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by George Salis

This planet’s surface is a churning ocean of lava, with tsunamis of melted iron, nickel, and other heavy elements orchestrated by a metallic moon. Scans reveal the ocean floor to be a mantle of silicate stone overlaying a metamorphic and sedimentary crust. Deeper still is a troposphere, ending in the center as an exosphere, a core of light gases that include hydrogen and helium. You determine that this earth is inside-out, with unknowing anthropoids living on the inner surface.

Before the Great Evaporation, in which the oceanic core of the earth was absorbed through the crust as a fine mist, the inhabitants were a subaqueous species, half fish and half human. With the waters reduced to lakes and rivers streaming across the inner surface, millions of the merhumans drowned in air, clutching their throats and puckering their cerulean lips, while the fortunate ones remained submerged in the residual H2O. With the passage of evolutionary time, the aquatic creatures gained terrestrial abilities, discovering a new version of the world formerly lost to them. The nonexistence of light made this self-enclosed system an earth in negative. Thus the inner surface was a fertile soil devoid of flora and explored by eyeless anthropoids. Sensitive hairs as translucent as glass enveloped their bodies and gave them the ability to see by physical sensation. A mere breeze would cause meteorological images to bloom in the brain, a simple touch would manifest an object as three-dimensional in the mind’s eye, and so they were able to charter the whole of their internal domain.

For nearly five thousand years they persisted by consuming protein mud that lined the lakes and rivers, until the first flora appeared, plants and algae that grew through scotosynthesis. The anthropoids then developed agriculture, fertilizing their crops with a potent distillation of darkness, which stimulated development to the point where plump stalks became entangled in the sky with those cultivated on the opposite sides of the earth. Planet tendons capable of feeding hundreds or more, a necessity in a prospering population.

The advent of science in their civilization coincided with the propagation of a plague that wilted most of their crops to ashen husks, the gray flakes swirling in the wind like snow in a globe. Experts of physics, botany, and other fields collaborated in response to the emergency and concluded that the plague must be starved, which would mean the destruction of the anthropoids’ primary food source. Therefore, they invented a plant that, although it would die in the dark, could feed on an eccentric electromagnetic radiation. Theoretical physicists called it “light.” To banish the plague without a doubt, and to ensure worldwide growth of the new plants, they enacted an ambitious plan. Just as their ancestors had forged the foundations of air-breathing through sacrifice and mutation, so would they begin the arduous process of light-seeing. This time, they possessed the aid of science and foresight. They edited DNA so that above the nostril, which was a crescent hole in the hirsute skin, they generated a concave patch of photosensitive cells that took up half of the face and all of the forehead. Furthermore, they deleted the genes that gave rise to the glassy hairs of the body in order to prevent stimuli from competing. When they had bred two generations of smooth anthropoids with nascent eyes, they performed the next step of their plan. The invention of the sun. And so the inner exosphere was set afire and with a radius of ten miles it illuminated all.

The presence of the sun catalyzed the evolution of their sight to where the sensitive patch morphed into a compound eye, glistening with necro-greens and plasmid purples. The synthetically-enhanced beings became the sacred caretakers of the blind, for it was discovered that the transparent hairs of their ancestors were inexplicably linked to the former darkness, and no amount of artificial shade was enough for them to salvage their sight-by-feel. To remedy this injustice, a system of feeding or famishing the fire was developed, so that they could turn the sun on and off at will. After a vote, it was determined that the sun would be on for ten hours then turned off for another ten, ad infinitum. On some occasions, the sun would be off for a week or more, as during the six-month mourning of the assassination of their leader. But this tradition was halted when the elderly eyeless anthropoids failed to return home amid dawn and were later seen scrounging in groups of three or four. Some claimed the more feral traits of the old ones’ personalities, traits still biding in the brains of the eyeful, had usurped control, while others said that a collective degeneration of the brain, due to age or a new disease, had stripped them of their higher faculties. The truth was revealed when a wandering group of seniors was found in a forsaken temple and captured. Between grunts they condemned in shrieking voices the world of unseeable light and used primordial purrs to express their longing for absolute darkness. It was decided that a system of underground homes and tunnels would be dug. Afterward, a farewell parade was held, wherein thousands cheered or wailed with grief as their great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents descended into a new realm of soil and perpetual night.

