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immortality

Burrowing Through the Body of God

by Rich Larson

When the slaveship arrived, we thought we were saved. We had been adrift for days in the Big Black, absorbing radiation from a catastrophic reactor failure, slipping further and further away from the trade route. The chances of another ship coming across us were infinitesimally small, so the arrival was like seeing an angel appear.

Some of us thought it was a hallucination, in no small part because the ship defied all geometry. It seemed to bloom and shimmer like a slick of oil, concentric globes of translucent material swelling and dwindling in counterpoint, flanges unfurling and disappearing. Only the most basic features of a starship were recognizable — an engine, a heat radiator, a solar sail — but these were distorted, cartoonish impressions meant not to function but to communicate familiarity.

The slaveship enveloped our craft and in a sense digested it: I watched the alloy hull dissolve like a painting around us even as our ambient temperature and atmosphere in the hold, where we were huddled by the life support system, changed not an iota. It was clear that our rescuers were no known race. In our desperation, bodies sick from the radiation and minds bending under the crushing void, we did not question our salvation.

The hold fell away and we found ourselves in a softer darkness. The walls seemed to creep away from our touch, expanding as we slowly explored our new environs. Light appeared in the form of glowing silver ribbons that slipped in and out of the walls like eels through black water. I recall the wonder on our illuminated faces. The hierarchy of our crew seemed to crumble there; we were remade as equals by the novelty of our situation.

Eventually we became aware of another presence there in the dark, an eighth shadow added to our seven, who shuffled about with us but did not speak. Normally this would engender fear or alarm, but I remember neither. This figure never approached the silver lights, or perhaps the silver lights never approached them, and so they remained unseen. My impression from their movements was that they were slowly remembering how to walk.

“You are welcome here,” they said. “I recall my humanity.”

“Who are you?” I asked, though I was not the captain — this much of the hierarchy I remember.

“I am your host,” they said, “because I recall my humanity. The damage to your cells has been repaired. Follow me now.”

They walked in a particular direction and we followed, still absorbing their words, guessing at their truth. I know now that the radiation had indeed been scrubbed swiftly and effortlessly from our DNA, but in the moment it was difficult to believe — as was the claim of our host to humanity.

Suddenly what I had thought to be a corridor unfolded in all directions into a vast hall, and overhead we were struck by a vision that remains near indescribable, even after untold eons spent beneath it. The rush of forms and colors defied the eye. Geometric patterns, red, blue, red-blue-green, branched and evolved and were subsumed by others in an instant; wheels of raw-flesh pink and gunmetal gray interlocked like cogs; beads of pure white light split and collided and finally exploded.

But any visualizer can simulate chaos. The most unnerving element of this display was its oscillation between chaos and order. I could feel intent and then abandon, concentration and then madness. I knew that my senses were ill-equipped to experience anything but the tiniest fraction of this vista, and even with that knowledge deep and heavy in my bones, I was overwhelmed.

“You are seeing what you may think of as time,” our host said. “Do not be afraid. We are sheltered from it.”

I looked at our host then, and I was afraid, if briefly. They had recalled their humanity, but not well. In the illumination of the maelstrom above us, I saw that they were composed of disparate parts: a slice of leg, a jagged bit of torso, a piece of skull with teeth below it, a drifting arm. These parts were wired together by a dark filament and moved in concert as if they were a body entire.

“Where are we?” one of us asked.

“We are burrowing,” our host said, teeth orbiting beneath their skull. “Our ship was created to navigate these cracks in time. We expose ourselves to the arbiter only when necessary.”

A bell sounded, though later we likened the noise to a baying animal, and the hall was filled with a multiplicity of beings. I saw a scattering of the known races, but far more unknown, some recognizably biological, others composed of metals or gases or silicates. I tried to guess at the ship’s original creators, but it was fruitless. I have since decided that they are not represented when the bell bays, or perhaps never existed.

