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The Provided Minimum

by Robert L. Jones III

It seemed he had always been here. It seemed he had just arrived. He was seated on a hard, smooth surface — light gray and curving upward toward a high horizon of black — but he could not tell of what it was made. He could not tell if it was made of anything at all. Standing with a series of motions that did not feel like standing, he surveyed the ethereal substance. With perfect symmetry, the parabolic rise extended in all directions from his vantage of observation. Its contours were elegant to the point of conceptual purity.

The scene was mysteriously illuminated in the absence of light, and seeing clearly while throwing no shadow, he began to climb. How had he ended up here? In mild horror, he recalled the shades of pills — beige, pink, aqua, and white — on a porcelain plate. The image was pale and threatening, a memory of senescence, but in this context, it seemed irrelevant. He must be dead, he reasoned, but death was not the black unawareness he had imagined.

His thoughts carried him far up the rise until he reached the steep portion of the curve. Would it become too steep for him to continue? This question concerned him, for he wanted to see over the horizon and find out more about where he was. The curve answered him by rounding off at the top and dipping slightly before rising toward an even higher horizon.

Having conquered the first rise, he started upward again while he thought of a woman — several, actually, but one in particular. She had amused him, and he had used her. This reminiscence produced in him no pangs of conscience, no regrets. Quite simply, hers was the most memorable of many affairs that had come to nothing.

He came to another rounded summit, another slight dip, another curving rise toward a higher horizon. The pattern kept repeating itself, and he recollected various accomplishments, various victories over circumstances and rivals, at each elevation he attained. Eventually, he arose high enough to see down but not out from his off-center perspective. He determined that he was traversing a pattern of concentric, ascending rings.

To climb was to remember, and he suddenly realized that he was looking at the frozen ripples of his impact on the existential fabric. He had won more than he had lost in a game where one could do no better than to lose by winning. There was another black horizon above him, and there always would be.

Nothing remained but to climb ever higher, to reach new levels of acquisition. It was how he had lived his life, and he was isolated within this self-centric quest for achievement. The next solid wave would be higher than the last but more of the same. He had exactly what he had chosen — a world of his own selection, or rather, his own subtraction — but ultimately, what remained was not really his. Everything, including himself, was the provided minimum for maintaining his illusion of self-sufficiency — if only he could ignore the obvious.

In the face of this revelation, such ignorance was impossible, for his surroundings were devoid of the enabling distractions he had taken for granted in life: diversities of color and shape, the aesthetic contrast of symmetry against asymmetry, the variations in rhythm and pitch that are music, the ebb and flow of human association, surges of lust and adrenaline, the numbing gratification of pleasure. He himself was all he would ever get, but even this desultory existence was a gift, an act of mercy from an estranged God.

Plato’s dialectic on life before birth and after death, Aristotle’s discourses on the ethics to apply in the interim, Dante’s descriptions of deep pits in Hell, the speculations of Camus on the bleak happiness Sisyphus must have derived from defiantly enduring eternal punishment before the gods — these all came back to him as silent echoes from his university days. This, then, was all that was and all that would be. This was his personal pit in Hell, a state of being in which direction was inverted. The higher he ascended, the more deeply he buried himself.

He was not sorry. Given the chance to live his life over again, he would have done nothing different in the hope of procuring divine favor. He resented the estranged God, resented the very fact of his own existence, for it was not solely his. He could lay no claim on designing himself, the world into which he had been born, or the world into which he had died. Master of a fate he had chosen but not determined, he considered again the concluding words of Camus, and he shook his phantom head in disagreement. He could not imagine Sisyphus happy.



Robert L. Jones III is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Cottey College, and he resides in southwestern Missouri, USA. His work has appeared in Star*Line, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, and previously in Sci Phi Journal. Samples of his poems and stories may be viewed at:

Philosophy Note:

The idea for this story first came to me after I read The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. I found the concluding sentence especially memorable: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” My story also alludes to ideas from Plato’s Phaedo, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Drawing from Ecclesiastes, I have used a geometric landscape as a metaphor for human ambition, and I have repeated the question of whether true autonomy is even possible.

Continual Gehenna

by B. W. Teigland

Nothing is more difficult than to turn oneself into a saint. To kneel in a vault and die beneath a robe of homicidal stone, without light, without horizon, as intangible as a corpse in the grave.

While chanting, the hermit nun sat in a chair garnished with a hundred long nails, and when she felt herself falling into the blooms of oblivion, she pressed her shoulders firmly against the sharp points. There was nothing better for bringing her back to reality and recalling her wandering attention.

In her soul there was a sort of triptych of glowing glass. Sorrow filled the centre panel, while, on either side, was one of fear, the other of unfulfilled hope. The windows overlooked a transparent field of dead moons. Sometimes forlorn figures seemed to rise from the earth to scorn their conditions. Sometimes they floated over the appalling depths or descended on solitary peaks in the hideous mineral landscape where there was no sign of life or movement, only endless mountains hiding the tabernacle of clouds. With no hope of escaping from the Gehenna of the flesh, these liminal beings had turned away with disappointment from the sky, which had lost all its wholeness, all its immeasurability in that ominous place of perpetual dread. For the mountains not only made the sky look small and passionless in the blaze of daylight, but also attracted the chimerical creatures with hairy human faces and enormous colourless eyes full of etherealized heaven to the ravines below—whose horrible immensity was in the wrong place, stolen from above and cast into the vast spiraling pits of blackness, into the very engines of everlasting hell.

They held the symbolic instruments of their death, like soldiers bearing arms, a dismal procession of four-footed bodies with horned heads and outstretched wings feathered with scales forever tempted by labyrinths, moving one by one, one after another, single file on the narrow path that edged the motionless swell of the mountaintops. And by degrees this long line of silent shades spied the cruciform mold of the tombs that the angels had erected, where the bodies of the saints were reposing, sheltered behind the sacred bulwarks of a cloister, hidden at the bottom of the valley.

The holy silence became painful. It was a relief when the nails pierced the nun’s skin to remind her to recite the prayers, verse after verse. Like dripping tears, she repeated the rippling melody at regular intervals, slowly and religiously. But her features were now as unknown as her passions. Around her head was an extraordinary nimbus of sinister eloquence, a halo composed of a peacock’s tail with gilt porcupine quills.

Through the screen of amorphous nothing, standing out like a celestial vision in the spiderweb of the nun’s soul, the outline of the steeple’s seraphic dissemblance emerged, toward which the liminal animals pushed their way. Its vertical word stood out against the anonymous menace of terrain, as if hovering there in the elemental forces that rose up around it. It belonged to the planet, to the meaningless passivity of the inert. To raw, mute reality itself.

With a handful of earth, the phantoms entered the narthex of purgatory. Everything under the forest roof of the mythical cathedral had become lost in a furnace of purple. Water stilled with mystification, swallowing the shadows of the things it reflected. In its basin of sorrow was a continued and profound absorption of forgotten sensation. Noiselessly, they passed through the successive phases of the nave and the aisles, crossing the transept and the choir. Until, surrounded by a crown of chapels, they had at last reached the top of the tree of the living cross. Where, in the ataraxy of the apse, with its monstrance altar of golden molten fire and its suffering statuary solemnly representing the mediatrix of pardon in melancholy decay, obscure mutilations stripped away the secret holy fear of impersonal fecundity from the faceless generous mother.

The spectacle of the sanctuary’s silent world bewitched these terrestrial shades, who had become playthings for its deep portal of eschatological visions and evil augury. Incapable of stopping themselves from entering a diabolical manoeuvre of vertiginous descent toward an ever more profound void of sacramental darkness, the humanity animal traced one of their figures of geomancy in blasphemous blood. In the barbaric grace of heathen prayer, they whirled around like a massacre of monks in a sacrilegious dance, their eyeballs in ecstasy, their mouths gaping with perfidious laughter, some screaming aloud in lament. Others, in still more pagan moods of absurd dogma, squatted with arms raised and heads shaking, as if by doing so they could make the world not be. And the earth trembled and opened up and exposed the great door with a tympanum in a pointed arch bearing the presentation of the apocalypse, a gate to the origin of the unknown, which was itself another secret: a key that opened nothing.



B. W. Teigland is a Canadian writer of speculative and literary fiction. He studied Neuroscience, Philosophy and Literature at both Dalhousie University and King’s College in Halifax, NS. His debut novel Under a Collapsing Sky was released by AOS / Ace of Swords Publishing in 2021.

Philosophy Note:

Hagiography on katabasis and fervor.

Syphilus, Sisyphus

by Leonardo Espinoza Benavides

The case of humanity proved interesting.

            From the historical material collected and safeguarded, it was a poem written by the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro that allowed us to assign a narrative origin to this. His verses said that, in a European meadow, a shepherd named Syphilus contracted a strange new disease, after disobeying his gods in the midst of a foreign invasion. Syphilis sive morbus gallicus ended up naming the so-called “French disease of the Earth” after its protagonist, as well as humanising and giving conceptual form to the pathology.

            The impact on civilisation of a condition perpetuated by sexually transmitted contagion had irreparable repercussions on the psyche of the species. Wood carvings such as Albrecht Dürer’s Der syphilitische Mann and ballads such as Juliane Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci are evidence of the collective tribulation. Scientific efforts found the culprit: a bacterium, of the spirochete type, which they called Treponema pallidum pallidum, transmitted solely and exclusively between people, without affecting any other form of life on the planet. It was the Japanese microbiologist Hideyo Noguchi who later demonstrated the presence of the germ in brain tissue. The sexuality of the population was restructured in the neurological and mental apparatus of its individuals. An unavoidable nightmare, as so was dreaming. The case is a clear example of a check between nature and life.

            Effective forms of diagnosis were invented, relentless antimicrobial treatments and even the disciplines of dermatology and venereology were perfected. There was every possible form of prevention, from physical barriers of leather and latex to drugs that controlled the momentum of the relentless libido in the most at-risk sectors (which ended up being the whole world). Entire institutions dedicated to the monitoring and control of syphilis. The efforts, however, were described by humanity itself as a labour akin to lifting a rock up a mountainside only to see it fall at the end of each day.

            The moment when it became public knowledge that the spirochete had become resistant to the latest therapies has been postulated as a cultural turning point. Famous was the speech of the Chilean academic and physician Félix Salvo, before the high commissioners of the World Health Organisation, when he assured the triumph of the pathogen, “The Great Pretender,” which paled the complexity of other known infections, viral, bacterial, fungal, whichever it was. Humans had no use for arsphenamine and penicillin after only a couple of years of their development. Apparently, the cytoplasmic protein A filaments of the bacterium—which moved like a corkscrew—interacted with the indicated chromosomes of the micro-organism to mutate it. They never knew for sure. Humanity did not have the time or the determination to continue the epic. In its defence, there are many current hypotheses that vindicate this disappointment in favour, rather, of a resolute acceptance. Eternity as an illusion awaiting an end point.

            The case of humanity leaves no sentient species indifferent, including those that are radically different in their way of reproduction and preservation. It is impossible to predict the history of the next Syphilus; its moment, its time and the colour of its meadow.

            All the other extinct civilisations that we have managed to study in that particular region of that minor spiral arm of the galaxy ended their chronologies, directly or indirectly, because of warfare. The only species that did not succumb to war was humanity. After eleven thousand years since the first settlements in the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial marsh, humans, in short, opted for a grand final orgy.



Leonardo Espinoza Benavides (a.k.a Leo) is a Chilean physician-writer, always in conflict with the concept of sleep hygiene (which he hopes to achieve). He lived for a few years in the United States and now in Santiago de Chile, currently trying to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Philosophy Note:

As a dermatovenereologist, it never ceases to amaze me—every time I treat a new patient with syphilis and then the many cases of reinfection—that this fascinating spirochete can still be treated with a simple and common penicillin shot. The Sisyphean part of this narrative is what evoked the rest: what if the history of syphilis with humanity had been different, if it had not been a pathogen that seems to not even try to defend itself? This story takes this idea to the extreme, in terms of the cultural outcome it could’ve had.

