science-fiction

2018-12-22 23:01 fiction flash-fiction science-fiction Benjamin Brood

Listen

— The wind at the door, she said.

— Oh? he asked.

— Howling, she said.

— Angry? he said.

— Insistent, she replied.

As the building shook they feared for their lives. Like last night. Like the week before. They survived each attempt. And the wind tonight tried very hard, blasting itself against their bricks, inundating every corner, until it was a whistling roar, a ghostly edifice that would erode even stone over time. The tense wires connecting them to the outside world were stressed then broken, adrift on the torrent, philosophical sails fluttering until they were torn asunder.

— We may need to reconsider, she said, the bulwarks and doors, the lintels, the sacred seals.

— We knew this might happen when we built inside the ancient skull, the wind collects inside, this head is a cavern and while we're protected from the rains and the radiation the winds might do us in, he said.

— But where else would we go? To the thorax? To the indelible cistern? To the tree people? Do you know what it's like living in the trees?

Once again, he thought, I have to hear about living in the trees and how awful it was, and how her aunt died out on a limb.

But the wind was fierce and they had to shout above it.

— If you listen carefully, he said.

— What? she said.

— If you listen carefully, he yelled.

— You what? she yelled.

— If you listen carefully, he yelled, you can hear the great thoughts of the ancient empty head roaring back and forth.

— That's stupid, she yelled.

2018-11-12 21:27 fiction flash-fiction science-fiction Benjamin Brood

Across The Field

When the boy got to the edge of the field he could see the outlines of the power stalks against dusk, and the thousands of small green lights spread out far in front of him, cast like a net. An evening breeze made them moan slightly, as the fibrous tension adjusted their sway to maximize the kinetics.

He wasn't supposed to be in the field. If he got caught it would cost him six months social credit, he should care more about his credit, they said.

He stepped down off the road, stumbling over an exposed root. The nearest stalk reacted slightly to the energy, sending a wave of micro-movements rippling across the field, and creating a delicate sound of descending frequency like water drops from a shut faucet. Once he was far enough in, the loose canopy would hide him from the road.

On the other side of the field was the quarry, and he knew there was a hole in the fence because this wasn't the first time he'd done this. As it became darker he turned on his headlamp, the dim red beam delineating the gently swaying stalks around him. It reminded him of the new Reel. He guessed it was easier for them to make it like that, only build as much environment as you could see in low light. Sometimes he wondered if reality was like this too.

He came to the fence suddenly, it rose out of the darkness, startling him. He would have to navigate along the edge of it until he found the hole. Left or right? He guessed left, knowing he might have to backtrack. By now Bug would be waiting for him on the other side, in the quarry. Everyone had always called him Bug because of the ocular slots, some kind of genetic condition. Bug was a few years older than himself. Bug had bought the last few Reels from him. He'd promised to buy more, and this one was good, something special. He'd continue in this direction another minute or two. When he didn't find the hole in the fence he swore and then turned around.

That's when he saw lights from the direction of the quarry. A dozen of them? White lights moving quickly. He abruptly turned off his headlamp. He heard shouting. Bug was shouting, he believed. So, they'd gotten him.

He didn't know what to do, maybe running was a bad idea, they must have ways of seeing. He didn't move. But then he heard their little feet. He imagined them springing forward awkwardly like birds running. He had to move — he turned and bolted back into the field. Without the headlamp he careened into stalks. The impacts caused the whole array to shudder, echoing outwards across the field with enthusiastic clanging. From the road the net of indicator light must be undulating now, he thought.

He ran several more yards, bumped into another oscillating stalk, then paused, listening. He didn't hear anything other than stalks happy with energy. Maybe it was good he'd done this, he wondered, there wasn't much chance they'd find him now under this loud canopy, no matter how well they could see. He just had to make it over the road. The other side of the road was another zone, he knew, maybe they can't even follow me in there. He grabbed the nearest stalk and shook it as hard as he could for a moment. Then he ran straight as hard as he could.

2018-09-23 19:47 fiction flash-fiction science-fiction Benjamin Brood

The Sun Is Gone

When did the sun go away. One morning it didn't rise. This is impossible, the smartest of us said, without it we wouldn't exist. Something must be blocking it, the second smartest of us said. This is a theory we agreed with, true, something must be blocking the sun. What if it was stolen? I suggested. Everyone laughed. Ridiculous, to steal a sun. I flushed in embarrassment. I went back to my duties as they discussed the situation. We must preserve resources, we must create a way to unblock the sun, we must create a second smaller sun, we must be ready to act. There were many suggestions, all of them vigorous. But the sun is gone, I wanted to say. Look for clues. Maybe there's a trail. Can you drag away a sun without leaving a little something behind? It's like a jelly, I thought.

It began to get cold. The sun is missing they said, we can tell because it's getting so cold. Finally, I thought, now we're getting somewhere. They discussed what to do next, the talking became tense. We should go, several of them said. I didn't know how they planned to do that, I mean why were we here in the first place? Why hadn't we already left? The temperature continued to drop. There is no sun, I reminded them. Yes, yes, they said, we know this, this is what we are discussing. I returned to my tasks.

2018-07-04 19:20 science-fiction elixir Benjamin Brood

Why Wait

A prime location, Paris, 1920s.

Beautiful little place, New York City, 1955.

Lush and exciting Roman villa, 10 AD.

A thousand other properties, spread across thousands of years. These are the luxury time condos you won't be able to resist. You aren't just buying a vacation property, you're buying a culture. You're buying a statement of Mankind. You're buying an experience of not just history, but of humanity.

We won't lie to you, it costs a little more, but it's worth every penny.

Some of our clients have expressed concern about the usual upheavals, revolutions, and violent details of the period they want to invest in — because yes, this property is not only a rewarding lifestyle, but a fantastic investment to leave to your children. Don't worry, we've taken care of all the possible unfortunate wrinkles. You'll be able to kick back and enjoy that peasant revolt, the daily spectacle of the guillotine, the carpet bombings, the plagues — if that's what suits you.

It's up to you! Your safety, and the safety of your property is our first concern. Leave it to us! There are infinite universes, our patented history collapsing technology makes sure you're the center of existence. And completely tax deductible under the latest legislation!

Relax. Enjoy. History is yours — why wait any longer?

2018-06-16 15:00 fiction science-fiction elixir Benjamin Brood

Those Of Us Who Remain

There were more than sixty of us in the ship when it launched. We were told exactly how long the trip would take. Fourteen months. Why couldn't we all be put to sleep, I wondered. I asked this, why couldn't we be put to sleep. They said it was a much more valuable experience if we were awake and together for the fourteen months. I think they just didn't know how, they would never admit this, that they never knew how to do it.

We started playing Airlock only a couple months into the trip. The game was simple. At the beginning of the day-cycle, the Airlock override code was changed by the computer to a two letter designation. Then the computer picked someone to go into the Airlock. The ejection countdown would begin — the person had five minutes to enter the override code and stop themselves from being sucked into space.

There were 650 permutations.

There was about enough time to enter them all if you were good with the keypad, and if you were methodical about the sequence. If you weren't, if you skipped a combination that might have been the override code, well, that's what made the game fun. Fairly soon we grew a little bored of this — of having the computer choose who went into the Airlock. There were certain individuals who were annoying, or who regularly forgot or disobeyed The Rules Of The Ship — so we put them into Airlock. Honestly, I have to admit around that time, let's say that we added a lot of Rules as we saw fit. It became impossible to know all the Rules really. But then this too grew tiresome when there were fewer of us. After all, those of us that remained had become very, very good at entering the combinations into the keypad.

One day a couple of us, OK, maybe it was only me, yes, I think it was only me, changed the override code to three places. That's 15,600 permutations. There's no way to enter them all in the time given, and even if you could, you'd probably fuck some of it up, meaning there's still a chance you'd go WHOOOSH right out into space. Sometimes people would get lucky. A lot of times they didn't though. The game was more fun this way, we agreed, much more fun. Who would win? Who would be the last one? It consumed us.

The few of us who were left drew up an ordered list, and one by one we went in and bit by bit the list dwindled. Until yesterday there were two of us left. And I saw the panic on his face, my fellow traveler, as he hammered away at the keypad, sweating and grimacing as the countdown continued unabated, closer and closer to the end — then WHOOOSH. And that was it, I was the winner, I was the last.

Now I find it less satisfying than I'd imagined. The long journey ahead, I know how boring it will be. I've decided to keep playing. Really winning, I mean winning BIG, is making it the whole way. This morning I changed the override code to four places — 358,800 permutations. As I stand in front of the Airlock I'm cracking my knuckles and stretching. I will remain.

2018-03-16 14:14 fiction science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Sakari

They lived under the Node. It wasn't uncomfortable, but it wasn't comfortable either. It was a place with just enough and just not enough to be feasible. Supplies were dropped in every three cycles. There was time to go hungry if you didn't plan everything right. They'd made every mistake once, rarely twice. There was no excuse for making a mistake twice.

Their daughter Sakari was an infant when they arrived. Now she ran through the compound, investigating, deconstructing, imagining. They felt bad about isolating her more than isolating themselves, they'd had time to prepare themselves for changes. She had only ever known this. She had friends in the Well during the connection periods, but it wasn't the same. If they'd been fair, they said, they wouldn't have had a child at all. Not for a life like this. But then, the Node would need someone after they were gone.

In the mornings sunlight outlined the triangular Node set on top of the stone precipice, casting a deep and frozen shadow across their home. They would rise from their sleeping pit and make hot beverage. Then one of them would begin the long climb up to the Node. The ladder, carved directly into the stone, was set at a steep angle rather than being set vertically. This helped, somewhat. There were safety hooks every tenth rung, using them was imperative in the windy season. Without using the hooks falling to your death was statistically probable over time.

Once inside the small room in the Node, large enough for a single person, he or she would check the settings and the connectivity. Was there flow? Good. Was everything pointed where it should be? Good. Adjustments would need to be made. Without these constant minor tweaks, the Node would fail and the Well would break down. From the top of the Node a constant stream of relay between worlds was handed off down the line, where other men and women at other Nodes made their own adjustments.

A long time ago many people left Aok. This was not their world, they said. We must return to our home, they said. They wanted to return to the way things were, or how they believed things were for their distant ancestors, and they believed in the old stories, they thought all these things were true. After they left there was disruption. Things changed — with fewer people there were hard times. There was famine. Those that stayed learned new ways of doing everything, and they learned ways to make and use tools better, and they started to look into the sky — not the way those that left had, but in a way that eased their hunger, that the ocean above them was a place to hunt.

As they went to other worlds, they built up systems of communication that spanned the great distances and the great amount of time. There were corners in these worlds, and on Aok, where if you made signals, if you made noises, they would echo into the other corners of those other worlds, without having to wait the time of an entire life, or hundreds of lives. So Nodes were placed in these corners, and signals were generated across all the worlds, echoing through all the Nodes, so that their people knew what has happened across space.

Then one day they heard something new, something they did not recognize. It was in a language that sounded a little like their own, but it was different enough. However they did recognize the tone — it asked if there was anyone out there, if anyone was listening. They responded, as best and as simply as they could. And that was how they started talking to Ebyx, to the people that left Aok a long time ago.