The beings formed a pair of lines, and it was in watching this assuming of order that I first tasted our captivity. I could sense that they were cowed, that they dreaded what was to come. At the end of the hall, where the floor narrowed to a knifepoint, there was a high plynth.

“Choose one among you,” the host said.

I do not know why I was chosen, or if I chose it for myself, but somehow I was distanced from my companions and began walking toward the plynth. The host walked with me, though only one gnarled foot touched the floor.

“We are sheltered from time and entropy,” the host said. “But we are also fuelled by them. For this reason we must always seek new passengers.”

I did not understand anything except that I was going to be sacrificed in the stead of my companions, and in that moment it seemed a noble thing. The host produced a shred of shifting color, kin to the maelstrom over our heads, and handed it to me. It moved like an amorphous animal in my arms. At first it seemed to be a bird, pecking at the skin of my wrists, and then a hissing cat I could barely hold. My mind was making it so, for it was neither.

I cradled time and entropy in my arms as I walked the blossoming steps of the plynth. At the top I was surprised to encounter dirt — true soil, not the accumulation of dead skin found even in space. I had not seen true soil since childhood, and it seemed most out of place here. With invisible palms pressing against my spine, I lay down in the dirt.

Above me, the maelstrom parted and I saw the Big Black, a shard of space dotted with distant stars. Then the animal in my arms began to consume me. I was paralyzed, watching the hand nearest my face wrinkle with age. My veins bulged; brown spots welled up on my skin as it creased and sagged. The bones jutted up like bridges. I began to decay.

Across from me, beyond my mummified hand, I saw a skeleton rising out of the dirt beside me, uncovered as if by a desert wind. I stared into the cracked and empty sockets of its eyes and knew that it was my skeleton being reconstituted. I clutched at its clawed hand even as my own hand lost its last shred of papery yellow skin. The pain was beyond pain, screaming its rage in every scrubbed cell of my body.

On the altar before the stars, I realized my companions and I would live forever. As of this moment, the anguish has not abated.

~

Bio:

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Canada, USA, and Spain, and is now based in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of the novel Annex and the collection Tomorrow Factory, which contains some of the best of his 150+ published stories. His work has been translated into Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Portuguese, French, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. Find free fiction and support his work at patreon.com/richlarson.

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.

Three Scores And Ten

by Ramez Yoakeim

Nearly blind, the farmer navigated the forest floor by touch. Her gnarly fingers scattered the snow from the flaring trunks of ancient pines, in search of tubers and hardy mushrooms. When the concussive booms of atmospheric entry scattered the accumulations off the branches, she lifted her head, as far as her hunch would permit, and looked with milky eyes towards the horizon, and the arc of fire splitting the heavens.

The curious farmer followed the rivulets of molten snow up the low hill, to the cratered grave of the cometary fragment, where it lay sizzling from the ordeal of its extra-solar journey.

She caressed the fractured glassy exterior, and scraped her liver-spotted skin on the shard-riddled interior; sparing the meteorite’s fragile molecular passenger Sol’s lethal ultraviolet deluge.

Grim soldiers came knocking but the farmer’s sole surviving son answered only in grunts. Two weeks passed before he first noticed the beginnings of his mother’s metamorphosis. It took three-months more for her back to straighten, eyes to clear, and hair to regain its long-lost chestnut luster. Though imperceptible day-to-day, a crone more vibrant than blushing maidens could not go unnoticed by the villagers for long.

Word spread, drawing dour white-coated men brandishing tools to prick and prod, analyze and scrutinize. Within merely a year of its earthfall, the molecular traveler unveiled itself, for it never intended to remain hidden.

The cellular rejuvenation it imparted obviated the need for division, and the unavoidable accompanying risks of DNA degradation and runaway growth. Intensive study ensued, charting the molecule’s many boons. From immunity to pathogens, to heightened mental acuity, and elevated cognitive function. Medical types and philosophers alike whispered breathlessly, shyly pondering the demise of humanity’s most ardent foe. Short of accident or foul play, what avenues to those endowed remained for death to intrude?