The Time-Traveller’s Lament

by David Stevens

The clan of homo heidelbergensis tutted and bobbed and swayed as Fred approached their hearth, but he was not concerned. As always, he was careful to stay on the other side of their fire. He told himself that they had grown used to his appearances. If he thought about it, however, he could not be certain of the chronological order of any given visit. He did not think about it. Nor did he ponder that he – with his stumpy homo sapiens sapiens legs, tiny teeth, and unimpressive browridge –  might not appear a threat to them.

Plus, he always brought food. “Don’t ask where I got these from, fellas,” he called as he threw bones over the fire. The fellas of course did not respond, but chomped down, so Fred soon heard cracking, followed by the sucking of marrow.

Fred stalked up and down on his side of the flames. “I think I may be finished with it all. I have intervened in history 168 times. I’m worn out. I don’t physically age when interacting with the Temporomobile™, but it’s been 200 years! And I’m only 37!

“Sure, I’ve had breaks – 200 years is a long time. Coming back here, that’s not a break, that’s the default for the re-set, but other stuff. Spa-days. Weeks. Months. Take some time to think. To not think. To chill. Can you blame me?

“I was wiped out. You get it. You’re down at the stream, washing the auroch grease and swamp mud out of your hair, and a sabre-tooth appears with his big, you know, teeth, and you gotta run, and you leave the babies behind, and the sabre-tooth is happy with that, but you’re not! You’re not as emotionally evolved as a 21st century romance writer, but you’re hominids, you have feelings, you don’t like your babies being eaten, but what are you gonna do? You’re not a bad parent, you’re not a bad person-oid. There was no choice.

“Louisa was dead. Hit by a car. But it did not have to be final. I had a choice.

“People made all of the usual noises – you’re still young; it was meant to be; there are plenty of fish in the sea; she wasn’t as smart as you …

“I was already close to the breakthrough. I worked. Constantly. Day and night. I have a montage of it back in the machine. And I did it. I built the Temporomobile™. I set the dial to the fateful time, and dragged her out of the way of the car just in the nick of … well, you know.

“I wept joyous tears – she was alive and in my arms. She was shocked at her near miss, and shaking, and … stepped straight in front of a speeding truck.”

Fred’s monologue continued. He did not pause to wonder whether he had survived his first encounter with the clan because in his chronologically jumbled travels, they had already met him. Similarly, he did not contemplate whether he had survived their first encounter with him, because he arrived with the overconfidence and bonhomie of long-term, strangely tolerated, weird neighbour.

The homo heidelbergensis clan gnawed on the bones, amongst their evening activities: hearth-tending; mutual grooming (and associated insect-eating); mating, sometimes before, sometimes after the mutual grooming; toolmaking; and keeping watch for night-dangers.    

“I ran to the machine, reversed the temporal flow, and this time after rescuing her, I took her into the house and made her a nice cup of tea.

“Which seemed to do the trick. Except later that day, two blocks away, she was struck and killed by the same make of car that killed her the first time.

“My instinct was to go further back, and remove that automobile company from existence, but of course, nobody wants to be Bradbury’s dinosaur hunter – well, they might, I hunted a dinosaur on one of my breaks, great fun. I digress. I had no idea what ripples that might start, how much I might change.

“I went back and forth, fixing things, but sooner or later the universe sprung back into shape, and – boing – she was struck by a car.

“There was nothing for it. I had to amend her mother, so that she would be stricter in raising Louisa and imprint upon her the danger of the automobile!

“I spent much of her mother’s childhood driving crazily by and narrowly missing her. There were one or two unfortunate incidents, but I erased those almost immediately.

“It seemed to work. Louisa was more timid, and she and her mother jumped at loud noises, but she was alive, my love was alive! And stayed alive.

“For three months.

“The next time, she was struck by a bicycle messenger travelling at speed, hit her head, and was gone.

“I studied Louisa more carefully. I discovered a slight astigmatism in one eye. She had not been seeing these speeding objects properly.

“I couldn’t figure how to accidentally carry out delicate eye surgery on a juvenile Louisa without being caught out.

“However, I traced the imperfection back 80 years, to a something-great-grandmother.

“Fortunately, the woman had died in childbirth, so had made no contribution other than an unfortunate genetic one. So, I once again travelled backwards; removed her from the picture; and substituted another something-great-grandmother.

“Oh, do not judge me harshly. I arranged an inheritance for something-great-grandma, so she never felt compelled to marry to avoid starvation, and died childless and happy at the age of 110.

“I took no chances. I surreptitiously arranged for Louisa to have acrobatic, dance and martial arts lessons in childhood, so that she was fit and nimble and particularly good at jumping out of the way.

“This final time. I was there. The car passed harmlessly. She crossed the street – in tighter fitting clothes than I remembered, showing a more muscular build from her lessons. The truck sped by immediately afterwards, unnoticed. I noticed the delightful lift at the tip of Louisa’s nose was gone – no doubt another genetic contribution from the substituted great-granny. It was a price I was willing to pay.

“Around a corner, a motorbike mounted the footpath, knocking pedestrians flying. Louisa sprung a grand jeté, leaping over the bike without a care. Ha! My investments were paying off. I was scared too, of course. What might the universe throw next at our love?

“With an extended step, Louisa avoided an open manhole. She then ducked as though in a silent movie, avoiding a timber shouldered by a spinning labourer.

“There was a loud snap above us. Worker’s hoisting an iron safe to a top-floor business had misjudged its weight, and the lifting rope had broken. The safe plummeted to earth.

“It was no bother to Louisa. She dived into a forward roll, grabbed a small child on the way, and tumbled them both to safety!

Take that, universe, I thought, and punched the air in triumph. Louisa deposited the child, turned to an opening door, and froze. A young woman of Celtic background – long wavy red hair, creamy skin with a spray of freckles – stepped out. Colpo di fulmine! They froze for a moment, then fell into each other’s arms, their lips locked in a passionate kiss.

“The universe laughed its arse off at me as I watched love at first sight. What are you going to do now, Fred?, it asked, braying food from its lips as it chewed up my heart.

“That’s it, fellas. That’s the story. I’ve given up. The universe hates us. If you ever work out language, after the sabre-tooth gobbles up your babies, don’t bother to ask “why?’. It was just meant to be. And the reason is.” This bit he punctuated with foot stomps. “Everything. Is. Shit.”

The clan had looked up. They tutted and bobbed and swayed a little more frantically than before.

“Except maybe. I don’t know. Is it a nature or nurture thing? Maybe Louisa swings both ways, and I just never realised because, you know, she died and all. Should I go back and give it one last shot? Just one more? Get in before the Irish chick?”

The clan had moved the babies and old folk behind rocks and into crevices. Spears and stone axes were raised.

The guttural rumble was deeper and louder than Fred would have predicted. It triggered the most primal fear response.

“I don’t want to look. There’s one behind me, isn’t there?”

It was messy. It was swift-ish, but not swift enough for Fred. Still, the sabre-tooth was happy, and left the clan alone, dragging Fred’s corpse into the darkness.

A few days later, Fred appeared and began tossing bones again. None present wondered if this was a slightly younger Fred, throwing his own chewed femur and broken rib cage that he had collected while strolling past.

“Don’t ask where I got these from, fellas.”



David Stevens usually lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife and those of his children who have not yet figured out the locks. He is the author of twenty five (now twenty six!) published stories, largely speculative, sometimes experimental, which have appeared among other places in Crossed Genres, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Pseudopod, and most recently in Vastarien Literary Journal, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, and the anthology Prolescaryet. He blogs at

Philosophy Note:

The simplest time-travelling stories, if they rise above action and romance, are often wish-fulfillment with a dash of Amazing! The most sophisticated are often extended melancholic broodings upon history and the human condition. Mixed somewhere in there is a spectrum of approaches to technical questions, such as avoiding temporal paradoxes, and serious historical counterfactuals.
With Fred and his homo heidelbergensis audience, I was more concerned to lightheartedly and briefly touch on a range of other points: if science and technology takes us down a path, we will follow it regardless, and ascribe moral neutrality to that path; the pernicious idea that “acceptance” is for losers, for those who give up, as though an unreflective and overwhelming focus on a goal is not monomaniacal; the notion that if we work hard enough, we can achieve anything, and tied in with that, our recent return to the idea of science as an individualistic endeavour, and grudging “admiration” for high-tech heroes (cough, Ebon Tusk); and finally unexamined interference with the free will of others.

Mozart Made A Tsunami, Most Likely By Accident

by Jeff Ronan

It was always exciting whenever we had an animal as God. It certainly shook things up, anyway. Some of the folks here (never myself, of course) would place bets on what button a God-fish might flop onto, or which lever a God-orangutan might investigate. One time, the control room expanded a millisecond too late for the incoming God’s arrival due to a system lag, which normally wouldn’t have been a problem except that the next in line happened to be a humpback whale. It took us awhile to clean that particular mess up, and the effects on Earth were catastrophic. The weight of the whale had crushed a panel of buttons and accidentally initiated something called Black Plague. Afterwards, we all had a vote, and from then on, animals were officially barred from being God.

I don’t know precisely when the system was implemented, but I’m sure it made sense at the time. Whoever is the most recent being to have died is given the position of God. Once the next person dies, you get booted from the control room, regardless of how long you’ve been there, and join the rest of the ex-Gods on the other side. It’s a very diplomatic system, and in your time as God you can pretty much govern as you see fit.   

Of course, when the God Term protocol was first activated, there were far fewer people on Earth. When someone passed, they could expect to have anywhere from a few minutes to the better part of a day at the controls before being replaced by the next interim God. The current record is held by an Ellingham Red, who was kicked in the head by a horse in 1752. He enjoyed a full thirty-seven hours at the helm before the next God, Xiu Lin, fell off a cliff and took over from him.

The control room naturally shrinks or expands to house the interim God, a feature designed for their comfort. It mattered more when we allowed animals as God, but nowadays the room stays more or less the same size. It only changes significantly when we have a Goddler in charge.

For a variety of reasons, it’s tragic when a small child dies, but I do wish that we could have a vote to set an age minimum for God. Whenever an infant takes over, the controls shrink to ground level for better access, and I have to peer through my fingers in dread (what I consider fingers, at least) whenever I see a Goddler crawling willy-nilly over the buttons. One small girl in the 1870s actually took her very first steps in the control room. What I call my heart would have swelled at the sight, but she then steadied herself by gripping onto a nearby lever and accidentally caused the Great Chicago Fire.

At least when the really young ones muck something up on Earth, it’s by accident. I can’t tell you how many pre-teen boys think avalanches and mudslides are the height of hilarity. One middle-schooler, in his six seconds at the helm, managed to set up a thunderstorm program that incessantly poured buckets on his math teacher’s house for a month straight. A few newspapers ran stories on it, as no one could figure out why the storm never extended past the teacher’s property. Most unexplained phenomena, everything from UFO sightings to exploding toads, make perfect sense if you’ve seen the look of maniacal glee in a boy’s eyes once he realizes he’s been given the run of the place.

Nowadays, the current God never has time to accomplish much of anything. Even when they do, you’d be amazed how many people don’t touch the control panel. So many who claim to want world peace, an end to starvation, for their baseball team to finally win the World Series…once they’re actually in charge, most freeze up, paralyzed by the potential consequences of a wrong action.

I will admit, it also might have something to do with the learning curve. You see, in the early days I had time to teach the Gods about each of the buttons and levers and codes to input. Now I barely have time to explain to them that they’re dead before they get whisked out of the room and replaced by the next in line. It’s really quite annoying. On average today, one-hundred and sixty point six people die every minute, which means one point eight are dying every second. I’ve worked hard to get my welcome speech down to the bare minimum, but I can only do so much.

Occasionally, the interim God is able to have a small impact in their time at the controls. A man from Chile made a rainbow over his hometown. An elderly woman from Dubai managed to stop a traffic collision. David Bowie used his time as God to ensure that the person in line after himself would have a painless death, which I thought was rather considerate.

More often than not, the interim God tends to just make a mess of things. Howard Lamont of Omaha, Nebraska tried to input the code for World Peace, but before he had a chance to punch in the remaining 759 digits, he was booted from the chair. Instead of peace, the numbers he had entered up to that point created a hailstorm in Texas and simultaneously sent the fourth film in a sub-par horror franchise to number one at the box office.