When Sakari grew old enough she began to help her parents maintain the Node. She would climb the long ladder up to the little room, and as she slowly worked the knobs she would turn the output up, so that the flow of voices would fill the space around her. Her father became ill, and was unable to continue working. Her mother helped her care for him, but her mother was getting older too and the ladder was becoming difficult and dangerous. The weather was worse. Soon she knew she would be the only one left keeping the Node open. She enjoyed it. She could request a replacement, but she didn't think she would. It might be a lonely life, but she thought it had a beauty to it, this place, austere and brutal and windy. Besides, these days, what other choices did she have? The scientists all agreed that Aok would eventually be uninhabitable. She could leave for another world. But there would be no coming back. Even if she could come back, there would be nothing left here for people. Travel between worlds could take a lifetime. She could stay and keep the Node, once the Nodes went out so too would the conversations between stars. At least for a while, until the Well was redone. This, too, would take lifetimes.

She connected one star to another, like threading a needle, plugging distant voices into each another. She might recognize an operator or two, but a lot of the chatter was from Compilers who gathered data about their neighboring worlds. Ebyx was the strangest. It was the newest in the Well, and the hardest to understand. She talked with one operator from Ebyx regularly, an operator named Liv. She was funny without knowing it, she was funny because she was so serious and so earnest. Sakari would ask her all about Ebyx, what was it like there, what was life like. Liv told her about her family's farm and the small towns. It didn't have big cities like other worlds. What were the animals like? Sakari would ask. Aok didn't have many animals left. There were lots of birds, Liv said, and she had pets and the farm had lots of animals. Liv told her about her parents and how they helped her to go to school so she could be an operator. Liv was considered gifted. Being an operator was something special on Ebyx, and Liv was part of the first group. The training had very strict requirements. While on Aok there had been operators for a thousand years, it was considered an antique profession, even quaint.

Sakari assumed everything they said was monitored — it didn't matter to her. This is the way new Nodes are in the Well, they're always shy. And authorities are paranoid. As time went on, they'd get used to the sounds, the dialog would fit them as they fit the dialog, Ebyx would find out who they were or who they were becoming.

Her parents passed away. Her mother died soon after her father. She threw the ashes, mixed together, into the wind. For the next few years she went up and down the ladder, she kept the Node running and she heard the voices across dozens of worlds. But she looked forward to hearing Liv the most. What would it be like to meet? They talked about it as she and Liv became closer. Of course it was impossible to meet — if Sakari left Aok when she arrived on Ebyx Liv would be long dead. But they would talk about it occasionally, what if it were possible.

Sometimes it was lonely for Sakari. The weather grew more violent. Now the trips up the ladder were always dangerous. She had to be careful, if anything happened there was no one to save her. More people left Aok all the time. She imagined them, perhaps a hundred years from now, they would land somewhere, somewhere new to live, maybe not as cold. Liv said Ebyx was warm, that it used to be cold but now there were deserts and jungles and lots of farmland. Sakari wondered if she would be able to live somewhere warm.

A year later the scientists declared an evacuation of Aok. She would have to leave. The Nodes on Aok would be shut down. There was a plan for the Well to compensate, they believed they could keep the gateways open if they juggled things the right way. Sakari wondered how true this was. She was upset, not necessarily because she'd have to leave Aok, but because it meant she would no longer be able to talk to Liv. There would be a final, terrible conversation, knowing that she would be asleep for the rest of Liv's lifetime. Liv got very quiet when Sakari told her this.

"When do you have to leave?" she asked.

"Within the next year, the last ship leaves in a year", Sakari said.

They talked more than they ever had. One day Liv was excited, she told Sakari about work that scientists were doing in the Well.

"They call it a Return, they use a Node to transfer the essence of someone, they transfer their self, their mind, into a simulacrum at the other end. Several people have already done it."

"To Ebyx?" Sakari asked.

"No, not here yet. Our simulacra aren't very advanced yet. Not like other places. And I guess we're considered pretty backwards, I don't know who would want to give up their body to come here. Keep in mind for a long time they had very strict laws here about certain kinds of technology. But all of that is changing."

Sakari didn't know what to do. She didn't know where to go. None of the other worlds interested her much, and Ebyx didn't interest her if Liv wasn't there. There was also — and all travelers knew this — a certain gamble. The world you decided to go to, when you began your journey, may not match the world you arrive at. In that time there could be natural, political, or cultural upheaval. She felt like her future was a dangerous void, a landscape of pure ambiguity. Any decision would help. She avoided talking to Liv for a couple of weeks.

She was preoccupied with the possibilities, or the lack them. She could disobey the order to evacuate, she could stay here, live out the rest of her life in the demise of Aok's biosphere. But the Node wouldn't be connected anymore. She would live in complete silence and likely starve to death. In one way this was the most concrete path, but it was also the most concretely terrifying. If she simply picked a world that seemed nice, she'd arrive in a place she didn't know, and she didn't know what she would do with the rest of her life. The place might have some aspect of its culture she finds repellent. She might be unable to acclimate to certain customs. She would no longer he herself, she would be a new person.

She didn't really need her body anyway. So she would leave, now that her parents were gone, she would Return to Ebyx. She told Liv that she'd decided and Liv was excited. There was work to do, preparations to be made, it would take several months.

On the day of the Return she bid goodbye to the freezing, howling wind, and climbed up the impossibly cold rungs of the ladder to the little room in the Node. She turned on the heater and checked the dials. This is where her body would stay. As the evacuation ended and the power failed, her body, the remains anyway, would be buried in ice. She'd been given detailed instructions about what to do, what to plug in, how to set things up, this would take hours. Then she would talk to a couple of scientists on other worlds, to check that she'd done everything correctly. She wasn't nervous anymore.

It was a deep and dreamless sleep.

When Sakari woke up she tasted metal. She wasn't cold or hot — she felt smooth, she felt symmetrical. Liv stood over her, looking down, her face wrinkling into a smile. "Hello", Liv said.

2018-03-13 20:30 fiction science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Makkuut

They would have to get a camera crew past the militarized zones around the ruined city. M. thought he knew a way, he thought he could do it. He was in contact with one of the guards on patrol, who desperately needed money. "You don't even have to do anything," he told the guard, "all you have to do is, very briefly, absolutely nothing." The man agreed — for a large sum of money he would look the other way and let the broadcast crew through the checkpoint, knowing he would lose his job, maybe worse. "It will be fine," M. lied to him, "just claim ignorance, they can't do anything about it."

The crew would go in as light as possible — just three of them. M. would do the reporting, Orddot would take care of sound and setup, and Heaika would shoot it all. They'd bring enough film for maybe a full day of footage. That should be enough, he thought.

On the morning they were scheduled to leave, Heaika got cold feet. He said he was ill, but M. knew better. Now M. had to scramble — if he was still going, he needed to find a replacement. Nobody would be as good as Heaika. And M. was angry that someone else would know know about their project, it was important that it remain secret, not just for legal reasons, but if the viewers knew what was coming it would lessen the impact. He wanted it, he expected it, to have enormous impact.

The first cameraman he called didn't answer. This was too bad, M. thought, since he was decent. The second one he tried was out of town on a job and wouldn't be back for a week. There was one more cameraman, obviously not his first choice, named Kallik. He had a reputation — he was difficult. M. called and Kallik picked up.

"Are you doing anything? Are you available for a job?"

"Couldn't get a hold of Viktor, your first choice, hunh?" Awkward laughter from Kallik.

"Look, this could be an really important job. Unusual."

"Dangerous?"

"Maybe. But I can't tell you what it is until you agree to it."

"When do you need me?"

"Today. In a few hours, in fact. For three days — maybe longer."

"It's a secret?"

"Yes. You know my work, I wouldn't mislead you. Yeah, there are good reasons."

"OK… I agree. I'll do it. Not just because I need the money…"

"I have your word?"

"Yes, you have my word… So where are we going?"

"The ruined city." M. said, he heard Kallik whistle on the other end.

"This legal?" Kallik asked.

"Not in the slightest." M. said.

An hour later they met in an old cottage on the edge of the road, one of those abandoned structures built before the road was carved through the hills, when the area had been farmland. It was damp and musty and poorly lit, but it was close to the ruined city. From here they would take terrain vehicles across the flat, open plain until they came to the fencing that surrounded the city. This area was less guarded than the opposite side, but still guarded. "When we get to the checkpoint, our man will let us through. Keep your face masks on, no doubt he'll be questioned after the broadcast. Then we'll head to the coordinates, if we get separated for whatever reason, meet at the coordinates."

They rode out onto the dry ground, scrubland, once fertile farming and before that, probably jungle like everything else. The dust and the sun and the crisp air sharpened their awareness of distance across the field to the tall fencing. M. was nervous because they were out in the open. As they got closer they saw a gap in the fence, but blocked with several metal bars attached to a large weighted lever. There was a small guard station, wooden, roof stained and weedy, just beyond it. This was the farthest point from the center of the city, and the least watched.

A man stepped out from the station, clearly having heard the sound of the approaching engines. They could see him raise his hand up to shade his eyes, the sun was bright now. The guard put his weight onto the lever, raising the metal bars via an antique geared mechanism. Faded tassels attached to the bars, once official and brightly warning, limply waved.

They slowed down through the checkpoint, M. giving the guard a minimal nod of acknowledgment. The guard gave no response whatsoever, other than promptly lifting up the handle connected to the gate, then closing it with a brittle clanking sound immediately after the vehicles were through.

Quickly the road became different. The foliage on the sides were lush, jungle that had been there for a million seasons, and only infrequently beaten back. They reduced speed, eventually crisscrossing the large snarled bundles of vines, fallen trees, and inexplicable rubble. Soon after that, they had to stop entirely. "We won't be able to get the vehicles any farther down the road, from here we're on foot." M. said.

Kallik began filming. M. and Orddot hacked their way through leaves and vines. The road was palpable below them, there was some strange magnetic feeling that they were still on it. It was an irrational but unquestionable sensation that they could not become lost. When the jungle thinned, they saw the city ahead of them, jagged shades of gray against the clear blue sky, like old alien teeth poking up through the planet, the shapes of which were in no way familiar. There was nothing in their world that looked like this, but here it was.

M.'s narration was planned. And he planned for deviations. In fact he hoped for them, for entertaining, insightful, gripping deviations that would make his program the most popular ever produced. Soon, though, he was aware that his tone drifted from the preemptive broadcast victory he had imagined. His tone was becoming muted, his excitement was becoming co-opted.

They entered the city over a long bridge whose integrity was questionable. The places where it hadn't fallen away seemed solid to them, but the amount remaining wasn't encouraging. "Like it was carved from a single piece of something, and much of it has rotted away," M. remarked. It was difficult to talk through this — he believed the bridge was real but in a different way, concrete and physical, yet the underlying concepts of it were foreign to him. The architecture was an unknown language, instead of inspiring drama, it produced a dream-like incoherence. They were on a bridge, it was crumbling — it wasn't disintegrating exactly, but it was dangerous perhaps — and yet it wasn't. M.'s narration started to ramble.

After the bridge Kallik turned off the camera and they planned their next route. They considered the inevitability of needing sleep. Since they didn't understand the layout of the city, and were unable to anticipate anywhere appropriate to rest, they would have to improvise. The priority was to capture evidence or gather footage of "The Dwellers".

