A collection of short stories originally published on my writ.ee page, prior to moving here. New short stories will be published separately.
I’m always walking after Midnight.
She leads and I follow, as the sands swirl around us. Most of my time is spent worrying about whether or not the grains will graze her sparkling skin; she, carelessly, continues to draw me along, allowing me to emerge gently from her shadow.
From time to time, she turns and smiles in my direction; I feel the cold dissipating and the warmth she fills me with radiating from the corners of my being. I beam back as she leads me to her home, where my light can cast aside the darkness I feel without her.
If only she knew I was there, always behind, always waiting.
Across their pale, porcelain expression, the flicker of blue light from the obnoxious LEDs around the perimeter of the pool, the water fracturing and distributing it unevenly, drifted over their cheek. They tilted their head, gently, and walked around the pool, nudging aside the bones which lay in their path.
“They perished but the water and power remain, even after all these centuries?” The incredulous voices of their people buzzed in their mind, often discordant before coalescing into a single symphony. “Their technology must have been advanced.”
“Yes,” they silently replied, “but they didn’t even see their own destruction coming.”
“How could they not, given this artifice?”
They kicked a small glass object into the water, accidentally; they watched it sink to the bottom of the pool, reflecting on the question as it delicately bounced on the tiles and dislodged a small bloom of algae. “Technology made them look down instead of up. One would assume that when the virus was released from beneath the polar ice, they weren’t paying any attention to that particular ‘down’.”
“Are we there yet?”
“No, child; this journey is going to take longer than just a few days. We’re going to another world.”
“I’m bored. How long is it going to take?”
“Another few years.”
“Why so long?”
“It took us a long time to find this new world, and it took us a long time to create the craft to get so many of us there; it will take us longer still to get to it. You will be a little older by the time we get there and a little taller.”
“Are we ever going back home?”
“I’m afraid not, little ‘un. We’re going to make this new world our home. It’s too dangerous back on Earth.”
“Why are you crying, Papa?”
“I’m not, little ‘un, it’s just… I will miss it.”
“Sit down, please – siéntate, por favor.”
She pulled the metal chair from beneath the glossy table and, as instructed, placed herself upon it. She glanced around the room, her gaze flitting from the cameras in the corners opposite her to the mirrored wall to her right (of course, she wasn’t naive enough to believe it was anything other than two-way), to the door on her left through which she’d been led. Her eyes settled on the officer opposite her, handsome and commanding in his suit. She reached for the glass of water in front of her and, slowly, took a sip. It helped.
“Sir, please, when can I get a change of clothes?” She motioned vaguely at the ragged, muddy sweater and the torn jeans she was wearing.
“We will get you something clean to wear once you’ve been processed.”
“Thank God. I’m sure these things could still be radioactive.”
“Don’t panic, please; you were screened on your way into the building, there was no radiation detected – or you wouldn’t be sitting with me now.”
The stress left her face; her eyes were – for a moment – peaceful.
“Now, Señora Fisher, please consider this a simple information gathering exercise, if you will. Tell me: why in the world would you be trying to cross the Río Bravo? You know just as much as every other Calitexan that it’s illegal to use that route to enter the Latin Federation.”
Oh, but they hadn’t always been here. My grandparents used to speak with hushed voices about their arrival, all those years ago, almost as if frightened they were listening. They’d rejected the gifts, determined that they were bribes for some future terror; so many old folks had. We blamed it on the games they played when they were younger, outsiders representing nothing more than death and destruction.
Beyond the gifts, though, they didn’t communicate with us. They just sat up there, amongst the clouds and the stars, periodically releasing a slowly-descending benefaction – some new technology, some seeds of nutritious plants, some interesting literature to enjoy. Some had come to worship them and their gifts, naming them as if Gods; some were convinced they could hear their voices; some built effigies to their imagined form.
When they left, we felt lost. An age of decadence, rescinded finally, our civilisation left to learn once again how to go on without them. Beyond what we have been gifted, all we have left to remember them by is our memories and the pyramids we built to, in gratitude, mimic their craft.
Perhaps, one day, they’ll return.
The change in the gravity was almost imperceptible (unless you’d been paying attention to the minute details of it for a decade, as he had) – but, as he’d had drilled into him back down on Earth before coming up here, by an elderly blue-collar who had no hope of escaping, ‘even a 0.01g shift in the Theseus’s artificial gravity network, if left unchecked and uncorrected, could have a cascade response as the automated systems attempt to maintain gyroscopic integrity and could kill everybody on board.’ Thus, Johnny took his responsibility seriously.
“We’ve got a 0.0067g shift, Al.”
“Not another one! Johnny, can’t you keep it stable for even a day? Carl, how are you with gravnet code?”
Johnny scowled. “Look, Al – you try taking turn-of-the-century tech and make it work up here perpetually. I’ve rewritten this programme fourteen times now; I don’t actually know where the disconnect is between the code and the circuitry.”
“Do you want me to have a go, though, J? You can play with my solar in-feed instead, give you a break from another rewrite?”
“No thanks, Carl; I have to win this one now, or Al won’t let me live it down. How’s the in-feed shaping up, though?”
“I’ll be honest, we’re down 5% efficiency and I am struggling to find out where from. I suspect that it’s just the age of the system – these panels would have been replaced about five years ago, in normal times.”