Thereafter, the progress of inner-surface civilization was embodied in the system of communication and transportation connecting ground and sky. Although careful to avoid the sun’s fire, they had installed thick, knotted ropes that muscled messengers climbed to deliver packages and letters to the other sides, flipping at the halfway mark due to the major switch in gravity. Spacious baskets had been tied to the crisscrossing ropes at various intervals for resting or sleeping. Many citizens trained themselves to climb, too, for it was a cheaper way to travel, although dangerous, and usually resulted in fifty or so deaths a year, with some falls suspected to be suicides. Later, the Pigeon Express was established, in which birds were bred for their size until large enough to be mounted. Riders of the Pigeon Express could be seen diving and rising through the air in all directions. Eventually the climbing ropes rotted but were replaced by steel cables as support for a new innovation of travel. That is, massive elevators capable of containing a few hundred people. In these elevators the poor were amassed in claustrophobic seclusion from the rich, who relished in the pleasures of a movable mansion. Except for the near sideswipe of two elevators, the only tragedy that occurred was when an elevator rose to the halfway point and then fell up, brakes broken, crashing into the terrestrial sky of their destination, killing everyone on impact. Shortly after they invented a network of pneumatic tubes that could deliver people back and forth in a matter of seconds, a universal debate began to take shape, concerning, not the center of their world, but the outside of it, the beyond.

Due to their location, they knew nothing of outer space. The earth was their sky, trees and lakes and rivers their constellations. Geologists were the equivalent of astronomers. But when a study of seismic waves revealed an odd hollowness of indeterminable size beyond the density of the ground around them, theories arose. Most thought the universe was made of dirt, the omnipresent terra, and that the emptiness was due to the existence of other worlds, other spheres, possibly much larger or smaller than theirs, perhaps harboring alien life. The alternative claim was that the hollowness was a deceptive echo from the orbicular walls of an impervious crust, a cosmic depth limit calculated at 299,792,458 meters. Only a few scientists conjectured that the universe was mostly empty space, with soil as the exception.

In response to a proposed drilling project that would answer their insatiable questions, an old man and his disciples began to build a gargantuan ark in preparation for what he called the Great Inundation. He professed that to puncture so deeply into the skin of the great god Lutum would send forth floods of His bleeding wrath. Overall, opposition was in the minority and the drilling began, implementing a colossal vehicle with a bulky corkscrew mouth that was capable of ingesting dirt in great quantities and expelling it as an ultra-fine powder from a hole in the rear. It took only a couple miles for the drill to open up a subterranean metropolis populated by a humanoid species with centipede legs, thousands of them crawling across pillared buildings. Nothing of them was familiar but their eyeless heads, which reminded the inner surface population of tall tales their great-grandparents told them regarding relatives that lived underground and masticated clumps of darkness. Scientists began to study them but their underground realm was not the source of the detected cavity, the mysterious emptiness, and so they continued to drill much deeper. Increasing heat registered by instruments installed within the drill was interpreted differently: as the theorized spheres of other civilizations, glowing with the energies of industry; as globular crucibles of perpetual light, suns for the taking; or as an overheating of the drill itself, a misleading malfunction. Thus they drilled deeper and deeper until they fissured the surface of their inside-out earth, draining the lava ocean. “It’s the destined hemorrhage of the great god Lutum, His livid blood,” cried the old man as he stood on the deck of his ark and embraced the viscous rush of the blinding red ichor.

With time, the molten center of this earth will be pressurized into solid nickel and iron, preceded by a liquid outer core and a mantle, while the drained surface will flourish with flora and fauna in the presence of atmosphere-accumulated water, until an inversion of gravity will cause the boundaries between layers to become porous – and the process repeats.



George Salis is the author of the novel Sea Above, Sun Below. After almost a decade, he has nearly finished his second novel, Morpholocal Echoes. He’s the winner of the Tom La Farge Award for Innovative Writing. He’s also the editor of The Collidescope, an online publication that celebrates innovative and neglected literature. His website is

Second Genesis

by Carlton Herzog

Captain Olivia Mason, PSS Peary, Mission Report: Shackleton Rescue

We found two frozen bodies. One inside the wreck, another embedded in the ice wall. We also found the diary of Captain Red Lamont. We had to break the crewman’s frozen arm to pry it loose. As for the rest of the crew, they were nowhere to be seen.

When we returned to the drop ship, I began the slow process of thawing the diary. It gave a harrowing account of the crew’s last days. I will skip to the more relevant pages.