There had been rumors of someone, or something, living in the city for generations. Maybe people. Maybe not people. Long ago, when their ancestors returned, they brought with them helpers, intelligent, smaller creatures with several arms, who were said to have lived side by side with them. But there was no actual record of this, it was simply spoken of, a memory of a memory. The stories about it varied widely, as you'd expect from fables, hearsay, and blatant confabulation. Since traveling to the ruined city had been forbidden for as long as anyone knew, the stories became more imaginative over time, piling up and mutating into absurd fantasies. Adults discounted them as ridiculous.

Recently however, there had been an incident that rekindled interest in the city, people began to tell those stories again.

The town nearest the ruined city had filmed fantastic lights, dancing around the shapes of the relics, illuminating the striations of ancient structures, as if it were a pattern, or a reflection, of an enormous broadcast inside the city where no one was supposed to live. The recordings of this event spread quickly through the networks, viewership had never been higher. People were openly reminded of the ruined city, a place that had become blurred by time, almost forgotten — it had become just another feature of the landscape. Now there was an onslaught of programs about the city, and it seemed to dominate every conversation.

The lights returned twice recently, captured in greater detail.

M. had argued with the producers the very next day: they needed to go into the city. Impossible, the producers said, no one goes into the city, everyone knows that you can't go in. More than just law, they reminded him, it simply wasn't done. The stigma of the ruined city stands for the past — for a civilization that was the enemy, that forced their people to flee, the city contained all the things that would remind their viewers of this — and it might still contain things that could cause physical harm. It just wouldn't be done, the producers said. But M. decided to go. He didn't know what he'd be able to film, or how dangerous it may be, or what punishment he'd suffer. He knew that the program he put together would have to be good, it would have to be great, it would be the only forgiveness for his unforgivable social breach.

M. told Orddot and Kallik they'd have to press on, into the darkness if necessary. There was no reason for being in the city unless they were going to take risks. He had bought some illegal stimulants from a drug dealer, and he handed a pill to each. Kallik rolled his eyes. "I guess we're in it now, hunh?"

They had a basic sense of where the lights had originated. They'd studied maps, most of them forbidden as well. Each time it had been in almost the same place. It wasn't quite the center of the city, close however.

They walked in a weighty silence. There were no sounds of birds or other animals normally heard in the jungle. Occasionally they'd hear part of a building crumble, a piece of stone, or whatever it was made of exactly, slide off and crash into the piles of detritus on the ground. M. was amazed anything was left, this had been happening for countless thousands of seasons. More of the buildings appeared intact than he expected. Previously all he'd seen of the interior of the city were badly done drawings. There seemed to be a few different materials used to construct the buildings, those that looked better were made out of some kind of metal that was now stained.

There was an odor of wet decay, inevitably elements of the jungle had crept in, bringing with it rot and haphazard growth. But he didn't understand why the entire city wasn't under a impenetrable blanket of vines and soil, much of it was clear of any vegetation.

"Did your hair just stand on end? By that last building I mean?" Orddot asked.

"Yes. You didn't imagine it. Maybe there's a power source. I don't know how. Maybe this has to do with the lights." M. said.

Soon the sensation returned. They paused this time. Kallik put the camera up and started to film, then stopped, puzzled, put the camera down and examined it — then tried again. "I don't know what's wrong with the camera, it won't engage." They took turns examining it. The camera would begin filming then stop. "Try your still camera," M. said. Kallik was able to trigger the shutter once, then it too wouldn't engage. "Frustrating. We're sunk if we can't get footage. Let's get as close to our destination as we can, we don't have much choice." M. said.

The sensation subsided as they moved along. Shortly afterwards Kallik announced the camera was working again. "Strange. Try filming," M. said. The film camera was also working. They repeated this experiment at the next spot they felt the peculiar sensation. "Same thing, cameras don't work."

The sun inched downwards, Cbyx rose directly opposite, creating that familiar cross-cutting of shadows appropriate to the season, but here, with the often immense buildings, the lines were distraught and long, cutting and overlapping in ways that created vertigo. Each man winced and tried to focus on a small part of the ground in front of themselves. Frequently M. took out his rough, hand drawn map and tried to orient himself — it was becoming more difficult as the buildings became denser and closer together.

"I think we're close," he said.

"What was that?!" shouted Kallik. He was looking up. M. and Orddot then looked up too, but saw nothing.

"I didn't see anything, what did you see?" M. asked.

"I don't… It was… It was a large bird I think."

"You think? Was it a bird?"

"I've never seen a bird that large. Not a bird like that. But it was flapping. At least I think it was flapping, it was odd." Kallik said.

M. and Orddot were silent, they didn't know how to respond. They believed Kallik. "OK, let's shoot some footage, and let's be ready for tonight." M. said. He pulled out his notes and they began filming. M. soon encountered the same problem he'd experienced earlier, while he could describe his surroundings and the camera could capture the images, there was essentially nothing happening — words couldn't convey the peculiarly muted feelings created by the architecture around them. The scale of the buildings were larger than anything M. had ever seen, larger than anything ever built. He struggled with ways to make that scale clear.

"There it is, I saw it," Orddot yelled. Kallik pointed the camera upwards quickly. The camera caught the last moment of something in the sky, something that moved behind the top of a building, something flying. "Were those legs?" M. asked. They waited, the camera still pointed up, in the last of the daylight, but it did not reappear.

"We're basically in the same area where the lights were coming from… what now." Kallik lowered the camera and fiddled with the night settings. M. and Orddot put on their head lamps which were dim red lights that bobbed as they spoke. "We wait, keep alert."

There was a slow increase of wind, that hummed through the corridors created by the buildings, the sound was symmetrical and oddly artificial. Cbyx cast a glow which provided enough light that even without their head lamps they could make out the tops of the buildings and the shapes of each other like black geometries. They waited. M. tried not to glance at his watch, knowing that it would exacerbate the drag of time. Around them the wind continued to increase, slowly, but eventually reaching a point that they, almost simultaneously, became panicked. Now they had to shout to hear each other. "We need to find shelter," yelled Kallik. "No, we need to be out in the open to film." His impulse, like theirs, was to bolt for cover, but he knew if they did, they'd be stuck until morning.

The next few minutes were tense. They were worried about being hit by debris, which rattled around them, or swirled in clouds down the canyons between the buildings. The particles kicked up from the wind blocked out most of the light from Cbyx.

"We can't stay here!" Orddot yelled.

"Just a few more minutes!" M. was unwilling to surrender his chances for footage.

There was a blinding shock of brightness — suddenly one of the buildings near them had become a column of pure light. When their eyes adjusted, they saw a pillar of white light shooting up into the sky. And from the tops of buildings nearby they saw, now clearly, more of the flying things collecting in groups, excitedly swirling in the air around the column. They were shaped similar to men, smaller perhaps, squatter, but their wings were like jungle bats. The flailing of their wings and legs as they went into and out of the light was disturbingly familiar, as if huge, obscene moths gathered in large numbers around a fire. Their frantic movements through the light caused it to pulse and variate in the sky above.

That was all M. could remember. He didn't know how they ended up in the field outside the city, laying in warm sunlight and the smell of fresh grass. His watch was broken, stopped. Immediately he looked around for the cameras. Kallik was rubbing his head, but still appeared to have all of his equipment. Orddot likewise looked confused, sitting up and wincing. "Did you get it?" M. asked Kallik, "did you get it all?" Kallik nodded, "I got it."

When they arrived back at their studio they found police and officials waiting for them. M. was ready for this possibility, his lawyer was prepared to counter their objections with enough jargon and ancient law — enough to buy some time — to get the program on the air. The strategy worked, the police and officials demanded the footage, but the arguments forced the mechanisms of law to slowly churn. While M. and Orddot and Kallik sat in a cell that night, their film was developed. When they were released, and a trial date set, they rushed to the studio to see what they'd captured.

M. wiped a sweaty sheen from his forehead. The footage was unusable. There was sound, his narration was there, then hours of howling wind. But the pictures… Other than motion on the edges of the frame, the film looked as if it had been taken in a mist, a pulsing opaqueness that infrequently revealed the forms of buildings, tantalizingly, but mostly just swirling fields of color. And the still images were exactly the same. There was no argument of it being ruined in development, it had not been. There was something in the city that obfuscated their recordings. M. focused on a single short series of frames, towards the end, where he believed he could see a few of the flying things on the edge, the motion of it he could identify as what he'd seen, what they'd seen, it was unmistakable to him. "That could be anything." One of the other producers said. No one saw anything meaningful. The films were considered a total loss.

M. was suspended. He determined he would write their experiences down, that there was still an audience for it. That they'd sneaked into the city was now widely known and assumed to be true. Although some began to argue that they could've staged the whole thing. How did they get out without passing through any checkpoints? Doubt grew.

A few weeks after the lights began, they stopped. There were no explanations. Travelers noted, however, that roads normally in the vicinity of the city were closed and diverted. Farmers in the area noted that a wall was now being built around the city, a gigantic wall.

2018-02-20 15:28 fiction science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Keeri

The world was loud. Two children playing had discovered the stones. We began hanging the stones from the trees and bushes after we realized the stones muted sounds. When we spoke around them we were only as loud as a whisper. What would happen if we put all the stones in a circle around the village, we wondered. But it didn't work like we expected, as long as the stones touched the ground. We found out that if we hung them up — and if we hung up enough of them — the village was completely isolated from outside noise. Over time the buildings and airports and trains and mining and construction got closer and closer to us. It seemed like it happened overnight. Maybe we were asleep all that time, maybe for us it was the same as overnight, I don't know. I remember the day when we noticed the noise — although the noise had been there, in the back, growing, making us anxious — there was a day when a new airship, thundering overhead, no doubt traveling city to city, caused collective ear clamping, the entire village slapping hands onto the sides of heads. I looked out onto the village square and I saw everyone simultaneously scowl then cover their ears and then we looked around at one another and understood we could take no more. But what could we do? We couldn't stop the world. In fact there was every indication our village would become more drawn into this never ending expansion, that we would become as loud as the world, or be rolled over in the process. But the noise — it was driving us all crazy. We didn't know what would happen with the rest of the world, but we thought at least we might get rolled over in peace and quiet. We were enjoying this new found solitude when one day two men from some institute arrived. I don't know how they heard about the stones, the stones themselves would've prevented them from hearing it. They wanted to know how the stones worked. We told them the little we knew. The men seemed wary. Will they take them away? We asked ourselves. The men would stand around a stone, staring down at it, writing things down and saying the word "TEST" over and over again. Then yesterday the men left. We worry more men will return, and we worry that someone will want to mine the stones. But what can we do?

2018-01-12 00:00 essay culture science-fiction

Franchises Are For Donuts, Not Culture

I’m bored. Maybe you’re bored too. I tried watching a well known movie last night and got less than a half hour in and had to turn it off. The soundtrack was the same style of music I’ve heard a thousand times now, with the sweeping, dramatic and emotionally manipulative score that tells you what’s about to happen, trying to make the viewer anxious, and, I guess, trying to keep everybody watching. The writing was a pastiche of old predictable concepts, and stupid quips, glued together by either a committee or even a computer program — it was impossible to tell. Visually it was a series of faces over-reacting to frenetic irrelevant mayhem. The movie was not necessarily terrible. But the movie was certainly not good. The sheer lack of anything substantive made me shut it off. I enter bored, I left bored.

From what I can tell, and I mean, from the noise in social media, everybody loves these kinds of movies. They repeat them, they recite dialogue, they reference. They idolize the actors to the point of creating religious pilgrimages or reliquaries, they seek any word from either within the movie or uttered by the actor outside the movie as something sacrosanct. They dress as the characters and go to conventions to meet other people who dress as the same kind of characters. They spend money on toys and collectibles related to the movie. They get teary-eyed when they have children so they can introduce them to their movie, assuming their children will love it as much as they do.