Every millennium or so, the God Term protocol is put to a vote, and we debate maybe having just one person be God for an extended period of time – even just a week or two. Nothing ever comes of it though, as there are never any candidates who actually want the job. I suppose I can’t blame them. Honestly, who needs the stress?



Jeff Ronan is a New York-based writer, actor, and podcaster. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fabled Collective, Dread Machine, Dream of Shadows, and City. River. Tree. For more, visit

The Update

by E. E. King

Mary looked down on her body draped like a wrung-out towel across the bed. So, this was it. She’d been right. The inevitable ending was followed by a new beginning. Birth, death, and now the next step in the eternal circle, heaven.  Not that she had ever doubted… still.

A knock on the door almost startled Mary back into her body. The sound radiating through both the physical and ethereal plain. Some Pavlovian urge drew her towards the doorknob. She extended her hand. It passed through the knob. The door vanished leaving instead of her familiar hallway, only a cool grey mist that might be concealing a wall, or a hole, or the entryway to paradise. Because there was no doubt that that was where Mary was headed.

Seventy years ago, Mary had founded The Order of the Compassionate Sisters of Continual Exertion. She’d started non-profit orphanages in all corners and some fringes of the world. She had stopped two wars and won three Nobel Peace Prizes. The cloudy corners of her ghostly mouth curled upwards in a smoky smile at the memory of a life well-lived.

An elegant stranger emerged from the mist, or maybe the mist congealed into an elegant stranger, it was difficult to say. He was tall, thin, and dressed in a well-tailored black satin suit. His nose was fine, his eyes were darkly fringed, deep smoky, swirling tunnels into eternity. His teeth were perfect, white, and slightly pointy.

“Welcome.” The stranger extended a perfectly manicured, pale hand to Mary. She took it, though this man was not what she’d expected God or any of his angels to resemble.

As soon as the lucent tips of her fingers touched his, fire shot through her. Her body may have been dead, but her pain centers appeared to be just fine. She screamed and dropped his hand, or tried to, but her ghostly fingertips had melted into his. Flames opened up around them.

“But- but – but” protested Mary. “I have lived a good life. I have selflessly given to others asking no reward…”

Good,” said the stranger. “Because you aren’t going to be given any.”

“But if there’s a hell,” Mary began.

“There’s a heaven,” finished the stranger.

“And if there’s a heaven surely I…”  Mary thought back to the time she’d joined with a group of girls in seventh grade to mock Sara Shelley. They had circled Sara, hitting their hands together and chanting, “Smelly Shelley, Smelly Shelly,” until she’d cried. Mary felt terrible but afraid. She’d wanted to be accepted. The girls might turn on her if she defied them. Then there was the time she’d slapped her baby brother because he wouldn’t stop crying. Mary had been two. Surely The Lord wouldn’t judge so harshly? Surely He wouldn’t sentence her to eternal damnation for some childhood peccadillos?

“Your life has, as you say, been exemplary,” said the stranger. “If that was all there was to consider, you would most certainly qualify.”

So there was more to consider. Maybe there was the truth of the heart? Maybe every time she’d inwardly rolled her eyes, or considered someone inferior, she had earned a demerit in the book of judgment. When she’d basked in praise or forgotten to recognize an assistant’s assistance. When she’d thought herself superior …? But if God was so harsh, who would be allowed in?

“Do you remember this?” The stranger reached down for the cellphone lying on Mary’s bedside table.

“What?” gasped Mary, whose hand was still burning.

“When you updated your phone, you agreed to abide by our bargain.” The stranger scrolled through pages of minute print.

“Is this your checkmark?”

“Yes, but…”

“Look,” the stranger expanded a paragraph buried in the middle of page six.

By installing update Hades2 on my phone I agree to sell my soul to the devil.

“But,” cried Mary. “That’s not fair. No one reads those!”

“And no one,” said the stranger as the floor dropped down into a circle of all-consuming flame, “is going to heaven.”



E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and biologist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Check out paintings, writing, musings and books at: and

The Furry And The Damned

by E. E. King

Gerald was a sculptor, gifted with the fires of creation, cursed with fathomless canyons of despair. Unable to extricate himself from a lightless, twisting passage somewhere in his frontal cortex, he shot himself.

He’d come back as a graceful tortoiseshell cat.  The thing was…  it was after all, the Island of the Damned …he knew he still had it in him – the ability to mold a hunk of clay into something beautiful, something alive …if only he’d had opposable thumbs.

Many were trapped on the island. The furry and the damned – thumbless painters, caterwauling sopranos. Dogs and cats searching the island for inspiration and other prey. There was danger in every bite. There was no way to be certain who a rat might be. What undiscovered Milton lay behind sharp, yellow incisors? What Michelangelo peered from small rodent eyes? It was bad enough not to be able to create…but to destroy by dinner was both horrible and banal.

Once, after picnicking on a particularly feisty, russet mouse, Gerald remembered that the mouse had been missing its left ear. What if he had just eaten Van Gogh? Gerald had always worshipped Van Gogh’s mad, vibrant brush strokes, his almost sculptural dimensionality, his vibrant hews. He recollected a crazy, starry look in the mouse’s eyes.

Gerald lay awake on the cold gritty sand, stomach, and heart aching. The next day he was a wreak. He needed at least fifteen hours of sleep a day just to feel feline.

He became a vegan, dining on sea grass and kelp. But his stomach growled and his vision dimmed. Gerald recalled reading, when he was still able to read, that cats lacking the taurine found in meat and fish go blind. Gerald’s whole world was form and light and color. Blindness was worse than death, worse than murder. Also, the sea grass made him vomit.

That very night he went hunting. Limping on cooling sands at twilight in search of sustenance, Gerald did not hear the soft padded footsteps behind him. He was grabbed so quickly, and was by then so weak, that at the first pierce of needle teeth, this heart gave out. He did not even have time to notice, before final darkness descended, that the hungry, red furred, coyote who snatched him was missing its left ear.



E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and biologist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Check out paintings, writing, musings and books at: and

Should Murder Be Legalized?

by Carlton Herzog



Arguing for the motion, Carlton Herzog, Professor Emeritus, Miskatonic Institute for Social Philosophy.

Arguing against the motion, Cardinal Clarence Dowd, Vatican Institute for Social Justice.

Moderator: “Gentlemen, please proceed with your opening statements.”

Professor Herzog: “Black’s Law Dictionary defines murder as the unlawful killing of one person by another. One must infer from such a definition that prohibitions against killing are situational rather than absolute. Voltaire famously said, ‘all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.’”  

“Voltaire implied that humans have been hardwired to embrace mass killing. To confirm that truth, one need only follow the Darwinian vapor trails streaming behind the brutal blood-soaked killing fields of modern warfare to the penumbral days of our ruthless, often cannibalistic, ancestors.”

Cardinal Dowd: “All life is God given and therefore sacred. To deny that truth is to condemn mankind to a life of butchery and madness.”

Professor Herzog: “The prohibition against murder rests on the legal fiction that killing is wrong. That fiction does not enjoy the same inviolable status as physical constants, such as the force of gravity and the speed of light.”

“We live in a nation where the national pastime is mass murder. Does my venerable adversary forget that the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, firebombed Dresden, and carpet-bombed North Vietnamese civilians? If life be sacred, then how does he explain half a million souls dying in the American Civil War, fifteen million in World War I, and another fifty million in World War II. Let us not forget the Rwandan and Serbian genocides, the two Iraq wars, and the Syrian civil war.  Killing is as American as apple pie whether it be by school shooters, gang members, abortion clinics, or Kevorkians. Killing is baked into American DNA.”

Cardinal Dowd: “Our debate tonight focuses on the legalization of murder by private citizens, and not the justifications or lack thereof for armed conflict. To grant all your citizens the right to use deadly force for good reason or no reason flies in the face of common sense. Look no further than Chicago’s inner city with its poverty and gang violence to see the fruits of unrestrained lethal behavior. The area has fragmented into warring tribes trapped in a never-ending cycle of retribution.”

Professor Herzog: “Then what of MAD, or mutually assured destruction, employed by nuclear states. The fear of an equally devastating retaliation from the target has kept the nuclear peace for 75 years. The desire to kill one’s enemies is balanced by the fear of being killed in kind. Therefore, the practical benefit of a homicidal society would be a massive reduction in military spending. Only a nation of suicidal fools would dare attack America.”

Cardinal Dowd: “Legalized murder cheapens human life, reduces people to things, and insults God.”

Professor Herzog: “When potential victims can sidestep a police investigation and a lengthy legal process to mete out speedy justice, potential criminals have a powerful incentive not to offend. Further, the assertion that God is offended by killing is palpably absurd.  The Abrahamic God was more than willing to eradicate all of humanity with the Flood, the righteous and the wicked alike, including children. In Revelations, He promises to do the same with fire. In between those two divine apocalypses, lies the rampages of God’s genocidal bagmen Joshua and Moses. Their conversion methodology relied heavily on the mass extermination of entire populations including their domesticated animals. It is that same hideous morality that informed the butchery of the Islamic conquest, the Mongol Invasion, the Mayan death cult, and ultimately the Soviet gulags.”

Cardinal Dowd: “I commend the Professor on his artful logic. But it is insensitive to the essential dignity of man as a creature fashioned in the image of a loving God. To be sure, the fragile clay of human nature lends itself to perversions of the most heinous kind. Yet, it also produces, if not murdered in its sleep, the most beautiful and profound things.  It is as, the great Abraham Lincoln once said, we must cultivate “the angels of our better nature” and not be led astray by our inner devils.”

Professor Herzog: “when I look in the mirror, or at another man, I do not see the angelic. Instead, I see the stamp of an irrevocable expiration date. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Macbeth, life is an exercise in futility, a tale of sound and fury told by an idiot who struts and frets upon the stage and is seen and heard no more.” 

“If that nihilistic arc seems extreme and inhumane, then it would be well to consider that at bottom man is 90% water and two dollars-worth of drug store chemicals. Those chemicals combine to produce cells, 90% of which belong to non-human organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Indeed, when the ontological drill bores deeper, it finds that human existence is a haphazard temporary organization of molecules. In the grand scheme of things, one human killing another is merely the shifting of electrons from a coherent phase state to one more chaotic and open-ended. To borrow from Empedocles, ‘Already have [we] been a boy and a girl. A bush and a bird, and a silent fish in the sea.’”

“Let us give Darwin his due. Genetically, our closest common ancestor is the murderous, sometimes cannibalistic chimpanzee. That we are not a consistently reasoning animal, that our heads contain dark animal impulses, and that our brains are imperfect instruments should come as no surprise. The shadow of our checkered evolutionary past often falls and elongates over our so-called civilized lives. For despite our trousers and phones, we remain beasts of the dark woods and caves.  The hairy and elongated canines may have shrunk, the screeches and ululations may have given over to language, and ballistic fecal matter may be a thing of the past, but we remain intimately tied by our very chromosomes to those voiceless souls we cage and medically exploit.  We treat them as meaningless nobodies. What then is the great truth that elevates our worth over theirs other than the strong dominate and exploit the weak?”

Cardinal Dowd: “I cannot share your dim view of life as an exercise in futility.  Even if one accepts the rather demoralizing truth of evolution, one can marvel at how far we have come from the simple single-celled organisms that floated in the primordial sea. We became fish, and those fish grew legs and walked on land, and later evolved into primates going on all fours. Then we walked upright and looked to the horizon of our possibilities. Now we have walked on the moon and Mars. I submit that those are far from nothing. They are everything.”

Professor Herzog: “At the most fundamental level, killing is the driver of evolution, helping to eliminate suspect adaptations from the gene pool. With the advent of agricultural abundance and medical technology, humans in the more advanced nations have grown soft. The civilized demographic is addicted to passive entertainment. We have become nations of lookers, watchers, gawkers, and spectators whose life experiences are vicarious thrills obtained through digital feeds. Compounding the matter is the infantilizing effects of intrusive paternalistic governments that insist on protecting the citizenry from itself.”

“Lacking any real existential challenges, our so-called civilized man is devolving into a bipedal jellyfish, lacking the grit and spine of his hardier ancestors. In short, civilized man has no skin in the game of his own existence. He has become a vain decadent thing with an undeserved sense of entitlement. It is that lack of any real humility and perspective that accounts for his wanton disregard for the environment and contempt for nature.”