A dozen months passed before the mighty could refrain no more. They drank thirstily from the interstellar gift’s fount, drawing the ire of all. Those once ailing at death’s door reemerged from intensive care wards flaunting vigor no surgeon’s knife nor physician’s elixir could bestow.

Overnight, those living under the yoke of presidents-for-life had an eternity more to lament their woes. Aspiring heirs to billionaires were left rudderless and distraught.

Clamoring masses–witnessing the monopolization of the ultimate prize by those who already owned everything–thundered in the streets. Make whole our broken, they roared, cure our ills. Let the heavens’ gift lift the downtrodden and lame, as it once did a gnarly penurious farmer.

Voices long-practiced at casting doubt on the tumult of a convulsing planet in the throes of calamitous change, suddenly discovered their inner conservationists. How could Earth cope with billions of immortals, with a billion more added every decade or two? Responsibility, stewardship, and stability all demanded that the miraculous gift be rationed; restricted to a few.

Only those who had earned favor may partake of life everlasting. Only those deemed worthy could be permitted to turn away from the indomitable Reaper. Prove yourself then, before praying for a reward, the mighty exhorted, as if the miracle was their own.

A pervasive ranking system sprung to judge the worth of all. Do as told and rise, fall short and have solely yourself to blame. For privation, infirmity, and death. Climb then, with your worthiness score, the rungs of an endless ladder, sprouting more steps than the stars.

Kicking those below and clawing at those above, humankind set to climbing, gleefully imagining eternity attained. Until the all-consuming race to the promised immortality spluttered to an uncertain fearful halt.  Long since grown accustomed to the benefits due the first immortal, one morning the farmer failed to arise from her slumber.

Shock and disbelief ensued. How could she perish? Had she been poisoned? Was it even possible to envenom the perdurable? Could her silks have spelt her doom? She had indulged to surfeit, the glitterati droned, eaten to excess, strained to exhaustion, rejoiced immoderately, lived too fully. Surely, the fault was none other’s but her own.

The autopsy showed frayed arteries and veins, liquified organs, and the decayed vitals of a crypt postponed. Cells once rejuvenated by the molecule were undone by its machinations; deconstructed to constituent biochemical ingredients. What it once bestowed, and more, the molecule slyly reclaimed.

Whilst they sought its largesse, none questioned whence it came, or to what end. Turn away from the gift horse, they insisted, avert your gaze from its mouth. With death within the stride, however, they dissected the horse; hide and all, uncovering isotropic timers buried deep within the molecule’s intricate innards.

All told, one hundred forty-four thousand received the molecule’s pourboire. Presidents and prime ministers, queens and princes, billionaires and celebrities, grifters and sycophants alike awoke to tidings of certain doom.

Frantically they counted the days since they received the molecule’s bequest, and the days that then remained till their eternity ended. They spared no effort searching for an antidote. At first, one that retained immortality while diffusing the accompanying fuse. Failing that, means to purge the molecule altogether, reverting to what once had been. Finally, any means to stave off a resurgent death; even if only until dawn.

The molecule’s makers’ aim had been to depopulate the earth, ready it for those who sought to conquer it with nary a photon beam. Using instead an irrepressible ailment disguised as a boon.

Their failing, and humankind’s grace, had been in gravely overestimating our community mindedness. Cooperative we might be when requisite, but only as a molehill stands at the foot of the Everest of our greed. We proclaim commonwealth even when our biology demands we hoard every advantage within grasp’s reach. Even those that spell our ruin. The farmer’s son witnessed the internment of her remains alone. After, in their old hovel, he retrieved a shard she hid in a wall, and pricked his finger. Then again, to be sure. It mattered not the manner of death he met, if for three scores and ten months he lived secure.

~

Bio:

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 yoakeim.com.