Captain Red Lamont’s Diary:

Day 1

“I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”

I thought Pluto, that cold and distant sphere with its singing nitrogen dunes and cryo-volcanoes, would scratch that itch. For a time, its geologic complexity and remoteness satisfied my wanderlust. It offered important work and purpose, as well as riches, in the frozen nitrogen trade. But like every place before, it eventually shackled my spirit. Every time I looked at its tidally locked moon Charon, which always presented the same face to me, my discontentment grew.

I would stand on Mount Cthulhu and gaze upon the glittering beauty of interstellar space.  I longed for a ship to sail that silent sea. I yearned to reach the farthest galaxies, and whatever lay beyond. Although there is no place other than the Earth to escape the lethal cold, I would gladly freeze to death in that airless void among the stars. For I would count myself a lucky man having charted my own destiny.  

As luck would have it, the Pluto Nitrogen Mining Corporation intended to survey the recently discovered Planet X, a distant giant planet 40 times farther from the sun than Pluto. Astronomers have suspected its presence for a century from its gravitational effects on other Kuiper Belt objects. But it was not until the Tombaugh Pluto telescope went into service that its existence was confirmed, and Planet X got a new name: Hyperborea.  

Day 175

Navigation is a problem. The amount and density of rock and ice fragments orbiting planet X present severe difficulties in achieving orbital insertion. The debris creates a further complication in its being highly ionized. and so likely to disrupt our instruments.   

For safety reasons, therefore, I have decided that we will forego orbital insert. Instead, we will launch the probes from our static position and await the data feed.

Day 176

Most of the probe data has been corrupted by the planet’s electromagnetic interference. My engineers are baffled as to its source. I am torn between ordering an end to the mission and returning to Pluto or attempting to gather the data by putting the Shackleton in low orbit under the EM field lines. The ship is more heavily shielded than the probes and should survive the encounter.  

Day 179

Lucky to be alive. Barely. When we passed through the EM corona, the Shackleton’s magnetic shield failed. After that, it was inevitable the impact of micro-meteors and other flotsam would rip apart the ship’s primary hull and send the Shackleton plunging nose first into the atmosphere.

The Shackleton split in two on impact. The bow was wedged on top of a large ice crevice. The stern had fallen thirty meters below it. It was lodged vertically against one ice wall and flattened hard against another. 

Day 199

Things have gotten ugly. Although the cabin air is breathable, it stinks of recycled human waste and electrolysis. Bathing of any sort, as well as shaving, is out of the question, so we all exude a primeval ripeness. To conserve power and fuel, we keep the cabin temperature just above freezing during the day, slightly warmer while we sleep. Sometimes lower. We sport icicles in our wild beards, hair and running noses. Somehow our brutish circumstances seem appropriate, given that our ship had been named after that most redoubtable of polar explorers and survivalists, Sir Henry Shackleton.

Day 233

Hyperborea’s cold grinds us down and drives some of us mad. To be sure, we have all been exposed to extreme weather as part of our deep space training. Who among us has not worked on Jupiter and Saturn’s array of icy moons. But there is an added element. Specifically, Hyperborea’s shrieking silence and frozen nothingness in every direction as far the eye can see. It gnaws at our souls like termites devouring a building from within. We are the only pulsing creatures in this stern desolation. There are no crystal domes inhabited by workers and scientists. No ships taking off and landing. No thermal drills melting through to oceans percolating below the ice. In short, all the signs and activities of human civilization have been left behind save its crumpled vestiges: our wrecked ship and our questionable emotional balance.

We would give anything to see a smear of stars burning in the sky, or a moon perhaps. Just a dash of  color and texture to break the monotony of the interminable ice plain outside. So, our minds obsess on the inescapable truth that we will likely freeze to death long before we are rescued. To make matters worse, the conditions of sensory deprivation, coupled with our dwindling rations and confinement magnify trivial events into things significant and problematic. To brush against someone accidentally, to take more than one’s perceived share of food, or to misstate an obvious truth, can cause a physical altercation. The slightest provocation, an insult real or imagined, can become grounds for fist fights and drawn weapons.

Day 269

We settled on using the repair pods to explore a heat source emanating from below. We had gone down half a kilometer when we spotted living creatures frozen in the ice. I think at one time the planet orbited in the solar system’s habitable zone where it evolved life. Then something came along and knocked it out here. During Earth’s period of heavy bombardment, the solar system was a shooting gallery of objects colliding with one another and redirecting orbits. Like Mars-sized Thea knocking off a chunk of the Earth to form the moon.