Which is all fine, loving a thing is fine — but the thing at the center, the thing so adored, is a product engineered by a corporation to sell more of itself. It would be naive to assume that a movie which will — or should — make a billion dollars, doesn’t have incredible marketing and process savvy.

Your response to it has also been engineered. But what have you been sold?

Like you, sometimes I have a craving for fast food. I know the food isn’t good, or even food really. And I always have the same regretful experience afterwards. Stomach feels bad, an ill feeling where I tell myself that I will never be doing that again. The more I try to eat well, and put effort into getting quality ingredients, and the more I cook for myself, and allow myself to have the time to do that, the better I feel. And the longer I go like that, keeping that habit, the less I want to eat crap. In fact, it’s only because of that juxtaposition that I come to think it’s crap. I went in hungry, in reality I left hungry.

But what if the world had only fast food? What if I couldn’t find good things to cook and eat? I suppose I wouldn’t notice. Since there wouldn’t really be any alternative, I would be excited to drive through TacoDome and get the triple cheese tostada bowl. Over and over. Any change in the execution of my tostada bowl would seem like a personal slight, an aberration that would need to be immediately avoided in the future. And so, TacoDome makes the same thing the same way over and over and over. TacoDome is smart, they keep me happy by not surprising me.

I don’t think the problem is merely habit and moderation. There are mechanisms reinforcing behavior. There are complexes devoted to consumption. The obvious end result of a civilization devoted to consumption is obesity in every aspect. Our cultural diabetes is related, and it’s more than just the normal impulse to occasionally binge, it’s rewarded behavior. It’s a result of concerted effort by the choke points in media, those running “franchises” particularly, to keep us coming back to the narrative drive-through window. Like TacoDome, they use every tool and incredible financial resources available to get you hooked. The larger they become, and the more that becomes the only option, the less likely it is a person will ever see an alternative as anything other than unsatisfactory. Why would you willingly subject yourself to something unsatisfying? Just repeat the last thing you loved, exactly. The first one is free.

Repetition is a funny thing. You can repeat a lie a hundred times, prove it is factually incorrect, call it for what it is, and yet it’s probably too late. People have heard it, and are now repeating it, truth doesn’t matter. The power of rebroadcasting is the power of repetition. The things now deemed important, influential by our culture seem like pale, cheap manipulative cons compared to the art and expression of humans even merely fifty years ago because they’ve been amplified by mechanisms that encourage consumption.

Maybe. The possibility here is that all cultural expression in the future will go through a corporation, and be approved by financial apparatuses, and that’s the way it should be and you should just shut up and buy an action figure and make sure to wear the appropriate Halloween costume or risk being shunned online. If you want to make a movie, or write a book, or draw a picture, you should attend the correct education programs and stick to the recipe. Do not deviate, citizen, unless the deviation can be capitalized.

If you want to make donuts, make donuts. I’m not here to add bitter sauce. I’ve enjoyed some of the same things you have. But ask yourself, every time you watch, read, or consume something from a corporation, what are you being sold? What is it you’re buying?

2018-01-11 22:49 fiction science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Adam

They would go to Ckiqs. They would build rockets the way rockets used to be built and they would go to Ckiqs.

They discovered a signal. They noticed it once they'd built wireless, and once they pointed antennae at Ckiqs. This did not happen quickly, it had been several generations since they arrived. As their villages grew, and their farms flourished, and their populations increased, little by little technology from that previous world, abandoned, left to rot and rust, was harvested and recreated. This wasn't easy, there was resistance. One group left the villages and moved south where they met a separate, uncontacted settlement, founded by lost pilgrims. And some of the resistance was violent. A faction had tried to destroy the city and its technology with bombs they'd retrieved from the city itself.

But over time, as crops were harvested and children were born, people grew up learning the newer ways and embraced the newer things their ancestors had been afraid of.

And they expanded them. The villages became towns, one of the towns became a new city. They connected these places with wireless for the harvest machines and the machines that kept the jungle back, and they built themselves trains so that all the towns and the new city could easily ship things and people back and forth. Great trains now roared through the jungle, stacks expelling smoke, twisting along cliffs, overlooking valleys dotted with land reworked into farms.

After they'd created wireless networks they wondered what would happen if they pointed it at Ckiqs. They received a very clear, repeating transmission.

At first they didn't recognize the language. They didn't know it was the language of The Sagas, something the people of the ruined city had spoken. The ruined city was an alien mythology and culture, something their ancestors would've encountered and lived side by side with, but not their own.

Adam's parents spent their lives studying this culture. Even his own name "Adam" had come from it. When he was growing up people constantly mispronounced his name, so now he lived with that mispronunciation because it was easier than correction.

Adam inherited his parents' work. He was an expert of the people of the ruined city, the lost civilization of Ekiqs, or as they said "Ebyx". And yet it was almost a full season before he was brought into the laboratory to hear the transmission. They simply didn't know where to begin.

When he entered the long utilitarian building where the scientists sat on benches, their equipment stacked up around them, multicolored wires snaking around and under nearly everything, they asked him passively if he was willing to listen. Then they flipped a big flat button and a deep rumbling noise came from the speakers they'd placed at the front of the table and haphazardly on the seats. The scientists did not react, having heard the transmission a hundred or a thousand times by now.

From the static, low buildup, there clearly emerged a voice, over-enunciating, saying words that he felt were familiar to him but which he didn't immediately understand. The voice spoke these words exactly the same way, in the same pattern, three times then stopped.

"It'll start again momentarily", one of the scientists said wearily, "the same way, always the same way."

"Where is it coming from?"

"A mountainous region of Ckiqs. Or, at least we think they're mountains." One scientist shot a hard glance at the other, causing the first to wince and shrug.

It took him a moment to transform the actual sounds into words since, except for his parents, he'd never heard anyone speak it. And not this way. The words, he realized, were from The Sagas, stories people of the ruined city believed were sacred.

"BROADER IS THE OCEAN, CLOSER ARE THE STARSBROADER IS THE OCEAN, CLOSER ARE THE STARS" the voice repeated.

"I know what this means," Adam said. Excitement swept through the laboratory. "This is a phrase from one of — or the most — sacred book of the ruined city. It's assumed… or tends to mean… that their people came from the stars and will someday return. This is much different than our own traditions. They never believed they were from this planet at all, it was never truly home for them. Whereas we know our people originated here, and that fleeing was necessary. We always knew we would return — they always knew they would leave. This phrase is a reminder that their home isn't Ekiqs, that they're from the stars. Their home is the stars."

He saw confusion on the scientists faces. "But why would that be broadcast from the surface of Ckiqs?" Adam recognized the words, the origin of the phrase, but it didn't actually answer their questions, simply created new ones. He apologized.

"We don't know what's going to happen next", the scientist admitted. "Find out everything you can about that phrase", he said, "spend time in the ruined city if you have to, we will make sure you are given permission."

Access to the ruined city was strictly controlled. The Council said they wanted to protect people by restricting access since it held technology well beyond their understanding. But Adam knew the real reason was that the Council wanted complete control over when and how certain technologies were resurrected. Things hidden in the city could shatter their nascent society.

His parents made frequent visits in their own time, before it was cutoff. Helping his parents, he'd been there twice, when he was a child. The strange and stark deserted buildings, seemingly defying gravity, and the labyrinthine nature of it had excited and frightened him. He'd never been given the broad kind of access they once had, the Council said that his parents had extracted enough material for a lifetime of study — there was no reason to go back, they claimed.

He never challenged that decision. But now he would have to dig deeper. Of course he could consult all of the written records and artifacts collected, and of course he could use his parents' work to help him. But the question became larger than academic work. What was the relationship between The Sagas and Ckiqs and the abandonment of the city?

He was given permission by the Council immediately, along with a stern cautionary lecture. And he wouldn't go alone, he would be accompanied by a marshal named Iissaq. This is for your own safety, he was told. He knew this wasn't completely true, but it was true enough that he conceded.

He worried about Iissaq interfering. He needed to explore, he needed to follow his instincts, he needed to follow some imperceptible stream of connections through the city. He would have to go far into that labyrinth that scared him as a child.

He and Iissaq left in a Skimmer one morning. It landed in the city on the same pad his parents had used many seasons ago, it was the same, nothing had changed. The walkway, which they'd pieced together with whatever they could find, still looked utilitarian and sturdy. As he went down to where they spent so much time gathering and planning, he remembered the sunrise that first morning he was in the city, as it split between the irregular and often towering buildings, he wondered how his ancestors had managed to exist in the same world as this alien place and alien people. "Snowfoot" was the term they had used to refer to his ancestors.

Iissaq wanted specifics about where they were going and what they were doing. Adam didn't know. He made something up. He would have to spend time retracing old ground. Something might present itself, something of the nature of place would have lead him. He would have to rely on serendipity, he would have to hunt and gather ideas. Soon enough he was used to having Iissaq quietly at his side, rarely asking questions. When Iissaq did speak the inquiries were general and not particularly confrontational or pointed. But he knew Iissaq was watching closely — the Council would hear everything Adam did and saw.

He spent two days moving from point to point, places his parents knew, a few he'd seen before, many he hadn't. He consulted their notes as he went. He was walking the steps his parents walked, trying to think the things they thought as if everything were new. He kept the phrase and way that transmitted voice had pronounced it in the back of his mind.

They went to the museum, a city in the city, a place of multiple levels and too large to have been thoroughly explored by anyone, even his parents. In many ways it was unclear where the museum started and ended. His parents suspected it was a group of institutions, for convenience they called it "museum".

Tracing their original routes he noticed something different than their records. Where there was a single path, he saw two, as if an avenue had since been revealed. Considering the amount of debris and partial collapses, it was possible his parents had never seen this fork. He and Iissaq entered a transitional space leading to other adjacent spaces. The architecture became markedly different, from what he knew of the city it looked obviously older. From the markings on several parts of the exposed walls he understood he was in an area designated as "Codex". Here he found a very large cache of "stones" — what his parents called the rectangular, heavy, cold, flat gray tablets they'd discovered in various other locations of the city. It was a mystery what these had been used for, the best guess was that they were used in some kind of social exchange, perhaps like currency.

As they continued the surroundings looked older still, as if the "Codex" was built around something else. Structures inside of structures. Soon they came upon a massive arch that delineated the two architectural styles. And on the arch was the word "Cyclopaedia". He knew this word, he'd seen it a number of times, it was an important part of the city, an important fixture of the culture and authority of the city. If this was the "Cyclopaedia", it was a major find. His excitement rose. He hurried forward, Iissaq indulging him. The corridors were mostly intact but complicated and difficult to navigate. He tried working inwards, trying carefully not to get caught moving in circles, yet he had to backtrack several times. And there were cabinets here, more cabinets than he could count. And there were broad cases, many smashed, holding items he could not identify, things that were ancient, broken, scattered, or obscured. It was a frustrating amount of evidence he could not understand.

He stopped to inspect the cabinets once in a while, and he could see they were engineered to hold something as wide and tall as his hand. Whatever may have been in there was now long gone. Now there was only a fine white dust. It was disappointing. He was tempted to retrace his steps and be more thorough, but he pushed on — feeling that Iissaq, although quiet, was a temporal pressure.

