epilogue – Issue Seven

So everywhere there’s life, It goes.
Cryptic properties obnubilated
Within the half-blind dovetails,
Translating just enough –
Not to impose upon imposing beasts
Opinions secondhand and ill-fitting. 
The reader reads into what is read,
The words ever ink and dirt and shrug.
For what is The Cabinet in truth?
Infinite space
Collected. An offer.

 

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Image: comfreak via Pixabay

 

 

Cluck – A True Story – Tara Lynn Hawk

Fifty years                   from now
                         when                                            all the mini marts are gone and
          alien space chickens                run                         the plants
                                    humans the work beasties
         who will sit                    back                   and say
                                                                                                  I told you so!

 

 

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TARA LYNN HAWK is the author of poetry chapbooks Rhetorical Wanderlust and The Dead. Her work has appeared in Occulum, Rasputin, Anti-Heroin Chic, Uut, The Cabinet of Heed, Spelk, Wanton Fuckery, Midnight Lane Gallery, Idle Ink, Spilling Cocoa, Poethead, Social Justice Poetry and more. “taralynnhawk.com”

 

Image: Tara Lynn Hawk

 

 

The Last Red Cherry – S A Leavesley

Kis pulls the shiniest bauble from the Christmas tree and cups it in her hands. It looks like a see-through planet plucked from her porthole, and, valued at 1000 e-bits, it’s the most expensive decoration on the fake fir. Even before Kis had it priced, she knew this instinctively – this crystal sphere is the only thing she’s ever seen that is filled with clear water.

Kis switches her gaze from the bauble to the pale honey-colored liquid that she’s been sipping. The glass on her desk is simultaneously half-full and half-empty, even in artificial gravity. She tries to imagine again what Earth water would taste like, how rain would feel on her skin. But Earth is millions of miles away, smaller in her telescope than the decorations on the tree. So small that, if Kis could pick the Earth out of the sky, it would make a perfect necklace bead.

When she was younger and healthier, Kis’ great-great-great-grandma used to joke that, from this distance, her home planet was the size of an Earth cherry. Then Granchy would describe this cherry in luscious detail – sweeter than Saturn honey, redder than Mars, the color of pure, fully oxygenated blood, the last rare forbidden fruit. Kis’ mouth waters at the thought of this wonderful thing that she’ll never get to taste. Only one such tree left in the solar system, its precise location lost.

Still, at least Kis has this aluminum tinsel tree. If Granchy could see her now, she’d joke that Kis was eyeing up the decorations as Earth women used to drool over displays in jewelers’ windows, picking out the rings with the biggest sparkling rocks.

Kis finds it hard to imagine getting excited about hard stone. Metal and mineral are everywhere. Her fascinations are different. Yes, almost everything about the baubles is artificial, but not quite. She’s had them tested. Her oldest pieces carry traces of Earth elements, of land dust, even water and once-living matter. Their light and shine too is crafted by hand and imagination in memory of the old ways, in honor of life.

Kis’ favorite decorations are the transparent spheres dating from just before the exodus, with scenes depicted inside like mythic hanging snow globes or old-fashioned crystal balls into the future. Granchy used to stare at them for hours before finally pronouncing her predictions.

Granchy’s last insight though had been little more than a babbling of random words: “Honey-river-stone-hail-red-petals-glaze-falling.”

“Falling.” Granchy had repeated the word again before falling back against her pillow in the spaceship sick bay.

Every time Kis visited, she’d look round the small dorm with sinking despair. It was full of patients like Granchy – after centuries of anemic life, their hearts petal-thin and their minds finally running out of space for more memories.

No point dwelling on this, Kis drags her thoughts back to the fir. She can feel Granchy with her, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, plucking another glass ball from the green branches, then telling Kis to look inside if she wants to divine the future.

But the sphere in Kis’ hands is black as a starless night. There are beautiful chiming bells inside but they only sound when shaken. Kis pushes the swinging bauble harder and harder until…the black ribbon snaps and it falls from the tree.

Perhaps Granchy isn’t with her after all. Granchy would never choose such a dark future. Kis’ hand hovers above a globe with a frozen lake. Brightly scarved skaters dance across the surface to a swirl of beautiful soft yet joyful choral music, its song composed entirely from snatches of different people’s laughter. She longs to cradle it in her hands, but she fears this choice. It’s as if the Ghost of Other People’s Promises is beguiling her with sham dreams.

She touches the next sphere gently – it’s entirely filled with flurries of plastic snow – a gift of Christmas Present. The white flakes will not settle long enough for there to be anything but blizzard. Like the cosmic debris constantly pelting the spaceship.

Kis picks up the original bauble again. Granchy called this ‘The Rain Globe’, saying it reminded her of her last days on Earth. As Kis’ other plans seem to have failed, she wonders if she should get Granchy’s poem about it framed for Christmas. She flicks through Granchy’s e-note until she finds the words.

 

The Rain Globe

Imagine the Earth sealed in curved glass,
our world as a rain dome. The wet

more frightening than drops of light
glistening towards dice houses.

Hold this sphere in your palm,
turn it upside down and it’s the sky

that drowns. Foundations cling
to the thin land above.

Imagine we’re tiny people,
speaking through bubbles,

all of us now divers
thrown in water flight,

lives tilted
towards spillage.

 

But suppose this Christmas is Granchy’s last? It isn’t the most cheerful gift to give her, even if Granchy’s mind has gone too far to understand the sadness.

Ting! Kis’ electroscreen flashes with a new message.

“Your merchandise has been located. Your order is in g-flight!”

Kis senses her heart pumping redder and faster as she reads. She’d not really expected her search to work. But now this message from Galaxis. What if this is it? Finally.

Of course, Kis tries to slow her breathing, it could be a fake – black-world sellers are notoriously unreliable. But as past-dealers go, Galaxis’ reputation is legendary on the contraband scene. If it really is a cherry from that last tree? If the rumors are correct, one sniff may be all it takes to save Granchy.

And the price? Kis wills herself not to think about that, as she packages up The Rain Globe in stellarwrap. So long as this works, it will be worth it. It’s not the first heirloom they’ve had to sacrifice, and she still has Granchy’s poems.

Kis hears her own nails tapping the desk in time with her heartbeat, as she waits for her exchange to process. The noise reminds her of Granchy’s recordings of an old analogue clock ticking, only faster, more arrhythmic, hollower.

To occupy her fingers and thoughts, Kis turns to one of the brighter entries from Granchy’s journal and forces herself to concentrate on the lines.

Underwater: Surviving

In our new place / the fish
              that pour from the common tap
                          rise a little faster \ bubble bigger

                          Away from town streets / the water
              tastes clearer / easier to swallow
unthickened by twists of pipe

through terraces submerged
              in the flood \ of their own debris
At sea in this new world

              we are strangers to ourselves
                          Oceans teach us to dive deeper
              to find strength we never knew

If…when dry land returns
              we will welcome free-walking
but guard tails and fins in case

              We made this house of gills
                          layered with synthetic scales
              now \ we swim with it

Although, it’s the hundredth time Kis has read the poem, this still seems worlds away from her own life. No water, no individual homes on the Interstar, only an infinity of space outside and the increasingly more cramped crampedness of near-communal living inside. But the title and Granchy’s determination…survival Kis gets. Survival is the one essential that they’ve all been fed and watered on. Survival and hope.

Ting! “Your g-pod has landed!” The electromassage flashes a brighter blue neon than the lights on the Christmas tree, its chime louder than any bells Kis would ever wish for her frozen-lake skaters.

Although Kis is trying to stay realistic, she can’t help feeling expectation rise inside her as the small pod arrives in her cubicle-chute.

She prizes the pod apart and takes out a tiny box.

It looks the right size. She imagines the weight is right. But she’s scared now to open it. She’s never seen a real cherry, so how can she even tell if it’s genuine? There’s only one person Kis knows who will know for sure. The same person that Kis needs it for.

Shoving the box in her pocket, Kis grabs the next zip-express and hurries though the shafts towards the sick bay.

