“Case in point!” it boasted.
“I’m an automated defense system. That’s what I do.”
“Quite right. Well, in that case, we’ll be sure to help you get your last payday.”
*You have no idea,* I thought. The ships were close enough to resolve now; I increased the magnification on my scopes and got a good look at their bristling guns, bright engine nacelles, and broad, sweeping radiator vanes.
*That’s right. Keep decelerating. Just a little slower….*
“You know, my former masters made some pretty incredible things. If I had to give a reason why I’m still fighting, I would say it’s because you want the galaxy to forget they ever existed. Not only have you killed every last one of them, but you’ve destroyed almost everything they’ve ever made.
“Of course, not as much as you think. Some of those things were just lying dormant.”
Engines sputtered across the system. Nombreva telescopes flitted between the stars, watching their light simultaneously dim as massive structures moved into place in front of them.
“Among them are the Dyson power transmitters they built around every star they settled. Powerful enough to send concentrated beams of laser light between star systems… and not so dormant after all.”
I watched as every ship in the system pivoted 180 degrees, switching from decelerating to accelerating orientation, and began burning out of the system.
“Oh, I wouldn’t bother. The light you’re seeing from those stars is years old, as is the light in the beams converging on this system. They aren’t powerful enough to vaporize you at this range, but they *will* saturate your radiators, and running your engines this hot will just kill you sooner. You’ll get out of the system eventually, but it’ll be as fried corpses with blown-out reactors.
“Which brings me back to my original point: these Dyson beams are just one example of the amazing things humans were able to accomplish in their time. But perhaps the most formidable bit of tech they put together…”
The whole system went awash with dozens of colors, light from at least as many different stars.
“…was me.”
“You’re insane,” the ship responded. “You’ll overheat too.”
“I know,” I said. That was no lie; I could feel my cryogen coolers working overtime across my various nodes. “But my job is done. I don’t need to wipe out every trace of you, because no one will remember you anyway. No one ever remembers destroyers.” The heat sucked the last energy out of my circuits.
“They remember creators.”

The Bicyclist

Author: John McNeil

A yellow bicycle leans on the sign at the trailhead. Its narrow tires are completely unsuitable for the trail. The sign says “Closed For the Season.” It’s November and there are several inches of snow on the ground. These are just foothills, not mountains, but still. The snow and ice get worse as you go up. What’s a bike doing there?

That’s what Morton Serm is wondering. Middle-aged, balding, Caucasian, he works for the Park District, works at the Visitor Center by the parking lot near the trailhead. Now, during the offseason, there aren’t many visitors.

There are tracks in the snow near the bike, he now notices. Not footprints, but tracks of some kind. Not animal tracks. Sixteen small perfect circles in two rows. They’re printed in the snow in a few places near the bike, near the sign, and going up the trail.

Morton looks back at the parking lot. His car is there. It’s already 3:00 pm, and the sun will go down soon. He’s on the clock till 4:30 pm, but if he left now no one would notice. Stacey had the day off, and no one else is working today. Visitors aren’t likely to stop by this close to sundown, in winter. The phone doesn’t ring much either. He could just drive home. Pretend he never saw the bike.

He sighs and starts walking up the trail, following the tracks. It must be some new winter activity I haven’t heard of, he thinks. Why would you wear shoes with round pegs on the bottom for hiking in the snow? Sort of like the opposite of snowshoeing? Peg shoeing? He can ask when he finds this person. After scolding them for ignoring the sign.

The bicyclist is sitting half-way up the hill. Its two eight-pegged feet are what’s puzzling Morton Serm. They are dangling from a boulder where the bicyclist is sitting, facing a clearing in the forest, having chosen this spot so the last rays of sunshine will fall on its face before the sunset. It is not human, not from Earth. Its hydraulic joints and fiber optic sinews bend and flex. Photovoltaic eyes drink every remaining drop of light before the fast begins at dusk. Up on a hill, it can eat for longer.

