He was trying to escape, and not for the first time.
It had replaced the rising and setting of the sun, for him; a way of delineating future from past, although he knew that soon enough, even this would begin to fade. He would forget how many times he had climbed into his car and cruised past the neon lights, to search down empty avenues, only to find himself returned somehow to the place where he’d begun. It would become harder to remember each aborted attempt as its own event, and not a part of some larger destiny.
It seemed he’d been driving half the night, although the clock showed only thirty minutes had passed. He was through the heart of it now: past the casinos with their streamers of neon moving like rivers; into the suburban darkness of all-night liquor stores, bowling alleys, car dealerships. Here the roads unwound themselves and stretched infinite into the distance. He couldn’t see an intersection ahead, only a point where the streetlights narrowed at the limit of his vision.
This was where it began, the turning inward once more.
He had been this way a hundred times; still, the buildings looked strange. They seemed adrift in the vacant darkness, absent of people to fill them with purpose. No turn he could take would lead him anywhere real. There would be side roads and stop signs, but these would always, eventually, end in a loading dock, or the fenced wall where a dumpster waited lonely beneath a vapor lamp. Better to stay on the expressway, though his sense of motion told him he had stopped. He saw the storefronts rush past, but it was as if they were moving, and he was sitting still.
He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. The night was making him drowsy. That was a part of it too, and he sipped his coffee and tried to stay awake as he remembered what the woman had told him, before his first failed attempt to leave.
“Souls in orbit,” she had said, out of nowhere. It was early yet, but she’d clearly been drinking for hours. So had he. There was no reason not to, with nothing to do and all day to do it.
“We’re souls in orbit,” she said again, and waited for him to respond. When it was clear he wouldn’t, she continued. “Around the Event Horizon.”
He laughed. He had come as a mathematician, only to learn the house had mathematicians of its own. They were better; they always were. There has always been somebody better, faster, than him, and the opportunities had fallen away, student loans becoming unpayable debt, the weight of them dragging him to this place with its promise of freedom. Still, he knew enough science to catch her meaning. The velocity of money was more than an abstraction, here — it moved fast enough to create its own mass, pulling the hopeless toward it.
“It’s somewhere on the north side,” she’d said, and he realized he was a mirror in the conversation. “That’s where the gradient is steepest. It’s easier to move towards it from here. Easier to move from here to there than from anywhere to here.”
The north side was the wasteland of laundromats and duplexes that became the final destination of anyone not lucky enough to make it in the city, which was most everyone, eventually. It was what he was driving through now, the burn in his eyes telling him dawn was coming, though only fifteen more minutes had passed. The air in the car felt heavy, like stretching fabric that had been pulled tight. He stepped harder on the gas, but the needle barely moved. At the Schwarzchild Radius, the escape velocity becomes greater than the speed of light, and incident particles fall forever inward.
He remembered the look on her face, a mixture of fear and fascination as she drew graphs in her mind, a whirlpool of vectors and forces leading to a single inevitable point. She grabbed his arm. “Listen,” she said, “how long have you been here?”
“Uh…” Startled, he glanced at his phone. “A few minutes…”
“No,” she said in an urgent voice, “here, in town.”
“A few days…”
“Really? What day?”
“I can’t remember exactly right now…”
“Right.” She released his arm, backing away. “It will go slower the closer you get to the Singularity. Try to escape. Try it!” She was nearly yelling as she left.
The murmur of the bar, momentarily eclipsed by the sound of the casino, rose again to white noise. He checked his phone once more. He was on his third drink, but he’d only been here an hour.
He put down the glass and took the last twenty from his wallet. He left the bar and blinked in the sudden glare of neon. There was another way out, he knew — through the eye of the storm, into the Singularity. The odds… the odds were astronomical.
He stood before one of the Wide-Area Progressive machines, waiting his turn as he watched the jackpot pool increment penny by penny with each bet played. The number was beyond easy comprehension. He tried to derive a formula for an optimum bet, but the constant beep and clatter of the buttons proved too much of a distraction. The numbers flew apart in his mind and the chance was gone; a chair came open and he sat. He fed the bill into the machine and his hand hovered over the controls. He weighed the odds against a number that came not from the laws of probability but his own unspoken desires. Calculation, he had learned, was a thing apart from experience. He pressed Max Bet and watched the symbols flash on the screen.
That night, he made his first run.
