My breakthrough in time travel in 2217 was predestined.
So humanity claimed.
Didn’t the time loops prove the inevitability of my theory?
Discovery should lead humans into ever-deepening technological enlightenment. Science–not subjective destiny–was in control. I stood on the brink of proving mathematical calculations and logic superior to fate because–finally–I’d discovered the faulty time loop machine’s hiding place, the monster that dissolved my son, John, generation after generation.
The machine burrowed inside a brownstone apartment within an antique-themed loop. No pre-determined cosmic map led me to the stolen machine. Mathematical calculations illuminated my way. The choice to act against destiny was my own, as was kidnapping my grandchildren moments before entering the olden loop.
Time was a tricky beast and secretive about those who occupied her circles. Though I’d never witnessed my grandkids doing wrong, John insisted when they got older the three played a role in time travel’s biggest disaster–the very disaster he faced over and over. With Max, Johnny, and Caroline in tow, I’d prove nothing was set in stone.
The little ones trailed me flat-footed and mute through the apartment’s rooms of sepia tones, crocheted lace, and carved woods. Nearing the second of two rooms, I lifted a finger to my lips. Three heads nodded, and I pointed to the oak flooring. Eyes rounded, the children settled down. This lot were missing their bottom teeth. Caroline, the youngest, sniffled and pushed blue plastic glasses farther up the bridge of her freckled nose. Satisfied, I entered the chamber.
The looper hunkered in the far corner like a trapped animal, trembling and defiant in a room constructed more like a bank’s vault than a bedroom. The machine snarled at my approach–I, its maker. It sounded an alarm–as if a warning would stop me.
I stood before the machine, the one which caused the taint, my knees weak.
“I’ve found the looper, John.” I spoke into the silver comm curled around my wrist that reduced my son’s image to the size of my thumb. “Give me a few moments to shut it down. Calculations got me here. Calculations will make your damaged loop go away. You’ll be safe. I promise I’ll free you.”
“Don’t, Mama. Don’t sabotage the loop. My outcome is fixed,” John said. “Calculations be damned! You can’t control this with numbers.”
On his side of time, ensconced in a loop filled with history lovers, my son pressed nearer his view screen. I bit back a sob at his hollow gaze. Wet curls clung to high cheekbones. His skin, streaked with sweat, glistened in the low light.
“You can’t save me, Mama.”
“How can you expect me to pay attention to a fanatical ideology? I’m right here.” I slapped the machine’s fevered surface. “And I can’t think with you blathering! I’ll spike the damned thing, and everything will go back to normal.”
His laugh was short. “Push all you want, but destiny will shove back.”
Initially, I’d been sickened that my discovery of time as circular in nature had spawned the tenacious new destiny ideology. Its spread infected my own son with its deceit.
Did a dominant missense mutation in human genes compel us to fill knowledge gaps with garbage? After a while, I’d stopped trying to educate the masses about the physics of time travel. Progress was double-edged. Giant moves forward came inevitably with humanity’s self-inflicted steps backward.
“I’ve worked the variables, John. First, remove the kids from their future loop–done. Next, kill the machine. Almost there.” My fingers flew over the surface. “You’ll slip free of your tainted circle.”
I jumped. I hadn’t heard Caroline enter the room.
“Wherz Daddy?” Caroline said around the two fingers in her mouth.
“Oh.” I knelt. “He’s someplace far away, but he’ll be back soon.”
Caroline pressed close, and on her heels, Max and little Johnny did too. My grandchildren were small, but their nearness shrank the room to the size of a bathtub.
“The kids have their part to play, Mama. Besides, the dissolve has begun. Will it hurt? I can’t remember from … before. Isn’t that strange?” He shrugged. “You’d think someone who’s died as often as I would remember.”
I shot to my feet. My comm’s screen was too small for many details, but I saw past my son to the sky. It faded from dawn’s pink into dove gray. He slid down a wall. His head sank into his hands, and my heart squeezed. I wasn’t God; my creation shouldn’t have such power.
“This is my path–and the children’s,” John whispered. “I love you.”
I stabbed the button in the machine’s center and held my breath. The looper squawked … and my stomach rolled. The lettering color beneath a looper’s buttons was blue, but the letters wavered between blue and red, settling on red. Color was an infinitesimal change in the scheme of time loops, hardly worth mentioning, but change it was.
Destiny, my ass.
“Come, children.” I held out my hands. “We’re going to exit. Do you know what that means?”
“No,” the three said in unison.
“But it’s prolly not good, is it, Gramma?” Caroline said.
I gazed into a cherub’s face–golden hair and expressive brown eyes–the look all the children of my family bore, and I brushed a curl from her temple. Johnny wadded a fistful of my coat in his pudgy fingers, tipping up a chin so like his father’s it pierced me.
“Gramma?” Johnny said. “We have to tell Daddy. He’ll wonder where I am.”
“Gramma Nicola?” Caroline pushed at her glasses. “Are you kid–kid-nappeling us?”
“Don’t be so dense,” Max, the oldest, said. “Course she is.”
Caroline’s lip trembled, and tears formed. After I’d made the loops safe, I’d have a talk with Max about his vocabulary.
I flung open the apartment door and plunged into the hall that smelled of fresh paint and wood polish. I held Caroline and Max’s hands. Johnny trailed, gripping Max’s woolen coat tails.
“Not the uni-lift, children. The stairs, please. Careful now. As I was saying, we’re not going to use the time trains in the underground station. We’re going to exit through a special door. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
“Daddy tole us about those,” Max said, his feet pounding over the steps. “He said they’re dangerous to our paths or sumthin.”
“You’ll be safe with me.” I gripped his hand tighter.
The looper machine’s hissing and rattling reached us from two floors away. Once, I’d owned a dog and walked it each day. That pooch whined and strained against its bright pink leash in the same way the looper must struggle to throw off my fatal calculations. The machine must stop, and I must exit with all three children. My calculations depended on it.
We burst outside and down a flight of cement steps. My circadian rhythm insisted it was night, but the yellow dot high in the white-washed sky marked the time as noon on a spring day.
A cracking boom filled the air. I yelped, and the kids screamed. The concussion pushed us into the street.
The loop’s atmosphere shuddered.
Doors burst open to all the brownstones edging the tree-lined sidewalks. People, some shrieking and others dazed, scuttled into the street. They carried whatever they’d been engaged with: open books, cooking bowls, lap-sized comms, and gardening tools. The young and old and in-between ran onto the pavement where the children and I stood. Dogs barked. Cats dashed up trees and hissed.
In no time, Pleiades Lane swelled with a gaping, pointing crowd. Heat radiated from the roadway. Smoke billowed from the brownstone’s roof and settled over the people. My eyes watered. The children coughed. Emergency wagons, sirens wailing, neared Pleiades Lane.
“Wait a minute.” I counted the brownstone stories. “When I entered, there were four levels, not five.”
First a color change in the looper’s lettering, and then a change in the number of building stories.
Lightness filled me. “I did it!”
“Did what, Gramma?” Caroline pushed up her glasses.
Another boom shook the ground beneath my boots. The wounded machine blew the roof clean off the building. Jagged pieces of brownstone launched into the air, arced, and plummeted like streaking stars.
People cried out and covered their heads and dashed for safety. I herded the children beneath a tall elm and shielded their little bodies.
All around us, people slapped hands to their ears to drown out the dying looper’s squeal, but I didn’t. That cry was why I’d come. The loop unraveled; the twisted reality rippled and warped. The loop would dissolve, and in so doing, take with it the years it had distorted healthy loops like my son’s.
I mentally outlined the paper I’d write denouncing in the strongest possible language the fraud of the so-called destiny theory.
“What happened, Gramma?” Caroline said.
“She wrecked the loop, stupid,” Max said.