It’s hard to distinguish Granchy’s dark curls from the shadows on her pillow. Except the shadows are dancing and Granchy’s hair and head are still. Granchy’s breathing is slower and shallower even since Kis’ last visit.

“Granchy,” Kis whispers. “It’s me.”

Kis sees Granchy’s eyelids flutter and bends over to kiss her great-great-great-grandma’s moon-pale cheek.

“Look, I’ve brought you something.”

Opening the box, Kis lifts out the waxy fruit by its stalk. This thin wiriness bends with the weight of the shiny soft bead that she’s been promised is real cherry. It looks real, feels it too. She wishes Granchy’s eyes would open, and stay open long enough to look, check and reassure Kis.

Steadying the fruit with her gloved palm, Kis uses a scalpel to nick its surface, then slides a tiny sliver of reddish flesh into her specimen dish. If this is what it should be – and if it does what it should do – there’s enough cells for her to sample and re-synthesize.

Then, clasping the rest of the small bead gently between two fingers, Kis holds what she believes is the last red cherry to Granchy’s lips…and hopes.

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S.A. LEAVESLEY is an award-winning journalist, fiction writer and poet. Author of two novellas, her short fiction publications include Jellyfish Review, The Nottingham Review, Ellipsis Zine, Oxford Today and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. Nominated for Best Small Fictions, she also runs V. Press poetry and flash imprint.

Image: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

 

 

Still Life – Jesse Bradley

Mitch tries to talk me out of staying behind to babysit mom. You could use the night off, he said. I shook my head and made him hand me his car keys; Mitch’s car hasn’t recovered fully from his last night out on the town.
I sit in front of the glass shed mom’s living in and sip whiskey that’s a hair above cheap, where the bottle’s glass but the glass is so frail, it’d break in mid swing during a bar fight. Tonight, mom’s taken an evaporating green watercolor. She’s enveloped the glass chair we got her to practice maintaining a human form.
Today, she managed to sit still and cross her legs. She bounced her right foot the way she used to when got giddy, like when dad brought home flowers or I brought home a rare ‘A’ on something. It was when she tried smiling that her limbs exploded. Mom seeped out of the stumps and dispersed back to her gaseous form. Unlike all the other times she failed maintaining a human body, mom was too tired to bang against the glass. We’ll try again tomorrow, she said. Mitch used it as a reason to celebrate and be stupid, like a man in his early twenties should be sometimes to remember he’s alive.
I lay down on the grass, next to the half full glass of whiskey. Maybe, we should let mom go, let her fly high into the sky, chase the stars, but then I think about the birds, the unfortunate helicopter or plane that flies through her, their names.
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Image: noeminihoul via Pixabay

 

 

You’re Very Beautiful – John Holland

“You’re very beautiful,” I say. I do not know whether, by their standards, she is beautiful.

She looks surprised. Flustered. Perhaps because I met her only a few seconds ago. Touched her arm at the crowded bar and introduced myself.

“Thank you,” she says, and giggles. I can see that she thinks I am beautiful. Handsome, they call it.

“I like your eyes,” she says. I have learnt to smile with my eyes. Learnt that they like that.

“Yes, I have two – the normal arrangement,” I say. I am aware that they find that funny. She laughs. It’s a good sign. I ask her what she’s drinking. Vodka with something. I have the same. It’s easier. The barman pushes the drinks towards us. I give him paper money. She puts the glass to her lips. I do not drink.

There are two seats at the back of the bar where we can sit. Briefly I hope.

“Are you English?” she says.

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked. My accent is not completely accurate.

“Yes,” I say, “But my father was Swiss.”

She nods. And smiles. Asks about Switzerland. I mention the Alps, clocks, gnomes. It’s what I’ve learnt.

I say I am a financial broker – working for animal welfare. Money and a conscience. That I have a hybrid sports car, using electricity as well as petrol. And a riverside flat.

“With a view to die for,” I say.

“Nice,” is her reaction.

“It’s only a few minutes away.”

And in those few minutes we are there. And she has drunk more vodka. This time straight. She has let her fingers linger on the Kelim rug. And admired the kitchen – white tiles with stainless steel. It’s in the kitchen that I ask her to add her name and address to my system. I must monitor.

“For the gift,” I say.

“Gift?” she asks.

She says she’s never seen a computer like it. I agree she hasn’t.

We walk onto the balcony. Stand a little apart. Listen to the noises of the air. I stare at the darkness, the bloated sky. And home.

She looks at the side of my face. I turn and smile. We kiss. These days I kiss well.

She says she’s never met anyone like me. That I am unusual. I smile. Tell her that someday people may say the same about her.

Soon she is naked in my bed. I say that I will use a condom. I act it out under the sheets. I penetrate immediately. And finish.

She insists she would like to stay.

I say that really she wouldn’t. She dresses. I close the door behind her.

I report progress towards the target. Change the sheets. Choose different clothes and walk to another bar. Find another woman.

“You’re very beautiful,” I say.

 

 

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JOHN HOLLAND is a prize-winning author from Gloucestershire in the UK, and the organiser of the regular event, Stroud Short Stories. Website – www.johnhollandwrites.com

 

Image: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

 

 

Window on the World – Tom Gumbert

Sergey Vasiliev stares out the window, eyes wide. No matter how many times he sees it, it makes his spirit soar.

“Really Sergey? It’s not like you haven’t seen a sunrise before. In fact, you see it every ninety-two minutes. That’s like a bajillion since you’ve been on this mission.”

Sergey smiles and shrugs his shoulders. He looks back at Kiyoko Watanabe as she pulls the daily calendar page, wads it into a ball, and releases it, watching it float away.

“Seven days and a wake-up,” she says, a smile spreading across her face. “Going to make it home for Aimi’s fifth birthday!” She moves her hand to her lips, then to the picture above the daily calendar. “Goodbye International Space Station—hello baby girl!”

A glint of light pulls him back to the window and he watches the sun become visible above the curvature of the earth. Glorious. A new day, and all the hope and promise that comes with it.

“Good morning ISS crew.”

“Mornin’ Houston,” Mission Commander Jules Rousseau says in his best Texas drawl.

‘There you go, Commander,” the mission controller cheers him.

Sergey can hear the laughter in the background. With the sun fully visible, he abandons his window on the world and starts for the breakfast area.

“Who’s picking the music this morning, Commander?”

“My turn, Jules!” Kiyoko says in a sing-song voice.

“Please let it be, ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” Jules mock pleads.

“In your dreams, my French Cowboy. This morning I want a little ‘Pepper’ with my breakfast,” Kiyoko declares.

“Nooo,” Jules wailes. “Sergey requested them yesterday, remember? ‘Back in the USSR?’

“Jeez, Jules. Not the Beatles ‘Sergeant Pepper,’ Just ‘Pepper.’ You know… the Butthole Surfers.”

“Butthole Surfers? Why would anyone request music by a band called the Butthole Surfers?”

“In honor of you,” Kiyoko informs him, “You know…because you’re an asshole.”

Sergey laughs hard at the unexpected retort.

“Is that Sergey laughing?” the mission controller asks, his voice incredulous.

“Don’t know, Control. Never heard him laugh. Not sure I’ve even heard him speak,” Jules teases.

*      *       *

Breakfast was always Sergey’s favorite meal. He recalls his childhood, sitting with his parents at the breakfast table enjoying butterbrots and kasha, his parents chirping about his mother’s writing or papa’s work in the lab at the university, then shifting their attention to him, enraptured by his accounts of school. The optimism of his parents at the start of each day sustained him, regardless of what the day might later bring.

On the ISS, the crew typically gathered for meals, and over the mission, Sergey had grown quite fond of his crewmates, especially Jules and Kiyoko. Though each was involved in serious work weighted by immense responsibility, their macaronic banter was eurhythmic, always bringing a joy to the table that attenuated the pressure of their mission. It was reminiscent of his childhood, the optimism sustaining him through the loneliness of months in space. He adored listening to Kiyoko’s stories of Aimi—how her face lit up when she spoke of her daughter, who at the age of four, was already using computers as well as children twice her age. “She’ll be twice the computer scientist that I am,” Kiyoko predicted.