The corridors opened up into a large vaulted area where a surprisingly small building sat in the center, a building that was radically different and older than the surrounding construction. On the side of the structure was a metal sign. He brushed off inches of dust. Written on it was something he knew was a date, a date he believed was early in the city's history. Taking a moment to decipher the rest of the sign, he believed it said the structure was the home of "Quiddity" creator of the Cyclopaedia. Adam tried to open the door but it crumbled in his hands, turning into a pile of desiccated shards. Iissaq grabbed his arm and pulled him back, "this structure is dangerously unstable". Adam didn't doubt it, but he wished he could've gone in, even if it did collapse around him.

He regretted not knowing more, wondering what it must've been like here a long time ago. Then he noticed similar but much larger plaques on the walls, the far walls of the surrounding chamber. They seemed intact but caked with dust. Cleaning off corners of a few, they appeared to be something like gigantic metal broadsheets, a format he knew the city used for periodicals. He read a few lines and his eyes grew wide.

"This is what we've come to see, we'll need to spend time cleaning these off," he told Iissaq. Iissaq reluctantly helped him, poking at the walls tentatively.

The dates were vital. Adam saw a progression, these large metal declarations plotted the rise of the "Cyclopaedia" from its beginning. More importantly the other information on these gigantic broadsheet reproductions — which they'd probably considered extraneous — gave him a sense of the world outside the Cyclopaedia at the time. He read about a revolution. He read about a space program. He read about political assassinations. He read about restrictions on certain kinds of technology, something called "robotics".

A repugnant nationalism dominated the tone towards the end of the visible date range. Evidently, "The North" became independent and they were enemies. But he knew these people of "The North", the enemies, were his ancestors. There was a chilling series of short, seemingly offhand references in the last two sheets about cultural purification and a group that called themselves "Pilots". Without more of these kind of periodicals he was unable to understand exactly who they were. But he'd read enough that he was able to piece together a more complete picture than his parents had done, and using the information they'd already collected he believed he had an idea of what really happened.

He wasn't sure he wanted to tell anyone.

At the end of that day he told Iissaq they wouldn't need to return the next morning. Iissaq raised his eyebrows and took this as confirmation of some reportable conclusion. Adam regretted this, perhaps he could've strung Iissaq along for a few weeks, investigating alternate narratives, seeking details and evidential trails through the physical and historical maze. But he didn't have the energy. He understood the ancient city and its people now, and he was glad his parents weren't alive to read the things he'd read.

2017-12-31 21:29 short-story science-fiction return-to-ebyx fiction Benjamin Brood

Equ

Past mountains, around bogs, across broad plains of dry scrub that could easily cut you, he went. Hanging from his neck was an ancient thing, from their past world, and he didn't know how it worked but it did work. It was a Navigator. When he held it up to the shape of Ckiqs in the sky, then Ckiqs was there, it told him what direction he was going and how far away he was from where they landed several generations ago, the place they started. It told him in a whisper, it was a gentle voice that he could even hear in the areas where great winds roared or even in the middle of a storm. For him the voice was reassuring, and in the times when he felt anxious it calmed him.

He'd traveled across a large amount of the wild places — the places in the far north or the far south, away from the crisscross of train tracks and towns and the overhead buzz of Skimmers. Far above themselves satellites pinged mercilessly back to the towns and cities and trains telling everyone where everyone was. But not like the Navigator, not with poetry.

His walking was like a story. Except for the Navigator he relied on the skills taught to him by his mother and father. Their great-greats brought this knowledge with them from Aok. They didn't land with the others — because of some error they landed far away from the others. It was a long time before they found the villages that sprung up in the meantime. They tried to settle down like the others, they tried for a generation, but there was nothing for them in the villages except noise and interruptions and Councils and arguments.

He was born in the small space under a boulder, sheltered from a rain storm. When he came of age he bid his mother and father goodbye, they walked one way, he another. Later, when he passed through a small remote town, he stopped for a while and he met his wife. She was reluctant to live as a wanderer since she had grown up in the village, but she loved him, and she knew he couldn't stay.

Their first season was easy, the weather was good and there was plenty of food. She became pregnant and they found a nice area by a lake to have the child. They would stay there until the child was strong enough to travel, like his parents had done with him. He built a shelter with trees he cut, he put traps out and he fished, collecting as much food as he could.

When it came time for her to give birth he knew something was wrong. The baby wasn't in the right position, and he tried everything he could, that he'd been taught, but it went badly and he didn't have enough experience to know what to do. For two days his wife struggled, but the baby was stillborn. His wife didn't stop bleeding. He put them together in a pyre somewhere that had a nice view of the mountains, so that they would always see.

He regretted things now, he regretted his nature, he regretted not staying with her in town. But he also knew it would've been impossible.

Then for months he rode the trains that went between the wide areas that used to be jungle. He thought of the trains as great serpents, winding their routes along the ground and under hills, and up and over them too. And the trains slinked across the soil and they sometimes rested in huge yards with one another to keep warm. And he watched these monsters and thought that he should get back to walking the places that were forgotten, away from this, but he found solace in the speed of the trains and in the particular nighttime skies of the spaces between stations.

One day he noticed a young man following him, hanging back, but working his way across the same trains and through the same train yards. Equ hid and waited for him.

"Why are you following me?" He confronted the man.

Startled, the man said "I'm not, I'm not following you… I'm studying you." The young man explained he was an academic, that he was studying wanderers.

"Studying? What for?" Equ asked.

"For when you're gone, when your kind of people are gone, when we don't wander any more, so that we'll have a record, so that we'll understand," the man said.

"If you really want to understand then you'll have to travel with me. I cannot tell you, not with words."

The young man balked at this, he said he couldn't just leave, that he had responsibilities. How can you understand if you can't sacrifice anything, Equ thought. But he didn't ask him this because he thought it would be tiring and futile. Then Equ wondered if he too was unwilling to sacrifice, because all he knew was the Navigator, that if he wanted to understand the young man he too would have to sacrifice something.

"But why do you want to understand? Why does it matter?" Equ asked.

"So that we don't forget, so that we know how people used to live." The young man said.

"I live this way now, I am not yet dead. If you want to understand, walk into the world." And Equ reached around his neck and removed the Navigator. He handed it to the young man and he said "this will tell you the words you want to know."

That night was the quietest night Equ had ever known.

2017-11-05 20:30 fiction science-fiction short-story Benjamin Brood

Harvest

He decided to go with REPLorg instead of ORGCon. There were just so many more options with REPLorg. You had REPLhart of course — their most famous product — but there was REPLung, REPLeye and now a REPLrewards program if you started a REPLbeasts farm to grow REPLcells. It seemed like there was a lot more flexibility. Also there was that ORGCon scandal a few years ago, the news reported that soil hackers had subverted an entire harvest.

Soybeans weren't cutting it. He'd been doing soybeans for a few years at a huge loss. When the REPLorg man showed up on his farm, he was, frankly, a bit pissed off. There had been bio guys around before. That one time COWSAC had come by to try to get him to attach genetic nutrient meshes to the sides of his cows, to grow antibody factories they said, and maybe later even stem cells. But that was bullshit. There was a guy the next town over who'd tried that and he just ended up with his cows screaming in pain and apparently the alterations created some new breed of vicious crop fly as a side effect. He'd had to scratch the whole herd, leading them into a ditch and blow-torching them like it was some goddamn jungle war.

"What we've got here," the REPLman said, "is made possible by the long term investment in advanced soil biologics." It was a well known fact that the unintended consequences of mass scale farming and genetic engineering was an ecosystem that allowed almost universal bio-templating, providing the human race with the ability to grow the organs its decrepit, aging population needed to survive the same way they'd grown corn and wheat and pumpkins and so on.

REPLhart grew in big red batches. REPLorg even provided the neutral harvest bags.

He joined the program that year. Scrapped the soybeans. REPLorg said he was ready to go as far as his soil was concerned. He'd had to attend a seminar. He'd sat for hours in an uncomfortable metal hotel chair while other farmers recounted successful crop yields and big profits, interspersed with REPLorg guys showing charts and graphs and walking them through the harvesting process.

Trucks arrived the next day. The seeds came in long pink rolls, each small compartment filled with a viscous maroon liquid. It took a little bit of getting used to, but for the most part he just followed the detailed instructions.

The first year was great. He started with the basic program, like they suggested, with hearts and kidneys. In the autumn the REPLharvesters were filled with ripe organs — each glutinous bag was money in his bank account, he thought.

Encouraged, the following year he started a REPLbone program, which grew in huge off-white clustered stalks. And he tried some REPLastic, a cartilage replacement. Although that year he did have a nasty case of bone mite. But REPLorg was really responsive, they had an army of robotic sprayers out in his fields right after he called it in. That night he stood on his porch watching the glow from the mite compound, eerie and beautiful across the open country. However, a percentage of that crop was lost. Some of the kidneys came out underweight too. "That's OK," the REPLman said, "we can probably still use most of them either for kids or for the government discount system. Poor people and so on." And he made good money out of that crop anyway.

Things were going well. And since he would talk about it with other farmers in the area, he got a referral bonus from a farmer who signed up to grow REPLeyes on a large parcel of land where previously there were grape vines. REPLeyes grew in small pods along similar trellises, you could see them from the road, occasionally winking. Although the sonic scarecrows were set up, birds still made off with eyeballs now and then and there were areas of the road littered with them, crushed and desiccated.

Soon enough, he thought, we'll be eligible for the REPLrewards buyback program, almost totally free organ replacement. It was satisfying knowing he was growing, probably, the very heart and lungs that he would trade for his current set.

The next year REPLorg bought ORGCon. It was announced with a lot of fanfare, and he and other top tier, highly productive farms were invited for a REPLorg company celebration in Wichita.

"You should go," his REPLman said, "it'll be fun and everything is on the company dime naturally, a weekend where we get to thank you for all your hard work and you get to be the first to hear about what we have coming up. Also a couple of other surprises!"

That weekend a long limo showed up at his house, the bottom edges dusty from the long dirt road. He grabbed his suitcase, the first time he'd gotten to use it, and kissed his wife goodbye. He wanted her to go with him, but she didn't want to go. "All those REPLmen give me the willies," she said. But she told him to go, go have fun.

He didn't know how to talk to the limo driver and he was awkward and he tried getting in the front passenger seat but the driver stopped him and told him to get in the back where there was snacks and beer courtesy of REPLorg. He felt strange about it, but it felt good too, like he was important. The beer was even the kind he liked. Driving on the road he knew so well, looking over crops of vital organ stalks sprouting from genetically rich soil he was lucky to have, he thought it looked different, it was different and he couldn't describe it, and it made him uneasy. But the beer was good.

The ride into Wichita was long and he flipped through the REPLorg brochures they'd placed next to the snacks. He flipped through them several times. The usual company stuff. A picture of a woman holding up images of her heart before and after — one heart brown and weak and sad and the next was plump, a vigorous dark red. And there was a picture of some thin woman, a model of course, with her arms outstretched, head back, an open mouthed smile, something between a victorious scream and an orgasm, pointing up to the bright cartoonish rays of a pharmaceutical sun while standing in a waist high crop of what looked like fresh REPLglands. Heh, heh, he thought, they wouldn't take that photo near harvest time, you'd never even see the woman cuz the stalks would be so tall!