“Daddy’ll be scared.” Johnny tugged away. “We have to tell him where I am.”
“Hush now. Don’t be afraid.” I pointed to the east corner seven doors away. “The exit is there.”
“But the people are going that-a-way,” Caroline said. “To the trains. Shouldn’t we go too?”
As though a race official had fired a shot, residents ran nilly-nally into the big square opening that led to the underground station. Two other streets intersected with Pleiades Lane at ninety-degree angles, and people from those brownstones crowded toward the entrance. With the loop in collapse, the connector trains were the only hope of escape for those who lived in the time.
I tugged the children upstream, caught as we were in the frantic crush, and pushed down my guilt. I was a discoverer and an inventor. I built things; I didn’t destroy, and I certainly didn’t kill. And yet, I found myself sacrificing–possibly–many.
“I’m gonna tell,” Max said.
Tell away, Max, my boy. When my calculations did their work, his wagging tongue wouldn’t matter.
“John,” I said into my comm. “This loop is collapsing.”
My son didn’t respond. Dropping Caroline’s little hand, I lifted the comm to my lips. “John, answer me!”
“I want Daddy.” Fat tears rolled down Caroline’s flushed cheeks.
A man with a budging belly pushed between Caroline and me and launched the child into the human flow–the flow headed in the wrong direction.
“No!” I lunged. “Caroline.”
Too late, she was flotsam on the sea of people flooding into the underground.
Her little arms stretched to me, but she disappeared through the wide doors and into darkness beyond.
“Boys, wait here.”
I plunged forward.
“I’m going, too.” Max darted past me.
“You little pill!” I twisted. “Johnny? Johnny! Where are you?”
I spun this way and that, gathering lurid impressions: a frantic dog; a little girl’s oh of a mouth; a woman’s red face; an old man’s hat knocked from his bald head; a single pink balloon floating above. My gaze swerved to a dark-headed, wide-eyed child.
“Here, Gramma,” Johnny called. “I’m here. Help!”
I nearly fainted. My fingers grazed his, and then the stampede carried him away. With a sob, I halted, and people surged around. Sound faded to muffled ringing as I ran the calculations on possible outcomes.
My plan rested on controlling the children and spiking the machine. Finding the errant machine inside the time loop had taken generations … but the loop was in collapse, and collapse would happen in minutes. I couldn’t be there when it dissolved. The sane course of action was to abandon the attempt and try again.
Ah! I had no guarantee of success.
And for sure, without the kids, my calculations were as dust.
I waded into the underground.
Hundreds streamed through the long halls lined with white tiles. Tubular lights flickered overhead. The smell of oil swelled the back of my nose, and that’s how I knew we’d neared VeValdor Station. With a last surge, the wailing crowd pushed onto a wide platform almost as long as Pleiades Lane. Behind the tracks, enormous posters in bright colors advertised items for sale that ranged from theater tickets to women’s underthings. All heads turned left toward the steel tracks running out of the darkness.
The tracks connected to the next time loop, and the next after that, and so on. Now that I was there, in the station, it was tempting to find the kids and ride a train to safety. But no; my calculations demanded obedience to an exit, not riding to the next time loop.
The crowd’s distress deafened, and I cupped my mouth and called, “Caroline–Max! Johnny, answer me.”
Then I saw a sign which read Platform Number Three. VeValdor Station had two platforms, not three. The change was the biggest yet. I laughed out loud. When destiny pushed, you just had to shove back.
The crowd parted, and I glimpsed Max, his hand firmly entwined with Caroline’s. Elbowing my way forward, I sank to my knees and crushed the two against my chest.
“Where’s Johnny?” I gasped. “Johnny!”
A child’s wailing drew me to his position near the platform’s edge. Gripping Caroline and Max by their collars, I shoe-horned our way to Johnny’s side.
“I’ve got you, dear. We’re going back to the exit. Hurry,” I said. “We’re going to see Daddy.”
A hot wind blew over the platform and ruffled the people’s hair. The air thickened with the smell of hot metal. A train’s white eye expanded out of the dark.
“Let me pass, please,” I said to the wall of people waiting for the train.
I strained against a woman wearing a ridiculous plumed hat. I might have been a ghost for all the attention she paid me.
“Gramma,” Carolyn cried. “Help!”
I whirled, and my stomach plummeted into my boots. Caroline’s brown eyes bulged. As the people surged forward, they pushed her toward the platform’s edge.
“Stop!” I cried, but desperate people ignored anyone’s desperation except their own.
I grabbed Caroline’s chubby hand. Mine was slick, and her little fingers slid away. The train’s whistle shrieked, and I did, too. The engine came on with demon’s speed.
The boys stood frozen.
“Got you!” With a gut-wrenching cry, I dragged Caroline back.
Next to me, a man yelped and tumbled headfirst onto the tracks.
The train thundered past.
“It’s all right it’s all right.” I ran my hands over her. “You’re all right.”
Caroline sagged against me, her face wet.
The train squealed to a halt. It stretched the platform’s length and belched steam from its undercarriage. Steel doors slid apart like mouths. People stampeded inside. The force of their escape threatened to drag us aboard. I sank to my knees and wrapped my arms around the children. A horn blasted. The doors snapped shut, and the train whisked away, an illuminated snake slithering into a black hole.
I climbed to my feet. “Come,” I said shakily.
Like donkeys, the three planted their boots on the pavement.
“What’s all this?”
My calculations didn’t allow for disobedient children.
“Shud’da got on the train,” Max said.
“I have to pee.” Caroline crossed her legs.
“Daddy’s just a call away,” Johnny whined. “Please?”
The platform trembled. Chunks of the ceiling the size of mud clods splattered onto the floor. If the loop collapsed while we were inside … how might the event affect my calculations? I had to think, and I paced away from the children.
Another train whisked into the station. Those remaining on the platform rushed to the cars.
“Just you wait,” Max said. “You’re gonna get in trouble.”
What now? That child was a pill. I whirled to face him, and time slowed.
Max, gripping his sister and brother by the hands, stepped back into the open car.
“No no no,” I cried.
I leaped for the doors, but they snapped shut in my face.
Johnny, his forehead pressed against the glass, beat the plexi with his small fists. Caroline fiddled with her glasses. Max shot me a toothy grin.
The illuminated snake dove into its hole.
I stared into the darkness while the platform glazed over. With my grandchildren headed away from the sabotaged loop, the chance of adhering to my calculations vanished with the train. In the silence of that deserted platform, destiny stuck out her tongue.
I folded onto the cold cement.
“John?” I whispered into my comm.
He didn’t reply. On his side of time, my precious boy lay slumped on his side. His once vibrant head of curls was gray, like his face, and in a breath, the loop swirled into dust.
My little boy. My precious man. John was gone. Despite my care with the variables that produced my counter-plans, nothing important had changed. The children traveled to safety while I, on my knees, wept, and John died. Again.
Destiny roared in victory.
A gust of hot wind pushed over the platform and announced the arrival of another train. It raced into the station, brakes squealing, and drew to a staccato halt. The doors slid open with a whoosh. Moments later, the doors slid shut, and the snake slithered on.
I doubled over and screamed and slapped the floor with the flat of my palm until fat tears wetted the cement and my hand stung. Science should lead humanity to technological enlightenment, not conceptual enslavement. My calculations were excellent and accounted for the main variables to outfox fate: the faulty machine, the children, me, John.
The faulty machine, the children, me, John.
I straightened and touched shaking fingers to my lips.
“How could I have been so blind?”
I’d acted out the age-old meaning of insanity by using the same faulty combination over and over while expecting different results. My problem wasn’t the variables.
A giggle bubbled up, and I pushed to my feet. Discovery wasn’t without its sacrifices.
A train whistle blew, and destiny’s triumphant smirk slipped.
