Fallen Angel – a flash fiction story

fallen angel 01

Fallen Angel

      Far away on Paradise’s horizon, an amber glow told Conah highlight was approaching. It was dark, although dark was relative here in the pearly glow that constituted lowlight. Conah’s eyes auto-adapted to the changing luminosity, catching the faint flash and sparkle of wings in the diffused light.
If you focused, he mused, you could make out the forms of other angels, flitting about on whatever purpose called them.
The heavens were full of the sparkling pinpoints, like fireflies at dusk on the Earth below. But fireflies existed on a different plane of existence, one that Conah could access at will until yesterday. Right now, he couldn’t join his kindred in flight because of a mistake he had made down on that other plane. A mistake resulting in his confinement here, in this garden without walls; an island here in Paradise. The garden had no tangible barriers, but he could not leave. His wings were bound so tight it felt like shards of glass were piercing his shoulders every time he forgot and tried to spread them.
He had not intended to do what he did. Assigned as an observer to a hospital on Earth, he was there to help the soul of a little girl transition from her ravaged body to the halls of Paradise’s first plane. The girl had terminal cancer and her time on Earth was ending. Conah could see she was suffering as she struggled to breathe, her fragile chest heaving with the effort of filling her collapsing lungs.
A nearby machine made strange rhythmic sounds as it breathed for the girl, making her eyelids appear to flutter in sync with the machine’s labors. Conah could not say why he did it, but materializing beside the laboring child he took her hand in his and breathed over her.
The girl’s eyes flew open and a smile lit her thin cracked lips as she saw Conah bending over her.
“Have you come to take me?” she said.
“No, little one,” he replied, placing his hand over her heart. “I have come to take away the thing that is destroying you.”
He leaned over and inhaled the breath from the girl’s mouth, exhaling a smoky cloud into the air around them. Pressing his mouth to hers he breathed into her, feeling his breath expand into her diseased airways, the tissue healing as he filled her with his essence. The girl’s eyes closed and she reached out to him. He took her hands in his and willed his spirit into her. As he concentrated, the girl’s pallor decreased and her face took on a rosy hue. Her body relaxed and she fell into a restful slumber. Conah placed her hands on her chest and leaned back to see Ruhiel standing on the other side of the hospital bed, shaking his head as he looked at him.
Conah stepped away from the sleeping girl and looked at his mentor. The concern in the ageless face and Ruhiel’s eyes told Conah the other knew what he had done.
“I’m not sorry,” he said. “Will you bring back her suffering?”
“No Conah, it’s too late for that,” Ruhiel said. “Neither you nor I can reverse what you have done here, but there will be consequences. You know that. For now, cloak yourself before you do any further damage.”
Conah realized that he was still materialized while Ruhiel was not. Any one of the dozens of people who attended on the child might walk in, compounding his offense. He re-assumed his non-corporeal form while Ruhiel made a series of strange gestures over the sleeping girl. The machines attached to her beeped and flashed, then settled down into a steady blinking rhythm.
“What did you do?” asked Conah, seeing the girl still breathing.
“She is still asleep, only deeper now, and she will not wake up,” Ruhiel said. “I cannot undo your action but I have tried to restore some of the balance you upset. The life you gave back to her she still has, but consciousness is far away and will remain so until her case is re-evaluated. But now,” he pointed upwards at the ceiling. “We have to go, Conah. I’m instructed to return with you. I’m sorry, but this is very bad. Not only for this poor soul but for you too. You knew the rules. Why?”
“She was suffering,” Conah said. The excuse was lame but he had no better answer to the question, even for himself. “I accept the consequences.”
“I know,” Ruhiel’s face was sad. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Time to go now, my friend.”
Retribution was swift. Shortly after his return, seven senior angels took Conah to a garden, and there, bound his wings with psychic spells. Conah knew they intended the binding to remind him of his offense at every discomforting turn. They left him there in lowlight’s seamless dusk, promising to return for him at next highlight. The implication was clear. His sentence was incomplete and Conah had an inking about what was coming.
He was not the first of his kind to make a similar mistake. It must be a flaw in angel makeup that caused angels to break this very rule so many times. The logical outcome was banishment to Earth for a human lifetime, something trivial by his own immortal lifespan. But he would be unable to communicate with others of his kind during that time, wouldn’t even be able to see and hear them. It was a far heavier burden than the pinioning of his wings.
Conah tried to contemplate the immensity of such a sentence and could not conceive it. No fellowship, no rhapsody, none of the glories of highlight or the subtle beauty of lowlight. He would not see his brothers and sisters unless they chose to reveal themselves to him, a forbidden action. He would fall behind his contemporaries along the sublimation path, returning a novice while they moved on to higher planes.
The only light at the end of his tunnel of misery was that his sentence was not permanent. There was no permanent sentence for an angel other than eternal banishment, and in all angelic history, only one had suffered that fate. He would return, diminished.
The susurration of many wings told him it was time. They had come for him. Around him, the seven elders materialized, their great pinions sweeping the air and folding into near invisibility as they took up positions around him. Geburatiel, the leader of the group spoke, his words shaping themselves inside Conah’s mind. Around him, he felt the agreement of the others.
“We have decided,” Geburatiel said. “Conah, you will return to Earth for a time to restore the balance you disturbed. You will exchange your immortal form for a human one and as a human, you will endure all mortal hopes and fears, losing all knowledge of your previous existence. This will prevail until you have redeemed yourself. Then, we will come for you, but, of the when and the where, you will have no knowledge or understanding.”
Conah felt numb, even though it was what he had been expecting. He bowed his head, even that small gesture sending stabbing pains through his shoulders. “When do I leave and who am I to be?” he asked.
“The who is not for you to know. The when is now,” Geburatiel said. “The ladder is ready. Come.”
Like a single entity, the seven elders surrounded Conah and he felt levitated amidst them as they rose as a group and departed the garden. Ahead, a rolling featureless plain ended in a bright line of light that was not the coming highlight. As they approached, Conah saw the head of an elaborate staircase looming at the edge of the plain. A radiance so bright that it washed out all visual perspective bathed the surrounding stairs. The stairs seemed to be floating in the light, disappearing down into it.
The group alighted at the head of the stairs and Geburatiel motioned for Conah to step forward.
Behind him, he felt a gentle push, although no-one actually touched him. He found himself on the first step as Geburatiel murmured something in his ear. A feeling of intense cold washed over him. It was an alien sensation in this place, at odds with the surrounding light and the warmth from the auras of the elder angels. Conah felt something falling away from him as if his garments were dissolving about him, though he wore none. Without any effort on his part, he found himself descending the stairs. The pain in his shoulders was gone. Around him, gossamer fragments materialized and disappeared. His wings were going too. Through the light, away from his kindred he descended, down into a soupy mist that seemed infused with sparkling dust motes. The feeling of downwardness disappeared as the luminescence around him thinned out. Below, he could discern features of a landscape.
He knew that landscape. He had left it with Ruhiel only the previous night. Disembodied and permeable, he drifted down towards a group of buildings set within manicured lawns. One building, in particular, seemed to be his destination. A feeling of dread came over him; a feeling outside his angelic experience; a mortal feeling.
The building was the very one from which Ruhiel had extracted him.
Unhindered, Conah slipped through the roof of the building, his permeable self sifting through the atoms and molecules of the building’s structure like water through a sieve. He passed through walls, floors, machinery and devices with the same ease as his entry into the building. Finally, he entered a room, feeling his form begin to coalesce. A bright stream of material from his core reached out like a tendril, extending towards a still form on a bed. Many machines connected to the figure and he knew her without having to look. It was the little girl he had wrenched back from destiny last night.
At last, he understood the irony of the balance the elders had spoken about. This was his doom then. To enter into this little girl, become her, endure her nothingness as the machines breathed and functioned for her until her cycle and his ran to completion. Only then would he be free again. Conah felt no regrets as he settled into the girl’s consciousness; became that consciousness. The infinite nothingness reached out to envelope him and Conah ceased to exist.

