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Time

Read Only

by John Holbo

“It had been the mental stutter.”

– R.A. Lafferty, Slow Tuesday Night

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The waitress read Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments while the customer pondered the lunch menu. The waitress opened her eyes. The customer was taking a second. She closed her eyes and read Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. Now, she felt, she appreciated the irony.

“When in a written examination young people are given four hours to write the paper, it makes no difference whether the individual finishes ahead of time or uses the whole time. Here, then, the task is one thing and time something else. But when time itself is the task, it is a defect to finish ahead of time. Suppose a person is given the task of entertaining himself for one day and by noon is already finished with the entertainment—then his speed would indeed be of no merit. So it is also when life is the task. To be finished with life before life is finished with one is not to finish the task at all.”

Kierkegaard would have hated 2048. No one who reads his works with understanding doubts it for a second. Of course, never before have so many readers read his works—truly, deeply, and with understanding. Of course, ‘the task’ is a bit different today.

The customer was ready. That leviathan of philosophy slipped into depths behind the waitress’s eyes, subsiding heavily into the vast, brief ocean of her mind.

“I’ll have the grilled pseudosalmon. With a Greek side. And just water.”

While the waitress tapped it in the customer blinked three times, read three by the neo-popular 19th Century ‘sensation’ novelist, Mary Elizabeth Braddon: Lady Audley’s Secret, Aurora Floyd and Circe. “The cold-blooded assassination of which a coquette is capable.” And, in that first, throwing her first husband down the well! Setting fire to the hotel! Too bad the author had only written eighty-four novels.

“Alright, we’ll have that out in a jiff!”

#

The analytic breakthrough by Lin, Gurney, Gupta and Tomás, in 2026, concerned what has come to be known as the Broca-Wernicke gyroidal super-synthesis. Reading comprehension in the brain was not theoretically modelled by these researchers, nor has it been since. No, there will always be more mystery than mastery here. (‘Pebbles on the beach,’ Newton says of our knowledge of the universe. Our mind is a universe. We play on its beach.) But certain brain regions were, for the first time, well-mapped enough, their function surmised closely enough, to allow for the interventions that followed. Damage, typically due to stroke, resulting in aphasic incapacity, could be treated by therapy. There was a drug to be taken together with a new digital implant. But it was the unexpected effect of drug, plus implant, on normal, unimpaired individuals that revolutionized the entertainment industry and continues to alter culture and society in ways we scarcely understand today and can even less certainly anticipate for tomorrow.

It became possible to ‘read’ ‘plaintext’ of almost any length, in the blink of an eye, with comprehension. Only ‘naturalplain’—though these texts can be of a semi-technical and quite semantically dense quality. Mathematical and otherwise highly technical notation—complex formulae—have proven less amenable. But as with any pharmaceutical or therapy, the effect is variable across individuals. Some can read and understand Hegel in an instant—but not calculus. For a few it is the opposite. Some will never understand either Hegel or calculus.

Individual variation aside, the impact has been tremendous. Adoption of the new technology was rapid, comparable to that of cell phones for an earlier generation. By 2038, 70% of the US population had received ‘biblimstim’ implants via safe, reversible outpatient brain surgery, often performed at Amazon neighborhood clinics.

The visual image can no longer compete. Video is dead. Videogames seek to evolve into—or devolve back into—text-based games, so far with little success. Pornography is sought in literary longform. Direct import of image files hits bandwidth constraints, plus—more impenetrably—what researchers refer to as ‘the occipital funnel’. Reading comprehension has no such speed limit. Why Johnny Can’t NOT Read, by MIT linguist and cognitive scientist Gary Ng, is a popular, if speculative, evolutionary psychology account, purporting to explain how a latent capacity to read War and Peace in under a second, more than 100,000 years before Tolstoy was born, kept our hominid ancestors alive on the veldt.

 Other popular titles compete: The Bible Brain Code; The Potboiler Perplex: Why Great Brains & Great Books Go Great Together; From Brocca’s Region to Area 51: The Written Plot Against Humanity; and the more folksy-contrarian Don’t Read This Book! There are hundreds. Nearly everyone has read absolutely all of them. They’re books.