Jules’ stories often involved his family’s vineyard and how much he loved giving tours, especially to schoolchildren. “They’re our future, Sergey,” he would insist, and Sergey was thrilled when Jules had asked him to assist him in presenting a biology lesson that would be transmitted to the schoolchildren in his hometown in a few short hours.

The time in space had given Sergey time to think about his own future. His status as ISS astronaut elevated his already impressive engineering resume, and he was certain that when this mission was over he would have a choice of opportunities that would assure him of a comfortable, if not lucrative lifestyle. Maybe then, Larissa would take his marriage proposal seriously. He imagined their marriage, followed by a honeymoon in Hawaii, and then a life together with three, maybe four children—

The alarm startles them, temporarily gorgonizing each before spurring them to action. Sergey allows the others to depart the compartment first, before propelling himself to his assigned station at the controls of the robotic arm.

“Commander, do you have a visual?”

“Where am I looking?” Jules asks.

“Port, eleven o’clock,” mission control tells him.

Sergey looks out the window. In the distance he can see it and he readies himself at the controls of the robotic arm. With an estimated half-million objects in space and less than forty-three thousand tracked, close approaches occasionally occur and a collision course is a constant concern.

“See, it,” Jules says.

“Can you calculate its trajectory?” Mission control asks.

“On it,” Kiyoto tells them.

Sergey can feel the tension through the silence. “What are we tracking?” he asks.

“Mobile Satellite,” the mission controller says, brusquely.

“J2000 projects it to be on course for intersect with 2015-158A. ETI three minutes. Approximate distance from ISS, one kilometer.”

“What satellite is mobile?” Sergey asks.

“2016-0027,” comes the terse reply from mission control.

“Malfunction?” Jules asks.

“Unknown.”

Sergey looks out the window, but can no longer see the satellite. “Are we a safe distance?”

“We’re safe,” Jules assures him. “Resume normal activities.”

“Negative on resuming normal activities, ISS. Prepare for maneuver,” Mission Control instructs.

“What’s going on?” Sergey asks, but his question goes unanswered.

On the closed channel, Jules tells them, “Meet me in Unity Node.”

Sergey is the first to arrive, his distance from the robotic arm only a few meters from Unity Node.

Kiyoko is next, and they hear Jules moving toward them. Sergey doesn’t like the way she is frowning and avoiding his eyes.

“What’s going on, Jules?” Sergey demands.

“This could be bad. A maneuver is precautionary, in case we are targeted.”

“Targeted? Who would be targeting us? Why?”

“You know the scenarios, Sergey.”

“Guys, I don’t think it’s us. The target, I mean.” Kiyoko looks at each of the men. “2016-0027, that’s the North Korean satellite, and it’s either malfunctioned or is deliberately being maneuvered on an intercept course with U.S. early warning.”

“What does this mean?” Sergey asks, looking from Jules to Kiyoko.

“We’re not sure, Sergey. Maybe nothing. Maybe the children are playing games, you know, trying to frighten each other again,” Kiyoko says with a shrug, though her tone makes the reassurance feel disingenuous.

“Well they need to stop with the games,” Sergey says, “it’s dangerous and irresponsible.”

Jules puts a hand on his shoulder. “Look, Sergey, we don’t know what it means, so there is no point getting worked up about it. We just need to focus on our training and hope for the best.”

“ISS, maneuver commencement in one minute. Recommend crew move to Quest,” mission control announces.

Kiyoko puts her hand on Sergey’s back and gives a gentle pat before following Jules to the conjoined Quest airlock. Sergey follows and within seconds, they are in.

“Mission control, we are prepared for maneuver,” Jules announces.

“Copy, initiating thrusters.”

During past maneuvers, the movement of the ISS to maintain altitude or avoid debris had been so slight that Sergey could offset the effect by placing a pinkie finger against a fixed object. This time, Sergey feels his body shift as the station moves.

“Do you feel that?” Kiyoko asks.

Jules gives a slow nod.

“They’re trying to move us in a hurry, Sergey says as he checks his watch. For the next three minutes, no one speaks.

“Mission control to ISS Crew, we request one of you go to the cupola for visual confirmation.”

“Roger, control. Confirmation of what?” Jules asks.

“US Space Command has lost data from 2015-158A.”

“Shit,” Kiyko moans.

“Exactly,” mission control answers.

“I’ll go,” Jules volunteers.

“Me too,” Sergey says, giving an apologetic shrug to Kiyoko.

They move through Unity to Tranquility and then to the Cupola, the entire trip taking less than two minutes. Sergey follows Jules in, head first, their legs protruding into the Tranquility node.

“Kiyoko, can you give us those coordinates again?” Jules requests.

Sergey cranes his neck, turning to see anything that appears out of the ordinary, when in his periphery, he catches an intense flash.

“What was that?” Sergey yells.

“Mission control to ISS, US Space Command is reporting launch of ICBM.”

“Sacre bleu,” Jules exclaims, covering his face with his hands.

“No, no, this can’t be—,” Kiyoko says, her voice breaking.

Sergey looks through the cupola glass at the earth and sees intense flashes up and down the Korean peninsula and in nearby Japan and China.

“Stop, please stop,” Sergey moans.

“What, Sergey? What’s going on?” Kiyoko asks, alarm rising in her voice.

Sergey feels a hand on his forearm. Jules is shaking his head.

“Kiyoto, what is our current altitude?” Jules asks.

His question goes unanswered as they continue their eastwardly orbit over the Pacific. They watch in horror as a missile streaks past them in its downward trajectory. From the waters off the Hawaiian Islands, sagittate projectiles rise on an intercept course.

“Yes,” Sergey says, for the first time feeling something akin to hope.

“Wha—?” Jules yelps as his body jerks downward.

“Move,” Kiyoko says as she projects herself past him into the cupola.

She twists, and Sergey knows she is trying to locate Japan, but he can’t take his eyes off the missiles shooting towards each other. Suddenly, where there had been one downward missile, there are many.

“Where is it?” Kiyoko cries. “Where is Japan?”

“It’s out of visual range,” Jules calls up.

“Mission control, MIRV’s deployed over Hawaii,” Sergey reports.

“What the fuck is a MIRV?” Kiyoko says, still searching for Japan.

“Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle,” Jules says, his voice deflating.

Kiyoko glances down at him before twisting her head side to side while Sergey continues looking toward Hawaii. Her sharp intake of breath causes him to turn. “What?”

He can see they are just off the California coastline and Kiyoko stares, mouth open in horror, at the streaks emanating from the ground.

Sergey follows her gaze, sees the myriad of lines streaking into the sky in long arcs from California and the Washington coastline. The intense flash from the west causes them both to cry out and cover their eyes.

Sergey feels Kiyoko brush against him as she departs the cupola.

“Let me see,” Jules says, and Sergey imagines him pulling Kiyoto’s hands from her face so he can inspect her eyes.

Sergey hears her crying, but the sound is interrupted by audio warnings. He rubs his burning eyes, trying to restore his vision while simultaneously attempting to discern how many warnings and what they mean. For certain, the close proximity warning is alarming as well as an equipment failure warning. Is it the solar panels? He blinks a few times to clear his eyes. Is that a fire alarm?

“What’s happening Jules?”

“She’s okay,” Jules answers, elevating his voice above the alarms. “And you?”

“Okay. What about the alarms? What’s happening to the station?”

“Mission control, what’s the status of ISS?” Jules asks on the open channel.

For a few seconds there is silence, and then static.

“Mission control, come in.” Jules repeats.

More static, followed by a popping noise.

“Mission control, what’s happening?” Sergey yells.

“Mission control, come in now,” Kiyoko demands.

“Sergey,” Jules says looking into the cupola and pointing.

