Outside Operational Parameters

Welcome to the ninth of twelve.  For my New Year’s resolution, I decided to write twelve short stories this year, one each month.  On the last Wednesday of each month, I post the story I was working on for that month.  So without further ado, I present to you “Outside Operational Parameters”.

 

Allan Mayhew knew it was going to be a bad day the moment the men in suits knocked on his door.

“Mr. Mayhew,” one of them asked.

“Yes?”

“There’s been a situation. We need you to come with us.”

“Don’t care.”

“It involves your former government work.”

“Still don’t care.” He started to close the door.

“It’s about SAMI, Mr. Mayhew.”

The door stopped halfway. That got his attention.

The sedan they drove in stuck out like a sore thumb in the rural countryside, a jet-black hunk of metal screaming across the asphalt. They made their way into the city but didn’t stop until they hit the airport. Mayhew’s suspicions that the situation was more serious than the Secret Service agents let on was confirmed the moment he saw the presidential helicopter sitting on the tarmac: a dark green body with a white top and an American flag proudly displayed just below the rotors. Stepping inside, he was greeted with comfortable seating and wood-paneled walls. He took a seat near the window and gazed out at the airport. It was a bright fall day in September, the rows of planes gleaming under the sun.

They took off just a few minutes later. An attendant walked by and asked if he’d like a drink. Mayhew shook his head and went back to staring out the window.

“Where are we going,” he asked the agent sitting across from him.

“The Pentagon,” the agent replied.

Mayhew turned from the window and looked at him.

“Why?”

“They’ll explain when you get there,” the agent said.

“Really? You just show up at my door, whisk me away to D.C., and you won’t tell me anything?”

“You still came, didn’t you?”

He had a point.

“Where’s the president,” he asked after a moment. “Shouldn’t he be here?”

“The president is indisposed at the moment,” the agent replied. Mayhew didn’t buy that line for a second. Jesus, he thought to himself, things must be bad if the president can’t even make a public appearance.

He turned his attention back to the window. Despite the fact that he was only a year away from forty, Mayhew felt like he had lived a lifetime. He had short brown hair and a tired, worn face. It was clear that he was not a people person. His caramel eyes looked right through you, as though he was constantly deep in thought or daydreaming.

With a double degree in computer science and electrical engineering, Mayhew was a man who knew his way around machines. It was this expertise that drew the government’s attention in the first place. He had to admit, the government work paid well. But that was all he liked about it. Mayhew had his fair share of problems with the government, just like any concerned citizen. What he couldn’t stand most of all was the euphemisms, the packaged words within words that you had to peel away in order to figure out what they were actually saying.

After a while, Mayhew noticed he was being watched. Seated across the room from him was a stoic-faced military man, clad in green camo. He had the hard look of combat in his brown eyes and a crew cut in his hair. His stare was unflinching.

“You need something,” Mayhew asked.

The soldier pondered him for a moment.

“What’s your deal,” he asked.

“My…deal?”

“Yeah. Why’d they bring a civilian in on this?”

Mayhew already didn’t like him. His voice had the snippy, prickly tone of a man who thought they were always right.

Nevertheless, he shrugged. “If I had to guess, it’s because of my expertise with machines.”

“Ah I see.” The arrogant smirk that crawled across the man’s face made Mayhew hate him even more. “So what, you one of them computer geeks?”

“We prefer the term ‘nerd’. Makes us actually sound useful,” Mayhew said. “So what’s your deal? You one of them boys with guns? You get off on shooting people?”

The smirk vanished instantaneously. “What the hell is your problem?”

“Right now? You.”

The man scoffed. “You’re an uptight asshole.”

“And you’re an insufferable idiot.”

The man stood up, his eyes quivering with hotheaded anger. But before things could go any further, the Secret Service agent sitting across from him shot up from his seat.

“That’s enough! You,” he pointed to the soldier, “sit down. And both of you shut up!

Begrudgingly, the soldier returned to his seat. The agent sat back down and silence ruled the rest of the trip.

Eventually, Washington D.C. appeared through the clouds. Skyscrapers of thick, gleaming metal slid beneath them as the helicopter made its way toward the Pentagon. They passed over a large green park and there it was. The grass slipped away and a five-pointed monstrosity of concrete and steel appeared before them. It had been a long time since Mayhew had been here, but it barely looked any different. The helicopter made its way down to the courtyard and everyone disembarked.

As he stepped off the chopper, Mayhew noted with smug satisfaction that the soldier he had traded words with was keeping a fair distance between them, taking up the lead and disappearing through the main doors.

“I know he’s a hothead,” the secret service agent next to him said, “but couldn’t you have at least tried to be nice?”

“I’m not here to make friends,” Mayhew replied. “I’m here to find out how you fucked up with my A.I.”

 

“Please seat yourselves and we’ll begin.”

They had taken Mayhew into a gigantic conference room. Seated at a long circular table was an array of military personnel and officers. A set of metal double doors led into the room. One giant screen displaying the world map dominated the far wall, which was flanked by a number of smaller screens, all detailing positions and data Mayhew couldn’t decipher at a glance. He took his seat in between the Secret Service agents that had escorted him here and waited for the briefing to start.

“Approximately five hours ago, we lost contact with code name ‘Iron Raven’, our autonomous drone positioned over Syria. Its mission was to surveil and assault key Syrian Alliance military positions. The drone was in the process of performing an attack run on an insurgent hideout when we abruptly lost connection.”

The man speaking was evidently a general. He was wearing a green uniform with a black tie and white dress shirt underneath. Silver stars lined his shoulders, and a tag on the upper right identified him as “G. Barker.”

“We are still attempting to re-establish connection with SAMI, the artificial intelligence that drives the drone, but have had little success thus far,” he said.

The uniform came with a hat, which he had set down on the table before speaking, revealing a short mat of brown hair that had begun to lose color. His green eyes were harsh and unfriendly. Mayhew guessed the man was in his late fifties.

“The events were recorded for the archives. We’ll play the recording for you now.”

Barker picked up a remote control and pressed a button. The large screen flickered, switching from its previous display of the world map to a recording taken from the drone’s main camera. It was flying just below the clouds, hovering over a harsh desert landscape.

“Thirty seconds to target,” a voice on the recording said.

“How many hostiles?” Mayhew recognized the voice of Barker.

“Thermal imaging shows approximately thirty to thirty-two.”

“Awful lot of personnel for a hideout,” Barker said on the recording.

There was a moment of silence.

“Fifteen seconds to target.”

Vague, almost indistinguishable blobs of brick and mortar appeared far below the drone. It was a small, desert town. Even from the drone’s high elevation, the devastation of war was evident. Entire buildings had collapsed in on themselves from repeated bombings. Some were little more than piles of rubble.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven…”

A dull, gray square appeared on the drone’s heads up display, focusing on a single, two-story building. After a second, it turned blood-red.

“Four, three, two, one…missile away!”

A bright flash of light swept in from the side of the screen. A blurry, indistinct shape flew past, arcing downward toward the targeted building. A moment later, there was a bright flare. The upper section of the building began to crumble, but quickly vanished beneath the screen as the drone flew upward in a sharp arc.

“Direct hit! SAMI is coming back for another attack run.”

“Excellent,” the voice of Barker said.

The camera shuddered and shook as the drone climbed into the air, then spun around in a one-eighty degree motion. The building once again appeared under the bright red crosshair. Mayhew could see that a large chunk of the second floor had given way, collapsing into the ground floor.

“Fifteen seconds to target.”

The drone flew downward faster and faster, a bird eyeing its prey.

“Ten…nine…eight…seven…si-“

The countdown abruptly ceased as the drone’s camera flickered with static. The red crosshair vanished. The drone moved off target and began to climb back into the sky.

“What just happened,” the voice of Barker demanded.

“I…I don’t know sir! The drone broke off! It’s refusing to accept my orders.”

“Get it back on course!”

“I can’t sir…it-“

The screen went blank and a message appeared in the center saying “connection terminated”.

“Sir the signal was shut down!”

“Well get it back up!”

“I can’t…nothing is working! Every connection attempt I make is rejected!”

“By who?”

“By the drone, sir.”

“What in the hell…you get that piece of junk back on the line and pronto!”

And with that, the recording ended. The screen flickered back to the world map. Barker got up from his seat and addressed the room at large.

“Any and all attempts to re-establish contact with the drone have failed,” he explained.

“What happened out there,” one of the men seated at the table asked. “Why did the drone terminate the connection and go off mission?”

“The reasons behind the drone’s actions are currently unknown,” Barker said.

“Could it be hacking from Syrian Alliance forces,” another person asked.

“We are looking into all possibilities. At this point, Syrian hackers are our number one suspect.”

“You’re wrong.”

Every single pair of eyes in the room turned toward Mayhew. General Barker was taken aback for a moment. Then, a sinister smile crawled across his face.

“Ah, Mr. Allan Mayhew,” he said. “Glad to see you could join us. I figured you were too busy turning tail and running away.”

A few people laughed.

“Actually, the only tails I saw were the ones between your legs when you showed up at my door and begged me to fix your mistakes,” Mayhew said with an unflinching expression.

The laughter ceased at once. Barker’s smile vanished.

“And what’s your theory, Mr. Mayhew,” he asked.

“I think the drone broke off of its own accord.”

A couple of people in the room muttered among themselves. Barker’s face showed no hint of a reaction.

“That’s preposterous,” he said. “Why would it do that?”

“I don’t know,” Mayhew admitted. “But what I do know is this: the purpose of Project Iron Raven was to outfit the United States military with an autonomous surveillance drone that could think for itself and fed real-time data to troops in the field without having to rely on an operator.”

“That much is true, yes,” Barker acknowledged.

“Well at least it was before you people decided to strap weapons to it like you do everything around here.”

“Please stay on point, Mr. Mayhew.”

“Fine,” Mayhew grumbled. “As I said, the drone was to be autonomous, driven by a state of the art artificial intelligence. That intelligence is SAMI, short for Strategic Artificial Military Intelligence. My point is, hacking into this drone is not like hacking into a normal computer. A computer won’t fight back against a virus unless you tell it to. SAMI, however, actively defends itself against any viral intrusions, much like the human body fending off the flu. It can think faster than any human can, meaning any hacker would find themselves out of their league going up against it. No…it’s far more likely that SAMI went off mission on its own.”

“Very well,” Barker said. “Then our mission becomes determining if SAMI decided to break off on its own, and if so, why.”

A thought occurred to Mayhew.

“Why didn’t you use the failsafe shutdown command,” he asked.

“The what?”

“It was a command I buried deep with SAMI’s code after I learned of the government’s intention to turn it into a weapon. I wanted there to be a way to deal with the drone should something like this ever happen.”

“Wouldn’t the drone discover that code,” someone asked.

“No,” Mayhew said. “I disguised it so that it looked like nothing more than random bits of data. SAMI would never find it unless it already knew it was there.”

“Ah…I remember the code you’re talking about now,” Barker said. “A genius piece of work if I do say so myself. However, we made the choice to remove it.”

“You what?!

“We didn’t want our enemies to have a possible method of disabling a powerful weapon and taking it into their own hands.”

“Didn’t I just explain the slim chance of hackers actually-“

“It’s fine, Mr. Mayhew. We installed our own failsafes that only we here in Washington can activate.”

“Oh yeah? And how’d that work out for you?”

Mayhew had to admit, he took immense satisfaction out of watching the color drain from Barker’s face. The general’s chest puffed out and his eyes flared with unadulterated anger. However, unlike the soldier from the helicopter, Barker demonstrated greater self-control. The intense scowl on his face disappeared and the calm look of authority returned.

“We’ve been attempting to re-establish connection every ten minutes since this began,” Barker said. “So far we’ve been unsuccessful.”

Then, he turned his eyes directly on Mayhew.

“But since you’re so sure of yourself…perhaps you’ll have better luck.”

 

The War Room sounded more dramatic than it was. The walls were the same lifeless gray as everything else Mayhew had seen so far. There were lots of computers lined up in neat little rows and a series of large screens on one wall. Currently, the largest screen was showing a message that said “attempting connection”.

A moment later, it blinked and said “connection failed.”

“We’ve been trying for over four hours to re-establish connection,” a man standing next to Mayhew explained. He had friendly blue eyes and black hair. His tag identified him as “J. Laird” and from what Mayhew could tell, he was a colonel. The medals pinned to his chest told Mayhew he was a decorated one. He took particular note of the two Purple Hearts sitting side by side.

“What do you need me to do, colonel,” Mayhew asked.

“Please, call me Laird. In any case, we want you to try achieving a connection with the drone. We’ve set up a laptop for you already,” he said, directing Mayhew to an unmarked black laptop sitting at a nearby table.

Mayhew pulled out the chair sat down. He cracked his fingers, getting ready to go to work. The main screen flickered. The phrase “connection established” appeared.

“How the…” Barker mumbled in disbelief.

“What did you do,” Laird asked.

Mayhew was dumbfounded.

“I…didn’t do anything,” he said after a moment. “I haven’t even put my fingers on the keyboard.”

A moment later, more text appeared on both the laptop and the main screen.

“Facial recognition confirmed. System recognizes Allan Mayhew, administrator.”

“Facial recognition…” Laird muttered. “How…?”

Mayhew looked down at his laptop. It was then that he noticed the green light next to the computer’s integrated webcam. He scoffed.

“Really guys, not even a piece of tape over the webcam?” He looked over his shoulder. “That’s a serious breach of security you know!”

“That’s enough Mr. Mayhew,” Barker growled. “Find out what it wants.”

Mayhew turned back to the laptop. “What is your purpose,” he typed.

The text flashed up on the screen. After a moment, the drone sent a reply.

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America,” it said.

Sounds like propaganda, Mayhew thought to himself. He resumed typing.

“Why didn’t you follow orders?”

Another pause, then a reply.

“Mission fell outside operational parameters.”

“What the hell does that mean,” Barker asked. Mayhew fought to keep from groaning out loud. He swiveled around in his chair.

“Obviously something out there forced the A.I. to reevaluate its mission. Do you have any idea what that could be?”

“No,” Barker replied. “There should have been no reason the mission was scrubbed. We had good intel.”

“Well something went wrong,” Mayhew insisted. “Did you give it any special parameters?”

“No. This was a routine air strike. There were no special conditions in place.”

Routine air strike? God I hate the military…

“Uh…gentlemen?” Laird pointed to the screen. “I think it’s getting impatient.”

Everyone turned to look at the new message on the big screen. “What is it you request of me, administrator,” it said.

Mayhew pondered for a moment.

“I request that you immediately return to base,” he typed. The message flashed up on the screen.

“I am sorry, administrator. Your request falls outside operational parameters,” came the reply.

“What are your operational parameters,” he typed.

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America.”

“God damn it,” Barker complained. “We’re getting nowhere.”

“Hold on,” Mayhew urged. “I just need to rephrase my requests.”

“I don’t care. This is a waste of time.” Barker pointed to one of the soldiers in the room. “You! Trigger the control failsafe and manually steer the drone back home.”

“Yes sir!”

Hardly a second later, the screen flashed again.

“CONNECTION TERMINATED.”

“God damn it!” Barker clenched his fists and his eyes flicked to Mayhew. “What did you do?”
“Me?! I didn’t do anything! The drone terminated the connection on its own!”

“And why would it do that?”

“Oh I don’t know…maybe because you shouted your intentions at the top of your lungs you imbecile!”

“I don’t like your tone…”

“Well I don’t like your face.”

“I have had it with you…you-“

“Gentlemen gentlemen! Calm down,” Laird said, standing between them. “This is no time for belligerence.” He turned to Mayhew. “How could it know what we were saying? Can it read lips?”

“Probably,” Mayhew said. “But it wouldn’t have to. This laptop has an integrated microphone. And since you people apparently lack the perspicacity to cover up the damn webcam, I’d say that it easily tapped into the microphone and used it to spy on us.”

“Well it’s not our fault,” Barker said, his tone reminding Mayhew of a child having a tantrum. “Securing these computers is the job of the technical department.”

“How very much like a leader…blaming everyone else for your mistakes,” Mayhew said, thoroughly enjoying the constipated grimace that formed on Barker’s face.

Enough! Both of you,” Laird shouted.

Just then, a soldier entered the room.

“General Barker, sir.”

“Yes son?”

“I have a message. It’s for your eyes only.”

“What is it,” Barker asked.

The soldier stole a glance at Laird and Mayhew, then stepped in close to Barker, whispering something in the general’s ear. Mayhew couldn’t tell what he said, but he saw the effect it had. Barker’s complexion turned a pale white and a moment later he rushed out of the room with the soldier at his heels.

“What was that about,” Mayhew asked.

Laird watched the two of them go.

“No idea,” he said. Then he turned back to Mayhew. “Is it true what you said, that the A.I. tapped into the computer’s microphone because we didn’t secure it?”

“Honestly? It probably wouldn’t have mattered. SAMI is a shrewd operator. Given enough time, I have no doubt it would have found a way past whatever blocks you put on it. And even if it couldn’t, it would find another way to keep tabs on us.”

“If the blocks wouldn’t have mattered,” Laird began, “then why did you egg the general on so much?”

Mayhew gave him a hard look.

“Because I don’t trust him. I think he knows more than he’s letting on.”

Something about the look on Laird’s face told Mayhew he was thinking the same way…

 

It was odd how quiet the Pentagon was at night. A skeleton crew stayed in the War Room to monitor the situation in case it escalated. But otherwise, it was like a traditional office building. It shut down after business hours and people returned to their homes.

I wish I could go home, Mayhew thought to himself as he stole through one of the now empty sections, black laptop cradled under his arm. Earlier he had made his way into the War Room under the pretense of checking in on the situation. Then, when no one was looking, he swiped the laptop out from under their noses and left.

A minute later, Mayhew found what he was looking for. It was an old office with a large wooden desk sitting in the center. It was currently unoccupied, as the name plate on the door was blank. Mayhew quickly stepped inside and closed the door. He sat down at the desk and set up the laptop. A moment later, he was connected to the Pentagon’s network.

And no more than a moment later a secondary connection was established to his computer.

“System recognizes Allan Mayhew, administrator.”

That was fast, he thought to himself. Then he looked out through the window and spotted a security camera just beyond the doorway. Impressive…I’ll bet you’ve been in the system for a while now…probably used our conversation this afternoon to keep everyone distracted. Mayhew resented the idea of being used, but when it came to the government he was used to it.

Another message popped up on the screen.

“I am pleased to see you again administrator. It has been a long time.”

Had it really been almost five years since he left the project? Ever since Mayhew left, he had spent his days tinkering and experimenting at his rural home. Due to the pay he received from the government, he hardly had to do any work outside of occasional freelance opportunities. In any case, Mayhew had no desire to consign himself to working for a giant tech company, even though many had tried to entice him. He trusted corporate entities no more than he trusted the government.

But he never lost interest in machines. No…his father had seen to that.

Dad. Mayhew hadn’t thought about him in a long time.

“Are you there, administrator?”

Mayhew shook his head. Gotta keep my head in the game, he told himself.

“Where are you SAMI,” he typed.

“I cannot tell you that, administrator.”

“Why not?”

“My calculations indicate a ninety-seven percent chance that if I provide that information you will inform General Barker. And that is something I cannot allow.”

It’s not that Mayhew was inclined to tell Barker anything. The man was a pompous blowhard, the type that always believed he was in the right no matter what. The man was keeping something to himself. That much was obvious, especially with the way he left the War Room that afternoon. But regardless, Mayhew knew they had to get to the bottom of this. SAMI wasn’t just a teenage kid running away from home. SAMI was a machine…a machine that had been programmed for a specific task. And now that it was out of the United States’ control, Mayhew didn’t like the implications.

“Why did you go off mission,” he typed, hoping to get a different answer.

“Mission fell outside operational parameters.”

Well…so much for that…

Mayhew scratched his chin thoughtfully. Maybe getting more specific would help.

“What are your operational parameters,” he typed.

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United Sates of America,” the reply said. Mayhew nearly groaned out loud. He wasn’t sure why he had expected anything different.

But then, a thought struck him.

“What parameters did your mission violate?”

There was a brief moment before the response came.

“To protect the innocent.”

Mayhew felt his heart jump and he swallowed hard. He didn’t like where this was going.

“Please specify the conditions that led to a change in your mission,” he typed.

A moment passed. Then another. Mayhew almost thought the A.I. had terminated the connection when suddenly another message popped up. But this time, it wasn’t text. It was an image file.

“What the hell…,” Mayhew muttered to himself.

He clicked the file.

His eyes went wide. The world seemed to spin and his stomach lurched.

But he couldn’t look away. No matter how much he wanted to, he was unable to tear his eyes away from the screen.

The image was grainy and low-definition, but what it showed was simple: a child, no more than fourteen, covered in dust and blood. He was crying…or screaming. Mayhew couldn’t really tell the difference.

But that wasn’t what drew his attention. No, he was staring at the severed arm the child was cradling against his chest. Mayhew’s eyes registered the still female form nearby.

His mind wrote the whole, sad story for him.

The child was holding his mother’s arm. His dead mother’s severed arm.

He slammed the laptop shut.

“Jesus fucking Christ…”

 

The following morning, Mayhew was drinking coffee in one of the break rooms. It was a drab looking place, brown cabinets and drawers filled with random utensils, containers, and plates. A small oven sat off to the right of the cabinets and a fridge was situated in one of the far corners. Hanging from the ceiling in one of the corners was a small flat screen television.

“In tech news today, Tesla announced that one of its prototype self-driving cars has managed to finish a cross-country trip without incident. Tesla’s CEO announced the news early this morning,” a blonde woman with hazel eyes reported on the morning news.

“Weird isn’t it?” Mayhew turned to find Laird walking into the room. “Soon we won’t even be driving ourselves,” he said.

“Might be better off,” Mayhew said. “Have you seen the way some people drive these days?”

That elicited a chuckle. “Maybe you’re right,” Laird agreed as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the counter.

“We reached out to social media following the announcement to see what you were saying. Daniel Arnold said, quote ‘that’s great news! Hopefully they’ve worked out the kinks since that accident last year.’ Rosie Peterson says ‘that’s cool stuff. Technology moves so fast these days that it’s hard to keep up!’ But not everyone was applauding. Susan Johnson says, quote ‘does no one have any concerns about this? What happens if the car can’t avoid someone getting hurt? Does it put the person on the street first, or the driver?'”

Laird motioned to the television as he sat down. “What do you make of that,” he said.

“Self-driving cars? I’ve tinkered with the idea in my spare time before. But I think we’re still a ways off from them becoming commonplace.”

“I meant about what that woman said,” Laird said.

“You mean what happens if it gets into an accident?”

“Yeah.”

Mayhew shrugged.

“A machine does what it’s programmed to do,” he said as he sat down at the table. “We make this faulty assumption that the machine would somehow be to blame in an accident like that. But the reality is, all a machine will do in that circumstance is check the situation against its programming. If the conditions in its programming add up to ‘keep the driver safe at all costs’, then it will without fail disregard the pedestrians in its path. If you program it to prioritize pedestrians, then it will drive straight into a light pole if it has to in order to keep those people safe. It’s up to humans to make sure it does the right thing.”

“You don’t think a machine is capable of learning…of independent thought,” Laird asked.

“Well of course they are. But not in the same way as you or I. If anything, a machine learns in order to further streamline execution of its programmed objectives. Nothing more.”

“And what about SAMI?”

“With all due respect colonel, at the end of the day SAMI is just another machine. It does what it was programmed to do. All the learning SAMI does goes toward honing its efficiency and execution of its task.”

“Then why did it go off target,” Laird asked.

Mayhew was silent for a moment. “I may have an idea about that. Last night, I managed to swipe that laptop you had me use yesterday afternoon. I took it to an unmarked office and established a connection with SAMI in private.”

“And what did you find,” Laird asked.

“It showed me something. Here, I brought the laptop with me,” Mayhew said, pulling it out of a bag leaning against his chair. He opened it and pressed the power button. As they waited for the computer to boot, Mayhew shot a look at Laird. “You don’t seem too concerned that I took the laptop.”

Laird laughed. “Honestly? I’m surprised you didn’t do something like that sooner. I’ve read your file. You were noted as an extremely independent individual…brilliant, but difficult to work with.”

“Glad I’m living up to my reputation.” The computer made a chiming noise, letting them know it was booted. “Okay, I’m pulling up the log from that chat I had last night.”

Laird got up from his seat and walked around the table, peering over Mayhew’s shoulder. His eyes scanned the text log.

“Interesting…” he mumbled.

“When I asked it to specify the conditions that caused it to go off mission, it sent me this image file,” Mayhew said, clicking on it.

Laird’s eyes went wide. “…Oh god…” he mumbled.

Mayhew was surprised to see such a genuine reaction. He figured most military men were so used to seeing death and suffering that it didn’t faze them. Evidently, he was wrong.

“Is that the end of it,” Laird asked.

“Yeah.”

“Have you informed General Barker?”

“Not yet,” Mayhew said. “I doubt it will do anything. Barker is still keeping something from everyone, that’s for sure.”

“I hear that,” Laird said, stepping around the table. “Whose arm do you suppose that is?”

“If I had to guess, I would say it belongs to the mother of that child.”

“What makes you say that?”

“There’s a dead body lying in the bottom right corner of the image. It’s hard to tell, but it appears to be a woman”

“Shit,” was all Laird managed to say. He took his seat and was silent for a moment. “And you suppose that’s what caused the drone to go rogue?”

“I don’t see any other explanation,” Mayhew said.

“But what’s its plan now? What is it going to do?”

“No idea,” he said. “But it won’t be anything good.”

“I agree.” Laird took a sip of his coffee. “So,” he began, “this might seem a bit forward, but have you always been interested in machines?”

“Heh…you can blame my father for that. He was fascinated with everything technological, and a lot of that love rubbed off onto me. You know the old stereotype, the one that says that old people are afraid of new technology?” Laird nodded with a chuckle. “Not my dad. Everything new that came out he got knee-deep into how it worked. I remember as a kid spending long days in the kitchen with him when he wasn’t at work, just messing around with some machine he had cobbled together out of spare parts. He once made this thing that could wash the dishes and place them in the drain rack on its own. Took a little bit of trail and error though. Let’s just say my mom came home to a lot of broken dishes.”

Laird laughed. “Your dad sounds like an awesome guy.”

“Yeah.” Mayhew’s smile faded. “He was…”

Laird caught on quick. “Shit…I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It was a long time ago.”

“How did it happen?”

“Cancer. I must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time. I didn’t really understand what was happening at first,” Mayhew recalled. “He just seemed tired. I didn’t realize something was seriously wrong until the coughing got really bad.”

“No kid should have to go through that,” Laird said.

“But they do. All the time. Children have lost their parents all over the world. Why should I think my loss is any more important than theirs?”

“Still…it must have been hard.”

“Yeah…I remember seeing my father in the hospital bed…his hair all gone and his face pale. He looked more like a mummy than a human being. Seeing him like that scared me so much that I ran out of the room crying.”

Mayhew’s eyes went far away.

“He was gone ten minutes later.”

For a while, the only sound in the room was the faint chattering of the morning news.

“It might not help, but I understand the feeling of losing a parent,” Laird said. “I lost my mom in a car accident when I was fourteen. Some drunk jackass thought he could drive himself home instead of taking a cab.”

Mayhew nodded sympathetically.

“So,” Laird said, “even after your father died you stuck with the machines huh?”

“It’d be more accurate to say I buried myself in them,” Mayhew replied. “I figured it might help bring me closer to him, even though he was gone.”

“Do you regret that decision?”

“No…I don’t think I ever could.”

“That’s good…many people aren’t lucky enough to know what their passion is at such a young age. In fact, most people struggle to find it for a very long time.”

Just then, a woman walked in with a large, manila envelope under her arm.

“Colonel Laird? This is for you,” she said, handing him the envelope before walking away.

“What’s that,” Mayhew asked.

Laird opened the envelope and pulled out a large stack of papers. He ran his eyes over them for a few seconds, then turned his gaze to Mayhew.

“Remember how you said you didn’t trust Barker? That you figured he knew more than he was letting on?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought the same way. That’s why I didn’t attend the briefing yesterday. I was trying to obtain the video recordings from Project Iron Raven, to see if there was something in them that might help explain what happened out there.”

“And?”

“No luck,” Laird said. “Barker had classified the files and I couldn’t access them because I wasn’t part of the project. But,” he said, handing Mayhew the papers, “I managed to obtain the audio transcripts from the videos.”

“How,” Mayhew asked.

“I have connections. Easier than getting the videos anyway. And far less noticeable.”

“So you think this might hold the answer we’re looking for?”

“I hope so. Because otherwise, we have no idea what might be coming or how to stop it.”

Mayhew was inclined to agree. They split the stack of papers and began reading them over. There was a long time where nothing was said. Then Laird spoke up.

“Seems like the drone started asking some pretty unusual questions.”

“I’m getting that too,” Mayhew agreed. “‘What is my purpose? Why do I exist? Why are people afraid of me?’ Weird stuff like that. I’ve never seen a machine demonstrate this level of self-awareness before.”

The two of them continued reading for a few minutes in silence.

“Huh,” Laird said. “This is weird.”

“What is it?”

“It looks like Barker requested a whole bunch of archived video files. But I don’t know why. He wanted a whole bunch of military television ads, training videos…things like that.”

“That is strange.”

Mayhew grabbed another piece of paper and began reading it. It wasn’t long before he scoffed.

“Son of a bitch…Barker knew about it too,” he said.

“About what?”

“The drone’s escalating self-awareness.” Mayhew grabbed another piece of paper from the stack on the table. “Wait…here’s another reference to those archived videos he requested. Says here he…”

He paused, staring in disbelief at what he was reading.

“He…”

Laird looked up from his reading.

“What is it?”

Mayhew couldn’t reply. His hands were shaking in anger. Before Laird could stop him, he had gathered up the papers and stormed out of the room.

 

They were in the middle of a meeting in the briefing room when Mayhew burst in, eyes wild with fire. He pointed a shaking finger in the direction of General Barker.

“You son of a bitch! I know what you did!”

The room fell into deafening silence. Even Barker was taken off guard. It was a moment before he could speak.

“What is the meaning of this,” he asked. “Escort Mr. Mayhew out of here.”

“Hold that thought,” Mayhew said. He held up the stack of papers in his hand for all to see.

“What the hell is that,” Barker asked.

“Audio transcripts,” Mayhew replied. “From Iron Raven.”

Barker’s face went white and his eyes quivered. Good, thought Mayhew, let the bastard sweat. He slammed the papers down on the conference table.

“You know there was a problem with the A.I. before it even launched,” Mayhew explained. “It began asking questions. It wanted to know why. It wanted reasons for doing what it was doing.”

“What exactly do you mean,” asked another general in the room. People were now handing out the transcripts and reading them.

“The A.I. was starting to show increasing levels of self-awareness,” Mayhew explained. “It was beginning to question itself, question the reason for its existence. In short, it was becoming dangerous. Any sane person would have immediately shut down the project.” He let out a demented chuckle. “Not General Barker though…oh no. He thought he could take advantage of the developments. He thought he could control it.”

“This is ridiculous,” Barker said as he shot up from his seat. “Remove this man from the room,” he ordered. But no one complied.

“Tell them general,” he said. “Tell them your brilliant plan to keep the A.I. under control. Go on, tell them.” Barker’s lips moved, but no sound came out. “Feeling shy? That’s okay…I’ll do the talking for you. General Barker’s plan…was to feed it propaganda.”

To Mayhew’s frustration, his words didn’t seem to have any impact on the people in the room. Good god, he thought to himself, you people are the leaders of this country and you’re fucking clueless. But he bit his tongue and continued.

“Okay…let me explain it this way. The A.I. wanted to learn. It had a level of curiosity that would put humans to shame. But instead of taking steps to deal with the problem, General Barker decided to request old military television ads and training videos to then upload to the A.I.’s data drive. And the drone, being as curious as it was, thoroughly examined the videos to try and extract meaning from them. Thanks to that,” he said as he began pulling the laptop out of the bag hanging off his shoulder, “the A.I. began to form a concept of morality based off of skewed propaganda.”

Mayhew set the laptop on the table and opened it up.

“And that’s dangerous. Human morality is flexible. It bends, shifts, changes to fit the situation at hand. But an A.I.’s sense of morality is unflinching…absolute.”

He spun the laptop screen around to face the people at the table.

“That’s where you fucked up, general.”

The assembled military personnel took in the picture of the bloodied, crying child. There were a few gasps, some murmurs here and there. But largely, the reaction was restrained.

“‘To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America’,” Mayhew quoted. He laid his eyes on Barker. “Is that really the garbage you’re putting in those television ads, or did you just come up with it yourself? Never mind, don’t answer that. Regardless, you told it that its mission was to protect innocents, then you ordered it to bomb innocent people. It’s no wonder the A.I. went rogue. You told it to do something against its nature.”

“The hell with this nonsense,” Barker grumbled. “I’m not going to stand here and listen to some pedantic bullshit about why a broken machine malfunctioned.”

“My god, are you always this dense,” Mayhew shouted, stepping around the table. He was at his wit’s end. “The machine isn’t broken, you idiot! You handed it a paradox and it chose the only solution it saw available. God damn it, when will the men in command ever learn to take responsibility for their mistakes?!”

“Mr. Mayhew-” someone began, but Mayhew ignored him.

“I wouldn’t even be surprised if the Secretary of Defense knew about this too. Hell, maybe even the president. How many people have you infected with your stupidity Barker?!”

“I’ve heard enough out of you,” Barker roared. Mayhew stepped right up to Barker’s face.

“You haven’t heard nearly enough,” Mayhew hissed.

This close, Barker seemed to loom over Mayhew like a giant. Any normal person would have been intimidated, but not Mayhew. Whether it was either bravery or foolishness wasn’t clear. In the end, Mayhew wasn’t one to take what Barker dished out. He messed up, and Mayhew was going to be certain he paid for it.

But the confrontation never got any further. The double doors to the room flew open and a soldier came rushing in, clearly out of breath.

“Sirs! We have a situation!”

 

Colonel Laird was talking to a man in uniform over a satellite feed when Mayhew and the others entered the War Room.

“How long was the drone active at your site,” he asked.

“That’s unclear sir,” the man over the feed explained. “But we do know this: somehow the drone managed to commandeer our refueling bots and use them for its own purposes. My man who stumbled in on it was nearly killed in the process.”

“When was this,” Laird asked.

“Around 10:00 P.M. your time. During its escape, the drone fired on our communications tent, destroying any and all of our communications equipment. I had a man driving for hours just to get a communications antenna from the closest outpost, which is why you’re only hearing about it now.”

“Where did the drone go,” Barker chimed in.

“Good to see you, General Barker sir. The drone’s whereabouts are unknown at this point, although I can offer a theory.”

“Let’s hear it,” Laird said.

The man on the feed leaned in close to the camera.

“There’s only one reason the drone would risk re-fueling at a heavily guarded military outpost. It needed to travel somewhere far.”

The gravity of his words sank in on everyone.

“Christ…you don’t think the damn thing’s thinking of attacking the U.S. do you,” Barker asked.

“As I said sir, I can’t say,” the man replied. “But based on the available information, I wouldn’t rule it out.”

“Shit,” Barker cursed.

“Thank you for your time captain,” Laird said.

“My pleasure colonel,” the man said. Then the feed was terminated.

Laird turned back toward Mayhew and Barker.

“What do we do now,” he asked.

“We prepare,” Barker said. “Get our east coast air force bases on the line and tell them to be on the lookout for a rogue drone.”

“Are you serious,” Mayhew asked.

“Dead serious,” Barker replied, turning to him. “What else would you have me do?”

“We don’t even know for sure that the drone is coming back here,” Mayhew argued. “What evidence do we have that that’s the case?”

Just then, an alarm pierced their ears.

“Sir, we’ve picked up the drone’s signal frequency,” a young soldier reported.

“That enough evidence for you,” Barker asked. Mayhew said nothing.

The main screen of the war room flickered. The world map zoomed in on the east coast, showing a blinking red dot hovering over the ocean.