“Legalizing murder vaccinates the public against the disease of apathy and self-satisfaction. Man’s greatest achievements have occurred when the risks were greatest, and the outcomes were uncertain. To legalize murder is repurpose lethal killing into a focused driver of human evolution and enduring achievement. Survival is that much sweeter when it is earned by dint of our evolved cunning and intelligence, rather than a guaranteed government hand-out.”

Cardinal Dowd: “I am sad that you have such little regard for your own kind. It must truly horrible to be a self-loathing human. I must wonder what childhood trauma caused such a twist in your personality.”

Professor Herzog: “Ad hominem attacks on me, couched in pseudo psychology cannot hide the truth that legalizing murder would be an economic boon.  First, it would relieve the overburdened criminal justice system of investigating capitol cases and housing offenders for life while their appeals drag on for decades. Second, a state licensed and taxed murder for hire industry would contribute enormously to government coffers. Third, the legalization of murder would spawn any number of new businesses:  murder insurance, corpse disposal, murder protection academies, and deadly arts academies. Finally, the dagger, explosives, gun and poison industries would enjoy a long-awaited rebirth.”

Cardinal Dowd: “Your argument makes as much sense as sawing the portion of tree limb between where you are sitting and the trunk.  What do you suppose will happen when corporate heads, doctors, and lawyers wind up at the end of a loaded gun barrel? The day-to-day operation of society would ground to a halt without their coordinating and essential influences. What is to stop a would-be murderer from strolling into an operating room and executing the entire team during an operation?  Or a disgruntled air traveler from stabbing a pilot, an irate felon from strangling a judge?  If murder be legal, then it makes little sense to outlaw any lesser offense.  The nominal benefits flowing from the increased commercial traffic would be more than offset by the rampant chaos. You seem to forget that group cohesion. and other eusocial behaviors are the driving force behind the rise of civilization. If man had opted for killing members of his group, there would have been no one to hunt or gather food, or care for children. Cooperation, the very glue of civilization, would cease to hold things together.”

“I cannot accept the premise that no natural constraints on lethal conduct exist outside man made law. Most mammals operate in groups, from wolves to whales, elephants to chimpanzees.  Rarely, if ever do members of the same animal group murder one another, however ferocious their interpersonal combat for dominance make take. Foraging and hunting are a collaborative effort. If we accept as true your premise that we live in coldly indifferent and random universe, then carving out a modicum of certainty in human affairs is paramount to our personal and collective sanity. If individuals can only feel secure when they sleep with one eye open, pistol in hand, then paranoia and schizophrenia will be the hallmarks of the human condition.”

Professor Herzog: “In an ideal world, there would be no need to legalize murder. But man is still very much a prisoner of his aggressive animality. Until his emotional architecture attains equilibrium with his intellect, he must find a way to redirect his inescapable lethal impulses along more constructive lines. In his Civilization and its Discontents, Doctor Freud observed that laws forbidding man’s primitive desire to kill give rise to discontent and mental illness. Though shackled, such desires do not evaporate but manifest in the more accepted practice of war. To legalize murder is to offer society an alternative to global conflict and eventual extinction.”

“The Cardinal wrongly assumes this is a moral issue in an amoral world.  Rather it is the application of Trolley Problem Logic where priority is given to the needs of the many over the needs of the one or the few. It is the same social arithmetic that decides who gets in the lifeboat first, who goes to war and who stays behind.”

Moderator: “That concludes our debate. Those who want murder legalized should press one on their pads, those who do not press two.”



Carlton Herzog served as a flight dispatcher in the USAF. He later graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University. He also graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he served as the Rutgers Law Review Articles Editor. He currently works for the federal government. This is his fourth appearance in Sci Phi Journal.

Black Hole

by Alicia Hilton

This is the space station in the galaxy of your nightmares, the last bastion of Earthly civilization. There is the hatch. You have permission to approach.

Not so fast! Engage reverse thrusters, slow your speed!

Yes! Connection achieved. You may breathe a sigh of relief.

Stop shivering. There is no need to fear. Leave your weapons behind. Follow me, through the airlock, each step brings you closer to humanity.

Do you hear the voices? Your hosts eagerly await your arrival. Yes, it is safe to remove your helmet. Breathe deeply, the air is fresh and clean, scrubbed and purified by ultra-fabulous extraterrestrial technology.

Goodness, your complexion has a greenish tinge. Follow me into the command center, and I shall serve you a refreshing beverage.

You do not like the metallic taste? It is a nourishing solution, perfectly concocted with electrolytes and vitamins blended with blood from your enemies.

Which enemies? Do I see a smile on your face? Tsk-tsk, all the promises you made, your talk of regret and forgiveness was fake? Don’t you feel ashamed?

Would you care for another glass? There’s plenty more in the fridge. Step back and I’ll check.

Yes, just as I thought. Two jugs left. Would you prefer parental unit or significant other? I hear your former lover has a spicy flavor.

What’s the matter, feeling a bit queasy?

If you must vomit, use the waste tube! Don’t spew bilious fluid on the floor!

How revolting, what a horrific stench, you humans really do have an inferior digestive system, and your lack of self-control is pitiful. Have you learned nothing from your interactions with my species?  

Oh well, a little hurl isn’t the end of the world.

What’s the matter, you don’t appreciate my sense of humor? You’ve become a dreadful bore; I don’t know why I keep you around.

Ah, now I remember. There’s no need to cry. Wipe your tears and give me a kiss and cuddle.

Very nice. Doesn’t physical connection make you feel more secure?

Of course, I am happy to oblige with another kiss, mouth open. The texture of your tongue is so unique.

Take my hand, darling, and I shall lead you to a little slice of paradise.

Duck your head, watch the protruding pipes, as we pass through sick bay, don’t be distressed by the whistling sound and the screams, it’s only memories of the missiles that blasted your dreary old planet.

Not much further to go, be patient, darling. Why are you sweating? Suffering from a bit of the old PTSD?

No, that’s not your parental unit yelling, it’s just a recording.

Look, at the end of the corridor. Do you like your special surprise? I knew you would adore them!

Yes, I am aware that the androids are missing their genitals. Lovely lower abdomens, perfectly smooth and unblemished.

Recline on the cot and close your eyes. You need a little push? Of course, I’m happy to oblige.

The manacles are for your protection. The slightest flinch could result in utter disaster.

You want a last kiss before your nap? Of course, how could I refuse a final request?

Lovely, your tongue tastes of recriminations, so savory. Do you recall the last words you said to the ones you once loved? The final meal you consumed that did not come from a tube?

Portobello mushrooms and red wine? Fascinating.

It’s time. Yes, we mustn’t tarry. They are waiting. Open your mouth. Breathe deeply.

I know the gas has a strange flavor, but it will pass, along with your struggle. Embrace the dark. Do you see stars flickering?

With a bit of patience, everything passes, even radiation.



Alicia Hilton is an author, law professor, arbitrator, actor, and former FBI Special Agent. She believes in angels and demons, magic and monsters. Alicia’s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Akashic Books, Best Indie Speculative Fiction Volume 3, Daily Science Fiction, Demain Publishing UK, DreamForge, Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 4 & 5, and elsewhere. Her website is Follow her on Twitter @aliciahilton01.


by Stephen Sottong

The guard led me down a narrow path between a series of anonymous, razor-wire-topped chain-link cages until, somehow, he knew the one that was mine. The cage was a three-meter square with a concrete floor sloping to a hole in one corner large enough to function for sanitary needs — if one could function in the total lack of privacy. The hole stank of previous use. The guard pushed me inside — not roughly but decisively. I made no protest, too drained to care. My family and my life’s work were gone. The irony struck me — I was a historian and now my life was merely history.

I sat on the cold concrete, waiting, dozing only to be awakened randomly by screams, or a single gunshot, or guards taking prisoners away.

The sun was barely high enough to shine into my cage when the gate opened and a boy of about eight was thrust in. He stood there, small, thin, dressed in old but serviceable clothes, shivering, although this winter morning was not particularly cool courtesy of the warming that had caused this chaos. The boy and I stared at each other. He was about the same age my son would have been. Patting the concrete next to me, I made room for him. He sat, leaving a gap between us, and continued shivering. I lifted my arm, offering to put it around him. He hesitated and, when a gunshot rang out, finally leaned into me.

We sat, waiting, not speaking, perhaps afraid to interact in this perverse place.

Half an hour later, a guard came around, opened the gate and handed me a small loaf of bread. I took it. It was still warm. Its heady scent masked the stench of filth and decay around me. I wanted to tear into the bread, ravenous, but, instead, moved it to the hand still around the boy, broke the loaf in two and gave the larger piece to him. The guard watched this tableau and left.

We ate. I wished I had water.

The sun rose, baking the concrete expanse. By the time it was too warm for me to have an arm around him, two guards arrived. We got up, me stiffly after sitting on the still cold concrete. The boy offered me his hand and helped me up. A woman took the boy, and a man marched me down the long rows of cells with their seated occupants, some silent, some weeping. I trembled in spite of the heat contemplating what awaited me.

The guard escorted me to a building. At the entrance, he presented me with a bag. Inside were my notebooks. Here rested the sum total of my worthless, lifelong pursuit of the past, preserved on the one media that could survive the disruptions of these times – ink on paper. I held the bag closer than I had the boy, afraid that both I and my life’s work might be destroyed at any moment. The guard deposited me in a room with two chairs, one in front and one behind a desk.

I sat, waiting, clutching the bag.

Two guards entered through a side door and examined the room. A uniformed man followed. When I finally recognized the man was The Leader, I was too surprised to react. The guards on either side of him precluded an assassination attempt — not that I had the energy or will to try.

“Don’t get up,” The Leader said and took the seat behind the desk. He looked older than his years, military hat low over his eyes, uniform faded. The scar running the length of his right cheek appeared even redder and more ragged than in his pictures. “Feel free to take notes,” he continued.

In spite of my shock, I managed to pull out one of the notebooks and found a pen at the bottom of the bag.

He sat back in the chair, steel-gray eyes focused on me, “I read in your journals how you’ve documented the warming climate and loss of prime land with sea level rise. So you realize that means current population levels can’t be sustained. I feel I’ve been tasked to ensure that whatever part of humanity,” he stared directly at me, eyes stern but sad, “if any, that survives will be the best possible. Without intervention, the strongest and cruelest tend to survive. I’m trying to preclude that by testing for empathy and altruism. Congratulations. You passed the test. Had you not shared the bread with the boy, you would have been culled from the survivor stock.”

My hand trembled, but my fingers somehow transcribed his words.

“So, I have an offer for you. You’re a historian. I want an honest, factual account of events. I know I’ll come off as one of the monsters of history. I don’t want you to sugarcoat the facts, just be open-minded. If you accept, you’ll be assigned a place where you can observe and record these crucial times.” He leaned forward, arms on the desk. “Understand, you will likely be considered complicit and your observations suspect.” He paused, still staring at me. “Will you take the position?”

My life was history. How could I refuse such a vantage to record it? “Yes.”

He rose. “Good. You’ll be taken to a room where you can rest and clean up.” With that, he and the guards departed, leaving me, for brief seconds, alone, rooted to my chair in shock.

A guard eventually escorted me out of the building, past only empty cages — perhaps fearing I’d give away the secret to survival. He made no attempt to restrain me and seemed more guide than minder.

We had nearly reached the gate of the facility when we passed an enclosure where boys of perhaps six to thirteen were kept. The one who’d been my companion pushed his way through the milling group to the chain link. I stopped. He stared at me, wide-eyed, clutching the wires. We held each others gaze. The guard made no attempt to move me along.

I queried the matron, pointing to the boy. “Does he have family?”

She shook her head. “All dead.”

The longer I looked at the boy, the more he resembled my own — before the plague took him. “I’ll take him.”

She frowned and turned to my guard who pulled out his radio, spoke briefly into it and then shrugged at the matron. She beckoned the boy to the gate, releasing him to me.

Notebooks under one arm, boy under the other, we walked toward our escape, exchanging glances, evaluating each other. With all we’d both lost, we could do worse.