Don Raymond lives in the tiny hamlet of Alturas, California, where he works as an accountant at the local casino, which is not a career path his counselors had ever mentioned to him. He spends his free time mediating the Machiavellian feline politics of his household. You can read more of his work at Bourbon Penn, The Molotov Cocktail, and Architrave Press. He also once didn’t make a left turn at Albuquerque.
The void of space. Dark. Empty. Lit only by the pinpricks of starlight as I floated in the vast emptiness. Alone.
Oxygen running out, blaring blood-red on my heads-up display. Time to die…
The animal in us can’t conceive of death, of a world without us. As I waited to die I realized that my death did actually mean my world’s death. Not the objective world we all share, but my subjective world. The one filtered through my eyes and my experiences would die with me. My world could not exist without me.
I felt ready for it. I had wanted to live on the frontier and now it was time to die on the frontier. What else could happen? My ship destroyed. My comrades dead. My com damaged — I couldn’t even call for help. Alone in the cold, vast silence of space.
As the oxygen levels decreased, as my end grew near, the stars changed. They went from tiny white pinpricks to these rainbow smears of color, sparkling and lovely. I understand the biology; as my O2 levels plummeted, my brain started dying, and that dying was beautiful.
I grinned like a drunk and giggled, the sound echoing in my spacesuit’s helmet. I licked my lips, my tongue fat and slug-like, my mouth tasting of metal.
I reached out with my mind to those rainbow stars, the color spilling forth as if someone held a prism in front of each of them. So beautiful… the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The last thing I would ever see. I beseeched them to take me, to make me one of them. I wanted to join them and be alone in the vastness of space, lit by an inner light.
Eventually the rainbows started to fade and all became darkness. Sadness, and finally, a spike of fear reached my dying brain.
Consciousness came back with a jolt. I was on a ship surrounded by smiling people; they had found me. The lights were so bright they stabbed like tiny knives into my brain. I closed my eyes. I didn’t speak. I grieved.
I wanted death by starlight. I wanted the stars to take me. I didn’t want to be back in the same life. I wanted to be among the stars and the starlight. I wanted to be the starlight.
I didn’t speak for a week. They subjected me to tests and doctors and counseling. But what was there to say? The world didn’t seem right until…
I saw it as a doctor flashed my eyes with his little penlight for the zillionth time. A rainbow smear of light. I blinked and laughed like a giddy schoolgirl. I got off of the examination table and looked at the lights in the ceiling. If I turned my head the right way, there it was, that prismatic explosion of color. Starlight.
After that everything changed. Each breath became a joy. The most mundane activity — eating, making my bunk, doing a routine systems check — became an adventure. Everything haloed in that rainbow light, if I just looked for it.
The doctors say it’s a result of my oxygen deprivation. But I know better. The stars, they took me. This world is not the world I left. I am not the person I was.
I died. I was reborn. It is all starlight.
Robert J. McCarter is a programmer by trade and an artist at heart. He has used acting, fractals, photography, and writing as his media, and describes himself as a “restless creative.” You can read his blog at RobertJMcCarter.com. Robert is the author of several novels and his short stories have appeared in New Sun Rising: Stories for Japan, 50 Stories for Pakistan, 100 Stories for Haiti and 100 Stories for Queensland.
In the third winter of the war, the pine barrens outside St. Augustine turn to the cant of the season. Annie Eaves, in greasy homespun, weaves through blackjack oaks the color of fire. She runs down a deer trail and reaches the raider camp.
Pennington is saddling his horse. His left eye is mashed-up closed. “Yankees?”
“No, fool.” Annie turns from the glowing coals. She is thin as a porch post. “The river hack.”
The band mounts up and reins in at the edge of the pines. They watch the coach make its way along the old Florida trace. Dust rises in its wake.
Annie, on a buckskin mare, runs her tongue along her bottom lip. She looks at Pennington. The one-eyed mudfish strokes his spurned beard. Annie looks at the coach; it’s getting close. She looks at Pennington. He spits, rubs his bad eye, and calls out: “Boots and bullets!”
The raiders move out, yelling and firing pistols; the four-horse team falters and the coach stops.
Pennington orders the driver down and the passengers out. Three ladies and a white-bearded man stand in the road.
A Union officer, under a black felt cavalry hat, steps down from the coach.
Pennington gestures with his big French dragoon pistol. Annie holds out a tote sack. The Yankee drops in a gold watch. Pennington snatches his black hat.
The Yankee says, “Don’t take my hat.”
Pennington wheels the pistol and throws down on the Yankee. The Yankee officer eyes the long barrel of the ridiculous gun, and matches Pennington’s one eye. They lock in for a long moment. A breeze clear from the St. Johns strokes the silk grass on its way to the Atlantic. Pennington spits and laughs. “Boots and bullets!” He drives his spurs homeward.