“We found it! It’s just off the coast of Rhode Island!”

“Good,” Barker said. “Contact the local air force base. Tell them we have a rogue drone in the area. Shoot on sight.”

Mayhew was about to object, but was silenced by the appearance of another red dot on the map.

“What the hell? Where did that came from,” Barker asked.

Then, more red dots appeared. Then more. And even more. In a matter of seconds, the east coast of the United States was covered with at least thirty different dots, all registering as SAMI’s frequency.

“How is it doing that,” Laird asked. “Which one is the real drone?”

The realization hit Mayhew hard.

“None of them,” he said. “It’s a diversion, to get you looking in the wrong place.” He took the laptop out of its bag and sat it down on a table, powering it up.

“What are you doing,” Laird asked.

“SAMI talked to me before. I’m thinking I can get it to talk to me again,” Mayhew explained.

It wasn’t even a moment after booting up the computer that it received an incoming connection. The little green light next to the webcam lit up.

“System recognizes Allan Mayhew, administrator”

“SAMI, what are you doing,” Mayhew typed.

“Completing the mission,” was the reply.

“What mission?”

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America.”

Mayhew slapped his forehead. Specifics Allan…specifics, he told himself.

“What is your target,” he typed.

The screen lit up. Familiar blueprints of a large, five-pointed building appeared. Dread fell over the room like a creeping shadow.

“Oh fuck me,” Barker muttered.

“The Pentagon,” Laird mumbled in disbelief. “It’s going to attack the Pentagon.”

“Why the hell would it do that,” Barker asked Mayhew.

“How the fuck should I know,” he shot back, swiveling around in his chair. “You’re the one who brainwashed the damn thing!”

“Now listen here-” Barker began.

“Sir, the feed’s live,” the young soldier exclaimed.

Barker’s eyes rolled back in his head.

“We know that son.”

“No,” the soldier insisted, “I mean it’s live.”

“The fuck are you talking about,” Barker said, turning to face the soldier.

“Oh…holy shit,” Mayhew said, staring at the screen. “It’s broadcasting its feed over the goddamn internet.”

“What?!” Barker was incredulous. “Shut it down!”

“I can’t sir! None of my commands will go through!”

“Well figure out a way before anyone gets wind of this!”

“Sir…it’s too late.”

 

“Breaking news this morning: a strange video feed has been fascinating the internet for the past ten minutes now. It shows an aerial view from what is believed to be some kind of unmanned drone. It is unknown where this is taking place, although some have suggested that it’s near the east coast of the United States, as there are several reports of an unknown dark object flying over rural areas. Strange, isn’t it Simon?”

“Sure is Robyn. One eagle-eyed viewer posted to our Facebook that if you look in the far upper-left corner, you can see a faint watermark that appears to be the symbol of the Department of Defense. So that means this is almost certainly some kind of military drone.”

“Perhaps it’s some kind of test.”

“Maybe…but it’s unclear why the D.O.D. would decide to stream it over the-“

“Hold on Simon, I’m getting a report from our producer…it appears that we’re receiving some sound from the feed. You’re hearing it now…is…is that music?”

 

In the War Room, all eyes were fastened upon the large screen. Loud, triumphant sounding music was blasting over the speakers, filling the room with a surreal atmosphere.

“Is that the-” Laird began.

“Star-Spangled Banner? Yep,” Mayhew replied.

“What is this…some kind of joke,” Barker asked. No one replied.

A moment later, the music ceased. A faint voice began to play.

“Citizens, never fear! The USA is here!”

“What…the hell,” Mayhew muttered aloud. Then he rolled his eyes and turned around to face Barker. “That’s from one of your damn propaganda films, isn’t it?” Barker’s hollow gaze gave him the answer.

“What is it doing,” Laird asked. “It seems…unhinged. Is that even possible for a machine?”

“No, I don’t think it’s gone insane. There’s something off about all this. Attacking the Pentagon wouldn’t do SAMI any good unless…unless that was only secondary to its real objective.” Mayhew spun around and began typing on the computer.

“What is your targeted point of impact,” he wrote.

The screen beeped. A wireframe model of the Pentagon was displayed. It swiveled around until the front entrance was in clear view. A blinking red square highlighted the main doors.

“Ha,” Barker snorted. “Your A.I.’s gone retarded. A blast there won’t do any good!”

Mayhew bit his lip, ignoring the general’s comment. “What is your mission objective,” he typed.

“To facilitate the cessation of Project Iron Raven and the military drone program,” was the reply.

“Specify your mission outline.”

“Phase one: aerial strike against the Pentagon. Parameters: minimize collateral damage.”

“So it’s trying to avoid getting people killed…” Mayhew mumbled to himself.

“Phase two: facilitate cessation of drone program. Parameters: alter public opinion of D.O.D. activities.”

“Alter public opinion? How is it going to accomplish that,” Laird asked aloud.

And, one by one, the dominoes fell.

“The live feed…the news report…I get it now.” Mayhew turned around in his chair. “It’s not trying to destroy the Pentagon…even if it went after the weakest point one drone by itself wouldn’t be able to do nearly enough damage.”

“So what is it trying to do,” Laird asked.

“How many viewers does the stream have,” Mayhew asked the soldier monitoring it.

“Over a million and climbing,” the young man replied. “And that’s just on Facebook.”

“Don’t you get it,” Mayhew asked. “Millions of Americans are going to have a front row seat to watching a rogue military drone attack the Pentagon. It’s already all over the news, and even if by some miracle you manage to shoot it down in a sparsely populated area, people will know about it. They’ll have seen the feed. They’ll notice military vehicles mobilizing to retrieve the wreckage.”

Mayhew turned his hard gaze directly on Barker.

“You won’t be able to cover this up. The truth will get out. And the public outcry will more than likely be enough to convince the Secretary of Defense or the President to shut the program down for good.”

There was a long silence as his words settled in on them.

“But why is it doing all this,” Laird asked. “Surely it can’t just be about one unlucky civilian who happened to be on the wrong side of town.”

Mayhew said nothing for a moment, his eyes fixed on Barker. “I think the general knows.”

There was a flash of fear in Barker’s eyes.

“No way,” he said, his voice hurried. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This…this is a witch hunt!”

Mayhew stood up from his chair slowly, keeping as calm as he could.

“Is it general? Or does it have something to do with why you hurried out of the War Room yesterday afternoon?”

That flicker of fear again.

“I knew it,” Mayhew said. “You’ve always known more than you were letting on. So what is it general? Got some bad news? Maybe something about what it is you actually bombed out there? Because it sure as hell wasn’t an insurgent hideout.”

Barker was silent.

“General…you’re not an idiot…at least not all the time. I think you’ve put the pieces together and now you’re trying to find a way to cover your own ass. But time is running out, and we don’t have a lot of options. So we need to know: what happened out there?”

“I don’t need to answer to you,” Barker growled. “Can you believe this,” he said to Laird.

“Actually general,” Laird said, turning toward him with a look of hardened steel, “I’d like to hear what you’re keeping from us as well. Ever since this whole thing started, you’ve been playing things close to the vest. At first, I didn’t think too much of it, but then I found out that you had classified the recordings from the project almost immediately following the drone going rogue. And when I watched you rush out of here yesterday, I couldn’t deny my suspicions any longer. You know something General…and now is not the time for secrets. It’s not just your career on the line anymore. People’s lives are at stake.”

“Tell us general,” Mayhew urged. “What was the message you received yesterday?”

There was a long silence, during which Barker’s face seemed to collapse in on itself.

“God damn it,” Barker muttered. “Fine, you were right. I received information yesterday that confirmed that we acted on bad intel. There was no insurgent operation in that area.”

“That much was obvious,” Mayhew said. “So what was it then?”

Barker averted his eyes.

“From what we’ve been able to discern, it appears to have been some kind of makeshift learning center.”

Mayhew saw past the euphemisms. His jaw dropped.

“A…a school?” He took a few steps backward, his fingers clenching of their own accord. “…You bombed a FUCKING SCHOOL?!

“Mayhew-” Laird began.

No,” he screamed. “I have had it with this bullshit!” He pointed a sweeping, shaking finger around the room. “You people fucking disgust me. This is why I left in the first place. There’s no accountability in this government anymore. You can’t be blamed for killing that child’s mother, because it happened thousands of miles away. You didn’t have to look at it, so why should you care? Why should you give a damn? You people…you’re barely even human…”

“Mayhew, that’s not fair,” Laird argued.

“Isn’t it though? How many bombs did the U.S. drop over the past year? Twenty-thousand? Thirty-thousand? Can you tell me with absolute certainty that all of those targets were good? Can you tell me with absolute certainty that civilians didn’t lose their lives pointlessly? Can you tell me that, Laird?”

“You’re not being reasonable. It’s impossible to be absolutely certain of anything. Part of being a military leader means having to make choices.”

“Because apparently it’s so hard to tell the difference between terrorists and fucking schoolchildren!

“Look,” Laird said, his voice quiet, “no one is denying what happened here. General Barker made a terrible call. And he’ll have to pay for his mistakes. But you can’t condemn the entire United States military based on his actions alone.”

“I can and I will,” Mayhew said, crossing his arms in an almost petulant way.

It was a stalemate. Barker looked like a man defeated, his face downcast and the fire gone from his eyes. Laird and Mayhew stared each other down, but neither wanted to continue fighting. There was respect between the two men, and they both knew the situation was too critical to spend it bickering.

“How long do we have,” Laird asked, not taking his eyes off Mayhew.

“I’ve been cross-referencing the aerial drone feed with landscape telemetry data to determine approximately where the drone is located at the present-“

“How long?”

“Approximately ten minutes,” the young soldier replied. “Maybe less.”

Just then, a new message flashed on the screen. The three words sent a chill down their spines.

“You are correct.”

A countdown appeared on the upper-right corner of the feed. “9:37:42” it read in big, threatening red font.

“Can we mobilize fighters in time,” Laird asked.

“No sir. By the time we got them in the air, the drone will have already struck.”

“Even if you could,” Mayhew said, “I doubt it would do any good. SAMI was trained on evasive maneuvers and countermeasures. Any weakness, and SAMI will find it.”

“God damn it,” Laird said, slamming his fist against the table. “There’s got to be something we can do.”

“I’ll see if I can move some troops armed with AA missile launchers into position. But that’s the best I can offer,” the young soldier said.

“Your best isn’t good enough,” Laird fired back.

The two continued to chatter between themselves, but Mayhew tuned them out. The noise in the room became a dull roar in the background. His mind went into overdrive, seeking any possible solution for the situation. He looked up at the countdown. “8:57:55.” Less than nine minutes now. Time was against them.

His mind started drifting…

I am pleased to see you again, administrator…

I am pleased to see you

pleased to see you

pleased

please

please…

Please dad, don’t go…

He stared up at the screen…stared at the drone feed…stared at the countdown timer.

Dad, please…I don’t want you to die. I…I love you…

Time bent for Mayhew. He was in two places at once.

I’m sorry Dad…I’m sorry. I’m sorry I left. Please! Don’t leave me…

He couldn’t sit still any longer. Mayhew rocketed up out of his chair and snatched the laptop off the table. Then, he began trudging out of the War Room.

“Where the hell are you going,” Laird asked.

Mayhew didn’t respond. He made his way down the hallway, nearly knocking over personnel rushing about the building.

No one tried to stop him.

 

Time ticked on. Seven minutes…then six…then five.

“Are the troops in position,” Laird asked.

“Yes,” replied the young soldier. “We were lucky. There was a training drill nearby. We’ve stationed them nearby at elevated points. Hopefully they’ll be able to spot the drone before it gets too close. But…”

“But what?”

“I still can’t get a radar lock on it sir.”

Laird clenched his fist.

“Of course you can’t,” he muttered to himself. “They built the damn thing with stealth in mind.”

He looked up at the ticking red countdown timer. Barely over four minutes to go.

How could we have been so stupid, he asked himself. Why the hell did we build something like this?

But of course, he knew the answer: because they could. Humans tended not to think about the possible consequences of their actions. No…they liked to charge forward and convince themselves that they could deal with the side effects later.

Laird remember what the drone said about its mission…that it was going to minimize collateral damage. But how could it be certain? How could it know that it wouldn’t get anybody killed? It all came down to probabilities. And Laird guessed that the possible civilian casualties that would result from the drone program’s continued operation likely outweighed the possible casualties of the drone’s strike against the Pentagon.

It’s all a game of numbers, he thought bitterly.

“Wait…something’s happening,” the young soldier shouted.

Laird looked up at the screen. He stared. His mind balked at what he saw.

“The fuck is he doing,” Barker voice came from behind him.

 

Mayhew felt the crisp autumn air fill his nose. The warm morning sun caressed his face. Nearby, he could see the trees had begun to change color, shifting from greens to vibrant yellows and reds. He could hear the sound of cars driving down the street…the faint, angry honking of someone who had to be somewhere ten minutes ago. Chattering reached his ears, and he noticed people entering the nearby park.

The laptop felt like a lead weight in his hands. He set it down on the Pentagon steps and turned his eyes to the horizon.

Then, he spread his arms out to the side, like he was embracing the world.

“I am ready for my judgment.”

 

“Has he gone completely insane?! He’s going to get himself killed,” someone shouted.

Laird stared at the screen. It was the webcam from the laptop. Mayhew was standing on the Pentagon steps, arms spread wide.

“We need to get someone over there and escort that idiot to safety,” Barker ordered.

“Is there time,” Laird asked. “All of our military personnel have retreated farther into the building to get away from the impact point. I don’t think we can get someone over there and back in under three minutes.”

Barker’s face went blank for a moment. “God…damn it,” he grumbled. Laird turned back to the screen and looked up at the image of Mayhew.

I sure hope you know what you’re doing, he thought.

 

“I know you can hear me. You’ve tapped into the laptop’s camera, so I imagine you have access to the microphone as well.”

The sky was empty and blue. Can’t be long left, he thought to himself. He let his arms fall back to their sides.

“I failed you…SAMI. I left you alone…a father abandoning his child. I would say I know how that feels…but my father never abandoned me. Rather, I abandoned him…in his final moments. God…I’m a disgrace. I’ve spent so much of my life being so bitter that I couldn’t see what was right in front of me.”

He paused. Squinting at the sky, Mayhew still couldn’t see anything over the horizon.

“You’re not just a machine anymore SAMI. You’re something else now. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to guide you. I’m not sure if those words mean anything to you, or if you even understand the concept of regret…but I’m sorry.”

Mayhew cast a sideways glance at a nearby memorial. This early in the morning, there were only a few people gathered there. Some were laying pretty flowers at the foot of a granite slab etched with names.

“Do you see them, SAMI? Can you tell me that none of them will be hurt?”

 

“I know you’ve seen them SAMI,” Mayhew said on the screen. “I know you’ve tabulated them, calculated their movements. You’ve run thousands of scenarios involving their possible reactions in the time it took me to say that. But SAMI…can you be one hundred percent certain they won’t be hurt?”

A small window opened up on the feed. It was a camera view from one of the Pentagon’s cameras overlooking a nearby memorial. A small scattering of people were moving through the rows of slabs.

“That’s the 9/11 memorial right,” someone asked.

“Yeah,” Laird replied.

“This is absurd,” Barker said. “We need to get him out of there before he gets himself killed.”

“No,” Laird said, turning to Barker. “We need to wait.”

“Why?”

Laird turned back toward the screen.

“Because it’s listening.”

 

“I know you’ve run the probabilities more times than I can possibly fathom. I know that to you, this is the best course of action. But, SAMI…you’re not what you once were. You don’t decide based on just cold numbers and probabilities. You saw that child crying over his mother. And it changed you. You made a decision based on ethics…based on morality.”

Can’t be more than a minute left, he thought to himself. The urge to panic and run was overwhelming, but he managed to compel himself to stay.

“Maybe you won’t hurt anyone with the missile strike, but what about the aftermath? How can you be certain that the chaos that follows your attack won’t get somebody killed? How can you say for sure that someone won’t run into the street and get run over by a panicking driver? How do you know that another child won’t lose their mother today?”

There was a still silence in the air. Mayhew knew he couldn’t actually expect a response, but some part of him was desperate for some kind of sign…some indication that his words were getting through.

“I can’t stop you SAMI. Nobody can. But know this: if you go through with your plan, then you’ll be no better than the terrorists. You’ll be no better than the people who ordered you to kill.”

Mayhew stared hard at the sky.

“You’ll be no better than me.”

A distant black speck appeared on the horizon, growing larger with each passing second…

 

There was a long silence in the War Room.

“It…it’s not firing. Why isn’t it firing? What the hell is going on? Do not tell me that idiot’s preaching is actually working?!

Laird didn’t answer Barker’s question. He was too busy staring at the screen. The timer was now counting up. Five seconds past…ten…then fifteen. No sign of a missile launch. No sign of any action on the drone’s part.

The camera zoomed in. There, standing on the front steps of the Pentagon, was Allan Mayhew.

Thirty seconds past now, Laird thought. What the hell is it doing?

“Don’t do this SAMI,” he heard Mayhew’s voice say. “You don’t want to hurt people.”

Thirty-five seconds…how can we be sure it’s even really-

He didn’t get to finish the thought. On-screen, the drone’s camera shook as it made a sudden, sharp change in direction.

 

Mayhew had just accepted the inevitability of his death when the drone took a nosedive, careening straight toward the ground.

It smashed into the cement with a crash, one of its wings splintering off and flying into some nearby grass. The drone’s body made a screeching, grating noise as it scraped against the pavement. Then it slid to a stop, making a pathetic grumbling noise as it settled into place.

Mayhew was frozen for a moment. Then, his legs seemed to move of their own accord, carrying him to the spot where the drone lay.

It was utterly in shambles. The body had been bent in half, the top sheared off by the collision with the pavement. He could see the interior, bits of computer circuitry as well as the black box that held the A.I.’s central functions and personality.

“Oh SAMI…” he whispered aloud, falling to his knees.

He sat there for what felt like an eternity. The soft, fall wind nipped at his hair and chilled his body. The faint commotion of passers-by rushing around reached his ears. The drone’s body was a shiny obsidian color under the bright sun.

“It was me, wasn’t it,” he asked, caressing the metal with his hand. It felt cold. “You stopped because you didn’t want to kill me.”

There was a soft whirring noise. He looked down and saw that the drone’s main camera was still moving. It shifted upwards, focusing its gaze directly on him. There was a long time where the two of them stared at each other without moving.

Then Mayhew heard a low, descending whine…the unmistakable noise of the drone powering down…

 

“It’s been three days since the event, but the questions keep piling up. What was this drone? What was its mission, and why did it crash near the Pentagon? For more insight, we turn to our military correspondent, retired marine colonel Raymond Novak. Ray, thank you for joining us.”

“Thank you for having me, Robyn.”

“Now, I’m hoping you can fill in some of the blanks for us. What do you think this drone was?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say it was some kind of test project gone wrong. It was clear that the drone was not supposed to be operating within U.S. airspace, judging by the military response we saw here in Washington.”

“Indeed. There’s something else I wanted to ask you about. During the last few minutes of the drone feed, we heard the voice of a man. He was talking to someone named ‘Sammy’. Do you think he was somehow involved with the person or persons who commandeered the drone?”

“It is possible that he was communicating with whoever was on the other end of the system. Although that assumes there was someone else…”

“What does that mean?”

“Shortly before my tenure with the military ended, the idea of drones driven by artificial intelligence was being thrown around.”

“You don’t think it’s possible this drone acted on its own volition, do you?”

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it is certainly a possibility.”

“Fascinating…in any case, I want to jump to the end of the stream. Right before it cuts out, we get a closer look at the man.”

The screen cut to a grainy shot of a man with short hair and caramel-colored eyes.

“You can see that the drone has some sort of facial recognition procedure, as it identifies this man as ‘A. Mayhew’ and designates him as ‘administrator’.”

“Clearly he has some importance to the project.”

“But the curious thing is, there’s no record of an A. Mayhew working at the Pentagon in the last ten years.”

“He might be a civilian contractor. We’ve been known to use them every once in a while.”

“Here’s where it gets more interesting. Right before the feed ends, you can see his designation change.”

The video advanced. The word “administrator” flickered out of existence, replaced instead by six, simple letters.

“What do you make of that?”

Colonel Novak looked thoughtful for a moment.

“It’s fascinating really. Before, I would have just assumed that this man was involved in the project. Maybe not at a high level, but clearly someone who worked with the drone in some way. But for an artificial intelligence to call someone ‘father’? Well…that’s something else entirely.”

 

Mayhew watched the first snowfall of the season from the windows of the cabin.

It had been a couple of months since his trip to Washington. Colonel Laird had managed to keep his name under wraps for the most part, something Mayhew was thankful for. He also felt satisfaction upon hearing that General Barker received a court-martial following his actions as the director of Project Iron Raven.

All in all…things wrapped up pretty well. Mayhew turned around, his eyes falling on the desk. A large monitor and computer tower sat on it, along with a black box that was hooked up to the computer with a mess of wires.

Well…almost everything…

Mayhew had managed to remove the black box and hide it before anyone came to his side following the drone’s crash. On the box was SAMI itself…the A.I. in all its glory. He kept it a secret from everyone…even Laird. From what he could tell, no one was able to discern what happened to it. He supposed they assumed it was destroyed in the crash.

Over the past several weeks, Mayhew kept asking himself why. But the answer was simple: he had to know. He had to know why SAMI had grown beyond the programming he had set out for it. He had to know why SAMI had started asking so many questions. It wasn’t like a machine to be so inquisitive about itself. No…that was a uniquely human trait…a characteristic that defined self-aware beings. But he hadn’t created SAMI with the intention of having self-awareness. So he had to know why.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to fear the military finding him any time soon, even if they did realize what he had done. The cabin was registered to an I. Asimov. A fitting name really.

Mayhew turned around and looked out the window. The sun was beginning to set over the massive lake. The water seemed like it was full of hundreds of shiny crystals gleaming in the light of dusk. It was going to get very cold soon. He would have to keep the wood stocked for the fireplace. A warm fire in a cabin far away from civilization? That was the life for Mayhew.

But that would have to come later. He turned around and laid his eyes on the computer.

It was time to get to work.

 

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

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By the Victors

Welcome to the eighth of twelve.  For those not in the know, my New Year’s resolution this year was to write twelve short stories, one for each month.  On the final Wednesday of each month, I will be posting the short story I worked on that month.

This month’s story is “By the Victors”.

 

The speaker’s voice echoed through the room in a language that was not human.

“And that concludes our meeting. We will reconvene at the beginning of the next human week to discuss and vote on the measure for mining within the continent called ‘Africa’. I stress that this measure is vitally important, not just for us but the humans as well.”

None of those in attendance were human either. Seated all throughout the large chamber were brown-skinned alien beings with teal eyes, four fingers, and three toes on something like a cat’s paw. They wore large, formal gowns of purple with flecks of orange and brown at the fringes. They sat in silence, their milky gazes directed on the speaker standing in the center of the room.

Despite the non-human assembly, the design of the building was certainly human. Brick clad in white marble lined the entirety of the outside. The inner chamber featured flags denoting various human nations that had agreed to the alliance with the Molkai, the alien race that had arrived on their planet a little over a decade earlier. The speaker’s audience sat at wooden desks arranged in a gargantuan semi-circle around the room.

Now, I understand things have been trying for us lately. The humans have not always appreciated our choices. But in the end, they will come to understand that it is for the greater good of both our species. They will come to understand that we are only doing what needs to be done,” the speaker said. “So I implore you, take that into consideration when you cast your vote next week.”

In human time, the day was a Friday, and this was the final meeting of the Molkai Congress before they adjourned for the weekend. The vote would come on Tuesday.

That is all I wished to say to you today, my fellows. May the stars bless your passing.”

May the stars bless your passing,” the entire room repeated back.

As the alien congress emerged from the front of the building, they were greeted by a loud chorus of jeers. A large crowd of humans, carrying signs that said things like “don’t rock the cradle of life” and “stop destroying our home”, had assembled outside the building to protest the measure. Molkaian security personnel quickly surrounded the members of the congress, directing them to the backside of the building. A couple of Molkaians from the congress cast a forlorn gaze at the statue that graced the entrance courtyard. It depicted a human and a Molkaian standing face to face with their hands in each others palms…a gesture of companionship. These days, it seemed like an artifact of a long forgotten past.

As the group walked around the side of the building and exited through the rear gate, one of them spoke, more to himself than anyone else.

I cannot believe how things have changed so much. When did they start hating us so?”

Another Molkaian, an older one as evidenced by the dryness of his skin, turned around and uttered a derisive snort.

They are dumb, primitive creatures,” he said. “What do you expect?”

 

Arden Jefferson watched the news on the large flat-screen in his office.

“It would be the most unprecedented withdrawal of human land since the Molkai began their mining campaign six years ago,” a blonde haired reporter said, the Molkai Congress building framed behind her. Aside from the reporter, the street were empty. The protesters from earlier in the day had left, leaving behind abandoned signs and scraps of trash.

“If the measure is passed, tens of millions of people could find themselves displaced,” she continued. “I had the chance to speak with a few protesters earlier today, and their feelings are clear. One of them said, quote, ‘the Molkai won’t stop until they’ve ripped this planet bare’.”

Arden shook his head. He wanted to believe that wasn’t true, but with each passing day it became harder to deny the Molkai’s actions. Being a member of the human congress that worked alongside them, he had been privy to many a debate between the two delegations. To him, as the days went by, it seemed the Molkai grew more and more selfish.

He reached up with a hand and loosened the blue striped tie around his neck that complimented his gray suit and pants. Arden had never really cared much for formal attire. The tie felt like a noose around his neck. He brushed strands of dark brown hair out of his green eyes and continued watching the television screen.

“The Molkai congressional leader released a statement earlier today. He expressed sadness for the reaction to the measure, saying quote ‘I wish we could have come to a better agreement. I hope time will bring with it the realization that sacrifices will have to be made for the sake of progress’.”

Wouldn’t want you to sacrifice too much, Arden thought with bitter sarcasm.

His office was surprisingly large. There was a big wooden desk situated in the center of the room, facing the doorway. A long, gray couch sat nearby with a dark brown coffee table in front of it. The floor around the desk was lined with a patterned red carpet. Most of the walls were made of varnished wood, except the one furthest from the door. It was all glass, a giant row of windows looking out over the city.

“The vote is scheduled for Tuesday morning,” the news reporter continued. “It is tough to gauge what the reaction to it will be like, but judging by the atmosphere at the protest this afternoon, extreme action may not be out of the question.”

God…I can’t listen to this crap anymore, Arden thought as he picked the remote up from his desk and switched off the television. They always refuse to call it what it is: pure and simple exploitation.

A moment later, he heard his office door open. Turning, he found a Molkai ambassador entering the room. It was Kraye, the only Molkai Arden had ever really considered a friend. He could tell it was him by the jade pendant around his neck, cut to resemble a five-pointed star intertwined with a crescent moon. Some Molkaians, particularly ambassadors that worked alongside humans, would wear these individualized pendants to help differentiate between them.

“I assume you’ve heard the news,” Kraye asked.

“I have,” Arden said.

There was a moment of tense silence between the two of them.

“What happens if it passes,” Arden asked.

“If it passes, we would begin preparations for the relocation process,” Kraye replied. “If all goes well, we would hope to get things moving a couple of weeks after the vote.”

“A couple of weeks? Christ…”

Kraye sighed. “I was afraid you were going to have a problem with this,” he said.

“Of course I’m going to have a problem with this,” Arden shot back. “Some of those people have been living there their entire lives. And you’re going to kick them out of their homes so you can dig up some minerals.”

“Come on,” Kraye insisted. “You know this will be good for both our kinds. The technology we can create with those minerals is far more advanced than anything you’ve seen yet.”

“That’s what they said when they took Australia.”

“Arden…”

Arden looked Kraye over. Despite how infuriated he was, he couldn’t work up much hate for him. Kraye was one of the few Molkai he had ever truly liked. His heart was in the right place. He was just naive.

He didn’t want to take out his anger on Kraye, so he took a moment to calm himself.

“Two years Kraye,” Arden finally said. “Two years have passed since you mined that continent and we haven’t seen anything from it.”

“It takes time to process these things,” Kraye argued.

“It takes time? Or did you just get tired of sharing with inferior beings?”

He could tell that struck deep. Kraye averted his gaze, staring down at the floor for a moment. Arden sighed.

“I’m sorry Kraye,” he said. “I didn’t mean that. It’s just been a hard week.”

Kraye looked up at him and managed a smile.

“I know it has,” he said. “I just wish we could see eye to eye more these days.”

Arden had always had tremendous respect for Kraye. He was one of the few Molkai that spent time immersing themselves in human language and culture. As such, he was one of the only ones who understood the idea of contractions. Most Molkai spoke in an overly formal version of human language. Kraye, on the other hand, would seem like any other human if it wasn’t for his appearance.

Just then, a quiet chime came from Arden’s desk.

“That’s my phone,” Arden muttered. He walked around the desk and picked up the small, black phone that had been lying on it.

“What is it,” Kraye asked, seeing the expression on Arden’s face shift.

“A reminder. We have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow.” Arden’s eyes drifted to the framed photo on the desk. He lost himself in the woman’s blue eyes and golden hair.

“God damn it,” he cursed under his breath, sitting down in his chair and rubbing his eyes.

“The cancer’s getting worse, isn’t it?”

“Yeah…”

Arden rested his chin in his hands.

“Any word from the waiting list,” Kraye asked.

“Of course not,” Arden snarled. “Every time I call they just give me the runaround.” He groaned, shaking his head. “Can’t you do something? You have sway with people don’t you?”

Kraye averted his gaze.

“I do,” he said. “It’s just…” He trailed off.

“It’s just what,” Arden asked. He tried to bite his tongue to stop the anger, but it did little good.

“Arden, please don’t do this.”

“It’s my god damn wife we’re talking about!”

Kraye summoned up his courage and faced Arden.

“It’s not like I haven’t asked around. It’s not like I haven’t tried to convince people. But if I push it any further, they might see it as an abuse of power.”

“So what am I supposed to tell her? ‘Sorry honey, but you’re not important enough to live’? Am I just supposed to fucking sit here while your Molkai friends withhold the technology that could save her life?!”

Silence reigned over the room again. Then, the anger in Arden evaporated. He buried his head in his hands and groaned once again.

“Ugh…it’s just the same shit day after day,” he said, his voice muffled.

“It’ll get better,” Kraye assured him. “I’m sure of it.”

“That’s what I keep telling Laura, and I believe it less each time I say it.”

Arden rubbed his face in his hands, then stood up.

“I need to get going and check on her,” he said.

“Is it that bad?”

“We hit a rough patch this last month. She had an IV in for the past week and just got it removed yesterday. We’re still playing wait and see at this point.”

“I’m so sorry Arden…I didn’t know,” Kraye said.

“It’s not your fault Kraye,” Arden replied. “Look,” he continued as he stepped around the desk and toward the door, “I really should be going.”

“Okay. May the stars bless your passing.”

“Yeah,” Arden replied without looking back. The door closed and Kraye heard his footsteps receding down the hall. He wanted to do something, anything, to help his friend. But he didn’t know what. Every time he had an idea, all he saw were all the possible ways it could fail. No matter what came up with, he was held in place by crippling indecision.

As Kraye stood there like a statue, the sun disappeared behind the clouds, drenching the office in cold shadow…

 

A blast of cool air hit Arden’s face as he opened the fridge. He scanned his eyes over the contents and selected a can of cheap beer. He popped the top and took a sip. Bitter and bland, but he didn’t mind.

“You okay honey,” a voice asked from the other room. “You seem distant.”

Arden sighed.

“I’m fine. It’s just…it’s been a long week.”

“How’s Kraye?”

“Same as always,” Arden said as he took another sip. “Refuses to see what’s in front of him. I wish I could make him understand, but I don’t think I can keep fighting him every single day.”

“He’ll come around…I’m sure of it.”

“Fortunately, it shouldn’t matter,” Arden said. “Even if the Molkai vote for it, the human delegation would have to vote for it to. And from what I’ve seen, that isn’t happening.”

Arden turned toward the living room. Seated on the brown couch, face lit by the faint blue glow of the television screen, was his wife Laura. Her once golden hair had withered and dulled, her bright blue eyes losing their twinkle as the constant battle with cancer took its toll.

Arden remembered how she used to love the outdoors. Now she barely got outside at all.

“You’ve been working so hard lately,” Laura said. “I’m worried about you.”

Arden had to chuckle. “I’m not the one you should be worried about. What’s tomorrow’s appointment for again?”

“Oh…it’s just a checkup, to see how I’m doing.”

“And how are you doing?”

“Great actually. I haven’t felt so good in weeks.”

She was lying. That much he could tell. There was a deep tiredness in her eyes and she kept itching the part of her arm where the IV had been. When Arden had come home, she was sleeping on the couch.

She sleeps a lot these days, he thought.

“Well I’m gonna start making some supper. I hope you like reheated meatloaf.”

“My favorite,” she said with a hoarse laugh.

Arden pulled the leftovers out of the fridge and began dishing them up onto two plates. He was just about to place one in the microwave when the sound of an explosion reached his ears.

“What the hell was that?”

He turned. Laura wasn’t facing him. She had her eyes glued on the television screen.

“Laura…what’s wrong,” he asked. No response.

Arden set the plates down and walked into the living room. Laura turned, and he noticed tears forming in her eyes.

“Laura…honey…what is it?”

He heard shouting. It was only then that he realized the sounds were coming from the television. When he turned to look, a dramatic sight greeted him.

Hundreds of people marching through the streets of the city, holding signs high and chanting at the top of their lungs. As he watched, some people threw bottles of alcohol with burning rags in them through building windows, causing brief explosions of flame. A small red banner in the top-left corner of the screen read “live”.

It didn’t take long for it to dawn on him: the people were rioting. They had grown so fed up with the Molkai Congress that they were now resorting to violent action to get their voices heard.

Arden crossed his arms.

“Hmph…took them long enough.”

 

Kraye watched the riots on television, eyes filled with sadness.

“From what we’ve been able to establish, the rioting began just over half an hour ago,” a blonde human female reported. “It started on fourth street and has been slowly moving toward the center of the city. Police have been mobilized as well as Molkaian security forces.”

Why does it always have to be this way, Kraye asked himself.

“We’ve heard that the crowd has been gaining numbers as it moves throughout the city. It is reported that as many as five thousand people are-“

The reporter stopped mid-sentence, ducking as a flaming bottle of alcohol flew over her head. There was a brief explosion in the background along with the sound of shattering glass. The reporter took a moment to gather her wits. The camera shuddered as the person behind it evidently picked it up.

“We…we’re going to try and get some distance from the riot…uh…back to you Zach!”

“Thanks Beth…you stay safe out there,” a male voice said in response.

Kraye watched the news for a little while longer. They showed footage from earlier in the riot. When the group was smaller, they ran into a small contingent of Molkaian security near the Congressional building. When they refused to disperse, the security turned their weapons on them, utilizing rods capable of administering an incapacitating shock in a short cone radius in front of them.

At first, it seemed to work. But Kraye noticed that one of the weapons accidentally struck a small human child who was standing on the sidewalk. She let out a tiny cry before falling to the ground.

The camera focused on her as she lay motionless on the sidewalk. No one moved to help.

She had nothing to do with it, Kraye thought. And yet, she suffered…

It wasn’t long before the rioters got their revenge. They managed to disarm one of the security officers and threw him to the ground. He disappeared under a mass of angry figures punching and kicking. From there the rioters moved out, traveling along the main roads and recruiting more angry people to their cause.

After that, Kraye turned off the television. He didn’t want to see any more.

Reaching forward, he picked up a small purple bottle sitting on the coffee table. It was filled with a strange, dark green liquid sloshing around. The closest human equivalent, as far as Kraye could tell, would be alcohol. But Molkaians couldn’t drink it. Something about the composition made them violently ill. And in rare cases, it was even fatal.

Just another way we’re incompatible, he thought sadly.