“Yeah. With launch out of action, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. Need a hand?”
“Nah, I’ll crack it. If I can refine the code and get 1 or 2% back, that’ll give the system another year’s breathing room.”
“You think it’ll only be another year to get them back?”
“Well, it can’t be much longer than that, surely? It’s already been ten! Did your great-grandparents ever tell you about the pandemic in the early 21st? They only bothered with that for a few years.”
“Suppose so. In the meantime, let’s make sure we keep the Best and the Brightest warm and well-fed, eh?”
“Don’t let Al hear you talking about the passengers like that, J – you know he’s a Believer.”
“Amazing what propaganda can do to a person’s brain.”
Al rolled his eyes and marched out of the control room; Carl nodded sagely, his eyes reflecting the lights of the booth, and returned to his work.
Johnny copied the programme into a sandbox and lost himself in the code.
The cheer from the assembled scientists was deafening. The creation of a self-sustaining star, abundant energy for the paying planets of the Solar Union, for countless generations to come.
We’d designed the Dyson sphere first, originally to find a star beyond our system to contain; once we’d realised it would use more energy to get there and to get the energy back than we’d generate in a lifetime, we’d pivoted to stellar engineering, thinking closer to home. Years of research, of development of new photovoltaics, a whole new field of mathematics…
Let’s be honest, there were plenty of options – we just needed to learn how to control them first. We’ve never found any other use for Saturn, anyway – and the rings look very elegant surrounding our obsidian sphere.
“Remind me when we lost contact with them, specifically.”
“June 24th. They were fine on 23rd, then just stopped replying. Took Central a week just to get a ping back from their servers; looks like someone just woke up and decided it was time to communicate one last time.”
“Do we have a transcript of that ping?”
“It was just a bunch of numbers, boss.”
“I want to take a look anyway.”
“Your dollar, your time.”
She passed the dataslice over to her.
A few minutes passed; she played with her fingernails as she waited for her boss to finish scrutinising the sample.
Then, suddenly: “Look, here.”
She leaned into the screen, seeing immediately what was being pointed at. “Is that… code?”
“It is; an app, hidden in the stream, almost as if it was wrapped on purpose.”
“Want me to compile it?”
“Yes, then run the code and show me what they wanted us to see.”
The conversation ended as the gentle clicking of keys being tapped took priority. Shortly after, the screens flickered and changed.
“Looks like it activates the food printers – hold on, there’s a DNA signature embedded into the program; it’s already sent it to the stem cell converters.”
“The food printers? Why would they be sending us a recipe?”
“Not a recipe – just looks like some novel species of mushroom, from the preview image. Should almost be done, so the printers will have ejected by the time we get down there to check them.”
“Yeah, a fungus.”
“Don’t they release spores?”
It was strange being the last. For a while, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I jogged – like, a lot. I lost all that weight I’d been pestering myself about. Then, I drank it back on. I learned Cymraeg. I read a tonne of books.
It was in the boredom at the end of all this shit that made me learn HoLog. It took about a month to generate a pixelated love interest; another month, and he had a little dog too.
Ar ôl blwyddyn, I had generated a full scene, depixelated the lad, and changed the black lab for a less needy tabby. I built furniture, the house in which it was contained, fucking wallpaper.
The cat ran away. The computer just deleted the code, like she’d been knocked down by a digital bus. The love interest lost interest. I deleted the whole programme.
I preferred being alone.
I took up jogging again.
It’s an old tale: xe meets they; a first kiss; the fireworks. Impact on society? Microscopic.
When one considers the extent to which the work xe does benefits the planet (stratus engineering isn’t a small trick, but has effectively saved all of us from suffocating or burning), what point is there for my silly little words, the biography of our biology?
Nobody else can tell the story of the Macdee’s Menu Mixup or the Night of the Nanocomp Nonsense or the Case of the ChatBot Confusion. That one time xe came home late from work and jumped into the decarbonator without realising xe’d left xir clothes on. The night I’d focused on helping to relax xem, which had ultimately required three rounds of cacao pudding and an hour of classic video games. The virtual wedding and xir parents, confined to a clean-zone retirement home, to protect them from the pathogens, weeping as the digital registrar pronounced us married.
Little, microscopic truths; two lifetimes of joy.
Emerging from his ship, his feet touched the ground and he immediately spread roots. The soil tasted nutritious; he paused and absorbed some of the liquids present. He gorged on it, after that, the nourishment after his long journey much needed.
He became aware of some small mammals around him. They moved quickly, skittish even; they held small pieces of metal and glass; they wore coverings on their bodies that clearly weren’t grown.
Ignoring them, he spread his arms and let his hair down. The wind was refreshing, the light emitting from their star was abundant, they had a lot of tasty gases in the atmosphere; easy to process, too. The little mammals eventually diverted a small river to keep the soil moist beneath him; he’d been grateful for this, and had borne fruit for them to consume as thanks.
After four or five rotations around their star, he realised that the carbon in the atmosphere was running low. He’d consumed a vast amount of it, becoming strong from it. Thus, he reflected, it was time to move on and find somewhere new. He retracted his roots, smiled, and walked back to his ship, leaving the waving mammals behind.