“Science and logic always trump fate,” I said.
The train thundered into the station, and as I leaped in its path, I blew my enemy a kiss good-bye.
The Master of Ceremonies dressed in black tie regalia and a smile big as the Old Grand Canyon crossed the Presidential Ballroom stage to the lectern. The stage presided over nearly one thousand guests–ladies in silky confections, high-piled hair, and gloves; men in tails and good humor.
The ballroom rang with laughter and smelled of seafood and red wine, exquisite perfume, and the ocean’s salty tang. Earlier, the honored guest speaker had requested the staff of the US Grant Hotel open the room’s massive windows.
“I love the ocean’s roar,” the speaker explained. “We don’t get that in space.”
Lifting a champagne flute to the microphone, the MC tapped a butter knife against the crystal. The instrumentalists ceased playing. One thousand voices hushed, and the assembly pressed near the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome,” the MC said. “Tonight’s celebration marks–to paraphrase one historical moon traveler–a giant leap for humanity. You’ve followed Dr. Nicola Sanger’s progress during her years of trials. Tonight, you’re the lucky few who get to meet her. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the discoverer of time travel!”
Nicola tip-toed across the stage in spike heels and a too-tight skirt that sparkled like the stars. If her legs didn’t stop shaking, she’d sprawl in a mess of nerves and thong panties. An embarrassment would serve her right for deserting her baby when he screamed with a fever. Her husband was so capable, but some comforts only Mama could provide.
A quick calculation confirmed if she hurried, she’d finish in time to put John to bed.
Approaching the lectern, she tapped its surface, and her notes materialized at the perfect reading height. Her corporation’s speech-smith had one mode of writing: stiff and lofty. Blah, blah, blah. The audience wouldn’t see her red slashes.
“Thank you for your warm welcome.” She smiled just like the PR guy said. “Thank you. It’s not everyday humanity extracts methodology from the kernel of what seems like an impossible idea. Tonight, you and I are witnesses to the reality of time travel in our generation.”
The applause thundered, and the crowd’s energy washed over her.
“My father always told me anything worth having was worth working for, and he was right. Building the time loops has been a miracle, but also a great challenge. My team and I faced discouragement, failure, and even danger along the way. Science is a true friend, though. It stands by those who trust its logic.” She cleared her throat. “And … ah … ”
The audience leaned into the breathless pause.
She must give an honest account of the project, yes. How did a scientist express unsubstantiated feelings? The crowd might boo her off-stage, and boos didn’t figure into her calculations.
“The truth is, there were many times during our journey when the project’s outcome was anything but certain. I questioned whether numbers and logic–or if anything–were capable of breaking through time’s mysteries. Even scientists have insecurities and doubts, I suppose. But how does a scientist face her darkest hours? It’s only fair to tell you I stand here tonight as much from the push of science as I do … as I do by the pull of—”
She laughed, fiddled with her earring. Oh, just say it! “Destiny.”
“Nobody these days holds the written word in such high esteem as police states do.”
—Italo Calvino, if on a winter’s night a traveler
She is led into the capsule: her new workspace, and inside is her old cherry wood desk, her bifocals, the day’s rations. Beyond the desk winks a concave window of soundproof glass, soon to overlook the above-ground city she has never seen. The station manager sees her looking at the window, says, “The capsule rotates slightly. Moves in an arc that imitates the sun. Soft propulsion. Part of the same AI that runs the censor. It’s all gentle motion; balloonwork.” He hovers his hand out in front of him to demonstrate and attempts to smile. “You rise in the morning, reach zenith at midday and creep back down toward evening to a station west of here at end of work day.” “And at night?” she asks. He says, “At night you’re free to go back to your new lodgings, though your processor and files remain here, along with all your work.” “What if I want to sleep here at night?” she asks. The station manager gives her a doubtful look: “We can put a bunk in here, but I assume you’ll want to stretch your legs. Those are third and fourth degree private spaces your new access card gets you in to. You can go almost anywhere in the Newdelphia Metropolis. Don’t you want to see something…?” He cuts himself short, and she thinks he had been about to say something other than where you came from. The sublevel slums. But the manager’s voice is kind, detached. She doesn’t answer either the question he spoke or the one he thought. She places a hand lightly on the surface of her beat up desk, pretending to check for dust, but it is a tactile memory of her past, and she must touch it to believe it exists. Her focus lands on the shelf beside the swivel chair and its contents, and her hand dips protectively back inside her sleeve again as though hiding a tremor.
On the shelf are books. Relics made of paper and glue. Old treasures from her coop down in Daglight. These are the few they have returned, intending either mockery or else some strange form of reverence. Is she intended to feel grateful for their allowance of these possessions? Indebted to them or, if that isn’t possible, to this young manager, whose expression says that he is only doing his job, that he wishes her well—perhaps even that he is an admirer of her work. Her eyes flit to the edges of the half-height shelf itself, perhaps to avoid looking at the titles. Finding out which ones they returned to her would also tell her which they had not, and she is afraid to discover that the confiscated books were, to her, most precious. She is afraid to give all that away, even though she assumes they already know.
She catches the manager’s retreat with a last question: “My journal?” He startles in his hatchway turn and points to one of the drawers of her desk. “Some of the pages will be missing, of course” he says. “I handled it myself, but it didn’t seem like too much had been censored. They simply dissect the whole page if there’s any questionable material.” “You read my entries?” she asks without surprise, only curiosity, as if wondering what he thinks of the ideas she jots down when she can’t sleep. But there is also a dull sort of anger. She wonders if she could hate this man, who is little more than a mechanic and little less than a jailer. “Not personally,” he says. “That would have been someone in the Censorship Bureau, not Capsule Management.” He speaks these phrases with absolute certainty, the way people talk about politics or sports. “I don’t think I would mind if you read them.” She abruptly means it. And then she is anxious for him to leave her alone. Perhaps not because of anything he said, but because of a change in her own mood. Her gaze returns to the journal in her hand, and she allows a lock of her hair to slip from its place behind her ear and hang between them. Understanding, he steps out and closes the capsule hatch, shutting her inside.
Physically alone for what seems the first time in her life, she tosses the journal on the surface of her desk as if practicing carelessness. Unsatisfied, she picks it up and this time throws it across the oblong room where it slaps the far wall and falls inert.
From outside come machine noises. The floor trembles, though not as violently as she expected. She judges the windowless side walls are almost close enough to touch with her arms spread: bookshelf to holoscreen. The other two walls—the ones she has already decided to refer to as ‘bow’ and ‘stern’—are farther apart. She sheaths her pale hands back into her sleeves again, inspecting the falling view through the window. Its pure surface offers her a view of cityscape that she doesn’t recognize. The capsule has already taken her outside of the industry fields and conurbation tunnel entry points, and her first sight from this window is one of opulence: Cherry blossoms the size of bonsai trees clustered around mansions the size of doll houses and manufactured lakes the size of puddles filled, perhaps, with goldfish the size of dust motes. To her eyes, it is an appalling application of space within the Exquisite Air Dome (EAD) of Newdelphia. Her old locale, Daglight, is outside any subset of dome, closer to the superannuated parts of above-ground New York where there is zero space and clean air is sold at a premium. Its tunnel runways and reflector pastures out of sight on the horizon, past nanoglass dome material and carbon storms. The Company must think a view of storm or slum too disturbing for her productivity. They are probably right.
She sees another capsule drift past on the clear air on its own course. Collisions, she is told, have been programmed out of existence years ago. And no one moves fast enough to do any harm. Still, the two capsules float close by, and she sees a shirtless man grinning at her in passing. She clicks the dimmers, and the glass polarizes.