Whatever the explanation, the fact remains nothing can compete, for aesthetic satisfaction, with the comprehensive thrill and impact of, say, a good old, Victorian triple-decker, in an instant.

It’s no good ‘lectiostimming’, instead, a lot of short works, queued up. The mind registers and approves unity. Barreling through an anthology is tumbling downstairs mentally.

The supply of extant long-form books in suitable styles is, naturally, constrained, relative to consumption at such unprecedented rates. It was at first believed AI’s, trained up on some suitable target corpus, could make up the deficit, meet demand. Neural nets duly hauled in shoals and shoals of thick novels, Victorian novels, Russian novels, Stephen King novels, Barbara Cartland novels, multi-volume Thomistic and German speculative philosophies, history, biography, memoir, travelogue. Less favored in the eyes of the reading public, but viable: ancient poetic epics, popular science, political analysis, so long as it’s long.

It was believed the ordinary reader would soon browse and wander, happily, the AI-generated equivalent of Borges’ library, sampling, not infinite books—not quite!—but as many long reads, in any genre you like, as a human life contains blinks.

But it was not to be. There is something in even the most sophisticated AI-composed book that the normal human brain revolts at. Every AI product reveals its uncanny valley. Astringent, ersatz hint of machine-learning. This is the ‘aspartame effect’. Weeding out ‘homernods’, as these are also known, exceeds machine-learning capacities—nor can humans help. No one can quite put their mental finger on it.

 A few readers profess to like that sort of thing—AI-written fiction, that is. Generally, these readers are ‘on the spectrum’. There has been talk of treating the problem, then, from the other end, by mass induction of autism, permanently or reversibly, for a para-posthumanist, post-scarcity reading experience. But for now, the neurotypical mind needs human authors.

In schools, results are good, though the need to ensure students have reading assignments long enough to hold their interest has entailed shifts. Some students are prescribed medicine for ASHD—attention surplus hypoactivity disorder and dysalexia. Basically, the inability to do anything but read books.

In academic philosophy no one doesn’t work on Hegel, resulting in profound shifts in intellectual fashion in a few short years. Most college kids want to major in English literature, with a focus on the 19th Century novel. When asked what they want to do when they grow up, young Americans say, as their great-grandfathers did, “I want to write the next great American novel.”

The effect on social media of the cultural lurch to ‘megalobiliocephalomania’, as it was jokingly dismissed, until it was no joke, has been apocalyptic. Twitter died, proverbial canary in the coalmine of the brain’s reading regions—although there was its odd, fluttering death throe; desperate shift from the old, familiar 240 character maximum to a 240,000 character minimum. The ‘teratweet’ never took off.

Instagram still has a few old family photos. TikTok is old-fashioned as a grandfather clock. Facebook limps along, cajoling its dwindling user-base to contribute to hoped-for multi-author, multivolume fanfic patchworks to be shared and liked. Ad revenue has collapsed. Who spares a glance at any ad less than 500-pages long?

The fear, for a time, was novel sorts of data breach. By law, companies and governments must now store all personal data in brain-unreadable file formats that cannot be mass-machine-transcribed into brain-readable text format. So far, this wall has held. More positively, it has become impossible to conceal things in formerly written-to-be-unread EULAs. Some readers read all the EULAs ever written, in a row, on a dare. The law is a different business today. Everyone understands the law far better than anyone has ever understood it before. Political discourse has grown civilized. The ‘news cycle’ is, at once, too swift, yet too slow, to beguile us. Citizens settle for having highly informed debates about longstanding issues, typically based on exhaustive policy white papers and long books carefully blinked over beforehand by everyone on all sides.

The real economy shrinks every year. Just over 50% of employed adult Americans work main jobs as ‘mid-list author’. “The middle-class is the mid-list in Middle America on Main Street.” Politicians say things like that. But fewer adults are employed. Few say it is a terrible way to go, economically, however.

But some do say it is a bad sign that new novels are always about life before.