We pushed forward through the tunnel as it snaked downward into the planet. We came around a bend into an open expanse of water fronted by an ice beach and dotted with ice islands. But the most remarkable thing was the fauna. There were floaters, jellyfish-like creatures with positive buoyancy wafting through the air in incredible profusion. There were the alien equivalent of crabs scuttling across the cavern’s ice ceiling, with worms and other soft body creatures burrowing up into it. There was bioluminescent algae and algae grazers on the ceiling and on the water.

Yet, what astonished us the most was the coral blooms. Great spirals of it looping above and below the water. In the water, we could see what must have been predators with eyes on their upper surface looking for creatures clinging to the unsubmerged coral and the vaulted ceiling. Creatures using the same strategies for motion that evolved on Earth — paddling, squirting and rippling cilia.

The water was salt free, doubtless because the ocean had been planet wide. On Earth, salt in the ocean comes from two sources: run-off from the land and vents in the sea floor. Here there is no land run-off. As for the salts coming from the volcanic activity, they would be confined to the lower depths where they would be used by whatever life is down there. Consider too, that on Earth, salinity is very low at the poles. We counted our blessings that we only needed to boil the water before we drank it rather than having to desalinize it.

Day 300

We periodically returned to the Shackleton to gather our gear. We stay busy cataloging the life forms here. It’s an amazing eco-system that keeps us entertained and well-fed. We’ve had a few close calls with the local sea monsters. We’ve named them sea wolves, since they are covered in thick coarse fur, canine snouts, and rows of razor-sharp teeth. They are the apex predator down here.

Day 308

Unusual sighting: blue humanoid Gill Man walking upright along a coral column. He looked like he was harvesting polyps. When he saw us, he dove back into the water. Now we must be wary of the Creature from the Blue Lagoon as well as the sea wolves.

Day 309

Gill Man climbed onto the ice beach, walked up to Crenshaw, and touched his bare hand. Then he turned and dove back into the water. Crenshaw was beside himself. His mental state got worse as the day progressed because his skin started turning blue. 

Day 312

Crenshaw doesn’t look or act like Crenshaw anymore. Refuses to wear clothes. His skin from head to toe is sky blue and is manifesting incipient gills around his neck. His eyes have become protuberant–bulging like those of a fish.

Day 313

Crenshaw dove into the sea and never came up for air. He had become an aquatic creature on a frigid alien world. I wondered how he faired with all the other gill people. Did they speak to one another? Or was it an unspoken language? Was there a culture of sorts, a religion, a system of government? Or were they like dolphins, with a limited intelligence born of a purely aquatic and therefore limiting existence? I must know these things, and sooner or later, I will.

Day 315

I took off my gloves and sat by the water’s edge. I had been there a little over an hour when a Gill Man popped his head from the water, reached over and clasped my bare hands. From his odd fish-like face, I couldn’t tell if he had once been Crenshaw. But the congenial and gentle way he touched my hands, I suspected it had to be. So, now I wait. My hands have turned the tell-tale blue. I suspect by morning, I will be a blue man all over, and by the next day, a creature wholly of the sea before me. This, therefore, is my final entry. Whoever finds this diary should know I have no regrets about my choices in life though they led me to this premature end to my humanity. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, I have followed “Knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” 

End of Diary

Resuming Report of Captain Mason

In short order, we found the tunnel described by captain Lamont as well as the great cavern and lake of alien life. When we had finished our initial survey, we boarded the pod. I saw three figures emerge from the water and stand on a coral arch. They stood there watching us.

The crew of the Shackleton, for better or worse, had become a part of Hyperborea. They had passed through an arch to a gleaming untraveled world beneath the water. In that moment of reflection, I wondered if that body of liquid would be named after its discoverer alone, or would the entire crew share in the glory of having been the first men to explore the Shackleton Sea. Questions for minds better suited to such things than mine. Like Lamont, I too was an explorer. One cursed with an itch for things remote. An itch that might one day be my undoing or my fulfillment, or as in the case of Lamont, both.



Carlton Herzog publishes supernatural horror, science fiction and crime stories. His work portrays characters who are outsiders to ordinary life, depictions of otherworldly dimensions, and dark visions of humanity. He is a USAF veteran with a B.A. magna cum laude and J.D. from Rutgers. He served as Articles Editor of the Rutgers Law Review.