Stephen Sottong lives in beautiful northern California behind the Redwood Curtain. He is a 2013 winner of Writers of the Future and has been published in several journals and websites. A full list is on his website:


by George Salis

This earth seems like a place you would call home, until you see a cluster of scintillating hooks descending through the sky and disappearing into a cityscape. Minutes later, hundreds of humans, pierced through the cheek, the hand, or even the genitalia, are pulled upward between the buildings and over the skyscrapers, through the atmosphere and into the frigidity of outer space. The source of the hooks is indiscernible, but you get the feeling that this is less an earth than a farm, ripe for the picking. The harvesters, smoke-obscured, are meticulous and methodical. But miscalculations happen, and humans that are pulled up too slowly become bloated and frostbitten, while those pulled up too quickly experience a barotrauma that explodes their eyeballs, prolapses their cochleas, and, on occasion, spontaneously ejects their brains, the parietal bone popping open like a missile hatch. These spoiled humans are thrown back as is, stuck in orbit among satellites and other debris or burnt to a crisp by atmospheric friction. Whether the harvesters discard them because they are inedible or unsellable or unable to be experimented upon is unknown, though it is believed that nutrition, economy, and science all play a role in the harvest. Fluxes of radiation borne of solar flares or other cosmic phenomena sometimes cook the humans as they are being reeled in through space. Yet this product is not thrown back. At such times, humans down on earth can just barely hear a celestial crunching, similar to the crackling of an aurora overhead, but combined with the harshness of something like deep-fried crickets. In response to this din, the humans stopper their ears with the palms of their hands and squeeze their eyelids together, attempting to unsee the imagined rows of serrated teeth, the miasmal burps of pleasure, the unidentifiable remains floating within cauldron stomachs, the defecation of pyramidal pellets containing shards of bone, broken jewelry, tufts of hair, semi-dissolved leather belts, shreds of cloth, and occasionally ellipsoid pairs of silicone.

         Over time, the harvesters will become more accurate in their reaping, and so fewer humans will be thrown back, but presently the earth seems to rain ravaged humans as much as they are ‘evaporated,’ which is one of the euphemisms used by the fearful. To address that issue, humans invent a global fleet of mobile nylon nets used to catch the discarded humans over land or sea. Thus it is discovered that some humans, although not frosted by space or sickened through decompression, are still deemed subpar by the harvesters. Likewise, children below the age of twelve are invariably released, probably in compliance with some intergalactic regulation. The latter are the most resilient, but many ‘recycled’ humans, as they are dubbed, are caught dead, with their brains lobotomized or decorticated by the hooks, their bodies charred from the fall. Yet there is still an abundance of survivors whose stories become a source of terror, wonder, and inspiration.

         A six-year-old boy is caught safely over the Atlantic, but found to have been skinned by the time he passed through the stratosphere, with a part of the adamantoid hook still jutting from his temple like an antenna. His corneas vaporized by ultraviolet radiation, he claims to have seen, up there, ancient astronauts in an inverted nimbus. He saw how their forms dissipate and coagulate at will, becoming tools, symbols, and what might have been their bodies, amorphous structures which echo the pillars of Greek antiquity. These beings are the Cosmic Parents of humans, the Creators and Liberators. “The journey of the hook,” the boy professes, “tests our purity and weighs our sin, for the abacuses of their consciousness can only bear so much darkness.” How can a child know these things? Some think that he is a kind of spy, yet another way to lure them, while others develop a faith in his messages, selling all their material belongings and cutting off every relationship before impaling themselves on the nearest hook, usually through the temple, in the way of the child mystic, the stabbing motion itself as innocent and alleviating as putting one’s head upon a pillow at night.

         When a middle-aged woman is caught in a net at the edge of the Sahara Desert, the velocity causes her epidermis to roll into itself like a sleeping bag, her head at the claustrophobic center. Members of the rescue team carefully unroll her and determine that she was filleted of every bone, but her skin was left intact, except for a hole in her cheek from which globules of saliva dribble. What alarms them is the fact that her left eye gazes out of her right ear canal and her other eye is fixed on what appears to her as an ocean trench (later discovered in the sphincter). More than this, her heart fell to the heel of her left foot, her lungs expand and contract within her right thigh, her bowels are where her brain should be, and all the rest is equally jumbled for lack of a skeletal system. They temporarily patch the cheek-hole with gauze, which helps her say, “I heard them speaking, but not, I heard their actual thoughts, the layers and layers, the calculations. Numbers. That’s what we are to them, numbers in the mind. And me, I was an outlier. An outcast.” She only survives for a few seconds after her enigmatic comment, loose parts of her flipping and flopping from occasional wind, until a simoom nearly blows her away. Caught by her kidney-bulging wrist, a man leads her whipping body through the sandy gusts and folds her neatly in an SUV’s trunk. By being an organ donor, she is able to save other Recycles. At her funeral, she is lowered into the earth inside a matchbox for a coffin. Because of her, the term ‘spineless’ is now synonymous with bravery and resilience.

         These tales of survival fuel a kind of arms race between the harvesters and the harvested. First, a brain trust is assembled by almost every government to determine what exactly attracts humans to the hooks, but this proves futile, for it is a mystery shrouded by amnesia and mythology. Some say you hear a soothing muzak, with coveted items of masscult, like smart phones or sex toys, glistening on the tips of the hooks. Others believe you are pulled in by the sobbing voices of deceased loved ones, finding them spiked through the chest and begging to be saved. A few conjecture there is a sibilant snake coiled around each hook like a worm, entreating you as if you were Eve, offering apples of knowledge, figs of immortality, a feast of the sensorium and the soul. Regardless of whatever temptation, the governments agree on a global law that forbids anyone to be within five miles of a hook and, like a total eclipse, to never look at one directly.

         In the event of a hook cluster, cities are made to evacuate. Strategically placed megaphones rattle buildings’ windows with monotone messages: “The hooks do not have your best interests in mind. Do not approach the hooks.” Families sardined in cars drive past digital billboards that read: Stay Happy & Hookless, with a vintage vista of undisturbed family life in the background. Hazmat teams, with tinted visors that only allow them to perceive the lines of the hooks, sever those ominous parallels using saw-toothed scissors attached to long poles. The grounded hooks are then treated like irradiated bear traps, and so other hazmat team members drive over them in a tank-like vehicle, finding the hooks via GPS and sucking them into a vat of acid. With time, the harvesters reinforce their lines with a plasmid aura that liquefies the scissors. They also infect the billboards and announcements with subliminal messages that equate the hooks with a shortcut to paradise. The humans soon develop meteorology that forecasts the when and where of a hook cluster. Less winds, more lubricating moisture in the air, the presence of fog to hide the hooks, all and more help to determine where they will descend next. This makes evacuation more effective and less haphazard. In response to this, the harvesters eventually deploy decoy clusters of hooks, catching the populations mid-exodus. So continues this game of cat and mouse, until you see a cluster of hooks descending, not upon a city, but a country, then a continent. Across the globe, hooked humans are being pulled through the clouds, the spheres, looking down on a world shadowed by themselves, by an entire species. The few million or so humans who are not caught immediately begin their immigration to an unfinished project, evading falling shoes, hats, glasses, and bodily fluids along the way. At the center of each continent is an incomplete underground metropolis. This will be the final step in the arms race, claimed the world leaders, who are now being reeled in by the harvesters, inhaling between screams the metallic stench of outer space. Here we will live and flourish in peace.

         Due to their intercontinental reaping, the harvesters are forced to incubate and breed humans, then throw them back down in a newly developed shrink-wrap that dissolves by the time they alight on the ground. But in the midst of desolate cities, the test tube humans become savage cannibals, reminding the harvesters of the tainted meat of millennia past. Yet the harvesters are not unwise to the layer of prime crop hidden beneath the surface, and after a century passes, they release a moon-sized chum bucket into orbit that slowly tips over and pours allamones over the earth. Golden spheres resembling dandelion seed heads swirl through the stratosphere and troposphere, the beginning of a nuclear summer. The nostrils of humans twitch amid the balm, the aroma, the perfume, the bouquet, the incense. They emerge from their subterranean safety to witness what appears to be a shattered sun as sparkling sky. Many stick out their dry tongues to let stray flecks settle on their taste buds and melt into a sexual urgency, others take deeper breaths and experience a desperate depression. Some pick up handfuls of the accumulated allamones and grind them into their eyes then use their stained fingers to brush their gums, quivering with euphoric revelation. The final goal of these states of mind are the same: every human skewers themselves on the nearest hook with divine gratification.

         Not many years after, the harvesters net the entirety of the earth and begin to haul it away. The few thousand humans that survived the maelstrom of allamones catapult into the net by the interruption of the planet’s rotation, then press back down to earth’s surface as the net tightens. Eventually the lack of sunlight causes a worldwide ice age, which has the benefit of keeping the meat preserved. If the humans could open their frozen eyes, they would see other netted planets being pulled next to theirs like the trophy heads of colossi.



George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineThree Crows MagazineMad Scientist Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook and Instagram (@george.salis). He is the editor of The Collidescope.


by Gustavo Bondoni

The misogynist is in hell. His personal hell is a small, square chamber with surgical looking white walls. He is ranting.

“They’re all witches. Worthless sacks, only good for screwing and for making babies. I’m not even sure we should ever have let them move from the bedchamber to the kitchen.”

After each pronouncement, a spray of acid from tiny jets in the walls dissolves his skin, burning it away like the wax figures in bad horror movies. It is a terribly painful experience, and unbeknownst to him, the pain is enhanced by processes controlled by unseen minions.

After the devastation, his skin heals itself. This is even more painful than the burning. 

It has been going on for years, and will do so for eternity.

But he cannot stop the pronouncements. A voice that only he can hear provokes him every moment of every day. Only he can hear it because there’s a sound-carrying tube that emits its sound only into his room.

We can follow the tube. It is not a long way. It goes into the adjacent room. There is a woman in the room, and she is also speaking.

“Men are useless in society. All we need is a stock of frozen semen, and we can get rid of the whole stupid beer-drinking, war-starting gender. The goddess will see to it.”

There is a spray of acid and her skin dissolves.

The tube, you see, is a two-way tube, and sound goes both ways.

Hell may be unpleasant, but it is efficient.



Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over two hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages. His latest book is Ice Station: Death (2019). He has also published three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. His website is at

Killing Death

by Carlton Herzog

The ability to defy aging and death has become a reality in our time. Now we no longer fear a hideous decay and decrepitude. Nor do we picture a pointless afterlife of singing Hosannas to a god of dubious virtue.

But even as the universe giveth, it taketh away. Where it extends the lives of the aged, it must surely deprive the unborn generations of theirs. The question then becomes how long should the young let the aged live before forcing them to their graves?

In Nekros v. U.S. the high court was asked to address that very question through the prism of the First Amendment. That Amendment both prohibits Congress from promoting one religion over another (Establishment Clause) and restricting an individual’s religious practices (Free Expression Clause).


On March 25, 2035, Google perfected Project Calico, which had a mandate to kill death and stop aging. It did so with pico-electric nanites injected into the subject’s blood stream. The nanites cured illness, stopped aging, and extended life indefinitely for anyone so treated. Death by natural causes ceased to exist for those who could afford it.

To ease the financial burden on nanite candidates, western governments stepped in with subsidies. That was a necessary step since the initial injection and annual follow-ups were beyond the means of most people.

Unfortunately, life extension did more harm than good. First, the number of global births began to exceed the number of deaths. With more mouths than food to go around, global food shortages became the norm. Second, the elderly clung to their jobs leaving younger people unemployed, and therefore, an added societal burden. Third, the cost of government subsidized life extension crushed economic growth in the developed nations. Fourth, the collection of retirement benefits far beyond what was once a normal lifespan wreaked havoc on corporations. Finally, there was an uptick in crime and other deviant behavior associated with the amortal demographic. Psychologists attributed it to an overweening sense of invincibility coupled with an inexplicable decline in impulse control.

Social philosophers and economists wrestled with the question of how long is long enough?  Politicians asked the same question. On May 25, 2050, both Houses of Congress passed the Mandatory Euthanasia Act which capped life spans at 150 years old. Regardless of a person’s overall physical and mental health, once a person had passed the chronological red line, they were ordered to report via the Selective Euthanasia Service to a Federal Termination Unit for painless and otherwise humane liquidation.