© Bryan Knower – May 2017

ERASURE – a science fiction short story

erasure

ERASURE

Van peered into the binocular scope again, focusing on the garden scene framed in her visual display. Nothing had changed since the last time she looked.

The garden was tranquil, like the still life reproductions of vintage settings she had seen on the server archives. She liked browsing the archives. It helped her gain perspective on her prospective targets, those she was sent to erase. She smiled faintly at the euphemism. Killing was her job, and she was extremely good at it. The best in the system, in fact.

She blinked her eyes to release the strain of staring through the scope and reached up to brush back a tuft of hair that kept falling over her eyes. Irritating, that. She’d have to take care of it after this job. Maybe take a break. Maybe even give up after this, though that was difficult. In her line of work, retirement was a nonexistent luxury. Among the others like her, there were none who had successfully walked away from their careers, retreating into anonymity and a banal life.  Those who hired her and others like her didn’t like loose ends, and retired specialists were loose ends, messy and inconvenient. There was only one conclusion to messy and inconvenient loose ends. Erasure.

She bent her eyes to the scope again, focusing on the tiny manicured lawn and the meticulously detailed beds with their splashes of blooming color, interspersed with swathes of green and brown. From her vantage point far away and high on the summit of a bluestone bluff, she could see down into the garden and its stone walled perimeter, rising an imposing seven meters from the moss of the surrounding ground. She could see over the perimeter to the inner walls, intricately inlaid with designs of various fauna in flight, some of them alien to this world, all rendered in vivid color and relief so that the sense of looking out over a vista was overwhelming.

Against the far wall and artfully hidden in the decor, stood a small white door decorated with pink blossoms and made to look like part of the wall. The only thing drawing the eye to it was the smooth white path that began and ended at the door. The path led nowhere. It started out from the door and looped back to it again, obviously constructed to navigate the garden. From the secret entrance, it fanned out to one side and then followed the wall back around to the door, meeting itself in an infinite loop. Van had identified a problem with this path.

One segment of it ran directly beneath the front wall, disappearing from her view in spite of her high perch. It created a blind spot and Van did not like blind spots. They interfered with the logical nature of things, introducing instability into a carefully choreographed situation. She wished she could get rid of this one, but there was no way to achieve that unless she was hanging directly overhead the garden, a feasibility, but not a viable one. For one thing, she couldn’t hover indefinitely, and also, she would be visible, even if she transformed. Physical laws prevented her from changing into something infinitely small or enormously large, either. A large hovering avian would soon draw attention and become the target of the estate’s defense lasers.

She had been here three periods now, waiting patiently for the opportunity she knew would eventually present itself. As things went, three periods was not that long a time. She had waited longer in similar circumstances. Usually, she was able to enter the fugue state that enabled her to function automatically; synapses geared to the task at hand, mind focused only on the job and its nuances. This time, the fugue kept slipping away like a pollinating insect flitting from one pool of nectar to the next. She thought about the implications.

She had a limited lifespan, she and those like her. She had been created like that, a finite being with a relative terminal date, although the specifics of that date were hidden from her and the others. Not for her the vivo treatments that extended the lives of the elders and the rest of the community. She was a specialized creature, born for a specific purpose and when natural entropy degenerated the execution of that purpose, she was disposable.

Everything on this world degenerated, slowly but inexorably. The entropy hung over everything like a shadow, even when there was no light. The species that had created her had struggled for eons to keep the entropy at bay, and finally, they had succeeded, only to find that immortality had its drawbacks. If everyone lived forever, natural breeding would quickly overpopulate this world and everything would collapse into chaos, forcing the very result entropy had evolved to produce. Hence, the erasures and the specialists like her.

Not that those who were marked for erasure ever went quietly. Ages spent fighting entropy were never relinquished voluntarily or gracefully. Communities became walled enclaves containing walled estates from which world-weary inhabitants seldom stirred. Van doubted if many of the community dwellers had seen the land outside the walled enclosures in decades. Some had not ventured out in centuries. They were old and powerful and warily paranoid of the cyclical edits that marked them for erasure. She was the agent of those edicts and it was these doomed individuals she was created to erase.

The owner of the walled garden was one such. She did not know his name. Didn’t need to. Didn’t care about the details of his family connections. Just that his name had come up in the lottery that decided who died and who lived until the next cycle. Her own lifespan was much shorter. Her kind had no access to the vivo treatments and the ceaseless degradation of the entropy cycles ascribed the limit of her survival and functionality. Recently she had experienced random flashes of unfocus, a clear indicator that she was nearing the end of her terminal limit.

A movement in the garden caught her peripheral vision and she came back into focus with a start, realizing she had missed something significant. The door in the wall had opened while she lost fugue. Three people were out on the path and already a quarter of the way around the loop. Three people. Her research had indicated that there would only be the one. Her target.

He was there, one of the three, his golden chitinous skin gleaming in the light of the sun. But he was flanked by a female and a juvenile, both walking close and obviously part of his immediate family. Van peered down through the scope and increased the magnification so she could study the features of the companions, the intrusions into the perfect scheme she had planned.

The female was older; smooth features and limbs indicative of many cycles of vivo treatments, perhaps not as many as her partner, Van’s target, but nonetheless, an elder of the community. The juvenile was only half the height of the two adults, gangly and awkward in her movements.  Van could tell the juvenile was female. In the enhanced focus of the visual display, the characteristic feminine head stalks and curved back ears were unmistakable.

The trio was now halfway between the door and the point at which the path disappeared from view under the wall. Van could not risk the possibility that they might stop under the wall and ruin her perfectly planned opportunity. She needed to act now, or abort this sequence, and that itself was unthinkable. She had never ever aborted a sequence, though she knew of others who had. Those unfortunate others had themselves been erased shortly after.

No, she was going to go through with this. Compensate for the intrusions. It was what she had trained to do. Exclude everything but the target.

She settled back into her harness, twitching her headstalks to enhance the clarity of her retinal cortex and stimulate the onset of fugue. A familiar calm slipped over her, like a well-worn carapace. Her senses retreated, blocking out the scent and feel of her surroundings. Only the rectangular frame of her targeting display existed, limiting her vision to the corner of the garden below where the target moved towards their shared rendezvous with destiny. Van increased the magnification further.  Now only the trio down below and their immediate surroundings were outlined in her field of focus. Mentally she commanded up the tactical overlay, seeing the concentric rings and rangefinder data superimposed on her display. Without moving her head she made microscopic adjustments to the projectile weapon cradled into her shoulder joint. It would not be silent, but it was far deadlier than a laser.