For mostly what has changed is life. Just life. What we formerly considered as such was the business between blinks. ‘Between the blinks.’ A phrase, formerly senseless, now semi-derisive. Going to work, kissing the spouse goodbye at the door, a simple meal, shared conversations, watching the children play. All this goes on. But such ‘moments’ cannot but seem a long, slow-flowing dream, between burst of life, when, for the blink of an eye, something is happening—really happening. Something to read.

~

Bio:

John Holbo is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore, where his favourite course is “Philosophy and Science Fiction”. He was runner-up in the Sci Phi Journal’s APA Philosophy Through Fiction Competition, in 2017, for “Morality Tale”. He is author and illustrator of the webcomic “On Beyond Zarathustra” and is co-author and illustrator, with Belle Waring, of Reason and Persuasion: Three Dialogues by Plato.

Philosophy Note:

“Read Only” may be thought-experimental commentary on the waitress’ Kierkegaard quote, which urges ‘becoming subjective’ by underscoring the potential absurdity of taking anything but ‘oneself’ as ‘the task’. One might be done too soon. But can that be the concern? And/or the story may be a thought-experiment about what bothers us about ‘experience machines’. We assume the fatally tempting ones will boast the highest resolution video. Then again, in the 1700’s there was moral panic about the epidemic spread of novel-reading. Everything new is old again.

Fractal Gods Of Minuscule Things

by Ramez Yoakeim

After three unsparing days, she conceded defeat and called it quits. On her way to the car, she fought off yet another hypnagogic episode but dismissed the risks. Distracted teens and droopy-eyed semitrailer drivers posed little risk to the likes of her. It would take considerably more than a highway pile-up to dispatch a goddess.

The ill-timed collapse of a magnetar into a blackhole, perhaps, or the tumult of a galactic merger. Events unleashing energies too vast for a goddess to sidestep with deft navigation of quantum states in superposition alone.

Not unlike all the roads untaken, collapsing the quantum uncertainty banished undesired outcomes to other universes. Or perhaps the goddess, by virtue of her choices, translocated from one universe to the next. Which, in essence, was all the divine power any god possessed.

From greenlights like a string of verdant pearls extending to the horizon to other vehicles simultaneously exiting the highway to clear her path. Not the sort of occurrence that could provide proof-positive of the supernatural or her divinity, but that was precisely the point. How else could a pantheon walk among mortals unnoticed?

That was until she lapsed into a microsleep at the wheel. A goddess she might have been, but only while conscious.

Whether through chance, or the benign intervention of a fellow deity, the goddess snapped awake barely in time to avert disaster and wisely proceeded to the nearest motel: a two-star serviceable concrete edifice with faded, threadbare carpets and stale linen.

What she had not expected was how elusive sleep would then prove to be.

Instead of the slumber of the dead she longed for, she found herself passing in and out of a trance-like state of semi-consciousness, roused by stray beams of vehicles’ headlights in the carpark, or the scuffing of footsteps and barely suppressed giggles in the corridor outside her room.

A couple in the throes of the rapturous copulation of strangers. A crying infant unsettled by its very existence. Two men arguing in slurred incomplete sentences. The auditory conflict of late-night televangelists competing with home-shopping steals, and the oft censored affray of promiscuous kin on decades-old broadcasts of reality distortions. Too much bass vibrating the furniture without hinting at a melody. Dripping taps and flushing toilets and buzzing light bulbs on the precipice of long-overdue oblivion.

At some level, she was cognizant as she wished away every intrusion as it occurred, yet not lucid enough to contemplate the path through the dense strata of quantum states her wishes described. An endless stream of excised universes ensued until, at last, there remained nothing to obviate, and the goddess slumbered.

#

She roused reborn. Ablutions followed, and dressing and composition. Only then did she note the deathly quiet.

She pulled the curtain to find only a starless night outside, fathomless darkness that transformed the smudged windowpane into a blurry mirror.

She ran and flung open the door, only to find another room where a corridor had been. The covers lay half-spilled onto stained carpets identical to her own.

Glancing behind, she found the side door into the adjoining room open and a familiar silhouette cast in shadows through the doorframe. She retreated and let the door’s mechanical closer pull it shut. Both doors thudded sealed at the same time. Braided sheets, relocated bathroom mirrors, and hurled remote controls eliminated any doubt.