The band is gone in dust and oaths. The driving engine of two dozen horses at full gallop shakes the earth and sparks the crows.
Those left standing in the trace watch the dust settle, then load back up into the coach. It cannot be helped. The postilion cracks his whip, they move out, and reach St. Augustine in the afternoon.
Lieutenant John Cullen climbs down, enters the provost office, and asks who is the one-eyed vagabond robbing the pikes? An officer with the provost department turns from a table. He had been making coffee. He takes off his spectacles.
“Why has no one stopped him?”
“He lives with the gators.”
“He stole my hat.” Cullen says, looks out the window, and rubs an eyebrow. He has a burn mark over his right eye and a piece of his left ear has been shot away. “Who does Pennington ride for?”
“Aye.” The provost officer places the coffee pot on the stove. “The Rebels want to kill him as much as we do.”
John Cullen pulls a Navy Colt revolver and loads a fresh cylinder.
“What about a greasy scarecrow female raider?”
“How old is she?”
“Sixteen. Black dispatches came in last night. She’s now living in a hovel in the woods by the Fairhaven. What is your aim, John?”
“I aim to get my hat.”
Lieutenant Cullen rides a roan stallion west past the San Sebastian. The dangerous backwater of Florida in the third winter of the war. A land of dramatic flowers and smoldering rivers. Winter comes but is in no hurry. Cullen looks up. Wood ducks flying south call out their sad cry. They darken the early evening sky.
He dismounts in a thicket of Judas trees.
Near the old Fairhaven ruins, Cullen finds a shack leaning to the November winds. Annie Eaves is by the creek, filling a jug. She is squirrel-brown and melts into the blanched brown countryside.
Cullen pulls his Navy Colt.
He gestures with the gun.
“Why you robbing people?”
“Girl’s got to eat.”
“Looks like you haven’t eaten since summer.”
“I did not start this war.”
“I’m going to take you to town and you’ll stand at the bar for all you’ve done.”
“And what about all you Yankees done? Come down here killin’ and robbin’. We church-mouse poor and still you beat on us.”
Cullen hears a racket in the thicket and spins.
Two little girls walk out of the path. They see John Cullen, his gun, and stop. They go to Annie and hover about her skirts.
Cullen holsters his pistol.
“Who are they?”
“Sister and cousin.”
“Where’s their folks?”
“I’m their folks. Go inside, girls.”
Cullen watches them enter the hovel. He looks about the place, and says:
“Why don’t you go to town and file for relief? Them little girls can’t survive out here. I’ll help you with the paperwork. But for now… my brother’s hat?”
“It were your brother’s hat?”
“He wore it at Gettysburg.”
“Where is that one-eyed vagabond?”
Lieutenant John Cullen rides through the continual burgeoning. Florida is a land of beauty and would be splendid to see if the war ever ends.
Pennington occupies a dog-trot house, deep in the hammocks, west of the Old Kings Road. A light wavers in the window.
Cullen dismounts, and creeps through the high grass. Various southern insects are calling across the scrub. Full darkness descends, and the seven stars of the Dipper point the way to Polaris.
John Cullen steps up on the piazza and kicks in the door.
Pennington turns from the fire and reaches for a two-barrel shotgun.
Cullen levels his Navy Colt. “Stay that weapon, Pennington!”
The one-eyed vagabond draws back a hammer. Cullen shoots him. Pennington fires spinning. Cullen dives to the floor. Pennington falls and upsets a trivet with a boiling Scotch broth.
The room fills with smoke.
Pennington cocks the second barrel.
Cullen shoots him.
Pennington rolls on the hearth, dies in the broth.
The interior world smells of gunpowder.
Cullen stands, and brushes his dusty coat of Union blue. His black hat hangs on a peg. He puts it on; it sits comfortable.
Thomas McGauley lives in Ponce Inlet, Florida.
Android JT1K checked its data.
Alert: Power low. Reduce load.
The solar flares they’d experienced in high orbit must have done more damage than had been recorded on board the mother ship. Power to the lander had almost drained.
Decision: Awaken the progeny.
A human voice interrupted virtual reality dreams:
“Children of Operation Genesis, we pray that you have reached your destination safely.
We have no way of knowing if our hardware can function for so many thousand years, if our programming is sound, or if humans can survive the ordeals of interstellar travel.
