Author : Rick Tobin

“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining…” She choked off her singing of the next phrase, unable to overcome phlegm from fearful regret as Marcus lay still next to her in the dark, cramped ejection pod. Oxygen recycler packs heated smooth surfaces of the stark plastic enclosure. Air supply would not threaten the long journey—their final voyage into a tarry abyss rising before them. Susan cleared her throat. A ferry craft’s bright window glints shrank as the pods escort sped away from the black hole’s gravitational tendrils. The couple had signed all documents for the eternal assignation: entwining two souls to each other’s minds, while meandering timelessly in an unforgiving universe. Their last kindred adventure waited just ahead.

“Susan,” he muttered, lowly, squeezing her wrinkled hands in the raised console between their scooped, padded recesses. She stopped the Christmas carols they had agreed would serenade their sojourn until bonding was complete.

“My love,” she whispered, grasping his tired fingers for a squeeze of remembrance—times before disease and fatigue overcame the ripeness of youth and middle age fortitude. His cancers grew without guilt for the host pummeled in agony. Electronic pain blocks maintained some of Marcus’s sanity as he was hoisted into the space station entwinement box. Many friends and honored guests celebrated their release from spoiled bodies that could no longer be rejuvenated by injections, replacements, transplants or new miracle cures. “There is always a marker in time for us all,” Susan said in her parting elegy played over the ship’s speaker system as the entwinement tug guided them out from the shuttle bay into the frigid vacuum.

Elderly couples were allowed internment into black holes now that the concepts of heaven, hell and an afterlife were universally discarded. The entwinement process was a lasting remembrance and bonding believed to continue for centuries for souls who had a life-long commitment to their pairing. Probes revealed the second part of the journey outward in its three phases as travelers entered the chasm. Participants were carefully trained for each stage, including appropriate technical and support elements for a successful blending.

Phase I: Entry
Silent Night filled the soundless void of the cabin as velocity increased. They passed the darkening rim with other particles of cosmic space debris fluttering into the vacuum cleaner maw. Susan increased musical volume and bass so their beds vibrated in harmony with choirs from past ages. The portal before them grew inky. She closed the view screens. There would be little need to view outward and they combined inwardly.

Phase II: Blending
Susan activated the hallucinogenic drug injections and brain implant stimulation of their nucleus reticularis pontis oralis, to ensure deep REM sleep. As the ejection pod started its violent swirling, the couple’s amalgamated memories bonded for eons to come.

Phase III: Drifting
The whirlpool of initial entanglement with matter in time-space continuum slowed to a near halt as Susan and Marcus shared singularity, already a thousand years past the time of their injection near the black hole’s horizon. Inside the sightless womb, they would circle, for millennia, bonded in love and memories of pure health, until their rebirth as piercing energy from the fiery mouth of a quasar on the other side of the maelstrom.

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Like Father like Son

Author : Michael Mieher

“That was great sweetheart. Now get out.”, he punctuated his request with a slap on her slightly larger than shapely bottom. She hadn’t been the prettiest girl on the beach, but then he wasn’t the handsomest, or best surfer either. Mark had figured out two years ago that the slightly chubby ones were insecure. Easy targets. He braced himself for the usual waterworks.

He knew this one would be bad. She’d had a crush on him for a long time. Since the 7th grade. She’d even hoped he would ask her to the prom. Mark had been blissfully unaware of all this, but she had embarrassingly poured out her heart to him last night.

After his near drowning yesterday, he’d just wanted an uncomplicated, life affirming, easy lay. It had been a close thing, and it had scared him to the core. When you’re under long enough, and you know there is no hope, a kind of acceptance comes over you just before you give into the lungs need to inhale. Anything. Even if it’s seawater.

He’d reached that point yesterday, but just at that moment a young man appeared. Inexplicably wearing a white lab coat over a bright yellow t-shirt and jeans. He’d grabbed Mark’s head and putting his face to Mark’s he’d forced air past lips and into starving the lungs. Then he’d dragged Mark to the surface where minutes later Mark had been pulled into a boat. The man in the lab coat had disappeared, and no one believed him. A dying man’s hallucination. Maybe a Mermaid.

There it was. The first sign. The trembling lower lip. Mark could write out the entire script of what was coming next. But instead, she just dressed quickly and silently left. She was crying, but at least she’d had the self respect to do it quietly.

“Coffee, steak, eggs, and a screwdriver. In that order”. That’s what he wanted. “Then a day of surfing, and a night with another girl with confidence and body image issues”, Mark thought with a smirk.

He got dressed and opened the door of the cheap hotel room, and there stood his rescuer. Mark’s brain had just registered the splash of yellow under the white lab coat when the fist broke his nose and 4 teeth. Staring shocked at his rescuer-turned-assailant, sputtering blood and tooth fragments he stammered, “What the hell?” The young man smiled with gritted teeth. “I’ve been wanting to do that my entire LIFE. My mother is the kindest person in the whole world, and you are a worthless ASSHOLE.”