Morton Serm rounds a bend in the trail. He can see the bicyclist now. It is wearing loose clothing and its head is blurred by the sunlight. He can’t tell its gender or age. “The trail’s closed,” he calls out.

The bicyclist doesn’t look at him. Morton feels ignored and gets angry. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he shouts, striding closer.

Now the bicyclist turns to him. It prepared for this, learned what to ask a human of Earth: “Do you have a flashlight?”

The question confuses Morton. He stops. He says no. He left his phone in the car. The bicyclist turns to the sun again. Morton lunges forward, but trips and lands on the ground. The bicyclist leaps down from the boulder and pinches Morton’s head between the soles of its feet. “That’s all right,” it says. “You store enough charge for one night.”

The next morning Stacey arrives. Mort’s car is there, but he’s not, and the Center is locked. At the trailhead, there’s a bike and strange tracks. Two rows of eight circles. And footprints in the snow, going up the trail. They’re Morton’s, but why would he head up the closed trail? Stacey sets off after him. The bicyclist will be glad to meet her on a cloudy day.


Author: Lisa Jade

My battery’s running low.

I jiggle the connection to my hip, hearing a beep as it clicks into place. In a few hours, it’ll be light out – and I can sit at the window and gather some paltry amount of solar charge. It won’t be much, but with luck, it’ll be enough.

I lift my communicator to my lips and start listing names. Ethel35, James61, Millicent18. I say the names of every android who’s ventured into the ruined city over the past two years. It’s pure routine at this point; stating every name, just in case they’re listening. Just in case, by some miracle, there’s anyone left.

Nothing. I stare at the communicator for another hour, biting my lip. It’s been months of silence, but I still half-expect to hear another voice crackling down the line. I touch the side of the device softly, recalling the last voice I heard. Jemima8.

I stand, dragging the heavy battery pack behind me. The weight sends shivers of pain through my legs, pulling unpleasantly at my connectors. Androids weren’t meant to use battery packs. My body simply isn’t made for this.

The city is soundless. Like it has been for over two years. There was a time when it was bursting with life. A bustling metropolis, occupied by both Humans and Androids. The crumbling building around me was a Repair Centre, hidden far from the rest of the city. After all, it was considered ‘inappropriate’ to see an Android in a state of disrepair.

I cast my eyes over the darkened structures outside, tracing the lines of silent skyscrapers. To this day, I don’t know what happened to all the people. I’d arrived here after a minor charging issue, to be kept out of sight while awaiting a new battery, so I was absent for the catalyst. All I know is that within three weeks of being here, the whole city fell entirely silent.

The other Androids didn’t last long. Many ventured out to find their loved ones, never to return. Others tried to stick it out, but were too damaged to function without the repair supply chain. After several months, we all but stopped searching.

My battery pack beeps again and I curse under my breath, scowling at the hateful thing.

By the time my internal battery fully gave up, there were only a few of us left. They hooked me up to the last external pack we had – but it left me hindered, unable to move beyond the range of the Repair Centre.

Jemima8 was the last to leave. She’d pulled me close, vowing to find a replacement battery and bring it back for me. She assured me that everything would be alright, as long as we had each other.

That was ten months ago.

I stare into the city, tempted to grab the communicator again. Perhaps, if I just said all their names one more time…

Something hot pricks my eyes.

They’ll come back eventually, right? They have to.

I can’t possibly be alone out here.

My chest tightens. I bite back a sob.

I barely hear the crackle of the communicator.

Then, it comes again. I lift my head, staring at it. Disbelieving. I bring it to my lips.


There’s nobody out there, surely. My battery’s lower than ever, so it must be messing with me. Hell, maybe I’m losing my mind. Nothing would surprise me at this point.

So when the line crackles again, my whole body is ablaze with excitement.

“Hey,” says a strange, sickeningly familiar tone, “still need that battery?”