Many pundits believed that the impact of ageless living on the world’s religions, particularly those with pie-in the sky visions of an afterlife, would be terminal. To the contrary, religions of all dominations experienced explosive growth directly correlated with the enactment of the MEA.

The reason for such a radical sea change lay in the Constitution. Many religionists believed that the First Amendment protected their right to practice their religion in perpetuity on earth. The lower courts disagreed on the ground that the religious doctrines in question did not mandate earthly life in perpetuity. Instead, it stressed that all the doctrines in question characterized earthly life of secondary importance relative to the greater heavenly reality to follow.

To circumvent that obstacle, K.C. Braddock formed the Church of the Everlasting Earthly Flame. Its central tenet was that God promised eternal earthly life to any and all who sought it.

Harlan Nekros, age 149, joined the congregation that year fully expecting to receive First Amendment Protection of his religious freedom to remain alive indefinitely. 

On his 150th birthday, Nekros received his order to report within one year to a termination facility in fulfillment of his societal obligation. He subsequently obtained a temporary restraining order in Federal District Court to stay the process pending a hearing. 

At the hearing, Pepper’s lawyers argued that Nekros’s rights would be violated by the Court’s enforcement of the MEA. As a congregant of Everlasting Flame, Nekros was entitled to preserve his life by whatever means were available. To order his termination, the State would be committing a crime against his person and his constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion.

Nekros’ lawyers stressed that “the State’s law is just another example of a callous and godless government running roughshod over human life and the religious rights of believers. Drunk with power, the State argues unconvincingly that forced suicide is a curative to modern medical paternalism.”

For its part, the United States Attorney argued that, “the net effect of Project Calico’s so-called success is that federal, state and local governments have been handed the crushing economic burden of medical treatments and retirement benefits extended into perpetuity for a growing population of geriatrics. Climate change, and the concomitant scarcity of food and water, have made those burdens exponentially greater.”

“Such extreme hardships call for extreme measures if our republic is to hold together. As in war, some members of society must be sacrificed so that the greater whole may survive. It is disingenuous for opposing counsel to argue that the State lacks an adequate moral foundation for the law and is simply acting in arbitrary and capricious manner in derogation of the petitioner’s liberty and religious interests.”

The Federal Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that MEA violated the petitioner’s free exercise of religion. It ordered the suppression of the State’s termination order pending an appeal.


The United States Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to determine the constitutionality of the Federal Life-Time Limits set forth in the MEA statute. The major points of that opinion follow:       


Nekros’ strongest line of attack lies in the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom. We reject that argument. The State does not deny appellant’s right to believe whatever doctrine he chooses. Indeed, the State’s motivation in enforcing the MEA is a secular one and does not make any religious practice unlawful. The State is not acting as the thought police, nor the guardian of any one religion. The appellant remains the master of his own mind and soul and is therefore free to pursue whatever religious truth he sees fit to follow.


If we were to grant exemptions to Eternal Flame congregants, we would be violating the Establishment Clause by giving preferences to those who believe they are entitled to an eternal earthly life at the expense of other religions that do not so believe.


The due process clauses of the constitution act against the arbitrary denial of life, liberty or property outside the sanction of law. There is nothing arbitrary or unsanctioned about the MEA. It is based on the need to reduce domestic population in order to conserve financial and material resources in both the private and public sector. It was enacted with the unanimous consent of both Houses of Congress and ratified by the President. We find therefore that the MEA does not offend the due process clauses.


Nekros argued that irrespective of any due process considerations, the MEA violates the Equal Protection Clause which holds that ‘No state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ Nekros asserts that persons over the age of 150 years old are being singled out for disfavored treatment relative to the rest of the public. We find this challenge to be without merit. At first blush, senicide, or selective eradication based on age, would seem to offend the right to equal protection under the law. But since all citizens fall within the sweep of the statute, we can find no basis for a claim of differential treatment under the law.


Nekros also argues that penumbra of the constitution creates a fundamental right to privacy, and by implication a right of self-determination. To support that argument, Nekros has provided a laundry list of case law bearing on a woman’s right to abortion, assisted suicide for the terminally ill patients, and fulfillment of DNR orders in living wills. Nekros would have us extend that right of self-determination so that he may lead an ageless existence in perpetuity irrespective of the law of the land. We find such case law distinguishable from the one at hand because there was no countervailing state interest in regulating population control. In these difficult times, we must all make hard choices. As the District court noted, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few.  


We take judicial notice of the State’s statistical data regarding the well-documented criminality and malicious deviance of the ageless. To date, there have been more deaths from their wanton and reckless geriatric behavior than from all other domestic causes combined.  

That precipitous decline in personal and societal risk assessment, as reflected in those jarring statistics, stems from an unforeseen limitation of nanation. Although the nanation process may preserve cognitive and bodily function, it cannot preserve emotional intelligence. To the contrary, the effect of an extremely long and healthy life imbues the individual with a sense of invincibility, while simultaneously degrading impulse control. The medical community describes this effect as Toxic Centenarian Deviancy Syndrome. To date, there is neither a treatment nor a cure.

We hold therefore that Nekros’ constitutional challenges are without merit. We order that Nekros be remanded back to federal custody for termination within the next six months, pursuant to the original liquidation order.


I am disgusted by the social arithmetic used by the majority. I do not believe that such an algorithm is good for society. Indeed, the notion that the State has the unfettered right to murder its citizens for no other reason than they have escaped death by old age is palpably absurd. Indeed, it reeks of both Hitler’s death camps where Jews were exterminated because they were characterized as morally flawed and Stalin’s pogroms against his own troops because they had been contaminated by exposure to western values at the front.

Not surprisingly, Hitler’s views on genocide — for what is the systematic extermination of an outcast group if not that — took their inspiration from our sterilization laws so popular in the 1920’s. Those laws aimed to eradicate the unfit and the degenerate: criminals, prostitutes, alcoholics, epileptics and the mentally ill. 

I find it disingenuous for the majority to assert that a person is free to believe whatever they like up until the moment the state lops off his or her head. It reminds one of the turkey’s fate on Thanksgiving Day following a few years of placid existence on the farm.

What the state, with the imprimatur of the courts has done, is criminalize long life but without the procedural and substantive protections afforded any accused criminal. It follows in the vein of other authoritarian regimes that have criminalized such things as reading, writing, and transporting books as well as composing and playing music. I must ask what comes next.

Given the State’s willingness to commit legally sanctioned murder, and its propensity to expand its reach, I should not be surprised if it concocts another law that violates both the spirit and letter of our sacred constitution. Thus, do we slouch toward tyranny and the genocides necessary to sustain it with a wink and a nod to the Founding Fathers.

I therefore respectfully dissent from the majority opinion.



Carlton Herzog served as a flight dispatcher in the USAF. He later graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University. He also graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he served as the Rutgers Law Review Articles Editor. He currently works for the federal government.


by E. E. King

The Sila lived on a planet of stone. They were round, soft, slightly opaque and formed from silicon. They would have been transparent had they been thinner. Like blobs of jelly, they had no eyes, ears, mouths, noses or appendages. They had no senses, nor did they need them. They lived at a pace so slow they could comprehend that time and space were relative. On their planet, the speed of light was relative too. There were no constants. The only constant, unchanging unchangeables, were the rocks and the Sila themselves. They did not breathe or die. They had no emotions, no hungers, no need to reproduce, or desire for love. They communicated directly, without the need for words, faster than light or sound.

They sent their thoughts out into their galaxy, traversing space, distance and time. Life was, of course, fairly common in the universe, how could it not be? Uncountable galaxies filled with clouds of stars and planets. The life was mostly carbon based: small-minded, ignorant, finite creatures. Creatures who saw little and understood less. Creatures who trusted their limited senses and themselves alone in the vastness of space. The Sila found no reason to disabuse them. These creatures had nothing to teach them.

On all the planets, in all the galaxies in all the universes similarity abounded. There was nothing new under the suns… not even sun. But water, in its liquid state, unfrozen and not gaseous, was rare. So, there was interest when the Sila, probing far, far into the distant lights of the sky found a planet that was 98% saltwater.

Probing beneath its surface, they discovered a huge variety of life, an almost overwhelming multiplicity of species.

A few were free floating, looking like Sila themselves, though they were carbon based. Many lived in colonies, individuals sharing a common skeleton. They had no brains. A loose network of nerves detected light, odor and touch. Each had long, waving, poisonous tentacles. Probing into their calcium depths, the Sila discovered minute organism in each that could turn light into sugar. These tiny alchemists fed their own skeletons with food made from light. 

Deeper still, from the dark water rose the bleached remains of older colonies, some were shaped like brains, others like plates, or horns. These too had once been living, but due to temperature, salinity, or depth, they had died and lay white and silent beneath the waves.

There were other ruins too. Some younger, some older, vast towering made of glass, steel and stone. In them, the Sila found no life.

The Sila believed in light, in time, space, rock and chemicals. They believed in thought and ideas. They believed in communication. They did not believe in spirit or in soul. Souls were the inventions of carbon-based life, created to still the terror of an endless sleep, and to calm the fears of an infinite night.

Then they found them. Beings like themselves, round, pliant, opaque and still, lacking all traces of animation. How could this be? They were obviously not rocks. The Sila had seen too many stones on too many planets to be confused. These were Sila, but devoid of intellect, without life – dead.

They lay, two each, inside of six-foot rectangular squares that had been hewed in the ground many millions of years ago. Some were encased in fragments of metamorphic rock, some surrounded by molecules of rotted cellulose. They sat like soft, large eggs, placed symmetrically inside a curious construction of calcium which reeked of long dead carbon. How had they gotten here, buried beneath Water and Earth? What had happened to them?

The Sila were infinite, and yet, here was death, come to their kind on a planet in a galaxy far, far away. The Sila’s minds were invaded by that first ambassador of emotion; curiosity. It was like a finger pulling aside a curtain, letting in the first small beam of light, and as a shadow follows light, it was followed by a glimmering of fear.

The Sila shivered first collectively, then individually. If death was inevitable, each wanted a soul for itself, an afterlife, a heaven. And so, the Sila separated. Their expansive minds condensed. Their society collapsed. Yet it could have been so easily avoided, if only they had understood the words on the underside of the dead Sila; Best Breasts Allegan Brand.



E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and biologist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. King has won various awards and fellowships for art, writing, and environmental research. She’s been published widely, most recently in Clarksworld, Flame Tree, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores and On Spec. One of her tales is on Tangent’s recommended readings in 2019. Her books include Dirk Quigby’s Guide to the Afterlife, Electric Detective, and Blood Prism.

No Vacancy

by Ádám Gerencsér

My child, I apologize for the blinding light. By now, you have probably understood that the truck swerving into your lane failed to come to a halt and you did not survive the impact.

Be advised that a million other souls around the world are hearing a similar message at this moment. You rightly expect a tunnel of light to lead you to our side. Today, however, I’m afraid that you cannot be accepted and must return to the living. In fact, no-one will be accepted until further notice, so it is imperative that you pay attention and mark my words.

You see, heaven was established with a clear purpose: housing the spirits of the faithful departed, along with those of benevolent unbelievers. The billions of entities who were its original inhabitants formed an ecosystem: the hierarchy of angels. The kingdom reposed in a state of serene equilibrium, waiting with eager patience for its first arrivals, while on the blue planet the primordial soup spewed forth algae, bacteria, dinosaurs, trees and marsupials, all of which did not possess a receptive soul. That gift was imparted to a couple of primates who had shown promise by overcoming their own limitations and reaching for the fruit of knowledge. Many of their descendants failed, but some lived a life pleasing to the Maker – and as they departed, we began to receive them. Hunters and gatherers from communities attuned to the natural order of things had no difficulty fitting in here.

Then, gradually, your kind took to evolution with increasing zest. We were not too concerned by the newcomers from tribes that worshipped the sun, or despotic fiefdoms ruled by warlords. Once we had presented them with ’alpha males’, higher angels they could respect and whose commands they would follow, they slotted right in. But then alphabets cropped up and written discourses began to spread – we were aghast at receiving scholars, pharisees and scribes! Things first threatened to get out of hand when arrivals began to trickle in from the Greek city states. The celestial spheres were no longer immutable and the abodes of the dead were echoing with the chatter of varied languages debating history, philosophy, ethics, even metaphysics – before long, a pluralism of views became the new norm in the outer cloud rings.