After, the goddess sat on the edge of the unmade bed and surveyed her new universe with a small tilt of her head. Devoid of uncertainty, there remained nothing to collapse through selective observation. Only a state of perfect determinism from which no escape remained; her godhood defanged.

Did she obliterate the multiverse or excised herself out of it? The distinction mattered little when her wishes ceased to be commands.

She raged for a time, and cried, and raged, then stilled. There remained copious water and power, a perpetual busy tone and a jukebox of looping television shows, an inexhaustible minibar packed with peanuts, pretzels, chocolates, booze, tiny cereal boxes that defied emptying, and coffee sachets and creamers with forever resealing foils.

Stultified, the goddess slumbered and awoke to a bedside clock that never changed. She could set it to any time she desired; the change lasting only until she glanced away. An eternal reminder of the moment when her divine irritation consumed existence and ended time.

What meaning had time when nothing ever changed?

She let her mind wander and roam unrestrained, fighting to stay sane, until she noticed something new unfolding before her eyes. A miniature universe she fashioned unaware in a droplet of water on the bedside table.

In its infinitesimal depth, a fierce brightness flashed, forcing the goddess to avert her eyes. By the time the purple pinprick afterimage faded, the new universe twinkled with the birth of uncounted stars. She watched, entranced, as leftover matter coalesced and cooled, and seemingly instantly teeming life erupted throughout the vast universe of a water droplet.

Beings on a trillion worlds crawled out of primordial oozes and pondered their creator, gazing unseeingly at her through the surface tension membrane.

Her heart swelled with joy, and she resolved to benevolence. She would leave her accidental creations be to lead whatever lives brought them contentment. She would only ever intervene in small ways. Measured acts of divine providence to right the scales or set proper what went askew, but only ever with grace.

The goddess sat back, sustained herself up with a pack of perpetually replenished double-roasted lightly-salted peanuts, and watched innumerable consciousnesses coerce the minuscule universe with the prayers of a new creation. She laughed at their foibles, and cried at their loss, and set to wondering if countless deities sat, like her, on creaking beds in telescoping motel rooms varying only in scale and orientation and watched their creations while telling themselves that they only ever intervened for good. Is that all that the multiverse is, the penance of exiled gods?

~

Bio:

An engineer and consummate problem solver, Ramez Yoakeim’s work harkens back to the darker side of speculative fiction classics, marred only by the occasional utopia. Find out more about Ramez and his fiction at yoakeim.com.

The Last Engine

by Aaron Emmel

Thin clouds of ionized gas expand across the void like exhaled breath from long ago when we still had lungs, streamers fading between the dead galaxies. We jump from one gravity well to the next, the enormous black holes that have devoured the sky, the ancient white dwarfs and neutron stars that are all that remain of the last suns. We are testing our final engine, tracing its repeaters across trillions of light years, because we will have only one chance. If there is a mistake, no one will be left to correct it. This engine is the largest and most complicated structure ever conceived.

At least in this universe, which is the only universe we can ever know.

For millennia we follow the filaments of our design across an eternally darkening night. While we survey and confirm we also build simulations from our records and relive our pasts. We visit the ruins of our last terrestrial civilizations. We decant ourselves into flesh and walk beneath constellations drawn by a dazzling abundance of photons. In one of our oldest memories, we hover in machines of metal at the edge of a galaxy above a black dwarf that we calculated was once the sun of our home system. We wonder if our ancestors roamed the ice-brittle worlds that still circle it.

And now it is time. To stoke the last fires, to ignite the chain reaction that will tear through what remains of this universe and collapse all that exists into a point that will give birth to a new cosmos on the other side, ordered and pristine, filled with possibility, a doorway we cannot enter, a universe we can never reach. Wait too long, and not enough energy will remain to turn the engine on. Then there will be nothing left but to fight to keep our thoughts from splintering into confusion as our cognitive processes slow and we succumb to the cold.

We were immortal, once, but when universes die, even immortality ends.

As long as we had the engine to build, we had purpose. We dismantled and reassembled planets, wove fields to channel and redirect dark energy, while light dimmed around us, and we knew that consciousness still mattered. Now, at the end, there is only one thing left to do.