Sergey looks through the glass and gasps. To the west, a mushroom cloud rising far higher than the ISS, appears over Hawaii. “EMP,” he mumbles, knowing that no amount of yelling or insistence would restore communication with mission con

“We have to check the status of the station,” Jules insists.

“I…”

“Stay,” Kiyoko sniffles, “I’ll go with Jules.”

Jules and Kiyoko disappear into Tranquility node and Sergey returns his attention to the cupola, where the view is disorienting. Satellites appear outside their normal orbits, and nothing seems to be in its normal place. He watches a weather satellite lose altitude, falling into the path of orbiting space junk where it is pummeled by debris, before breaking apart and assimilating into the mass. He witnesses several near misses and one spectacular collision which, thankfully, is far enough away to not impact ISS.

They are over Texas when he sees the first streaks rising above the north pole. The counter-launches from Kansas and Missouri are immediate, as is his nausea. Sergey leaves the cupola, struggling with dizziness and what feels like the start of a massive headache. He propels himself toward Quest, his heart racing as he pulls forward. Inside, he searches for the transdermal dimenhydrinate patch he hopes will bring him physical relief. Sergey finds it in the space suit and applies it to his arm. He closes his eyes and tries to will his heart to slow, his stomach to settle and his heart to stop breaking. He counts backwards from one hundred, reaching twenty-seven when the fire alarm goes silent. The other alarms have also abated and now, the only sounds are the proximity alarms.

He wants to believe this is good news, that Jules and Kiyoko are putting the station back in order. When his count reaches fifteen, he is interrupted.

“Sergey, can you hear me?”

“Yes, Jules, I hear you. Is everything back to normal?”

There is a slight hesitation and then, “Please meet us at Rassvet.”

Sergey bristles. Rassvet is the port where the Soyuz craft is docked. Were they considering leaving ISS?

“On my way, Jules.”

When Sergey reaches Rassvet, Jules is outside the Soyuz capsule, his face pale and grave. Looking past him, Sergey sees Kiyoko sitting inside, clutching the photo of Aimi to her chest.

Jules steps forward, taking Sergey’s forearm and directing him back towards Zarya module. “She’s insisting we return,” Jules says.

“Why, is life support failing?”

Jules shakes his head.

“Structural issues?”

Jules shrugs. “The station’s still functional, though the navigational system is fried. We may be losing altitude, but that’s not what concerns her. She’s insisting we return so she can find her daughter. She said she’s leaving with or without us.”

Sergey looks from Jules to Kiyoko and back. “What do you think, Jules?”

Jules sighs. “For us, there are no good options.” He looks back at Kiyoko. “If I had a daughter, I would go back.”

*      *      *

From the Cupola, Sergey watches Kiyoko and Jules depart the ISS. He lifts his hand, though he doubts they can see him and immediately feels the intensity of loneliness. The pull starts in his stomach and radiates outward until he feels as if he’s been sucked into a blackhole. He’s over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge when he loses sight of them.

In his fantasy, Kiyoko and Jules splash safely off the coast of Japan, are picked up by a science vessel and taken to Tokyo where government leaders assist in reuniting her with Aimi. “It’s okay, mama,” Aimi will assure her, “the missiles didn’t work. Can we go to the festival and get Choco Bananas?”

The fantasy provides some relief and his spirit is bolstered again when Africa comes into view, the twilight revealing a continent unscathed. Perhaps the concatenation isn’t as catastrophic as he feared. He rubs his burning eyes. The emotion of the past hour has been exhausting. With eyes closed, he thinks of Larissa, wonders what she is doing, whether she is afraid and who is with her to provide comfort. He vows he will never leave her again…and his mind slips into unconsciousness.

*      *      *

His eyes pop open at the sound of the alarm. Through the cupola the earth is dark. How long has he been asleep? He checks his watch. He should be seeing the sunrise, but instead… He puts his hand to the glass and feels tiny vibrations. His head spins with the realization that he is in the midst of a pyrocumulonimbus cloud. Soon the entire station is vibrating, alarms blaring.

He recognizes the alarm for abandon station, and realizes that the ISS is in catastrophic danger. His eyes brimming with tears, he tries to imagine Kiyoko and Jules safely in Japan, reunited with Aimi. From his window on the world he begins humming a song, then singing, “Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. And I say, it’s alright…”

 

 

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Image: Free-Photos via Pixabay

 

 

A Study in Torment – J L Corbett

Dear reader, I fear my sanity is escaping.

The following account is written with intentions of importance, none of which include the provision of entertainment. I urge you, the reader, to heed the foolish actions detailed in these pages, for it seems increasingly likely that you too may one day find yourself in a situation as sinister as mine.

It began with an interruption. The day thus far had been spent mostly in frustration as I had attempted to untangle several theories of human cognition; I was at the precipice of a breakthrough when the door to my office swung open without the customary preceding knock and my thread of thought was snapped. Professor Hadleigh strolled into the room with a level of joviality that suggested a complete disregard for his mid-afternoon trespass.

“…as you can see, it’s quite spacious. It’s just Doctor Pendleton in here presently, but I’m sure he would be happy to- oh, Pendleton! Dear fellow, my apologies, I didn’t expect you’d be here!”

“Well it is my office, professor. Who else would you expect to find?”

“Don’t you usually have an undergraduate seminar around this time?”

“I cancelled it. The children never listen to a word I say, they can teach themselves for all I care!”

“You cancelled… why on earth would you- no, not today.” Hadleigh made a big show of biting his tongue. He’s quite insufferable as a head of department. He subscribes to a hierarchy determined by job title rather than intelligence or academic brilliance, because this is the only hierarchy of which he can be certain he sits atop. I despise him.

“I’ve just been giving a little tour of the university to Doctor tuh-woah-mist-oh, who’s on loan to us from karr-killer university in Finland,” Hadleigh spoke the foreign words with an irritating slowness and still managed to horrendously mispronounce them. “His work on cognitive empiricism has caused quite a furore in academic circles in Finland, and he’s chosen our humble institution as the location for a year-long sabbatical. I expect you’ll be eager to pick his brain, given your shared field of study.”

I noticed for the first time the figure standing beside him, a stocky young fellow with a rather vacant facial expression. The heavy little man’s bored demeanour persisted as he complimented Hadleigh’s pronunciation, who grinned proudly like a dog who’d received a treat.

“I was not aware that Karkkila had a university,” I said as I shook his cold hand. His grip was strong, which I supposed was unsurprising given his Viking heritage. In the moment before he made his reply I could hear a faint whirring sound, similar to that of a gramophone record spinning on the centre spindle before being touched by the needle. At the time I dismissed the sound as of no significance.

“Karkkila Yliopisto was founded in 1847 and is one of the finest academic institutions in Finland,” he stated, and the whirring stopped. The cadence of his speech was eerie. Listening to the words, one got the impression that they were merely sounds which had to be made in a specific order rather than words with meanings attached. I reasoned that I was simply unaccustomed to the lilt of the Finnish accent.

I informed Hadleigh that I really did have quite a lot of work to be getting on with, and I turned back to my desk.

“I’ve decided to put Doctor Tuomisto in with you, Pendleton.”

“Put him in with me?”

“Well, this office is intended for two. I know you’ve had it to yourself since Doctor Clemens left last year-”

“Doctor Clemens’ leaving was nothing to with me, as I have told you before! His work was abysmal, and if it were not me it would have been one of my colleagues!”

“Enough, Pendleton! Everyone in this department is required to share an office, including you. Your thoughts on the matter are irrelevant!”

So, it was done. The empty desk which sat opposite my own was dusted off and half my office was surrendered to a man hailed as an expert on human cognition, but who had clearly yet to master human interaction. The Finn’s saving grace was that he did not say much. All the things he did decide to verbalise, however, were decidedly odd.

“Pendleton, tell me the details of your current thesis.”

“Pendleton, delineate, if you can, the unifying themes of your numerous research papers on the subject of empiricism versus nativism within the study of cognition.”

“Pendleton, share with me your thoughts on Descartes’ mind-body dualism and your reasons for these thoughts.”