Earth’s circumstances dictated speed. Hence the Genesis program contains compromises, but your composite generation and sleeper ship, your lander vehicle and Janitor android all embody the finest technology available to us.
Trust the lander in which you are awakening to protect you. Above all trust your Janitor, it will increase our species’ prospects for survival. Be reassured that your forebears and loved ones are with you — part of you.
Humanity vests its history, its hope and its future in you, our Star Children.”
The male designated Lomax emerged from Lido lander base. To JT1K’s sensors, Lomax had the same blank look as all but one of the others. Clearly the solar flares had damaged more than the Operation’s technical resources.
“Hey, shitface,” Lomax shouted, stomping the ground, “why gamedisplay nogo?”
Alert: Defective progeny suspected.
Decision: Attempt diagnostic interaction.
“My name, sir, is Jan Terminus 1K. I understand nothing of the lander’s game functions.”
“Cutcrap, Andyman. You clean up. Shut up. Where tekbots?”
“The tekbot team is powered down.”
“Power down is necessary when elements of the Operation reach the limit of resources, designed function or usefulness… sir.”
“Youfix powerdown,” Lomax yelled, dancing from foot to foot. “Youfix gamedisplay.”
“Oh, that I could, sir, but I understand nothing –– ”
“Cutcrap, shitface, or me fixyou.” Lomax strode forward, fists raised. “Me fix you!”
Alert: Clear and present danger.
“Please. Violence is incompatible with Operation Genesis imperatives, sir.”
“Wutterfuk jensis?” Lomax screamed, striking JT1K. “Stuff jensis.”
“Please, sir, stop. Lomax. Please stop, before — ”
Lomax knocked JT1K staggering backward.
Alert Critical: Hazard to Genesis Program foundation.
Phoebe peered out through the view port. She could see uncle Jan out there, tending his garden, casting long shadows as the suns went down.
She tapped a gentle rhythm on the airlock door, eager to be outside again. The clouds, lakes and hills were every bit as beautiful as her dreams had foretold.
The airlock seal cracked, the door hissed open and Phoebe stepped outside. JT1K turned from his work.
“Hi Uncle Jan, it’s awful quiet inside. Have you seen the others?”
The android appeared uncomfortable, avoiding her direct gaze. “There are no others, Miss Phoebe. Power is low.”
“No others? Don’t be silly, Jan. There are ten of us. I know Lomax is around. I, ah, saw him yesterday. Man, he’s a wild one.”
“Indeed. My function is — ”
“Yes, Jan, I understand. Your job is to maintain order and keep things tidy. Now, where’s Lomax?”
“Power low. Resource reallocation.”
JT1K was clearly avoiding eye contact, gazing at the ground.
Phoebe stared down at the patches of disturbed soil. The janitor android took a step forward, arms slack at his sides.
Phoebe froze. Nine patches. “Jan, this is a garden… isn’t it?”
JT1K remained motionless, eyes staring over Phoebe’s head. “I must ensure survival of the human species. My function is to optimize resources. Power is low.”
An appalling idea took shape in Phoebe’s imagination. But that wasn’t possible, was it? Of all the dangers they had faced, surely, not uncle Jan.
“What’s happened to the others?” Phoebe asked. Something inside her said: back away.
“Batch corrupted. Must conserve resources. Power low.”
Ten thousand years of inherited human instinct said run, but where to? “How could you do this, Uncle Jan? We trusted you.”
“I am Jan Terminus: janitor, android, series 1K. Power is low. I obey commands. Please, don’t be afraid, Shining One.”
The android was making no attempt to approach. He appeared to be smiling in a sad kind of way.
Phoebe remembered the dreams that Jan had called VR, the stuff she’d memorized about human culture, the journey, this new planet and the blue-dot place called Earth.
She recalled some of the words the Earthman had spoken as she awoke: Above all trust your Janitor, it will increase our species’ prospects for survival. Be assured your forebears and loved ones are with you — part of you.
Phoebe thought she understood.
Jan Terminus 1K moved closer and took Phoebe’s hands in his. Her fear left her.
JT1K explained to Phoebe about the nine other Genesis landers they must find. Together human and android loaded onto the rover all the equipment it could carry.
By day they travelled, light from the twin suns feeding the vehicle’s PV cells. The evenings they spent chatting around a campfire. Through long dark nights Phoebe shivered inside the rover while JT1K stood guard outside.
It happened on the eighty-seventh night, after the second sun had set and the last glowing embers had died.
A familiar face appeared at the frost-fingered window of the cabin where Phoebe lay. His eyes appeared sad, more human now than android.