He also read the apparently endless disclaimers, which made up a good half of each brochure, printed in very tiny type. This gave him a headache so he drifted off to sleep just as the limo was hitting the highway.

When he woke up they were pulling into a Marriott. He saw a large convention sign blinking "WELCOME!", flash, "REPLPEEPS!", flash, "OCT 13–15". The limo driver stopped the car, got out and opened the door for him and moved to the trunk to get his suitcase. A doorman from the hotel hurried over and opened the lobby doors, welcoming him in a practiced sugary tone without any accent whatsoever.

The desk clerk was likewise professionally kind and issued him an official convention lanyard that was such a bright orange he had trouble grabbing it since his eyes couldn't stereoscopically fix its place in three dimensions. When he held it closer he saw tiny holographic REPLorg logos printed into the material.

He took the empty elevator up to his floor where the abstract pattern on the dense carpet responded to the lanyard with small tasteful explosions of the words "WELCOME JOHN!" with various emoji. His room number blinked on the door when he got near it and opened with corporate efficiency, a hush of market tested sandalwood. He put his suitcase on the stand and gave the bed a half-hearted bounce followed by an agreeable grunt. There was a meet and greet in the hotel bar soon and he didn't know what to do with himself. He dug around inside his suitcase for his tie, the only one he owned, for weddings or funerals. It had been his father's tie. He carefully worked out how long it would be until he had to put it on.

He walked into the bar exactly five minutes after the event began, his lanyard flickering his name in a rotating circle above his head. He was relieved when he saw his local REPLman, the one he started with. "Hey! Great to see you! There's a lot of people I want you to meet," the REPLman said, enthusiastically sipping some mixed drink, "but get yourself a drink first — open bar!" Other than a few weekend beers he wasn't much of a drinker, he let the bartender just make him whatever he thought was best. He sipped it and didn't think it was very good, but it was something you could hold in your hand and that made him feel better.

There was a relentless sequence of introductions, and small talk he didn't understand, company things, whereas he was comfortable talking about the weather. But it didn't go badly, he thought, and he did meet another farmer like himself, a guy from the opposite part of the state who was happy talking about the nitty-gritty of irrigation.

Towards the end of the evening his REPLman got up on the small stage where a sleepy, beleaguered DJ had played a slurry of non-offensive pop songs. The REPLman was drunk and he careened through several bits of required REPLorg tract. Then with a sloppy, loud flourish he told everyone to drink up because they would all get free livers. He awkwardly grabbed a string, yanking on it several times, that released balloons from the ceiling. "All of you! Free livers! Courtesy of REPLorg!" He said the livers would be credited to their REPLorg accounts and redeemable any time after 30 days — so they would still have to suffer tomorrow's hangover ha ha ha.

In the morning the people congealed around the breakfast buffet, politely but clearly without infinite restraint, lined up for coffee. The faces that appeared garishly animated by the bar lighting last night now looked haggard and splotchy, dark circles and dandruff and wrinkles like gray plowed fields.

There were several talks scheduled for the day with breaks and lunch. He hoped the lunch wasn't fancy, fancy food they had in these places gave him an upset stomach. For a moment he wondered if getting a new stomach would make any difference.

For the next few hours he heard about the new REPLprograms. There was a crop called REPLskyn that was ready to farm — it grew in 6x10 sheets rolled up in a spiny cactus, and was ideal for farming markets in the southwest. It came in lots of different colors too, although economic projections greatly favored the lighter varieties.

They also revealed the newest REPLfarm monitoring system. This was an implementation of high altitude balloon drones that watched everything happening, 24/7, on the farms below and fed this into some sort of artificial intelligence. It would alert authorities faster in cases of fire or terrorism for instance. The presenter reminded everyone about the events in Illinois, not that anyone needed reminding, it was constantly referred to, if not explicitly then implicitly. But we have an even better solution to these kinds of problems, he said, a long term solution. "When we all come back after the break we'll begin our main presentation, I'm sure you'll agree it's a very exciting time and we've got some very exciting things to show you, you'll be the first to know about them because we love our REPLfarmers!"

The presenters had done a good job building up excitement. The lights in the auditorium were gradually dimmed, so now in a twilight that felt vital and anticipatory, the audience stood and walked up to the lobby. This too had been transformed and was dark and filled with overlapping holographic ad clips, ten or twenty second ultra-hi res promos that loosely led into one another using a friendly context engine that was both in the background and impossible to ignore.

He could hear the excited sub-chatter and shuffling of feet from the audience. He heard small portions of different conversations. Could it be they had solved the problem of brains? The rumors bounced from one end of the lobby and back again. There was disagreement. Too hard, some people said. Not practical, others claimed. The biological hurdles are insurmountable, one man said. REPLorg attendants carried around trays of rush and expensive single malt whisky. He opted for the rush.

They stood around the lobby for a long time. It seemed like a long time. Why didn't they call everyone back in? The holo-ads appeared to have accelerated or maybe the frenetic pace was due to the rush which made him break out in a sweat. The constrained expectations were reaching a climax however, the volume in the lobby had gone from a tense hush to a roar. Then the auditorium doors reopened, and projected angels, tastefully branded with the REPLorg and Marriott logos beckoned the crowd in with chimes and an artificial voice that was politely threatening. After sitting down, the lights went out completely and a single spotlight came on, center stage.

There was Mark Spellman, the CEO of REPLorg, in his trademark sports pullover and running pants that every other young entrepreneur tried to copy. Gone were the days of microphones, he stood on stage connected by a larynx laser, no doubt backed by a dedicated, expensive, fully staffed touring apparatus. Spellman paused, spun on his heel, walking meditatively up and down the stage while applause rose and became a standing ovation. Spellman let this continue for a while, then raised his hand several times and frowned to indicate the applause had reached the limits of decorum.

When things had quieted down enough he began to speak clearly, methodically, with a well rehearsed cadence. "What are we?" He said in a profound but also accusatory tone. "Are we this?" He pulled at the chest of his tracksuit. "Are we this?" He pointed in a sweeping motion across the crowd beyond himself in the dark. "Or are we this?" Suddenly, around him, and behind him, a variety of images and representations of the human brain sprung up, illuminating himself and the audience in a flicker of medical hues.

"For so long now we've been afraid of saying it. And we've been afraid of calling the brain what it is, just another organ…" The brains became hearts and kidneys and lungs, a rotation of the REPLorg catalog. "…until now!"

The images around him coalesced into a single spinning placement, an icon as compelling as the world's best graphic design firms could create, a fat cartoon outline of a brain, colored in a gentle spectrum, with the familiar REPLorg font the word "REPLbrayn". And the animated icon quivered, precisely, with little jolts.

The audience went wild. This is what they'd been waiting for. The icon faded and the screen behind Spellman began playing footage of what was obviously a REPLfarm. Spellman narrated.

"For several years we've been working hard and in complete secrecy on developing REPLbrayn. What you see here is a fully functional REPLbrayn farm at an undisclosed location."

The camera moved closer up to the crop itself.

"Look at this, it may seem familiar, but it isn't corn, or lungs, or hearts. The basic bio-husk may look the same, but I guarantee the inside won't."

The shot lingers on a table, to one side is a stack of husks, and a gloved hand grabs one from the pile and roughly pulls down the tough fibrous layers.

"As you can see here, the husk contains an entire, miniature organism used to nourish and pattern the raw brain matter. We experimented over the years, unsuccessfully, with growing the brain in isolation, just as we'd done with other things previously, when it occurred to us we knew how to grow the rest of the organism and its crucial systems, why not combine these techniques to create a biological framework for the brain itself."

The husk was removed. Then with a crisp SNAP the head was taken off. The body was thrown into a bin with the others.

"After harvest the remaining biomass, a protein rich set of tissues, can then be repurposed for the usual things — livestock feed, pet food, low grade protein filler in fast food — REPLfiller if you like. But the brain harvested — in under a year I might add, in under a year! — is a completely blank organ, ready to be imprinted and implanted!"

More applause. There were murmurs of excitement and incredulity in the crowd, some technical in nature, and others espousing enthusiasm about stock prices.

"But where do we go now?" The background video faded, the REPLbrayn icons reemerged with overlays of maps and paths and generic animated dotted lines indicating movement and progress.

"This is where you can help. You can help because you're the best we have, you're the best REPLsales, REPLfarms, and REPLdistributors in the whole organization!" More applause, with several loud, punctual and self-congratulatory WOOTS.

"When you get back to your rooms tonight — after the party of course — you'll find a small imprinting device. You can help us by letting it do its work, by being the first in this clean, safe new world to be free!"

Here the surrounding holo-ads became things similar to those in the brochures, images of butterflies and women jumping in slow motion, ecstatically. And images of smiling, satisfied, healthy older people embracing one another with all the fresh erotic energy of a twenty-five year old.

"To be free, to live without degeneration, without dysfunction, to be free to think healthy, positive thoughts and contribute to your families, and country, and company, and to be everything you can be!"

On cue the clips changed back to the REPLbrayn icon with the tagline "be all you can be" dotted by classic fireworks that if you looked a little closer you realized were neurosynapses firing colorfully.

Spellman gestured thankfully, pointing and motioning to unknown individuals in the audience. The standing ovation rallied with a collective chant of "Spellman! Spellman!" But Spellman didn't wait, he gave a final wave, the lights went out and he was gone. The chanting continued for a while, until the house lights came back up.

That night at the party the mood was giddy and undefeatable. They'd been energized, they would never forget the victories of REPLorg and how they, together, as a company, would change the world.

He got drunk. Somebody helped him into the elevator. When he returned to his room, stumbling, the door opened with its pleasantly designed swoosh. He staggered forward a few steps then flopped onto the bed. Dizzily, he looked around himself in a way that only made him slightly nauseous. He saw a flat black box on the nightstand. It wasn't huge, maybe a foot and a half square, a flat black cube. He sat up and laboriously, as weariness came over him, moved himself closer to look at it. It had a single small red light in the exact center of one side facing him. As he stared at it, the light turned green. There was a tingling sensation.

2017-10-24 22:18 fiction short-story science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Ulla

As cities were built, as rockets were again made and traveled to Ckiqs, the tribes admired by the separatists lived in the remote southern part of the world, living by the old ways and avoiding contact. For them time had stopped. The separatists believed change had come too fast, that reaching into the dead civilization of the ruined city polluted fundamentals of their own society. They reached out to the isolated south, emissaries were cautiously sent. The tribes fueled their ideas, and encouraged them to resist progress. Soon there were voices of dissent quoting the myths and stories of the old ways, insisting the cities and towns, even farming, were wrong.

The response to this movement was "How". How would they go backwards, how would they take away all the things they'd gotten used to using and having. No child now knew how to make a canoe and hunt and live under the stars. Houses sheltered them. In the south, the separatists said, it's colder and the ocean is big and the people there live as the ancestors had. But how would we move everyone, realistically how would we live life as our ancestors had? As the separatists became more adamant and more aggressive, so too the response, and so they became less concerned with moving everyone and more concerned with moving themselves.

Then go, said the Council, thinking some would go and a large number wouldn't. But most did.