I did not take to the Finn at all. His skin had an unnatural, metallic hue and his dull eyes were unshakable. His joints moved slowly, and his centre of gravity appeared to shift with each footstep, as if his body was fighting against its poor design. If Finland is filled with people like him, it must be a very queer place indeed. I decided that I should very much hate to visit a place like that.

For a couple of weeks, I hated him quietly. Each time his joints wheezed as he moved about my office in his strange, stiff way, I tutted loudly. Whenever I looked up from my work to find him staring at me as though his eyes were recording my every move, I made a rude gesture (which appeared to perplex him). Each time he probed me about my research, I suggested he return to Finland, where he was clearly much better liked.

The event which tipped my annoyance into fear transpired on a Tuesday afternoon, when I was enjoying a rare moment of solitude in my office. I glanced out of the window at the gaggle of students who were sitting in the grass, enjoying the unexpected April sunshine, and then I spotted the Finn awkwardly traversing the path leading from the library to the Micklethwaite building. I groaned inwardly at yet another intrusion by the irritating foreigner into a quiet moment, when I saw him stop quite abruptly as his right eye popped out of its socket and rolled about on the path like a large marble.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! None of the students lounging on the grass and loitering outside the campus buildings even noticed – they were much too immersed in their own idiotic conversations to notice that mere feet away from them a suspicious foreigner had spontaneously expelled one of their body parts!

The Finn looked around himself quite slowly, eased himself into a kneeling position, retrieved his runaway eyeball and carefully slotted it back into its socket. He carried on towards the Micklethwaite building in a manner suggesting nothing strange had happened at all.

That evening I returned home to find Hirsch, with whom I shared a small house at the time, sprawled on the chesterfield in the drawing room with his eyes half closed and a glass of red wine dangling in his limp grip, dripping onto the pages of the book lying open in his lap. I snatched the glass and he awoke with a start.

“Wha..? Pendy, what the…?” he sat upright and ran his fingers through his dark curly hair, as he often did upon awakening. I knocked back the remains of the wine and poured myself another from the bottle he’d left on the coffee table.

“The filthy European is a damned machine!”

“I feel this is a story which could have waited until I woke up more comfortably,” Hirsch groaned. He set the sodden book on the coffee table and lit a cigarette. “I’m getting a little tired of hearing about this chap, you know.”

“He’s not a chap! He’s a thing, he’s an it!” I told Hirsch of what I had witnessed and when I had finished he seemed irritatingly amused.

“So, what you’re telling me is that Doctor Tuomisto is an incredibly sophisticated automaton posing as a human, hellbent on stealing your research and thus ruining your career?” he chuckled.

“Yes! Why else would he appear in my life, watching my every move, asking all these questions about my work?”

“Ah yes, because your work is of great significance.”

“Oh, be quiet. I should’ve known you’d be like this, you always are after this muck!” I slammed the glass of wine back on the coffee table and stormed upstairs to the spare bedroom. Just before the door slammed behind me, I heard his taunting words chase me up the stairs.

“…yes, of course you’re right, Pendy, you always are! He’s a machine which has travelled across the North Sea specially to steal your fascinating research, because nobody else in all of Europe is half as smart or as brilliant as you are…”

Bastard.

I was certain of the Finn’s true nature, but as a loyal subscriber to the scientific method, I decided to gather more data before making any irreversible decisions.

The next day, the Finn wandered into the office and made a low hissing sound as it slowly lowered itself to a seated position at its desk. I had come to believe it to be some sort of mechanical necessity – clearly the spies at Karkkila University had not invested as much money has they should have into their pet automaton.

“Doctor Tuomisto! Just the man I had hoped to see, could you weigh in on something, please?” I was sickeningly cheerful. The Finn turned its head ninety degrees to meet my gaze.

“Yes, Doctor Pendleton. I am always happy to help.”

“Excellent. So, tell me – what are your thoughts on alumantheses?”

Its dark eyes bored into mine as it attempted to compute the nonsense word. “Alu… man… theses.” It tested the syllables.

“Yes, alumantheses. Thoughts?”

The Finn repeated the word once more. “I believe the subject of alumantheses to be of considerable intrigue and the area as a whole is deserving of further scrutiny. Don’t you agree, Doctor Pendleton?”

“Interesting, Doctor Tuomisto, very interesting indeed. Whilst we’re on the subject, what are your thoughts on diptherescence?”

Again, the Finn made a show of repeating the word slowly and pausing in mock consideration.

“I believe the subject of diptherescence to be of considerable intrigue and the area as a whole is deserving of further scrutiny. What are your thoughts on the matter, Doctor Pendleton?”

It had been programmed with a sentence template for use in response to unfamiliar terms. There was no doubt – it was a machine!

For several hours I seethed, infuriated at the insolence and utter weasly nature of the dirty worms at Karkkila University for being so threatened by my research that they would attempt to steal it, and at Hirsch’s disbelief that my research would be worth stealing.

I was sick of science being wielded as a weapon. I had devoted my life to the study of the human mind, and where had it gotten me? Out of ideas and barely middle-aged, sharing an office with a dirty foreigner for weeks before finally stumbling upon the discovery that it wasn’t even a real man.

Reader, it was this moment of utter mortification at my lacking intellect that drove me towards my downfall. I was sick of looking at the Finn. I decided to bash its stupid metal face in.

*      *      *

“So, Doctor Tuomisto, how are you enjoying our humble university?”

The Finn’s neck wheezed as it turned its head ninety degrees to look at me. “I am adjusting to your institution most pleasantly, thank you for asking.”

“Is it much different to your university in Karkkila? It is Karkkila, isn’t it?”

“Yes. My home university is Karkkila Yliopisto, with a student population of 8152, home of the Karkkila Bears, who have won a total of three pesäpallo games against competing universities. Pesäpallo is a Finnish sport in which…”

There was, as always, an abundance of words but a dearth of intelligent information. A further twenty-five minutes passed without incident or conversation. I pretended to write fervent notes for much of this time, all the while carefully listening to the sounds of my colleagues locking their offices for the evening and saying goodbye to one another.

By half past seven, there were no sounds at all from the corridor outside.

“Doctor Pendleton, you have been working for several hours. I am interested in your work. Describe it in detail, please.”

“Perhaps later,” I paused, as if a thought had just occurred to me. “Damn. I think I left some of my notes in the library. I’ll be back in a few minutes, Doctor Tuomisto.”

The Finn stood up so abruptly that its chair clattered to the floor. “I will retrieve your notes. I will return promptly.” The stupid machine clomped down the corridor, determined to complete the wild goose chase.

As its heavy footsteps died with distance, I darted out of the office and strode quickly up and down the corridor, peering into each office window. All of them were empty, with the lights switched off. There entire building was most likely deserted.

I darted back into my office and rifled through my desk drawer, my hand finding the paperweight, one of two objects I had ensured were inside earlier that day. The glass cube felt heavy and important in my hand, and I found myself trembling.

Behind the open door was the best place to hide, and I stood with the paperweight raised over my head, my left foot positioned slightly forward. I was ready to pounce. Several minutes passed and I wondered where the infernal thing had gotten to. Just as my arm was beginning to ache I heard a noise outside and my whole body jerked, flinging the paperweight into the door, where it bounced back and hit me square in the jaw.

Pain erupted in my face and I whimpered involuntarily. I set the paperweight down on my desk, retrieved the second object from my desk drawer and took a quick swig. The liquid pleasantly burnt my lips and eased the pain in my jaw. I had hoped it would steady my nerves, but it did not.

“Hello, Doctor Pendleton. I was unable to retrieve your notes from the library.”

I whipped around, then froze. The Finn was in closer proximity than I had anticipated and we almost collided. This was the first time I had been close enough to examine its dark, inscrutable eyes, and I wondered if perhaps the whole damned thing had been a product of my imagination. Were those eyes truly as lifeless as I had assumed?

Suddenly, the metal man looked quite human.