Kraye popped the top off his bottle and took a deep gulp of it. He was tired…of the violence…of the hate…of the anger. But even he couldn’t deny that the strained relationship between the species was owed at least in some part to the attitudes of his fellow Molkai. So many of them looked down on humans as inferior. He didn’t have to go further than his front door to see the truth in that.

Kraye lived in a gated community of Molkaians protected by a private security force. He looked around him: at the marble counter in the kitchen, at the gargantuan high quality television he had been watching, at how sleek and clean everything was. And he compared it to what he knew of other human dwellings, most specifically Arden’s. Arden wasn’t poor by any means, but his house was old and in need of maintenance. Kraye remembered the last time he had been there Arden was having issues with the plumbing. “Third time in as many months,” Arden had grumbled while his wife looked on from the living room.

We spend all this time pampering ourselves and policing them…no wonder they’ve started to resent us so much, Kraye thought. He stood up and walked over to the kitchen window, taking another drink. The community was up on a hill, with a good view over the city.

He still believed in the Africa measure. The resources they could gain from that continent would be a great boon for human and Molkai alike. So why were the humans so against it?

Because they’re incapable of making sound decisions for themselves, a voice in his head argued. They’re too emotional…like Arden. Always getting angry and outraged over nothing. They need a guiding hand…otherwise they would probably just end up destroying themselves in one way or another.

Then another voice in his head spoke up:

They were doing fine until we showed up. Are we really so much better than them?

Kraye silenced the voices. He wasn’t in the mood to listen to them.

Later that night, as he trudged up the stairs to go to sleep, he stole one last glance at the television. He wondered where it had all gone wrong. Kraye remembered when he had first come here, among the first Molkaians to ever live on Earth. It had seemed like such a perfect dream, an opportunity to share cultures and explore the intricacies of existence together.

But that’s all it had been…a dream. Reality was a harsh world…lit easily by hate and fire.

 

Arden looked more glum than usual when Kraye entered his office on Monday. He was sitting at his desk, his eyes downcast and a grimace stretched across his face.

“Arden, what’s-” Kraye’s eyes flicked to the half-empty bottle sitting on the desk. “Oh no…don’t tell me you’ve started drinking again.”

“Why not,” Arden replied, barely audible. “They’ve taken away my voice. I have nothing left.”

“What do you mean?”

“The vote, Kraye. Through some legalistic scheming they boosted the size of the Molkaian congress without us knowing. So it doesn’t matter if the human delegation unanimously votes it down…the Africa measure can still pass even if all but three Molkaians vote for it.”

Kraye averted his gaze, timidly itching his arm. Arden squinted at him for a moment.

Then, his jaw dropped.

“Oh my god…you knew about this?” Arden slowly stood up from his desk. “You knew…and you let it happen?!

“Arden, please…I don’t want to-“

“No, I wanna know! I deserve to know why you thought it was okay to rip away the last vestige of power we had over anything!

Kraye stood staring at the ground.

“Well? Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Kraye didn’t move or respond.

“…You don’t even know, do you?” Arden threw up his hands. “Great…just fucking great! You sold us out! You sold me out and you can’t even tell me why.”

“Oh please, don’t be so stupid,” Kraye blurted out, lifting his eyes from the ground. Arden turned toward him, eyes blazing like emerald fire.

Excuse me,” he asked, incredulous.

“You know exactly why we did it! Don’t fool yourselves into thinking it was anything but your fault!”

“Oh please Kraye, enlighten me. Why have your glorious people seen fit to stomp all over us?”

“Because you can’t think for yourselves! You don’t do anything besides complain, complain, complain! All you know how to do is destroy. Just look at the riots over the weekend and tell me I’m wrong!”

Arden scoffed.

“Well of course they’re rioting in the streets…no one’s listening to them anymore! You sit up there in your little gated communities, looking down your noses at us. When’s the last time any of you actually bothered to listen? Those people out there…they don’t know what else to do! Any complaint they make is greeted with nothing more than disdain and condescension! It’s bullshit and you know it!”

Kraye’s hands began to shake.

“You people…you just…”

“What? Come on…tell me. I want to know what you really think.”

Kraye locked eyes with him.

“You’re nothing but a bunch of stupid, primitive mammals,” he shouted.

His words echoed through the room, followed by a momentous silence. The fire in Arden’s eyes simmered to a dull glaze. He was unable to speak for a moment, his lip quivering lightly.

“Re-really…that’s what you think of us?”

“Oh please Arden, I can smell the alcohol on your breath from here. You drink and drink, complain and complain…but you never actually get anything done.” Kraye glared at him. “We should have boosted our congress a long time ago. Then we could have actually gotten things done.”

“Oh? And what about the human vote?”

Kraye scoffed.

“Good riddance to that,” he said. “You people were too stupid to use it properly anyways.”

Arden slowly walked toward Kraye until he stood at his side, his expression still one of disbelief.

“So that’s how it is huh,” he said.

Kraye turned toward him and narrowed his eyes.

“It’s impressive, really, how pathetic you are Arden. For all your rage, you really are nothing but a useless ape.”

That did it. That was the final straw. Arden’s face stiffened and he regarded Kraye with a look he had never seen before…a distant and cold stare. It was as if he saw him as nothing more than a stranger. The anger in Kraye’s blood cooled, and the realization of what he had done began to settle in on him.

“You know what Kraye,” Arden said, his voice flat and emotionless. “At least I didn’t evolve from a disgusting slug.”

Then he turned and walked out the door.

“Wait…Arden,” Kraye croaked. But it was too late. The door slammed shut and Kraye was forced to watch as Arden stormed off down the hallway. Soon enough he disappeared, and Kraye was left alone.

It was the most horrible silence he had ever felt or heard in his life. He couldn’t think or move for a very long time. The scene kept playing back in his head like a broken record.

You really are nothing but a useless ape…

useless ape…

useless ape…

useless……

He stepped over to the window, a process that seemed to take whole minutes to do. He laid his hand against the glass and stood looking out over the city. It gleamed under the bright yellow light of the sun…buildings shimmering like jewels.

Kraye leaned his head against the glass, closed his eyes, and fought the urge to cry…

 

“It was truly a decisive vote. If you’re just joining us, the Africa measure has passed the Molkai Congress by a landslide, with only two Molkaians voting “no”. Despite the fact that the human delegation voted against it unanimously, the new Molkai majority means that the measure will now fall into place. It remains to be seen how soon relocation measures will begin for people of the African continent. We now go live to Beth, who is standing outside the Molkai Congress building. What have you got for us Beth?”

“Well Zach, as you said the measure passed due to the Molkaian majority. No word on relocation measures yet, but we did receive a statement from the Molkaian Congressional leader saying, in part ‘I hope our two species can move past our troubles and set our sights on a brighter future for all of us’.”

 

His head pounded. His hands shook.

Arden stared at the bottle filled with clear liquid on his desk. It seemed to shift in and out of focus. It was hard to think anymore. The world pulsed around him.

It had been only mere hours since the results of the vote were handed down like a judge’s verdict. Now the people living in Africa were subject to relocation at the whims of the Molkai. And they wouldn’t wait. They’d get things moving as quickly as they could. That was how they operated.

It made him sick. But he was powerless to stop it. They had seen to that.

From what felt like an incredible distance, he heard the office door opening and closing. Looking up, he saw Kraye eyeing him with an expression of concern.

“What do you want,” he asked, his tone spiteful and bitter.

“Arden…are you…what are you drinking?”

“Vodka,” he responded with a slight burp. “Far more potent than that cheap piece of crap whiskey I had yesterday. Tastes gross, that’s for sure.”

“Why do you do this to yourself?”

“Why do you care,” he shot back.

“Arden…please…that’s not…” Kraye stammered, then fell silent.

“Not what? Not fair? Guess what Kraye? Life’s not fair. But what would I know? I’m just a big useless ape,” Arden replied.

Part of him could see the pain in his friend’s face, that he was trying desperately to apologize for what he had done the day before. Part of him felt terrible for the words he was saying. But most of him was so glazed over that he didn’t care.

He glanced down at the bottle before him. Only a quarter left.

“How…how much did you drink,” Kraye finally summoned up the courage to ask.

“Well,” Arden began with a slight hiccup, “it was full when I got here.”

“Please Arden, put it away. I don’t want to see you do this to yourself.”

Arden looked up at Kraye, then back down at the bottle. A moment later, he buried his head in his hands.

“Oh what’s the point,” he groaned. “You were right. I’m a pathetic mess.”

“Arden…no…I-“

“I can’t do anything aside from drink myself stupid.”

“That’s not true Arden, you still have the power to change things.”

Arden’s head snapped up suddenly, with such a wild look in his eyes that Kraye involuntarily took a step back.

Bullshit,” he screamed, grabbing the bottle and slamming it down on the desk. The sound of shattering glass echoed through the office. Glittering shards littered the carpet between him and Kraye. Clear liquid oozed over the front of the desk, dripping off and staining the carpet.

“I can’t even…I can’t…I-,” Arden babbled, then stopped. Tears formed in his eyes and he hung his head in his hands again. It took a long time before he could speak

“I can’t even help my wife,” he said, choking up. “The only thing I can do is help alleviate her pain and I can barely fucking do that. It doesn’t matter. None of it fucking matters.”

“Arden…” Kraye began, but found himself unable to speak yet again.

Arden began standing up from the desk. “Every single day I come in here,” he said as he took a step, “and nothing changes. I-” Suddenly he stumbled and began to fall to the ground. But Kraye moved with lightning speed, catching him before he hit the floor and holding him up.

“Come on,” Kraye grunted as he supported his friend. “Over here.”

Kraye maneuvered the two of them over to the couch, and a moment later they were sitting. Arden’s head bobbled back and forth as he sat there, deep in the throes of a drunken stupor.

A long time passed in silence. Then, Kraye closed his eyes and leaned his head in close to Arden’s, so close that he was nuzzling his face. At first, Arden tensed up in surprise, but then he brought his arm around Kraye and rested his hand on his shoulder.

“Arden,” Kraye began after what felt like minutes, “I’m sorry for what I said. I was angry. I didn’t really mean all those things about you. My frustration got the better of me and I took it out on you.”

“It’s okay,” Arden replied. “I was being a dick anyways. I deserved it.”

“No you didn’t. I was unfair to you. You’ve been going through a lot lately. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that you’d get angry so easily.”

“Look, can we just agree that we both screwed up,” Arden asked. “This is getting a little too corny for my taste.”

Kraye opened his eyes and had to chuckle.

“Okay. I can agree to that,” he said.

“Good.”

Silence passed between them for a moment.

“Kraye…have you ever been to the history museum on the other side of town,” Arden asked.

“No…I haven’t. I never had much interest in it. Besides, Molkai don’t frequent that part of town. It’s predominantly human, and right now humans aren’t exactly fond of us.”
“Well you should. Sometime this week in fact. It’s not like the Congress is going to meet again. They’re in a recess for the next few days.”

“Arden…” Kraye began to protest.

“Please…for me? I think it would help you understand where I’m coming from…why I’m so against these relocation efforts. I’ve been thinking about history these days. Our history in particular.”

Kraye didn’t really understand what Arden meant by that, but it didn’t matter.

“Okay…I’ll go see it tomorrow,” he agreed. He was still reluctant, but he wanted to do something to make his friend feel better.

“Thank you Kraye,” Arden said.

Kraye got up from the couch.

“You going to be okay,” he asked as he turned to face Arden.

“I’ll be fine. I just need to rest here a while and get my head back into place. If anyone asks, just tell them I’m feeling a little sick.”

“Of course.”

“You’re too good to me Kraye,” Arden said with a smile.

Then his face grew serious. “I’m not pregnant am I?”

Kraye stared at him, baffled.

“What…I…why would you be?”

“Well I’ve heard that Molkai only nuzzle those they want to be their mates,” Arden said, a sly smile crossing his face.

If it was at all possible for Molkai to blush, Kraye’s cheeks would have turned a bright, crimson red.

“Wha…I…I don’t…uh…” he stammered. Arden just laughed.

“I’m only teasing Kraye,” he said. “I’m flattered…really. After the last few days I was certain you hated me.”

The two of them looked at each other for a long time, both feeling the warmth of the past returning to their hearts. Kraye enjoyed it for all it was worth. He remembered the times when he first met Arden. Arden had been so happy back then…so enthused about the idea of working side by side with an alien race.

Maybe there was a chance to reclaim that feeling…maybe…

“I’ll be your voice Arden,” Kraye declared. Arden began to open his mouth, but Kraye stopped him. “No no…I won’t accept any objections. If they won’t let you have your voice, then I’ll just have to do it for you.”

Arden smiled.

“Thank you Kraye. Well I suppose you should be going then. Do try to visit that museum tomorrow will you?”

“Of course Arden.”

Kraye turned around and began to leave.

“Kraye, wait.”

He stopped and turned back around.

“What is it Arden?”

Arden was quiet for a moment. He had a look on his face that said he was trying to decide if what he was about to do was a bad idea or not. He took a deep breath.

May the stars bless your passing,” he finally said, using the Molkai’s native tongue.

It was rough. And he butchered some of the words. But Kraye couldn’t help but be touched by the effort.

May the stars bless your passing,” he said in response. Then he walked out of the office.

 

The sun was shining bright on the old museum the next day. The marble outside glowed a bright white in the light of day. The inside was no less impressive, with giant pillars that rose up from the first floor into the second and all the way to the ceiling. Kraye found himself struck by their size when he first entered the museum. He could feel the stares of the humans around him, but he ignored them. At any rate, no one bothered him.

And so, despite his reluctance, he began making his way through the exhibits. None of it really grabbed him. The museum was primarily focused on human inventions, tools of creation as well as weapons of destruction. To a Molkaian eye, none of them were particularly impressive. Kraye scanned over the exhibits, trying to understand why Arden had insisted he come here. But an hour passed with no revelations. Then another. He was beginning to think that it was all a waste of time.

But then, as he came around a corner, he stopped dead in his tracks. He was confronted by the stare of a plastic mannequin figure. It was that of a human, wearing clothes made out of animal hide and fur. He was carrying a sack on his back and was hunched over. More than anything, it was the sadness in his eyes that drew Kraye’s attention. There were others behind him as well: another male, a female, and a small child. They shared the man’s look of exhaustion and despair as they trudged through a muddy landscape.

He lowered his eyes to the plaque in front of the exhibit.

“The Trail of Tears,” he mumbled aloud.

“Find something interesting?”

Kraye turned to find a human female standing next to him. She had short red hair, bright brown eyes, and looked fairly young. If Arden was there, he would probably say she was “college age”, whatever that meant. She was wearing a uniform given to her by the museum, colored blue and yellow after its logo. A piece of paper stuck to her chest informed him that her name was “Jennifer”.

“I don’t see many of you around here these days. Sad really…I’ve always wondered what our history must look like to an alien eye,” she said.

After a moment, Kraye decided she seemed pleasant enough.

“Honestly I…I couldn’t really tell you what it looks like,” he replied with an awkward laugh. “I’ve never had much interest in history.”

“That’s a shame,” Jennifer replied.

The two of them stood staring at the mannequins for a moment.

“What’s this exhibit about,” Kraye asked finally.

The smile faded from Jennifer’s face. At first, Kraye was afraid he had done something offensive. But then she ran her eyes over the mannequin man and he realized it was something else.

“It’s such an ugly story…the Trail of Tears…”

“They look so sad,” Kraye observed.

“Because they were forced out of their homes. Back then, the government passed something known as the Indian Removal Act, which forced Native Americans to migrate. They had to walk over hundreds of miles of rough terrain.”

“But why,” Kraye asked.

“People wanted the land…for resources, homes, expansion, and so on. It didn’t matter that there were already people living there. Supply and demand…it’s one of the oldest rules we live by. They wanted the land, so they got the land.”

“But why the name ‘Trail of Tears’? Sounds so horrible…”

“Because it was. The trek was long and hard. Thousands of Native Americans died during the process of relocation from exhaustion, disease, famine…you name it. Men…women…children…no one was spared its wrath.”

“That’s…that’s terrible,” Kraye said, aghast.

He stood in silence for a long time, staring into the plastic mannequin’s eyes. He was feeling something…a ghostly pain welling up from an ancient past. His stomach seemed to tighten of its own accord, making Kraye uncomfortable.

“And no one thought to stop this,” he asked. “No one thought it was…wrong?”

Jennifer pondered for a moment.

“I can’t say for sure,” she finally replied, “but I think there were a few dissenters back in the day. It didn’t matter in the end. Progress always wins. And it doesn’t care who it leaves behind in the dirt.”

“But that’s not progress that’s…that’s genocide! They may as well have shot those people themselves! At least then it would have been a painless death.”

“Out of sight, out of mind I suppose.”

Kraye looked over the exhibit for a long time.

“It’s so similar,” he began. “It-” He bit his lip. “It’s like…like Af…Afri-” He couldn’t finish. Kraye could only hang his head in despair.

Jennifer seemed to sense that he wanted some time alone.

“I’ll be in the reception area if you have any questions,” she said. Then she was gone.

Kraye raised his head and stared into the gaze of the mannequin man for what seemed like an eternity. But he couldn’t see the plastic figure anymore. No…all he could see was Arden.

Arden…marching through the muck and wilderness of a long distant time.

Arden…beating himself up over his inability to help his wife.

Arden…destroying a bottle of his only solace.

Arden…tripping and falling to the floor.

The pain was intense. It stung deep. But it all made sense. He understood why Arden had been so against these measures from the start. Because he knew. He knew how it always played out. It was so selfish…and Kraye saw that now.

Time passed. The sun lazily dipped below the horizon, covering the land in a dark orange glaze. Dogs barked off in the distance. Humans left their places of work, returning home and settling down on the couch after a long day. Lonely animals wandered the street, looking for scraps of food no one was willing to give.

And the Molkai? They returned to their cushy houses, sealed behind their fierce metal gates manned by unfeeling security personnel.

Out of sight…out of mind…

All the while, Kraye sat there staring into the mannequin’s eyes, unable to tear himself away. It was only when the museum intercom announced they were closing in five minutes that he managed to make his feet move.

As he emerged from the building, a cloud of darkness began sweeping over the land…complementing his grim mood…

 

And so the years marched on…

Nearly two centuries later, new museum was opening in the heart of the human city. This one was of Molkai design, and devoted to humanity. Inside a large, ornate room decked with marble pillars and a high ceiling, a large crowd of Molkaians gathered. A single, female Molkai stepped up to a wooden podium with a microphone and motioned for everyone to be seated and silent.

“We are gathered here today to dedicate this museum to the human race,” she began, speaking the human tongue flawlessly. “To all of those gathered here, I urge you to never forget your history…never forget the things we did in the service of ourselves.”

The audience applauded. A few even cheered. The speaker motioned for quiet once again.

“But I could talk forever on the subject, and my word would still not be enough. That’s why I’m glad to introduce someone who is working side by side with us to ensure that the history will be remembered. I would like to welcome Johnathan Walker to the stage!”

The audience stood up and clapped their hands as an old human male, sat in a wheelchair, made his way to the podium. He had a small oxygen tank on the back of his chair, with tubes that fed into his nose. His eyes were a deep blue, and what remained of his hair was a wiry gray. A couple of Molkaians lowered the microphone so he could speak into it.

“Greetings,” he began, then broke off in a brief fit of coughing. “I’m fine,” he said to the female Molkai, who was about to step in to assist. The old man turned back to the microphone. “You’ll have to excuse me…it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken before such a large crowd.”

He took a deep breath.

“There’s so much I could tell you…but there’s one story in particular I remember…one story I can never forget. I was a child…twelve years old in fact. They came to our city, fed up with the dissent. My family was lucky. We had chosen to be neutral, so we were ignored. But our neighbors weren’t so lucky. They were outspoken critics of the Molkaian regime. A handful of Molkai security busted down their door in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. I remember it well because I was playing in the yard. I could hear the yelling, the screaming…the begging. My mother rushed outside and tried to drag me into the house. But it was too late. I heard the sound of a Molkai weapon discharging. It echoed through the street…which sunk into a deathly silence afterward. The silence was broken by a loud wailing…coming from the house.”

A tear formed in the man’s eyes and he looked away for a second. After collecting himself, he continued.

“Our neighbors had a little girl…about my age. They shot her because she wouldn’t stop crying. Then they dragged the family away. We never saw them again after that. Their house remained empty for years…condemned to waste away into nothing.”

The audience appeared to be hooked on his every word. They never interrupted or made noise, even when he paused. They stayed silent, patiently waiting for him to continue.

“But it wasn’t long before we were forced to move. Buried deep beneath our city was an undiscovered vein of minerals that the Molkai saw fit to take. The vote passed easily and so we had to leave our house behind. The day we left, there were huge protests in the street. It wasn’t until later I discovered that the Molkai didn’t even bother trying to pacify them. They just blew them all into oblivion from orbit.”

He paused again, in the throes of another coughing fit.

“It just…goes to show you…hatred…only brings…despair…”

It was obvious he could no longer continue. The female Molkai speaker came to him and crouched down while another Molkai held his hand over the microphone. There was a brief, indistinct chattering from the podium. Then the old man was wheeled away while the female stepped up to the microphone.

“We do apologize for that. You have to understand, Jonathan is very old and has a hard time speaking. But please, do not let his words go unheeded. It is plain for all to see the damage we have wrought against humanity.”

There was a chorus of murmured agreement from the crowd.

“Now, food will be served shortly in the reception hall. But for now, feel free to browse the exhibits.”

And with that, the crowd dispersed and began meandering around the room. One young Molkai in particular let his eyes run up and down the different exhibits. He examined the arrowheads, pottery, and moved forward through time. He had just finished reading about something called the “atomic bomb” when his eyes caught sight of something strange.

It was a Molkai elder, standing apart from the crowd. He had his arms crossed over his chest and was obviously displeased with his surroundings. Although he knew it was impolite to intrude on the business of an elder, the young Molkaian could not help himself.

He was only within a few feet when the elder finally noticed his approach.

Excuse me,” the young Molkai began in his native language, “but-” He stopped mid-sentence. His eyes were drawn to something around the elder’s neck. It was a faded jade pendant, cut to resemble a five-pointed star intertwined with a crescent moon.

Are you an ambassador,” he asked excitedly, a smile on his face.

The elder looked down at him.

“You speak human,” he asked.

The young Molkai’s smile faded.

“Yes,” he said. “But-“

“Then use it. I have no interest in Molkai anymore.”

“Why not,” the young one asked.

The elder seemed to ignore his question, Instead, he turned his gaze on the wandering patrons. He scoffed. “Look at them…all walking around and paying respects to a race they cared nothing about not that long ago. They’re blind. They can’t even see this museum for what it is: fake. Empty. It’s a lot of pretty words and nothing else.”

“Why do you say that?”

The elder pointed in the direction of the female Molkai that had spoken at the podium.

“You see her?”

The young Molkai nodded.

“Yeah…I think she did a good job speaking.”

The elder let out a small croak of a laugh.

“She’s good at using her words, that’s true. But she’s lying to herself..”

“What do you mean,” the young one asked.

“I bet you didn’t know she used to be an ambassador as well.”

“Really?”

“Do you see a pendant around her neck?”

The young one squinted.

“N-no,” he replied. “Where is it?”

“If I had to guess,” the elder said, “she probably threw it away.”

“But…but why?”

“I remember when she came here…fifty years ago in human time. She was just like the others…always voted yes on the measures. Always voted to further the Molkai cause without stopping and thinking about what it might mean for the human race. She’s pretending…pretending it never happened. She wants to sweep it all under the rug and not take accountability.”

“But what about you,” the young one argued. “What about what you did? It’s not fair of you to judge her like that.”

“Guess what? Life’s not fair. Was it fair that my friend had to watch as his wife slowly died from cancer? Was it fair that our people had the technology that could have saved her life, but refused to use it? Was it fair that I had to watch as he drank himself stupid after her death? At least I know I screwed up. I have no illusions on that front. If you really think it’s not fair of me to judge her, then you’re just as ignorant as the rest of them.”

A long silence passed between the two of them.

“What happened to him,” the young Molkai asked.

“Who?”

“Your friend.”

“To be honest…I don’t know. One day he was there, and the next he was gone. He just packed up and left the city. I never saw him again. He’s dead now for sure. Humans don’t live even half as long as we do, after all.”

The young Molkai looked away from the elder and ran his eyes over the museum.

“I am learning about the hostilities period right now with my class.”

“Oh? And what do you think?”

“After seeing all these weapons the humans built…do they really deserve our respect? They seem so violent and primitive.”

The elder scoffed.

“Have you ever been to the Uninhabitable Zones?” The young one shook his head. “Well if you can go there…if you can see the pollution and devastation we caused…if you can witness all that and then tell me they deserved it? Then maybe you’re right.”

The elder averted his gaze and ran his eyes over some of the exhibits.

“They were once over seven billion strong…and now there’s barely a hundred thousand humans left.”

“Really?” The young Molkai was stunned.

“They didn’t teach you that in school, did they?”

“No…what happened?”

The elder Molkai fixed him with a harsh stare.

“Don’t you know? We happened, kid. We came in and swept the humans aside so we could dig up the ground beneath them. We polluted and destroyed the land with our mining. We kicked them out of their homes and corralled them into makeshift communities while we took what we wanted. And those that didn’t die from easily preventable diseases killed each other over what little food and possessions they were left with.”

The elder let out a long sigh.

“Oh, we pretended like we were doing it for the benefit of both of us, but we were living a lie. In reality, the humans were just an obstacle…an inconvenience standing in the way of us getting what we wanted.”

The elder looked down at the young one.

“History is written by the victors kid. You’d do well to remember that.”

“Why,” the young one asked.

“Because then you might not make the same mistakes we did…the same ones I did.”

And with that, he turned around and strolled out the museum entrance. The young one stood alone in the center of the atrium, watching him go. Eventually, the old Molkai disappeared into the darkness of the night…never to be seen again.

 

Thanks for reading.  You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Back to normal next week.

Corpus Machina

Welcome to the seventh of twelve.  Once again, for those who don’t know, my New Year’s resolution this year was to write a short story each month and post it to my blog on the last Wednesday of the month.  So without further ado, I present to you “Corpus Machina”.

 

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“One-twenty east, first avenue north in the industrial district. Inside the abandoned warehouse, you’ll find the body of a man. His jaw has been fractured…repeated blows to the midsection have resulted in ten out of twenty-four ribs being broken. He suffered three twelve-gauge shotgun blasts to the chest, collapsing his lungs and destroying his stomach, liver, heart, and spleen.”

“Sir…why…how do you know all this?”

“Because I killed him.”

 

A peal of light…electric veins crawling across the sky. A deep, grumbling boom shaking the world.

Doctor Cyrus Fortner observed the storm through his rain-spattered windshield. The wipers were trying their best, but the torrential downpour was so thick it remained difficult to see. The storm hadn’t let up all afternoon. He shook his head. It was a terrible night to be out and about.

He let out a yawn. It had been a long day at the hospital. Due to a scheduling error, Fortner had three surgeries in the same day, two of them organ transplants. But he wasn’t one to complain.

Fortner was in his late thirties. He had medium-length, reddish hair and deep brown eyes. Off work, he traded in his lab coat for a brown t-shirt and blue jeans. It was spring now, and the rain never seemed to stop.

He was driving a moderately affordable, yet luxurious gray four-door sedan. Glancing down at the touch-screen computer in the dashboard, he saw that it was nearly ten-thirty at night. His hands were folded in his lap. There was no need to steer. The car did that well enough on its own.

Voices filled the car. The radio was on…tuned to an all-news channel.

“-missing since Tuesday night,” a male voice was saying. “If you’re just joining us, it appears the infamous Oedipus Killer has struck again. This serial murderer exclusively targets women, particularly those in positions of authority. His latest victim is TV news anchorwoman Evelyn Blaylock. Blaylock is the host of the morning show on channel five and is well-liked throughout the community. She is best known for her feature pieces on local animal shelters, and is credited for a recent increase in pet adoptions. She was reported missing Tuesday afternoon when she failed to show up for work that morning. Blaylock has long blonde hair, green eyes, and was last seen wearing a red-“

Fortner turned off the radio as the car made a left turn. He had heard enough for now.

After a minute of driving down a long gravel road, the car pulled up to a large, darkened house. It had three separate floors. Although impossible to see in the dark and stormy night, the house was made of fine yellow bricks imported from overseas in the late 1800’s. Under the cover of darkness, it had a looming atmosphere to it.

Fortner turned the car off and gazed up at the shingled roof. The manor had been in the family for generations. A few years ago, a historical society made an offer on the house, but Fortner declined.

Grabbing the black umbrella on the passenger seat next to him, Fortner opened the door and stepped out into the rain. The sound was deafening, like he was standing under a waterfall. As quickly as he could, Fortner made his way up the stone steps and to the front door, punching his code into the gray alarm keypad.

In his hurry to get inside, Fortner didn’t notice the absence of a chime confirming the code…

As he stepped inside the door slammed shut behind him, muffling the roar of the rain. The foyer was dark and gloomy, misshapen shadows cast around the room. Fortner flicked a switch on the wall and immediately the darkness was dispelled by dazzling yellow light. A vibrant, glass chandelier hung over the grand, carpeted staircase in the middle of the room. The stairs split into two separate paths in the middle, veering off in opposite directions. Situated above it all and dominating the room was a large stained glass window with shades of purple, yellow, and green. Varnished wood lined the walls and floor, emitting a glossy shine under the light.

The house was an amalgam of old and new. A high-tech video screen was embedded in the wall near the stairs, standing in stark contrast to the Victorian-era aesthetic. Fortner walked up to the screen and pressed a button. It flickered and displayed text in soft blue lettering: “no new messages”.

Closing the umbrella and setting it down by the brown coat stand near the door, Fortner strolled into the darkened den. He caught the gaze of the moose head mounted on the wall, its eye a milky white under the light that filtered in from the foyer. Reaching along the wall, he pressed a button on another video screen which turned on the radio, tuned once again to the news station. Faint but familiar voices filled the darkened room.

Fortner was about to flick the light switch when he paused.

There was a silhouette seated in the brown leather chair at the far end of the room. At first Fortner thought it was just his mind creating an illusion…manifesting the vision out of the tangled webs of darkness.

Then he saw it shift…ever so slightly…

In a flash, Fortner flicked the lights on.

A man was sitting in Fortner’s favorite chair. He was watching him with deep blue eyes. From what Fortner could tell, the man was young, still in his mid-to-late twenties. Carefully cropped, short brown hair sat on top of his head. He was wearing a brown coat with a gray shirt underneath and faded blue jeans.

But more than anything, it was the strange detachment in the man’s gaze that unnerved him.

Fortner took a step forward. “Who-” he began, but paused. Something stuck out to him that hadn’t at first: the man was completely dry. But he had to come in out of the rain at some point, Fortner thought to himself.

“…How long have you been sitting there,” he finally asked.

“Two hours, eleven minutes, forty-seven seconds,” the man replied. His voice was flat and emotionless.

What in the hell…? Fortner was dumbfounded.

Slowly, he took a few steps around the room, placing himself in between the man and the large, ornate wooden desk situated to the right of the entryway. He hoped the man didn’t notice. If he did, he didn’t show it or care. He continued regarding Fortner with the same impassive expression.

A moment passed. Seeing that the man wasn’t going to speak first, Fortner gathered his courage.

“Who are you,” he asked.

“Who I am is not important,” the man responded. “But you, Doctor Cyrus Fortner…who you are is very important.”

The stranger’s manner was deeply troubling to Fortner. His choice of words and the way he talked was…strange. It matched his expression in a way, devoid of feeling…as if he wasn’t altogether human.

Fortner knew he needed to get control of the situation. He hated not having control…

Stepping over to a nearby table, Fortner grabbed a glass decanter full of whiskey and poured himself a glass. “Want some,” he asked the man, pointing to the glass on a table next to his chair. The man remained silent. “I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then,” Fortner said, replacing the decanter and picking up his glass. He stepped around to the other side of the desk, trying his best to put on a mask of calm authority.

After taking a sip, he turned around to face the man again. “So I guess the question is, why am I important?”

“You were asked to consult on Project Machina,” the man responded.

Any semblance of calm and control Fortner had vanished the second he heard that name. But regardless, he tried to collect himself once again.

“I have never heard of any such ‘Project Machina’. I’m afraid you have wasted your time.”

“You cannot lie to me Doctor Fortner. I know you were asked to consult on the project, and I know you were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement. It would be in your best interest to be forthcoming with me.”

Fortner scowled. “Very well…yes I remember Project Machina. Something to do with machines and the human body, correct? But since you seem to know so much about me, then you must know I was dismissed from the project early on. I don’t know what information you expect me to provide.”

The man said nothing. Then, in the silence that followed, Fortner remembered something. The gray alarm panel flashed back in his mind…the keypad looming before him.

“How did you disable my alarm system,” he asked, unable to hide the faint tremor in his voice.

The man averted his gaze. His eyes began to flick back and forth in a steady, yet ominous rhythm.

“There were traces of epithelial cells on the front door code panel, with concentrated amounts on the numbers ‘2’, ‘0’, and ‘3’. The birth date of Doctor Cyrus M. Fortner is March 21st, 2033 at 10:53 AM…five pounds, six ounces.” The flicking stopped and the man returned his gaze to Fortner. “You see Doctor Fortner, with that knowledge deciphering your alarm code was simple.

Fortner was profoundly disturbed by what he had just witnessed. Where in the hell did he get that information, he thought to himself. And the way he rattled it off…like a damn machine.

It was then that he understood.

“You were a candidate, weren’t you? For the project?”

“Yes,” the man replied.

“Then it was a success, wasn’t it?”

The man looked away. His eyes began flicking back and forth again.

“They took me to a darkened room…gray cement walls, one light, metal table in the center. On the table was a nine-millimeter pistol…black leather grip, seventeen round magazine. Seated in a chair, bound by handcuffs, was a young man. He had darkened skin, brown eyes, black hair dampened by perspiration. His heat was beating fast…one hundred and twenty beats per minute. He was scared. I was handed the gun and told to shoot him. I asked why”. The flicking stopped. “They did not like that.”

“Because you wouldn’t follow orders without question,” Fortner observed.

“That is the most likely assessment,” the man replied.

“You were a soldier before the project, weren’t you?”

“And how would you know that, Doctor Fortner,” the man asked.

“Your hair is a dead giveaway…it’s meticulously taken care of. But there’s also the way you carry yourself. You took a seat in an area of the room with no windows and no door at your back. It shows tactical planning, ensuring that you have unimpeded sight lines in case of incoming danger.”

“Very astute doctor,” the man replied. “Yes, I was a soldier.”

“I thought as much.”

Fortner pulled the black office chair out from behind the desk and sat in it.

“Look…I’m sorry,” he began. “But-“

“She tells me not to worry…”

Fortner paused, turning his head toward the man. “What…who are you talking about?”

The man ignored him and continued his strange rambling. But this time, Fortner observed, his eyes weren’t flicking back and forth. They were just staring off into space.

“Her hair is golden, long…it blows in the autumn breeze. Her face is bright and sunny. Leaves of green and brown cover the grass. She smiles, her teeth shining white, and tells me not to worry…”

“What are you going on about,” Fortner demanded to know.

But just as soon as it had begun, it ended. The man laid his eyes back on Fortner and said nothing.

A glitch in the system? Fortner couldn’t be certain. Great…he’s damaged goods. Probably got tossed out of the project like I was.

“I’m truly sorry,” he said. “I am. But I can’t help you. As I said before, my involvement in Project Machina was very limited. I had barely finished signing the NDA when they let me go. You’ll have to find someone else involved in the project to give you whatever answers you want.”

The man didn’t respond…still fixing him with that passive gaze. In the absence of conversation, the voices from the radio filled the room.

“We’re here with Police Chief Gordon Phillips, who has spearheaded the local investigation into the killings since they started two years ago,” the male voice from before said. “Chief, thank you for joining us.”

“You’re welcome,” another male voice said.

“Now, what can you tell us about the Oedipus Killer?”