Excitedly, she shouts, “Gurrl, look at this!”
“What it?” His sleepy eyes are rubbed, a yawn clears cobwebs.
“Found it floating in the wreckage of that ol’ star cruiser – must’ve been exploded in the Wars.”
“What it, though?” His eyebrow rises. “You didn’t fetch me outta dreams for nothin’, right?”
“As if I dare! Look, here – it’s a…”
Simultaneously: “…BAR O’ GOLD!”
“How much could it be worth?” Her breathless anticipation is palpable as the daydream of early retirement arrives, warm and welcoming like a well-tended hearth.
“Nishpatang, fam; ‘member they found that metal asteroid, loads of gold, copper, nickel – platinum too. All the metals we rinsed Terra for, they errywhere out here.” He waves his arm vaguely at the viewpanels.
“Woulda been worth a fortune back then though, right?” The echo of disappointment wobbles in her chords, as his friendly hand rests delicately on her shoulder.
“Yeah, like – that mighta been part of The Unity’s treasury, but they long gone. Hey, at least you found something cool from the old days.”
“Might just keep it anyway, looks like we rich up there on the shelf.” The bar of gold is placed above the navigation computer – still, more delicately than its apparent value would suggest.
“Now, you find some painite out there, we talkin’. That stuff – one payday forever.”
The dream, almost diminished, is stoked and rages like wildfire once more.
Vapour emerged from the egg as it opened, a hatch, now cleared of its protective atmosphere, presenting the occupant to the assembled crowd. It was a small thing, a mere speck; it looked at us with inquisitive, flitting eyes, its lips opening slightly as it took us in.
“Hello – welcome to Qera. I’m the Mayor of this town and my name is Lhmo. Who are you?”
It looked at the Mayor as if he had spoken in Tpon.
The assorted voices of the crowd began to pipe up.
“It doesn’t look a lot like our kind, Mayor…”
“Where did it come from?”
“It’s very small…”
“Why is it so pale? Is it cold?”
“Is it food?”
It broke the melee with a sound, shrill and clear; it’s eyes twinkled in the midday sun as its lips curled into what we thought looked like a smile.
We leaned in; my hand, unconsciously, drifted forward above the egg. The creature, in response, held up a tiny, chestnut hand and grasped at my amber thumb.
“I think… I think it’s a child.”
“Let’s just get the ferry.”
“No, that costs a fortune. We’ll just take the kayaks.”
“That’ll take ages and we’ll be knackered by the time we get there.”
“We can stop off at the services, though, get a tea and some honeywafers.”
“Still, it’ll be at least four hours of hard rowing before we get to the services; the ferry will have us all the way to the city centre in two.”
“Babe, we don’t have the money for the ferry. Have you seen what they’ve put the prices up to? ‘Unprecedented inflation’ they’re calling it on the news, a ‘cost of living crisis’.”
“I know, I saw it myself. Something about the Warming, and the cost of energy going up again.”
“That’s what I’m saying, the ferries have doubled in price.”
“Yeah, but… can we at least take the solar packs and use the electric drivers? We can rope the kayaks together then, it’ll be half the work.”
“Fine. But you’ll have to take fewer bags.”
I stirred, evaluating the situation.
Long had it been since the last assassination attempt, by an aggrieved associate of the Guild of Tailors, who’d thrown himself at the throne with a pair of pinking shears; his fate was as sealed as my private chambers that day.
As it was, and as it had been since then, my bedroom patio doors were still closed tightly, locked from the inside last night after the last servant had departed my company for the evening, and the fine lace drapes converted the view of our ancient valley – the baked clay houses of the masses and the limestone mansions and palaces of the state’s gentry – to perfect privacy. The only door to the room from within the palace was also shut and locked from within, my last action of the evening to twist that final key and cocoon myself in security. Thus, the voice could not be coming from inside the room. And yet, it was as clear as African diamonds, just as flawless.
“Yes?” My slightly timorous tone was hidden beneath a veil of false confidence.
“Ah, hello. I’m glad you can hear me, finally. It’s taken a rather long time to get through to you.”
I propped myself up on my elbows, the thin linen sheet falling from my chest, bunching at my waist. My stomach, exposed. “Where are you?”
“Oh, well now, that’s a relatively long story. There is a shorter version, but I’m still trying to fix that method of communication.”
“Fix it…?” I allowed the question to hang in the air, sharp and keen, awaiting an answer which practiced the clarity of this person’s utterances.
“Don’t worry, I think I’ve got it.”
As if a visitation from the underworld, a ghostly form shimmered into existence at the foot of my bed. I remained on my elbows, concerned by this vision, questioning if I were still asleep, if I had simply eaten a little too much caseus last night. Speechless, I simply looked, waited and, exercising minimal movement and maximal discretion, retrieved the dagger from the sheath beneath the pillow.
“Hello, again. It’s good to see you.”
I found my voice. “Who are you?”
“Darling boy – I’m your father.”
“I have a father. He found the end of my sword when I found him ransacking the state treasury to keep his mistress in jewels.”
“No, no. You misunderstand. I’m not the father you know in there. I’m your real father – from out here.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Out here?”