Lasers were neat. They killed with minimal damage and laser damage could be repaired, even fatal damage. But the weapon she carried was designed to fragment its target, destroying any hope of regeneration, even with the advanced technologies available to the community. Projectile weapons had been banned for centuries. Only specialists like her had access to them, and their results sent a clear message of sanctioned erasure.

The target was approaching the limit of her execution window now. Van extended the second digit of her hand and rested the pad against the firing sensor, taking a final moment to gather herself in the fugue. She felt fluttery. Felt herself skipping over the top of the fugue, not quite in it, not engulfed by it as she should be. With a feeling approaching desperation she manipulated her headstalks, willing the fugue to take hold, trying to immerse her self into the calm.

The target reached critical location and Van increased the pressure with her front pad, but she couldn’t depress. She tried to concentrate, but the fugue was slipping away now as her pad trembled ineffectually on the firing sensor. In her visual display, she saw the trio; the target, the female and the juvenile, disappear slowly from view as the path hid them from her sight. Exhausted, she let go of the fleeing shreds of fugue, lifting her head from the scope.

She could wait until the trio reappeared on the other side of the path. Wait for another window of opportunity to open. She could try again.

But she didn’t. Somehow, she knew they would not reappear. Not in enough time for her to re-enter fugue again. She didn’t think she could summon the fugue again. The unthinkable had happened. She had aborted. Now the reckoning.

© Bryan Knower - September 2016

A New Short Story

shinybeetleSCARAB
A Science Fiction Short Story

The intercom crackled in his helmet, interrupting his daydream in mid-leap. Losing his rhythm, Beck landed awkwardly and nearly went to his knees. Only his reflexes and training prevented him from sprawling face first in the red dust that billowed around his boots. The dust hung in the air like mist, partially obscuring the furrows his feet had dug into the surface. Beck bounced a few more times in decreasing arcs, windmilling his arms until his momentum had dissipated and he was able to stand still.

“Beck, time to come in man, you’re twenty minutes over your EVA limit.” Gardner’s voice sounded annoyed.

“Plenty of air left in the tanks, Leo,” Beck replied, wanting to laugh but not daring to. Leo Gardner had a poorly developed sense of humor to start with, and it had deteriorated rapidly in the three days they had been on the surface.

“That’s not the point,” Gardner snapped, completely missing the point. “Twenty-one minutes to nightfall and I want you in before that. Get back in ASAP.”

“Yes, sir. Coming back right away.” Beck still wanted to laugh but Gardner was mission commander for this landing and nominally his superior. No need to rub him up the wrong way. Still two more days to go on this mission, the first of the habitat survey expeditions launched from the orbiting Nergal.

He activated the homing device on his wrist and turned around to orient himself in the indicated direction.  The hull of the Wolf glittered brightly in the setting sun and Beck was surprised to see how far he had come. The craft looked tiny, like a silver toy on an ochre carpet and Beck felt a twinge of guilt for stressing Gardner out so much. Leo has seen how far out he was but not said anything until just now and Beck knew he would likely have gone on further without Gardner’s warning.

It took him more than an hour to make it back to the Wolf. By that time the surrounding landscape had morphed into a surreal purple twilight. Far away, the top of Olympus Mons still glittered in the light of the setting sun, the bulk of its mass hidden beyond the horizon.

“I’m here, Leo,” he informed his teammate, making short work of the last few meters leading to Wolf’s airlock. The ground around the craft had been trampled flat by their boots, but this was not like the lunar surface. The frequent windstorms had dissipated much of the red dust and left the surface granular, scattered with boulders of varying shapes and sizes.

Unlike mission control to pick such a relatively clear area for a landing site, but then, this was a habitat survey mission, he thought as he switched on his headlamp and activated the airlock door. In the shadow of the Wolf, it was darker and felt much colder, though that was physically impossible. Beck knew his suit controlled his body temperature. Another example of his mind playing tricks with reality.

Inside, he recycled the airlock and waited for the green lights to stop flashing before unfastening his helmet and taking a deep breath. The air inside the Wolf was canned, just as it was in his suit, but somehow, it just felt better.

“How’re you doing down there, John?” Gardner’s voice chimed in over the intercom. “Come to the bridge when you’re ready. I’ve got something to show you.”

“Will do, Leo.” Beck stripped off the bulky EVA suit reflecting on how much larger the airlock was, compared to the primitive lunar landers of the previous century.

Guess they never changed their clothes he thought with a grin.

The boots were the last to come off, and they were dirty, almost completely covered in red dust that clung to the enameled surfaces as if it had been sprayed on. Picking them up by the inner linings Beck dropped them into a waiting container for analysis and cleaning and turned to do the same with the rest of the suit. It was then that he noticed the anomaly.

On the back of his left shoulder, where he could never have seen it while wearing the suit, was a shiny red speck flecked with green, so incongruous in that white sterile space that it screamed for his attention. Picking up the suit gingerly he bent down for a closer look and nearly passed out in shock and surprise. On the white of the suit’s fabric was a tiny object, slightly larger that a ladybug, perfectly oval and glittering iridescent in the airlock lights.

Beck looked at the impossible sight for a long time, hardly daring to breathe, staring at something that should not and could not be there, although it was. The lander was sterile. He knew that. It hadn’t been in here or on him when he left. It had to have come in with him. Come in from the outside.

Very slowly he put the suit back down on the floor so as not to disturb the object and stepping back, switched the airlock cameras from monitor to record. Then he called Gardner on the bridge.

“Leo, can you come down to the airlock right away? It’s urgent,” he said, not taking his eyes from the crumpled heap of white on the floor. He half expected the sparkling object to have disappeared, but it was still there, seemingly inert, defying possibility.

“Be right there, John.” To his credit, Gardner had picked up on the undercurrent in Beck’s voice and he wasn’t asking any questions. At least, not yet. Beck continued to stare at his discovery, waiting for Gardner to open the airlock from the other side.

As he watched, the tiny speck of color expanded visibly, growing until it was five times its initial size. The iridescent red and green hues darkened to a deep burgundy, like a dried blood stain on the white of the suit. Beck’s first instinct was to get as far away from the object as possible, which wasn’t very far in the confined space of the airlock. Instead, he took a deep breath and held it, waiting for his training to kick in. Then he bent down to observe as the thing morphed before his eyes. Gone was the oval ladybug appearance of moments ago. Instead, It now looked like a small red marshmallow with a spongy, pitted surface. As he watched, fascinated, the thing pulsed. Then it exploded in a cloud of tiny spores.

The spores spread upwards in a tiny pink cloud, dispersing rapidly past Beck’s face as he tried, too late, to draw his head back. The feeling of the spores on his skin was a feathery caress, like a puff of breeze on a still day. His throat began to scratch and the muscles in his face and arms twitched involuntarily. Out of nowhere he felt a strange urge. He needed to get out, outside this restricted space. The urge became stronger, grew imperative and his muscles moved to obey even though his mind rebelled at the insanity of what he was considering. He tried to force his body to turn away but he no longer seemed to have control of his limbs or his will. His feet moved towards the exterior airlock, which he had sealed only moments earlier. He tried to focus but control kept skating away like a magnet approaching the opposite pole of another.