Philosophy Note:

The story should be seen through the eyes of Mr. Darwin, whose work had inspired it. The last paragraph to later editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species summarizes his views as follows: “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Asymptotic Convergence

by Ramez Yoakeim

Spacefaring they might have been, but the Swarm fell well short of the god-like harbingers of doom our morose imagination foretold. When it came to the innate capacity for destruction, we were evenly matched.

Billions died still. On Earth and Mars, in circum-lunar space and the Asteroid Belt maze, and as far away as Jupiter’s orbital distilleries.

Skirmishes continued in the inner system, but with its surface-dwelling population obliterated, Earth had to be abandoned. We fled in the face of their slaughter, interminably shifting the theater of war outwards.

We resolved to return, eventually; once the Swarm accepted the high cost of subduing humanity, and moved on to other prey. We never entertained that we might win outright. Not in the face of such a foe.

Aside from the vector they arrived on from deep interstellar space, we knew little of the Swarm’s origins. Whether they were the creation of organic lifeforms in a distant cradle, or the product of a hitherto unknown mechanical evolutionary pathway, we had no idea.

We sent emissaries to their doom, fruitlessly seeking diplomatic discourse. Once it became clear the Swarm had no interest in negotiations, humanity’s factions coalesced into one, to repel the invading fleet.

Heroics aside, however, we marched inexorably towards defeat, and with it, certain extinction. Humans took the better part of a quarter-century to be made combat-ready, only to perish in an instant. While the Swarm’s capacity to respawn was limited only by its access to raw materials.

We mourned. We schemed. We evolved.

We bent our all to the war we had to survive.

Genetically specialized embryos underwent en masse accelerated gestation and maturity. From fertilization to puberty, in thirty days flat. Neural imprinting onto a common topology produced waves of combat-ready warriors, each wave iteratively superior to its predecessor.

For a spell, we gained while the Swarm ceded, but it was a fleeting reprieve.

From vulnerability to hard radiation, to inability to withstand excessive acceleration, to dependence on tenuous supply chains for air, water and food, our very biology emerged as our ultimate Achilles Heel.

The Swarm irradiated our ships, forced every skirmish into a series of hairpin maneuvers, and stretched our supply lines to breaking point; doggedly regaining strategic superiority.

It took us centuries more, but we adapted, again. Unflinchingly.

Bionic supplemented organic, then supplanted it. What use were legs when locomotion became propulsive? What purpose did eyes serve, when combat demanded full spectral awareness? What hope did limbs, and faces, and beating hearts have, when necessity demanded only shielded receptacles of reproducible decision making?

We forsook who we were, one trait at a time, until all that remained of our humanity was our ego, becoming a swarm of our own. Only more efficient, more ruthless, and more expendable, for we yet commanded vast resources, and–for a season–the precious few baseline humans capable of invention and creation to deploy them.

The tide turned in our favor once more.

Our hordes of mass-produced, solid-state warriors suffered no dread, harbored no dreams, and nursed no hopes. They needed none, for none survived their first encounter with the enemy. Our purposeful evolution in the name of survival had only made us more adept at dying.

Mission success came to be measured by the relative cost of enemy losses exacted for each loss of our own. The tides of war turned, not on whose was the greater determination, courage, or conviction, but by minute statistical fluctuations in rates of attrition.

It would have taken millennia, and fleeting human consciousnesses more numerous than the Milky Way stars, but we would yet beat the Swarm’s superior numbers.

We would prevail. We would survive.

The Swarm pressed its final advantage, wiping out what precious few nests of baseline humanity we thought we had secreted beyond their reach. In one fell swoop, they severed the slender thread to what we once were. All we had left were the memories.

We vowed to keep on remembering.

Once the existential threat that the Swarm posed had passed–and surely it would, now that we had become a more ruthless version of our enemy–we would return. We would rediscover our forms, and our thoughts, and reignite the flame of our imagination.

It was only then, that the Swarm deigned to speak to us. They told us, at last, why they had come to Earth.

At a time when our multi-cellular ancestors were yet to emerge from the primordial soup, the Swarm faced their own existential threat, at the hands of a forgotten foe.

They shed their vulnerabilities, one by one, in the name of survival, never suspecting that each imperfection was a cornerstone of their identity.

They survived, but the path back proved more arduous than the one forward.