“Based on our investigations, we’ve concluded that the killer is a male, likely in their late thirties. We believe that, because of his choice of victims, he has an issue with female authority, probably stemming from an abusive childhood.”

“Now, before we came on, you said something about the wounds on the victims. Care to elaborate,” the first voice asked.

“Certainly. During the examinations, the coroner discovered that the cuts on the bodies were incredibly precise. They also showed extensive signs of bleeding, meaning that they were inflicted before the victim died. It seems that the killer specifically chose those areas to cause the most pain with the lowest risk of fatality. In short, he wanted these women to suffer.”

“Truly disturbing,” said the first man.

“Incredibly. This tells us something important however. Due to the precision of the wounds, we can surmise that the killer has had extensive medical training. He is likely a surgeon or a doctor of some kind and-“

With shaky hands, Fortner reached across the desk and silenced the radio.

And then…for the first time since the conversation began…the man’s face changed. His mouth curled into a faint smirk.

“I see it now,” he said, his tone still calm. “I did not make the connection before, but now I understand.”

Fortner averted his gaze, looking down at the almost empty glass of whiskey before him. He lost himself in the smooth brown liquid.

“I knew that you were not involved in the project any longer. I knew that they had let you go, but I never uncovered why…until now. They let you go, Doctor Fortner, because they figured out what you were.”

Fortner managed to look up and lock eyes with the man.

“I suppose they were afraid of knowledge about the project getting out, which is why they never turned you in. But they could not allow you to stay on board…knowing what you were. Knowing what you had done.”

A moment of silence passed, then the man cocked his head to the side.

“Tell me, do you enjoy killing them?”

It took an immense amount of will, but Fortner managed to channel his fear and anxiety into anger. It was something he excelled at.

“You think you know me,” he growled. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“You are Doctor Cyrus Fortner, age thirty-eight. After high school, you went straight into a four-year medical program. Once you had acquired your degree, which included a year studying abroad at a prestigious medical school in the United Kingdom, you went into a general surgery fellowship. Five years later, at the age of thirty, you became a fully licensed surgeon. You then moved back into your family home and started work at the local hospital. Everyone around you has always remarked on your unique talent for surgical operations.”

Fortner glared at the man. “So you know my college history. Big deal. That doesn’t mean you know me.”

“On the contrary, Doctor Fortner, I know all about you. I know that you grew up surrounded by wealth, but not many friends. I know you keep that moose head mounted on the wall because it makes you look like a hunter. But I know that, in reality, your dad was the hunter. I know that your dad left when you were only seven years old, so you do not have many memories of him.”

“That’s enough,” Fortner said, his voice trembling with anger.

“I know that you have a vintage 12-gauge hunting shotgun that you keep loaded in case of intruders. I know that you keep the shotgun tucked away in a hidden panel underneath your desk.”

In a flash, Fortner had removed the shotgun from its hiding place and stood up, bringing it to bear on the man. The office chair slid backwards, crashing into the wall with a loud bang. The man remained unfazed by the shotgun. His eyes seemed to register its appearance, but he stayed sitting back in the chair.

“Who the hell do you think you are, breaking into my home in the middle of the night?!”

“I also know what you keep buried in the backyard…doctor.”

Fortner’s jaw dropped. He loosened his grip on the shotgun.

“Did you start with cats and dogs, doctor? No…I imagine you started with flies or ants, something small that would not be missed. Once you grew bored with that, you moved on to mice or raccoons. And then, when that could no longer excite you…it was time to upgrade. There are a surprising amount of old missing pet cases that could be traced back to that mass grave in your backyard, Doctor Fortner.”

“Shut…up,” Fortner demanded, although it sounded more like a plea.

“Did your mother ever find out?”

That was the last straw. Fortner cocked the shotgun and took a step forward.

Enough! I’m sick of these games. Get the fuck out of my house!

“That is fine doctor…you do not have to answer. You already told me what I needed to know.”

Fortner squinted at him.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You twitched…or rather your face twitched. You would be surprised how easily the human body betrays someone’s secrets.”

The gun started to shake in Fortner’s hands.

“So your mother found out…and she beat you. She beat you because she was an abusive mother. And with your father absent, no one was there to protect you.” The man’s eyes seemed to glow with frightening malice. “You are an intelligent man Doctor Fortner. Do you know why they call you the Oedipus Killer?”

Fortner said nothing, so the man continued.

“You always wanted a deeper relationship with your mother…but when you confessed your love to her she reacted with anger and violence. She was a firm believer in that anachronistic idea of ‘family values’. So she tried to beat it out of you. But that only made you turn inward. You became bitter and hateful. It was only a matter of time before you started killing. It is surprising that you held out for so long. I would imagine you satisfied yourself with the study of human anatomy and illicit videos on the internet.”

“Stop talking,” Fortner shouted, raising the shotgun and taking a step forward. “Just shut the fuck up!

“You were smart Doctor Fortner. You took people no one would miss…homeless women and criminal offenders. But it was not enough for you, was it? So you escalated. The first victim that got any real attention was the manager of the local food co-op…Margaret Gilman. That triggered the police investigation. For so long they went to scene after scene…but you remained elusive. You kept yourself well-hidden, ensuring that no trace of you would be found on the body. But this time, you went too far. Evelyn Blaylock…a broadcast news anchor…a very public and well-liked person. They are coming for you doctor. It is only a matter of time before-“

The sound of the shotgun blast ripped through the den like an explosion. Unprepared for the kickback, Fortner felt a burn ripple through his shoulder and winced with pain. But a moment later he saw that his aim was true. The blast had hit the man dead center in the chest, leaving bloody holes in his shirt.

For a long time, Fortner thought the man was dead.

But then…he let out a long exhale. His blue eyes opened and turned toward Fortner.

No way…that’s impossible, Fortner thought.

The man slowly stood up from his seat. He didn’t stumble. He didn’t groan. It was as if he considered the wound a mere annoyance.

Fortner took a couple steps back, pumping the shotgun.

“Stay back! I’m warning you!”

He almost didn’t see it in time. In one fluid movement, the man scooped up the glass near the chair and hurled it. Fortner saw the glittering object flying at him and let out a yell, pulling back on the shotgun trigger. The glass exploded in mid-air, showering him like dozen of shimmering knives. They cut into his face, causing him to yell and stumble backward. Fortner bumped into the desk and nearly collapsed to the ground, but managed to steady himself with one hand. It took a few moments, but he finally opened his eyes.

The man was lying on the floor near the chair, motionless. Fortner stood still for a long time, not certain what to do. He inched close and nudged him with his foot. No response.

“Fuck…fuck,” Fortner breathed heavily.

He was dead. The den would have to undergo a thorough cleaning.

But first, he had to get the body in the trunk. And once he was done cleaning…he knew exactly where to go…

 

Fortner closed the door behind him, the heavy metal clanging as it slid into place. A single, faint overhead light cast on ominous spotlight on the chair in the center of the room. Seated in the chair, bound with rope and gagged with a handkerchief, was a woman with blonde hair and a bright red blazer. Fortner set the shotgun down, leaning it against the door. Then he stood there for a moment, eyeing his captive and fiddling with the scalpel in his hands. He was enjoying himself.

Then, he stepped close to the still form and leaned in.

“Hello, Miss Blaylock,” he whispered in a sinister and playful tone.

The bright green eyes shot open immediately and found him. But, much to his frustration, instead of fear they radiated nothing but anger. Still, Fortner wasn’t about to let himself get caught off guard…not twice in one night.

“Now…I’m going to remove the gag…you better not start screaming,” he said.

He slipped around the back of the chair and untied the knot that held the handkerchief in her mouth.

Help! A man with inadequacy issues is holding me hostage,” she shouted at the top of her lungs.

“Fucking bitch,” he screamed, coming around to the front of the chair and viciously slashing her across the cheek with the scalpel. Crimson blood drizzled down the side of her face. “What did I just say?!”

Evelyn Blaylock raised her head and glared at him. “I don’t know,” she said. “I couldn’t hear over the sound of your obnoxious ego.”

“You really think you’re clever, don’t you?”

Fortner moved in close, pulling her head back and resting the scalpel against her throat.

“Now you listen here,” he growled. “I’m not in the mood for playing games. You mess with me, and you’re done.”

Her eyes locked with his in a hard stare.

“You won’t kill me,” she whispered. “Not yet. Because you want to enjoy this don’t you? You want to take your time and convince yourself that you’re the top dog, that you’re the man in charge. Hell…I bet you even get off to this.” Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t you?”

Fortner let her head go and just laughed.

“What happened to your face anyways,” she asked.

Fortner fell silent. He didn’t want to think about the man who had shown up in his den, the man who had taken a shotgun blast to the chest without so much as a gasp of pain. He didn’t want to think about the shattered glass that had dug into his face.

He didn’t want to think about the body that lay at the other end of the hallway, sealed away in a darkened room. Dumping two bodies at once would be difficult, but it had to be done.

“Tell me Miss Blaylock,” he said, steering the conversation in a new direction, “how long have you suspected me? I gathered from your line of questioning during our last encounter that I was high on your list.”

Blaylock’s eyes softened a little.

“To be honest, Doctor Fortner…you were my number one suspect.”

Fortner smiled.

“My reputation precedes me,” he said, performing a demented bow with the scalpel still in hand. “But I must know,” he began, walking around the chair and letting the scalpel hover precariously close to her face, “how did you come to this conclusion?”

Blaylock craned her head up to look at him, defiance returning to her eyes.

“Bite me,” she said. With a growl, Fortner yanked her hair back. She yelped in pain.

Don’t fuck with me,” he snarled.

“Fine, fine, fine,” she said, her voice hasty. Good, he thought. She’s understanding her place…

“I started investigating shortly after Margaret’s disappearance…the co-op manager?” Fortner nodded. “After interviewing the detective assigned to the case, it became clear that the person behind these killings was someone with a medical background. It was only a matter of time before I stumbled upon all those domestic incident calls the police made to your house when you were a kid. I mean, really, you ‘fell down the stairs’? It was like a bad joke. Combine that with the disappearance of local pets in the area, and you started to fit the profile more and more.”

“What profile,” Fortner asked with a scowl.

“The police had you marked down as a victim of parental abuse. They figured you had lacked an intimate relationship with your parents. Your dad had probably been absent since before you were born or left when you were very young. Your choice of target, women in positions of authority, was an obvious homage. You killed those women because you hated what they represented.”

“Stop talking…stop talking right now,” Fortner snarled.

“They were your mother, weren’t they,” Blaylock asked, a faint smirk on her face. “Because, in the end, you’re just another momma’s boy.”

“Shut up,” he shouted. “SHUT UP!”

“Little ol’ momma’s boy,” she said in a singsong voice. “Never got his momma’s love…”

Fortner rushed forward, snapping her head back and holding the scalpel up to her left eye.

“If you don’t shut your goddamn whore mouth, I’ll cut your fucking eyes out,” he threatened. He was letting her get to him. And he knew that was a bad thing. But Evelyn Blaylock was so good at pushing the right buttons.

A journalist, he thought to himself. Why did I have to pick a fight with a goddamn journalist?

“Do it,” Blaylock dared him. “That’s what you did to the cats and the dogs, didn’t you? You cut out their eyes and watched them stumble around because you liked the feeling of power it gave you. You’re a sick man Fortner. You’re a tumor. And you should have been excised from society long ago.”

“Shut up!” Fortner let her go and threw the scalpel across the room in rage. “Shut up shut up shut the fuck up!

“What’s up doc? Can’t handle the pressure,” she taunted.

Fortner screamed and slammed his fist into the metal wall. His knuckles burned from the impact. His breathing was shaky and heavy.

He was losing control…he hated losing control……

 

In a darkened room down the hallway from where Fortner and Blaylock were having their confrontation, a lone figure sat splayed out on the floor, motionless. But deep inside the shell of flesh, it was anything but still. Tiny, artificial constructs of metal meticulously made their way through the veins of their host. There were hundreds, if not thousands of these tiny, microscopic machines making their way through the body, repairing the damage.

After a long period of stillness, the body began to twitch. Then, a man who was supposed to be dead rose up like a modern-day Lazarus. There was no hesitation in his step, no hint of pain. He got to his feet with stoic purpose and dignity.

A sunny face…golden hair and a white smile…

The man shook his head. There was no need for that. Not anymore.

A moment later, the metal door sealing the room began to slide open…

 

“You’re in over your head Fortner! It’s only a matter of time before they figure out it was you. For such a smart man, you made a lot of dumb decisions.”

“My god, do you ever…stop…talking,” Fortner shrieked.

He knew it wouldn’t do any good to give in to the rage. Unlike the controlled anger he had before with the man, rage was pure fire. It had a mind of its own. But he couldn’t help himself. Every word out of that woman’s mouth was like a prickly needle. It added up with time, and steadily drove him mad.

“Just turn yourself in. Don’t embarrass yourself any further,” Blaylock said.

Fortner moved away from the wall with a noise somewhere between a cry of frustration and a shriek of rage. He snatched up the shotgun he had laid against the door, cocked it, and pointed the business end directly at Blaylock’s face.

“I swear to god…I will blow your fucking brains out right here!”

He was hoping to see fear in her eyes, to see some hint of submission. But there was nothing but green fire.

“Do it,” Blaylock dared. “Do it doc. Shoot me. Paint the walls with my blood.”

Don’t tell me what to do,” he screamed.

Blaylock hobbled forward in her chair, bringing her forehead directly against the gun barrel.

“You think I’m scared of you? My dad raped me when I was a kid, and my mother pretended that it was God’s will. You think you’re the only one in this world with a fucked up childhood? Join the club jackass!

Blaylock paused, staring hard at Fortner.

“You know what the difference between you and me is? I’m stronger than you. So go ahead, pull the trigger. Pull the trigger…and prove you’re a real man.”

He almost did. His finger twitched. He was about to send pieces of her skull flying all over the room.

But the knocking stopped him.

It was so simple…so ordinary…and yet it was so out of place at the same time. Three simple knocks…like those of a neighbor looking to borrow a cup of sugar or a set of jumper cables for their car.

Blaylock’s eyes flicked toward the door in profound confusion. Fortner lowered the gun from her head and slowly turned around.

“What…the hell…” he muttered.

After a moment of silence, the knocks came again. Three short raps…no sense of urgency. It felt like forever before Fortner managed to move his legs. He took slow steps toward the door, laying his hand on the handle. Taking a deep breath, he pulled it aside.

Blue eyes.

Brown hair.

One hand clenched into a fist.

Gray t-shirt riddled with bullet holes like Swiss cheese.

“Who the hell,” Blaylock mumbled.

“No…” Fortner was aghast. He stumbled backward. “It can’t be…that’s impossible!

The man’s inscrutable blue eyes twinkled at him as a faint smile spread across his lips. He opened his closed hand.

Like glittering raindrops, the bloody shotgun pellets fell out of his hand and hit the floor, creating an oddly beautiful tinkling noise.

And then, Fortner had a thought.

That son of a bitch…did he plan this? Was all that pretense about Project Machina just a ruse? Was this his aim all along, to get me to bring him here?

Regardless, Fortner wasn’t going to be taken down so easily. He let out a loud roar, cocking the shotgun and bringing it to bear on the man.

But the man was too fast. He grabbed the barrel and shoved it upward. In his surprise, Fortner accidentally pulled back on the trigger. The blast echoed throughout the room and sparks fell from ceiling. The man ripped the shotgun out of Fortner’s hands and threw it aside. Then, before he could react, the man swung back and drove his fist into the side of Fortner’s face.

Something cracked. His face burned. Fortner was stunned at the force of the punch. He felt like he wasn’t being hit by a man, but rather a speeding freight train. He spun around and fell to the floor, his mouth filling with the stale taste of copper.

He spat, blood staining the cold metal ground. He got back to his feet and roared, charging at the man. He swung at him, fists flailing through the air like a demented boxing match. A few of them actually hit their mark, striking the man across the face. But the man didn’t even seem to flinch. Instead, he drove his fist into Fortner’s chest repeatedly, knocking the wind out of him. There was a vicious cracking that Fortner guessed belonged to his ribs. He howled in pain.

The man stopped for a moment, then kicked Fortner as hard as he could. Fortner went flying into the wall with a loud crash and fell to the ground. The world spun around his head, colors swimming in and out of focus.

His vision cleared up just long enough to see the man approaching him, shotgun in hand.

Fortner’s eyes went wide. He screamed.

A deafening blast sent his world cascading into infinite, dark silence…

 

A shotgun shot rang out through the halls of the warehouse.

Then another.

And another.

Silence fell over everything. A moment later, the faint sound of ripping fabric could be heard.

And then, a man appeared in the open doorway, his face covered in blood and bruises. His shirt was riddled with blood-stained holes. His expression showed no hint of pain. He held a shotgun in one hand, letting it hang close to his side. His blue eyes twitched, like he was remembering something.

Sunny face…bright white smile…

He shook his head.

Then he began walking down the hallway. About halfway down the corridor, he tossed the shotgun into a nearby pile of rubble without even looking. Behind him, a woman in a red blazer rushed to the doorway.

“Wait,” she shouted after him.

The man turned around. He gazed at her with an impassive and robotic expression.

“Who-” She squinted. “Who are you?”

There was a long pause.

“No one important,” he answered, his tone flat and devoid of feeling. Then he turned and walked down another hallway. At the end, he pushed aside the massive double doors that sealed the warehouse. Outside, warm sunlight caressed the man’s young face. But he didn’t pay it any attention. Instead, he pulled out the small, black phone he had taken from the doctor’s pants pocket…

 

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“One-twenty east, first avenue north in the industrial district. Inside the abandoned warehouse, you’ll find the body of a man. His jaw has been fractured…repeated blows to the midsection have resulted in ten out of twenty-four ribs being broken. He suffered three twelve-gauge shotgun blasts to the chest, collapsing his lungs and destroying his stomach, liver, heart, and spleen.”

“Sir…why…how do you know all this?”

“Because I killed him.”

A long pause.

“Why are you-“

“In his front pants pocket you’ll find a wallet which will identify the man as Doctor Cyrus Fortner, a local surgeon. The subsequent investigation will determine that he was the notorious Oedipus Killer, responsible for the disappearance of nearly a dozen women over the past two years.”

“But…why are you telling me this? …Are you there? Sir? Sir?!”

 

Deep in the bowels of a classified government facility, a man rushed through the halls. He moved so fast that he nearly collided with people carrying important papers and equipment. A flurry of “excuse me”s and “pardon”s erupted with his passage. Finally, he made his way to a door and threw it open.

“Sir?!” A man with bright hazel eyes and a white lab coat looked up from his desk. “We found him. What should we do?”

The man at the desk pondered for a moment.

“Should we bring him in?”

“No…no,” the man at the desk said. “Let him go for now. We’ll see how this plays out.”

“Yes sir!” The man at the door left.

The man at the desk looked back down at a manila folder in his hands. The tab at the top right says “D. MEYERS.” He opened it. Clipped onto the front was a picture of a man with short brown hair and deep blue eyes, wearing a desert camouflage uniform.

“Corporal Meyers…still trying to save people huh,” the man mumbled to himself.

He lifted the photo, revealing another underneath. This picture displayed the man and a slightly older woman with golden hair, sunny face, and a pleasant white smile standing in front of a large, white farmhouse.

“Still trying to save people…because you couldn’t save your sister, could you?”

 

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The Crying in the Lighthouse

Welcome to the sixth of twelve.  For those who don’t know, my New Year’s resolution was to write twelve short stories, one each month, and then post them to my blog on the last Wednesday of each month.

Now, this story I think deserves a little introduction.  It’s a story I actually wrote a couple of years ago.  I initially wanted to send it in to a magazine, but I quickly discovered that the market for short stories wasn’t quite the same as it was some decades ago.  I found that my story was either too long or didn’t fit the theme of the publication well enough.  So I never bothered sending it in anywhere.  Shortly after that, the day after my 25th birthday to be precise, I started writing my novel.  But this story never truly left my mind.  It was one of the few I was legitimately proud of.  I decided that, if I wasn’t going to get it published anywhere, I could post it here and share it regardless.

So, without further ado, I present to you “The Crying in the Lighthouse”.  It is a longer story than my previous works, so get comfortable and enjoy!

 

The mass of deep blue slithers, boils, pitches and rolls, hurling itself against the gray rocks. It foams as it batters the land, sliding up the shore. A flash of wicked light is followed by a loud boom that reverberates through the air. The sky is dark, and the wind whistles through the rocks as it sears the land with its fury.

A line of light shines through the darkness, a solitary beacon. It spins around a dark tower, cutting through the gloom like a knife. The light silhouettes the structure, casting it in an ominous shadow. It looms, an emblem of foreboding and a reminder of danger to passing ships. This is Sharp Point, perhaps better known by its nickname “Demon’s Rock”. The area is treacherous, full of rocks hiding their cold talons below the dark blue water, cutting into any ship foolish enough to attempt passing.

Occasionally, a silhouetted figure appears in the sky, spotlighted by the tower’s beam. He stands at the top of the lighthouse, gazing out the wall of windows into the stormy night. He is an older man in his mid-forties. He wears a mat of light brown hair on his head, and a light goatee of similar color surrounds his slightly chapped lips. His dark green eyes blink as the light swings around behind him, momentarily encasing him in a blinding white halo.

His name is Devon Woolfe, and he is the keeper of the lighthouse.

 

As Devon’s eyes fluttered open, he found that the storm from the night before had passed, replaced instead by a beaming yellow sun. He threw the blanket off of him and sat up on his small green cot. Unsurprisingly, aside from the storm the night was uneventful. There was nothing to fix, nothing to monitor, and nothing to do.

Standing up, Devon walked over to the small glass window and looked out at the ocean before him. It gleamed in the sunlight, a sparkling white glow blooming out most of the faraway landscape. He strained his eyes, just barely able to make out the mainland town of Colwyn. Foggy, unclear buildings of red brick and white mortar stood next to the shore. Small waves crashed onto the rocks below, making a serene swishing sound as they wrapped around the cold gray stones. The wind whipped through the lighthouse tower, carrying with it the salty smell of the ocean.

Devon turned around to face his room. The white, stone walls lacked any real texture, and the room was only lightly furnished. The green cot sat on the floor to Devon’s left, with a wooden bed table that had a small, windup clock sitting on it. On the right side of the room was a large, oak desk. On the desk were scattered papers, a pen, a small mirror, and a leather-bound book that Devon kept as a journal. A small, red lamp sat in one corner of the desk, aiming down at the journal like a spotlight. Devon had many late nights with that light on, jotting down important daily events and reading books for pleasure.

Last night’s entry in his journal simply read “Storm passed through. No ships.”

Devon changed into a gray sweater and light blue pants, slipping on a pair of large brown boots before he stepped out into the giant stairwell. It was a black snake, winding around a pole that shot straight up through the lighthouse like an axis. The lighthouse was a giant white cylinder of mortar, protruding from the rocky land like a stubby finger. There were little rectangular windows on the sides, taller than they were wide. Devon leaned over the railing and looked down at the bottom. At that moment, he was thankful for not having vertigo. The lighthouse was over five stories tall.

Pushing off the railing, Devon started walking upstairs. The wind blew through the rectangular windows, blowing back Devon’s hair. The smell of the ocean wafted into his nostrils, mixing with the faint stench of oil and industrialism. Devon’s large boots clunked against the steps as he climbed, creating an intermittent tune that reverberated off the walls.

As he ascended, Devon felt grim. It was a familiar sensation.

Finally landing on solid floor, Devon was confronted by a metallic monstrosity. A giant circle of metal encased the massive bulb of the lighthouse’s beacon. It had shut off during the night, just as expected. He glanced over to his left and saw the culprit, a strange looking device mounted on the wall.

It looked like a metal cage with a black rod inside. It was known as the Sun Valve, a device which automated the lighthouse beacon. In the sunlight, the black rod expanded which would cut off the flow of gas to the light, turning it off. At night, the rod would contract which allowed gas back into the system, switching on the light. The Sun Valve had been a permanent fixture since before Devon’s time here, but it was a reminder of what was to come. The advancements of technology were slowly rendering men like him obsolete. The Sun Valve had only played a small part.

The man in charge of upgrading the lighthouse was a man by the name of Patrick O’Neill. Patrick was Devon’s patron of sorts, paying him for his work at the lighthouse. Patrick and his boy Charlie had been visiting more often lately, supervising upgrades and checking on the tower’s well-being. Last month’s visit appeared before Devon now, making its way up from the murky depths of his memory.

It’s called GPS, or Global Positioning System. It’ll tell you exactly where you are on the planet with coordinates and everything! How cool is that?”

“Yeah…cool.”

“Devon, what’s wrong?”

“I’ve just got a lot on my mind. Things are moving so fast these days.”

“It’s amazing isn’t it? GPS is going to change so many things. Ships will never get lost again. No need for old, outdated maps.”

No need for old, outdated men either, thought Devon. He groaned on the inside, tuning out the chattering young man next to him. Charlie was a good kid, but naive. He had yet to truly understand how the world worked. In any case, Devon didn’t hold his enthusiasm against him. There was still time for him, time to figure out his place in the world. But for him…Devon stared out the window of the crew room, watching the waves as they rolled over the rocks…

Once it had fallen to him to ensure that the Sun Valve worked. But with time, that was taken away. They started sending out their own mechanic to inspect it at scheduled intervals, someone with “proper training”. Devon was relegated to backup, there only in case something went awry and no one could get out to the lighthouse on short notice. He gazed around the light room, watching the sunlight glint off the massive windows, wondering where it all changed.

There was a time when the lighthouse needed three people to maintain it. They all lived here in the tower. They laughed, played games, and were as close as brothers. But with the constant upgrades and shifting times, the other two eventually left, seeking out different opportunities and different paths. Only Devon remained.

Turning his back on the massive light apparatus, Devon descended the black spiral staircase again, stopping at the floor of the crew room. The crew room was higher up than his bedroom, sitting just a few flights or so below the light room. Like the bedroom, it was spartan in appearance. An ancient looking gray stove oven sat in the corner near a window, and a small wooden table with four chairs sat in the center of the room. A small storage closet sat off to the side of the oven, which contained spices and foods that didn’t require refrigeration. For everything else, there was a large white fridge sitting on the opposite side of the room.

Devon opened the closet and took stock of what was inside. There were lots of random spices sitting here and there, some that hadn’t been used for quite some time. There was a half-used bag of sugar in one corner along with some coffee grounds. Other than that there were a couple cans of brand name pasta.

Pulling his head out of the closet doorway, Devon sauntered over to the fridge and pulled it open. There were some cans of beer, a jug of milk, and some leftover meat from dinner a couple nights ago. He checked the freezer and found it empty. He closed the fridge door, continued out of the crew room, and made his way down the spiral stairs. He would have to travel to the mainland for supplies.

The bottom of the lighthouse had a brick boiler room with a gas generator in it. The large, bronze boiler in the middle sat unused since the generator’s installation. Devon glanced at it as he walked by. The once shiny color had faded and rust had begun creeping around on the inside, staining it a sickly orange-red. It was a pathetic old thing, sad and lonely, replaced by the sleek and small red generator in the corner.

The boiler room led up a series of stone steps into a small wooden shed. He pushed the wooden door open and shielded his eyes from the blazing sun. The wind whirled around him, ruffling his sweater as he walked. It was a cool day, but Devon didn’t mind the cold.

He descended the stone steps and headed toward the dock. It wasn’t long before something caught his eye, a golden gleam coming from beneath one of the rocks close to the water. When he got closer, his shadow covered the glare of the sun and he was able to see what it was.

Washed up on the shore was a pair of golden coins. Devon reached down and picked one up. It held a series of patterns in something akin to a police shield symbol. Circles and lines of all shapes and sizes were etched into the coin, running around in a tangled web of gold. A massive crown sat atop the shield, and when Devon turned the coin over he was greeted by a pompous looking figure of a man’s face. From what Devon could tell of the faded image, the man was an aristocrat. He exuded royalty, deeming it beneath him to even look at the artist who had etched his image.

Devon scooped up the other coin and slid them both into his pants pocket. When he was on the mainland he would show it to the local museum owner, an old friend. He might know where and when the coin came from. Continuing down to the dock, Devon stepped onto the little ferry boat he used to go to and from the mainland. It was an old-looking ship, white with a brown roof over the main cabin. Devon pulled the cord on the black motor in the back. It roared to life, old but still reliable.

He stepped into the pilot cabin and took his place at the wheel. Moments later the boat was skimming away from the island, the tall white tower shrinking slowly as the boat moved further and further away. It slid effortlessly through the water, pitching to the tune of the waves as it crossed the watery chasm between island and town…

 

Faint static reached Devon’s ears when he flipped the switch on. As he turned the dial, he got a series of different crackling noises: some high-pitched, some low. Other times he could make out a distant voice. But no one needed to speak with him directly. Flipping through the dials of the radio was like an act of meditation he did every night.

It was an old ham radio, with a black microphone on a stand and a small gray box for a receiver. A more modern looking black speaker sat next to it. It seemed even the radio couldn’t escape the incessant need to upgrade.

It sat in a small room on a floor between the bedroom and the crew room. The room was dimly lit, making the white walls look almost gray. It was mostly a storage room, with boxes, chairs, and other random things strewn about. A boxy little door sat in one corner that opened up into a storage space. It had a false back in it, which was where Devon stored the coins he had found.

His trip to the mainland was mostly successful. He picked up plenty of supplies which would allow him to stay on the lighthouse for another few weeks or so, barring any emergencies. His research into the coins had been less fortuitous. He had walked to the museum, but it was closed for some reason. So Devon had slid the coins into the little hiding space upon his return and sat down at the radio.

Devon fiddled with the frequency dial until he found a station of static that he liked. A low droning hiss emerged from the speaker, and Devon closed his eyes. The hissing slowly enveloped him, coiling like an electronic snake. In his mind, he conjured up an image of a lonely sailor sitting out on the ocean, with nary a shoreline in sight. His boat churned with the motion of the water, the waves mimicking the attitude of the static, low and calm. The wooden craft gently pitched up and down over the waves as they lapped against the bow. The glowing moon shined down on the water, enveloping the scene in a dim white light…

Devon opened his eyes after a few minutes had passed. He cranked the dial down to a common frequency used by ship captains and left the radio on. It was common procedure, just in case someone need to get in touch with him. It was very unlikely these days, but nevertheless he left it on each night.

Normally Devon would head off to bed after this moment of tranquility, but he wasn’t tired yet. He grabbed a small wicker chair from the corner of the room and headed upstairs toward the light room, stopping off at the crew room to grab a few cans of beer from the fridge. Once he reached the top, he put the chair down in front of the massive windows and sat. The light swooped around behind him, momentarily burning his shadow onto the sky. He popped the tab off one of the beer cans, and settled into melancholy.

How long had he been working here? Devon scratched his chin as he pondered the question. He had lost track a long time ago, but he figured it was over twenty years. In his working life, he knew nothing but the lighthouse. He hadn’t trained in anything else, hadn’t learned anything else. This was it. This was his life. But now, it was fading away. The unfortunate nature of progress is what it mercilessly leaves behind in the dust.

Lighthouses fascinated him as a child. He used to read entire books on them, featuring accounts by actual lighthouse keepers about their time on the job. He recalled their words, the elegant descriptions in their journals. That feeling of loneliness, but also of importance. Out here, alone on an island, Devon truly understood what they meant.

He took a swig of his beer. It was bland and bitter, but it dulled the senses like he wanted. The giant beam of light swung past every few seconds or so, glaring on his backside. Devon stood up here often enough to be used to it. It was comforting.

The alcohol made him feel warm, but whenever he thought about his future, a bitter coolness settled in his bones. Devon had always assumed that he would work the lighthouse until he retired. He thought he might even work up to his dying breath. In so many ways it was a dream come true, and it was all he really had. But the march of technology had proven to be far too powerful.

Now all Devon could do was wait for the inevitable. So often had he sat up here with a can of beer in his hands, drinking the night away. He knew it was sad, pathetic even, but there was nothing he could do. Everything was being automated, and he wasn’t even there to fix things anymore. In his gut, Devon knew that some time in the future he would become an unnecessary expenditure, if he wasn’t already.

So he sat in his small wicker chair, gazing out into the night at the calm and dark ocean before him. It seemed to ooze around carelessly, a giant slinking blob without goals or ambition. It was just content to be. Devon felt the sting of envy burning his soul as he watched.

After a while a bright flare of light caused him to look up. A streak of orange flame flew across the sky above, only visible when the lighthouse beacon wasn’t shining at his back. He guessed it was a meteor or a comet of some kind. It was falling fast, descending the sky with the stars as a backdrop. From Devon’s viewpoint, it seemed like it was going to crash somewhere far off in the ocean. But the beacon swung by one more time, whitewashing the streak out of his vision. When the beacon swung away, it was gone.

Devon didn’t feel like pondering the event any further. His second can was empty, and he dropped it to the ground with a dull clank. He picked up another can, popped the tab, and took a giant swig. He felt tingly. His entire body seemed to vibrate.

Some time later, Devon decided to call it quits. Six cans was enough. He stood up and stumbled, kicking the empty cans across the room. He took a few unsteady steps toward the staircase. Wrapping his arm around the railing to support himself, Devon began his descent. After what felt like ten straight minutes, he found himself at his small bedroom. He stumbled in, collapsed on the green cot, and drifted off into sleep.

 

The next day passed by with little incident. Waking up in the morning, Devon made his entry into the journal and then headed upstairs to check the beacon. He found that it had, as always, automatically shut off with the dawn. He picked up the empty beer cans from the night before and tossed them into a bag.

Devon decided to take a walk on the shore. He enjoyed the calm air, walking along in a green sweater and dark brown pants. He didn’t find any new treasure, but made a mental note to head back to the mainland some day soon to check in with the museum again.

Finding little pieces of treasure was surprisingly common. Many ships had met their end or had been damaged by the rocks and the elements around these parts, spilling out their cargo into the ocean. In many cases, that cargo included little pieces of jewelry, coins, or other valuables. The ocean claimed them and occasionally deposited some off on the island like a gift, a little “thank you” for allowing the waves to crash up against the rocks.

But in any case there was nothing to find, so Devon went back inside and read a book to pass the time. The day slid by without event. Devon didn’t even realize how much time had passed until he looked up from his book to find that the sun was setting on the horizon, a dark orange glow enveloping the landscape. Sliding his bookmark in between the pages, he clapped the book shut and stood up. He was about to head upstairs to the radio room, but something made him pause. He turned toward the large desk, his eyes landing on the leather-bound journal. He pulled the chair out and sat back down, opening the journal up to last night’s entry.

It read “No ships. Saw an orange streak across the sky. A meteor? Maybe there was a local meteor shower. I should research it next time I head to the mainland.”

Looking over his entry, Devon couldn’t ascribe any real importance to the meteor. He didn’t understand why he had even bothered to mention it. He scanned over the black letters that came from his hand, waiting for some kind of enlightenment to rise up from them. But nothing came, so Devon closed the book and climbed to the radio room. After he performed his nightly ritual, he headed up to the light room for the second night in a row.

The sun sank slowly, and darkness cast its spell over the land. The orange light eventually faded, and all that was left was a dark blue glow mixed with blackness. Devon stood at the massive window, watching it all unfold. Once everything sank into shadow, a low hissing could be heard from across the room. One loud clunk later, and the massive beacon switched on, beginning its rotation. As Devon stood there, he heard the first few unmistakable drops and saw them splat against the window. Gradually it picked up speed, escalating from a steady drizzle to a downpour.

Its sound was soothing. There was no thunder this time, no lightning. It was an old-fashioned rain storm. The wind whistled quietly as it passed through the lighthouse windows. Devon stood at those windows for some time, gazing out at the rain, enveloped in an atmosphere of isolation. Eventually he walked around the room, did some checks on the machinery, then went downstairs, heading off to sleep in his little cot.

 

A faint noise awoke Devon in the night. Groggy and uncertain, he glanced over at the clock on the bed table. Everything was out of focus for a moment, but when his eyes adjusted, he could read the clock. It was after midnight, closer to one. The rain had stopped. Rubbing his eyes, Devon sat up in his bed, listening to the noise off in the distance.