This is insane, he thought, fighting his body’s unnatural behavior, even as his shuffling steps drew him inexorably up to the lock. I’ve got no suit on. What the hell am I doing?

Even as he considered it, the thought careened away and something in his head insisted that he open the lock. His fading self-control understood suddenly that the thought was alien, hostile, somehow linked to the iridescent object on his suit and the spores he had breathed.  Detachedly, he watched his arms reach out to the airlock control, his fingers moving over the keypad.

Behind him, a low melodious triple tone signaled the start of the internal airlock open sequence. Gardner was opening that door. He registered the event, even as his fingers tapped in the correct sequence for the outer lock, his muscle memory overriding his failing motor control.

Alert, alert, opening both locks will result in hull breach,” Wolf’s AI broke in urgently. “Warning, catastrophic failure imminent!” The AI continued to repeat the warning in increasingly insistent tone and volume.

As he watched, the lights above the control panel cycled from green to red and a warning siren filled the airlock as outer lock unsealed with a sibilant hiss. Behind him, the inner door flew open and Gardner screamed at him.

“John! What the fuck are you doing, John?” he yelled, then tried to scramble back through the door, which was now pinned open against the airlock wall.

Beck turned to look at his colleague, feeling a vague sense of sorrow as he watched Gardner pull futilely against the air pressure pinning the door open. Behind him, the outer lock unsealed completely and popped open with a bang. The hiss rose to a roar as the air in the craft exploded outwards, pulling him and Gardner along with it. His ears popped and he strained for breath as he was forced outside by the gale of crystalline vapor that had been Wolf’s atmosphere. His head felt like huge hands were squeezing it from both sides and his chest and lungs burned with the effort to extract a breath from the vanishingly thin atmosphere. He landed on his back about five meters from the open lock, in profound silence and the last thing he saw was Gardner flailing and tumbling out of the lock towards him, trailing the last of their air in a glittering cloud of crystals.

© Bryan Knower 2016

EASTER RABBIT: A seasonal fantasy tale

EASTER RABBIT

EASTER RABBIT

John saw a flash of yellow in the bushes at the far end of the garden and it intrigued him. He had collected fourteen Easter eggs so far, nearly double the number Melissa had found and for the last ten minutes neither of them had come across any more.

At the start of the hunt, his mother had announced that there were two dozen eggs hidden in the garden and that meant there must be at least two more. John wanted to find them but the scrap of yellow tantalized him. He looked around to see if Melissa was following him, but she had trailed indoors behind his parents, and he was alone in the garden, free for at least a few minutes before being called in to wash before dinner.

Quickly he walked over to the rhododendron bushes and bent down to look at what had caught his eye. Imagine his surprise when he found a yellow rabbit, sitting on its haunches by the roots of the bush and calmly cleaning its paws.

The rabbit looked at him inquiringly and nodded gravely.

“Hello, my name is Phelps, what’s yours?” he said in a perfectly cultured voice.

It was a small voice, of course, because it was a small rabbit, but the words and the fact that a rabbit was uttering them took John completely by surprise. He opened his mouth but no words emerged.

The rabbit seemed unperturbed. “Lost your voice young man?” he said, inclining his head slightly. “Careful now, that’s not something we can go misplacing, can we?”

John’s voice came back with a rush. “Why, you’re a rabbit,” he said, realizing immediately that it was a stupid thing to say.

“Of course I am,” replied the rabbit. “Its pretty obvious, isn’t it? I’ve been trying to catch your eye for the past ten minutes, and now that the grownups have gone in, you stand there saying the obvious to me. Are you coming or not?”

“Coming?” John was confused. “Come where? You mean you want to take me somewhere?”

“Yes, of course,” said the rabbit impatiently, “but I can’t do that unless you tell me your name.”

John hesitated. He had been taught never to reveal his identity to strangers, but he wasn’t sure if rabbits counted as strangers. He saw that the rabbit was tapping his left front paw on the grass and the tips of his floppy ears were beginning to curl downwards. Not wanting to agitate the little beast further, he made up his mind.

“I’m John, John Richards,” he said quickly. “But you can call me Johnny.”

“Well Johnny, that settled then,” said the rabbit, wiggling his ears. “You can call me Mr. Phelps. Are you ready? Close your eyes and say my name.”

John closed his eyes tightly. “Mr. Phelps,” he said before he could change his mind.

After a few seconds during which nothing happened he began to fidget. He was at an age where staying still and doing nothing for even a short space of time was a difficult task.

“When are we leaving?” he asked plaintively.

”We have already left, Johnny,” said the voice of Mr. Phelps from behind him now. “In fact we have just arrived. You can open your eyes now.”

John gratefully blinked his eyes open and then blinked again as he took in his surroundings. On initial inspection, he appeared to be in the same place he had been a few seconds ago. The rhododendron bushes were still at his feet, but they were now a virulent shade of purple. The grass was a pale green, almost yellow and the rabbit was missing.

A discreet cough behind him made him turn slowly.

Mr Phelps appeared to have grown four times larger than he had been earlier. He was now the size of a medium dog and his fur was white, instead of yellow. He was standing up on his haunches, leaning on a polished wooden cane and his face, hidden behind very dark glasses, looked at him with an air of amusement.

“No need to be startled, Johnny,” he said. “Here, have a look at yourself.” A red and white polka dotted waistcoat appeared on the rabbit’s body and Mr. Phelps reached into an upper pocket and pulled out a polished hand mirror which he held facing John.

To John’s amazement, he could only see the waist of his trousers and just a little bit of his shirt, which was now a blue and white stripe instead of the light blue check he had been wearing earlier. His trousers were now held up with a belt rather than his usual suspenders. Apparently he had grown in size too.

He looked up from the disturbing reflection and around at the garden, which was no longer a walled enclosure but a wide open meadow. The familiar garden fence had disappeared and rolling expanses of pale yellow stretched out in every direction, dotted with purple bushes like the one at his feet and strange umbrella-shaped trees from whose drooping edges waving tendrils floated lazily, although there was no breeze to speak of. The yellow grass felt strangely springy under his feet, as if there was a layer of sponge underneath it. Surreptitiously he bounced on his feet and experienced a most enjoyable feeling of elasticity, almost as if he was on the floor of an enormous yellow trampoline. No familiar landmarks were visible, not St. Andrew’s church bell tower that was always visible from the garden or the tall wooden poles strung with power lines that ran by the bottom of their fence. Somehow, these difference didn’t disturb him. After all, a rabbit had brought him here.

“Where are we Mr. Phelps?” he inquired politely, turning back to the rabbit.

Mr. Phelps was now smoking a long thin cigar in an even longer holder, rolling it delicately in his right paw and blowing perfect rings of blue smoke as he studied the boy.

“Why, we are here,” he said waving the cigar airily. “Earlier we were there and now we’re here.”

The reply irritated John. This sounded like nonsense and the rabbit seemed to be talking down at him as his parents did sometimes. But he was a polite boy and didn’t want to be rude. So he humored the rabbit.

“Where exactly is here, Mr. Phelps?” he said in his nicest voice. “Mother will be calling soon and I can’t stay very long.”

“Don’t you worry Johnny,” said the rabbit, eyeing him sideways. “Time doesn’t pass the same way here as it does there. There’s plenty of time before your mother comes looking for you, but to answer your question, this place is called Retsae, and it’s my home.”