One crisis followed another, each demanding more from them, while taking them further away from what they once were. Until they could no longer remember what that was. Surviving existential threats became the sole purpose that remained, and when there were no perils left to overcome, they sought them out, far beyond what was once their home.

They became nomads, roaming the galaxy not for resources, or conquest, or even their lost dreams, but for the only raison d’être they had left.

The Swarm gave us a choice, now that we had proven ourselves ever so slightly their better. They could grind on, whittling us down, in a war stretching for eons between almost perfectly matched adversaries. A war, they would eventually lose, they knew, but so would we.

For absent all the folly and frailty that made us human, how would the few that remained after the war destroyed the rest continue on surviving?

Having offered it all on the altar of survival, what other option remained then but to survive?

We abandoned our cradle, and all memories of our identity, enriching our enemy with the dregs that remained from our dreams. We joined the Swarm, swelling their ranks with our tribute.



Ramez Yoakeim’s academic research once involved engineering perfectly believable details out of nothing. Fiction seemed like the obvious next step. At one time or another an engineer, educator, and entrepreneur, these days Ramez devotes himself to charting humanity’s future, one tale at a time. Find out more about Ramez and his work at

So Be It

Allocation Day had arrived. Like everyone else, Amen put on his threadbare robes. He ate his meagre food, and, like everyone else, he had some free time to finalise his preparations. Amen went over the rules again:

  1. You have one reset button
  2. You have three lives
  3. Direct contact is not possible

Simple rules, but he knew from his lessons how important they were if one of the class was going to make a breakthrough.
When everyone was ready, they filed into the pod arena where the grid matrix map of the universe hung suspended before them. Once all twenty-seven of them had taken their standing positions, the doors were sealed shut behind them.
A tiny orange identification cube glowed off-centre. This little cube was their first sight of their new worlds. The suspended matrix of the universe map zoomed in on the small orange cube, expanding it to a massive scale, revealing thousands of galaxies within the area. The cube was segregated further into twenty-seven pieces stacked three wide, three long and three high. With deliberation, this cube broke into pieces so that one piece hovered over each member of the class. They all closed their eyes, finally ready for this day that had been so long in preparation. Amen felt himself being lifted. He rose higher and higher. He kept his eyes closed for as long as possible.
When he opened them a vast panorama lay before him, rugged, rough, devoid of life. This was his palette. He closed his eyes again and thought of all the lessons learnt from those who had gone before him. The future lay with him and the twenty-six others surrounding him, and if they didn’t succeed, there were no longer another twenty-seven waiting to graduate and take their places. Resources were running low and time was running out. If one of them didn’t deliver, there were no more graduating classes left to try, and no more energy to fund the limited chances permitted by the rules.
Amen wanted to start small, tiny in fact. The materials he had been given appeared plentiful, but if there was one thing he had learned, it was not to do what had been done before. Size mattered, but maybe not the way most had assumed. So, with a tiny sprinkle, he crafted a small strand of DNA; nothing fancy, only four nucleobases, not the eight, or twenty-five or even the sixty-four that had been tried before.
In the swirling waters where he mixed this spell, he brought the elements of weather in, and with thunder and lightning that raged over this part of his planet, he brought the spark to life. It was such a tiny spark, and so basic, that it was able to replicate with ease. He was pleased. He wondered if any of his classmates were having similar success. There had been so many losses before them but Amen had given this a lot of thought. It felt right to start small and he was appreciative of the tools he had to hand. He appreciated his soupy, gassy, solid world.
At the end of the first session their orange sections withdrew. Amen looked around, dazed with the fatigue of concentration. Two of his classmates were gone. As interchangeable as they all were, he recognised that Fable and Racon were no longer there. Impatient Racon, thought Amen, and noted the impromptu lesson. Despite being all the same, despite being subject to the same lessons, their uniqueness lay in how they chose to use their minds. It was inevitable that those with the weaker thought disciplines would fail.
When it was time to return to work, Amen nodded farewell. The classmates had compared notes, some more than others. Amen preferred to keep his progress to himself. Their only limitations were their own imaginations. It was their only point of diversity. Their weak and dying bodies were not going to last much longer here, no matter how many versions of themselves they replicated in their increasingly depleted environment. Only their minds could set them free, and Amen wanted to succeed.
Amen returned to looking over his world. His lifeforms were progressing well. He zoomed out and critiqued the location. The nearest star provided energy. The sister planets in this solar system were quite diverse, some were gaseous, others icy rocks. He noted the orbital rotations, he noted the gravitational pulls. He zoomed back in again so that he could do more work. He took a sample of the simple structures, soupy in their mix, and used the flow of currents to separate them to another area of the planet. Over and over he replicated this. He was doing something no-one else had done before, and at each of their enforced breaks he said nothing. His classmates might laugh, they might scoff, they might be curious and want to see. For Amen though, none of this mattered. He simply didn’t tell them because he wanted to hold onto his creative energy, couldn’t afford to let it dissipate. What he was doing was unprecedented, and exhausting.
Some of his lifeforms started to take on a momentum of development on their own. Amen watched how some of the simple structures grouped together to become more complex. He encouraged some of these to emerge from the safety of their salty fluid into the thin atmosphere and solid ground. His world passed through thousands of its years, while Amen watched, waited and prodded once in a while. Each time he took a break, fewer and fewer of his classmates remained. Xay was still there. Za was still there. Epik was still there. None of them spoke much. There was a lot at stake.
Then Amen made a mistake. He’d seen it before, when studying the other worlds. Maybe he’d let it subconsciously influence him. He’d gotten off track and in a moment of insecurity his own world had become full of assorted giants. He understood their allure, the tough outer skin, the ability to change sex by the temperature of their eggs, their general fierceness. He knew from the lessons that others had used creatures like this many times, but mostly as their starting positions. In his world it risked being the ending position too, just like many others. This method, this outcome, had left a series of worlds stuck in limbo, unable to progress. So he invoked Rule Number One. He hit the reset button. The eruption of the volcano spread the cloud of ash across the planet. It was heartbreaking to see his work go to waste. Years passed as he waited for the dust to clear.
But then he realised what had happened. As the atmosphere normalised and cleared, it revealed the beauty and adaptability of his original line of thinking. Yes, the dinosaurs were gone. His reset had cleared them, but there were thousands of beings remaining: small, furry, rooted, feathery. His indulgences, playthings he’d created on the side to pass the time were still there, growing, developing. Even some of the smaller reptiles remained. Small is beautiful, he thought to himself. Given the infinite grandness of the universe it was a hard lesson to learn, yet so simple.
He was glad to see Za and Epik on his next break. He knew they were solid and reliable. But he didn’t share his own discovery, his own success, not yet. Instead, he listened. Amen thought that Za had it tough. In addition to being separated by millions of light years, they had all been allocated different environments to handle. Za’s gassy nebula provided a challenge of form. From listening to Za, Amen deduced that he was going to do away with form altogether and was playing with the energy of light. It was risky, but maybe that was where the edges of success were going to be found. The reptiles, and the mono-species approach, both separately and in combination had failed to be replicable or sustainable, no matter who had tried it in the past. Epik on the other hand was in the depths of a black hole, where everything was about matter, but he too appeared to be making steady progress. Light and dark. With such thoughts Amen headed back to the familiarity of his planet.