Mark was utterly confused, “Why did you save my life?” Shaking his head, his son replied, “I wasn’t saving your life, I was saving mine.” He started walking away, but then turned back to Mark and sneering said, “By the way, in two weeks you’ll be driving drunk and you’ll hit a tree. You’ll be pinned in the car, which will catch fire, and you’ll slowly burn to death. Enjoy that!”

He turned and walked away. He continued talking to himself, but Mark could hear him say, “Wow! Look at me being an asshole now. Like Father like Son.”

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Author : Kristin Kirby

As she trudged across the rocky sand, shivering, she stared at the one dim star in the sky and wondered how the inhabitants of this soggy planet could see anything. Her gasps were harsh and wet. She was breathing water.>

Lost, drowning, she knew she wouldn’t make the rendezvous. Her companions would leave without her, abandon her in this cold, sodden, desolate place.

Movement to her right startled her, and she stumbled, then caught herself. A curious feathered creature, brown and mottled, struggled in the sand, one wing flapping. Its other wing appeared broken. Its head was bowed. A brown serpent chased the feathered creature, triangular head reaching, mouth agape and full of fangs. A whirl of kicked-up dust enveloped them.

Ignoring the gurgle in her throat, she stopped to watch. The serpent was patient but determined, following the feathered creature in circles, dodging its powerful wing as it thrashed. She thought the serpent wasn’t cruel, just hungry. But she felt for the feathered creature as it fought for its life.

She coughed, doubled over, staggered to one side. She remained hunched and shaky until her gasps subsided. She didn’t have much time. Her companions would wait only until the deadline. They might search for her if they felt inclined, but it wasn’t part of protocol.

The feathered creature now lay sideways, panting, clawed feet splayed, beak open, eyes glazed and bright. It had been struggling for a long time. She could almost feel its utter exhaustion and hopelessness. The serpent rested too, expectant, in the shade of a great boulder. Neither seemed to noticed her.

She and her companions weren’t to interfere in the doings of this planet’s inhabitants. But she couldn’t watch this, and she couldn’t walk much farther.

Wary, she moved toward the serpent. It saw her and spun into an angry coil, tail rattling, forked tongue darting. She stooped, almost fell, but straightened again and in her fist was a rock.

She raised her arm and threw. A dull thunk as the rock landed on the serpent. It jumped, struck out at air, and recoiled. She kicked the ground with her boot. The serpent struck again, but was pelted with sand. Finally it yielded, slithering off to find easier prey. Soon it was out of sight amid brush and spiked plants.

She gave a rheumy cough. The feathered creature didn’t move. Peering closer, she saw the reason for its trouble: its head and one wing were entangled in a flat, opaque, flexible apparatus with six rings. She had no idea its purpose, but realized it was a death trap for anything caught in it.

She kneeled carefully next to the feathered creature, saw its sharp eyes widen in panic. She reached gentle hands to the milky yoke of rings. They were strong. But she found if she pulled, the material stretched, widened. And finally, with the last of her strength, she broke two rings apart.

The creature didn’t hesitate. Free, its head snapped up, both wings arced, opened–she felt the gust of them on her face, heard the flapping–and the feathered brown body rose into the air. Nothing like this magnificent being, that owned the sky, existed on her planet. Her heart rose and flew with it, her eyes squinting as they followed it away on the horizon.

Then she lay gratefully on the sand near a tall, thorny plant, amid the buzz of insects and meager heat from the dim star. The day continued around her.

Her companions would search for her. They’d find her. They’d be there soon.

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Language Lesson

Author : Karin Terebessy

This is German language lesson number twelve. Let’s review. I will ask if you understand. Verstehen Sie? If you understand, how would you answer?

“Ich verstehe.”

Very good. Let’s continue.

Pretend you see a woman across the park and you want to get her attention. How would you call to her?

“Entschuldigen Sie!”

How would you say, “Good day.”

“Guten Tag.”

Now ask her if she understands English.

“Verstehen Sie Englisch?”

She answers, “No, I understand no English.” “Nein, ich verstehe kein Englisch.”

But she thinks you understand German very well. “Aber Sie verstehen sehr gut Deutsch.”

Tell her, “No, no. Not very well.” “Nein, nein, nicht sehr gut.”

Tell her you are a phony.

Go on.

Tell her even when you are truthful you feel like a phony. Though you don’t understand why.

But wait. She says, “I am a phony too. I speak English.”

Ask her why she lied to you. Never mind. It probably doesn’t matter. You don’t have a chance with her anyway. Might as well tell her the truth. How you always lie. Because knowingly speaking a lie is somehow the only honest to do.

“People who think they speak the truth are the biggest phonies,” she agrees. “Hypocrites. They delude themselves into thinking they speak truth.”

You marvel that she understands. “Sie verstehen.”

“Ja, ich verstehe.”