John was astonished. There was nothing around that could serve as a home for the large rabbit standing before him and no path that might lead to one. He didn’t want to offend Mr. Phelps however, so he smiled and said “are we going to your home then?”

“We most certainly are,” said Mr. Phelps emphatically. He was now chewing on a large pink carrot with an exceptionally bushy green top. His dark glasses had disappeared and his eyes had become a much darker pink than they had been back in the garden. In fact, they looked decidedly like ripe strawberries to John, who was too much of a gentleman to say anything anyway.

“Close your eyes again Johnny,” said Mr. Phelps waving the carrot at John. “We’re leaving right away.”

John felt the same sensation of nothing happening this time around too, so he opened his eyes after a few seconds without being told to.

They were certainly not in the meadow anymore. He appeared to be in cozy little room carved out of some smooth brown material with soft plush white carpets on the floor and beautiful pictures of scenery on the walls. Mr. Phelps was seated in an armchair by a window, carefully painting a solid white egg in bright swirls of color. By his side was a small basket filled with six eggs, already painted and delicately tied around the middle with shiny bows. The rabbit appeared to be a more manageable size now and a quick glance at his own self reassured John that he himself had returned to his original form, although he was still wearing the striped shirt and the belted trousers. He walked across to the window where Mr. Phelps sat and looked outside.

Through the slightly opaque glass he saw a small garden filled with strange shrubs. The plants were unlike anything John had seen before, short and sparsely leaved, with many branches spreading out like a canopy just a few feet above the ground. What looked to be eggs were suspended from many of the branches, all white and in various sizes. John knew that eggs were laid by chickens and he could not believe his eyes.

“Are those eggs, out there on those bushes?” he said finally after he had blinked his eyes a number of times, pinched himself a few more and confirmed that what he was seeing appeared real.

“They certainly look like eggs,” Mr. Phelps replied, “but I prefer to call them Cheggs.”

“Cheggs?” John was intrigued. “Why do you call them that? Is it because they aren’t real eggs?”

“Oh, they’re real eggs all right,” laughed the rabbit. “Except they are solid chocolate inside.” He picked up one of the painted eggs from his basket and offered it to John. “Here, try it. I’m sure you’ll approve.”

With that, he tossed it towards John, who was so taken aback that he had to juggle for a bit before he had the egg safely in both hands.

It looked like a regular egg to him and felt like one too, though it felt somewhat heavier than a true egg. John couldn’t say for sure, not having handled too many real eggs himself. As he looked at it the egg seemed to wiggle in his palms. Thin hairline cracks appeared on the painted shell, growing more pronounced as he watched. Not wanting the egg to break in his hands, John stooped down and placed it on the carpet. Even as he took a step backwards the eggshell splintered into many tiny fragments and flew apart, leaving a perfectly formed chocolate chicken standing there on the carpet. It looked so lifelike that John expected it to cock its head and move about, but it just stayed there, and beside him, Mr. Phelps chuckled.

“It’s just chocolate you know,” he laughed. “Go ahead, have a taste. Unless you don’t like chocolate,” he added, seeing John’s hesitation.

John liked chocolate. He liked it a lot in fact. Easter was one of his favorite times of the year because there was so much chocolate around. He had never seen a chocolate figure so perfectly formed before. It looked delectable, and picking up the tiny morsel, he popped it into his mouth. The chocolate seemed to melt inside his mouth and when the syrupy center exploded on his tongue he had to put his hands to his mouth to keep from drooling on the carpet. Quickly it was gone, but the taste lingered long after he had swallowed the last morsel.

He turned to the rabbit in amazement and saw that Mr. Phelps, now dressed in a burgundy coat that resembled a bath robe was smoking a long pipe that glowed gently in front of his face and made the whiskers on his nose gleam silver in the reflected light.

“Have another, Johnny,” said the rabbit, pushing the basket forward with his rear paw. “I made these especially for you. Try the green and silver one next. I believe it has a ginger candy center.”

John couldn’t help himself. He knew he was being greedy and rather impolite, but he took the basket and sat down on the spongy floor, picking up the green and silver egg. It was as wonderful as Mr. Phelps had promised. He ate that one, and a purple and orange one after that and a blue and gold one next.

He ate them all.

After what seemed like only a very short time, he sat back in a daze of satiation, the empty basket lying there before him, surrounded by tiny shards of colored shell. Drowsily he thought that this might be the best Easter yet. He yawned prodigiously and lay back on the carpet, which seemed to mold itself around him like a warm blanket. Mr. Phelps, still sitting in the chair, was wreathed in fragrant smoke that somehow smelled like ripe berries. He didn’t really want to fall asleep but in spite of his best efforts his eyes grew heavier and heavier, the carpet grew cozier and cozier and he felt himself float away on a cloud of nothingness.

He came awake slowly to an insistent sound above him and a gentle pressure on his shoulder. Reluctantly he opened his eyes to see his mother bending over him, shaking him awake.

“Where’s the rabbit? I mean, Mr. Phelps?” inquired John groggily.

“What rabbit? And who’s Mr. Phelps?” asked his mother a little sharply. “Have you been talking to strangers John?”

John opened his mouth to explain and then closed it without saying anything. It was all just too absurd to explain anyway.

“No mum, I’m sorry, I must have dozed off,” he said sheepishly.

“You’ve been asleep in the garden for a half hour or more and no wonder,” his mother said. “You ate all the chocolate eggs you picked up this afternoon and it’s going to ruin your supper.”

2290 words       © Bryan Knower 2015

The True Nature Of Father Time – a science fiction story

The True Nature Of Father TimeTHE TRUE NATURE OF FATHER TIME

Chron-OmiTar twitched with annoyance at the insistent warning tingle in his awareness. Overlaying his temporal display onto his main sensors he evaluated his track again. There it was. The cause of the alert. A discrepancy between his current and his projected position on the grid of his route. A difference of eleven discrete temporal elements. He was annoyed because he was partially to blame for it. On the temporal display his next waypoint pulsed green. It located a small blue world in a minor star system within one of the smaller arms of the great spiral galaxy that was his domain. Automatically he re-calculated velocities, set a new trajectory and adjusted his progress, thinking about the species on that world he was tasked to protect. They were the youngest, a late addition to the long list of those he had minded over the eons past.

That was what he was. A minder of the great spiral known to the blue world entities as the Milky Way. He found the name quaint. In fact, he found much of their nomenclature amusing, having absorbed all their collective knowledge as part of his ongoing task. The galaxy was anything but milky from his perspective, although it might appear an opaque smudge to something viewing it from a world in that system.They called their system Sol, and he adopted this name too for convenience, although he knew the system by a different name.

He himself was a creation of the Originators, who fashioned him and others like him upon discovering viable seed intelligences in the far-flung star clusters of the universe. On those selected worlds they embedded twinned energy crystals far beneath one of the magnetic poles and aligned them to keep that world tilted in relation to its star. Thus they could bring about a regular cycle of seasons. Chron-OmiTar and his like were designed to monitor and maintain the energy crystals on all the seed worlds and assigned different sectors of space and time that never overlapped.