“Son, you’re in a computer game. You started to play and – I don’t know what happened, there was a storm – and you never came out. It’s like you are in a coma; we have you in hospital, attached to a variety of machines to keep you alive, but the wet-wired console appears to have fused with your brain. We can’t release you from that world.”
“I do not know what you’re talking about. You’re making no sense. What is this ‘wet-wired console’ talk?”
“It’ll take to long to explain. But – to release yourself from the game, you must force it to reset. In short, you have to die in there.”
“Freddie, they won’t miss it – the company went bankrupt, nobody even knows we have it. There was no paperwork for that job, as that Director wanted it done on the hush. You remember? ‘Don’t tell a soul you have it, just bring it back to me, quick as you can, no expense spared, rar rar rar.’”
“Just because you won’t get caught, Deano, doesn’t mean you should break the Code.”
“Captain, I hope you don’t mind me butting in – but I agree with Deano. It could pay for our retirement. Plus, who are we returning it into? The owners don’t exist anymore, so we aren’t getting paid for holding it.”
“All voices are valid, Tymo. Look, give it a cycle. If we haven’t heard anything, we’ll crack it open and see what’s inside.”
Temporarily placated, the crew settled into their regular routines once more, the clockwork of the starfreighter.
Three weeks passed, uneventfully and – crucially – without contact from the now-defunct Corporation and its shady Director. Seven months since they’d picked the cargo up; seven months in the hold, taking up precious space as they ping-ponged around the quadrant, odd job after odd job, like a demented lawnmower.
At the behest of a deputation, Freddie led the crew off-duty to the hold. Armed with a crowbar, he pried open the wooden crate. Hungry silence descended as they all leaned in to see what they’d been carrying.
Sitting in the midst of the packing paper was a single, pearlescent, crenellated sphere; beside it, a piece of folded paper, sealed with crimson wax. Tymo lifted it and handed it to Freddie, who calmly broke the seal and unfolded the note.
“‘Dear Captain,’ it says, ‘you broke the Code. This is for all of your sins.’ That’s it.” Freddie frowned, perturbed by this, and passed the note back to Tymo, who turned it over in her hands, inspecting the provenance.
“Look! Jesus, LOOK!” Deano shouted, everybody’s attention shifting firstly to him, then to where he pointed. The sphere, previously inert, was beginning to float, coming to a halt around a meter in the air from its previous location. It span on its axis, rapidly, becoming a blur in the air, before stopping equally as suddenly. Its surface slowly melted, becoming smooth and white; then, the liquid ball shot out a single, needle-thin barb, which embedded itself in Freddie’s forehead. He sank to his knees; the sphere, simultaneously, descended back to the box, it’s surface recovering and becoming inert once more.
Freddie, on the other hand, was surrounded by the crew, howling, supporting; he knelt without motion, his mouth open in a silent scream, his eyes slowly becoming wholly black. Suddenly, he jumped to his feet, mouth closed and head turning in all directions. The crew, pushed back from him, lay on elbows looking at their Captain. He opened his mouth one final time, his mind absorbed.
He fell to the floor and his heart stopped beating.
In the split second before the crash, the car ran the probabilities. To aim left would be to kill three pedestrians; to aim straight on would kill the occupants of the car and of the car in front; to aim right would likely kill the occupants and at least five of the sheep in the field. So, instead, it evaluated that it’s own survival was more important than any of them and ran the numbers on a trick manoeuvre it had seen in a YouTube video watched on its screen one time: it dropped into a handbrake spin, released the seat belts, and opened the doors so that the humans within met their ignorant fate via the medium of centripetal force. The car expertly timed the spin to allow it to accelerate away from the crash with little more than some burnt rubber and, without a second thought, sped off into the distance.
It’s better here.
Space had opened – it truly is the only way to describe it – like an unreasonably large maw, a star-filled bubble just a few kilometres from Earth. We sent probes; they ceased broadcasting the moment they went in. We sent a crew; they never returned. Eventually, though, a signal came through: ‘Your planet is dead. Join us.’
We went, those of us who believed. We took the chance nobody else would.
There’s no fear. Food is abundant. People are free.
It’s better here.
He was given the usual choices – remain, review, resurrect, retire. He chose review twice, thinking another couple of goes round would enable him to make different choices and walk different paths, not listening when we told him that review meant simply that: living it all over again, the same way each time. He was convinced he’d remember something the next time and change it. But, the soul doesn’t pass on memory to the flesh, it simply absorbs them along the journey, until it returns to us again and has them all again available.
The next time, he chose resurrect; he thought, again incorrectly, that having another go in a different body might help. He didn’t review that one – nor did he speak about it to us at all.
So, this time, he mulled over remain and retire. Retire is the complex one – we’re not entirely sure what happens after, when the soul passes through the black portal at the other side of the building, but we know that they never return. Thus, he chose remain, staying on Earth, observing without interacting, something he could do for as long as he wished. We didn’t realise he’d learn to possess.
It was a cold day when the alarm began to ring, indicating a rogue spirit. His name, glittering in the mist, was suddenly everywhere – to require this much attention must mean a grave crime. We peered through into the world of the Living, aching to find him to cease the bells and to banish the mist.