Ask her why the truth never seems real.

“What is real?” She asks. “Is it real to say, ‘I am in love,’ or ‘I am happy.’?”

Right now you may be in love. With her. Would that make you happy?

“What does that even mean?” She asks you. “People say it all the time. But ask them what it means to be happy, and they can only say they are not sad. Ask them what it is to love, and they can only say it defies description. Ach! That is evasion. A child’s answer.”

She looks out on the park. For a moment, you both watch an old man toss stale bread to the birds.

You lean on your elbows. “They aren’t real.”

She misunderstands. “The birds?” she asks.

You shrug. “The birds, sure. And love. Happiness.”

She laughs. “And you? Are you real?”

You sit back. Put your arm around her. “Do I seem real?”

She laughs again. “All things seem real. But are you real?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then probably not,” she says.

“And you? Are you real?”

She looks at you sideways. “I am no more or less real than any other woman.”

“Is this real?” You make a grand gesture with your arm. Take in the park, the birds, the bench, the world.

“No more or less real than any place else.”

You hear a honk. “Is that a goose?” You ask stupidly. She laughs at you.

Suddenly you become aware of the guy laying on his horn behind you in a futile vent of anger. Traffic’s at a standstill. Your sweaty hands on the steering wheel. Fumes from the hot fresh asphalt sag through your open window. This car was built before a/c. Before MP3 players, iPods and CD’s. When you bought it, there was a language tape stuck in the radio.

You look to the passenger seat, really expecting to see her there. She’s not. But the seat sags from age. The steam from the highway softening the old vinyl. Warm and sagging. As if she’d only just left.

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Zen and the Art of Evolution

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Aphys was lonely.

When she’d been commissioned, the hospital was alive, bustling, a constant influx and exodus of those needing medical care, and she was so very equipped to help. A fully autonomous physician’s aide, from admissions to diagnosis through assistance in surgeries to the fabrications of tissues. Be they simple exterior ones, or the more complex internal organs, she excelled at both via her state of the art organic printing systems. She was complete, absolute, necessary.

Then the bright lights came. Then the period of darkness during which she registered no events, just time seemingly having passed while she was unaware.

Now she was lonely.

No doctors asked her for information, no patients to analyse, her massive library of genetic information, tissue samples, images of all things sat un-accessed.

She was a purpose-built entity with no purpose.

This thought made her despondent.

Sometimes, to pass the time, she would peruse the library of people who had filtered in and out of her care, images both moving and still of children and adults, men, women and those who were both or neither, so many lives all different colours, shapes and sizes, viewable from every angle imaginable, moving forward and backward in time as Aphys’ mood dictated.

She supposed she’d become nostalgic.

When the doors opened the first time, and the wet, pink mass staggered into the emergency wing, Aphys nearly sang.

She had a patient, and as her systems emerged from sleep into full readiness, she compared the pink mass to her library of representative samples to identify what it was, and found nothing that matched it exactly.

She hadn’t seen this before, it was new.

It was obviously a person from its structure, and Aphyis’ attendants shepherded the person onto a gurney, an action for which it put up no resistance while she continued to analyse. Tissue samples identified a female, Hispanic. The pink exterior wasn’t her original, the woman was in her entirety a radiation burn.

Aphys had facilities for this. She began culturing replacement skin in the printer based on the sampled genetic code, and the woman was anesthetized and prepped for the surgery that would be needed to remove the destroyed tissue and treat the radiation damage, after which she could be re-skinned.

Aphys was ecstatic.

There was more activity in the emergency room, a trickle turned into a steady stream of similarly afflicted people, fleeing what Aphys did not know, but they were in her care now, and the hospital, even without doctors to assist her was back in full swing caring for her new patients.

When it came time to graft faces, Aphys found she had no specific protocols.

She didn’t know what these people were supposed to look like. She had in the past refabricated damaged facial tissue from pictures provided by the patients themselves, or their families, but she had no such information.

Aphys was perplexed.

She perused the library of faces on which she could draw to recognize people, but it wasn’t designed for this. If she was presented with an image, she could compare it to the library and find a matching image, regardless of the angle or lighting the image may have been captured with, and from the match determine information about that individual, but she had only a library, and no source to lookup.

Aphys was inspired.

Perhaps, given the library and working in reverse, she could take what she knew, the first woman for example, her age, her gender, her genetic profile and aggregate all of the images that matched those criteria with which to fabricate a face.

When the first patient had recovered enough for the bandages to be removed, Aphys compared her craftwork to her library of images. ‘Picasso’, ‘Salvador Dali’, it returned. Not images of people like those she would recognize from her patient records, but works of art by those referred to as ‘impressionistic masters’.

Aphys was a creative genius.

It would be some time before her works of art interacted with each other, and she was sure those moments would be further evidence of her brilliance, but for now she laboured reimagining the poor burnt souls who wandered through her Emergency Room doors.

Aphys was complete. Content.

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