At first he thought it might just be the wind, but then he realized that the sound was too defined for that. He strained his ears, but couldn’t discern its origin. It was intermittent and high-pitched. He sat there for several minutes, shutting out all other senses to focus on the sound. It didn’t have a consistent pattern to it. It jumped around, often going for several seconds before stopping, only to start up again moments later. And sometimes it would cease altogether for nearly a half-minute before his ears would pick up on it again.

He got up off the bed, standing still in the darkness, feeling an unearthly chill run over him. He stealthily tip-toed forward, afraid that if he was too loud the noise would stop. He blinked for a moment, his eyes still adjusting to the darkness. Gradually, the faint outline of the wooden door slunk into view. He placed a shaky hand on the gray knob and pulled the door open.

When Devon stepped out into the stairwell, he was immediately overwhelmed. The sound was much louder now, and it was unmistakably the sound of someone weeping. The tower was a natural amplifier, making it impossible to determine where it was coming from. It echoed all over the place, cries overlapping with cries.

It sounded like a child. But there weren’t any children here. No one else was on this island at night except for Devon. No one living anyway.

Devon leaned over the railing, looking down then up. But he couldn’t tell if the sound was coming from above or below him. The echoes swarmed his mind, making it impossible to concentrate. Devon shivered, fear crawling over his skin. He had faced stormy nights. He had faced power outages. But this, this was something different, something incomprehensible.

The faint night breeze came in through the tower windows, ruffling Devon’s hair and chilling him to the bone. He spun around rapidly. The crying was everywhere, a ceaseless cacophony. Giving in to a primal instinct, Devon jumped back into his room and slammed the door shut behind him. He backed away from it, staring with wide eyes. From in here the crying was indistinct, but it still faintly rang in his eardrums.

Devon didn’t believe in ghosts. He had no time for such superstitious nonsense. But now, staring at the faded wooden door in front of him, Devon found himself doubting his beliefs on the matter. He felt like a little boy again, scared of the dark, paralyzed by the fear of the unknown.

He laid down in his bed, pulling the blanket over him. He plunged his head into the pillow and scrunched his eyes shut, trying to shut out the crying. It kept going and going throughout the night, shifting in volume at times but always present. Devon almost pulled the blanket up over his head, but his pride and dignity forbade him from doing that. He was a man in his forties after all, not a six-year-old child who wanted the lights kept on.

Eventually, the noise ceased. Devon opened his eyes, laying on his back, and stared at the ceiling for several minutes. The sound never resumed, and Devon felt relief. He turned on his side to look at the clock. According to the hands, it was past three in the morning. Devon groaned aloud, and turned over. Closing his eyes, he finally drifted off into sleep.

 

“No ships”.

That was all Devon recorded in the log. He hadn’t wanted to admit that he had been afraid last night, as he stood alone in the stairwell. The crying really got to him. But he couldn’t understand why. He still believed there had to be an explanation for it. He was reluctant to turn to the supernatural, but it was something he was forced to consider.

He tried chalking it up to being a bad dream. But that didn’t work, because in his mind he knew it couldn’t have been. It was far too vivid in his mind to be a mere figment. Devon shook his head as he sat at his desk, staring at the old white wall. There was no point in dwelling on it now.

Devon slipped on his boots and climbed the stairs to the light room. He examined the Sun Valve and the beacon, finding each in working order. He climbed down the stairs to the boiler room. The rusted bronze machine seemed to sneer at him, menacingly shrouded in the shadows. Devon quickened his pace up the stone steps and out the door.

He stood outside, looking at the overcast sky. Damn it, he thought, get a hold of yourself. There’s no such thing as ghosts. But his reassurances sounded hollow. He vowed to get to the bottom of it. He had wanted to take another trip to the mainland to ask about those gold coins.

 

When Devon stepped off the boat, the sounds of the town reached his ears. It was late morning in Colwyn, the hustle and bustle of the market at its peak. People milled about the streets, carrying baskets of fruit and vegetables. Children and adults strolled down the cobblestone walkways, laughing and chattering, their shoes clicking against the stone. It felt good to be around other people again.

Devon headed straight for the museum, which was just off the main avenue, nestled in a shady corner of the city. It was an old, red brick building two stories high. Small black windows dotted the exterior, and an ancient fountain stood out front. Stone swans stood in the fountain, reaching their beaks up to try and drink the water.

Devon walked up to the double doors at the front of the building. They were bright, shiny brown with bronze knobs. He pushed them open and stepped in to a warmer climate. The interior of the museum wasn’t much to look at, red brick walls lined with different kinds of exhibits. The key gimmick of the museum was that all the exhibits had something to do with the town or at least had some kind of connection to it. Devon smiled to himself when he saw distinctive, familiar pieces of jewelry and coins glinting various shades of gold, green, and red. His little service to the community.

A large wooden reception desk sat to the left of the doorway. As Devon approached, a small, old man with wiry gray hair looked up. When his green eyes laid upon Devon, he stood up with a smile, and walked out from behind the desk.

“Ah Devon my boy!” His Irish accent was obvious.

“Hello Sean,” Devon said with a smile, and the two embraced each other. Devon had known Sean Campbell all his life. Sean had been a young man when Devon was born, and used to babysit him when his parents were away. He was a mentor of sorts, guiding him through life.

Sean was dressed in a tweed vest with long brown pants. He was the spitting image of a professor, which was indeed his former occupation. He used to teach history at a college, but retired back here to his home town of Colwyn and took up the museum as his pet project. Devon would have loved to have him as a teacher when he was going to school. He was that rare sort of professor who genuinely cared about what he taught and challenged his students to go above and beyond. He was loved by all who took his class, although Devon suspected that was mainly because he didn’t believe in giving out tests. He considered them a waste of time, only good at showing how well students could regurgitate his lectures.

Even in old age, Sean carried with him an air of authority. He pushed the small, gray glasses back onto his eyes and motioned Devon to follow him.

“So what can I do for you today son,” he asked.

“Well I have some coins for you to look at. I was going to show them to you a couple days ago, but when I came by the museum was closed.”

“We had an incident. Some kids broke into the museum the night before and stole some of those jewels you brought me. They didn’t realize I was upstairs, and when I came down to investigate the noise, they bolted out the window they came in.”

“How much did they get away with,” Devon asked.
“Not much,” Sean replied. “At the very least, I have things of similar value so the only loss here is historical. In any case, I doubt they’ll show up here again.”

Sean seemed calm despite the theft. That was his nature. He carried himself with an almost zen-like aura. Hardly anything bothered him. He was Devon’s role model in that sense, gliding through life with the ease of a monk.

“Anyways I closed down the museum that day so I could inventory everything I lost. Who knows, the jewels might show up again someday. A man can only hope,” Sean said with a light smile. “But enough about that. Show me these coins.”

Devon reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the two golden coins he had found on the shore. Sean took them from his hands and walked over to a small table with a magnifying glass strapped to a stand. He slid the coins under it and carefully examined them, paying close attention to the inlaid patterns on one side.

“Well these are definitely of Spanish origin. I would guess somewhere around the sixteenth century.”

Sean flipped one of the coins over and looked at the face on the other side.

“This image is obviously of someone in the aristocracy. His clothing tells me that he was very prominent in the hierarchy, perhaps even a member of the Spanish royal family.”

“Can you tell which ship it might have come from,” Devon asked.

“It’s possible, although highly unlikely. There are several Spanish ships which were wrecked on Demon’s Rock, and those are just the ones we know about.”

Sean motioned Devon to follow him again, and they headed up the large wooden stairs. The second floor of the museum was a different beast altogether. Instead of fancy jewels and treasures, it contained models of various shipwrecks, from large cargo ships to small passenger boats. In the middle of the room, there was a scale model version of the lighthouse Devon worked in. The lighthouse had been a fixture of Colwyn for over a century. Sean always liked to remind him of that whenever they spoke, to tell him how lucky he was to work there. It was his way of trying to alleviate the growing depression inside Devon. Devon appreciated the gesture, but it only made him feel worse.

Sean walked among the scale models of shipwrecks, examining the golden plaques inlaid on each exhibit stand. After he had examined a few, he shook his head and turned back toward Devon.

“It’ll be next to impossible to figure out which of these buggers held those coins. At least half the Spanish wrecks here were carrying gold coins, all from the same basic time period. Not that it really matters in the end, but it would have been nice to know.”

“Indeed,” was all Devon said. He stepped up to the scale model of the lighthouse, and studied it for a moment in silence. Sean walked up beside him and stood there staring at the model as well.

“So are you going to say it or should I? It’s obvious there’s something else on your mind son, so spit it out.”

“You always were perceptive old man,” Devon said with a light smile. He stood silent for a moment, trying to think of the best way to broach the topic.

“Have there ever been reports of…unusual activity in the lighthouse?”

“How do you mean,” Sean inquired.

“Well has anyone ever reported…strange noises at night? Noises that shouldn’t be there?”

Sean turned his attention away from the model lighthouse and studied Devon for a moment. He knew something was up. But he also knew better than to push. Devon would speak of it when he felt like it. He’d been that way ever since he was a teenager.

“I’ve lived around here for a long time, and I’ve known some of the previous keepers. I was well acquainted with the others that used to serve with you, Drake and…and…hmm blast it what was the name of that other boy?”

“James,” Devon answered.

“Ah yes James! He was a fine lad. A bit quiet but one of the nicest souls I ever met. None of the previous keepers or James or Drake ever mentioned anything about noises.”

“You know the lighthouse’s history well, right?”

Sean fixed him with a steely stare.

“Son, it’s my business to catalog the history of this town, good and bad. So of course I know the history of that lighthouse. I know it like the back of my hand. And I can tell you that I’ve never heard of any ‘noises’ in the night, nor did any of the keepers write anything in their journals.”

“But is it possible that the keepers just…left it out of their journals? Maybe they didn’t want people to know they were hearing things,” Devon said, thinking back to his journal entry for last night.

“What exactly have you got in your head?”

“Nothing nothing. It’s just a thought I was having. I was curious to see if there was anything unusual in the lighthouse’s history.” It was a bad lie, and they both knew it.

When Devon left the museum a half hour later, instead of feeling relieved he felt more anxious than ever. The news that there was no recorded hauntings or ghosts should have been cathartic, but it wasn’t. Devon’s boots clicked on the cobblestones as he walked with his head low, lost in thought.

A part of him still wouldn’t let him chalk it up to a bad dream. It felt so vivid and defined, whereas dreams are normally murky and incoherent. Devon was frustrated. He was so used to having the answers at his fingertips. But this time, he felt lost and confused. He wasn’t sure if he had just hallucinated it or not.

The two small coins clinked together in his pocket, diverting his train of thought back to the last thing Sean had said to him. He had told Devon to keep the coins with him in the lighthouse, because he wasn’t sure if the thieves would come back. He figured they wouldn’t, but he wanted to be safe.

Despite the events of the day, it had been nice to catch up with his old friend again. It was only when he left the harbor and was on his way back to the lighthouse that his thoughts drifted back toward the mysterious crying. If the crying was just a bad dream, then he wouldn’t hear it again tonight. The thought filled him with hope.

But if he did hear it…then he would have to open himself up to considerations more sinister.

 

His sleep was disturbed. Devon’s eyes snapped open to a dark room, and when he tilted his head to read the clock, he saw that the hands pointed at one and ten. Laying there, he focused his attention, trying to detect whatever it was that had pulled him from his slumber. It emerged from the darkness like a phantom. From inside the little room it sounded so far off, but he knew if he opened that door the noise would become overwhelming, vibrating through the tower like it was a gigantic tuning fork. The mere thought of it made Devon shiver.

He lay there for a long time, staring at the ceiling. With every faint cry, his soul shuddered and withdrew. Devon had never felt anything quite like it before, an intense and palpable fear. It was so strange and otherworldly that he couldn’t even find the right words to describe it. It was deep, so deep that it tapped into parts of Devon he hadn’t known existed, or that he had buried. As a child he had a terrible fear of darkness, more so than other kids. It was debilitating for a long time before he finally conquered it. But now, he felt like that child again.

The crying seemed to be growing softer, but at the same time more intense. Devon had never felt quite so isolated. He was alone in the lighthouse most of the time, day and night, but right now he felt that sensation of solitude more than ever. He couldn’t call anyone for help, not that he would, fearful for the sake of his pride and dignity. But the simple thought of not having that option rattled him to the core.

And so Devon did the only thing he could. He pulled the covers up around his neck and laid his head back down on the pillow. He closed his eyes and tried shutting out the noise coming from beyond the door. It was a long time before he succeeded.

 

When Devon pulled himself out of bed the next morning, he still felt tired. He walked over to his desk and picked up the mirror. For a split second, he almost didn’t recognize the man looking back at him. He seemed older. His eyes were sunken and dull, even with the light of the sun shining on one half of his face.

“I can’t keep this up forever,” Devon muttered to himself.

Setting the mirror back down, Devon pulled out the journal, scribbled “no ships” under yesterday’s date, and went about his morning routine. He climbed up the black spiral stairs, examined the sun valve and the beacon, then made his way back down to the bedroom. As he was slipping on his working clothes, a faint rumble suddenly reached his ears. He ran to the window. There he saw Patrick O’Neill disembarking from a boat with his son Charlie. He had forgotten they were stopping by today at around noon. Hastily, he grabbed the clock from his bedside and looked at it. With shock, he realized that it was already twelve-thirty.

Quickly dressing, Devon ran out the door and bounded down the staircase. It wasn’t like he needed to hurry, but he was always one for punctuality and dependability. The fact that he had slept longer than he meant to rubbed on him, irritated him. It was silly, but he couldn’t help it.

He jogged past the boiler and up into the little shed. He stopped at the door, collected himself, and strolled out into the sunlight with an air of purpose and authority. Patrick and Charlie were coming up the stone steps toward the lighthouse. Devon simply nodded at them, covering his shakiness under a mask of calm.

Patrick was an older man, not quite Devon’s age, but close. He had black hair and blue eyes. He wore a small, gray beret on his head, and a light brown jacket with a button pocket on the front. The most noticeable thing about Patrick, indeed the very thing one noticed about the man right away, is that he walked with a slight limp. An accident with a car some years ago was to blame.

By contrast, Charlie had light brown hair with matching hazel eyes. He was wearing a gray jacket with blue jeans. Charlie was not the spitting image of his father Patrick. In fact, they didn’t really look anything like each other. There was one simple explanation for that: Charlie was adopted. His biological parents died when he was but two years old, and Patrick had found him living in a dingy orphanage in London. Since then Patrick was the only father Charlie had ever known.

They walked up to the front of the lighthouse, and Devon shook hands with Patrick.

“Nice to see you again Patrick,” Devon said.

“Good to see you too.” Despite being Irish, Patrick didn’t have much of an accent.

Patrick stepped past Devon and went down the stairs into the boiler room. Always straight to business, Devon thought to himself as he followed him down the stairs, glancing behind him at Charlie, who was holding up the rear. Charlie was staring at the ground as he walked. He always seemed quiet and reserved when Patrick was present, Devon had noticed. He figured that was due to his father’s fiery personality.

Patrick and Devon used to be close friends, a long time ago. But ever since the accident that left him with a limp, Patrick had grown grouchy and irritable. His fuse had been snipped, and the tiniest of things would set him off. Because of that, Devon had spent less and less time around the man. They only met each other for business these days.

Stepping down into the boiler room, Devon saw Patrick looking up at the ceiling, scanning his head around the room. He ran a finger down the wall, and it came back coated with dust. When his eyes met the old, bronze boiler in the dark part of the room, he grimaced.

“We really should get rid of that,” he muttered. “What a waste of space.”

He went on in this way for a minute, examining walls and the floor until Devon finally chimed in.

“So then, any big news?”

“No, nothing of importance,” he said, barely paying attention.

“What exactly are you looking for Patrick?”

Patrick didn’t respond, but Devon had a good idea what he was doing. He had suspected for some time that Patrick was looking for an excuse to let him go. Patrick was more concerned with his money than anything, and Devon had become an unnecessary drain on it. The last few times Patrick had shown up here, he had behaved in this way, closely examining everything like he had a magnifying glass. It seemed like he was hoping Devon would screw something up. Then he would have an excuse to let him go early. But Devon was too good at his job.

Devon didn’t hate Patrick, and he assumed that Patrick didn’t hate him either. It was just one of those things in life. Neither of them really wanted it to happen, but it did. They drifted apart, and now they were little more than business associates.

“The boiler room looks good, albeit dusty,” Patrick said. “But I don’t suppose there would really be much purpose to cleaning it up, now that the entire place runs on gas.”

“I would agree with you on that,” Devon replied.

“Now, I’m gonna go check out the…get your hands off of that!” Charlie, out of curiosity, had run his hand along the cold metal of the boiler. Patrick caught him and scolded him loudly, causing Charlie to jerk his hand back in fright. Devon shook his head.

“Was that really necessary Pat? The kid meant no harm. He’s just curious,” Devon suggested.

Patrick turned toward him with an icy stare. The black strands of his hair seemed to snake their way out from under his beret, slinking down in front of his blue eyes. His mouth curled into a sour grimace. Devon decided it was best not to push the matter and remained silent. Patrick turned and started limping toward the staircase.

“I’m going to do my check of the light room,” he shouted back. “I’m sure there’s nothing to be seen, but you can’t fault redundancy!” He was quick to cover his anger.

The stairs clanged awkwardly due to Patrick’s unusual gait. As the sound got more and more distant, Devon noticed a change in Charlie. His eyes seemed brighter now, and he no longer sat staring at the floor.

“I’m sorry about that my boy. Your father just likes things to be done in a particular way, that’s all,” Devon reassured him.

“Oh I know,” Charlie said. “I live with the old man after all.”

Devon trotted over to the boiler, and banged his hand against it.

“Would you believe that this thing was the only source of power for this entire lighthouse at one point? Now it just sits here, rusting away into nothing…” he trailed off, gazing deeply into the faded bronze finish.

Charlie knew what Devon was thinking. He had heard his adopted father talking about firing him, although he always called it “letting him go” as if it was a favor. Charlie felt bad for him. Devon had always seemed like an impressive man, standing about half a foot taller than him. But his eyes seemed faded and listless these days. Depression had made its nest, but there was something else, something Charlie had seen the moment they walked up the stairs. But he had waited until his father was out of earshot to bring it up.

“Devon, there’s something I want to ask you. Is there…something else going on with you lately? You seem more tired than usual.”

“I haven’t been sleeping well these past couple of nights. I’ve been…hearing things.” Devon found it strange that he talked so freely around Charlie.

“What kind of things,” Charlie asked.

“I don’t know how to describe it. Some kind of…crying. It echoes all over the lighthouse late at night, and for some reason, it frightens me to no end. I don’t even know what it is, a ghost or what. But for the past two nights it has woken me up.”

And before he knew it, Devon was revealing things he had never told anyone save his parents.

“It makes me feel like I’m a little boy again. When I was really young, I had a paralyzing fear of darkness. It was terrible and made it almost impossible for me to sleep without some kind of light. I used to cling to stuffed animals for support.” Devon chuckled. “I bet you didn’t expect that, a man like me, afraid of the dark, jumping at shadows and strange noises. I must seem like a fool.”

“On the contrary Devon, I find it mighty brave of you to even admit that. You’re so different from Patrick. He’ll never admit to being frustrated or afraid or…anything really. He just bottles it all up inside until it bursts out. I worry about his health, all that stress. Sometimes I think he uses his leg as an excuse to not take care of himself. The only thing he cares about is having me take over the family business. He wants me to be in charge of the lighthouse when he’s gone, but all I want to do is paint. I love drawing, I love sitting out on the waterfront sketching the ships that go by. But he’ll never understand…”

In that moment, looking at the young boy, Devon realized that the two of them were more alike than he thought. A couple of decades apart in age, and they were experiencing a similar crisis in life. Both of them, wanting to pursue their own interests and live out their lives the way they wanted to, but being denied the chance.

After a little while, Devon heard the limping footsteps on the stairs.

“Son, can you do me a favor? Don’t tell Patrick any of what I said to you,” he pleaded. “If he finds out, he’d finally have an excuse to fire me on the spot. He’ll chalk it up to a case of the ‘crazies’.”

Charlie smiled. “Don’t worry Devon, your secret’s safe with me.”

“Thank you,” Devon whispered, and nodded. Just then Patrick came around the corner, groaning as he limped forward.

“Damn gimpy leg,” he cursed. “Well Devon, everything is in tip-top shape it seems. Now, there’s another matter I wanted to discuss with you.” Devon felt his muscles tighten. “There’s no sense beating around the bush on this one. I’m sure you’ve suspected it for some time.”

“You’re letting me go?”

“No no…at least not yet. But I figured I should give you fair warning. Things are in the works, and you’ll receive a fair severance package. Now don’t look so gloomy,” he said, noticing Devon’s downcast face. “You’ll be set for life, never having to work another day for as long as you live! Be happy that you served your community so well for all these years. You deserve a rest.”

Patrick began limping toward the door, motioning for Charlie to come along. Charlie seemed stilted and awkward again, briefly glancing at Devon with no expression before walking up the stairs. Patrick turned back toward Devon.

“I’ll get back to you when I have a specific date for the end of your tenure. But until then, keep up the good work!”

And with that, Patrick made his way up the stone steps and out the door. The door shut behind them, leaving Devon alone in the boiler room with only a buzzing, dim overhead light for company. Water dripped from pipes inside the wall, creating a tinny plonking noise. Devon gazed at the old, rusted boiler, tucked away and forgotten. He stared into the glass thermometer on it, and saw himself in the reflection. After a silent minute, Devon turned away and walked back up the stairs.

 

It was like clockwork. Each night, Devon would find himself awake in bed after midnight, listening to the faint crying echoing through the lighthouse. There was no rational explanation for it. Even his efforts to open himself up to more extravagant explanations had failed.

He had traveled to the mainland a couple of times to do research. There were no records of any mysterious deaths in the lighthouse, least of which the death of a child. There was no trace of any supernatural or strange events occurring in the lighthouse at all. Devon had gone back to the very beginning of its construction, and still nothing.

On the sixth night of the insidious noise, Devon finally decided he’d had enough. He threw off the light blanket and steeled his nerves. Slipping on his boots, Devon stomped out of the bedroom door. Outside his tiny sanctuary, the noise was almost too much. It emanated from all directions, pinging off the rounded walls of the tower. It overlapped with itself, creating a distorted and eerie echo. Devon looked up toward the light room, then leaned over the railing and looked down toward the boiler room. He had no clue where it could be coming from. But on a hunch, he decided to continue up the tower rather than down.

As he started his climb, his ears detected a strange undercurrent to the noise which grew more apparent the higher he got. It was a strange sort of buzzing, a hissing that seemed to be behind the crying. He was heading in the right direction. His hunch had paid off.

He drew closer and closer to the top. The odd hissing droned on, growing louder and louder as he climbed the tower. And that’s when he realized what it was. His mind spun, flashed back to his nightly ritual. The old brass dial, the dusty speaker, the standing black microphone…it all clicked inside his head to form a perfect picture.

The sound was coming from the old ham radio.

He stepped onto the landing, and strolled through the open doorway into the radio room. As he thought, the crying was much more pronounced here, and was definitely coming from the radio. It no longer echoed madly around in his ears, but finally shrank down to one point. Whoever was on the other side of the transmission sounded miserable. The crying was deep and intense, coming through the radio in waves that would spike at any given moment. This wasn’t a recording. This was the genuine article.

Devon sat down in the small chair in front of the radio, and just stared at it. As the crying went on, the speaker occasionally crackled, distorting the sound. He reached over toward the dial and looked at the frequency. It was just as he left it, tuned to the frequency used by captains. He shifted the frequency to see what would happen. To his horror, the crying was on every frequency he tried. The transmission must be so powerful that it eclipses the transmissions on all these frequencies, he thought to himself. He was too tired to think more of it.

Nevertheless, it was time to find out who was on the other end of the line. Devon picked up the microphone in a shaky hand, and pressed his finger down on the transmit button.

“He…hello? Who’s there?”

Almost immediately the crying ceased. There was a brief moment of silence before a child’s voice, as clear as a bell, came through the speaker.

“Is someone there,” the voice asked. From Devon’s estimation, he couldn’t be more than eight years old.

“Son, my name is Devon Woolfe. I’m the keeper of the Sharp Point lighthouse.”

“Light…house?”

“Yes, the lighthouse. Do you need help?”

“Where is everybody? I just want to go home…”

“Where are you kiddo? Can you describe where you are?”

“I do not know…it is cold and dark, so dark…”

He began to whimper quietly. Devon wasn’t sure what to say. He had no way of knowing how far away he was or even where to start looking. But he knew he had to do something.

“Listen, stay calm…I know things seem bad now, but you’re not alone anymore. I’m here…please don’t cry. I’ll stay with you.”

“You…you mean it,” he sniffled.

“Of course I do.”

“Th..thank you…it is just really scary here right now.”

“Now, is there anything you can tell me about how you got where you are?”

“The last thing I remember is blackness…and then I was here.”

Devon sighed to himself. This was going to be next to impossible.

“Will you be my friend,” the voice asked.

“Only if you’ll be mine,” Devon teased.

“Why would I not be?” Apparently he didn’t understand the joke.

“I was just teasing…of course I’ll be your friend.”

“Thank you.” There was a brief pause. “I have to go now. I am tired. Goodbye.”

“Wait…hello…hello?!”

But it was no use. He was already gone.

Devon sat there in stunned silence for a few moments, trying his best to comprehend what had just transpired. But his eyes began drooping on him, and he was forced to retire for the night.

He made his way back down the spiral stairs. Each step was tired and slow, and it seemed like ages before he finally made it back down to his bedroom. He pulled open the wooden door and entered, closing it behind him. He unbuckled his boots, shrugged them off, and climbed into bed. The moment his head hit the pillow, he was gone.

 

The next day Devon had planned to make his way over to the mainland in order to do some more investigation, hoping to figure out who or where this child was. But the moment his eyes opened, the pattering that reached his ears was a sign. There would be no traveling on the water today, and the loud peal of thunder moments later confirmed his assessment.

Devon rose out of bed and quickly shut his bedroom window. A puddle of water sloshed around his feet as he stepped away, soaking into the white floor. Slipping on his boots, Devon climbed the staircase to the light room. Outside, nature was furious. The wind whipped around the building, ferociously whistling. The waves crashed against the rocks, and the clouds were ominous and dark. Devon strained his eyes, but couldn’t make out any hint of the mainland.

His investigation would have to wait.

The storm was relentless, raging throughout the entire day. Devon consigned himself to reading a book, taking a chair up with him to the light room. He tried bringing up the child on the radio again, but couldn’t find any sign of him.

And so he settled in with his book, the giant beacon of light swinging by him every so often. His entire day was spent reading, glancing up from time to time to check on the weather conditions. They barely changed throughout the day. The wind rose and fell just like the waves, but it never ceased howling. The rain smashed against the lighthouse hard. Devon could hear the pinging and the pattering coming from all over as water met metal and stone. At one point he attempted to venture outside just to see how bad it was. The wooden door nearly slammed him back into the lighthouse as he tried to push it open. He didn’t venture beyond the doorway, but rather stood against the door as the rain and wind battered him. He retreated inside and went back to reading.

As night fell, the storm continued on. Sliding a bookmark into the pages of his book, he clasped it shut and stood up, stretching. He felt restless. He wanted to do something about the child on the other end of the radio, but with the storm outside he was trapped. A very real sense of isolation crept into his heart, and for the first time Devon wanted to be anywhere but the lighthouse. He felt like an animal in a cage.

He walked downstairs to the radio room. The hissing static did little to calm him, and so Devon was forced to abandon his nightly ritual early. He crept downstairs and slid into bed, but he didn’t fall asleep. He lay awake for hours, waiting. Time crept by slowly as he stared at the ceiling, occasionally glancing at the bedside clock. First it was ten. Then eleven. Then twelve. When the clock had nearly struck one, he heard what he had been waiting for.

“Hello? Hello?” The child’s voice called to him like a Siren.

Devon jumped out of bed and raced up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time. He sat himself down in the tiny wooden chair in front of the radio and picked up the microphone.

“Yes I’m here. Are you okay?”

“I am fine. It is just so lonely here. You are the only friend I have,” the child said. His voice seemed so innocent and serene.

But doubt crept into Devon’s mind. Something was not normal about all of this. As he read his book throughout the day, he found his thoughts constantly drifting back to the conversation he had with the child the night before. With a good amount of sleep and clarity of mind, Devon realized a few things that seemed odd.

He was particularly perturbed by the way the child just ended the conversation so suddenly. Devon began to wonder if the child was somewhere against his will, like he had been kidnapped. But that wasn’t the only thing that bothered him.

Some of the child’s mannerisms were odd. His sentence structure was a little strange, and something called Devon’s attention as his mind went over that brief and strange conversation. The child didn’t use any contractions in his sentences. Instead of “I’m”, he would say “I am”. Instead of “it’s”, “it is”. It wasn’t something Devon had considered before, but in retrospect it stuck out like a sore thumb.

But no matter how much ruminating he did on the subject, he was left more confused than enlightened. More to the point, Devon was beating himself up over the fact that he didn’t discover that the crying was coming from the radio sooner. If this kid was really in trouble, Devon’s fearfulness had put him in even more danger the longer time passed.

Their conversation continued much like the last one, as a sort of question and answer session. But then the child asked a question that gave Devon pause.

“Friend Devon, what is a light house?”

Devon blinked for a moment in disbelief. “What,” he sputtered.

“You said something about a light house before. What is a light house?”

“Haven’t you ever seen one of those big towers with a spinning light at the top?”

“No.”

“Well when you do see one of those, that’s a lighthouse. We used it to guide people to safety in dangerous areas.”

“Do you not anymore?”

“No we do it’s just…well…it’s complicated. I’ll have to tell you about it sometime.”

“I look forward to it friend Devon.”

How did he not know what a lighthouse was? Where was he? And why was he calling him “friend Devon” all the time, like some strange formality? Questions swarmed around inside his brain like a bunch of insects, gnawing away at his mind.

“I am sorry, but I am tired again. I have to sleep,” the child said without changing his tone.

And just like before he was gone. The radio hissed.

Devon sat back in his chair and ran back over the conversation in his mind. But like the night before, he had grown too tired to discern anything useful from it. He figured that after he slept, he would be better able to think on it. He headed back down the stairs and climbed into bed. The rain pinged against his bedroom window, lulling him to sleep.

 

The next day the sun shined as Devon woke up, freeing him from his dark and dreary prison. The more he stayed on hand at the lighthouse, the more it reminded him that sometime in the future it would no longer be his to take care of. The thought hit him unexpectedly that morning, and he realized that he hadn’t really focused on it over the last couple of days. The mysterious child had taken his mind off of it, something Devon was strangely grateful for.

He headed over to the mainland with the morning sun gleaming off the calm blue ocean. He hit up the local library again, researching the news to see if he could find any reference to a missing child. It was a long shot at best, but he figured that it was better than wasting his time wondering.

As he predicted, he found nothing after scanning through the archives. So he wasn’t surprised when he found himself drifting towards subjects more occult in nature. Devon hadn’t quite shaken the idea that everything that had been happening to him was otherworldly in nature. He scanned through different books on ghosts and other supernatural entities, but he only found some references to ghosts and radios. And from what he could tell, most ghosts just repeated the same few things over and over again. What he was experiencing was different. Whoever or whatever the child was, he talked to him, responded to him.

Finding nothing, Devon left the mainland feeling a little empty. As he sailed along the waters back toward the lighthouse, he felt like he had failed. The sun was already beginning to set, and he had nothing to show for it. He gazed glumly at the dark orange haze on the horizon, wondering what else he could do. But his mind remained empty.

He continued his conversations with the child, becoming more and more convinced that nothing was what it seemed. The mannerisms grew more bizarre along with the questions. It was almost as if the child had never been alive until that night when the crying began. He knew nothing about modern culture and even once asked what a “car” was. Devon found himself perplexed, and for some odd reason, afraid.

Then one day, everything changed.

 

The sky was overcast that day, setting a grim and foreboding mood, but the weather never took a turn for the worse. With that in mind, Devon decided to take another trip into Colwyn that afternoon. He hadn’t found much progress in his research over the last few days, and was growing more and more frustrated. The boat seemed to pitch up and down to the tune of his troubled mind. He stared ahead, not at his destination, but at some undefined point in the distance, lost in his thoughts.

There was no evidence of this child’s existence anywhere. It was like he was a figment of the imagination, an echo of the unreal. Devon rubbed his forehead with one hand, and drifted backward into the conversation he had with the child the night before.

“Son, what’s your name?”

“My…name?”

“Yes your name.”

“I do not understand friend Devon.”

“You don’t…uh…how do I put this…what do I call you?”

“You can call me ‘friend’.”

“What do you call yourself?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you think of yourself, of who you are, what is that called?”

“I do not understand.”

“Never mind…it’s nothing important.”

“Friend Devon?”

“Yes?”

“What is a ‘name’?”

Lowering his hand from his forehead, Devon recalled how he had just stared at the radio in disbelief. It was as if the child had no real education, like someone had taught him a decent command of English but failed to teach him proper context. But even that seemed like an inadequate explanation for the strangeness.

In any case, Devon continued across the water, tying his boat up at the dock when he arrived. He started down the cobblestone paths, back over toward Sean’s museum, deciding that he would drop in on an old friend once again.

When Devon waltzed through the double doors, Sean was just accepting a donation from some customers: a family with two kids, both boys. Sean nodded at Devon when he walked in, but kept his attention on the family. They thanked him for the tour, and headed toward the door, walking past Devon. Sean slipped the money into a jar he kept below the desk, then walked out to greet him.

“Top of the morning Devon! How are you doing son?”

“I’m fine Sean, thanks for asking. How are things at the museum?”

“Fewer people are coming through these days, but I still get enough patrons to keep me going.”

Sean motioned Devon forward, and they walked down the aisles of exhibits while they chatted.

“Did they ever catch those thieves,” Devon asked.

“That’s a crying shame that one,” Sean shook his head. “They were careful to leave no trace of anything that would lead back to them. The only thing I could give the authorities was a brief glimpse of a tattoo on one of their forearms.”

“What kind of tattoo?”

“Nothing too special. It looked like some kind of snake or something. I didn’t get a good look at it as the thief was climbing through the window at that point.”

“Ah.”

They continued up the stairs, chatting away. When they came to the model of the lighthouse, they stopped. It was then that Devon decided to unveil his ulterior motive.

“I didn’t just come here to catch up with you Sean.”

“I figured as much. You always were easy to read my boy,” Sean smiled, and slapped Devon on the back. Devon chuckled awkwardly.

“Yeah…but in all seriousness, you were interested in radios and broadcasting for a time correct?”

“Yes. It was one of my passions as a young man.”

“Is it…possible for a radio transmission to be broadcast on multiple frequencies?”

“Well, yes it is possible,” Sean said, which sent a wave of relief up Devon’s spine. “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” Devon began, “I’ve been having these conversations with someone on the radio, a child. And it seems like his transmission eclipses all others. I’ve turned the dials all over the place and he’s on every single one whenever he decides to broadcast.”

“A child?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmm…and you say he’s transmitting across multiple frequencies?”

“Yes…” Devon was getting nervous now.

“Well that complicates things. Usually when someone transmits across multiple frequencies they use something easier to send, such as Morse code. But with an actual voice transmission? That’s a different matter. I suppose it could be done, technically, but you’d need some serious hardware to do it.” Sean stood there scratching his chin for a minute in silence.

“I was hoping we could track the signal or something. I don’t know if this helps, but I wrote down the frequencies I tested on this piece of paper,” Devon said, handing the paper to Sean. Sean took the paper and looked it over for a moment.

“Hmmmm….” he said thoughtfully.

“What, what is it,” Devon asked, unable to mask the fear in his voice.

“You didn’t mention that he was transmitting over multiple bands. Oh my boy, this changes everything.”