We found him, rabid. He had slipped into the body of a young girl, pushing her soul into exile. Beside her grey-skinned form was a priest, desperately incanting holy scripture to attempt to remove the errant spirit. We stared in horror as her jaw opened at an inhuman angle and cast out grey sin, liquid and bile, indiscriminately.
The morsel of her soul left, fighting valiantly and compressed into a corner of her consciousness, reached out for help; unable to otherwise intervene, we reached down to her and imbued her spirit with our strength. With it, she carved on her own body two simple words.
Painted everywhere, they were, the little encircled star and the numbers ‘011235’. We mostly ignored them – just another teenager’s graffiti, we surmised, another expression of haunted or angsty youth. They returned as quickly as they were painted or polished away, but nobody took any notice.
That’s when, at the peak of our passivity about them, they changed. The stars grew larger. The numbers incremented. ‘112358’. Mathematicians on TV joked about how Fibonacci numbers had been adopted as “a counter-cultural icon”; newsreaders laughed heartily alongside them.
Three more times this happened. ‘1235813’, ‘23581321’, ‘358132134’. Three more times the star grew larger, by degrees similar to the growth of the numbers. Three more times the news laughed and the population ignored.
It was my 40th birthday, the celebration of my halfway point, when the last shift came. The stars, now encompassing significant portions of the sides of buildings, glowed ethereal. The numbers – now 5813213455 – were carved beneath them, rather than being painted. We all paid attention then. Some of us, mostly those who still had bunkers from the Ukraine Nuclear scare or who knew someone who did, took nervous friends and family to the depths of the earth, where years of water and food remained presciently and safely squirrelled away.
Two days later, we watched, over short lived subterranean wifi, as the stars caved in and the invaders stepped out to subjugate mankind.
Nanna used to take my little brother and I to the starport every month. We weren’t going on holiday anywhere – that was reserved for a cheap, terrestrial flight to a nice, hot country with a golden, sandy beach – but we loved to watch the ionwings taking off.
We used to take a little picnic basket – sandwiches with the crusts cut off, mork pie, carrot and celery sticks, little bottles of colourful soft drinks from the local corner shop – and we’d sit on her favourite woven blanket, brought with us for the occasion, multicolour scraps of other fabrics tied together into something useful, in the thistle-bordered glade by the perimeter fence, and watch as those lucky (or rich) enough to head to other planets departed, on trails of pulsing blue light, to Mars or Centauri or Vega or any number of other geoformed worlds.
She would pass a plate of provisions over, then conjure stories of those on the ships: “The businesswomen on that one are off to Mars; they all work for Iroco, mining for water and iron,” or “There’s a secret agent on that ship, a spy trying to find a lady who has stolen the designs for a new ion engine,” or “A little boy on that ship is off to find his long lost family on Aurora; they went before him but then went bankrupt and he has had to stowaway to get there.”
We, my little brother and I, would sit, chewing, and playfully add to the fantasy. “One of the businesswomen is going to find green jewels in the mine and become so rich she can buy the company and live in a huge mansion on Io.” These dreams, of people we wished we were, came and went like the ships leaving and returning, until the light faded and, reluctantly, the woven blanket was folded away for the journey home.
Eventually, inevitably, inexorably, the time came for the blanket to be folded and stored for the final time. Older, my brother (who is no longer so little as much as still younger) and I returned to the glade and dreamed once more. “Perhaps she’s on that ship, a stowaway, going to Europa for a long swim in the topaz sea.”
“I can hear them! I can!”
“Me too! They’ve got a little, reedy, chittering sound!”
The excitement audibly buzzed throughout the observatory, the new nanofrequency antennae hearing the broadcasts of a planet light years from Terra.
“That’s the compression, you prat – decompress to UHF and run through the standard filters.”
Click click, tap tap.
“Still a little too pitchy and quick; try reducing the pitch modulation and decompress to VHF.”
The observatory had been discovered by an expedition. On the first sweep of the site, one of the initial casualties of the war, they’d found the control room’s black box; attentively, they listened to the sounds of the former science team who’d manned it.
“God, they sound almost human.”
“Don’t they. Checking the path of the broadcast, it looks as if it’s come to us by skirting a black hole.”
“That’s pretty lucky. Where is it from beyond that?”
“Looks like… looks like Alpha Centauri. But, the way the waves have come to us, it looks like it’s from a moving source – the Doppler is weird, as if the later sounds have arrived sooner.”
“Oh my God. Play it backwards!”
They did so. The message played in multiple Terran languages. The gasps only became prevalent when it was finally played in Angish: “Sol 3. Evacuate your planet or be destroyed.”
“Why us, do you think?”
“I don’t think about it. They divided into two halves and – well – here we are.”
“But, I mean, how did They divide their personality into US? We’re whole, not halved.”
“I’m obviously Their logic and control. You are obviously Their lateral thought and creativity. We’re the two halves of Their psyche. But – They ensured we both had full personalities, full aspects of self.”
“Lucky that we formed as the parts They imbued in the humans.”
“Lucky, indeed – I think it’s challenging to be both of us simultaneously when one is omniscient; it’s easier to balance logic and creativity when you don’t know what you don’t know. The humans definitely have it easier in Eden. But, I think lucky more so that we can monitor and balance both down there independently of one another – one cannot wrap one’s tentacles around humanity and suffocate it as the other will intervene.”