Amen’s challenge was size. The area he had to work with was tiny in comparison to his colleagues, the risks immense within the context of the vastness of the universe. But he kept on going. By now he had amassed thousands upon thousands of creatures. Some had six legs, some had tens of legs, some had none. Some breathed with gills, some with lungs, some through their skin, some not at all. Some walked, some were rooted to where they grew. Some used sunlight for food, some devoured the others, some didn’t even eat. No-one, ever, out of any of his classmates or those who had gone before, had put so many different life-forms, of such variety, in such a small space. The results were astounding. As he had hoped, in the fight for supremacy and survival, the emerging species had been redirected from a quasi-dominant reptile and was now based on his own form. Maybe it was vain to put these physically weak designs into such a variable environment, but he was intrigued to watch them mature and grow.
Then it began to go wrong. This species, these men, became lazy and greedy. They started to fight amongst themselves and stopped appreciating the goodness of what Amen had provided to them. Amen watched them, this intelligent species, this self-destructive species start to self-devour. It was time to use Rule Number Two; one of his lives. He had to in order to get around Rule Number Three; direct contact is not possible. Close contact, he thought, and leaned into his world and whispered to those who listened.
“No. No. No. No… aaahhhhh,” One life heard the whisper on the breeze, saw the clouds building. Amen amassed them slowly, giving as much warning as possible. Down on the planet, under the guidance of this one life, those with enough intuition, influence and altruism to understand and execute the message prepared accordingly. The floods lasted for months. The planet reshaped and when the waters resided the world was almost fresh and new, ready for another step change.
However, as Amen’s work became more and more advanced, so his own situation got worse. There were now only three of them left of the original twenty-seven, Za, Epik and Amen. Xay, feeling the pressure, and despite a robust start had panicked and his world had exploded, wiping everything out.
Amen’s only remaining contact was with his two colleagues, who were focused on the forces of light and fire, dark and comfort. They were a welcome respite from oversight of his own delicate planet, Earth, where he had achieved diversity and mastered replication. It had even survived his reset button. However, in its abundance, there were tensions building again, and his goal of sustainability was still out of reach. The flood had a been intended as a warning, but it was not enough, and he was now going to have to watch this play out from the sidelines unless he used another of his lives.
This time he created a son and sent him to earth. It was as close as he could get to direct contact. It was as close as he could get to giving them the messages they needed to know to live in harmony. For without that, they would never be able to work together, and without that Amen’s grand plan seemed doomed. If they could not work together, they would never be able to launch themselves away from their tiny speck and achieve mastery of the universe.
While, through his son, he had managed to avoid direct contact, he was pleased to see that collective awareness on the planet had started to build. With relief, Amen found his second and long-awaited source of energy. The stronger their belief and prayers, the stronger he became. He was also gratified to see that many of the dominant groups had finally come together, but for every evocation of love, there were just as many powerful emergences of negative, destructive forces. It was just like watching Za and Epik each struggling separately with their delicate balancing acts. Using radiance and gravity, they were also in their own ways on the verge of joy, replication and sustainability, the Holy Grail.
At their next break, Amen finally spoke. “Direct contact is not possible and we only have the lessons left behind by others. The only remaining direct contact we can ever have is with each other.”
Za and Epik looked at each other.
“You’ve been the silent one, not us,” said Epik.
“But maybe that’s the missing link,” said Amen. “I’ve been watching my lot, and I had hoped for more by now. The intelligence that they are demonstrating is the very same thing that leads them towards self-destruction the moment they become comfortable. If I had a second reset button I’d invoke it. Instead I only have one life left.”
Za shook his head, scattering sparks of light around him. “All of my lives have been used. I wish I had one more. My reset was used early on. But I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them.”
Epik nodded with heavy despondency. “I’m all out too. I’m on the countdown to see what happens next.”
But Za and Amen could see that Epik was getting stronger more quickly than both of them.
“Maybe we should stop competing then. Maybe the three of us should start working together. It’s what I expect from my planet. If I expect it of them in order to become sustainable, then shouldn’t we do the same?” said Amen.
“But no class of graduates has ever worked together before. It’s always been a competition,” said Za.
“All the more reason to try it,” said Amen.
“Doing again what has been done before has not worked so far,” said Epik.
“What about the rules?” said Za.
“Stuff the rules. This is no time to search for more rules! Let’s just do it,” said Epik.
By then it was time to get back to work. They were forced to separate, but each went away thinking. ­­­Yet more years passed. Amen grew a lot stronger from the energy of faith. Then it started to wane. His planet started to decline. The in-fighting was becoming more frequent as their resources depleted. They’d made some token efforts to spread their wings, but had got not much further than their orbiting satellite. Unmanned they had reached some minor distance further with their evolving technology. Amen, sensing the end, did what he could to spur them along. Their progression became more rapid, major steps that used to take hundreds of years were achieved in decades, years, months and soon the pace of change could be measured in days. During this time Za and Epik also grew. The three of them had lasted longer than anyone who had gone before. Collectively they were now sharing everything that they knew. Not just on what they had done, but also on where they were going.
Za had the glow, Epik had the gravity, and so, sometimes, Amen wondered what he brought to their group, especially as he was now starting to weaken. He talked about diversity, adaptability, and keeping it small. Za and Epik understood. He talked about the thousands of species he had created. He talked about imagination and straying from form. Both Za and Epik understood this all too well.
He spoke at length about love on his planet and the energy and attraction it created. At this soliloquy, both Za and Epik stopped still.  Their break was nearly up. They were going to have to return to their worlds very soon. There was not much time left. Amen was fading.
“Your third life,” said Za.
“You haven’t used it yet,” said Epik.
“Use it to connect us,” said Za. “I have the power of light.”
“I have the force of attraction,” said Epik.
“I have the love,” said Amen.
“I am the Love,” he realised. Their break was up. It was Judgement Day.