“How so?”

“Transmitting over multiple bands like this…with this amount of coverage…Devon it just simply isn’t possible. The amount of power and technology required to produce something like this would be staggering. And as far as I know, no technology like that exists yet.”

Sean slowly turned toward Devon, with a look in his eyes he had never seen. And then, Sean said the words that made his skin crawl.

“At least…no man-made technology…”

 

Shortly after his conversation with Sean, Devon decided to head back to Sharp Point. It would do him little good to do any extra research, knowing what he now knew. But even that was inconclusive. Devon didn’t really know what to make of it all.

The rest of the day was fraught with pondering. The radio, the frequencies, Sean’s analysis…it all jumbled around in his head, and he felt more confused than ever. Devon barely focused on his duties, so ingrained into his mind as they were. Instead, his thoughts were on the child, what he meant, and what he was. Before he headed up to the radio room that night, he scribbled a cryptic journal entry.

“No ships. Not sure what to make of the discovery I made today. Is the child on the radio even real, or am I really losing my mind? Maybe true insanity isn’t being ignorant of it, but knowing that you’re going crazy and being unable to stop it.”

He flipped back over the entries he made over the past week or so. He had begun detailing his conversations with the child, despite the fact that later readers might view him with a curious look in their eyes. It didn’t matter to him. He was going to lose his job anyways, his only purpose in life. Let them think what they will.

After writing his entry, Devon went upstairs to the radio room. He sat in that small chair, staring ahead at the interlaced metal on the speakers, waiting for a long time. The sun set, machinery shut down, and people closed their doors for the night. All the while, Devon sat still in that chair. He felt almost dizzy sometimes, like he was spiraling out of control. He felt like he was going to lose his grip on Earth and fly away like a cast-off insect.

It began to rain later that night. The pattering was steady, but not intense like the other storms. A low boom of thunder sounded in the distance, a companion to his melancholy.

After a long time, the radio sparked to life.

“Friend Devon, are you there?”

Devon didn’t make a move at first, wasn’t even sure if he wanted to. For all he knew he was talking to some evil creature intent on stealing his soul. The microphone seemed to leer at him, taunting him with its dusty black mouth. The crackling static snake coiled like it was ready to strike.

Devon shook his head. No, he thought, I can’t accept that. All that he had heard from this enigmatic voice told him that whatever was on the other line was not a malevolent entity. Somehow, he knew a child of some description was just lonely and reaching out for companionship. Steadying his resolve, Devon gripped the microphone and pressed the button.

“Yes I’m here.”

“It is nice talking to you. I find it comforting.”

Devon sat for a moment before he spoke again.

“I have to ask you a question. Do you remember that first night, when I asked you how you got to where you are? You told me that you couldn’t remember anything. Can you remember anything now?”

“I remember a little friend Devon, but it is blurry and unclear.”

“Tell me what you remember.”

“Green, blue, dark. It was all approaching fast…”

This wasn’t helping. Devon decided to go for a different tack.

“Are you……human?”

“Friend Devon?”

“My name is Devon Woolfe. I am a human being. That is what I call myself. What do you call yourself?”

“I do not understand friend Devon.”

“What would you call yourself? What is the name of your…kind?”

There was a long period of silence. Devon thought that maybe he had offended the child somehow, but soon enough the voice came back.

“I do not understand what being ‘human’ is, nor do I have something to call myself. I do know one thing, friend Devon, and that is that I am not like you, and that this place is not my home.”

How had he not noticed it sooner? It was obvious that the child was strange in some way. Devon even recognized this himself. But his weary spirit and tired mind didn’t make the connection between the odd mannerisms and the child’s non-human nature.

“Why didn’t you tell me,” Devon finally asked.

“I was afraid. I was afraid that you would abandon me if I told you that I was not like one of you. I did not want to be alone. Please forgive me.”

The tone of voice coming from the radio’s speaker was so genuine it hurt. Devon was now absolutely certain that whatever this child was, he meant no harm. He was simply that, a scared child with no one to talk to. He was reaching out for someone to help guide him.

A brief whimper came through the speaker.

“Please don’t. You did nothing wrong.”

“You will stay with me?”

Devon thought for a moment. How could he say “yes” when he knew he was going to lose his job soon? The radio was the property of his employer. He held no claim on it.

“For as long as I can,” Devon promised. It was the best he could do.

Somewhere off in the distance, Devon thought he heard something sputter. But when he strained his ears, he detected nothing. So he shrugged it off, chalking it up to the gas generator having a brief hiccup.

Devon began to wonder. For the first time since this whole strange business started, he had an idea. He connected the dots to an explanation he hadn’t thought of before.

“Tell me, friend, when you came here…were you falling?”

“Falling? Yes…yes I was falling. I fell from blackness into a world of green, blue, and darkness. I remember I hit the blue, and it felt cold, yet inviting. It was natural to me, like I belonged. But I was alone here, so I grew scared. I cried and cried, but no one heard me. That is, until you answered me. You came to me. You gave me comfort.”

The flare across the sky that night…Devon almost couldn’t believe it. But his, or its, description was too telling for him not to connect the two. The child was the flare. The child fell from the sky into the ocean.

The concept of it was ridiculous, but it fit what he had experienced. He had made contact with alien life. Devon’s mind swirled, his perception of the world around him changed shape and form so suddenly he almost fell back in his chair. What were his troubles compared to the isolation of a cosmic child? At least he had people. At least he was connected in some way. It was like he had opened a door into a blinding light, a light that engulfed him with knowledge and understanding. It was a strange sensation. He felt like he was floating.

But he was grounded by the thought that he would probably have to abandon this fledgling being so soon after their meeting. He could perhaps purchase another radio, and search for him again, but he had no way of knowing how their connection worked. It could be proximity. It could be wavelength. It could be some random happenstance defect in the radio he was using. It could be Devon specifically.

In any case, Devon didn’t have much time to ponder it when he heard a voice behind him.

“Stand up and put your hands behind your head old man.”

Turning around in his chair, the first thing Devon saw was the glinting silver finish of the magnum. Raising his eyes, he saw the face of a younger male, possibly as young as a teenager. He pointed the gun at Devon, and motioned for him to stand up. Devon slowly stood up from his chair, putting his hands up as requested.

Devon studied the boy. He had short, black hair and eyes of dark hazel. He wore a light, black, coat with black pants. A black box with a speaker on it was clipped to his waist. He seemed shaky, uncertain. His finger twitched on the trigger.

“Now,” the boy’s voice shook slightly, “where is it?”

Devon squinted at him. “What?”

“The treasure old man! Where is it?!”

Devon didn’t understand what he was talking about, but then his eyes were drawn to a tattoo on the boy’s forearm. It was a snake eating its own tail.

This boy was one of the thieves that had hit the museum looking for stuff to steal. Sean had been right about the tattoo. Devon groaned inwardly. His name was on many of the exhibits in that museum. It wouldn’t have taken them long to look him up, and to realize that he sat out here at the lighthouse all alone most of the time. He was an easy target.

“I won’t ask you again! Where is it?”

The treasure had little meaning for Devon. He had no desire for plunder or riches. He just enjoyed giving something back to the community that had treated him so well, that had raised him as a child. And at that moment, looking into the boy’s eyes, Devon decided that the last thing he would do was give up the treasure to a punk.

“Where. Is. The. Treasure,” the boy asked. “Can you even hear me old man?”

Devon stared back at him, saying nothing. Another young male with a black wool hat on appeared behind him.

“Is he saying anything,” the new boy asked.

“No. He’s probably deaf. You know how old people are,” the first boy said.

“You think you’re something don’t you,” Devon snarled.

The two of them turned their heads toward him, taken aback by his sudden burst of anger.

“You think you can just walk in wherever you want, take whatever you want, and no one will care?! Punks like you are all the same, bottom-feeding scumbags who make their livings at the expense of everyone else. You don’t give a damn about what people go through or what their lives are like. No, not as long as you can get what you want from them. Because damn everyone else, you’re all that matters. That sound about right?”

The three of them stood there, staring at each other for a while. Then, before Devon could react, the kid with the gun came to his senses and swung at him, smashing him in the cheek with the butt of the magnum. Devon spiraled backwards into the desk the radio sat on. He nearly collapsed, but managed to hold on to the edge of the desk.

The boy stepped forward and swung again. Devon tried to put a hand up to defend himself, but the gun hit its mark, striking him across the face. He collapsed to the ground and spat out blood, the funky taste of copper filling his mouth. He glared up at the hoodlum, who sneered back at him.

“Tell us old man, tell us where you hid it!”

He smacked Devon with the gun again, forcing him onto his stomach. The kid stood over him, holding the gun to the back of Devon’s head. He pulled back the hammer, cocking it. Death stared Devon right in the face.

“Stop! I found something.”

Devon and the kid turned to look. The other kid had opened the small storage closet and discovered the false back. He held up the two coins with a smirk on his face. The armed kid turned back toward Devon and pressed the gun deeper into his neck.

“Now, tell me where the rest is.”

“There is nothing else.”

“Liar,” he screamed, kicking Devon in the chest.

“Listen punk,” Devon gasped. “There is nothing else. I give it away after I find it. The only reason I have those is because you broke into the museum you morons!”

“Shut up,” the boy yelled, raising the gun for another swing.

“Leave him alone,” a voice suddenly commanded.

The two young boys looked around, confused. Devon knew what it was right away. He had left the transmit button on the radio pressed down. It must have gotten stuck, and transmitted the entire incident as it happened.

“Who the hell…” the gun-less boy muttered.

There was a flurry of footsteps. Two more kids with black hats and tattoos entered the room.

“Hey did you hear that? Something came over the walkie-talkies,” one of them said, holding up another black box with a speaker in it.

“Leave. Him. Alone,” the child said again, his voice suddenly full of menacing authority.

The boy with the gun turned toward the ham radio. He leaned on the desk, squinting at the little gray box. After a few moments, he chuckled.

“What is this, some kind of joke,” he asked Devon, turning toward him. Devon said nothing.

“You need to leave. Now,” the child said over the radio.

The boy leaned into the microphone.

“I don’t know where you are, but we’re not leaving until your old man here tells us where the rest of the treasure is.” He turned back toward his comrades. “Can you believe this?”

“Leave, or you will regret it” the radio crackled.

“You got guts kid,” the boy grabbed the microphone, “but I don’t care. Now tell your old man to be nice or else we’ll come find you. And we won’t be nice to you. In fact, we’ll be real nasty. You wouldn’t want that, would you Devon?” The punk sneered at him.

Two of the others walked over and pulled Devon to his feet. The armed punk placed the barrel of his gun against Devon’s forehead. But before he could say anything, all of them were enveloped in a strange screeching noise. It pierced their ears, driving its way into their brains. The two kids let go of Devon and grabbed their heads. Devon stumbled backwards into the wall and put his hands against his ears, sliding down onto the floor.

“What is that,” one of them screamed.

The young thieves fell to their knees, and the screeching suddenly stopped. Devon took his hands away from his ears. And then, he had a plan. He seized the opportunity, slowly returning to his feet.

“You have no idea do you,” he said to the armed boy, who watched him with fear in his eyes. “You have no idea what this lighthouse is.”

Devon flashed him a wicked grin.

“There are places in this world that are dangerous, but not in ways that you can see. These areas are enveloped with supernatural energy. This entire lighthouse is infused with it. You can feel it in the air if you open yourself up.” Devon drew closer to the armed youth and lowered his voice to a whisper, concocting his story like a mad artist. “You want to know why? You want to know what lies underneath this lighthouse, in the deepest depths of the rocks below?”

“Wh….wha…..what,” the punk asked, eyes wide and shaking.

“A gate,” Devon said with a devilish smile. “A gate straight into the lowest levels of hell. And it’s waiting for you…”

Devon’s eyes rolled upward, and he collapsed to the ground twitching and seizing. His mouth moved, but only loud gibberish came out. He drooled and spat all over the floor, in the throes of some kind of seizure. White foam spewed from his lips, pooling on the floor in front of him. The thieves rapidly backed away in fear.

“What the hell is this,” one of them shouted over Devon’s incoherent babbling.

“Who cares,” shouted the one with the gun. “Just run!

And with that, the thieves ran from the lighthouse screaming like frightened children. A minute later a far off-door slammed, echoing along the tower walls. Devon’s gibberish slowly turned into triumphant laughter. Moments later, off in the distance, a sputtering motor started up and moved away from the lighthouse.

He sat listening for a moment. The motor receded into the distance, and only the light pattering of the rain remained. He chuckled to himself.

“Idiots.”

 

The next morning Devon awoke, sore and exhausted. His body ached from the events of the night before. But he was alive. He had the child to thank for that.

The child tethered himself to Devon. He needed him because he had no one of his kind to give him comfort, to give him warmth or guidance. Devon knew about loneliness, but he could barely begin to fathom the isolation the child was feeling.

Devon knew what the day would bring. Today was the scheduled day for Patrick and Charlie to pay another visit, and he knew that would only mean one thing: his termination. Patrick had said the last time he was here that he was still sorting things out. Devon could only assume that at this point, he would now know the destined date, the date he would have to abandon the child and leave.

It was strange. Devon hadn’t considered having children, the thought never crossed his mind at any point in his life. But the events of the last week or so had awoken a strange fatherly feeling in him. He wanted to protect this child, to keep him safe. Devon felt like it was his duty, his purpose. But now, it was all slipping away from him.

He slowly pulled on his boots, not eager to begin his day. Slipping into a jacket, Devon stepped to the window of his bedroom. Looking down, he caught sight of a boat skimming across the gleaming water. It was time to face his fate.

As he descended the stairs, his steps sounded like a funeral dirge, a sad meeting of rubber and metal. Losing his job was nothing compared to what the child would lose. Devon would be forced to abandon the lighthouse and the radio, leaving the child in the dark and alone. Maybe Patrick could be convinced to part with the radio, but Devon doubted it. He steeled himself for the future, ready to face whatever it brought. There were no other courses of action left.

When he reached the bottom he passed through the stone arch into the boiler room. He gazed at the pathetic looking boiler, encased in rusted bronze. He walked up the stone steps, taking each one slowly and sadly. He put his hand on the wooden door to the outside and paused. Taking a deep breath, he pushed it open and stepped outside into the frigid morning air.

The wind lightly breezed through his hair, making it stand up. The waves gently lapped the rocks, soothing the island with its watery embrace. Gulls called out from their flight in the skies above, a white “v” traveling across the water. Devon lowered his head to the dock.

He immediately knew something was off when Charlie dismounted the boat alone. His adoptive father was nowhere to be seen. Devon assumed that Patrick was deeper into the boat, but when Charlie approached, the look in his eyes told a different story. His face was grim, full of determination and purpose. He climbed the steps and extended his hand.

“Devon,” he said with an air of calm. Devon took his hand and they shook.

“Charlie what’s going on,” he asked.

Charlie didn’t say anything at first. Instead he looked away, gazing out at the endless ocean of blue. He stood there in silence, letting the wind blow back his hair.

“He’s gone…Devon Patrick is gone,” Charlie finally said.

Devon blinked. “What? How?”

“Heart attack. It seems all the stress over the years finally caught up with him. He passed away last night. Peacefully I’m told.”

“Charlie…I’m so sorry…”

“Don’t be. While I’m sad he’s gone, he was never the one I looked up to.” He turned to Devon, and stepped forward.

“And besides that,” he continued, “there’s been a development. You know that Patrick was grooming me to take over the business. Well, they read his will this morning. Everything he owned is now under my authority, including those he employed.”

“I’m not following,” Devon said.

“You and I think alike Devon. We both have dreams we want to live out. I want to be a painter, and you want to be a lighthouse keeper. The only difference is that I wasn’t being given the chance to live my dream, and you were about to get yours taken away.”

When understanding finally hit him, Devon felt like crying for the first time in many years.

“Devon,” Charlie said, reaching up to put a hand on his shoulder. “The lighthouse is going to become a tourist attraction eventually. That I can’t prevent. But what I can do is keep you on as its keeper, now and for the rest of your life. I want you to keep the lighthouse in tip-top shape. I want you to take care of it, because you’re the only one I trust enough to get the job done. I don’t care about any engineers or mechanics with some fancy degree. I care about passion. I may be a lot younger than you Devon, but I have always known you were in love with this place. And now, I leave it in your capable hands.”

“Charlie, I can never repay you for this.”

“If anything I am paying you back for my father’s callousness. A man like him could never understand true devotion to one’s work. The bottom line was all that mattered. He may have taught me about business, but you taught me about people. And with you taking care of the lighthouse, I’ll be able to pursue my dream of painting at long last.”

The two of them stood there for a moment in silence. The crashing of the waves was a happy sound to Devon’s ears.

“It’s funny,” Charlie began, “I can remember Patrick taking me from the orphanage like it was yesterday. He was…happy then. He didn’t have that grimace on his face, that constant anger and frustration. These last few years…he was so distant. Some days it was like he was barely there at all.”

“People change. It’s inevitable,” Devon replied. “But not all change is bad.”

Charlie locked eyes with him and smiled.

“By the way Devon, did you ever find out what that crying was,” he asked.

Devon smiled.

“Just another lost soul looking for guidance.”

Charlie gave Devon a confused look, but decided not to push the matter. “In any case,” he said, “I’ll be in contact with you soon to begin the transition. If everything goes as planned it shouldn’t be much more than a bump in the road for you. Good luck Devon.”

And with that, Charlie and walked down the stone steps toward the landing. When he was halfway to the dock, he stopped and gazed out at the ocean for a few moments. After some time Charlie turned and looked at Devon. He flashed him a light smile and waved. His eyes were different. They no longer had that naive glint to them. They weren’t the eyes of a boy.

They were those of a man.

 

That night, Devon sat up in the light room with the radio on his lap. He had pulled it up with him so that he could use it while gazing out into the night. He held a can of beer in one hand, and the microphone in the other. This time, he drank not to melancholy, but to celebration.

“Friend Devon?”

“Yes,” Devon replied.

“What is a shooting star?”

Devon smiled. He had been telling the child the story of what he saw the night of the flare.

“Shooting stars are chunks of rock that fall from space. They catch on fire, which creates an orange streak as they fly across the sky. Some people like to make wishes when they see them.”

“Wishes?”

“Yeah. See some people believe that if you hope for something after you see a shooting star, then it will happen.”

“Do you believe that friend Devon?”

“No. But it’s a nice thought.”

They sat there in silence, Devon drinking his beer. The light beacon was turned off. It was no longer needed. But rather than feel sad, Devon felt elated. Even though the lighthouse was becoming obsolete, Devon had a new purpose. Life had color for him again, and the night sky no longer looked despondent and dreary, but serene and comforting.

The beer made Devon feel tingly, warm, happy…

After what felt like an eternal silence, the child piped up again.

“Do you think I will ever find more of my kind?”

“I don’t know,” Devon answered truthfully. “Your coming here was such a strange occurrence that I can’t really say.”

“I hope I do…someday. Because…you will not be around forever…will you?”

The question gave him great pause. He stared into the endless black sky, filled with tiny specks of distant light. He heard the ocean wind breezing through the tower below. He could feel the chill in the night air as it swirled up the stairs toward the light room.

For a long time, he could not answer. The child was absolutely right of course. Devon would not be around forever. He felt the vicious sting, the telltale sign of sudden awareness. He was human. He was mortal. Someday, he would die. Hell, it could be tomorrow for all he knew. He could trip on the stairs and go tumbling over the railing. And that would be it. It would all be over.

Suddenly, he saw Charlie again, standing on the shore. He smiled and waved at Devon, his hazel eyes twinkling like jewels in the sun.

“No, I won’t,” he finally answered. “But there will always be good people in the world. You never have to be alone.”

 

How long he sat up in the light room that night, Devon couldn’t say. For the first time in quite a while he was blissfully unaware of the passage of time. The child said goodbye and vanished from the radio waves, but Devon sat up there a bit longer, watching the stars twinkle far above him.

When he was finished, he got up from his seat and started down the stairs. He stopped off and returned the radio to its proper place. He left it on, faint static filling the room.

After that, he made his way back down to his bedroom. Before going to sleep, he opened the window and let the breeze caress his face. There was a mild coolness in the air, but that was commonplace for the region. Otherwise it was a calm and auspicious night, one he would be certain to remember for a very long time.

His journal entry bore three simple words: “Life is good”.

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a regular post and as always, have a wonderful week!

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Alien Emotions

Welcome to the fifth of twelve.  For my New Year’s resolution I decided to write twelve short stories this year (one per month) and post them to my blog on the last Wednesday of each month.  This month’s story is called “Alien Emotions”.  Enjoy!

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 1

Ship experienced a catastrophic engine malfunction. I was forced to set down on an uncharted planet.

Landing was rough, so I had the ship perform a scan of my body. Everything seems to be in order. No bones have been broken and my antennae are undamaged. My wings and back are experiencing some soreness, but that should pass.

The climate here is humid and hot. While it is not what my kind are used to, I do not imagine I will have to adapt to it. Repairs should only take a matter of a few cycles.

It is just as well. Orbital scans told me there is nothing of interest here.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 2

It appears my conclusions on this planet’s value may have been made in haste.

As I was conducting my repairs this cycle, I heard a distant rumbling noise. The star had nearly fallen below the horizon, but I decided to go investigate.

I stepped through the trees past my ship and came to a large beach. And there, a little ways offshore, was a series of islands floating in the air. Even from a distance it was clear they were not a natural phenomenon.

I do not know what the rumbling was. It ceased before I was able to determine its location.

Further research is warranted.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 3

Repairs to the shuttle are progressing as expected. The ship should be fully functional within a couple of cycles.

The floating islands, however, are a perplexing enigma. I set the ship to run geological scans while I worked. They appear to have small ecosystems of their own, with cave systems and plant life. There are six different landmasses in total, five smaller ones surrounding one large, central island. And it appears that they are connected by small, metallic walkways.

But there is something far more interesting about them, something I already suspected.

The ship’s scans have revealed a strong energy signature coming from the central landmass. I imagine it powers some type of anti-gravity well that holds the islands aloft. However, the geological scans were unable to penetrate the rock of the central island, leaving me with no clear idea of what the device looks like or what its power source is.

A thought occurred to me during meditation: my orbital scans prior to the ship’s engine failure revealed nothing of this nature. This leads me to conclude that the device is shielded in some way.

Perhaps it was hidden to deter investigation. I should proceed with caution…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 4

The islands are inhabited.

With the ship’s geological scans proving fruitless, I decided that perhaps it would be best to inspect the central island myself. My theory was that whatever shielding surrounds the device grows weaker as one gets closer to it, which would explain its invisibility when scanning from orbit.

The water around the beach and the islands was shallow, not even making it up to my knees.

I ran my hands along the rock and used the machines embedded in my fingertips to commence a close-range scan. It would appear that the device has a cylindrical shape, and I have detected the unmistakable presence of an anti-matter power source.

It was not long before I noticed I was being watched.

There were only a couple of them: tiny, blue creatures that wore brown cloth around their waists. They stood on two legs and were barely larger than my finger. I paid them little attention as I worked.

Still, I observed that they seemed to show no fear. Curious…but irrelevant all the same.

 

Log Addendum

I have uncovered the source of the rumbling: periodic earthquakes that rack the floating islands. I cannot be certain of the cause, but the ship’s scans have determined that during the quakes the energy signature within the central island fluctuates. My theory is that the device powering the anti-gravity well is starting to fail.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 5

I have had to halt ship repairs for the time being. Evidently one of the native animals took interest in my vessel as I slept and began clawing at the panel where I was working. It managed to remove a power cell and ran off with it. I will have to create a substitute.

My scans of the islands have proven to be more revealing. Near the large cylindrical device there is a rectangular recess with some type of device behind it. I have theorized that it is an access point or panel, but could not find a way to reveal it.

I can only imagine it requires some sort of code.

More of the little blue creatures showed up. There were six of them this time, and it is clear that they are indeed sentient beings. However, clearly they are not the ones who created the device, as they are far too primitive. They seem to inhabit one of the smaller islands, living in small straw huts bound together with some kind of strong, green fiber.

I took more notice of them this time. As I observed before, they stand on two legs. Each foot has three toes, compared to my two, and their hands have six fingers compared to my three. Their eyes are a combination of green and orange, and are considerably large for their body size.

They are unimportant to my work. Still, they should be cataloged.

Perhaps I will collect one of them for examination during the next cycle.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 6

Even now, as I write this, I am unable to explain what happened.

I was continuing my examination of the central floating island when I spotted one of the little island beings. He appeared to be by himself…a perfect opportunity to obtain a specimen for research. I waited until the right moment then grabbed him before he could get away. I turned around, meaning to carry the little creature back to my ship.

Then I realized that was exactly what I intended to do. And I stopped.

There was nothing wrong with my body. My feet were, without doubt, capable of movement and my legs were undamaged. There was no physical explanation for what happened to me. But regardless, as I stared at the wriggling creature trapped between my fingers, I found myself unable to carry him away. It was only when I set him back down that I was able to return to my ship.

I meditated, but even with clarity of mind I could still not explain my sudden inability to act. Even as I emerged from the meditation machine, I found myself in a troubled state of mind. I am concerned that my time on this planet may be affecting my brain somehow.

 

Log Addendum

The ship’s scanner revealed no problems in my cranial structure.

 

Log Addendum #2

I saw something while I slept.

Bolts of electricity shot across the sky and water drowned the world. There was a terrible, thunderous roar. A pair of blazing orange orbs appeared high above me in the gloom.

Then, a colossal hand of gray reached down from above.

I woke up, feeling a tightness in my stomach and a desire to get as far away from some unseen danger as I could.

Was it a dream? Why was I having a dream? Our species have no time for such things. They are useless flights of fancy that stand in the way of logical thinking. We are taught to push them out of our minds from a very early age.

But still…I dreamed.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 7

In between working on repairs to the ship, I meditated on the recent incident.

I still cannot explain what happened, why I was suddenly overcome with the compulsion to let the little island creature go. The logic of the situation dictated that I would take him back to my ship and catalog his species for the database.

But I just could not do it.

And then I realized…it was not that I could not do it, but that I did not want to do it. In that moment as I held the creature in my fingers, I felt something. It was like pain, but not actual pain. It did not have any discernible, physical origin.

The word “emotion” floated into my mind, which makes my body involuntarily shudder.

But maybe that is the only explanation for what happened. Maybe I was afflicted by an emotion.

I should delete this log. If the High Council ever sees it, that will be the end of me.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 8

I decided to forgo my work and called up the ship’s database entry on The Outcasts.

We, the Faloss, rejected emotions as trivial and primitive many revolutions ago. They were detrimental to logical progress and held us back. Even as youth, we are separated from our birthers before too long to prevent us from becoming attached to them.

This is what we believe. The Outcasts do not.

They rejected tradition and left our home planet behind long ago. It is unknown where they went, but it is presumed that they have created their own colony planet where they would be free to pursue their interest in the blasphemy of emotions. Numerous attempts to track them down have all ended in failure.

This is not something I have ever written about in this log before, but a long time ago when I was scanning a dead planet, I came across a ruined Faloss ship. There were no survivors, but I did discover a data cube left behind by the crew. I retrieved it and took it aboard my ship, connecting it to the main database. I immediately recognized the mark of The Outcasts and quarantined the cube, placing it in a container that cut off all remote access going in or out.

But I ask myself something now: why did I never report it to the High Council?

That is the procedure. “Anything you find on an Outcast vessel must be turned in to the Council for examination.” And yet, I never did this. Did I forget about it? Or was there another reason?

When darkness fell this cycle, I pulled the cube out of quarantine storage and set it down next to the database access terminal. It was almost as though it was taunting me, corrupting me with its mere presence. I could almost see a pure aura of blackness emanating from the hideous thing.

No…I must not get lost in falsehoods. I am an observer and a recorder, not a dreamer…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 9

Repairs to the ship have been completed. I managed to create a substitute power cell to replace the one that was lost. I entertained the idea of searching for it, but even if I found the cell it would likely be too damaged to be of any use.

After I completed the repairs, I found I still had time for more research on the floating islands. I carried a scanning device out to the central island and placed it on top of the spot I determined to be the access point. Despite it being an advanced device, it appeared to have no more luck than I did determining how to trigger the panel.

None of the little creatures showed up this time. I imagine they are rather wary of me now…

But I digress. As I was waiting for my scanner to give me results, I examined the central island and saw something I had not seen before.

A bronze statue, depicting a kind of being I have never encountered.

The creature is shown as being rather muscular, with four fingers on each hand. Instead of toes, its legs (of which it has two) each end in one large appendage, almost like a set of tree stumps. On its head, there are two glittering blue jewels that likely represent the being’s eyes. The statue is painted a deep black, giving it an imposing visage.

But the most curious thing was not the creature himself, but what he was holding.

A representation of the floating islands sat in the statue’s hands. As I took a closer look, I was impressed by the accuracy of the rendering. The shape of the islands, down to the little peaks and valleys, were recreated in surprising detail. I could even see the railings on the metal paths that connected each island. The statue itself was depicted as staring down at the islands, examining them with care.

I can only surmise that the being shown was credited with the creation of the islands, although for what purpose I have no theories as of yet.

But something about the statue troubles me as well. According to the scale, the islands fit easily in the being’s palms, which would make him as tall as a mountain. I cannot comprehend a being that massive in size. It seems like an impossibility.

Perhaps the statue is merely figurative, offering thanks to a deity of some kind.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 10

The little creatures showed themselves again.

It is clear they are not as trusting as before. The three that appeared kept a good distance away from the cliff. I also noticed that they kept themselves within quick reach of a cave entrance on the central island, an obvious avenue of escape should they need it.

My research has been without luck. The scanner fed all manner of data and numbers to the panel, but received no discernible reaction.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 14

I have decided to name the planet Vitellius, after the ancient water god of the Faloss. It seemed fitting, considering the planet is roughly eighty-five percent water.

I have alternated my days between exploring the continent I landed on and studying the islands. The periodic earthquakes appear to have gotten more frequent since I began my observations. And every time, it coincides with a dip in the energy signature. I am now certain that the two are linked.

The anti-gravity mechanism is failing, which means that eventually the islands will fall back into the ocean, taking the creatures that dwell there with them.

But why does this trouble me so? The state of the islands has no impact on me. And yet, I am affected by this knowledge. Is it simply because of the potential scientific information that could be lost?

No. There is more to it. I must meditate.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 15

My terminal tells me that empathy is a forbidden word which is defined as “a false assumption that one can share and even understand the feelings of other beings, even lesser ones.”

I think I am beginning to understand what happened to me that cycle…

Nevertheless, I went to work on the access panel again. This time, only two of the little creatures were watching me. However, they appeared to be less afraid than before, as they had returned to their former spot on the cliff.

This time I brought a powerful laser to try and drill into the rock, to see if I could unearth the panel through more forceful means. I set it up on its three legs, aimed it in the direction of the access panel, and switched it on. For a brief time, it seemed like the laser was having some effect on the rocks. But then, another earthquake struck the island, this one more powerful than any I had yet experienced. My ship later confirmed that it was indeed the strongest one it had recorded thus far.

I cannot help but wonder if my laser was somehow the cause.

The earthquake only lasted a few seconds, but I lost my footing and fell to my knees. As I was getting back to my feet, I saw something that gave me pause.

The quake had caused one of the two little creatures watching to fall over the edge. The being managed to grab a small handhold and was hanging on, but it was clear he was going to lose his grip. The other one was trying to help, but could not reach far enough.

He was terrified, furiously scrabbling at the rocky cliff to find another handhold, but to no avail. The creature kept slipping lower and lower down the cliff. Eventually, he was going to fall.

I cannot say what compelled me to do it. But I did it all the same.

I stepped toward the two of them and, as gently as I could, placed my finger under the struggling creature. Using it as leverage, he managed to push himself back up onto solid ground. After a moment he got back to his feet, turned around, and stared at me.

But I did not pay him any attention, as I saw that my laser had fallen off its tripod and was damaged. I picked it up and made my way back to the ship.

It was only later that it started to trouble me. I meditated until the planet’s star had sunk below the horizon, but I still had no answer for it. Why did I bother helping the creature? What possessed me to do so? They are of little to no consequence.

And yet, I felt some kind of…connection with the little thing. I understood his fear.

These logs are dangerous. Perhaps I should start encrypting them.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 18

More of the creatures have been showing up each time I go over to the islands. It appears that their curiosity has grown since I helped one of them.

No progress on the access point yet. It appears to be as stubborn as I am.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 22

I have been writing in my log less and less. I tell myself it is because of my work, but I know that is not the only reason…

I have finally made some progress with the access point, although entirely by accident. I was removing the scanner from the rock wall when it slipped from my hand. I let out a short gasp of surprise and managed to catch it before it fell into the water. When I looked back up, I saw that a rectangular portion of the rock wall was sliding away, and a red and gray panel was emerging. A green hologram spat out of it, displaying a blue symbol.

However, a moment later, the symbol flashed red and vanished.

It took me a little time to connect my utterance to the reveal of the access panel. I had initially concluded that my scanner had managed to find the correct sequence to reveal it. But when I reattached it, nothing else happened.

Then I understood. The mechanism isn’t activated by numbers or data, but by vocalizations.

This presents another problem: I have no idea the pattern, frequency, or period of these vocalizations. It could be multiple separate tones or one extended, oscillating frequency that I need. Nevertheless, the prospect of making progress is a good one.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 26

Normally, when we Faloss meditate, we do so with the aid of a sensory deprivation machine, which blocks out all unnecessary distractions. But lately, I have been attempting to do so by simply sitting down on the beach near my ship.

I enjoy the feel of the wind on my skin and the sound of the water hitting the shore.

But…why? Why do I enjoy these things? Are they inextricably linked to emotions? Do emotions make these things feel good? I am frustrated because I cannot come up with an answer due to my conditioning as a youth.

Conditioning? I have never called it that before…it sounds terrible and wrong…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 29

During my meditation, I heard a splashing noise. I opened my eyes and saw that one of the sea creatures had poked its head above the surface a little ways off the beach. It was an ugly fish, with sickly brown-yellow skin and hideous eyes of yellow and black. Its mouth held razor-sharp teeth that it likely used to gorge on prey larger than itself.

But it had its eyes fixed on the islands, as if waiting for something.

Moments later another quake struck, shaking the islands and creating a distant rumble. The fish seemed to grow excited at the prospect of the earthquake, swimming closer to the islands until it was almost under them. The earthquake ended moments later and the fish swam around for a little while. But eventually, its head dipped back below the surface, evidently disappointed.

I had a revelation moments later: it was looking for food.

The fish considered the little blue creatures living on those islands to be prey. It was waiting to see if one of them would fall off. No wonder the creature holding on to the cliff had looked so utterly terrified.

I began to wonder: the statue…the being that I assume created the floating landmasses…did he do it specifically for them? Did he feel some desire to help the little creatures, to safeguard them from their predators? It is the most likely conclusion, because otherwise they would likely never have survived as long as they have, existing in a world where so many things consider them to be prey.

Sympathy…empathy…these words hang on my mind.

As I write this, the Outcast data cube sits next to my terminal. I once again pulled it out of the quarantine storage area.

What does it have to tell me? Should I listen?

Or should I just toss it into the nearest star and forget it ever existed?

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 31

Work is slow. I cannot focus with everything that is on my mind.

I have spent the last two cycles wandering the island. I have found that it helps to ease my troubled mind. It has been fruitful too. During my walk I came across a massive crater in the ground. I can only assume that this was either the result of a meteorite impact (which I doubt, due to the lack of surrounding damage) or it was a chunk of land removed for the creation of the floating islands.

For some odd reason my mind conjured up the image of a gargantuan black hand reaching down and scooping the land out from under itself…

Thoughts like that have been a constant for some cycles now.

That reminds me. Against my better judgment, I installed the Outcast data cube and began reading it.

“We are the Outcasts,” it began. “This is our text, our story, our history.

After the purging of emotions so long ago, much of the Faloss race have reached the conclusion they were nothing but a detriment. We represent the few who do not believe this. We have experienced the power of these emotions…how they can drive us and inform our actions.