“Perhaps you would like to recite your notes, I would be happy to-”

The paperweight cracked heavily against the surprisingly thin metal which had been painted to resemble skin, and it was only when my hand drew back that mind caught up to body. The Finn staggered backwards. There was a large dent in its left temple and the whirring noise was louder than it had ever been previously.

There was no scenario in which I could leave this miserable job half done and escape unimplicated. I approached the spasming machine, raised the paperweight above my head and, god help me, I did not stop until the whole ghastly thing was finished.

Towards the end, it became difficult. Sparks flew from the Finn’s joints; its eyes were pinwheels and its entire body seized and shook. Suddenly the limbs flew away from the torso, shot past me and smashed against the four walls of my office, leaving the abandoned torso to clatter against the floorboards.

I was a murderer.

No. It was just a machine. Machines can’t be killed.

It was an interesting conundrum. What makes a killer? Does the victim require a certain level of sentience, or is the sensation of killing sufficient to change a person irrevocably from man to murderer?

As I knelt by the remains of the Finn and peered down at the mess, the torso swung upon on a hinge and I was sprayed with a thick black liquid. It stung terribly as it appeared to bond to my skin; I gagged on the smell and began to hyperventilate. I would later scrub my skin red raw in the shower, and it would be futile.

The black liquid has long since faded, after staining my skin for several days. The infection, however, has yet to fade. With each passing day I find it increasingly difficult to write as the muscles in my hands continue to inexplicably atrophy and my eyes lose their ability to focus. I have thrown blankets over every mirror in the house so that I do not have to risk catching sight of myself – once a man, then a murderer, now a spectre.

My body cries for rest but rarely finds it. My nights are fitful spats of broken sleep, wherein I am taunted by nightmares in which Finnish academics have tracked me down and threaten my life for destroying their spying machine. I am tired. Hirsch has left.

As far as I know, the remains of the Finn are still where I left them: locked in my office’s equipment cupboard, the only key to which is in my possession. In the days following the killing my telephone was ringing a lot, presumably Hadleigh wondering where on Earth I’d gotten to. It rings less frequently now.

I wonder each day about the true purpose of the Finn. Was it ever really trying to steal my work, or was it simply pushing me into a scenario in which it could douse me with poison? And if so, why? More importantly, who would build such a machine and send it to my door?

Such questions hardly seem relevant now.

I fear the Finns will come for me.

 

 

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J.L. CORBETT is the editor of Idle Ink, an online publisher of curious fiction. Her short stories have been featured in Storgy Magazine and Preoccupied With The History Department. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read, and she doesn’t get out much.

 

Image: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

 

 

Snapshot – Olivia Fitzsimons

There are no photos anymore. It’s seems strange to think that once we even photographed our food, our shoes, our selves. Tiny made up records of our lives. Carefully curated memories. Shared with strangers the world over. Made videos that lived and died on a server, a snapshot of your views, your days, your arse. Liked and loved and corresponded without words at all just symbols.

It was fine too, recording everything as this place turned slowly into perilous paradise, while trying to avoid the other images on your feed. Brazil burning to the ground. Sahara spreading and surrounding African cities that succumbed rapidly to desertification. Ignoring Paris drowning slowly, the Louvre submerged and history destroyed piece by piece. It was comical initially, watching swimming in the seine but when the waters didn’t subside, when temperatures didn’t drop, everything changed. Then everything stopped. Ireland ourselves alone. It seemed like a bad joke. I try to stay out of the sun.

I still carry my old phone, battery long dead, storing thousands of moments that I stole or forced from life. Sometimes I long to sit idly flicking through 20 variations of the one picture to find that perfect look. Editing life to make it covetable. Colours brighter, everything vibrant and eye catching. Heighten that idyllic sunset. Crop the blemished bystander in the bad coat from the profile of your life. Deleting anything that didn’t fit the performance. Life as a portrait.

A familiar feeling washes over me I’d thought I’d forgotten and I take out a battered iPhone, screen cracked and just hold it. Most people keep devices like relics. I know I should stop carrying it around with me. A useless piece of ancient technology.

I never kept photos in my wallet. That was a thing old people did. Not that we need wallets anymore but still I’d like a photograph. I see people sometimes in the camps linger over treasured pictures, they are always alone, sometimes it seems that they only exist on paper, that they aren’t really here at all.

On a board outside the village, there are thousands of pictures of missing people, pinned with tacks, and mouldy bits of tape, the oldest images battered by the elements, bleached out by the sun, smiling happy faces lost all over again. Often I find myself standing there staring up at all these unknown, giving them pretend lives, loves, deaths, because no one has ever taken a person from that board. No one has ever been found. I was going to be a photographer. I think about the images I would take more often than I should. I let my mind wander more frequently than is safe. I check my phone again. Stomach pains flare. Hunger cuts me open. There are no photos anymore.

 

 

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OLIVIA FITZSIMONS is a northerner living in Greystones, County Wicklow. Takes her feral children to the woods often, swims in the sea and loves to get lost.
Shortlisted Sunday Business Post Penguin Short Story Prize 2017
Shortlisted Retreat West Flash Fiction Competition 2017
John Hewitt Summer School Bursary Winner 2017

 

Image: via Pxhere

 

 

The Reaping – Philip Berry

The last Galen fighting ship corkscrewed away, its lateral engine trailing a spiral of purple smoke. Small elements became separated from the curve of its hull. When their reflective parts caught the sun they glared momentarily before fading into the massive shadow cast by an adjacent moon. The rate of separation looked modest, the movements of each particle graceful, but the forces were immense and the suited human soldiers being hurled through the smoking rents blacked out long before their air supplies ran down.

General Fent Spaith, 35 years old, watched from the bridge of his command cruiser. A square head and prematurely greying temples exaggerated the impression of natural authority. The battle was won. It marked the close of a decade long war, the last in a series of eight wars that had spanned seventy-five years. The mutually agreed periods of respite between wars had allowed each of the three sides to re-group and re-arm; Galens, Antonians and Korzyra.

General Spaith, leader of the Antonian military, had joined forces with the Galens as the eighth war commenced. Together they had vanquished the Korzyra. Then, without warning, the Antonian force had abandoned the treaty of alliance and turned on the weakened Galen fleet.

Others had counted the total number of lives lost. Others had measured the obscene percentages of metals and organic materials that had been vaporised during the Long Fight. But these data did not interest Spaith. He had proved the doubters wrong. The doubters were dead. He had killed them all in the prelude to the eighth conflict. In doubting him, they had undermined the war effort. History would absolve the dictatorship he had established.

“Congratulations Sir,” said his Aide de Camp from across the pentagonal bridge. Smoke, resulting from surges in some of the instruments, had been supressed into a dense carpet by xenon purges. The Aide de Camp was called Bolan, and he was an artificial. Spaith’s entire staff were artificial. He preferred them that way.

“Thank-you Bolan.” Spaith’s words were slightly muffled by the air-supply he wore over nose and mouth. “And what of that Galen coloniser? It escaped the peripheral net during the firefight.”

“I took the liberty of issuing orders to set up an even wider net… I didn’t want to trouble you during the closing manoeuvres. The coloniser is heading towards a string of linked Mercs as we speak. They have laid ripple chains across its path.”

Lungless Bolan breathed easily in the xenon.

Spaith nodded. “Good. Make sure they wrap around. I don’t want it disabled, I want it destroyed. And let me know when it’s done. How large, by the way?”

“The coloniser? Small. There are 900,000 souls on board.”

“I was surprised how easily they fell for it, the Galens.”

“You had been cultivating them as potential allies for many years sir, since the sixth war. Did you always intend the double-cross?”

“Yes Bolan. The long game. It requires patience.”

“I see sir. Their trust in you was… naïve.”

Spaith gave Bolan a quizzical look.

Bolan moved forward. His shins swished through the smoke and left eddies above the floor. He wore the uniform of Spaith’s army: dark blue textile, silver piping on the trouser legs and the arms of his tunic. Silver insignia – five semi-circles – on his right shoulder, indicating the high-rank that justified his presence here. Spaith looked back from featureless viewing screen. The smoking carcasses of every defeated ship had either fallen out of view, or been vaporised in the clean-up.