Ulla and her brother and their parents went south. The ship that took them dropped them off with the rest of their group on a cold, barren beach where a man named Teeq greeted them. As they wound their way through the wet dense sparse forest to his village, with trees like they'd never seen before, great trees that were straight and reached up into the sky, and the ground around them sparse and rocky and covered in moss. None of these things they'd seen in their own towns or in the jungle around them. And the wind, it didn't seem to ever stop here, they had trouble hearing one another because it was so loud especially down on the beach. One girl, a young girl, began to cry. Her parents told her to stop, but Ulla could see they were almost crying too. Where were their warm homes and their radios and their cabinets full of food? Teeq lead them, walking quickly, but he said nothing, he offered no reassurances.

They could smell the settlement before they saw it. It was the smell of fish and rancid leather and camp smoke and whatever had been cooking in it, something gamy and greasy. Maybe it was something they caught in the forest, maybe it was one of the things that lived in the ocean, one of the things Ulla heard about, the big things with the tusks. Ulla asked her parents where they would sleep. Her parents told her to keep quiet. Teeq did not turn to them or speak to them.

The people of the settlement were thin and moved slowly. Ulla would describe them as another color, although they were the same race as she was and their ancestors were the same ancestors as hers. It was as if they had less blood. And as the day wore on and she tried to ignore the cold she began to feel bloodless too. When night started she knew it would get even colder, she could feel it everywhere in her. Her parents did not look at her. Her brother looked at the ground.

Teeq and the leader of their group, Keltah, say down in front of a fire and spoke for several hours. Teeq was wearing coverings made of skins, maybe the skins of one of those ocean tusk things. Ulla and her brother were wearing the clothes they'd always worn, with extra jackets that were new, that would've been too hot back home. But here they weren't warm enough.

Teeq and Keltah stood. Keltah came back to them as they stood shivering. He tried to twist his face into a smile, she could tell it was forced, like her brother's smile, like the little girl's smile. They would all have to sleep together in the center of the settlement, Keltah said, in the lodge, which was built by banding lots of branches down and covering them with mud. The people in the settlement would help them with food for a week, but it was a hard season so this was already a great sacrifice. After this they would have to find their own way. Teeq would help them, and Keltah had lived with these people for half a season. "This is why we're here, we knew it would be hard," her parents said to her and her brother. But Ulla missed her pet rattiq and missed the hot breeze of the sunset, the jungle beyond town and the noises it made. She heard no animals here, maybe one, a bird or something in the distance making a sound like a throttled terrible scream.

They slept badly, if at all. How is it possible to live like this, she heard one woman mutter, we're piled up together like animals keeping each other warm. In the morning, by the fire, they chewed on strips of dried meat that had a weird aftertaste. Then the men were called out by Teeq, they would go with him to hunt. And the women were grouped together by a woman from the settlement named Jiiru, who took them to gather things from the forest. She told them which mushrooms to pick and they collected moss from the sides of certain trees she said they could use for fire or in stew. When one woman picked the wrong kind of mushroom Jiiru struck her and yelled at her, telling her that these could've killed us.

When the men got back they looked tired and depressed. Teeq appeared angry and took Keltah aside. When Keltah returned he told the men they would have to do better tomorrow. All there was to eat tonight, since they'd caught nothing, was a stew of the mushrooms and moss they'd picked and some roots that the women had dug up.

It was a hard night. Harder than the first. They understood what they really fought for against the Council. Now that they had it, some of them had doubts. Some of them didn't, and they tried to convince the rest with quiet persuasive talk that it was only a matter of time, only a matter of adjustment. Ulla's parents fell somewhere in the middle, they didn't complain but they weren't telling anyone else they it would simply take a little this or that.

The next day began like the last. The men went away. The women went into the forest. This time the women gathered leaves for tea and they picked berries where they could find them and they went to a grove where a hard small fruit hung low on gnarled trees. Ulla bit into one and it was acrid and mealy. Jiiru was meaner that day, she yelled at several of the other women telling them they were fat and lazy.

Later the men returned with bad news. Ulla's brother had been killed in the hunt, they said, he'd become tangled in a rope attached to a spear, and he was pulled into the frigid waters. By the time they were able to get him out he was dead. Teeq told everyone this very solemnly. He stood over the hat and boots of Ulla's brother and told them what happened, as if it had happened a thousand years ago. Her brother's body, Teeq said, had been thrown into the ocean where it would feed what fed them. When Ulla's mother heard this she shrieked and hit Ulla's father who had to hold her down. Tomorrow, Teeq said, they would hunt better but tonight they would not eat. There was a large fire that night and Ulla's parents wept as several of the men from the settlement danced the correct dance to make sure their son's spirit went to the right place. Ulla wasn't sure where that place was, they seemed to know though. The men in masks danced and jumped through the fire and all Ulla could do was miss her brother.

After Ckiqs rose and fell they knew the week was over. Their first week. Keltah that morning brought them together and told them they were leaving the settlement and moving south, to a place that Teeq had shown him, a place that used to be a settlement where the land and those waters were well known, and there were even a few structures left he said. Ulla's parents hadn't said much in the last few days, they looked tired. Ulla was frightened.

They were given several canoes. This was a huge gift that had to be appreciated, Keltah said. Teeq lead them down the coast through choppy waters and they stayed two nights on beaches near trees that looked alive with branches reaching out over them and at night with the flicker of the fire alive and angry. To them, to Teeq's people, everything was alive. So too to Ulla. When you are hungry and you don't know where you'll sleep and bad things happen the world is alive.

The next morning they arrived at the abandoned old settlement. They could see where the fire had been, they could see the outline of the huts in the dirty rubble of the site, where there must've been dancing, appeasing the spirit of the birds or the fish or the things that lived deep in the ocean. There was a single standing structure, the remains of a lodge, but with big bare spots open to the wind. Keltah said they would fix it and that's where they would spend their nights until they could get other things built. They gathered wood and packed mud onto it, and that night they ate some fish they caught with Teeq. They did as much as possible with Teeq's help, since he told them he had to return to his people soon. Also during that week one of the men, Imnek, fell down the side of a hill and broke his lower leg. Teeq helped them set it, but he said that the man would never be the same and they would have to decide if they wanted to carry his weight, feeding him, or if he should be left out to die. Keltah and some other men were angry with Teeq for saying this, so Teeq left quickly and quietly one night, taking one of the canoes.

Ulla worked with several of the women building a second hut. She enjoyed this, and they were proud of it when they were done. But food remained a problem. They were tired, and grew more tired every day. Sometimes their fishing went well, but it was never enough fish for everybody, and they started to fight. At some point Imnek stopped eating.

One night there was a terrible storm. They did not know it was approaching, so they were unprepared. The second hut they built fell apart in the rain, they huddled together in the repaired lodge, but part of that was destroyed too. After the storm passed they'd realized the canoes hadn't been properly put away and were now gone, taken by the wind. Everything else they had collected or built was also gone or destroyed. They were worse off now than when they started, thought Ulla. And it kept getting colder.

Keltah and several of the men and women who had been most vocal before now said they must send help from Teeq's people. They must journey up to the other settlement. However, without canoes this would be difficult. A few people volunteered. Ulla's parents had said nothing, almost nothing, since the death of her brother. She did hear them one night, maybe they were down by the beach, she heard them yelling at one another, awful screaming back and forth.

Keltah and the volunteers left to travel north to Teeq's village. They left with almost nothing because there was nothing to leave with. Keltah tried to appear confident, but Ulla could see through it. Probably everyone could see through it, but Keltah felt like he should try. They didn't know how long it would take to get there, they didn't know how long it would take them to get back. On the third night after they left Imnek developed a fever. It must be because he hasn't been eating and he's been in the damp lodge all the time, Ulla thought. They tried to comfort him but he became worse.

On the fourth day since Keltah left the men got lucky hunting and killed a stag. There were cheers when they returned. But they had trouble gutting and cleaning it, and probably didn't get as much meat from it as they could've, and the skin wouldn't be useful, so a lot of it ended up in the fire. And that night the smell attracted bears who stole the rest.

Ulla's mother would break down at certain points in the day, weeping. At first Ulla tried to console her, but after a while she was too weary to do anything about it. When would Keltah return? She wondered.

Imnek died a few days later. They buried him where they hoped bears wouldn't find him, and they piled as many rocks as they could on top of his grave. The next few nights they avoided sleeping in the lodge, and instead slept out in the open. They wondered if whatever made him sick was there in that place, but they also felt like he was still there, in the lodge, that he hadn't really left, he was in there groaning. They all felt this. They'd started again to build another hut.

Ulla's mother got sick too. Her father tended to her, but her fever got worse. Ulla worked hard to bring back berries and leaves and moss and mushrooms.

But Ulla must've made a mistake. She knew she made a mistake as soon as they finished eating. Her stomach began cramping up and it felt like her body wanted to come out of her skin, that there was a thing called Ulla inside her that was fighting to get out and be free and so she went down to the water and she thought the ocean was Ulla, the real Ulla, and she looked up into perfectly clear sky full of bright stars and she thought they too were Ulla. But if all these things were Ulla, what was she, so small, so temporary? And she ran from the water because it suddenly frightened her, and she was in the trees and there was an owl on a tree, just sitting there and blinking at her and it told her not to be afraid, and it told her it would help her and watch over her.

In the morning everyone felt sick and one of the men was missing. Someone said that last night he decided to go get Keltah and Teeq, he just stood up and said he was going to get them and walked off into the wilderness. When they heard this everybody was quiet, thinking "why didn't someone stop him" but even more "maybe he'll bring back help". The chances he would survive were nothing, Ulla thought, he would die in the woods. She thought of the owl and she thought of the owl on a branch above the dead man, knowing he would die, knowing everything that would happen.

Ulla's mother died soon after, delirious and starved. Ulla's father, having lost both his wife and son wept and then had a moment of seeming clarity, he yelled at the entire settlement and told them the endeavor was a terrible idea and that they would all die here, that everyone would die here.

His outburst was met with a solemn quiet, a silent agreement, then one of the men half-heatedly said "Keltah will return with Teeq" but inside, in the certainty of their instincts, nobody believed him even as the words came out of his mouth.

Some days the fishing was good. Hunting never went well. It continued getting colder as the season wore away. The life had been drained out of Ulla's father. He'd been a vocal separatist, he once worked in the Ministry, and he'd spent years promoting the ideas of retreat, retreat from the advances of technology they'd taken from the ruined city, retreat from the expansion and re-population of Ekiqs, retreat from the rationalization of the world gods.

Ulla was the ocean, and the owl could tell her what would happen.

2017-10-18 13:49 fiction short-story science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Toori

When we began building we thought we could build forever. The stones and the trees, they used to go on and on. This island of ours kept us afloat in the middle of what we assumed was an endless ocean, and ours the only island. Since our ancestors, pilgrims, came here hundreds of seasons ago, this was the only place we'd known. And we built because we wanted the towers and we wanted the avenues, we wanted courtyards and we wanted the balustrades and foyers and the anterooms. The thought of living in the jungle was abhorrent to us likewise the thought of small individual domiciles for entire families, that barbarity of living in close quarters.

Soon the building became so large maps were cumbersome to carry. A system of coordinates was created. At every important corner you would find your position. The nature of what rooms held what, or which services were where was another matter. Only locals really understood this. You may understand where you are, but you may not understand what that means.

We continued to build unaware that other pilgrims had landed in other places, that they were not constrained strictly by surrounding water. We must build until there is no room left to build, every inch of the island will be a series of hallways, roads, routes, porches, atriums. Towers will look out onto other towers. As it should be.