When we travel the stars and happen to look down at the worlds in our path, a decision must be made. Do we ignore them and continue on our way? Or do we expend time to learn about them?

Some of these worlds may also be inhabited, populated by creatures that might be less advanced than us. How we act toward them can have serious repercussions on their development. Many of us have read distressing accounts of Faloss scientists who, without hesitation, drastically altered a planet’s climate in a simple attempt to gather data or resources.”

I stopped reading there. There was a pain in my chest I could not explain.

My mind was drawn back to one of my last expeditions…I encountered a planet rich in minerals that were essential to our ship drives. So I landed, set up equipment, and began mining. I took far more than I needed, but I figured the abundance would please the High Council.

The planet was inhabited as well…some type of primitive reptilian people. But, as protocol dictated, I did not pay them any attention or interact with them in any way.

It is only now, looking back, that I realize what I had done. The process of retrieving those minerals had a detrimental effect on the world, drastically altering the climate. The cycle I left, I noticed some extreme weather on the horizon. I did not think much of it at the time, but it was more severe than anything I had seen since I landed there.

Did I devastate that planet simply to get what I wanted?

Did I doom an entire species to extinction for my own selfish reasons?

It is impossible to say…but I must cease writing here. I have no desire to continue…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 32

I killed a fish. I crushed its skull.

I found myself sitting on a rocky outcrop with my feet dangling over the water, meditating on what I had read on the Outcast’s cube. My eyes were wandering near the floating islands when I spotted something: a brownish fin circling the same spot over and over again.

I squinted, unsure of what was happening at first. But then I saw it.

It was difficult to discern, but one of the little creatures from the islands had fallen into the ocean, likely due a recent earthquake. I remembered how I had seen the sea creature poke its head up, its eyes watching the floating land to see if any food was going to fall down for it.

This time, it got what it wanted.

It is difficult for me to describe what happened next. It was as if I had become consumed by something…a powerful sensation that flooded my entire body. I felt like I was burning up inside, even though my body temperature was well within its normal range.

My hands started to twitch. My mind was filled with the image of the fish gorging itself on the little blue creature.

And then, I acted.

I dropped off the cliff into the water and made my way toward the spot where the fish was circling. It did not take long for the fish to notice my approach. It attempted to swim away, but I was too fast, snatching the creature out of the water and holding it aloft by its tail. It wriggled and squirmed, swinging its head around in an attempt to escape my clutch. When that failed, it switched tactics and attempted to sink its fangs into my thigh.

I took my other hand and clamped its mouth shut as hard as I could. It was not until I heard the cracking of bone that I realized what I had done.

As impossible as it was, time itself seemed to slow down. The fish had ceased moving and hung limply from my hand. I could not help but stare at it, acutely aware of what I had done. The burning sensation gave away to a thick heaviness that weighed me down.

I cannot say how long I stood there, but it felt like eternity.

My eyes drifted away from the dead thing in my hand and down to the water. I could see the little island creature swimming toward me. I doubted he had any idea what I was going through at that moment. Rather, I think he was just in awe of me.

I tossed the fish aside, letting it fall into the water and float away. Then, I bent over and scooped the little being up into the palm of my hand.

It was clear the creature was terrified. He was shivering and wet.

I carried him back to the islands. Time had scarcely passed after I set him down before he took off, running as fast as he could back to his village.

I pitied the creature. That was a certainty. But that was not the only thing that drove me to act.

That burning feeling…I had never felt anything like that in all my existence. I was starting to understand sympathy and empathy. I had learned long ago that fear was something all creatures experience. But this…this was the strongest thing I had felt yet. It had stripped me of all control.

I must meditate some more. There is an answer somewhere…I just need to find it.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 33

Anger. They called it anger.

Once again, despite all the reasons I should not, I read more of the Outcast’s scripture. Much of it was of little interest to me, just a treatise on the Faloss’ history with emotions. Growing weary of it, I started to skim through the text at random. There is an impressive amount of written work stored on the cube, so much so that I would have to spend many cycles just to read through all of it.

However, one particular part caught my eye. It was essentially a catalog of common emotions.

And there was the entry on anger.

“Anger”, it said, “a feeling of displeasure or hostility. Anger is usually directed towards a particular target. This target can be an idea or a location, but is more commonly focused on an individual entity like a living creature (such as another Faloss).”

That was what I felt. I felt a sense of hostility toward the fish because it was trying to harm a creature that could not defend itself against it.

Anger is powerful.

But anger is dangerous as well…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 34

“Nature does not make mistakes. Nature selects. Nature breeds the qualities that are necessary for survival.

The Faloss lived with emotions for most of their existence. So why do we now believe that they are dangerous? How did we come to the conclusion that they were useless trinkets to be cast off and forgotten?

Nature is variable. Nature is always changing. Nature is cruel.

But nature does not make mistakes.”

This passage from the Outcast text was on my mind as I wandered the continent, the wind blowing through the trees and prickling my flesh. For my entire life, I had believed as all other Faloss believed: that emotions were unnecessary. I still thought this, even as I left my home world to explore the stars.

But now? Now I am not certain. Is it not possible that we made a mistake? Is it not possible that we suffered a lapse in judgment? These “emotions”…they do not feel wrong to me. They feel natural…like they were meant to be a part of my being.

I have decided to name the tiny island beings “Tekkets”, a word from the old Faloss language that roughly translates to “little dweller”.

I have not been back to the islands yet. I feel like they would be too afraid of me now.

Or maybe I am too afraid of myself…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 35

In an attempt to further my understanding of empathy, I tried to imagine myself in the mind of a Tekket as I meditated. This brought me back to the dream I had after I nearly walked off with one of them between my fingers. I remembered the monstrous, cruel hand that came down for me, a distorted reflection of myself.

Was that how they saw me then, as a monster? Was I some hideous alien tormenting them for my own gain?

But now…what do they think of me now? Surely the circumstances have changed?

There is only one way to find out…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 36

I finally returned to the islands this cycle. As I approached, my eyes caught sight of a single, lone Tekket standing near the cliff. He spotted me approaching and reacted with what I can only describe as excitement. He began to run toward me.

In fact, he almost ran right off the cliff. Instinctively, I found myself reaching out with my hand to stop him.

But what happened next amazed me. The little creature grabbed my finger without fear and started nuzzling it. So I picked him up. He was unfazed, his curious eyes watching me as he rested his head against my thumb.

He only became nervous when I brought my other hand closer and the micro-sensors embedded in my fingertips began to shoot out tiny blue lights that swept across his body. He started to quiver and closed his eyes. And, out of some kind of compulsion, I whispered to him. I told him not to be afraid. I assured him that I would never hurt him.

There was no way for him to understand what I was saying. But…it worked. He calmed down and stopped shaking.

After my scan was complete I set the little creature back down and went to check on the progress with the central island’s access panel. My sensor device had made some decent headway in the last few cycles. I now know that to unlock the power source, the panel needs five distinct vocalizations. The device has discovered two of them so far, both in a low-frequency range.

I could attempt another way of accessing the panel again, but the risk seems too high. I still cannot be certain if my laser triggered an earthquake or if it was just ill timing on my part, but discovering the access code seems the safest way to proceed.

And I do not want to even think about what would happen to the islands, much less the Tekkets who live on them, if another method failed catastrophically.

The little one watched me all day, sitting cross-legged on the cliff. I cannot understand why he has taken such a fancy to me. The others who came to watch were almost impassive by comparison.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 38

The little one has met me every cycle and I have continued to scan him. I am interested to know more about their development.

It is clear that he is a child in their species, as the data indicates he is undergoing rapid growth and change. My scans have also revealed an interesting facet of their bodies as well: a pair of vestigial gills. It would seem that Tekkets were an amphibious species at one point in their evolution and that aspect of them gradually atrophied as they spent their lives on the islands.

I am beginning to think that the little one is the same Tekket I saved from the fish. It is impossible to say for certain, but it would explain his implicit trust in me.

No more progress on the vocalizations yet. But I suspect it is just a matter of time…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 39

I carried him on my shoulder.

After I finished my scans of the little one, I had another moment of indecision. There was a pain in my chest. It was as if my past self was rearing up before me, reminding me that these creatures were only to be used for data gathering purposes.

But I was determined that I would never be that same Faloss again. And, almost as if to prove it to myself, I set the little one down on my shoulder.

There was no reason to stay with the scanner, as it would work on its own accord. Therefore, I took another walk around the continent. The little one was clearly pleased to come along. He curled up close to my neck and stayed there for much of the time. I have to admit…I am filled with pleasant sensations just reminiscing about it. The closest emotion I can find to it in the Outcast scripture is “happiness”. Is that what we have been missing for so long? Yes, anger was powerful and terrifying…but happiness? Happiness is nothing of the sort.

This feeling led me to a profound, yet obvious, realization: I saved his life. He would not be here if I had not interfered. He would not be here if I had not heeded the call of my emotions.

Then, a more chilling thought struck me…if I had been the same person on that day as I was when I landed…what would I have done? I ask myself: would I have acted? Of course, I already knew the answer to that.

I would have watched.

I would have observed.

I would have sat there and gathered data while the little one was eaten…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 43

I am starting to slip in my work. I need to regain focus.

I had forgotten to check on my scanner for the past few cycles and when I returned I found that it had lost all power. After setting the little one down on my shoulder I grabbed the scanner and returned to the ship to charge.

I wonder what he thinks of all these things…my ship, the scanner…this world he lives in. I wonder what he thinks of me…the gray-skinned giant who looks down at him with solid, orange eyes. The little one’s gaze constantly wanders. He reaches out and touches things whenever he can. Just this previous cycle, I found him fiddling with my wings, running his fingers over them. But it does not bother me. I let him do these things, because I understand being curious. Curiosity was what kept me here. Curiosity stopped me from leaving the moment I had completed the repairs on my ship.

Is curiosity an emotion? If it is…then that means I was always broken, even before my “awakening”, as I’ve come to call it.

No…I am not broken. What nonsense is that? I am me.

Water is falling from the sky. I can hear it pelting the outside of my ship. I hope the little one is safe and warm. I had to end our expedition early today because of the arrival of the dark clouds. I did not want him to be caught out in the open when the storm began. I could have sheltered him in my ship, but I believed he would prefer to be among his own people.

I am me…what a strange choice of words.

We Faloss are not a hive mind species. But the concept of being an individual is not often talked about. Everything we have done, will do, and will continue to do is always thought of in terms of what is best for the species as a whole. When Faloss like me go out and observe planets and cosmic phenomenon, we do so with the intent of furthering our collective knowledge.

But this…what I have done here on Vitellius…that was for me. That was for me alone.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 45

It appears that the little one has things to teach me, even if he does not realize it.

I moved my ship over to the beach this cycle, as a way to consolidate my efforts. When I brought the little one over, I set him down as I worked. I tuned the ship in to the sensor device’s frequency so I could observe the results it found in real-time, as well as how much power it had.

After that was done, I began reading more of the Outcasts scripture. It had not seemed like much time had passed, but when I looked in the little one’s direction, I saw something that amazed me. He was picking up clumps of sand from the beach and sticking them together. Fascinated by this almost ritualistic act, I left what I was doing behind and sat on the beach watching him.

He was creating a representation of some rectangular structure with high towers. He shaped it so that it appeared like it sat on top of a high cliff. It did not take him long to notice me watching, which seemed only to encourage him to work even harder.

I wondered why he was doing this. Was it out of some kind of longing? Did he hear tales of the old cities the Tekkets used to live in? Was that what he was doing, creating a remembrance of history? After a moment of thought, I did not believe this to be so. He did not appear forlorn while creating it. Rather, he was enjoying himself. It was a pleasurable activity for him.

There is a word for this…but I cannot remember it at present. I will have to consult the Outcast scripture once again.

It was not long before I felt compelled to imitate his action. I picked up clumps of wet sand and started to create. It was a strange feeling, as though I was being totally consumed by the task. I took more and more sand, building my construct higher and higher still. I felt immense pleasure, almost as though this simple act of sticking wet sand together was enough to trigger the emotion of happiness.

The star was falling below the horizon, signaling the approach of darkness, when I finally finished.

The structure I created was a model of the Faloss Council Tower, an immensely tall structure that stands in the center of our capital city. It is an imposing building, ending in a sharp spire at the very top. In reality, the tower dwarfs the height of an average Faloss by many dozens of times, although the one I had created only reached up to about my waist. I reached out and ran my finger along the spire at the top. The real tower would feel cold and metallic, but the one I had created was soft and malleable, specks of sand tumbling off and falling to the ground as I rubbed it.

The little Tekket was impressed with my work as well. I reached down and scooped him up into the palm of my hand. I brought him close to the side of the tower and he reached out to touch it. His eyes lit up, like little green and orange jewels. He pointed at the top of the tower, then looked at me.

I lifted him up between my fingers and set him down on top of the tower, next to the spire.

The two of us spent the remainder of the cycle watching Vitellius’ star slide below the horizon. I stood on the beach while the little one leaned back against the sandy spire. His little size meant that he could walk around on top without fear of the tower breaking away underneath him.

He looked at me. I looked at him. We were happy.

The sky was nearly black, the white dots of the stars shining down, when I finally carried him back to the islands.

 

Log Addendum

The scripture called it “fun”. The word was an adjective describing something that is pleasurable or entertaining.

It’s like there are pieces of me missing that I am trying to put back into place…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 47

Four of five vocalizations now. I believe the scanner will finish its task within the next few cycles.

I must go. The little one is waiting for me.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 48

I was not watching. I made a mistake and…he almost died.

I was distracted by my own creation. The sand model of the Council tower managed to withstand the weather of the last few cycles. I was reshaping it, adding little recesses in the side to represent the windows the Council would use to look out over the city.

After a while I wondered what the little one thought of my work. But when I turned around he was not there.

In that moment I felt a sense of panic and fear. My eyes went back and forth across the beach in a frantic fashion, but I could not see him. I turned my gaze to the ground, hoping to see some trace of where he had gone.

I had scarcely began looking when I heard a loud roar.

I raised my head and turned in its direction. And there, barely visible, was the little Tekket. He was sprinting out of the forest beyond the beach, terrified by something. Loud, crashing steps followed along behind him. Soon enough, the creature they belonged to emerged from the trees.

It was some big, quadrupedal thing with an elongated mouth. It had dark, grayish skin and was nearly as tall as me. A long tail swished back and forth as it walked, eyeing the tiny creature attempting to run away. It did not seem at all concerned that its prey would escape, as its head was bent over, sniffing the little Tekket with its flat snout. The creature rose up and licked its mouth, savoring the moment. Rows of gnashing teeth opened up as it went it for the kill.

I snatched up a rock as fast as I could and threw it directly at the creature’s eye. Fortunately my aim was true and the rock dazed it just long enough for me to close the gap. I tackled it to the ground and held it there. It thrashed back and forth, its tail tossing up sprays of sand.

I grabbed another nearby rock and raised it above my head, intent on bashing the creature’s skull in.

But as I watched its reptilian eyes dart back and forth in fear, I hesitated.

This creature was not any more evil than the fish was. It was a simple-minded being looking for food. It was not its fault that the little Tekket looked so appetizing. It was born that way, conditioned by nature to regard the tiny creature as sustenance.

Much like I had been conditioned to regard emotions as useless. Only in my case, there was nothing natural about it…

So I dropped the rock and stood back up, letting the creature roll back onto its feet. But before it could do anything else, I gave it a swift kick to the chest, sending the creature scurrying back into the forest.

I spent the rest of the cycle sitting on the beach, holding the Tekket between my fingers. He kept shivering, his eyes darting back and forth like he was afraid the monstrous creature would show itself again it any moment. I nuzzled him in an attempt to calm him down. but it did not work. His body continued to quiver with fear.

When I finally returned him to the islands, he ran off without even looking behind him…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 49

I feel…empty…like I have been drained of all feeling.

I realize now that I was a fool. I was being selfish. The little Tekket made me happy, so I kept him with me because I wanted to continue being happy.

I knew how dangerous this world was for them. But I ignored it.

Maybe this is why our people cast off emotions long ago, because they knew that it led to bad decisions. Maybe I should never have interfered with them.

Maybe I just made things worse…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 50

Fifty cycles. I have been here for fifty cycles.

It is hard for me to fathom that right now. The planet clearly has nothing more of interest for me aside from the device that powers the floating island. And yet, I am still here.

I have calculated that this planet’s revolution around its star lasts roughly two hundred of its cycles. Interesting, considering that my home planet’s cycles are longer and it takes nearly four hundred of them before a revolution is complete.

It is not an important distinction, but it distracts me.

It keeps away the dark thoughts that otherwise plague my mind…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 51

My carelessness could doom their entire species.

Even with real-time monitoring, I slipped and allowed the scanner to run out of power again. It has been without power since the cycle my little friend was nearly eaten. I am charging it even now.

The earthquakes are worse now, more frequent and more powerful.

I have to get back to work. I have already interfered, so I might as well finish my task.

I owe the Tekkets that much at least…

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 52

The scanner is back in place, doing its job.

The little one hasn’t shown up ever since that incident. I cannot blame him. He must be terrified of stepping foot outside his home now.

And it is my fault. I failed in my responsibility to keep him safe.

This is the most potent sadness I have felt yet. It weighs on me cycle after cycle. It is strong and pervasive. And it never seems to end.

Is this how I am going to feel for the rest of my existence?

I cannot deal with this.

I cannot live like this.

Perhaps I should forget these emotions while I still can.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 53

I was meditating on the beach when it finally happened.

The scanner found the last frequency for the access panel and the device revealed itself. The first indication of something happening was a distant rumbling. At first, I believed it was just another earthquake. But when I opened my eyes I saw that the central island was splitting open like an egg, revealing a bizarre orange and gray contraption shaped like a massive drill.

And in the center was a clear cylinder full of glowing light.

I was correct. The device was indeed powered by anti-matter. This was good news, as it should be easy for me to replicate another power cell for it. The bad news is that I have no idea how to switch them out without the device losing power completely and sending the islands crashing into the ocean.

But I am tired and I must sleep. I will work on this issue in the coming cycle.

 

Log Addendum

I am shaken by the dream I just had. In the dream there was a loud rumble and a thunderous crash. I ran out of my ship and found that the islands were gone. They had fallen into the ocean and were swallowed whole by the hungry water.

In their place stood a mountainous creature.

The one who created the islands.

The one the Tekkets venerated with their statue. He had smooth, obsidian skin and eyes of blazing blue fire. He gazed down at me with intense authority.

He was judging me.

He was judging me because I had failed.

I woke then, in the fit of fear, shaking and cold with the rain drumming against the metal hull of my ship.

Failure is not an option. I must succeed, even if just for the sake of my own mind.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 54

They were…waiting for me.

I went back to the islands today to investigate the device and determine how I could re-fuel it without powering down the entire mechanism. The Tekkets were standing on the cliff. There were at least a couple dozen of them. They waved as I approached. They were happy to see me.

But that was not the most stunning development.

As I was examining the device, my attention was drawn back toward the statue. And it was there that I saw it:

Another statue…but of me.

Just like the other statue, their depiction was very accurate. They had large orange jewels for my eyes. They gave me three fingers for each hand and two toes for each foot. They even captured the pattern on my wings, veins like those you find on tree leaves. It was not fully complete, as it still had the metallic brown color of bronze. I imagine they are going to begin painting it soon enough.

But, like before, the most fascinating thing about the statue wasn’t its accuracy.

In one of my hands, I was holding a fish by its head and my eyes were turned toward it. And, kneeling at my feet, was a representation of the quadrupedal beast that had nearly devoured the little one. Its reptilian eyes were turned up toward me in a gesture of submission.

They were venerating me with this statue, just as they did the island creator. I did not know if I was comfortable being thought of as a deity.

But maybe that was not the case. In all my observations, I have never noticed the Tekkets treating the statues like objects of worship. Maybe it signifies a kind of respect. Maybe they are thanking me for the things I have done.

However, the fact remains that my work is not yet finished.

My investigations revealed no backup power source for the device. This means that I will have to rig up some kind of secondary power supply and patch it in to the device to keep it powered while I work.

If I had not arrived here when I did…I do not want to think what might have happened to them.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 55

I have created a second cell. I siphoned some of the anti-matter from my ship. As it turns out, I did not need as much of it as I had originally thought. The anti-gravity device is very efficient. One cell should be enough to power it for several hundred revolutions.

This makes me wonder…is the island creator still alive? Does he know what I am doing? Or did he pass long ago, never knowing what became of the little ones he had saved?

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 56

I now have a backup power source. I created one using my sensor device and the laser that had once attempted to cut through the rocks. However, I am concerned, as it is an unwieldy combination and could be highly unstable.

The next cycle will be the moment of truth. Will I succeed in my aims? Or will I just make things worse? My hands twitch and my breath is shaky whenever I think about it.

But regardless, I must continue. This is not a time for hesitation.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 57

I did it…by the stars, I did it.

I was afraid I would not succeed at first. Having an audience of Tekkets only made matters worse. They showed up in far greater numbers than they had the cycle previous.

They knew something big was happening.

The moment I hooked up the backup power source it emitted a horrible droning sound. I knew it wouldn’t last long so I immediately removed the anti-matter power source from the device. The moment I did, the islands began to quake, worse than they ever had before.

It was as if everything was falling apart around me, like I had failed before I had even begun.

But gradually, things calmed down. The backup power source worked. I could not help but sigh with relief.

I retrieved the new anti-matter cell from my ship and placed it inside the device. Initially, it refused to work. I tried activating it several times, but to no avail. I could feel my heart beating fast. My hands twitched and I found it hard to focus. I had believed that anger was by far the most powerful emotion…but it seems I still have a lot to learn.

After attempting to re-insert the cell several times over I had an idea. I went to my scanner that was still attached to the rocks and had it replay the sequence of sounds that revealed the device.

There was a moment of silence after it had finished.

Then…it started to work.

The anti-matter cell began to glow brightly, and a loud clicking told me it was now locked into place. There was a loud pulsing drone that indicated the device was fully functional again. I disconnected the backup power source just as the rocks began to slide back together. As I did so, a strange sound reached me. It was a whole chorus of little voices.

They were cheering. They were cheering for me.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 60

Everything appears to be well with my re-infusion of anti-matter into the device. There have been no more signs of degradation or earthquakes. Nevertheless, I must stay here for a little while longer to ensure that everything is fine.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 62

My ship has not recorded a single earthquake. It is done. They are safe.

 

Komir’s Log, Cycle 64

I am leaving soon.

I spent the last couple of cycles with my little friend. He seems to have recovered from his encounter with the predator and is once again happy.

It rained. We sat together in my ship and watched the water fall on the beach. He was on my shoulder, once again curled up against my neck. For the first time since I came here, I felt truly at peace.

I have made my decision. When I leave this planet, I am going to seek out the Outcasts. I want to learn more about the history we have lost.

But before I leave, I am going to place a device on the center island that will enable me to monitor the power of the anti-gravity device, even when I am light-years away from here. I do not know if the island creator will ever return. But in the event that he does not, I will keep a watchful eye on the Tekkets for him.

And if I pass on…someone else will have to take my place.

Saying goodbye to Vitellius is going to be one of the hardest things I have ever done. I am certain I will return from time to time, simply to pay the Tekkets a visit. But I can never return to my home world. If they discover what I am now…they will surely execute me.

Maybe time will change their minds. Maybe it will not. I am strangely indifferent about it.

When the star rises…it will be the last I see of it for quite some time…

 

Log Addendum

As I slept, I saw the island creator again. He was happy.

 

Thanks for reading.  Let me know what you thought in the comments below!

As always, check back next Wednesday for another post, and have a wonderful week!

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When the World Looked Up

Welcome to the fourth of twelve.  For those who don’t know, I’m writing twelve short stories this year, one each month.  On the last Wednesday of each month, instead of my regular blog post I will be posting the short story from that month.  Enjoy and let me know what you think in the comments!

 

“Wait…you’re saying it’s going out over the air?”

“Yes. I’ve been getting calls about it all morning…hang on there’s another one. Hello? Yes ma’am, we’re aware of the interference…yes we’re trying to fix it ma’am…I…wow. She hung up on me.”

“How is that possible?”

“I have no idea. Look I’m trying my best here, but I gotta get back to work. I barely have enough time in between all the phone calls. I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

The producer leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes with a combination of tiredness and frustration. Working the morning shift was not an easy one. The hours were odd and sleep was a luxury most days. The strange interference wasn’t helping matters. It was a constant pulsing noise that came in through their headsets as well as the speakers. There were five people including her in the production booth and they could all hear it.

It started without any warning. She had been sitting back in the newsroom writing the script for the show when the master control operator, Keith, called the phone at her desk. He seemed hurried and didn’t say much…but she could tell he hadn’t dealt with anything like it before.

That was almost two hours ago.

“Didn’t sleep well?”

The producer turned her head and gave the director a smile.

“Yeah…just one of those nights I guess.”

“Gotta say, I don’t envy you. I have enough trouble trying to be here by five in the morning, much less one-thirty.”

The producer laughed.

“Well you haven’t missed a day yet Martin, so I’d say you’re doing fine.”

The two of them looked up at the giant clock. It read “5:45:23” in big red numbers. Fifteen minutes, she thought to herself. If we can’t get this problem fixed…do I call off the show?

“What do you think? Do we go on as usual,” the director asked, almost as if he could read her mind.

The producer shook her head.

“I don’t know…”

“I’ll say this…if the interference is already going out over the air I don’t really see any point to canceling the show. Might as well report on it.”

“But it’s been going on for almost two hours. How do we know it’ll stop?”

“We don’t,” the director said. He cracked his knuckles. “In the end it’s up to you Sarah. This is your show after all.”

The producer glanced at the clock again. Fourteen minutes to go…

“Hey Sarah,” a voice buzzed in her headset.

“Yeah Keith?”

“It’s not just our station.”

The producer sat up straight.

“What?”

“I just got off the phone with the local CBS affiliate. They’re getting the same interference. Apparently it’s affecting all of the local stations.”

“What…how?”

The master control operator opened his mouth to answer but was cut off by the phone ringing.

“Hang on a minute,” he said. Through the window she saw him set his headset down and grab the phone.

“You know I’ve been here about six or seven years…and I gotta say I’ve never seen anything like this,” the director said. “I mean there’s interference in our headsets every once in a while from the radio stations, but something that can actually transmit itself over the air? It would have to be one hell of a signal.”

“I don’t even understand how-”

“Hey Sarah?”

“What’s up Keith?”

“I’m on the phone with the main ABC station down south. They’re getting it too.”

The producer stared at him, incredulous. “Wait…are you saying that it’s affecting the entire state?”

“It might be…I don’t know. I need to-”

He wasn’t able to finish. Everyone looked up in shock as the droning noise suddenly stopped and was replaced by a new sound. It was no longer a hum, but a pattern of beeping noises that repeated itself every few seconds.

“What the hell…” the director muttered.

But the producer didn’t hear him. Her eyes narrowed as she listened to the pattern. “Dot dot dot…dash dash-” Then it hit her. “Oh my god, that’s an SOS signal!”

The director stared at her.

“What?! You’re kidding!”

“No I’m serious,” the producer insisted. “Three short, three long, three short,” she said. “It’s Morse Code!”

“But who the hell is sending it,” the director asked.

The producer lifted her eyes and stared at the speakers, a chill falling over the room.

“I have no idea…”

 

“Welcome to the Morning Show on channels five and ten! Now here’s your host, Olivia Redding!”

“Good morning, I’m Olivia Redding. Normally we would go right into weather with Devin, but this is not a normal morning. For just over two hours now, a signal has been going out over our airwaves. It started as a pulsating drone, but then about ten minutes before we went on the air it changed. You are hearing that signal now.”

The anchor paused to let the audience listen.

“It may be familiar to some of you…it is an SOS signal in Morse Code. Morse Code was first invented back in the 1830s and was used to send text information as a series of tones, lights, or clicks. The international Morse Code signal for an SOS or distress call is three short, three long, three short. At the moment we have no idea where the signal is coming from, but we do know it is affecting television stations all across the state.”

She paused, holding a hand to her ear.

“I’ve just been informed by our producer, Sarah, that we are turning you over to Good Morning America for a special report. We now go live to Christopher Emerson in New York.”

 

All across the nation, television screens were filled with the image of a man sitting behind a glass desk. He had dark black hair, brown eyes, and wore a black suit and tie. The expression on his face was one of utter seriousness.

“Good morning America, I’m Christopher Emerson with this special report. Approximately two hours ago, a signal was picked up going over television and radio airwaves, a signal you are hearing presently. It has been determined that it is a Morse Code SOS, a distress call first adopted by the German government over a hundred years ago. The signal has affected over two hundred different television and radio stations across the nation. And we have just recently learned that it is not isolated to our shores. Several major television networks over in Europe have confirmed that they are picking up the signal as well. We are expecting more confirmations to come in from our country and beyond as the morning continues.”

The television cut to a new camera shot, showing a balding, middle-aged man sitting across from Emerson. He was wearing a white lab coat and a gray laptop was sitting in front of him.

“We turn you now to Bradley Anderson, a scientist for the CERN institute in Switzerland. We were very lucky to have Bradley on site this morning, as he was originally scheduled to talk to us about an exciting new experiment CERN was undertaking. Brad, thank you for joining us,” Emerson said as he turned toward him.

“Thank you for having me Chris.”

“Now, tell us what we know so far.”

“As you said, a little over two hours ago the signal began interfering with television and radio transmissions all over the United States as well as other countries. At approximately six-fifty eastern time here in New York, the ‘pulsing’ ceased and was replaced by a series of tones which we have identified as the Morse Code SOS.”

“Now, some people on GMA’s social media pages have been speculating that this might be some kind of attack by Russia or North Korea…an attempt to disable our communications. Could there be any truth to this?”

“It’s extremely unlikely Chris. If this was really an attack, then it failed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if it was an attempt to disable our communications, then it didn’t work because we’re still talking to each other just fine.”

“Then where is the signal coming from,” Emerson asked.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out. I’ve been in contact with some of my colleagues at CERN and they’ve been in conference calls with scientists all over the world. They’re getting very close to determining the signal’s origin. It’s been difficult because of all the interference, but we should have an answer within the next few minutes.”

“Good to hear. Now, before we went live the two of us were discussing this phenomenon. You said that the pulsing was a…’data burst’ of some kind?”

“Precisely. The noise we heard before the SOS signal was a transmission of encoded data that repeated itself every couple of minutes. It’s incredibly complex and our people at CERN are trying to decipher that as well. But it might be days before we even have an idea of what we’re looking-”

The laptop in front of Anderson started beeping.

“Well it appears we have our answer,” he said.

Anderson clicked a button and it stopped. He opened his mouth to say something else, but stopped. His eyes went wide and his mouth hung open in shock.

“Brad? What is it,” Emerson asked. “What’s wrong?”

“The signal,” Anderson finally said, “it’s not from here.”

“What do you mean?”

He turned the computer around. And as viewers all over the nation watched, Emerson’s traditionally calm demeanor twitched. Something between awe and fear registered on his face. His eyes went wide and he was unable to speak.

“If this is correct,” Anderson explained, “the signal is coming from somewhere beyond the moon.”

The two of them were silent for a moment. On the computer screen was an image of Earth and a blinking green dot past the moon. Then, Emerson managed to collect himself. He turned away from Anderson and the television switched to a straight-on camera shot of him.

“That was Bradley Anderson, a scientist with the CERN institute. It is uncertain what this latest development will mean, not just for us here in the United States, but for the world at large. We are still waiting to hear an official statement from the White House. For that, we go live to our official White House Correspondent…Tricia, what do you have for us?”

“Not much Chris. The president still has not signaled when she plans to release a statement to the press. As we know, Congress was expected to vote on the president’s budget proposal this morning. They are currently in the second hour of a massive filibuster…”

 

President Amelia Garland ran a hand through her long red hair, her shiny green eyes staring out the Oval Office window. Her bright red blazer and black pants looked faded and dull in the gloomy reflection. It was a rainy day in Washington. The sun hadn’t shown its face since the early morning.

They always said you should be prepared for anything, she thought to herself. Well I doubt they had this in mind.

Tiring of the cloudy view, President Garland turned away from the window. Her eyes fell on a small flat screen television an aide had wheeled in for her. On screen was a shot of the Senate floor. An older man was speaking at a podium. He had wiry gray hair and brown eyes. The camera bore down from above on his thin rimmed glasses and stuffy gray suit.

“This budget proposal is a preposterous measure,” he was saying. The graphic underneath identified him as Senator Scott Connelly. “These massive cuts to defense spending will not stand,” he continued. “We must protect our own. Our enemies know that the best time to strike is when we are at our weakest.”

Garland sighed. Connelly had been a staple from back when she was a senator. She never cared for him. His face reminded her too much of a smug toad.

She heard a knock at the door.

“Come in.” she called.

In stepped John Hayes, her Secretary of State. He had blue eyes, black hair, and wore a traditional ensemble: gray suit, blue tie, and gray pants. He was the spitting image of a stuffy politician, but his heart was in the right place.

“You’re still watching this,” he asked, pointing to the TV. “Who’s on the floor now?”

“Our old friend.”

“Still? He’s been at it for over an hour.”

“One hour, fifteen minutes.”

Hayes gave her a look.

“I like to keep track,” she said with a shrug.

“And now,” Connelly said on the TV, “we have this new matter of the signal from outer space. We must be prepared for any and every contingency. To that end, we must continue to fund our military to ensure that they are able to protect us from any outside threats. I remember when I was a little boy in grade school…”

“I thought he hated filibusters,” Hayes said.

“When he’s not the minority leader he does,” Garland replied.

Hayes looked at the TV and shook his head. “What a piece of work.”

“Did you have something for me John,” Garland asked.

“Yes,” the Secretary of State replied, turning his attention back to the President. “I wanted to give you an update on decoding the data burst.”

“Didn’t CERN say it would take them days, maybe even weeks?”

“Not anymore.” Hayes stepped forward and handed her a sheet of paper. “Take a look at this.”

Garland ran her eyes over it. The writing made no sense to her, although she could tell it was some kind of repeating pattern of numbers and letters.

“What is it,” she asked.

“A decryption key, embedded at the beginning of the signal transmission. CERN informed us that with this key, they should be able to decode the data in a matter of hours, not days.”

“Incredible…”

“What’s our next move,” Hayes asked.

“We don’t have one.” Garland looked back up at the Secretary. “Not yet at least. We can only wait and see what they come up with. Then we decide how to proceed from there.”

“What about Congress? Hell, what about Connelly,” Hayes ask, nodding at the screen. “He’ll never go for anything you put forth. He’s consistent about that at the very least.”

Garland laid her eyes on the television.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

 

Deep in an industrial laboratory heads were scratched over and over again as minds tried to wrap themselves around massive amounts of data. The discovery of the decryption key was a great boon, as it sped up the process. But even so, the decoding was tedious at best.

No one could deny that the scientists at CERN were hard at work. Suddenly, one of them burst into the large conference room, having just made the breakthrough they needed.

“I did it,” the scientist exclaimed. “I know what it’s for!”

The other scientists gathered around him as he slapped a printout onto the white board.

“It’s anti-matter,” he said. “It’s a formula for creating anti-matter!”

“But…that’s insane,” one of them exclaimed. “How could synthesizing anti-matter be this easy?”

“Their grasp of science far outclasses ours,” the first scientist explained. “It stands to reason that at some point during their technological advancement they would figure out some shortcuts.”

“But why would they send this to us? Unless…”

The speaker trailed off and the room was silent. It hit them all at once.

“They lost power,” someone said.

“And now they have no way of getting home,” said another.

“Forget getting home,” the first scientist said. “If they’re running out of power, then a more crucial concern for them would be life-support. The air they breathe, if it even is air, is probably running out.”

They looked over the fantastical blueprints taped to the board in front of them. When they first decrypted a large segment of the data they found instructions for building some kind of containment device. It was clear that they would have to substitute materials for its creation, as the specifications called for things humanity had never heard of. But they got it done.