The trigger waits for our final act.

A chorus within us begs us to stop. Surely, it pleads, we can risk waiting a few millennia longer. Once the engine spins, twisting space-time around itself, it cannot be undone, and when this universe ends its information can never be retrieved again. Can’t we return to our memories before they are lost to oblivion?

Walking on two legs over firm earth beneath red and yellow suns. The first time we harnessed the full energy of a star. The first times we abandoned our clumsy bodies for the interstellar web—all that information, all we have learned. Surely, there is time before we light the last fire. Surely, it’s worth cutting it close.

~

Bio:

Aaron’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Thanks to the patience of his wonderful wife, and despite the impatience of his wonderful children, Aaron also writes essays, graphic novels and interactive fiction. Find him online at www.aaronemmel.com.

Yesterearth’s Morrow

by Ádám Gerencsér

Singapore Straits Times – 1st July 1947

Readers with any interest in current affairs will scarcely need reminding that today is the first anniversary of the appearance of those strange phenomena that marked the gradual unravelling of time as a constant and steadfast quantity, the steady progression of which all previous generations could rely on so safely as to take it for granted. This view is now considered obsolete, and rightly so, but it bears repeating how nigh impossible that would have seemed just over a year ago. Over the course of the past twelve months, thanks to the rapid advances of modern science and skilful observations made by vessels of the Royal Navy, we have gained a better understanding of the new role that the International Date Line has come to play.

I have taken the liberty to compose this recollection and offer it to our esteemed editor on account of my rather immediate proximity to the longitude in question. Not only as correspondent of the Straits Times in the Crown Colony of Fiji, documenting both momentous and provincial events as they unfold, but also as a simple resident who experiences daily the disturbing effects that still have the ability to startle as much as they did at their initial onset.

It started on the 1st of July 1946 (or the 30th of June, depending on one’s whereabouts) east of the Marshall Islands and gradually spread north and south thereof, fanning out like elongated ripples along the date meridian. Within a brief period that could not have taken more than a week, or two at the most, we found ourselves confronted with a novel and hitherto unimaginable reality: anyone crossing the international date line roughly along the 180° longitude eastwards no longer cuts across a mere imaginary division, but finds himself an additional day further in the past, or rather, on a past incarnation of the Earth that is now independent of the present. The traveller may than engage in any form of interaction with the inhabitants of that past world, a Yesterearth so to speak, without perturbing in any way the future time he had left behind. After interfering with the events on the other side of the date line, one may return to the present by simply retracing his journey and realise that nothing has changed on account of their actions, other than the fact that time has moved on during their absence. On their subsequent visit to the world of two days past, however, they will notice that their interlocutors remember them well enough and any seeds of future consequence they had planted there have come to fruition.

A world map based on Mercator’s projection distorts the proportions of the surface areas of the continents, by making landmasses at extreme southerly and northerly latitudes, such as Antarctica or Greenland, appear much larger than their actual size would merit compared, for instance, with Africa. So, when we wish to achieve a more proportional representation, we divide the map into equidistant segments that are thicker towards the Equator and thinner at the poles, as if peeling the skin off an orange, and lay it out flat. Our hypothetical map now stretches from Alaska in the West to Siberia in the East, and we know that, just as the gaps between segments of the Earth’s ‘skin’ are imaginary, the edge of the map is no true boundary, but in fact loops around and connects to the opposite end. Thus, in the world as we had known it until 1946, it was not possible to stray off the map of the globe, since a resolute straight line would take one around in circles, returning to the self-same point with each circumnavigation.

That, alas, is no longer the case. Beyond the eastern margin of our map lies the western edge of someone else’s. Of course, in a manner of speaking, our world is still round, and we may be so bold as to argue with some conviction that our present time is unique and one of a kind. For it has become evidently clear that while ships and aeroplanes making their way over the surface of all preceding Earths may travel both backwards by crossing the dateline eastwards and also forward in our direction by traversing the same line due west, the same is not true for vessels in our time. We can regress by two days on the passage from Suva to Samoa, but we may not proceed into our future, as it were, giving us the impression that we stand at the pinnacle of time’s arrow. That is to say, the future is not yet existent, or certainly not accessible, until we unlock it day by day as we stride forward in tune with our calendars.

