Browse Tag

death

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.

~

Bio:

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: ww.elizabetheveking.com and amazon.com/author/eeking

Should Murder Be Legalized?

by Carlton Herzog

INTELLIGENCE SQUARED DEBATE, August 21, 2064

QUESTION: SHOULD MURDER BE LEGALIZED?

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.”

~

Bio:

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.

~

Bio:

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 https://www.aliciahilton.com. Follow her on Twitter @aliciahilton01.

History

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.

~

Bio:

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: stephensottong.com.

Bait

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.

~

Bio:

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.

Misogynist

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.

~

Bio:

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 www.gustavobondoni.com.

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).

BACKGROUND

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.

NEKROS v. U.S.

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:       

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

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.

ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE

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.

DUE PROCESS

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.

EQUAL PROTECTION

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.

RIGHT OF PRIVACY

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.  

DOCTOR FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTERS

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.

JUSTICE WILBUR BAKER, DISSENTING

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.

~

Bio:

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.

Sila

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.

~

Bio:

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.