The other pilgrims, in their own places, can build anywhere with no boundaries and until they made contact with us we could not have imagined such a luxury. It was exhilarating to consider. Once exposed to this idea, it caught like a fire in the minds of our carpenters, stone masons, architects. Reaching the edges of the land, we then built upwards. The sky is for building.

We used to throw our dead into the center, for a long time, that was the tradition. But as building supplies dwindled, we converted these husks of ourselves into the right materials. We shaped them to make the building better, going upwards. And as the land disappeared, there was nowhere to grow food and build into, so too did our efficiency using the trellises and rooftops and courtyards. Hard though, when you are in areas of the building with little light. Little food grows. When we met the others, the other pilgrims, we wanted to trade for food. But we had nothing to trade. The building is everything. As we dwindle, still, we know the building will be here, it will somehow be built.

2017-09-25 21:14 fiction short-story science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Qaateq

The two left arms were broken. His own ankle was probably broken too. Any movement caused extreme pain.

When the ledge collapsed they went down with it. The TokTok had tried to break his fall by grabbing onto him. But now at the bottom, in the ravine, the stars above shone bright on a deep black sky, the light of Ckiqs was in retreat, and their eyes slowly acclimated.

The situation, he thought, wasn't good. Knowing the TokTok felt what he was thinking he didn't bother saying anything. Maybe there were branches down here he could try making splints with. He groped around the ground near himself. There was nothing but damp mossy rocks. He heard water trickling somewhere nearby and his legs were wet. There must've been a spring or a creek down here. The TokTok was about twenty hands away, leaning up against a large boulder, he could just make this out in the darkness. He wasn't sure how far they'd fallen, he looked up, scanning for where the ledge used to be, but he couldn't find the spot. Although he realized it didn't matter, the rest of the jagged cliff, clustered with roots no doubt, was highlighted against the sky and it looked very far away to him.

He and the TokTok arrived not long before in a Skimmer. This was a type of vehicle the TokTok had resurrected from the ruins of the city. The city's technology and devices seemed to be natural to them. No one knew why this happened, but something about the TokTok changed once they'd arrived on the planet. They left and lived in the ruined city. And for a couple generations they did not contact people. But after many years of silence and isolation, TokTok and people began working together again. While people still lived in villages, they were now exposed to the ancient technology by the TokTok. There had been long and bitter debate between the Elders and Council about whether this should be allowed, and what it meant for people over time. The final decision by the Council was that certain people would be allowed, the rest would not. Qaateq was one of these few, and this TokTok, who called himself TskKTakKT, with the customary combination of "Ts" and "KT" in different patterns that all his people used in their names, were work partners.

They'd left the Skimmer half a cliq from the collapsed ledge. They'd landed here surveying for future farmland. As the villages had grown so too had the number of mouths to feed, the small gardens and things they could harvest from the jungle was no longer enough. This too was why the Council and Elders had accepted the renewed partnership with the TokTok — they could help.

This strange situation couldn't have been anticipated by Qaateq's ancestors, the pilgrims, who expected to find a familiar world and who expected to live lives in the manner they'd always known, in fewer numbers, with different resources, without the need to settle and build up walls against a jungle that constantly tried to kill them. They would build farms and cities to keep themselves alive. They would not be the nomadic hunters their ancestors were, they would have to do things differently.

Qaateq and TskKTakKT wandered from the Skimmer looking at the gentle rise and fall of the land and testing the soil. The jungle was lighter here and clearing it for farming seemed feasible. When they'd moved out of sight of the Skimmer and back into denser jungle, they came upon rocky and divided ground, and a deep ravine cutting into the land. It was here, measuring the depth of the gorge, that the area they were standing on collapsed.

This happened a few hours ago, it was night now. He knew the chances of being found even if they did discover the abandoned Skimmer was remote. The jungle swallowed up things, it was voracious, things would go in and never came back. He thought they were becoming part of by the jungle, a little at a time. TskKTakKT tried to reassure him but he became irritated by TskKTakKT's unrealistic confidence.

— Why are your people so optimistic about everything?

— Are we?

— Yes. What is it that makes you selfless and eager to help people?

— Well, I don't know. I guess I've never thought of it like this. We are the way we are, and most of us tend to feel the same way about things. Since we share thoughts.

— Do you think if people shared thoughts in the same way we'd get along better? I'd always suspected that the secret and critical thoughts of people known to other people would be enough to cause murders.

— I haven't known many of you, and not that long. Not like my Fourths who came here with people. But your minds are always active, always speaking inside. You speak to yourself with a voice, and you speak with voices that you believe others have in conversations that don't exist. Because you can't share thoughts. I wonder if you convince yourselves of things that harm yourselves with these voices.

Qaateq sighed. Probably true, but he regretted asking. This wasn't important, they had a problem. TskKTakKT couldn't climb up because of his broken arms on one side, even if it were possible to climb up the tangled muddy cliff. And Qaateq couldn't stand. The temperature continued to drop and they were wet and cold. Morning, they said to one another, we'll assess the situation in the morning. He tried to sleep but it was impossible. His best option was not to move, any motion was a shock of pain. He tried to think of things that could help, but as the time dragged on his thinking became incoherent and he brooded on unconnected events in his life, one after another. He realized TskKTakKT must be asleep, or have passed out, he'd realized recently that TskKTakKT's conscious presence was oddly stabilizing, that whatever TokTok did to share thoughts impacted people in a way that produced clarity. He wondered how their civilization had changed in their absence.

When morning came he tried to stand. This went badly. TskKTakKT stood and moved to him, but shakily. It was clear he was also in pain. As the sun rose they grew hot and remained wet. Nothing ever dried in the jungle. Then bugs found them, they weren't mobile so every biting swarming thing within range decided they were food or an enemy. As the flies collected on them, TskKTakKT said,

— I think I may have to agree with your earlier sentiment.

— Oh? What's that?

— Our situation doesn't seem very good.

— I wish I'd changed my mind, but I continue to think that.

— We might be here some time.

— Yes we might.

— We might die here.

— Yes, we might.

— But my people have ways to search that maybe yours don't. Using technology. So there is still a chance.

— If we can survive that long. We could drink this water but it alone might kill us, if the bugs and the predators don't. And eventually we'll need food. I've been thinking…

— Yes

— If I can make a splint I could try to hobble up the ravine, it must come out somewhere… somewhere better…

— But if we move then the search for us might fail entirely. Also, the ravine might just be a dead end. Or come out somewhere worse. And the exertion would be tremendous.

— You can move, I can't, you could save yourself by going out that way…

— But then you would be alone and immobile, if a predator does find you, you'd be defenseless. And once we were separated the search might find one of us but not the other.

— Better one than none.

— Better both than one.

— Alright, we'll wait then, we'll wait a while.

And the sun grew stronger, the steamy effluvial drainage from above them seeped into the ravine. They stopped trying to get the bugs off because it was too tiring. They were covered with sweat. They could hear the chatters and snarls of animals in the jungle, they thought it was only a matter of time before some hungry face looked down on them and decided they were ripe. As the day started wore on they were exhausted and thirsty.

— You could kill me and sustain yourself with me.

— What?? A single day stranded and you're ready to die? Ridiculous. What happened to 'better both than one'? This is what I was talking about earlier. Why would you do that? Don't you have any sense of self-preservation?

— Not like your people do. There is a sense of individuality, but it's different. We are combinations of one another, and while that combination may seem temporarily unique, it is still a combination of things that have existed and will continue to exist. I will end one way or another.

— I appreciate that, but let's get through this without resorting to that.

— If you wish.

— Look, you can move around more than I can, if you start collecting those grasses, those tall ones there, see them? I might be able to weave them. I admit I'm not a rope maker, but I know how it works and I had to do it a bit as a child, if you get me enough of them I can make rope. If we do this now, we might be able to finish before dark.

— Rope? Yes I will try.

— We certainly seem to have the time. But rest when you must.

TskKTakKT collected the tall grass fairly quickly, moving upward and downward from their location but never leaving sight. He stopped several times to rest, his movements appeared jerky and pained. He dropped the grass in front of Qaateq and Qaateq started to weave it. When he had several smaller ropes he wanted, he had TskKTakKT stand apart with the ends as he twisted them together into something that would hold his weight. TskKTakKT was much lighter. He had to backtrack several times, it was awkward work because he wasn't practiced and he was tired. The extraneous movement caused him pain so he had to stop and start.

— And once we have the rope? asked TskKTakKT.

— We attach a stick and try to snag it on one of those upper roots. Then I pull myself up. Then I pull you up.

— This will hurt. You might lose consciousness. In which case you might fall and hurt yourself badly.

— Yes, I know.

— I might be able to suppress the pain for you.

— Oh? Your people can do that? Not just read thoughts but change them?

— It's not like that exactly. It's more like trying to put a blanket on a fire. Or playing an instrument softer rather than louder. But it won't remove the pain, just make it quieter.

Qaateq tried to work quickly. He knew that the longer they were down here the less strength he'd have. Once he had something long enough they looked for a stick to tie on the end, something solid. TskKTakKT then tried throwing the rope upwards so the stick might catch on the roots that dotted the edge of the cliff. After several attempts Qaateq moved himself, crying out sharply once, to the area they thought they could scale and was able to lodge the rope attached stick very near the top.

TskKTakKT focused on the mind of Qaateq and tried dampening the idea of pain.

— It's going to be dark soon, we don't have many chances to do this, so we've got to try now.

Qaateq pulled himself up, tentatively at first to see if his weight held. It did. He grunted as he strained, pulling himself up while trying to keep his foot stable, and he continued up hand over hand, sweat dripping down him. When he got to the top of the rope there were enough roots and branches to grab to pull himself up the rest of the way. Pain shot through his leg when he got over the edge and had to turn himself around, and he passed out for a moment. As he came to he could hear TskKTakKT in his head Are you alright? Are you there?

— I'm alright, I'm here. Tie the rope around yourself. You might have been able to suppress my pain, but there's no way to do this without causing you a lot more.

TskKTakKT used the good arms on one side to tie the rope around himself, wincing as he did. Qaateq, flat on the ground, reached over the edge and pulled up TskKTakKT. Getting TskKTakKT over the top meant grabbing him by his good arms, but he still made a loud noise that Qaateq hadn't expected, a noise he assumed was overwhelming pain, and then he felt a wave of nausea, like the hurting of TskKTakKT had just leaked out.

They remained motionless on the ground for some time. Only the biting of ants motivated them to get up and move. They were dehydrated and they felt like they were moving through mud.

— We still have to get to the Skimmer. But there are some good pieces of wood here, I can make a splint and use something as a crutch. And we can use some of this rope as a sling for you. Qaateq said.

— Instead of going back to your village, we can go to the city. We have things to quickly fix bones there. Although… I wonder how much we've lost since we've been in the ruined city.

— What do you mean?

— When we came here with your people we knew what you knew, we had the skills you had. When we travel to city in the vehicle created in the city I can use a device to heal the bones… but I do not have the skill or the knowledge, to create something as simple as rope.

— Yes, this is why the Council only allow a handful of us to work with you. The idea of "Atun" is important to us, which roughly means "always use less than you think you need, always use what's at hand". I think the Council is afraid, or has always been afraid that the technology left here, in the city, will change that. But I'm not such a purist. I will go to the city with you.

Slowly they made their way back to the Skimmer. As the terrain became flatter and the jungle thinned the travel became easier until they saw the curved white Skimmer in the distance.

— I think this area will make very good farmland, TskKTakKT said.