Being first among equals (and some in the colonial administration would indeed dispute even that proposition), our position brings great opportunities, but also imposes significant responsibility upon our statesmen. The lives of nations and empires now unfold in an entirely separate manner on all contiguous Earths, and the next general election back in the British Isles, to be held in 1950, might yield wildly different results in our continuity compared to the Earth of the day before yesterday. It is therefore eminently possible that the cabinet of our Empire might find itself at loggerheads with the British government elected in our immediate temporal neighbourhood. In fact, His Majesty of today might disagree with policies that are received approvingly by His Majesty of two days ago. The fact is that the political realities of life in the Dominion will inevitably develop very differently across every successive Earth each two further days down the line.

Your correspondent here admits to having made an involuntary, yet naïve attempt at bridging the date meridian and exploring some of the strangeness of the most immediate past just east of his stationment. In the spring I had received a telegraph dispatched by my former self from the world of two days ago. It had been transmitted to Samoa, which by itself was no mean feat, as communications across the Pacific have become impossible lest one was interested in sending messages across time. Telegraphs and mail to one’s contemporaries from an island west of the date line to another speck of dry land just east thereof have to ferry westwards around the entire globe, rendering a journey that formerly took less than a day into a voyage of Magellanic proportions. It is therefore incomparably easier to reach the French Polynesia of the day before than that of today. Laborious as it may be, the telegraph drafted by the man who is my equivalent in the neighbouring past was delivered by the post boat that makes the weekly crossing from Samoa. Without indulging in the tedious details of our exchange, which was hampered by delays caused by both dimensions of time and space, suffice it to say that our correspondence was short-lived and we finally agreed never to meet in person, but to live out our respective lives to the best of our conscience and abilities.

Not all contact is, however, this consensual. One hears all kinds of anecdote around the archipelago and beyond: of people trying to find their near-contemporary selves and bring them back voluntarily or otherwise to share their work or exchange places with them, of investors travelling back and forth with the intention of effecting parallel financial transactions and reaping the same profits several times, or of bereaved families striving to find their loved ones killed in accidents on a previous Earth where the same accident has not yet occurred and might never happen. The world market in commodities and resources has become confusing and at times almost untenable, and prices across near-past worlds may fluctuate in an unsustainable manner due to a potentially inexhaustible supply of material from across the datelines, while for the same reason scarcity may beset another globe. It is not unthinkable that in the future, some catastrophe or another great war could send millions of refugees fleeing to the next available future or past Earth.

On an encouraging note, one must not forget that there are those enterprising spirits who see Yesterearth’s developments as the opening of a new, endless horizon, the gateway to the exploration of the past – and not just one, but countless possible pasts. As far as we can ascertain, endeavours to traverse a long succession of datelines near the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, where distances are smaller but travel is unhindered by excessively cold climate, are limited only by the durability of the mode of transportation, the ability to procure fuel and, ultimately, by the life span of the traveller. We can only hope that our relative advantage of chronological primacy shields us from the worst excesses of the chaotic insecurity that must eventually arise on Earths further in the past, which are flanked on both sides by another world each two days ahead or behind them. Although news of full scale inter-temporal war have yet to be reported from anywhere, it is not inconceivable that one day the menacing powers of barbaric despotism and fascist banditry, which the valiant Allies so gallantly fought to defeat in this our last Great War, rear their ugly heads from the depths of the past and gather enough tenacity to conquer hundreds of planets up the chain to the present day, growing in strength and ferocity with each new acquisition. Should that day come, we do hope that our past compatriots would send warnings across the dateline well in advance, fully trusting in the brotherhood of free nations holding together steadfast even across several zones of time. And rest assured that the Royal Navy would be first to do its duty in the defence of Singapore, Malaya and the Crown Colonies dispersed throughout the East – whether in our time or that of Yesterearth. For we will surely not hesitate to deliver a pre-emptive strike across the meridian, for King and country, should a menace arise from the Pacific of a bygone day!

~

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.