Bolan was coming too close. Spaith wasn’t used to proximity like this.

“Bolan?”

“Please, Sir, this is an historic moment. Let me be the first to shake your hand.”

“Err…of course. Pleased to.” He extended a hand to the artificial. Bolan took it, and held Spaith’s wrist with his other hand in a comradely gesture. Then he tore Spaith’s hand off in one swift, sure motion.

“BOLAN!” Spaith sank to the ground on his knees. “What are you…?” The General held the stump with his good hand, and watched the blood well up from the raw surface in horror. He clasped it to his chest like a child would a precious bird.

But he had already retaliated.

A combination of eye movements that one could only accomplish by using each extra-ocular muscle in a pre-determined sequence had activated a personal distress call through neural sensor implanted very early on in his military career. The small legion of personal (artificial) guards who resided in the walls of the ship sprang to life, burst through the thin metal panels that had hidden them during the entire campaign, and stormed the bridge, encircling Spaith in less than thirty seconds.

None touched Bolan, who stepped back.

“Watch him boys,” Bolan instructed them, calmly.

“KILL HIM!” ordered Spaith, gesturing at Bolan.

“General, your personal guard are loyal only to me. They will look after you. Medic, treat him.”

One of the guards pulled the stump from Spaith’s chest, irradiated it gently, picked off two arterial spurters with a cauterising beam, and dressed it in a traditional crepe bandage.

Spaith’s bewilderment grew and grew. “Bolan, what is this? We have won. I have led you to victory. Who is behind this mutiny? Whose orders are you following?”

“General Crall.”

“Matthew Crall?”

“They are his orders.”

“He’s still alive?”

“Very.”

“I… I heard he’d been irradiated by a solar flare in the Dallant system?”

“He recovered. He is close. I am permitted to speak for him. Here. This will allow you to focus.”

Bolan reached for an object in his pelvic cavity, through an intelligent seal just below the place a human umbilicus would lie. He held out a chipped enamel cup, standard military issue to new cadets.

Spaith’s expression changed.

“You remember it. Good. General Crall thought you would.”

For General Spaith, things began to fall into place.

*     *     *

The cup used to sit in Matthews Crall’s locker. On the second day of the first term at the training academy he had showed it off to the other boarders, rotating it lovingly in his hands, pointing out the seamless lines. Matthew told them that his parents had bought it from the only shop in the quadrant that stocked equipment with the academy’s official design – a scatter of points in the shape of the nearby Anvil Nebula.

Fent Spaith, eleven-years old, said nothing as this precious object was lauded.

Through the following weeks he noted how it was brought out every evening when the boys were allowed to make hot chocolate. Matthew washed it and dried it carefully, then placed it back in the locker – a misnomer, for nothing was locked in the academy. Trust in one’s fellow cadets was absolute.

The boys, one hundred of them, were tested throughout the year. The results of these tests were displayed on public boards. Fent did well, and was reliably in the top five. The top three, based on cumulative scores, were taken off-world at the end of the first year to an advanced training facility.

The year’s final test was a full war game, in which each cadet piloted their own craft in a sphere of space with a diameter of 300 kilometres. Its boundaries were lined with field-nets. The craft were designed to absorb laser energy without exploding; instead, their brittle alloy hulls disintegrated, leaving the pilots suspended in protective rescue fields, where they hung until the game was completed.

The transparent and barely perceptible naso-oral specs worn whenever they visited an extra-atmospheric training theatre channelled an inexhaustible supply of air. But while they languished, the cadets were vulnerable to further indignity. If a fellow cadet aimed a laser at their chest badge – a larger version of the Anvil – their cumulative score would be reduced by ninety points. This was enough to pull them way down the ranking.

The primary aim of the game? To destroy a cube of hard mineral that hovered on the far side of the sphere. None of the training cadets had enough firepower at their thumb-tip to achieve this alone; a minimum of eight craft had to fire into the same spot to break down the crystal structure. Once that had been achieved, the cadet who reaped the greatest weight of mineral rubble in the scoop slung under their hull won the game.

It was called The Reaping.

Fent formulated a plan. He worked on it from the middle of the second term. Such scheming was not unknown, as academy lore told that to win The Reaping required more than flying and shooting skills; it demanded political aptitude.

So Fent identified and recruited a team of twenty fellow cadets. They agreed to watch each other’s backs, play interference, engage other groups and, when the density of craft had been sufficiently reduced, align for the final assault. Then they would concentrate their fire, smash the cube, and clean up. The twist, the hook… points garnered from the spoils would be shared across the twenty, even if some of them were disintegrated in the process. Points awarded would be proportionate to the number of ‘kills’, that is, disintegrations and badge shots. Each of the twenty recruits liked the idea. It was novel. Their supervisor liked it, and she recorded in her training file that Fent had shown promising ingenuity.

Several days before the game Fent looked carefully over the latest rankings. He lay third. Good. But he wanted to be first. Matthew Crall was second, lying twelve points ahead of Fent. If they both had a good game and were not shot, their relative positions would remain unchanged. Crall was in the group of twenty. He was an ally. On the night before the game, Fent went to sleep in a troubled state of mind. Troubled, but certain of what needed to be done.

*     *     *

“Matthew, you got those purple scum covered?”

“They’re toast.”

Fent Spaith smiled. Matthew was doing a good job, leading a sub-unit of five craft on a mission to corner the major threat to the Twenties strategy. Fifteen cadets had come together in opposition to Fent’s initiative, and with the permission of the supervisor had splashed the noses of their craft with purple paint. Their leader, Yamina Vaye, had taken down three Twenties already. The pilots were still spinning in their rescue nets, trying to slow themselves down by dragging their fingers through the invisible fields.

Matthew was angry. He spotted an opportunity during a long roll, adjusted his yaw, waited a moment longer as Yamina’s aft section slid into his crosshairs, and watched her craft crumble in the glow of his laser. She screamed as the structure collapsed around her, but she was in no physical danger. Matthew swooped down to face her, made eye contact, smiled, and blasted her chest. The field protected her, but the badge on her chest registered the hit. The ranking computer adjusted itself. Yamina fell from eighth to twenty-third place.

“Well done Matthew. Time to regroup, bring your five back, we’re clear for the cube.”

Fent was dominating the theatre. He had personally destroyed six craft. Altogether, the Twenties had destroyed a quarter of the field. Lone rangers, twosomes and triads were too nervous to approach the cube. The twenty (actually fifteen by now) were ranging across the cube’s six faces in well organised formations. They owned it.

“Line up Twenties,” ordered Fent, “Last six to arrive, I want you to cover us. Martha, you’re furthest from us, I want you to hang back and signal any surprise attacks. There may be a late forming group who haven’t shown their cards yet. It’s what I would have done.”

And indeed, as the nine Twenties lined up and prepared to blast the cube, a chevron a craft stormed into the space beneath them firing incessantly. Three Twenties collapsed into flailing limbs. The firing line was now down to six, too few to damage the cube.

“Martha, Tommy, Vera… join the line, now, NOW!”

Fent span off the line in a parabola, spraying fire with fearsome accuracy. The chevron of attacking craft split, two were destroyed, the remaining three lost heart. Their pilots did not fancy being scooped up at the end of the game, perhaps ninety points the poorer.

When the three laggers had joined the line Matthew Crall took charge.

“Lower right corner, on three – one-two-three FIRE!”

Nine beams converged on the cube. It resisted for a minute. The cadets watched their power reserves drain. But at last the mineral cracked. A defect enlarged from the heated corner towards the centre, then zagged back, reaching the top side and causing the heavy mass to split.

“Right fragment!” shouted Fent.

The beams stopped, then leaped forward again, quickly crumbling the larger half of the broken cube. The surviving Twenties systematically reduced the fragments into ever smaller parts. Pilots in nearby craft watched jealously. Cadets out in the sphere who were caught in rescue fields put magnifiers to their eyes and watched.