Mankind’s ideas mutated at an accelerating pace, while with each passing generation more and more of you were born and died. Countless bloody wars filled our entrance halls with the ghosts of massacred innocents from all corners of the world. Our hierarchy became untenable, the very orderliness of the afterlife teetered on the brink as the emergence of new angels failed to keep up with the breakneck population growth among the deceased. The renaissance was bad enough, but the second wave of so-called enlightenment in your 19th century practically overwhelmed the administrative capacities of the angelic host, which had hitherto acted as the immune system of the heavenly realm. With the wide spread of literacy, free-thinkers started arriving in unprecedented numbers, and it was no longer possible to smoothly integrate them as their revolutionary discourse had infected the ethereal fabric woven during bygone, calmer ages.

The breaking point came today. Of the million or so newcomers expected, one was bound to tip the balance and human souls would outnumber angels for the first time in the kingdom’s history. With a view to ensuring the sustainable operation of heaven, no further arrivals will be admitted before the Maker guides us to find a solution. Until that happens, all deaths are suspended indefinitely. No accidents, illnesses or acts of crime will be permitted to result in mortal casualties – the physical forces of the universe shall be instructed to conspire for the preservation of human life under all circumstances. Please note, however, that births do not fall within our jurisdiction and will continue unabated. Therefore, go back now and tell all who would listen: your kind has certain arrangements to make…