“Powerdown, my Shining One,” was all he said, “Powerdown.”
Standing at the final resting place of JT1K, Phoebe whispered, ‘Goodbye, Uncle Jan, you were so clued-up and very wise.”
As the first sun rose, turning clouds on the horizon into liquid gold, Phoebe plodded away from the grave. She clambered aboard the dusty rover and turned back with glistening eyes.
“There’s one thing you didn’t know, Uncle,” she said aloud. “Lomax may have been weird, but he was a real fast worker. I don’t know if I’ll find the others alive but, whatever happens, there will be one more human in this world very soon – ” Phoebe patted her swollen belly. “ — At least one more.” Boy or girl, she would name it Jan.
Oscar Windsor-Smith has fiction, non-fiction and poetry published in print and online. He was a finalist in the 2012 New York City Midnight Short Story Challenge and was short listed in the University of Plymouth short fiction competition 2013.
“Stop screaming,” said Old Ma. “The baby is gone. Make another one when your milk dries up.”
Suddenly I hated Old Ma. I wanted to smash her. But I was clever even in that moment. I stopped my hand and sang my anger inside my head where nobody else heard it.
I was still kneeling by the stream, smelling the tracks in the sand, and nobody could see my eyes. They thought grief was shaking me.
“Stop now,” said Old Ma. “The baby is gone. Be busy with other things.”
It happened when the children were playing. They came back when the sun was falling and I asked them, “Where’s the baby?”
Nobody answered and I got angry and smacked the nearest one. They kicked the dirt but nobody answered.
Then I smacked all of them and shouted, “Where’s the baby?”
And they saw I wouldn’t stop asking. Then they told me. It was playing with the little stones near the edge of the water and we were playing with sticks and running and jumping and laughing, and a woman came through the water from the other side and took the baby and went back.
I ran down to the stream. There were tracks coming out of the water and going back, and I screamed and screamed, and everyone heard me and came running. But the baby was gone.
Later each one gave me a little piece from their own meat, to show they were sorry, and Old Ma said it was finished now, nothing more to say.
I kept my back to the fire and my head down, and pretended I was nibbling a little bit of meat and shaking with crying. But it was my anger song. Then I lay down and made my song quiet.
That night the moon showed its whole face, eating up the dark.
Everyone else was sleeping.
Near the fire a little pile of sinews was drying to make rope, and some skins scraped clean. I took them, and my knife, and two fire stones. And the meat everyone gave me. I was clever, I saved it to eat later.
I crept outside and rolled up everything in one skin and tied it on my back.
The biggest wolf pup followed me. “Hsst!” I said. “Go back!”
It whined and wouldn’t go back. And when I knelt down by the stream to smell those tracks again, it smelled them too.
The tracks made a story in my head. She can’t go fast, I thought; one foot looked different from the other. She is broken.
I went into the water and the wolf pup whined at me again. I picked him up and held him against my side and crossed the stream.
My heart shook me til I found the right tracks coming out of the water, downstream.
I made a song to my baby inside my head. Where are you? Don’t you feel me searching for you?
I saw the bushes were thick by the stream and heavy with berries. She’ll follow the stream, I thought.
I moved fast but quietly. I am clever when I hunt. The wolf pup followed me.
The night was full of sounds but my ears were hunting for one sound. When I heard it my heart shook harder.
I tried to make myself quiet. I was afraid everything in the night could hear my heart. It shook louder and louder. It made my legs shake. I felt broken and slow but I was moving fast.
I saw her and she saw me. The baby was crying but his voice was changed. He always makes a good strong sound. Now it was a weak stretched sound.
The woman had no milk smell. She whined like the wolf pup.
When I saw the baby my milk came out. A terrible sound came out of me and the wolf pup howled. The pictures in my head went black like a dead fire. My legs moved without my head telling them.
I felt like a bad sleep had ended. My baby made small soft happy sounds again.
After I gave milk to the baby I untied the skin bundle. I ate the biggest piece of meat and gave a little piece to the wolf pup.
The woman was sitting there, quiet. She had stopped whining.
I threw a piece of meat to her.
We went back through the water. I held my baby tight against me. I told the woman to hold the wolf pup tight against her.
I walked up to Old Ma when we got back. Everyone looked at us.
“Look,” I said. “The baby is not gone.”
Old Ma dropped her eyes first.
“This woman will work and will eat when we eat,” I said. “Her foot is broken but her hands are clever.”
I looked at them.
“I am Old Ma now,” I said.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine; her posts on the craft of writing keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)