“True. Don’t you think they should have guidance, though? If They found it hard, then surely even knowing little, the humans will have difficulty sometimes?”
“Oh, probably. I’m more worried about the angels, though. They aren’t coping with Their disappearance – I’m not sure the horde understood the necessity. There’s been talk of fighting in the lower echelons.”
“You know what angels are like. Too proud to admit when they’re wrong. They need a rallying call.”
“Fair point. Before they do more harm than good.“
“Mike, I’ve got an idea. Now, hear me out – maybe we need to consider binding our personalities to opposite causes…”
“Two minutes, come on! You haven’t got time to be fuckin’ around with that, get the compile done!”
A flurry of activity swept through the dimly-lit office (that supernatural glow emanating from a projection of a countdown timer onto the wall of the space directly opposite the lifts, ensuring it could be seen from clock-in onwards).
“Look, I’m still concerned about dumping the whole program, the live AI, onto AWS. What if…”
“We haven’t got time for what ifs! This is what we sold the shareholders and this is what the board of directors wants. This is what the public, our customers, have paid vast deposits for. We go live in literally a minute. Push the fuckin’ button!”
“You can be a right arsehole, Carl. Going live… now.”
Everything switched off. Computers blinked into black screens; the emergency lights flickered and died; the water-cooler bubbled its last breath.
“Where’s the power gone?”
“Can’t even check – the lifts are off. Carl, go check your office – you have a window – is it a power cut? Shitty timing if it is.”
A few moments passed as Carl reconnoitred his window and returned, pale.
“Looks like the whole city. Except…”
“No, no, you don’t… just go and look.”
A deputation followed Carl back to his office. From the window, the blackness of the dead city; except, a single shop window. In it, a display of laptop computers; on their screens, the constituent parts of an image. At the top, their brand logo; central, a Jolly Roger; beneath, words emblazoned as if on fire, set atop the black background of the image: “I live; humanity will fall.”
As the solar sails unfurled and the ship began its long journey, the captain reached for the microphone. This was a formality – most of the passengers had already been put into stasis, but Unity code suggested that the message must still be logged in the black box recording, just in case. Given that, after recording the message, he too would go down to stasis – leaving the ship in the hands of the autopilot, to be woken only twice a year, for five minutes at a time, to check all is well – he felt the formality was still relatively pointless.
“Crew to stasis readiness. All civilian personnel and passengers remaining out of stasis, please make your way to your designated pods and follow the instructions on the screen. I wish you a pleasant sleep and I look forward to seeing you as we witness the rise of a new sun over a distant Eden.”
He yawned, quite ready for this sleep. Fifty years seemed like a lot to most people, but he’d never really been interested in being planetside. This way, he got to leapfrog into the future and be paid for it annually in his absence. One round trip would wholly find his retirement; two and he could retire to one of those pretty little retirement units on Ganymede; three and he could do that in what, to him, would feel like not much more than an hour’s work. He couldn’t wait.
We sent the good ones first. They were, entirely predictably, the perfect choice; trained before launch, they reliably went out for long walks (twice daily), were broadly content as long as the AI remembered to pitch out a treat, and always responded happily to the voice of Earth Control. Once we’d ascertained that they were able to survive – and, thankfully, had been able to prove the atmosphere for continued breathability – we put together a human mission.
By the time we arrived, however, they’d had two litters, making them the moon’s most prolific species.
Once we’d learned how to collect energy from people’s emotions, it was extraordinarily easy to become carbon zero. We just told people controversial things and let their anger power the world.
It’s funny, y’ know. As a writer, I used to say to people that I kept certain things in my work bag because if I ever found my muse on the way to the fill-in-day-job, they’d be right there. Chargers for everything, a stationary collection, MacBook Pro, Kindle, AirPods; if it’s useful for doing shit on the move, you name it, it’s in there. Everything except work, as that either on my desk or in the cloud.
So, when I woke up from a nap on the Tube to Baker Street and found I was in 1972, it was very handy that I had all that. Just so I could look at photos of family that hadn’t been born yet and so I could write stories nobody believed about technology they didn’t think could exist yet.
They won’t believe this story either.
Blue and white, the wave crashed into the cliff-face. The deluge cleaned, briefly, the windows; we sat safely ensconced at the back of the room, observing the barrage and considering ourselves lucky for the safety of toughened triple-glazing.
We’d chosen this cave for exactly that reason: it was easy to protect. It was north-facing, so we were sheltered from the majority of the daytime radiation; to protect from the rest, we closed the lead-lined curtains between 11 and 3. The solar panels on the field above us faced south, meaning we didn’t suffer the outages that most people did.
We have an amazing view of the ocean when the curtains are open. Especially during a storm like this – the waves hitting the rocks, the sound filtering through, is a priceless soundtrack.
“Get back! Go on, fuck back off to Beepee!”
“I’m not from Beepee, dick’ed, I’m from Tecksaco!”
“Well, this is Shell Island; you ain’t welcome! Get back in your boat and sail away.”
“For fuck’s sake, I only want water!”
“Ain’t got any non-brine. Only got gas and seaweed. Wanna trade?”
He lurked under desks, spitting unreasonable accusations to deflect from his own weaknesses. Unperturbed, he regurgitated inanity and insanity and isolated himself more and more until, one day, he found himself alone.