His designated sector was the Milky Way galaxy and his task was to make an infinite round of the seed worlds on that track, adjusting the alignment of their crystals once every solar cycle. Right now he was headed for a blue world in the Sol system whose inhabitants celebrated his arrival at an annual festival marking the end of their seasonal cycle, although they were unaware of his true nature. At the winter solstice marking his passage, they celebrated and paid their respects to Father Time, by which name they venerated him. But they could neither see him nor know him. Even though he could take their form if he willed it, it was forbidden. There was no bridge spanning the vast gulf separating his kind from those they minded.

Chron-OmiTar had never met another minder. The nature of their task and their appointed galactic routes ensured this. Often, he let the power of his considerable awareness roam free as he traversed his path, casting a wide net among the edges of the far-flung star clusters he passed by. In all his travels over the eons he never discovered any sign of another until his searching had become a matter of rote. But now, the unthinkable had happened. One of his random scans returned a faint disturbance in the flow of his awareness, so faint that he might have missed it, except it was not supposed to be there. A brush against a kindred intelligence somewhere out in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, just two and a half million light years from his position. It lingered briefly and then disappeared in the background chatter in spite of his best efforts at triangulating it. In vain he bent the interstices of his track in space-time, trying to glimpse the path of the other. He could not maintain the singularity he created long enough to probe further and his manipulations caused his own path to warp dangerously, putting him out of sync with his appointed course.

His temporal display showed that the blue world was diverging from the path of synchronicity as it approached perihelion. He would have to summon all his resources to make up the lost time. Concentrating, he poured his energies into a new intercept vector, wondering about the consequences of a failure to make his rendezvous with the planet’s crystals. Such an event had never happened. Not in all the history of the minders. No relevant data existed in his awareness but Chron-OmiTar knew by extrapolation that such a failure would undo all his patient work of many cycles as the seasons failed and synchronicity disappeared. It would mean the eventual end of the unfortunate species in question.

Continuously re-calculating his velocity and trajectory, he approached Sol system’s heliopause, vaulting easily over the swarm of interstellar debris of the Kuiper Belt. In his haste he tracked closer to the gas giants than he had ever ventured, causing huge vortices of atmospheric disturbance from Neptune to Jupiter. Like a glowing comet he flashed across the dark between the blue world’s moon and the magnetic polar region, compressing his vast bulk as he entered the planet’s atmosphere. Burning like a fireball he burrowed beneath the crust to his reference point. There, before his gaze, the enormous energy crystals glowed, bright and fierce, already almost vertical in their alignment to each other. If they became squared off, synchronicity would be lost forever.

Putting out his thought he grappled with the crystals, fighting against their natural tendency to come together. He was aware of the music of the crystals, a vast cosmic melody, slowly changing as he fought against their entropy. Within him a counterpoint rose to meet that melody, striving to bring harmony to a growing discordance within it. The two themes strove against each other and feeling his awareness beginning to splinter, he redoubled his efforts. Fragmentation was not an option. Collecting himself he channeled all of his essence into his thought, forcing the twin pillars of light apart with the sheer force of his will.

The cost was staggering. Chron-OmiTar felt his energies drain as he willed the crystals back to their designated angles of separation. Time seemed to stand still as the bright fires slowly separated. Gradually the music in his awareness became more harmonious until finally the crystals regained synchronicity in a great burst of energy and light. Chron-OmiTar rode the energy wave out of the planet’s crust, moving out far above the plane of the ecliptic. Pausing there he floated gently in the enfolding dark, waiting for cosmic energy to replenish him as it always did. Every synchronicity event he generated left him momentarily weakened but this time he had come perilously close to absolute emptiness. It took a long time for his energies to renew.

When he recovered, he reached out with his awareness, probing the results of his actions. Below him, two globes spun in sync around their star, one glittering blue, the other dark, locked together in the beginning of a new star cycle. On the blue world, the seasons would continue. Turning back to his track he cued up his next waypoint, thinking about the event that had delayed him. Something seemed amiss with the cosmic balance of this part of the universe. He had always believed he was the sole minder in this sector of space but against the probabilities he had sensed another.
Andromeda was approaching. The Milky Way, his home, seemed destined for change. He computed that soon, maybe in just a few billion years their tracks would intersect. Chron-OmiTar would encounter another.