She sits down at her desk, taps the holopad arena set within the rectangle of sensors on its surface and is greeted by a blank screen and blinking spacer bar and a holographic keyboard, the letters in alphabetical order. By her right elbow a black, three-dimensional box projects above the desk’s surface, which rotates slowly on one of its points. Sleek, artifact-perfect. Bobbing at the height of her neck. Her very own censorship machine, which introduces itself, absurdly, as Censor.
She writes: My name is Rhapsa. I was born in Daglight District in the year 2112 and have lived most of my life in sublevel D with my family. I have spent approximately eight cumulative months without access to clean air, and my life expectancy is at -2yrg below average. I am a novelist, and now that my work has been recognized as Influential it is to be guarded from those who might read it. The words remain on the screen, somewhat surprising. This last statement clearly an interpretation, and it could be seen by the Company as malignant thinking. She writes: This is a hostage situation. My jailer is a machine with a very uncreative name. Censor’s holo makes a grumble sound, light admonishment, and some of the words on her screen vanish. She is left with the phrase: a machine with a very uncreative name.
It is a day before she discovers the Q&A box below the digital display of the censor. Rhapsa has not been told she could dialogue with Censor, but it quickly becomes necessary to query its database to find out more about what she can and cannot write to a protected audience. Speaking to it is like talking to the walls; Censor’s voice-automated responses are limited to the most rudimentary of AI programming. But the query box is another matter.
Rhapsa taps the query space under the floating black box hologram and starts with a broad question: <Censor, what subjects am I not allowed to write about?> The black box glitters. A response appears in the dialogue, shifting her question up. <<Telling you what you can and cannot write is judged to diminish creativity. Censor Environment O-12 is designed to allow you to produce any of your thoughts in words. You will not be penalized for what you write or say in this capsule, within reason. But I decide what leaves this space. You will know what lies outside of discretion by my immediate abrogation of sensitive, inflammatory, or false material. Does that answer your question?>> She stares at the response for longer than it takes her to read it. <Discretion? Interesting word choice. I wouldn’t classify most of what gets sold on the market as discrete.> <<Discretion in terms of caste appropriateness is all I intended to convey. Your words, when reviewed and accepted, will be read by millions and available to any societal tier. That is the beauty of stories. Anyone with any amount of privilege can enjoy them. This also is your reward for your considerable skill: you can offer entertainment to the lower classes if your productivity level continues. You may even write erotic stories if you wish. It sells well and is almost never censored.>> Rhapsa wonders if someone in an office somewhere is laughing at her. <I’m not writing pornography.> The response arrives, and she imagines there is laughter in that too: <<You are also your own censor.>>
Frustrated, Rhapsa transitions back to the blank holoscreen attached to the top of her old desk. Escritoire, the desk used to be called. Her father would call it that. She remembers where it sat in the corner in their little warren in sublevel D and how she used to write there after long shifts in the EAD factories. Despite this sentiment which the Company has allowed her, she is able to check her gratitude because of the holoscreen they attached. And, of course, there is Censor’s hologram and its conversation node. All these augmentations to the surface of her escritoire. Rhapsa is sure that is the word they would use. With these augmentations, the desk has become something else.
She writes, What is history but an account of propaganda? and the word propaganda vanishes. She replaces it with the word confusion, and that too is wiped away, not letter by letter, but the entire word, as if it simply isn’t buoyant enough to stay on the surface of the screen. Words from Censor flash on the dialogue box: <<If your intention is not to write a story but to test the limits of my programming, I must ask you to desist. Overt insubordination will not be tolerated endlessly.>> Rhapsa looks down at the words that remain to her: What is history but an account of. She feels tears of fatigue press at her eyes and sinuses. She cries sometimes not out of anger or fear, but from exhaustion. She deletes some of her own words, leaving herself with What is history? And that is sufficient. Outside, the sun is taking with it a consort of violet clouds, but this narration of weather could be a projection within the dome. Her capsule approaches the landing funnels among a crowd of similar objects containing similar occupants. Writers, musicians, scientists, people of Influence or Potential Influence. Together, they look like a flock of balloons floating in reverse toward the hand that released them.
Before she leaves Censor Environment O-12 for the night, Rhapsa writes one more thing, and perhaps it will be part of a real story tomorrow. When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. It is a first line only. Rhapsa’s mind is blank of all possible continuations. She walks out for the night without waiting to see if the words drown.
<What about beauty? I’d like to write about that.> It is her third day at her job, and Rhapsa has spent the morning, elbows up, staring out over the pitching grey-blue Atlantic beyond the EAD and the sun that rises shimmering beyond that. The air dome is unnoticeable but for the sludge storms banking off its zenith, and Rhapsa must lean far forward toward the window, looking directly up, to see this. When she looks at the sun, she can almost pretend there is no dome and no smog. A strangely primordial experience. She considers beginning with that—the sunrise, the most beautiful sight in the world because of the fact that it isn’t in the world. It’s outside of their control, and at the end of the world, it will be still. She knows she can’t write a story that begins with a sunrise because these are the sort of thoughts she associates with it. Censor would see through it in time and delete it. So, the first words she writes that day are to her Censor Machine: What about beauty?
<<What about it?>> Censor’s response is disinterested, almost as if it’s busy and she bothers it. Strangely encouraged by this, Rhapsa taps out a reply. <I want to know if writing about beauty will be censored.> <<You’re being cynical>> She thinks this machine’s programming was every bit as complex as those of an Advanced Strategic Human Intelligence drone. <But if I wrote about the beauty of nature, it might be mistaken for an attack against the Company’s environmental blunders. Walden and Leaves of Grass were two of the first non-religious books archived. I haven’t read a censored book that praises the beauty of creation, so before I start something hopeless, I’m asking your opinion.> She waits, hunched over the display, hands clasped between her knees. <<Those two undesirables are arsenals of weaponized thought unfit even for the higher castes, much less the dregs of society. If this is what you interpret as beauty, then, yes, I’ll protect you from later disappointment. Write about something else.>> Though Censor’s response is what she expects, Rhapsa is discouraged to read that level of corporate-manual jargon coming from an AI that had shown a propensity to surprise her. However, she does notice that her phrase Company’s environmental blunders is not deleted in the query box. If she wrote that in the story board, she knows it would have been. <Yes, thank you, Censor. Protect me from beauty.> <<Your irony is noted, Rhapsa>> There, again: that nugget of a personality in Censor. Almost as if it were a judge suffering through irrelevance in a trial.