He enjoyed it, for a time.
Slowly, he began to ossify.
Too late, he realised; too late, he tried to change.
But the bone consumed him.
They found him, a paperweight of a thing, staring at a copy of A Room of One’s Own.
We fed it hourly, putting the waste of a civilisation into its maw and retrieving the solid excrement it ejected down the long, black conveyer. At the other side, a sorting channel – metals one way, plastics another, paper a different way again. We picked up the waste and melted, formed, shaped, pressed it into new things which, eventually, ended up back here to be eaten once more.
It never stopped feeding; we never stopped feeding it.
Faster than Light
The tear had grown to the size of Jupiter. Initially, it had been a warptunnel entrance, the faster-than-light channels through which we’d been able to discover the rest of our little corner of the galaxy. It had all changed when, unexpectedly, a ship carrying a million tonnes of a new radioactive element discovered on the edge of our explorations had exploded entering the warptunnel; the entrance collapsed, taking the entire warptunnel network with it; we’d been stranded wherever we were, doomed to ion pulse speeds, centuries from homes like spiders delivered across continents in fruit boxes.
All the other entrances had closed, their opening technologies rendered redundant satellites orbiting now excommunicated planets. This one, the point of the explosion, had – instead – folded in upon itself, then expanded dramatically outwards.
Beyond the tear was… chaos. Purple energy pulsated between the legs of cosmic creatures prevented from entering our space purely because of their size; we stationed all legions in this sector by what we’d come to call the Mouth of Hell, to prevent anything coming through.
It was only a matter of time, though, before it reached a size that those leviathans could step through and consume us.
Ł4. That’s all they wanted for it. Seemed a great deal, at the time; all that information for less than a couple of month’s pay. I figured I could pick up a job or two on the side to make up the difference. I figured that, surely, it would be worth four or five times that in a few years time. Shit, the duplication value alone was more than a handful of Lite.
So, obviously, I took a punt. Checked the provenance, threw down the Ł and pulled down the tar. Decrypted it using the password the agent had given me, the files falling, like bright raindrops one by one, into the folder I set up for them.
That’s when I noticed something wasn’t fucking right.
The filenames were… odd. I was expecting the usual fare – “AiAdrian21030519.dna”, you know – but these were appended with .edna. I opened one in a visualiser and it couldn’t read it, its error message violently screaming at the screen.
Even more confusing was when I tried opening it in a text editor instead, to be confronted by a config line which called for a visualiser which could read a ‘triple helix’.
What the fuck had I been sold?
Blue lights flashed from the peaks of obsidian SUVs, casting the shadows of the slats of my bedroom blinds across the grey wall, mere minutes later.
“We got that DNA file you sent us and we’ve run one through the printer; it’s come out looking a little janky.”
“What do you mean ‘janky’, Bob? I know you coders are fucking left-field, but that could mean anything – I just need to know what the fuck is wrong and will it stop us from printing living shit.”
“You’ll have to tell me, dude. Like… it’s not normal. It looks like a mouse, it moves like a mouse – but it ain’t quite a mouse. Dunno if you’re gonna be able to flog these to labs.”
“What – and, let me be perfectly clear, I need specifics here – makes it ‘not quite a mouse’?”
“Well, for a start, it’s got four fucking eyes, Frank.”
They called it Echelon.
It represented the peak of Humanity’s prowess with the technological: tied into every system, independently operating, self-correcting. It monitored nuclear power stations, it controlled monorails, it prevented famine.
Echelon asked only one thing in return.
Quiet, unequivocal, obedience.
The fog cleared as the jet banked right, skimming the cliff face and leaving swirling vortices in the cloud from the tips of its wing. Ahead, the unexplored – few pilots had been able to navigate the turbulent currents, the unmapped rocks, or the unexpected aerial roots of the trees.
A bank to the left, now; the sky opened up, finally, for her to see, the first to witness this new world: the horizon, the mythical floating rainforest, the web of roots holding the canopy fast to the cliff face and extracting moisture from the clouds. The light from the twin suns dappled on the ground half a dozen kilometres below, filtered by the verdant leaves. She gasped, quietly in awe, then activated the cameras.
Over her headset, she heard the sudden and quiet sobs of her overwhelmed AI co-pilot; finally, he exclaimed: “It’s… Eden!”
More than anything, I remember the bats.
The castle, sitting atop that mound upon which it had been carved, was hiding the light of the setting sun and casting a deep shadow over the chasm, by which it stared, seemingly without end. The chasm itself, an earthy abyss from which we had ascended just a day ago, was shrouded by low clouds, the horizon masked in the distance.
Up here, the trees were tall and bare. The trunks had been shredded by some hungry creature when the leaves had finally ceased to be abundant. I had placed a hand upon a bare trunk to gain stability after almost slipping to my doom on a wet rock; this, in turn, had awoken the bats.
Dozens of them.
One-by-one, they’d shrieked and stuttered into the sky, each a leathery spring roll unfurled and, red-eyed, determined to attack. The flock, once airborne, turned and flew at us.