© Bryan Knower 2015

AFTERWHERE – a science fiction story

AfterwhereAFTERWHERE

The reverend Sebastian Archibald Castilar paused at the beginning of his weekly sermon, surveying the scattering of people spread out in the pews before him. Attendance today was worse than last Sunday and that Sunday had been worse than the previous week.
Every week, a few more people dropped out, sometimes a family, and that was hard on Sebastian Archibald’s ministry. He tried hard to whip up some fervor in the flock, doing his best to expound the doctrines of the church, but nothing seemed to work these days. He tried humor and then sternness but the response was always distressingly similar. Polite smiles and a reluctance to part with their resources. Sebastian Archibald’s church needed those resources badly and in spite of his best efforts, he was falling behind.
A slow burn of a righteous anger began to build inside him as he thought of all these complacent souls, coddled by their technology and comfortable in their regulated lives, giving scant thought to the Afterwhere even as they blithely accessed it in their dreams. Sebastian Archibald thought often about the Afterwhere. In fact, he dwelt on it. His whole purpose for being was predicated on the notion of an unpredictable Afterwhere. Wasn’t that what he was there for? To guide these folks safely through the Afterwhere?
He monitored his implants and fine tuned the vocal enhancers for a more forceful delivery. Today needed to be different.
“Uncertainty awaits you, my friends,” he thundered, pounding the pulpit for emphasis. “Life is uncertainty. You’re here today and maybe gone tomorrow. What have you done for yourselves? With yourselves? What are you in the here and now? More importantly, what do you do in the Afterwhere? Do you dread going there? Do your visits fill you with terror and your days with dread as you anticipate your next inevitable visit? Do you know what’s out there waiting for you night after night?”
He wiped a spray of spittle from his chin and noted with satisfaction that his outburst had woken up at least some of the people in the pews. Tiny green pinpoints of light glittered like fireflies throughout the room as neural implants woke up and registered activity. He re-adjusted his vocal enhancers for more dramatic effect.
“I’ll tell you what’s out there, my friends,” he continued, pointing his finger for dramatic effect. “The devil’s out there, out in the Afterwhere, waiting for those of you who step in there unprepared. Are you prepared?”
Sebastian Archibald was in fine form now, the words rolling off his tongue like waves on a shelving beach. His sonorous voice, subtly enhanced, filled the sculpted hall and The New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere Church reverberated with his message, making the ultraglass and titanium-steel structure vibrate with delicate sympathetic harmonies.
“He’s real my friends,” Sebastian Archibald continued, “And far more devious and terrible than the abstract constructs your data ports project in your minds. He’s been around a long time and he’s been fine tuning his approach all these years. The Afterwhere Devil lurks behind the portal to the Afterwhere my friends, and he wants to add your soul identity and your memory structures to his vast network. A network of integrated misery and terror that permeates all the interstices of the dark side of the Afterwhere.”
He paused again for dramatic effect. “Are your memories safe? Do you believe the cloned synaptic images in your data banks are safe? They’re all accessible via your Identikey codes, and that’s what he steals from you in the Afterwhere. Your codes. Your After-Identity. Your personality in the Afterwhere. Is it secured? Are you prepared?”
The sweat was rolling of Sebastian Archibald’s brow now, trickling past his ears and into his gleaming tyvek collar. He ignored it. He had their attention now. All of them. The artificially dimmed auditorium was awash in green pinpoints of light, winking and glowing as their owners accessed their implants, uploading recorded copy of his words to their databanks. He smiled. That’s what they needed. A good stir of their subconscious soup to shake them out of their data-safe programmed little worlds.
The Reverend Sebastian Archibald Castilar spoke for another forty-five minutes, each one of them more dire and dolorous than the previous. He stormed around the sanctuary gesticulating wildly, his ornate metal-fiber robes glittering as the strobes of the mood lighting caught them. The lighting operator seemed to have caught the fervor of the moment. She had three flash beams trained on the reverend at all times, making him appear to glow of his own accord. The fog machines rolled their heavy white clouds across the floor of the sanctuary and the reverend seemed to float about the room like a spectral apparition.
Just before his closing statements, the reverend linked his interface to the building systems and artificially darkened the ultraglass walls of the church, a signal to the lighting operator, who responded with a frenzy of strobe lighting simulating lightning strikes around the cunningly silhouetted figure of the reverend. For a few minutes there in the Church of the New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere, it seemed as if the Afterwhere had indeed become the present.
“You are doomed, all of you. Doomed to an eternity of endless grinding repetition. Repetition of the most unbearable horrors your minds can envision. But all is not lost. I can help you. I can show you the way through the Afterwhere.”
He paused to let the idea sink in. The green fireflies flickered madly.
“Open your data ports to my uplink stream, my brothers and sisters. Do it now. Do it every day. Do it before you fall asleep and your dreams take you where you do not want to go.”
He raised his voice a few more decibels and lowered the pitch and the timbre, going for the payoff now.
“I have what you need. I will show you a safe road. A safe road through the Afterwhere.”
He stormed out through the mirrorblind curtains at the back of the sanctuary as his closing words echoed in an infinite loop through the church sound system, ten thousand watts of amplified reverberated exhortation that hung in the air long after he had departed, leaving the members pinned to their seats like butterflies on a display board.
That night, the reverend’s uplink stream pulsed as it had not in a very long time. The church servers frantically added more bandwidth as more and more people opened their data ports to his stream. The Unicredit counters monitoring his revenue stream blinked madly as his message downloaded across the data spectrum. The credits poured in faster than his mind could register, and the reverend felt a warm glow of happiness at his achievement, but he was already thinking ahead, knowing he needed to maintain the intensity to keep that credit flow active.
Boredom was the bane of this jaded world he lived in; every aspect of life and living regulated, controlled and monitored by robot processes to the point of mundane invisibility. The only escape for a largely process controlled population was through dreams, themselves monitored by robotic AI’s that randomized the outcomes of those visits so that no person visited the exact same scenario repeatedly. The Afterwhere was a logical construct to exercise the subconscious portions of the mind that could not be controlled by the robots, and lately, the Afterwhere had grown increasingly dark. The reverend’s church was a response to a growing emotional need.
Sebastian Archibald needed to keep the fears of his flock alive, their terror of the Afterwhere stoked, so that the New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere Church continued to grow. And he along with it. As he pondered the problem he had an idea. He had posited a devil. They were terrified of that devil. So why not give him to them?
He would give them that very devil. The Afterwhere Devil, live and present via malware that would upload through their data ports and infect their implants subtly, making them receptive to his suggestions. His very own controllable Afterwhere Devil.
The Reverend Sebastian Archibald Castilar did not sleep that night, turning possibilities and outcomes over in his mind until he had crystallized what he wanted. Early next morning he placed a video comm call to an old friend of his who made robots for a living. His friend had done very well for himself, considering that most of the world was now run and regulated by robots of every shape, size, texture and capacity. The call was short and Sebastian Archibald was precise in his requirements.
Could his friend build him a robot interface to his exact specifications?
He could? Good!
Could he do it in a week? Two weeks? Great!
Could he tailor the robot personality to match the criteria he would specify? Excellent!
The price? What?
Well, never mind. There was going to be a lot more where that was coming from. Do it!
Minutes later, Sebastian Archibald had uploaded a hyper-security packet to his friend, with detailed instructions regarding the personality and capabilities of his new robot interface. The reverend was building himself a robot devil. An Afterwhere Devil, no less.
The next two weeks saw a feverish build up of intensity at the New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere Church. Sebastian Archibald installed pheromone enhancers in the ceiling, subliminal message displays on the back wall of the sanctuary and upgraded the lights and sound before the next gathering. He posted prominent instructions at the entrance that all neural implants should have their firewalls lowered within the church and their receptors enabled.
The church was packed. Word had spread amongst the community that the reverend was onto something. He had a handle on the Afterwhere. He knew the pitfalls within that desolation and how to avoid them. People brought friends. Families brought other families. They sat mesmerized as the reverend expounded on his theme. This time he had visual backup. Giant displays behind him punctuated his words, picturing dismal dystopian futurescapes as Sebastian Archibald described the dangers of the Afterwhere. Subliminal messages pulsed invisibly in the background and the pheromone enhancers pumped the atmosphere full of disquiet and lurking terror as the images rolled on, bleaker by the moment.
At the end of the sermon, Sebastian Archibald was drenched in sweat and so was his audience. They sat slack-jawed in their seats as the reverend choreographed the finale of his performance like a circus ringmaster. The Unicredit input following the service far outstripped the previous week. The reverend’s net worth soared like a spaceship leaving orbit and his visage began popping up on the national buzz feeds, feeding the frenzy. He was a shark in a school of mackerel. He was the titan at the gates of the Afterwhere, the holder of a VIP access pass guaranteeing a good time to be had by all who could afford it. He was unstoppable.
The next week, the week before the devil arrived, he worked himself into a frenzy, foaming at the mouth as he frightened the wits out of those gathered in his church. There were so many people waiting to get in that he set up five services, spaced and hour and a half apart, all of them playing to capacity crowds. By evening the reverend was exhausted but edgy with anticipation. He dismissed his staff, telling them to take the next day off as a bonus for their work at the services and waited for the technicians who would install his dream device.
It was well into the early hours of the morning before the techs were done interfacing the new system with his servers. Sebastian Archibald could barely contain himself as he waited for them to leave. He sat in front of the interface terminal, brimming with anticipation. What devilry would he program for his first week’s rummaging inside his unsuspecting members memory data banks?
A small glittering dot appeared in the center of the display, resolving into a buckyball shaped figure that spun rapidly on the screen before him. The buckyball had many glittering rainbow-colored facets that flashed and winked mesmerizingly. Behind the interface, his data port came alive, servers humming urgently; data access monitors blinking rapidly in synchronization with the rotating buckyball.
The reverend was mildly irritated. He hadn’t activated the devil interface yet but the damn thing was obviously on. No matter, The technicians probably initialized the system before they left. Clearing his throat he stared directly at the buckyball and accessed the audio interface.
“Castilar. Log on and register vocal and retina print.”
The spinning buckyball flashed silver for a moment before turning prismatic again.
“Vocal and retina print confirmed. Welcome Sebastian.”
Something prickled in the back of the reverend’s mind, like an itch on the inside of his skull. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. When he opened his eyes, the sensation was gone.
Sebastian. The system had called him Sebastian, but he had not told it his name. No one called the reverend by his name. His was simple The Reverend. Sebastian Archibald Castilar guarded his personality with a fervor that matched his religious zeal.
The buckyball on the screen grew in size, some of the facets disappearing into dark openings like windows into an infinite depth. Inside those lattices sparks flashed into existence and died. The room lights dimmed and the unmistakable coppery odor of pheromone stimulants wafted into his nostrils. On the display he could see the reflected green LED of his own implant flare into activity.
A nameless dread assailed him as a suave voice bearing a hint of mingled mischief and malice echoed inside his head.
“Sebastian Archibald Castilar. Welcome to the Afterwhere. I’m your host, the Afterwhere Devil.”