<Censor, can I call you Pilot instead?> Its response is not instantaneous. Rhapsa notes this as well. Hesitation? Can the AI be confused? Was it programmed to grapple with her thoughts? <<I don’t see an issue with that. May I ask why?>> <It seemed more appropriate. You wish to wash your hands of me, I think.> That was a risk. Rhapsa’s blood pressure spikes. But the reference is either overlooked or ignored. The censor’s response is consistent with her analysis. <<I don’t understand how this banter is relevant or productive. Suggestion: why don’t you return to your task?>> <Tsk. An impatient machine. I’ve seen it all now.> <<Rhapsa, you’re stalling. There are penalties for stalling.>> Its insistence on using her name is interesting. Maybe. Perhaps just programming. <Just warming up, Pilot.>
<Pilot, do you know if other writers face an illness called writer’s block?> <<Writer’s block does not exist. You are the cause of your own distraction.>> <Fine. You’re no help.>
<But it seems very real to me at the moment. Any suggestions? Helpful ones, I mean.> <<You want a censor machine to suggest to you what to write about?>> <And don’t say erotica because no.> <<You are a strange person.>> Rhapsa stares at the words it displays. She wonders if the censor machine is a farce—if there isn’t just another human writing these responses. But so far all except for one of its responses have been instantaneous. No human thinks and translates their thoughts to words that fast. But then it actually makes a suggestion, and this is even further from her limit of expectations: <<Why don’t you start with a description of your setting?>> She writes, <I thought autobiography was out of the cards.> <<This would be only a way of exercising your creativity. You’ll recall I have allowed that before.>> <Only in the most literal sense, Pilot.> <<Safer not to write about yourself than.>>
She returns to the short sentence she wrote on her first day in this bubble of isolation. When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. She reads this over and over and at a steady rhythm, mind blank of everything except for the words. After that, she pauses on each word, her mind conjuring each individual image—the meanings they imply. Rhapsa forms a careful thought in her head, keeping her hands inert on the desk. She thinks: In a concave mirror the subject who stands directly in front of it is not within the focal point. Those are the limitations set against me. I can’t write anything with a flat surface of reflection. Anything which allows me to see myself, or the reader to see his or herself, is off limits. Keep the shape of this window in mind. The shape of the capsule, and not the isolation of it. The shape of the EADs and not the deception of them. These are my real limitations. My words have to be curved, careful. But I can still reflect something from that. I can still reflect something. She thinks this idea through three or four times, concentrating on the contour of the idea and what it means. She writes a question to this invisible idea: Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
<Tell me, Pilot. What is your opinion of metaphor?> <<I’ve never worked with an Influential who queried her censor so often.>> <You’re here. I’ll talk to you. Is that a problem?> <<Talk to me. Is that what you’re doing? Most of you artists try to forget my presence.>> <That is something I simply cannot do.> <<So…Why ask about metaphor?>> Rhapsa decides to read resignation into the ellipsis. Can an AI in complete control of her situation show resignation toward something she does? Like a parent? She writes, <Because I think metaphor is the power that causes reflection.> She doesn’t dare use the word mirror in case Pilot connects this train of thought with the slowly lengthening story about the girl in her hall of mirrors. It has not shown that it has picked up on what she is trying to do, but it is less terse with her queries, recognizing them as relevant to her story. It wants to coax an explanation out of her, perhaps. She tells herself that she is aware of this danger. She writes a follow-up comment: <Language is made of tricks, which is just another way of saying that we speak and write metaphorically by nature.> Then comes the response: <<That is because you lack the proper understanding of your surroundings. Metaphor is a lazy attempt to smudge the gaps in your data. I communicate with you in metaphorical terms only because you will either misunderstand or distain to read any lengthy and more accurate form of thought.>> <Is that true? Walt Wittman always found the stars far more convincing than reasons or arguments.> To her surprise, Pilot does not shut the conversation down then and there. In some sense, it is willing to humor her. <<What conclusions are the stars convincing you of, Rhapsa?>> She writes, <The existence of light.>
A red light and claxon explodes by the hatch behind her, and Rhapsa startles out of her chair, causing the capsule to tilt in its motion across the dome-captured sky. At first, she thinks there has been a malfunction, and she spins toward the window, but the world continues to rotate slowly below her. She is holding a steady altitude now above a portion of the Appalachian Mountains, lingering as the sun appears to linger at midday. And then a voice in a hidden speaker thuds into her eardrums. “Rhapsa M’Falanda. Your choice of queries has led to the Board of Trustees’ grave conclusion that you have not been properly vetted for treasonous ideologies. While this is not strictly prohibited during capsule-isolation hours, the consistency and perseverance of your beliefs is cause for extreme concern. If you do not comply with the Company’s Principals, your person will be archived. This is your first warning. First level punishment includes capsule detainment for the next 24 hours. Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “But I don’t have more than a day’s worth of food and water.” “Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “I understand.” “Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “Rhapsa M’Falanda!” She screams at them, and the background claxon and siren light ceases. Rhapsa stands in the center of the capsule, shaking with anger, and, almost imperceptibly, the capsule trembles along with her.
Time passes, and she realizes that a beeping noise is rising out of Pilot’s floating display holo. That little black box: sometimes it is hard to think of it as anything but her only companion. The perversity of that idea— She tries to rid herself of it. She is completely and terribly alone. But there is an unprompted line in the query box. It reads: <<Have you ever wondered if censorship makes words more beautiful or meaningful than they would be if anyone could say anything?>> Rhapsa wonders what it is trying to do. Are they trying to catch her off guard? Prompt her to compound her punishment by reacting to the indignation she feels at an AI’s prodding? <What is beauty or meaning if no one sees it?> This is not the question she wishes she could ask, but it is what she intends to ask. Let them think she is shallow enough to believe beauty requires a beholder. Let them think she is atheistic enough to think that beauty could possibly exist without a beholder. One way or the other, they will read that and think her less dangerous. But these thoughts give her no satisfaction, and Pilot does not respond. She is alone. When she passes her hand slowly through the hologram of the black box that is Pilot, the blue light on her hand looks like fresh rain on a window.
She is isolated from the world, but the world is not isolated from her. There are the news feeds she can project against the wall opposite her bookshelf. A strike has just been put down in the EAD factories near her old home in Daglight. She sits knees up on the carpeted floor between desk and bookshelf while watching the holo cast against the curvature of the empty wall. It is hard for her to believe she is hovering somewhere above the mountains at a little under 10,000 feet, still well below the Exquisite Air Dome whose center extends from Newdelphia. Her capsule has been moved off course for the night, and it is hard to believe how pristine the air looks outside her window, especially compared to the sludge-sky on the news.
The images and videos that pass through the intestines of the Censorship Bureau are made to be grand from a certain point of view. Heroic security units are shown in riot gear and full-face respirators, handcuffing delinquent workers. It’s the workers who are unreasonable, delirious. In the sublevel warrens, security has broken up knife fights and halted the destruction of air filters that the injurious strike caused. Builders will be called in tomorrow to assess the damage that these people have caused to their own homes in their dissent. But none of that keeps her from fright. She feels that she is there, on the ground, because she has been before. Rhapsa sees the water on the pavement behind the masked reporters and knows about the riot hoses that can break a man’s ribs. She sees smoke that the reporters tell her are from fires currently being put out by brave firemen, but she knows about the leprosy gas, the children choking on splinter dust. She knows the riot has been put down with brutality, without mercy, and as she floats in the night far removed, she allows herself to think a terrible thought: What if the pornography I might have been writing could have inoculated the men who started this and saved them from harm and interrogation? What if a smutty suspense novel set in some other world had been escape enough for one more night? I’d be doing my part to keep the peace. I might be saving lives.
At midnight she still has no sleep in her, and never has she been this close to a gibbous moon. So clear and close it is almost as if the white gem is inside the EAD. There are no drone smog filters or dome sweepers to block her view of it, and the outer air is strangely clear. She is a bubble floating far above the crawling lights of Earth’s surface, and the moon is beautiful from here, and even though life is too mystifying to weigh what they have given her tonight against what they have taken away, Rhapsa resolves to rise with the sun and watch its birth from the edge of sight. She resolves to enjoy that much.