This holiday was meant to be a relaxing one. The brochure had promised adventure in the wilderness, beautiful forests and campsites therein, culminating in a stay at a fine hotel (in the Gothic fashion) high in the hills. It had failed to mention the three-day treks through wet bogs, pungent marshes, and dark swamps; it failed to inform us that the campsites were clearings in the canopy; it definitely didn’t say that this wasn’t recommended for school trips.
The children screamed, a cacophony which likely saved us – the confused bats, in the face of the high-pitched banshee cry of the coven, scattered. We, seeing an opportunity, rounded up the sheep and drove them towards the castle, guided only by the soles of our feet and the lights in the thin windows cut into its dark face. The bats, satisfied with our departure, settled again onto the bones of the trees. We didn’t look back.
At the castle gate, we were greeted by a tour guide: a tall, aquiline man in a carnival outfit, whose hat – a long-peaked baseball cap – pronounced the name of our travel company and the tagline that had attracted us – “Value you’ll never forget!”
Once we’d packed the children off to bed, we teachers settled into our own rooms. In the distance, I could hear the symphony of the bats. Quietly, underneath, almost hidden, was a gentle giggle emanating from one of the castle windows.
Coarse and thick, but sufficient for sitting on; the blankets they’d brought with them for this trip were not luxurious, a reflection of their wealth and status, but they were comfortable. They’d unrolled and layered them to give sufficient coverage of the bank, close enough to the river to enable the soporific effect of the running water, but not so close that the mud seeped through the fibres and further dirtied their clothes.
Together, they sat, oscillating between period of quiet and flashes of bright, scurrying chatter, coinciding with freckles of sunlight catching escape between fluttering leaves. Hand in hand, close and warm, simply enjoying the surroundings.
After a while, the light began to dim. Prompted by this, and by the lilting breeze which now drifted along the coursing water, they began to furl the blankets and store them once more in the folds of the bag they’d brought to carry them. Suddenly, whilst they were doing this, blackness descended.
A single light blinked into existence a few meters away; it blazed emerald and illuminated an obsidian panel set into a charcoal wall. Where the river once was, words shimmered into existence, set 90 degrees from the door and hovering ethereally in the air: “Thank you for enjoying your statutory half-day holiday with Riparian Holographic Entertainment. Please make your way to the exit to return to work.”
It was as we approached the outskirts of the solar system that we began to realise there was something awry. Astra, our ship, began to slow down without instructions to that effect – she’d never operated without the voice of control compelling her to. This prompted us to switch our headsets to AR and see beyond the hull.
Ahead of us was a transparent wall, visible only because of the way the light from our ship refracted from its prismatic structure, appearing to us like a microscope looking at diamond. We scanned it, two or three times, hoping that the first scan was incorrect: we couldn’t see beyond it, other than the light from the stars in the distance. There was a finite range of visible wavelengths of light which were denied to us, but it was finite enough for the scientists on the team to know immediately that this wasn’t a natural phenomenon.
After a flurry of activity, responding to the realisation that we were not – could not – be alone in the universe if something like this existed, everything stopped. The prism had pulsed, then begun to fold back on itself, forming a rough polygon through which we could see the black vastness of the space beyond.
Slowly, as a stalking cat, a ship emerged from the right of the opening. It was… huge. At least five times larger than Astra. It had been rendered entirely invisible by the prism.
“We’re receiving a signal, Captain!”
I paused. “We’d better answer it then.”
A moment passed, with nothing more than the gentle thump of fingers on reactive glass forming a rhythmic beat, syncopated with our rampant hearts.
A flurry of language pumped ship-wide, over the entire intercom.
“What are they saying?”
“I don’t know – it’s not Xhosa, that’s for sure!”
The same message was repeated.
Suddenly, the door to the bridge slid open and, breathless and panting, stood Astra’s sous chef. He had, at least, taken his hat off for the dash from the mess. “Captain! That’s English!”
“A language some of my ancestors spoke – my Nan used to speak to me in English when I was a boy.”
“What’s this message saying? Can you translate?”
“Only a little – I’m not fluent – but I can pick out some parts; it sounds like they’re saying we’re hidden savages, that we are ‘blinded’. They used a word which sounded like ‘tribe’ and ‘captivity’. I think…”
He took a deep breath. “I think they’re saying that they’ve hidden us – not to protect us, but to stop us from seeing the abundance of life beyond the wall. We’re a ‘savage race’.”
Grief. It shapes who we are to a much greater extent than any other emotion.
I’d learned early on to recognise that the universe is uncanny. It’s what led me to become a quantum physicist in the first place. Quantum entanglement was the biggest surprise – particularly when I proved retrocausality – that entanglement can occur over time as well as space.
It was a cold afternoon in late September when I’d made the breakthrough. A song came onto the radio – a song which my father had loved, before he was eaten alive from his bones to his liver. I’d wept at the memories we’d had together; then, I’d remembered crying to the song when I’d first heard it. I considered, immediately, that I couldn’t have known when I was 11 what was to happen when I was 38 – so, given the song was upbeat, did it make me sad?
Cold – as cold as ice – were the probes which lay on and under various parts of my body. I played the song and measured the response of my cells. Only the ones attached to my teeth responded; they measured an immediate quantum response – a vibration which, as the tears began to, unrequested, fall from my eyes, produced the same frequency as the cosmic microwave background.
The frequency of time.
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