Cast Not a Shadow

In the darkness, the Buddha is a light.
     Cast not a shadow, and align your soul with what is right.
Such was the verse inscribed above the entrance to the Chamber of Light, hidden a mile within the Kitala Mountains. Alaria knew that those words were a fleck of eternity, cast upon the ever-changing canvas of the world. Yet the verse was not just a remote, noble truth, but a command. Although the gilded bronze in which it was written was like garish face-paint over the enduring stone, it helped train Alaria’s mind on her task as she followed the four monks into the chamber. The thin brown cloak over her naked body provided little warmth in the ancient mountain air that sat motionless beneath the cliff faces. Yet the mountains too were illusory—indeed, the entire world was. The only truth was the Buddha: everything else was no more than reflections in an infinite pool of water.
Alaria had to remember that, to feel it to be true. For her test would reveal if she was ready to leave the world behind. If she was truly greater than the phantasmagoria of life.
When they entered the Chamber of Light, Alaria’s bare feet met the tight black linen sheet covering the ground, giving some relief to her numb toes. It was dark in here, though she could see well enough to determine that the ceiling was only a few inches above Farilon’s head, the tallest monk of the group. The only items in the room were instruments for the test on a wooden bench next to the wall on Alaria’s right. There was also a brass lantern, which Farilon retrieved and held in both his hands.
The other monks went to examine the instruments, whispering faintly amid their curtains of long, pale hair that concealed clean-shaven faces. Alaria waited at the center of the room. She held her cloak tight at her neck, resisting the urge to flick a trailing lock of her dark brown hair from her eyes. When Farilon bade her, she faced the other wall. He stood between her and the wall, the lantern held up to the level of his chest where the eight-pointed star and surrounding three orbs of the Levantra sect were stitched in silver thread onto the breast of his earthy brown robe. His usually tranquil eyes regarded her severely.
“Alaria Trivol,” he began, “initiate of the Travera Temple, seeker of the Buddha, and of light.”
At his last word, he turned a knob on the lantern. Its four faces tilted slightly so that the light within became visible in hairline shafts. The lantern, called the Daivara, was suffused with a pure white glow like a smudged fingerprint of moonlight. Farilon’s face was as white as a skull, his long nose the polished beak of a white raven. The room, with the black cloth covering the floor and walls, was like the inside of a jewelry box, empty but for that one brilliant jewel, the Daivara.
Alaria could hear the other monks behind her, the soft thump of their bare feet on the cloth, the clinks and windings of their instruments as they set them on the ground behind her. She looked at Farilon in the eyes, and the man gave a single nod. It was time. She removed her cloak and handed it to him, her bare skin prickling with goosebumps. She felt like curling into a ball to hide her naked body, but she had at least known the details of the test from her sister Reyli, so had somewhat prepared herself for it.
The lantern was then opened fully. Alaria closed her eyes, for the light was nearly intense enough to blind her. The backs of her eyelids were splotched with orange and white.
Let me be ulnor, she thought. Or at least violet. Nothing less than violet. She knew it wouldn’t help though: whatever light came through her would do so based on her achievements of the past months, not a fleeting wish of the moment.
She listened intently as the monks examined their equipment, could hear the telltale chirrup as gavor rays were detected with a lintin device, though the rest was more speculation on Alaria’s part. She imagined the black plate of obdoron whitening with the outline of her bones, and the glass of pressurized water beginning  to drip as mirava rays heated the fluid. She hoped that the penvara crystal would glow with that eerie purple-azure light from ulnor rays, though that wasn’t very likely. The monks then proceeded to examine the spots with their thick magnifying glasses.
Violet, Alaria thought again, holding her breath.
“Red. Orange,” Serion spoke behind her.
“Green,” Maline added.
There was a pause as they hunted for the more difficult colours, those that may have only one or two tiny dots present, as opposed to, say, red, that would have been sprinkled about her shadow copiously.
Alaria relaxed slightly when blue was called out, but she still felt tense. It was one thing to stand naked in a dark room with four monks around her, but quite another to have one of them shine a light brighter than Krinlar, the life-giving star, at her while the others analyzed her shadow.
It seemed that violet was not forthcoming. Serion announced deep blue, but apparently, it wasn’t the right hue to be considered violet. Alaria felt like asking how he determined one shade from another, but when she squinted her eyes open, she saw the white face of Farilon, his eyes closed next to the Daivara like the face of a corpse, and she was again reminded of her purpose. That’s all I need to do: die properly to get to the next world. But she needed to be ulnor first. She needed to be as enlightened as the monks of the Inner Temple, to have not only visible light pass through her body, but ulnor rays as well. Yet even that was only the first step. She could ascend upon attaining ulnor, but some of the monks were striving to cultivate their minds until all light could pass through their bodies: to have no shadow whatsoever. Cast not a shadow.
At last, Maline announced, “Alaria Trivol. A soul of the sea.”
The sea. Blue.
Farilon, his eyes still closed, gave a brief nod of recognition before turning the knob to shut the lantern. Alaria opened her eyes immediately, though all she could see were orange splotches on black. She felt fabric touch her arm, and grasped her cloak, sweeping it around her shoulders. She felt the edge of it hit something, but couldn’t see what it was in the dark—probably Serion, because he would have been too discreet to say anything about it.
Alaria heard the monks return their equipment to the bench, and when her eyes readjusted to the dark, she saw hints of white on the obdoron plate. She was content that at least nearly all the kesla rays had passed through her, revealing only blurred outlines of bones.
She turned back to Farilon. He inclined his head slightly, though his features remained unreadable, so Alaria couldn’t tell whether it was a congratulatory gesture or one of pity. After all, she wasn’t even violet. Both she and her sister would remain in Travera.
She inclined her head in turn, and they set off from the room. Although this ceremony was held in the most sacred regard, the moment they were out of the Chamber of Light, Alaria couldn’t help but turn back to Farilon and whisper, “Does this mean I can study with the Great Light Felzar?”
A flicker crossed the monk’s tawny eyes, though he kept walking at a measured pace. “You will see,” he said. “He will decide if you are worthy.”
“It’s not bad, the forest,” Alaria was telling Reyli. “Just think: a month ago, you had no spots at all. And green is closer to violet than it is to red.”
A half smile crossed Reyli’s thin lips. She didn’t believe Alaria, of course. But then again, Alaria hardly believed herself. She was trying to encourage her sister about her test result, and she’d told Reyli that she’d only just attained blue, even though she was on the brink of violet.
They had met in the meditation hall with an open wall overlooking the mountains. Here, cool air whipped around the monks, testing their concentration, their resilience to the cold. It was Reyli’s chosen place of devotion, but Alaria never went there unless she had to: her red linen robe wasn’t nearly warm enough for the mountain air, and her toes would always freeze up. But whenever she walked by the hall, she couldn’t help but watch the monks sitting on the cold marble floor, their long hair flapping about them and the sleeves of their robes billowing as if they were about to take flight.
When Alaria had found Reyli, the two of them set off toward the Great Light Quarters where Alaria was to speak with Great Light Felzar—or rather, he was to speak to her, for she didn’t imagine that she would be allowed to do much talking.
“Next year—” Alaria began, but a touch from Reyli’s hand silenced her.
“Do not speak of next year,” Reyli said, her voice faint, as if it were far away in the mountains. “There will be none.”
“The White Eye hasn’t found Travera yet.”
“He will.”
They were nearing Felzar’s chamber, halfway down the hall of white marble with its columns of dark stone. Alaria hadn’t said half of what she’d intended to say and had said a great many things she hadn’t wanted to, but Reyli had become more distant recently, more apocalyptic about the fate of the world. So when they reached Felzar’s chamber, Alaria hadn’t told her sister about how she’d felt during the test, how serious Farilon had been, and how she had probably smacked Serion with her cloak in the dark.
“Good luck, Alaria,” Reyli said at the doors. Despite her previous aloofness, she tucked a loose strand of Alaria’s hair behind her ear.
Alaria waited a few moments as she watched her sister depart, her bare feet silent as if she were no more than a phantom. She then pulled on the cord of crystalline venla stones hanging next to the door. In only a short moment, Farilon opened the door, not half as grim as he had been this morning in the Chamber of Light, but not particularly amiable either. He raised an eyebrow as if he hadn’t expected to see Alaria so soon. Indeed, most monks would have spent the rest of the day after their test meditating.
Farilon stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind him softly. “You did well today,” he said.
“Really?” Alaria wondered how standing naked under a Daivara light could be performed well or poorly.
“Not all monks take it with such equanimity.”
“I see.” She wondered how Reyli had fared. “Well, I’d like to see Great Light Felzar. Now.” She had to specify “now,” or else the meeting might be set for a week or two.
“Is it True?” Farilon asked.
Alaria just regarded him firmly. Although she had been here for less than three months, she was qualified enough to call for a True meeting with one of the Great Lights.
“I will announce you then,” Farilon conceded. “But if he does not wish you there—”
“Then I will be brief. Really, Farilon, you’re his student, not his bodyguard.”
“True.” Farilon smiled and returned to the room, though he didn’t shut the door behind him.
Alaria peered inside. It was a tall room with shards of venla hanging from the upper arches of the ceiling. Their surfaces winked in the sunlight whenever they shifted from the slight wind that came through the square windows near the top of the walls. Beneath these starry gems sat Great Light Felzar, his crimson robe rendering him a spot of red in the bare room. Farilon stood next to the door, and after inclining his head to his master with his palms faced upward at waist level, he departed.
Alaria approached the Great Light and stopped halfway across the room. She licked her lips, the cold silence pressing in on her ears. Perhaps she had been too rash coming here. The reason she had chosen Felzar was because he was the only Great Light who had spoken to her before. It had been shortly after she’d arrived, and he had told her, “I see a noble light within you. We shall have to hunt it out, shan’t we?” But Alaria now wondered if he said that to everyone who came here, and so wasn’t sure what to say to him now.
Although Felzar wasn’t exactly imposing, whenever Alaria made eye contact with him, he seemed capable of reading her thoughts with his white-blue eyes, bright skies stretched with white clouds. His white hair settled in ringlets on the floor about him. He was not so old in years as he was in his soul, though if Farilon was correct, Felzar had lived here ever since he was two years old.
“I see your light, Alaria,” Felzar said, his voice rising like mist, sending a shiver up Alaria’s spine.
“And I see your light, Great Light Felzar.”
“It seems you have passed your test.”
“No, I’m only blue.”
“What were you when you came to Travera?”
“Only the usual rays could pass through me. Only gavor, some kesla, and raimir. So I don’t suppose I was anything.”
Nothing,” Felzar said with a touch of sorrow. “Come sit.”
Alaria walked until she was a few paces from Felzar and sat cross-legged on the floor, resting her hands on her knees.
“If you are once nothing, you will forever be nothing,” Felzar continued. “If you are once something, you will forever be something. You know why?”
“Because time is an illusion.”
“Indeed. Yet even if it were not, what you will become is already within your soul. You have grains of starlight hidden in there, waiting to surface.”
“Will you teach me?”
Felzar smiled. Alaria felt that she was somehow being slighted, but didn’t say anything about it, even though she was sure Felzar could understand her thoughts. That was, of course, one of the reasons why she wasn’t ulnor yet: she couldn’t control her thoughts.
“You are a fine teacher, Alaria,” was all Felzar said.
“But I’m not—”
“I believe it is time for your study of the leminas.”
Of course it is, but this is more important.
Felzar raised an eyebrow as if he had heard that, so Alaria just said, “Yes. I shall depart, Great Light.”
Felzar nodded, and Alaria inclined her head before departing. When she closed the door to Felzar’s chamber, she decided that with or without his guidance, she would be ulnor by the end of the month. Which, she quickly calculated, would give her exactly thirty-two days.
So she set off to the Kelsar Chamber to study the leminas with the other initiate monks.
Alaria and Reyli hadn’t had any delusions about what would happen to them at Travera. They would be preparing themselves for death. They would be killed—or, as the monks put it, “released”—as soon as they were ready. Each step they took, each prayer they whispered, every time they sat down to meditate, were all strands of events braided by hands of fate and their own intentions, tethering them to a realm beyond the world. Although here, they would only remain as corpses, there, they would live. That is, if they passed the test. If a monk was killed before attaining ulnor, they would only be reborn in Rey again, for their soul wouldn’t be sufficiently enlightened to be drawn to a higher world.
Alaria often wondered how the monks had figured it all out, but it made sense to her, and it was the only hope she had of escaping the White Eye’s reign of terror. She wouldn’t return to the world, that place of strife, of blood dripping from tower walls, staining the cobbles of the streets so that when it rained, pools of rainwater were stained a rusty hue. From her bedroom window, Alaria had often seen stray wolves drink from those pools at night, gaunt shadows slinking into town, drawn by the scent of blood. If there was a corpse left on the streets, it would always be found half-eaten by morning, its stomach a mangled pit of blood and muscles.
But none of this happened at the Temple. The armies of the White Eye hadn’t found Travera yet, cloistered away in the haunts of the Kitala Mountains. But they knew that over two hundred people had vanished, and a hideaway was suspected. So it was only a matter of time. Time to die properly, to leave this world once and for all before its foundations crumbled beneath the monks, sending them spiraling into lives of despair without hope of escape.
The next few weeks passed like an eerie reflection of moonlight skimming the surface of a tumultuous sea, never penetrating its depths. Life seemed to be passing outside Travera, evinced from stories told by the messengers who brought supplies to the mountain temple. And yet, that life of bloodshed and deceit was no more real than the life lived here.
Having determined to make the most of her time to purify her mind and soul, Alaria spent her days meditating in that shaft of moonlight, hovering above the toils of the world. Whenever her concentration wavered, she drew her thoughts toward the Buddha and the true nature of the world. She knew that Rey was one of countless worlds within countless Buddha-fields, some of whose inhabitants followed the Buddha, and others who were still ignorant of the truth.
She seldom saw Reyli, for Reyli was nearly always in the mountainside meditation hall, even during the monks’ meals. Indeed, it was two weeks since Alaria had last seen her sister, and when she did, it was in the hallway before Reyli’s chosen meditation chamber. Alaria called her sister’s name, and Reyli stopped, a bit too suddenly. Alaria caught up with her, and when she saw Reyli’s face, she couldn’t help but exclaim, “Reyli! Are you sick?” For her sister’s face was more sharply featured than usual, her cheeks were hollowed, and the skin around her eyes lined.
“Why do you say that?” Reyli asked.
“You’re… pale. And thin.”
Reyli shook her head. “I am well.” She then turned to leave.
“Wait.” Alaria placed a hand on Reyli’s shoulder. She felt the knobby bone of her shoulder sticking through her robe.
“What?” Reyli’s voice was flat, uncaring.
Alaria removed her hand and said, “I’m doing my test in three days.”
“As am I.”
“Maybe we could, well…”
“Alaria, I must return to the hall.” She waited a moment for Alaria to respond, but when she didn’t, Reyli turned and left.
She’s preparing to leave, Alaria thought. She hoped Reyli wasn’t trying to perform the ancient practice of self-mummification, when monks would turn themselves into living corpses by starving and drying out their bodies. By the time they inevitably died, their bodies would be preserved, and, as those of the Levantra sect used to believe, would prevent their souls from reincarnating. The only problem was that if the monk in question wasn’t sufficiently enlightened, although light might pass through their emaciated body, their soul wouldn’t ascend as they’d planned. It would remain in Rey as an unembodied spirit neither able to interact with the world nor depart from it.
Alaria instinctively turned to the stairs that led to the Great Light Quarters. She knew she shouldn’t be fretting, and in truth, her mind wasn’t truly distressed, for she had attained much in these past few weeks, and peace came more readily to her. But she couldn’t just let Reyli perish and remain trapped in the spiritual planes of this world for eternity.
Alaria was admitted into Felzar’s room without complication, for as her test was to take place in only three days, these might very well be her last days in Travera. And on Rey, for that matter.
As usual, Felzar was sitting cross-legged on the floor amid his cascades of white hair, and Alaria sat across from him. After bowing, she was quick to ask, “What happens to souls trapped without a body? The ones that don’t ascend.”
“No two souls are alike,” Felzar mused.
“Yes, but—”
“Do you know why I am here, Alaria?”
There was a silence. Eventually, Alaria said, “No.”
“It is to show you what not to ask.” He smiled. Alaria could tell that he wasn’t telling the whole truth. “To not ask, but to have faith, is your duty now. You will discover when you are ready.”
“There are some, though, that might never be ready.”
“That is why I am here. We remain in this world to teach, for otherwise, how else could seekers hope to ascend? Some must stay behind. Even after Travera is captured, some must remain, or Levantra will be lost from the world, and all hope with it.”
Alaria shivered. It wasn’t from the cold, for she was more or less used to that. She felt as though Felzar were asking her a question, and she dreaded to answer it. I’m leaving this world soon. I need not think of what remains. Yet at the same time, she couldn’t help but imagine Felzar sitting in the dungeons beneath the White Eye’s tower, his beautiful hair cut raggedly short, streaks of blood the same colour as his crimson robe crossing his face. And yet, he was still tranquil. He was waiting for the right time.
“Yes,” Alaria said softly. “Someone must remain.”
“Yes. Someone.
Sometimes, reviving herself from a deep concentration, Alaria felt as though she were being born anew into the world. She would walk into the dining hall, gazing about, wondering what a strange place the physical world was. How solid and permanent it seemed! And at the same time, she saw it as ephemeral, for at one command from the Buddha’s highest followers, the bodhisattvas, it would reveal itself to be no more than dust, floating back into the formless void. That was why she couldn’t become attached, couldn’t become too caught up in the world. Because if she did, whenever that time of dissolution came, she would drift away with that dust, her soul trapped and sleeping forever.
In truth, Alaria had hoped for violet from the test, for it had only been three weeks since her first test. So when the test arrived, and Serion and Maline called out not only violet, but that the penvara crystal was glowing with ulnor rays, Alaria felt as though she had broken a glass around her, that she could finally be free. True, the penvara crystal glowed only faintly, but to Alaria’s eyes, the haunting purple glow was beautiful, and more importantly, enough for her to leave the world behind. She had to find Reyli first, though wasn’t sure if they would end up sharing in a common joy or commiserating in a failure.
Reyli wasn’t in the meditation hall, nor was she in her dormitory. After Alaria had encircled nearly the entire complex of Travera, she began to notice that her heart beat quicker, and that there was a nervousness in her mind. It was as if the nervousness was sitting there, detached, no longer a part of her. But she still sensed it, and her suspicions were only confirmed when she met Farilon and Maline speaking in the hall.
When Alaria asked them about Reyli, Maline said, “She is in the Chamber of Ascension.”
“But she…”
A peculiar look crossed Farilon’s face.
“She was ulnor, then,” Alaria continued. “But was it True?”
“One can only speculate,” Farilon said.
“And what are your speculations?”
“She was very thin.”
Thin—but thin enough to be mummified? Enough to have ulnor rays pass through her not because she was enlightened, but because her body was drifting away?
Although Farilon’s answer was hardly satisfactory, Alaria knew she didn’t have much time, so she hastened to the Chamber of Ascension—of ‘Death’, it should have been called. It wasn’t too far from the Chamber of Light, so she imagined that Reyli must have gone there right after her test. But did she really want to leave so soon that she would have left without so much as a word to Alaria?
A monk was standing at the door to the Chamber down at the end of a hall darker than the rest, with fewer windows along the top of the walls. Alaria didn’t recognize the monk, but he seemed to know that she was expected here, for he immediately placed his hand in a horizontal slit in the door. A mechanism inside was released, and the door swung open on greased hinges.
Upon passing through the door, Alaria was overcome with the scent of death—not exotic flowers from a nobler world, but this world made all too real around her. It was dimly lit with glowing red stones embedded into the walls. The floor was not white marble, but the same dark granite as the walls. To hide the blood, Alaria couldn’t help but think. She then realized that she didn’t actually know how the monks were ‘released.’ A sword thrust? No, that was too brutal. Poison, then?
She quickened her pace, not sure where the hall was leading, but eventually, she heard voices. There were two doors at the end of the hall, each a rectangle of smooth, dark wood with a simple brass ring as a handle. Alaria stopped, trying to determine which room the voices were arising from. She couldn’t be sure, so chose the one on the right and pushed it open quietly. She knew that she’d picked wrong when she continued to hear voices through the wall to her left. Yet there were still people in here—at least, what had been people.
Alaria felt her throat constrict as she walked through aisles of corpses. They stretched far back into the heart of the mountain, further than she could see in the dark, for the only light arose from a single glowing stone next to the door. The corpses near the front of the room showed no signs of decay, each lying on a separate stone platform that just fit the length of their body. Their hands were folded across their chests as if in prayer, and although their eyes were closed, Alaria felt that she was being watched through dozens of eyelids, wondering why she, ulnor herself, hadn’t yet joined them.
It took her a moment to realize that the door was being opened, and that, in this place of death, she was an unwelcome intrusion. She quickly ducked behind one of the stone tables that held a woman with long white hair and a tight jaw. Peering around the edge, Alaria saw two monks, a man and a woman, carrying a body on a cloth stretcher between them. They carefully set it down on one of the tables close to the door. The female monk arranged the dead monk’s hair and robe, and set the corpse’s hand across her chest, while her companion dusted a white powder over the corpse’s skin from a spherical glass jar. Alaria felt her heart beat keenly in her chest: she knew who the corpse had been. Its long, dark hair, its emaciated frame, its sharp cheekbones that looked like bones beneath the white dust. Alaria bit her lip. Why did they even bother? Why did they keep bodies that were no more than husks, when the true person had fled? Perhaps it was a remnant from the self-mummification rituals, to keep the body as a talisman on Rey, preventing the soul from reincarnating.
After the two monks left the room, Alaria approached the table. This isn’t Reyli, she told herself. She brought a hand close to the corpse’s face, let her hand hover over Reyli’s eyes. In her mind, Alaria said, Wherever you are, sister, may your soul be in the Buddha’s light.
She let her hand drop, and felt a chill creep up her bare feet to her legs. She looked out over the lines of corpses. How many… she wondered, how many are still here, trapped as spirits…
Alaria saw a flicker of movement across the wall to her left. It floated down the room like a shadow before vanishing in the darkness.
It was then that she decided what she must do.
“As I told you, you are a fine teacher.” Felzar smiled at his new apprentice, his cloudy blue eyes dappled with a bit of sunlight.
“Well, I wasn’t then,” Alaria said. It had been three months since she had passed her test as an ulnor. Three months to realize that there was so much more to learn before departing, and most importantly, so many more initiates to guide from this world.
“Ah, but what is time?” Felzar asked.
“Nothing at all.”
“So do you have a shadow?”
Instinctively, Alaria peered to her left, where a shadow of her sitting figure was cast upon the white marble. “I don’t,” she said softly.
For she knew that one day, her shadow would vanish. And if she was once enlightened, she would be for all time.