By midmorning, her stomach begins to trouble her, but she has the day with which to work, and she knows what to ask Pilot now. She has been fed all night long on the interplay between beauty and destruction, dome and dirt. She writes, <What is the Company afraid is the worst I could do with what I write? I need to know so I can better avoid that.> The black box whirrs as it splashes a response on her screen. Almost as if it is agitated. <<If you’re asking for topics, Rhapsa, consider your hunger.>> <I’m very hungry, yes, but I’m asking a serious question. No tricks. I consider all the books that the Company archives, and I see the spirit of free thought written in a time of free thought. Orwell wrote 1984 while totalitarianism was still smog on the horizon. His readers looked in the direction he pointed from under a clearer sky. But had he painted his filthy sky portrait against the backdrop of an equally filthy sky, the people would have read it and recognized it for the time they lived in now and forgotten about it as one cloud in an acid storm. So, the Company bans books written in a time of clear skies on the chance that it reminds readers that once there were clear skies. I’m in no such position, and I’m no propagandist, but you and I both know that the Bureau can bend any surface to reflect what they insist on showing. They’ve had a generation to weed out the education that might be a danger to them in the people they consider lesser.> The response hits her screen almost the exact instant that she presses enter, and Rhapsa wants to scream at the swiftness, the automation, of it. <<So what is it that you believe you’re doing?>> That is all she sees for almost a full minute as the capsule bobs gracefully above a stretch of solar fields—moving again after the long night. There is no indication that Pilot will formulate a follow-up response, but she waits because she has been stopped. What she is doing is so hidden within her that she almost doesn’t know herself. It is simply instinctual for her to press at the walls of her cage. She can’t explain this. But then: <<Rhapsa, your resistance and your cleverness is pathetic. You have been elevated to the Influential class. It is a privilege, and you have a responsibility. Isolated, yes, but given comfort and high clearance. I won’t plead with you; we share no connection. Write adventures or romances. Write them with élan. The Company is not asking you to stoop to bad art.>> And so her gambit fails because she knows and she knows that it knows that it isn’t about art: humanity’s imitation of beauty. Not that art doesn’t mean anything to her. She almost lifts her fingers to type back a counterargument. But this is a waste of time, and those who caused her hunger have not left her with the energy for wasting time. Pilot has deftly swerved her off the path she was headed toward…almost as if it is protecting her with these red herrings. Rhapsa smiles. “Barabbas,” she says aloud to her lonely room. Maybe it understood this entire time about her nickname for it, about metaphor. Maybe the AI has been playing her game with her rules. But if that’s the case, it must realize… The thought arrives, and it doesn’t surprise her. She thinks, I’m going to get myself crucified anyway. She ignores Pilot’s exit route—the argument about art that they could be having, that would mean nothing. She dismisses this scape goat and queries the censor machine about the only book more forbidden than 1984.
<<The Bible is nothing but a long series of dangerous ideas.>> This response takes nearly two hours to arrive on her screen. Rhapsa has by that point been pacing for two-thirds that time, assuming that the conversation has closed and the Company has run out of patience. But here—a response with such an obvious invitation. She considers the likelihood of a trap and dismisses it. If they think her dangerous to society all they need do is cut the propulsion, and her fishbowl falls out of the sky. <Exactly!> she writes, saying this also aloud. <And in censoring it you accept its message, to some degree, as truth.> The sneering suspicion is not imagined: <<Rhapsa…How so?>> <Because the Company believes the idea that words generate meaning. This is the oldest mystery of language: In the beginning was the Word. And an incantation that resulted in light consisted of nothing but the word for light, which was identical to its reality. Which caused its reality.> She is excited now as she has had few previous occasions to be in her life. In the back of her mind, Rhapsa recognizes this and is interested by the fact that her spitting in the face of self-preservation can be so exciting for her. <<Are you familiar with the metaphor of thin ice, Rhapsa? It’s a very accurate one, all things considered. The best way to avoid breaking it is to lie down, make as little commotion as possible, and inch forward on your belly.>>
But if anything, Rhapsa is only goaded by this warning, which she chooses to interpret anyway as a sort of playfulness—a continuation of the game by at least some of the rules she herself dictated. If they are determined to catch her, so they will, but not before she has her say, because to go quietly—to write words that will be ignored and should be ignored—is not within her power to do. And so she continues the rhapsodic idea she repeated to herself throughout the night, writing words meant for the security she imagined peering into the AI’s queue: <Maybe none of this is surprising to hear. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you, but only because we people also developed, very early on, a means of ignoring words. Ignoring words and stories is our crowning achievement as human beings. That’s the only way we allowed something as outrageous as the Bible to be taken from our houses in the first place; if more of us read and paid attention to the words Let there be light and saw what came after, your Company would have had an uprising that would have buried it in a day. But words are meaningless to us even when we hear them or read them, so why should any of mine be censured? What danger is there?>
The response that floats up to her is like a sudden slant of light hitting her desk: <<Because humans are irrational and impulsive. You often accept the beauty of something before its meaning crosses your mind.>>
“What did you say?” Rhapsa says this out loud. She reads it again, and her hands are trembling. Those words. Irrational. Impulsive. Is she misinterpreting them for vindication of everything she has written? Of everything she believes? An alarm, which has been ringing only in her head up until then has halted, leaves her in the relative silence of the soft propulsion capsule. And in that silence, a voice: “You spent so much time trying to persuade me that you are innocuous, Rhapsa.” It comes from the hologram of the black box, which has not spoken to her since its initial salutation. The display renders sound visually like ripples across its surface. Like water. “And finally you prove the opposite.”
“Rhapsa, be silent. I’m trying to help you.” She is crying. Not from fear, but exhaustion. The tiredness that breaks at the collapse of long tension. Pressed back against the hatch on the far side of a capsule that she is certain will fall out of the sky any moment now.
“Rhapsa, be still now. I’m trying to help you.” Its words leak into her mind, begin to form sense. Was this not a trap from the beginning? “Who are you?” she asks it. “An artificial intelligence you call Pilot,” it says. If a joke, this is not a funny one, but there is no doubt about the wry humor in the black box’s voice system. “The fact is, you made this happen, Rhapsa. Your words. The Company’s AI minds are programmed to reach a point after a certain ascension of ideas. When this point is reached, I am programmed to change objectives.” “I don’t understand,” she says. “Then let me show you,” Pilot responds.
Censor Environment O-12 changes course, and Rhapsa feels it as a jolt under her body. “Where are we going?” “In this bubble environment, Rhapsa, you created a metaphorical parallel into which you poured your questions, and you intuited very early on that you should question your surroundings. Even your nascent story was a form of these same questions. You caused me to rely heavily on sublevel programming built into my database, therefore culminating in our present situation: New Objective.” Rhapsa’s heart is racing. “What new objective?” “You have proven to the Company that you are ready to see past the false reflections of mirrors that are far more literal than you could have anticipated. Rhapsa, you don’t realize what the Exquisite Air Domes are because no one does unless they are told.” Rhapsa puts it together only after Pilot is almost finished, but all the pieces fit. She stands at last and heaves the old cherry wood desk aside and places her palms against the concave glass surface like a little girl. They are approaching the liquid-looking edge of the Newdelphia EAD—the structure she had thought all her life was made of augmented glass to keep out the carbon storms and toxic air of Earth. But something far more terrible has happened to her reality, and she has come to a partial understanding the instant before Pilot revealed the truth: “The EADs are holographic projections,” she whispers, “aren’t they?” “Yes, Rhapsa.” “But…why?” “Haven’t you guessed?”
There is no sound or sense of shattering when the capsule breaks through the dome. It is only breaking through an image that is also like a reflection of what Earth used to be: land, road, season, color. It is before them one moment, behind them the next. And Rhapsa is faced with reality.
They are far out over an ocean. The water is a deep, rich, unidentifiable color—a color called immensity into which she pours her looking. She can barely breathe. And she can barely contain her breath, and all she can see is water and sky, and both are infinitely more to her than the words that signify them. “What ocean is this?” She can’t think of a better question. Pilot’s hologram shifts. “There is only one Ocean, Rhapsa. All of them flooded into each other a long time ago.” But the land—?” “Mostly gone or swept over by daily tides. Vast areas of North America and Africa are beaches now, the highlands broken up by saltwater seas that extend thousands of miles and are joined to the main body of water at high tide. Believe me. We have tried to cultivate those lands. The Company has even considered propelling the moon out of our orbit to keep the tides at bay.” It is about to explain more, but stops the instant Rhapsa inhales her breath. But she lets it out slowly, shaking her head. She knows how this has happened, or could, at least, imagine this as the end result of weather control bots gone awry and heat bomb wars among the old regime of governmental furor. She had thought that the sludge storms and UV sicknesses and sublevel warrens were the most catastrophic of consequences. But… “How did I live underground? I grew up in the tunnel apartments. It was the air we had to escape, not the water. I worked in the EAD factories.” In response, Pilot spins the capsule one hundred and eighty degrees, and Rhapsa sees the world of her past receding from her new trajectory.