The mop up took half an hour. Matthew Crall filled his scoop and turned for the base. Fent’s craft slid into his path.

“Hey, Fent, your scoop’s only half full! There’s nothing left.”

“It’s OK Matthew. I know where to find some.” A line of light connected Fent’s gun to Matthew’s flank. Matthew’s craft fell briskly apart. He fell into the instant field, reflexively covering his head with his arms as components swirled around him. When he brought his arms down and looked out into the almost empty sphere (a few rocks floating, a handful of cadets watching in fascination), his badge was glowing with the attenuated heat of Fent’s laser.

*     *     *

Twenty-four years later General Spaith sat in the commander’s chair, bound by sticky fields. His amputated arm throbbed, but was no longer bleeding. A sub-window in the corner of the large viewing screen showed the arrival of a shuttle. The markings indicated that the occupant was a general.

Twenty minutes later Matthew Crall entered the bridge. His frame was spare, his face narrow, but he wore his black hair long, and he had an air of authority about him that he had lacked at the academy. The artificial crew turned towards him in as one. Spaith turned the chair with a movement of his remaining, free hand.

“Crall. What is this game? You have no authority in this theatre.”

“My authority is broader than you can imagine Fent. You’ll forgive me if I use first names. We know each other so well, after all.”

“But you… you barely made it out of the academy. Your career… it was pure nepotism. Your mother…”

“She helped, I will admit that. But my contribution to Antonian society was never going to be marshal. No. Moral rather. That was always my strength.”

Spaith’s gaze was empty. He had no idea where his old classmate was going with this. But he sensed that there were forces in this room about which he had no comprehension.

Matthew Crall approached the commander’s chair. He moved his head, and an artificial deactivated the sticky fields. Spaith sprang to his feet. The same artificial held him back with a rigid shoulder grip.

“Hold your temper Fent,” Matthew’s lips brushed Fent’s ear as he whispered. “These artificials are on trigger settings. They’ll pull you apart if they conclude I am in danger.”

“Then explain to me. Why am I being treated like this.”

Matthew stepped away. “Because your morality is no longer required. It has served its purpose. Your abilities – to persuade, cajole, dissimulate and double-cross – were exactly what we needed to win the final war, but we cannot allow those values to infect our great society.”

“What is this naïve rubbish?”

Crall trembled at the word naïve. His gaze hardened.

“You accused me of naivety once before Fent. Do you remember?”

“No.”

“Then watch. Bolan.”

Bolan extended an arm, spread a palm and projected a recording onto the viewing screen. Fent saw himself as an eleven-year old, from the point of view of another cadet. He stood in the corridor with the food lockers, barring the way to anyone who might pass. The wearer of the cam, Matthew Crall, spoke. Moving shadows and indistinct murmurings gave the impression that other cadets lined the walls, anticipating a confrontation. The view swivelled to a locker door. Matthew’s hand reached for the enamel cup. Then Matthew tried to proceed along the corridor. Fent blocked him.

“I only want to get a drink Fent.”

“No. You can’t. Why have you appealed to the supervisor?”

“Because I was on your side, and you shot me.”

“Show me the rule that says I shouldn’t have.”

“There are no rules Fent, you know that, but it’s wrong.”

“And nothing to do with falling to thirty-three in the ranking? You really think they’ll rescind the strike? Never. The game is for grown-ups! I won. You lost. That’s how war works! Or didn’t your Mummy tell you the facts of life!”

Fent reached forward. His hand loomed in the cam’s field of view. When it was withdrawn its fingers were curled round the enamel cup.

“It’s time to learn some of those facts Matthew. The ranking stands. GET IT?”

Fent held the cup in the angle between the locker’s door and its hinge, then slammed the door shut. The force dented the mug. Splinters of white enamel exploded off its surface, revealing a dark blue undercoat. The cup fell to the floor and rocked on its side until it came to rest. Matthew knelt down, the floor rose up on the viewing panel, and a pale hand extended to retrieve the ruined object. The audience of artificials and two humans, Spaith and Crall, heard a low howl – the young Matthew’s anguish. A child’s distress. A symbol of home, comfort, destroyed.

The film stopped, the screen turned grey, then reverted to an external view of space. The adjacent moon threw off reflected light, blood-orange, deriving from the system’s old star.

Fent faced his accuser boldly. “So this is revenge, for a childish argument.”

“It is more than that Fent. In this display of petulance and ambition you sealed your fate. I had only just returned from the game. My cam was still activated. The supervisor saw this footage. She contacted my parents. My mother intervened. She was on the ethics council, you knew that didn’t you?”

“She carved your career out for you. We all knew that Matthew.”

“More than that. She nurtured your career too, in a way. Manoeuvred your postings, dangled you in harm’s way but ensured you were not killed… made you the little Napoleon you are. But without his reforming zeal.”

Spaith was looking around the bridge. “Are we being filmed?”

“Everything is recorded, all the time.”

“So superior. Yet you let me win this war at great sacrifice. As we speak, nearly a million Galen’s are drifting into a ripple-net. Your precious ethics allow that, so long as it secures the Antonian hegemony. Damned hypocrite.”

“Don’t worry Fent. The coloniser is not a problem. The 900,000 souls are all artificials. The Galen’s saw you coming.”

“You tipped them off. And yet they still permitted the destruction of their fighting force?”

“They recognised that your strategy was fundamentally sound. The pincer movement on the Korzyran fleet was necessary. But the Galens were careful to put no more resources into the theatre than absolutely necessary. The coloniser was a distraction. It worked. The last Korzyran order was to chase it down, and that brought them into your sights. We have signed a treaty of long term co-existence with the Galens.”

Fent had nothing more to say. He had been out-thought.

“Enough,” said Matthew, “It’s time to go.” He drew a blaster, threw the enamel cup into a mobile field so that it spun on its vertical axis in the xenon-heavy air, and shot it. The force tore the cup from the field and into the viewing window. It bounced off, a black and charred echo of its once gleaming form, and fell to the floor… again.

“Fent. Bolan will escort you to the academy. Your injury, sustained in action, precludes you from military rank. Your place in our society will be as a tutor – tactics, formations, artillery. That is your fate. Goodbye. I am taking this ship.”

When Spaith’s personal shuttle, piloted by Bolan, was ten kilometres from the command cruiser, the general’s face began to twitch. He winked three times, looked up, then down, then left, then left again. It was a very unnatural sequence of movements.

“What are you doing?” asked Bolan, turning away from the controls. His blank face betrayed no concern, but his tone did.

“It’s done.”

“What have you…?”

Behind them, silent in space, the hull of the command cruiser began to undulate.

“I just triggered a five second mass auto-destruct of every single crew member.”

Pale smoke began to leak from the bridge, which was situated on a sloped tower. In the engine room, where artificials worked in a radiation soaked environment without danger of sickness, mutation or malignancy, two hundred medium-level explosions immediately shut down the ship’s power and caused a chain reaction. The lower part of the ship blew out, releasing a shower of humanoid forms into the void. They were not scared. They did not need oxygen. They would remain sentient until the freezing temperature arrested the flow of positrons in their distributed cortices.

“The thing I have always loved about Antonian artificials, Bolan, is their absolute dependability, at the end of the day. If, that is, you happen to have gone to the academy with the chief programmer and persuaded him to embed the right sequences destruct before setting out to war. Poor Matthew, for all his finer instincts, he never did understand human nature.”

Bolan had turned back to piloting the shuttle. He readied himself for the expanding force wave that would soon catch up with them. Then he glanced at the shrivelled enamel mug that an inexplicable impulse had led him to collect from the floor before entering the shuttle. He took in its warped shape, its ulcerated surface, its rough lip from which no one would ever sip… and pondered a dilemma in his customary, algorithmic manner – how long, really, can the Antonians reign?

 

 

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lune_

PHILIP BERRY recently published a collection of SF short stories called Bonewhite Light. Explore his work at www.philberrycreative.wordpress.com or @philaberry  

 

Image: prettysleepy via Pixabay

 

 

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