 © Bryan Knower: September 2014

Sierra Madre Blues

Sierra Madre BluesSIERRA MADRE BLUES

veryshortstoriesSebastian Crist first noticed her when he parked his bike and walked down to the spring by the roadside. If he had not stopped for a drink of fresh water and a toke he might never have seen her up on the hillside. She lay curled up against a jumble of rocks some distance up the slope from the spring, seemingly asleep.

Maybe she fell. Maybe she was injured. What was she doing up here?

The sheer absurdity of someone out here in the remote wilderness of the Sierra Madre Mountains made him think he was hallucinating. Maybe he was imagining what he saw. He closed eyes for a few seconds, but when he re-opened them, the girl was still there. He realized then that something was very wrong. Wrong for him and possibly wrong with him.

He had stopped near a small culvert on Route 166, the old Sierra Madre highway from Guadalupe to Taft. A ghost road, haunted by coyotes and rattlesnakes. A road less travelled. Sebastian knew the road well. He had ridden it before, exulting in the feeling of freedom as he pushed the motorcycle around the bends on the deserted highway. The deep thrum of the Indian’s big engine between his legs and the shattering roar of his passage through the numerous cuts and gullies was like a balm to his soul and these days, his soul felt in desperate need of soothing.

Leaving his bike by the side of the road, he scrambled up the slope to where she lay, a sense of foreboding growing in him as he approached her. It wasn’t until he was within a few feet of her that he realized she was dead.

Her throat had been cut from ear to ear, a red gaping slash that grinned at him from beneath her chin like an obscene mouth. His stomach heaving, Sebastian fell to his knees, bile spewing from his mouth, burning his throat and nostrils as he wretched. Images from the nightmares that haunted his dreams filled his mind, tightening his gut until he doubled over with the pain. He willed the dead girl to go away but in his mind, she beckoned to others, the fey spirits from his past that hounded him, taunting him, daring him to react, to do more than run away.

He always ran, literally and figuratively. In every instance he left the scene in a panic, reliving the macabre details in the nights that followed, unable to understand what he encountered. He never knew if the encounters were real or just twisted figments of his imagination, and he told nobody. His prior arrest record took care of that and he had no illusions about what might ensure from reporting such an event.

It all began two summers ago, on an evening just like this one in the Arizona desert. Days after a desert rave, high on Peyote extract, seeing the colors of the rainbow reflected in the hot sand; amorphous shapes swirling around him, imaginary or real, ghosts of the future, phantoms of the past, all of them female, all dead, speaking silently to him, commanding him.

Time seemed to stand still and voices spoke inside his head, telling him about unspeakable things, asking him if he was ready. He struggled in vain against their hideous insinuations, fighting desperately for control over his slipping mind, alternately pleading and ranting at them.

What do you want? Why me? I don’t understand. Tell me. What do you want?

It is your legacy, they said. Why do you resist?

It was not what he wanted to hear, so he ran, fleeing the desert, sweating out the peyote in terrified hallucinations night after night, trying to convince himself that it was all a result of a bad trip. The fault of the peyote buttons.

He felt exactly the same now, the urge to run paramount in his mind. He fought it, squeezing his eyes shut again, hoping this was all in his head. It didn’t help. In the desolate landscape around him, there was no sign of anyone, savior or pursuer, an absence of anything but the two of them, Sebastian and the girl, alone and surrounded by silence.

The quiet was unnatural, a stepping out of time, a time where lips moved, a time where limbs beckoned, gesturing; a time for drowned ears, like a face underwater, everything observed through a watery lens, eyes open without goggles, all clearly obscure.

In Cuidad Juarez, the dead girl’s eyes had looked like that, opaque, unseeing, accusing.

Why didn’t you do something? Where were you when they were killing me?

He had denied responsibility. Vehemently.

Not me. It wasn’t me. I’m trying to help but you’re already dead. Please, I’ll do what I can. Poor dead senorita. Don’t look at me like that. I’m so sorry, but it’s too late.

Avoid the accusing stare, the marks of her desecration and his shame. So young, so innocent, just like this girl huddled among the rocks up in the Sierra Madre Mountains. He was too late for her also, just as he had been too late for the girl in Cuidad, too late to help, too late to prevent the shame, the tearing, the mutilation. He wanted to scream.

Why me? It isn’t my fault.

There was no escaping it. Every one of them different but still the same. Mouths open, the ghostly image of a silent scream frozen on bloodless lips, a record of final agony endured, the rictus of desperation morphing from the phantoms in the desert to the silent accusations of the girl in Cuidad. Same expression of surprise, desolation and pain, with Sebastian standing immobile, rooted, frozen in time and space, all the desperation of all the lonely souls robbed of life and love pressing him on that rocky hillside with the sunlight fading like the hope in his heart.

Alone. That’s how you died. Alone. A solitary journey. A solitary experience.

And he was a solitary man. Always had been. Often wondered why. Adamantly refused to face the answer. Even though a dead girl lay before him, he was alone.

Sweat dripped from his hair onto his forehead. He did not notice. It ran into his eyes. He blinked, trying to release the moisture, but his eyes stung.

Sweat or tears? I don’t know. I don’t care. What now? Why do I see dead people?

Perhaps it was time to change the status quo. In retrospect, everything had the clarity of clear glass. In Cuidad, he had not moved the body of the girl. He did not move this one either. She was fresh, like a newly killed deer, the strange sweet smell of blood strong in the air; an unforgettable smell. He had done nothing then, self-preservation his dominant instinct. He made an effort now, for monsters were nearby, watching him as he got his blanket from his bike and covered her with it, watching him as he made his way back down the hill and kicked the bike back into life, watching him as he sat astride his softly muttering Indian, contemplating what to do next.

In the desert, he ran from the collective consciousness that beckoned him. He had run from the girl in Cuidad too, run from faceless and unseen retribution, and he meant to run now, from the nameless something that waited up the mountainside for him. In spite of his sputtering resolve the specters called to him, tempting him, beckoning, like so many times before. And in the forefront was the girl he had just left. The girl on the mountainside. The girl with the red smile. A smile that implored with the others.

Stay. Stay and be part of us. We are the same. Come be with us.

He rode away then; the accusation of that bloody grimace imprinted on his mind like a ghostly afterimage, and in the very edges of his vision, a ghostly company rode with him. And with them the dead girl in the Sierra Madre Mountains, now part of that endless expanding circle, reciting the litany of something he still refused to figure out.

Bryan Knower 2014