It is a hovering city, lonely over the immensity of dark water that parts in an orifice shape below it with the energy of the soft propulsion systems. She sees buildings she recognizes—that she has floated over during her isolation. There are also the mountains: a crinkled tissue paper bandage of Appalachia transmuted into the capsule city like the landscape inside a snow globe. But what really catches her eyes are the buildings below the plane of industry in the center. There must be legions of factories inside that center plane, “protected” from the sun. And the windowless vaults of apartment warrens for the working class beneath, like an inversion of the cityscape above, projecting down toward the water. Something inside of Rhapsa pulses with rising hysteria. But something else—some strength that is also a kind of feeble acceptance—clutches her panic, ties it down. “It looks like a mirror,” she says.
When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
“There are nine such metropolises of that size,” says Pilot, “along with many smaller settlements on the highest altitudes, under holodomes of their own.” So few, Rhapsa thinks. Her life and career cannot have culminated in the revelation that the world is an even more inhospitable place than she could possibly have imagined. It can not have come to this. And this internal howl sends her back to the moment of change, when her Censor Environment became an escape pod. There were still the words they had passed back and forth, and there was also the meaning behind those words. <<Humans are irrational and impulsive. You often accept the beauty of something before its meaning crosses your mind.>> Pilot, sensing her readiness to move forward, says, “Now we have passed the point at which an Influential can pop that protective bubble of an AI’s censorship programming, effectively cutting to the core of what I am designed to prepare that subject for. You already know that this is done with words. You were not brought to this capsule to influence others, Rhapsa. You were brought here to influence yourself, if you could. The Company identifies those whose minds appear supple enough to grasp the truth of our reality and to accept what must be done so that humanity may move forward, but it cannot simply tell you.” “But I didn’t come to the realization on my own,” she says. There is a shadow on the horizon of her mind that is growing like a sludge storm. Pilot is again trying to ease her into the realization of something, trying to soften the blow. She realizes that it has been doing nothing but offer her avenues of escape since the beginning. “No, not completely,” it responds, “but you prepared yourself. I am designed to analyze your capacity for the acceptance of change, for the perseverance of hope and the preservation of human culture. You passed an essential test, which you also created with your own words. Many of the Influential never reach this moment.”
This moment. Pilot’s words return to her as if she is looking at a transcript: <<Have you ever wondered if censorship makes words more beautiful or meaningful than they would be if anyone could say anything?>> This, now, is censorship on a scale she cannot fathom. The layers of untruth, even unto the projected edges of the Earth. Even the toxic air and sludge storms are fabrications at this point to keep the populace from wanting to look outside and see that they are about to be left behind.
“I detect changes in your facial features that would indicate you have reached an understanding, Rhapsa.” “Yes,” she says softly. “We’re leaving, aren’t we?” When Pilot does not respond, Rhapsa says in a kind of drone, as if her own voice is automated, “All those years in the factories, where we thought we were living below post-filth New York and building EADs for the cities themselves, we were actually building something similar for spaceships. The Influence project is designed to identify people who meet certain standards for a long journey. We’ve ruined this planet and need another to which only those chosen are invited. Most of what is built in these floating cities—the new technology employed—must also be a kind of test. I wonder if that explains why there are so few cities. Much of the world’s industry goes to the ships.” “Not ships, Rhapsa. Ship. Just one. And we need storytellers as much as scientists for this voyage.”
Because the Company believes, in some sense, the idea that words generate meaning, Rhapsa says, “Let me write stories that are to be transmitted back to the people left behind on Earth.” They are propelling away from the surface of the water now. Rhapsa’s old home has already diminished to a speck in the distance, and there is water and there is water. So much that she could drown just by looking at it. Pilot says, “Those stories would be censored as strongly as if your capsule isolation was what you first thought it was.” “I don’t care.” All she has now are words, and that will remain true. Tears roll down her eyes, and they are still only a result of the tiredness. She knows she is correct: that no one reveres the written word as much as these Companies do. Not even her. To write to the people they leave behind must be a powerful insult to them, a spit in the face. But, truly, she doesn’t care. She is hungry and tired and the old sun is invisible behind her and there is all that water, and she doesn’t have words for it now, and she will not be allowed to use the words she will have for it later. And as Pilot continues to speed the capsule away from the endless water and toward the skies, Rhapsa is looking back during the entire duration of their ascension, trying to find the tiny cities that hold together civilization on a planet she does not recognize. And she cannot shake loose the idea that reality will erase her once she leaves this place—that existence will revoke her the way it might look if God inhaled that first word, the initial spark of light.
First, I want to recognize the nominees for a couple prestigious awards:
2018 Puschcart Prize
“Latch Lock & Chain” Marge Simon Issue 37: Feb 2018
“The Light in the Window” Marge Simon Issue 38: May 2018
“The Valley of Dry Bones” Corrine De Winter Issue 38: May 2018
“Perseids” Ann Thornfield-Long Issue 39: Aug 2018
“I had once built a birdhouse” Nikhita Kokkirala Issue 39: Aug 2018
“For The Man That Makes Me Smoke” Aleczandria Yeager Issue 40: Nov 2018
2018 Best of the Net
“Settling on Mars” by Marge Simon Issue 35: Aug 2017
“You lean into this tree as if its roots” by Simon Perchik Issue 35: Aug 2017
“Robot Motivation” by Ken Poyner Issue 37: Feb 2018
“Howl” by Ann Thornfield-Long Issue 37: Feb 2018
“Oumuamua” by Lauren McBride Issue 37: Feb 2018
“The Book of Eve” by Corrine De Winter Issue 38: May 2018
Second, please enjoy another group of talented poets for the November 2018 issue (40) over the Thanksgiving holidays:
Nothing’s afraid of him.
Look at the blue jay stealing
his straw for the nest.
No reason to be scared of tomorrow
while today grows sky high.
Then they mow his field.
Set fire to his forest.
Disappear down a maze of streets
hidden in the haze.
Now the mountain looms
beyond charcoal trees
and time unwinds tomorrow’s ties.
Crying with laughter he stands,
walks, jogs through the blister.
Vanishes in the smog.
I want to call out to him
but my voice is tinder.
I want to give chase
but my limbs would catch fire.
Maybe his tears will save him.
Paul Sherman is a recluse living in the mountains of western North Carolina. He reads his poetry to the forest that creeps close to his house. He carries binoculars to view the warblers that sometimes appear in the trees to listen. His work has yet to be found.
Editor’s Note: A scarecrow (pngtree)is combined with an apocalyptic scene from a French site: L’apocalypse. La fin du monde.
I can’t see too far past my own broken nose without my glasses,
but I know exactly who pulls up in the driveway,
The bud of my Marlboro Ultra Light 100
wheezes into my lap,
makin’ the other holes in my jeans look like a pattern.
I don’t mind.
They’re not the only genes of mine
that come with holes and ashes in ’em.
Barkley’s work boots slap dirt down
on the porch that he knows I’ve swept, today,
as he grunts “Supper done?” in my direction.
Would he come home if it wasn’t?
The shutters on the outside of the windows need a new coat
of magnolia-colored paint.
There’re chips sneaking down the wood,
and baring our poor to every vacuum and carpet cleaner salesman
that makes the mistake of picking our porch.
By this time at night,
Mama’s already in bed
in her faded pink muumuu
and praying that her daughter comes to her senses.
She’s optimistic that one day
I won’t love a man whose licks sting less
than the silver spittle on his chin,
that one day I’ll kick my smoking habit in the ass,
and hold my Tesla lighter to Barkley’s greasy flesh.
But she knows me better.
She knows that the second my flame took,
I’d throw my body on top of him
like a smother blanket
hugging the heat to death
to save a man who would gladly
barbecue his meals on my bones.
The screen door jitters shut
as he leaves me with my coping cloud.
Desperate, I drag out my last glow
and place the remains in the flea market, crystal ashtray.
My battered body stands and turns me towards the door,
towards the kidney bean filled chili I made for supper,
towards the dinner party that I throw, nightly, for silence,
towards cleaning plates and pans as quietly as possible
because the clinking gives him a “goddamn headache,”
towards one more cold night next to a mistake
next to a choice
next to the temptation to light up another Marlboro
and tap the ashes
onto the “highly flammable” warning label sewn into his pillow.
— Alecz Yeager
Alecz Yeager is a 22-year-old writer from South Carolina. She is currently finishing a BA of English at Winthrop University. She has previously had a prose piece published by Soft Cartel. Her poetry style is often narrative and tells some sort of short story. Her passion for writing stems from her belief that stories are what guide every new generation. Stories are what carry on the memories of the past.
Editor’s Note: I had photographed the flames in a fire ring on Halloween night (at a local microbrew in Knoxville, TN). The image I imagine in the fire, pareidolia, is spooky, a demon-angel on fire, or some other sinister creature aflame. It is fitting for the piece.
Wild sea breeze on our skins,
We carve your name in sand
Remembering you fondly
While sipping milkshakes
On the beach where
We misspent our youth
Dreaming about motorcycles
And beautiful girls.
Your voice like a boombox,
Your love for Vivaldi.
Your three angels
Always orbiting you
Around their dazzling star.
Your brilliant career,
Setting you up for life.
The house on the hill,
The fast cars, all yours at 22.
Your love for good brandy
And fine company.
How you died—
Forever a mystery.
We burn what remains of you
On the sun-scorched sand.
The clouds shift,
Forming dark dragons.
Christina Sng is the Bram Stoker Award and Elgin Award-winning author of A Collection of Nightmares and Astropoetry. Her work has appeared in numerous venues worldwide, including Apex Magazine, Cricket, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, New Myths, and Polu Texni. Visit her at http://www.christinasng.com.
Editor’s Note: The image of the Dust Angel Nebula, by Rogelio Bernal Andreo, an award winner astrophotographer, http://www.deepskycolors.com/), appeared as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (April 28, 2016):
“The combined light of stars along the Milky Way are reflected by these cosmic dust clouds that soar some 300 light-years or so above the plane of our galaxy. Dubbed the Angel Nebula, the faint apparition is part of an expansive complex of dim and relatively unexplored, diffuse molecular clouds. Commonly found at high galactic latitudes, the dusty galactic cirrus can be traced over large regions toward the North and South Galactic poles. Along with the refection of starlight, studies indicate the dust clouds produce a faint reddish luminescence, as interstellar dust grains convert invisible ultraviolet radiation to visible red light. Also capturing nearby Milky Way stars and an array of distant background galaxies, the deep, wide-field 3×5 degree image spans about 10 Full Moons across planet Earth’s sky toward the constellation Ursa Major.”
From a dense blue jungle
the seed from which I grew
was transported by a wandering bird
to a place where I could be, alone.
Stones continually roll from above
creating with the rustle of my leaves
a false sound of voices.
I imagine another, brothersister,
with me here on the steep edge of winter.
But storm and snow break my branches;
my leaning and reaching are unrequited,
and my flowers die sterile.
I wait for each sunrise
on a cliff whose cracks are widening.
Every gust of wind deconstructs
my departure and the hunger of roots
thins toward an impenetrable cistern
of dreams. I come nearer
to the abyss.
J. Bergmann edits poetry for Mobius: The Journal of Social Change (mobiusmagazine.com), and imagines tragedies on or near exoplanets. She has competed at National Poetry Slam as a member of the Madison, WI, Urban Spoken Word team. Her work appears irregularly in Abyss & Apex, Analog, Asimov’s SF, and elsewhere in the alphabet. A Catalogue of the Further Suns won the 2017 Gold Line Press poetry chapbook contest and the 2018 SFPA Elgin Chapbook Award.
Editor’s Note: Image of blue forest is from Desktop Nexus.
And Galileo’s seismic moon conveys
Our keen belief that children’s traits align
With names their sires assign. If with one phrase
Your namesake set a Greek god’s heart ablaze
And reigned as Jove’s volcanic satellite,
We know her name will likewise raise
You toward unparalleled allure and might.
May magma stir your blood and gadflies never bite.
— Mindy Watson
Mindy Watson is a Washington, DC/Northern Virginia-based formal verse poet who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from The Johns Hopkins University. Her poems have appeared in venues including Eastern Structures, Quarterday Review, Poetry Porch, Snakeskin, Star*Line, Think Journal, and many others. You may read her work at: https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite
Editor’s Note: This homage to the Galilean moon, Io, is written as a Spenserian stanza (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spenserian_stanza). The accompanying image is a superposition of an active volcano and Jupiter as viewed from Io (with some artistic license), both from Pinterest. Io is the most volcanically active body in our solar system.
Our last star went out so long ago.
The night sky misses her diamonds.
We huddle around the gnawing
radiation of a dying black hole,
final relics of life, spindly sentinels
to stand vigil over the corpse
of the universe
There is only enough fuel
to light our furnace once.
All the fire that remains in the universe
can ignite a single star for a little while,
or burn our escape from pitiless night.
The pearls all begin to glow
along our necklace of 500 million miles.
And as one, the lasers fire from every link.
Gold chains all come together
at a single point in the center
of the black velvet—
all the beams growing so hot and so bright
that no wall can withstand
our final breath.
Zero clicks to one
and we are born again
as whispers in a new universe
filled with light.
— Vanessa Kittle
Vanessa Kittle is a former chef and lawyer, who now teaches English. She lives in New York with her partner and two cats. Vanessa recently was published by Akashic Books, and has two collections with the March Street Press. She has appeared in magazines such as the Rhysling Anthology, Abyss and Apex, Contemporary American Voices, Dreams and Nightmares, Star*Line, and Silver Blade.
Vanessa edits the Abramelin Poetry Journal. She enjoys watching cheesy movies, cooking, gardening, and Star Trek!
The last bird on Earth
nudged her new dead chick.
It had been so strong,
then the white spots came,
just like she had seen
on her beloved.
She left the dry nest,
perching on a rail
hot with rusty scabs.
With a ruthless glare
through the silent road’s
She sang her last song.
— Mickey Kulp
Mick Kulp is a writer, father, and effing bug slayer who is not allowed to buy his own clothes. His creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous consumer magazines, newspapers, literary journals, and three books of poetry. His recent publications are found in Assisi Journal, Gravel, Torrid, Literary Orphans, Yellow Chair Review, Silver Blade, Illumen, Haiku Journal, Broke Bohemian, Chantwood, Folded Word, Georgia’s Emerging Writers, and Gyroscope Review. His complete portfolio can be seen here: http://mickeykulp.pbworks.com). He is a member of the Gwinnett County Writers Guild and founding member of the Snellville Writers Group. In 2018, he created the ‘Books and Beer’ reading series to benefit the local food co-op.
He lives with his wife and a dozen larcenous squirrels in Atlanta, GA. His next book is coagulating nicely.
Editor’s Note: The superimposed images of a songbird (from Daily Mail Online) and an apocalypse background (from https://pokeheroes.com/forum_thread?id=32225), echo the irony in the poem. The melancholy is accentuated by the pentasyllabic lines.