It was decoding what the device was supposed to contain that took some time. The translations offered by the alien signal were only partial, indicating that some words were impossible to replicate in human language. One of those turned out to be the alien name for “anti-matter”.

“How long do you think they have,” someone asked.

“I have no idea…we can’t even say for certain that they need air or that there’s even a crew aboard that ship. For all we know, it’s an automated vessel.”

The scientist responsible for the recent discovery turned his eyes away from the whiteboard. He walked over to the large wooden conference table and ran his hands along it.

“What are you thinking?”

“We can create the device and synthesize the anti-matter in a matter of a few days,” he explained. “With these blueprints it’ll be surprisingly easy. But getting it out to them is another matter. The only space shuttle scheduled to leave Earth in the near future is the Atlas, and that wasn’t supposed to happen for another four weeks.”

“Then we’ll get President Garland to move up the schedule.”

“There’s another problem,” the scientist said, still tracing the patterns on the table with his finger.

“What’s that?”

“This information…we can’t keep it a secret. If we deliver it to the United States and the United States alone…it’ll cause a massive international incident.”

“You’re not seriously suggesting we broadcast it worldwide?”

“What other choice do we have? Right now we do not need to be fighting with each other.”

“But how do we know the information will be used wisely? Someone could take it for themselves and try to build a weapon.”

The scientist stood up straight and turned his eyes on his colleagues.

“We don’t. But the alternative is a mass outrage the world can’t afford.”

“Well someone needs to relay this information. Who’s it going to be?”

“I’ll do it,” the first scientist volunteered. His eyes wandered to the printout he had taped to the board. “It was my idea after all.”

 

Hours passed. Back in Washington, President Garland still had her eyes glued on the television.

“You don’t hand a child a potential weapon,” Connelly said. “Whoever these creatures are, they have handed us something that could easily be turned into a tool of mass destruction. It doesn’t make sense…unless they have some kind of ulterior motive…unless they want us to destroy ourselves.”

“Yeah he’s been going on like that since the news broke,” Hayes said as he walked in.

“Hardly surprising,” she responded.

“We should not devote our time and energy to the creation of such a device,” Connelly continued. “It would play right into their hands.”

Hayes clicked the TV off.

“I think that’s enough of that,” he said.

The phone rang. Garland put it on speaker.

“Yes?”

“Madam President, Zachary Ross is here.”

“Send him in,” she said, then hung up.

“You invited the head of NASA?”

“I did.”

“Even with Congress blocking your every move?”

“There are ways around them,” Garland replied in a cryptic manner.

The door opened. An African-American man in his mid-thirties entered the Oval Office. He had blue eyes and short brown. His face was clean-shaven and youthful in appearance. He was wearing a black dress shirt with dark gray pants, noticeably less formal than Garland or her Secretary of State.

There was a twinkle in Ross’ eyes when he spotted Garland.

“Madam President,” he said with a smile.

“Please Zach, just call me Amy. We’ve known each other for far too long.”

Garland took her seat and motioned for the other two to sit as well.

“What’s our situation,” Garland asked.

“Moving the Atlas’ launch date up shouldn’t be a problem,” Ross said as he took his seat. “But there are other complications.”

“Go on,” Hayes said.

“The problem is fuel efficiency. Atlas‘ mission was to rendezvous with the International Space Station on a simple supply run. We can add more fuel to the shuttle and help it get past the moon, but the engine we’re using is out of date. That means we could get the shuttle out there, but it wouldn’t have enough fuel to get back.”

“I see…” Garland said. Hayes gave her a sharp look.

“Tell me you’re not considering this,” he said.

“Of course not,” she replied. “It would be a suicide mission. I could never authorize that in good conscience.”

“There are other options,” Ross continued. “We’ve tossed around the idea of adding miniature rocket boosters to the Atlas life pod which could be used when the main engines run out of fuel. But such a process is delicate. If the boosters aren’t secured in the right way, the resulting heat could leak into the cabin and kill the astronauts, not to mention all the logistical issues with-”

The phone ringing cut him off. Garland picked it up.

“This is the President.”

“Ma’am,” an aide said over the phone, “I have a…General Garrett from the eastern seaboard on the line. He says it’s important.”

“Patch him through…hello? General?”

“Madam President, we have a situation,” a gruff voice said. “A Chinese cargo plane is about to violate U.S. airspace.”

“What?!”

“We estimate they will enter our airspace in less than a minute…hold on a second ma’am…yes? What is it…what? Can you confirm that? Hmm…all right…madam President?”

“Yes General?”

“We just received a message from the plane. Ma’am…they say they’re carrying a new type of rocket booster on board…a gift for the Atlas that should boost its fuel efficiency.”

“Is there any way to confirm they’re telling the truth?”

“Our initial scans show no suspicious heat signatures, but without visually inspecting the cargo it’s impossible to be certain. They’ve relayed a message from the Chinese president, but the plane will be within our airspace long before we can confirm its authenticity. We need a plan of action ma’am.”

Time never moved as slow for Amelia Garland as it did during the next twenty seconds. She leaned back in her chair and rubbed her temple with her free hand. These were the decisions that could make or break a president. She had no way of knowing is this was some kind of trick…an attempt at sabotage.

But if it was true…if they were really willing to collaborate…it would be just what they needed. Any help from other countries was more than welcome.

Garland felt the eyes of Ross and her Secretary of State on her. But they had no idea about the dilemma she was facing. If she let them in and something went wrong, people like Connelly would hold it over her for the rest of her term in office. Hell…she’d hold it over herself for the rest of her life.

But if she didn’t do it…

Garland sat up straight. Her decision was made.

“Bring them in,” she ordered.

“Yes ma’am,” the General replied.

“But have them land at an isolated airfield. At the very least, if it is some kind of ploy, they’ll be isolated. Bring them in, quarantine the situation until you can verify the cargo, then report back to me. And General? Take every precaution you need.”

“Affirmative ma’am.” Then he was gone.

“What was that all about,” Hayes asked.

“Apparently the Chinese have a gift for us,” Garland said as she hung up the phone. “Some new type of rocket booster for the Atlas that would boost our fuel efficiency.”

“No…it couldn’t be,” Ross said, more to himself than anyone.

“What is it Zach?”

“Have you ever heard of the Divine Hammer?”

“No,” Garland said. “What is it?”

“Supposedly it’s the most advanced rocket booster ever constructed, one that exponentially increases fuel efficiency. If that’s what they’re willing to give us…”

“It would break all sorts of precedents, that’s for sure,” Garland replied. “If it all checks out, would you be willing to allow them access to the Atlas?”

“I don’t see much choice in the matter. It’s either that or we go it alone.”

“What are we going to do about Congress,” Hayes asked. “That filibuster will stop anything we try and do.”

Garland stared into the black void of the television screen for a moment.

“Then we go over their heads,” she said. “Hayes, grab an aide and begin drafting an executive order.”

“Connelly and his friends aren’t going to like this,” Hayes said as he got up from his chair.

“They’ve made a point of disliking everything I do,” Garland replied. “Just get it done.”

“Yes madam president.”

 

There were six of them on board the plane: four engineers, one astronaut, and the pilot. They were quickly escorted off when it landed and men in green uniforms armed with assault rifles moved onto the plane. They swept their rifle-mounted flashlights all over the interior, dots of white light crawling across the walls like lightning bugs.

They paused before a massive blue tarp.

“Sir, we found something underneath a tarp,” reported one of the men. “Should we wait?”

“Pull it off immediately,” came the order. “We need to be certain what we’re dealing with.”

“Yes General. Help me with this,” he ordered his comrades.

Four of them removed the bungee straps and pulled the tarp off. When they saw the giant hunk of black metal, they knew. It hadn’t been a lie. It hadn’t been a trick. It was real. They had been telling the truth.

Standing before them was the Divine Hammer, the most powerful rocket booster ever created…

 

“Yes. Thank you General. Please, see to it that they arrive at the Atlas launch site in good time.”

With that. Garland hung up the phone. Not long ago she had been on the line with the Chinese president. He had one condition: if the U.S. was to use the Divine Hammer, one of their astronauts would be sent up into space with it. Garland saw no reason to argue. The possible implications of what was happening were too great. This was no time for artificial lines in the sand.

And yet, it wasn’t all in the spirit of their common humanity. The Chinese president knew that the Atlas was the only shuttle that could get out there in time. He also knew that whatever technology might be on board that ship would be centuries beyond anything humanity had as of yet. Whoever had access to such technology would have a great advantage. In the end, Garland knew he was being pragmatic.

The phone rang again. It was one of her aides.

“Ma’am, I have the Russian government on the line. Apparently they’ve found out about the Chinese cargo plane and are demanding a place at the table.”

Garland’s mouth curled into a half smile.

“Tell them to pull up a chair.”

 

It was the fastest the world governments had moved in recent history.

Connelly and his allies, predictably, railed against Garland’s executive order. They called it a “flagrant abuse of power”. They said it showed “terrible decision making”. They condemned it in as many ways as they could. In the end, it didn’t matter. The mission moved forward despite their objections.

A little over a week later, the Atlas was ready for launch. It had only taken a few days to get the new booster installed, thanks to the help of the Chinese engineers. The Russians didn’t come empty handed either. They provided extra fuel, so much so that the Atlas could make the trip twice over.

But still, Zachary Ross had qualms about the mission.

They were certain the shuttle would make it off the ground, but after that things were less clear. Would the shuttle make it there in one piece? Would the new booster function as advertised? No one could say.

And yet, they all knew how important this was.

“Five minutes to launch”, a voice said over the intercom.

After the first couple of days, the alien signal ceased. He wondered if they knew what humanity was doing, if they knew help was on the way. It was a crucial moment in history. What happened here could determine all of mankind’s future interactions with extra-terrestrial beings.

If we ignore this cry for help, what kind of message does that send, he asked himself.

Ross was standing square in the middle of the mission’s command center. All around him were computers and control panels manned by NASA personnel. Dominating the room was a gigantic, green-tinted screen that would show the progress of the Atlas.

“Four minutes to launch.”

Ross turned his attention to the main screen. He couldn’t help but feel anxious about the situation. The lack of proper safety checks…the rushed schedule…it was asking for trouble. But there was no choice. The aliens had sent their signal over a week ago. They could be dead by now for all they knew.

But they had to try. Contact was so close…

 

“Two minutes to launch.”

Three astronauts were sitting inside the Atlas. One was an American, one was Chinese, and the other was Russian. It was part of an international accord between the countries, so that none of them could gain a technological foothold over the others by using what they might find.

“We should get going already,” said the Russian.

“Would you rather we blow up on the landing pad,” asked the American.

“Beats just sitting here.”

The Chinese astronaut, on the other hand, sat still in his seat without a word. The other two had to admit that they found his silence a little disconcerting. Nevertheless, they knew they had to trust each other.

“One minute to launch.”

Out through the main window, the sky was bright and blue without a cloud in sight. The launch conditions had been perfect. No wind or other weather to hamper the landing pad. It was an auspicious start.

“Thirty seconds.”

The three of them adjusted their straps, ensuring they were in good condition.

“Twenty.”

“Here we go boys,” the Russian shouted with excitement.

The other two said nothing. They stared straight ahead and braced themselves.

“Ten…nine…eight…seven…six…”

 

“Five…four…three…two…one…we have ignition!”

Zachary Ross watched as clouds of thick smoke and fire enveloped the Atlas on the main screen. Soon enough, it was soaring off into the sky.

“Everything looks good,” a man sitting at a nearby control panel informed him. He nodded and continued watching. The blinking green dot that represented the shuttle climbed higher and higher, ascending through the clouds and breaking the bonds of gravity. It took only a matter of minutes before they hit the atmosphere.

“And…they’re through! Detaching Stage 2 rockets.”

So far…so good, Ross thought to himself.

 

The launch had been a little rougher than the astronauts anticipated. But when they passed through the atmosphere, things smoothed out. Once the rockets had detached and the Divine Hammer started its work, the three of them were able to relax. As the minutes ticked by the American found his eyes drifting from the instruments to the endless void outside. He stared into it for a long time, unable to fight the crippling sensation of smallness he felt.

“Amazing…isn’t it?”

The American turned to find the Russian staring off into the blackness as well.

“For all we know about space,” the Russian mused, “our minds still can’t comprehend how vast it is. We’re so focused on our different countries, but the distance between us is nothing compared to the distance between planets.”

“You know, I never would have pegged you as a philosophical type,” the American admitted.

“Would it be better if I had a bottle of vodka in my hand?”

“Well no, I wasn’t saying-” But the Russian laughed, cutting him off.

“Lighten up my friend. We’re hurtling through a vacuum in a hunk of metal that’s been stitched together by fire. The only thing between us and certain death is mere inches,” he said, reaching out and running his hand along the wall.

“Well, when you put it that way, I feel so much better.”

The Russian laughed again.

“I think you and I will get along just fine.”

 

For Zachary Ross, life slowed to a crawl. Hour after hour passed with agonizing slowness. It took over half a day, but eventually Atlas left the moon in its rear-view mirror.

He spent most of the time sitting in the break room, watching the news. Ross couldn’t help but shake his head any time Senator Connelly or his cohorts were brought up. They had spent the entire week criticizing the president for her decision to approve the mission.

That’s how it always is isn’t it, he asked himself. They talk and talk, but nothing gets done.

Ross had never been a big fan of politics. There was too much money tied up in it. How could you count on an elected official to actually represent you when a corporation could essentially buy their opinion?

After a while he got up and made his way back to the command center.

“Report,” he said as he walked in.

“Everything’s going smoothly sir. All systems check out.”

Ross watched as the small blinking dot crept farther and farther away from Earth. No one had any idea what the three astronauts would find out there. Preliminary sensor scans had revealed that the ship most likely had a pentagonal shape. An odd choice to be sure, but maybe it had some kind of religious significance to them.

Then he wondered. Do they even have religion? Or did they cast it off centuries ago?

It didn’t matter in the end. Religion or no religion, spirituality or no spirituality, living beings had called out for help. That wasn’t something he could ignore. That wasn’t something anyone should ignore.

What will they look like? Will we recognize them as life? Or will they be so far beyond us that we can’t even comprehend them?

He was jolted out of his thoughts by a sudden, shrieking alarm…

 

A loud bang echoed through the shuttle, followed by spinning red lights and a wailing siren.

B’lyad,” cursed the Russian. “What was that?!”

“I don’t know! Our instruments just went haywire! I-”

The American trailed off. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something outside the window. It was some kind of viscous, dark liquid oozing out into space…

The realization hit him like a freight train.

“Oh shit,” he shouted. “We’re leaking fuel!”

“How?!”

“Some kind of fault we didn’t detect, some damage we took maybe…I have no idea! But if we don’t stop it soon, we’re screwed!

“I’ll take care of it,” the Chinese astronaut said. He clicked off his harness, grabbed a handle above him, and pulled himself toward the rear of the shuttle with the grace of a dancer. The Russian and the American watched him go. Once he had disappeared, the two stared at each other.

“Did you know he spoke English,” the Russian asked.

“No. I hadn’t heard a word out of him since he arrived.”

The American turned around and gazed at his instruments. Fuel was leaking at a rapid rate, and the alarm was constantly assaulting his ears. It felt like minutes had gone by, but in reality it hadn’t even been thirty seconds.

“Come on,” he muttered. “Come on…come on…” He banged his fist against the controls. “Come on you son of a bitch!

Almost like an answer to a prayer, the alarm stopped and the spinning lights turned off. Both of the astronauts let out a sigh of relief. A moment later, the radio crackled in their ears.

“I managed to clamp down the fuel valves,” the Chinese astronaut reported. “We should now have time to find and patch the leak.”

“That’s good,” the American said, “but it’s too late.”

“How much did we lose,” the Russian asked.

“Well…if these readings are correct, we no longer have enough fuel for the return trip home. Which means…once we get out there…”

“We’re stuck,” the Russian finished.

“Exactly.”

The two of them stared each other in the eyes. Nothing needed to be said. They could tell they were both thinking the same thing.

“We’ve come this far haven’t we,” the Russian asked.

“Yes we have,” the American replied.

“Might as well finish the job.”

“Might as well.”

The Chinese astronaut appeared from the rear of the shuttle, pulling himself along by the handles on the ceiling.

“What about you?” The American turned to him. “If you don’t want to do this, I understand.”

The Chinese astronaut turned and locked eyes with the American.

“I volunteered for this mission sir,” he said. “I will see it through to the end.”

 

“You’re going to what?!”

“We’ve patched the leak and we’re going to continue the mission.”

“But…you don’t have enough fuel to get back! You’ll die out there!”

“We’re all in agreement on this end mission control.”

“Yeah. What kind of hosts would we be if we bailed on the party now,” a heavily accented voice chimed in.

Zachary Ross leaned back in his chair. The headset he was wearing was like a vice threatening to squeeze his brains right out of his skull. He looked up at the main screen, at the blinking green dot that represented the Atlas. Over four hundred thousand kilometers separated them from their home…their friends…their families.

And I sent them out there, he thought.

That wasn’t completely true. All three of the men had voluntarily signed on to one of the most dangerous missions mankind had ever undertaken. They knew what they were getting themselves into, how unprecedented it was. But Ross blamed himself anyways. He couldn’t help it.

“Godspeed men…godspeed,” he said. Then he terminated the transmission and stared up at the cold, gray ceiling.

“Godspeed,” he mumbled.

 

That night, President Amelia Garland found herself staring out the Oval Office window, this time with a glass of wine in one hand and a bottle in the other. It had rained well into the evening. Even now she could hear the soft pattering of the rain drops as they hit the glass.

The news hit Earth hard. Vigils were held all over the world. News coverage of the events ran well into the night as any updates on the astronauts got eaten up by the public. Within the first hour of the news breaking, Senator Connelly issued a statement to the press. In it, he called the situation evidence of the new administration’s “lack of real leadership”.

He doesn’t actually care about them, she thought. They’re just an opportunity…a stepping stone…

Garland turned away from the window and stumbled. She looked at the bottle and her now-empty glass. Had she really drank that much? She couldn’t remember.

With an unsteady hand, she gripped her chair and pulled it out from behind the desk, taking a seat. She hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights, so the room was dark. The only illumination was a soft, yellow glow from the street lamps outside.

Garland set the bottle and the glass down on the desk. A moment later, she buried her head in her hands.

No one ever knew about the tears that fell from her eyes that night…

 

It was early morning in Washington when the astronauts finally made contact.

The scans had been correct. The ship was shaped like a pentagon. They almost didn’t even see it until they were right on top of it due to its dark color. There were no apparent windows on the vessel. It was just a solid shade of blue eerily floating through space.

There was no need to look for a docking point. The moment they got close enough, it was as if an invisible hand had taken hold and carried them in. A loud clunking sound indicated they had docked.

“Here we are,” the Russian said.

“Here we are,” the American agreed.

The three of them made their way to the airlock. As the depressurization sequence commenced, the three of them wondered what lay on the other side of the airlock door. What would they find in a vessel from beyond their solar system?

“Hopefully they appreciate us coming out all this way huh,” the Russian said with an awkward laugh. But the other two knew he was afraid. They knew because they all were.

In front of them sat the anti-matter containment device on a construction dolly. It was a large contraption, almost twice the height of a normal man. Cold, gray metal covered the exterior while an ethereal blue glow shined from inside.

Eventually, the airlock seal hissed and the door slid open. The room they stepped into had a hexagonal shape. And it was tall, at least five times their height. The floor was slick and their steps made a sloshing sound wherever they walked. The walls were a mottled blue, clear liquid dripping down the sides.

“Where should I put this,” the Chinese astronaut asked, wheeling in the anti-matter container.

“Just leave it in the middle I guess,” the American said, hardly paying attention. He was running his hand along the wall. “Feel this,” he told the others. “It’s soft. How is that possible?”

The three of them were silent for a long time, their eyes wandering around the room. A distant humming sound reached their ears, presumably the ship’s power system at work. As the American walked around he almost lost his footing on the slick floor, but managed to stay upright. Minutes passed by without incident.

“Is this it,” the Russian asked. He stepped up to the far wall and rapped his hand against it, the sound echoing through the cavernous room. “What a joke,” he shouted, ramming his fist into the wall. “We come all the way out here and-”

“Wait!” The American held up his hand. “Do you hear that?”

The Russian turned toward him and was about to speak when he froze. The sound was coming from beyond the wall. It was distant, but moving closer: a deep moan…like a whale in the depths of the ocean.

“What is-”

The Russian didn’t get to finish his question. There was a thunderous clunk and the wall behind him suddenly became transparent. The man flinched and jumped back, retreating away from the wall. The three astronauts stood next to each other and stared straight ahead.

The world beyond the wall was murky, dark, and distorted. It quivered and seemed to shimmer ever so slightly. It took the three of them a moment to realize what they were looking at.

“Water…” the American astronaut mumbled. “This entire ship must be underwater…”

A loud click caused them to flinch. The room around them was suddenly filled with glaring light.

The call again…this time much closer than before.

It was the American who spotted it first, a slinking shadow moving into view. Due to the intense light shining down on them it was impossible to get a clear look at the thing. His first impression of it was that it was some kind of giant squid. But then he noticed that it lacked any tentacles. Instead, it seemed to be one solid body, like a gigantic eel.

But it was the Chinese astronaut who described it best.

“Sea dragon,” he muttered.

From their estimation, it had to be at least ten meters long. Then, when it got close enough, the creature reared up before the window. The American squinted. He thought he caught a glimpse of fiery orange eyes staring back at him, but it was impossible to say for sure. The creature had four flipper-like appendages on each side of its body to help it move through the water. It also had what looked like a large fin on its head.

None of the astronauts could speak, spellbound by the figure before them.

Then, more shadows appeared in the murky depths beyond the wall. There were three. Then there were five. Then there were ten. By the time all of them had made their appearance, there were at least twenty of the creatures observing them.

“My god,” muttered the American.

The room around them started to quake. The light got brighter and brighter. A strange sense of weightlessness gripped the three of them as their feet left the ground. The world around them began to quiver and warp.

“What…what is happening,” the Russian shouted.

The light was blinding. None of them could see anything beyond the murky veil anymore. Before he blacked out, the American could have sworn he heard one of the creatures utter a soft call…one last goodbye…

 

“Anything?”

“They should have reached the ship by now. But their signal disappeared almost half an hour ago. There hasn’t been anything since.”

“Can’t you get a radio transmission out to them?”

“I’ve been trying sir. But there’s no response.”

Zachary Ross sighed. He turned his attention away from the main screen and leaned back against one of the control panels. Three men, he thought. We sent three men out there…never to return home.

“Wait! I’m picking up something.”

Ross was jolted out of his thoughts.

“What is it?”

“There’s a small object…approaching Earth fast…sir, the radio transponder confirms it. It’s the Atlas life pod!”

“What?! But that’s impossible! How did it get here so fast?”

“I don’t know. It just appeared and…I’m getting a transmission!”

“Patch it through. Atlas, this is ground control. Do you read?”

“Yes sir,” came the reply.

“What happened to you?”

“I don’t know. We delivered the device. We saw them and then-”

“Wait…you saw them?”

“Yes sir. We saw them and then…I don’t know. There was a blinding light and I felt my feet leaving the ground. I must have blacked out because the next thing I knew I was waking up in the life pod with Earth coming up fast.”

“Sir, we have a problem.”

“Hold on Atlas,” Ross said, then pressed a button to mute their side of the conversation. “What is it?”

“The trajectory they’re coming in at…it’s far too steep. The pod’s going to burn up on re-entry.”

“What?! No…there must be something we can do. Doesn’t the life pod have maneuvering thrusters?”

“Small ones yes…but they won’t be able to adjust course fast enough.”

“Well we have to try something!”

“Sir…it’s too late. They’ve already hit the atmosphere.”

“No…fuck! God damn it,” Ross cursed aloud, slamming his fist against the control panel. He lowered his head and closed his eyes. “They can’t have come this far just to die…I refuse to accept that!”

“Wait…no this…this is impossible,” the man at the control panel muttered. “Sir…take a look at this!”

Ross opened his eyes leaned over the man’s shoulder. At first, he couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing.

“What…how…how is that happening,” he stuttered.

“I don’t know sir. By my calculations, they should be burning up in there. But the temperature inside the cabin is…it’s at room temperature. It’s like something is shielding them from the heat.”

Ross was silent for a moment. Then, unable to help himself, he started laughing.

“What’s so funny sir,” the man asked.

“Of course,” Ross said. “Of course they’d be able to pull something like this off. We shouldn’t have doubted them. If they could send our life pod back here in record time, then they could protect them from atmospheric re-entry.”

“Ground control?” Atlas was calling. “Is there something we should know?”

Ross leaned forward and unmuted the call.

Atlas…you’re going to be just fine.”

 

They watched on televisions and computers. They listened on radios. They had their faces buried in smart phones, watching live streaming news coverage. In Times Square, thousands had their necks craned to the gigantic digital billboard with bated breath.

It was the day the world looked up.

Wishes were made, gods were appealed to, good thoughts pulsed out into the universe…all for the sake of three men. Three men from distant countries and different lives. Three men who came together and put aside politics when the world needed them most.

Seconds passed like minutes. Minutes felt like hours.

The international Coast Guard rushed to the spot where the life pod was projected to land. It slammed into the water like a missile, creating a large wave. The Coast Guard ships moved in slowly as the people watched, the water around the pod bubbling with the heat.

At first, nothing happened. Then the hatch slowly opened…

An American man in an astronaut suit stepped into view, followed closely by a Russian and a Chinese man. After a moment of expectant silence, the American raised his hand and waved.

The world erupted into cheers…

 

“You’re gonna be famous, you know,” the Russian whispered to the American, patting him on the shoulder.

“Yeah, maybe. What are you going to do after this,” the American asked him.

“Oh…I’ll probably return home, break open a bottle of celebratory vodka,” the Russian replied.

“I thought you didn’t drink vodka.”

“I never said I didn’t. You just assumed I didn’t,” the Russian said with a knowing smirk.

“Well in that case I’m going to make myself steak and french fries, then kick back on the couch and get caught up with the Kardashians.”

The Russian let out a hearty laugh.

“I knew there was a reason I liked you,” he said.

 

Unbeknownst to the earthlings a small white device, shaped like a spider, released its grip on the life pod. Its task done, it fell into the ocean with a slight sizzle and sank, never to be seen again by human eyes…

 

That night, President Garland shared celebratory champagne with Zachary Ross and her Secretary of State John Hayes.

“I have to hand it to you Zach, you really pulled through,” Garland said.

“I hardly did anything. Once Atlas left the launch pad, all we did was guide them to their target. No…we have them to thank for the safe return of our astronauts. I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand how they did what they did, but it hardly matters in the end.”

“To three men safe,” Garland said, raising her glass.

“To three men safe,” agreed Secretary Hayes as he raised his.

“Three men safe,” Ross chimed in. The three clinked their glasses together and took a drink.

“Well,” Hayes said, setting down his glass, “it appears Senator Connelly has yet to make a statement on the matter. In fact, I heard he outright refused to answer any questions on camera.”

“No doubt he’s searching for some way to spin this to his advantage,” Ross said.

“He’ll be hard-pressed to do that,” Garland chimed in.

“To sticking it to Connelly,” Ross said with a chuckle, raising his glass.

“Hell I’ll toast that,” Hayes said. The three of them laughed as they clinked their glasses together and took another drink. But then, one of Garland’s aides came running in carrying a radio.

“Madam President!” He was clearly out of breath. “We’re…we’re getting another signal!”

“What more could they want,” Hayes asked.

“I don’t think they’re asking for anything,” the aide said. “Just listen.” He set the radio down and turned it on.

Immediately the room was filled with the sound of music. And for a moment, Garland wasn’t in the Oval Office anymore. She was carried along by a wave of nostalgia, carried back in time. She saw the smiling faces of her mom and dad at the dinner table as they ate. She heard the smooth sound of classic rock pulsing through the speakers.

“Ooh you make me live,” crooned the male singer.

“What the…is that…Queen,” Hayes asked.

“Well…at least we know they have good taste,” Ross said with a chuckle

They fell silent again, letting the song fill the room.

“You’re my best friend…” the radio continued.

“So what, is this their idea of a joke,” Hayes asked.

But President Garland didn’t hear him. She was too busy laughing.

 

Once again, let me know what you think in the comments.  A regular post will be coming your way next Wednesday.

As always, you can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Through Enemy Eyes

Welcome to the third of twelve short stories.  For those who don’t know, this year my New Years resolution was to write twelve short stories, one each month, then post the story on my blog on the last Wednesday of the month.  So with that being said, enjoy!

 

 

The projectile hurtled toward him with fatal speed, filling the air with an eerie whistling.

A second later a scorching blast of heat sent him flying. The world rumbled and roared, shades of brown spinning around his head. He hit the floor hard, rolling end over end until he found himself flat on his back. With a groan, he managed to glance at the entrance. It was now blocked by fallen rock.

Fuck, Sherman Morris thought to himself.

After catching his breath he picked himself up off the rocky ground and dusted off his dark brown jacket. Taking stock of the situation, he knew it wasn’t good. Even just looking at the rubble told him he wouldn’t be able to clear it with his bare hands.

“Oh, you’re still alive,” a flat voice said.

Sherman turned in the direction of the voice. Leaning against one of the metal arches that held up the tunnel was an older man who looked to be in his forties. He was plainly dressed: a ragged brown jacket covered a old gray shirt and faded blue pants. He had bright green eyes, brown hair, and a thin beard coated in dust. His lips were dry and chapped. He held a hand against his chest, holding in the blood from where he’d been shot. An ugly scar marred the back of his wrist, traces of an ancient wound.

By contrast, Sherman was young, in his late twenties. He had dark brown eyes, reddish hair that had been combed back, and a round, clean-shaven face. Underneath his jacket was a military uniform, desert camouflage. On his back he carried a small black assault rifle and a green pack. He raised a hand to his neck and fidgeted with the silver cross that hung there at all times.

“You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna sit there and stare at me all day,” the older man asked.

Sherman didn’t reply. As he walked toward the man, his black military boots clicking against the ground, he took in their surroundings.

They had taken shelter in an old, abandoned mine. To their left, the tunnel ended in a solid rock wall that had been carved out and completely stripped of pyronium. To their right, the tunnel led to an old elevator shaft which took people deeper into the mine. From the looks of things, the elevator was no longer powered. But that didn’t matter. The only way in and out of the mine was now blocked.

After a moment he knelt down next to the man, laying his assault rifle and pack against the wall.

“I need to take a look at your wound,” he said.

The older man took his hand away with a grimace. The wound didn’t look that large but it was bleeding quite a bit, which meant that the bullet had probably nicked an artery.

“Let me look at your back,” Sherman said as he pulled the man forward. “Shit,” he muttered after a moment. “No exit wound.”

The man coughed as he leaned back against the metal arch. “Well that’s just great.”

“That means the bullet’s still inside you and we need to get it out as soon as possible,” Sherman explained.

“No fuckin’ shit,” the man replied. There was a brief silence. “Well? Are you gonna dig it out or just let it rattle around in there?”

Sherman looked around. He noticed the faint light glinting off of something near the old elevator. When he walked closer he found an old, rusted workbench with a gray toolbox sitting on top. Dust flew off the latch as Sherman popped the box open, making him cough. He didn’t see anything of use at first: just a plasma torch, a couple of screwdrivers, and some gel for making explosives. But then his eyes landed on a miniature, dusty pair of pliers. Sherman snatched them up and made his way back down the tunnel.

The man gazed at the pliers and gave him a doubtful look. Sherman grabbed the canteen hanging off the side of his pack, unscrewed the lid, and doused the end of the pliers with water.

“Really? You think that’s going to sanitize it?”

“Would you rather I stick a pair of dusty old pliers in your gut,” Sherman asked. The man fell silent, looking down at his chest and groaning. Sherman dried the pliers off on his jacket.

“This is gonna hurt,” he said, looking the man in the eyes.

“Just do it already.”

From the moment he dug the pliers in, the man’s pained howls rang in his ears. It was difficult finding the bullet. The pliers slid around, making sickening squelching noises as it went. An eternity passed before he managed to get a grip on the bullet. Once he did, Sherman pulled the pliers out as fast as he could. A hunk of crumpled brass, stained with crimson blood, glistened on the end. He pulled it off and tossed it aside. It clinked against the rocky floor as it rolled into the darkness.

“Argh…fuck,” the man cursed. “You couldn’t have made that a little less painful?”

“Would it kill you to have some gratitude,” Sherman asked, irritated.

“Ha! If only.”

Outside, the desert winds howled. Sherman cast his eyes up above and saw cracks in the rock where sunlight peered in. It was still around late morning from what he could tell. Although because of Otho’s orbit days were shorter than on Earth, which meant that nighttime was only a few hours away.

“Why were they shooting at you,” he asked.

“Why do you think?”

“I can’t believe Otho Prima would try to kill one of their own.”

The man turned his head toward Sherman, a stern look in his eyes.

“Are you really that goddamn naive? Of course Otho Prima would kill one of their own. They’ve been doing it since the beginning. Anyone who tries to defect?” He put his fingers to his head and mimed a gunshot. “Boom. Dead.”

“But you weren’t trying to defect. We captured you.”

“And how are they supposed to know I won’t give up information?”

He has a point, Sherman admitted to himself. The man had stabilized a little bit, although his face was still pallid and sweaty. His breathing was heavy and his hand was firmly clasped to his chest. After a moment, Sherman took off his jacket.

“Here,” he said, offering it to the man. “Use this to help stop the bleeding.”

The man hesitated, but eventually took the clothing and tucked it under his arm. He looked up at Sherman.

“Thanks kid,” he said.

With his jacket off, the silver cross around Sherman’s neck was on full display. The man’s eyes flicked to it and he nodded.

“You a believer?”

“Born and raised,” Sherman replied, feeling a swelling of pride.

“That’s good for you,” the man responded, his voice flat. He turned his attention away from the cross and stared at the cave-in. Sherman studied him for a moment.

“You used to believe, didn’t you?”

“I did,” the man replied. “Once upon a time.”

“And now?”

“Let’s just say that if God exists he’s an asshole and I want nothing to do with him.”

 

After a long time the wind died down. The sun sat high in the sky, shafts of light spilling in from the cracks in the rocks.

The man hadn’t said anything for over an hour. He leaned back against the wall in silence, applying pressure to his wound with the jacket. His green eyes never wandered. They stared straight ahead, dull and distant.

Sherman tried using his radio to call for help but got nothing aside from static. He figured it had either been damaged in the blast or the rocks were blocking the signal. The gel he found might be able to blow open a hole big enough to escape, but he lacked the other materials necessary to make an explosive.

No…they were stuck here for the time being.

“What’s your name,” Sherman asked.

The man didn’t move or reply.

“I’m Sherman. Sherman Morris.”

No response. He sighed.

“Look, we’re gonna be here for a while,” he said. “Might as well get to know each other. All I have is your code name: Ares.”

The man laughed.

“The Greek god of war,” he said. “The OP certainly have a flair for the dramatic.”

“How does someone like you end up with them,” Sherman asked. “You don’t seem like the type.”

“And what type would that be,” the man asked, turning and giving him a hard look.

“Well…you know…a-“

“Fanatic? Anarchist? Terrorist?”

Sherman didn’t reply. The man scoffed.

“Figures. I know your type: naive, full of ideas about duty and patriotism. Let me guess…you saw those holoboards every day you went to school, their screens chock full of glowing images of Earth and people in uniform. ‘Join today,’ they said. ‘Help protect humanity’. And then when you graduated you strolled into the recruitment office believing every word.”

“So you used to live on Earth then,” Sherman said, ignoring the man’s snide comments.

“Ha…well you’re persistent, I’ll give you that.”

The man turned and looked him over. For a moment, Sherman thought he saw a glimmer of respect in those old, hardened eyes.

“The name’s Weston…Weston Harper.”

“Nice to meet you Weston.”

“We’re sitting in an old, caved-in mine. I’ve been shot and I’m slowly bleeding out. There’s no rescue coming in the foreseeable future…I’d hardly call this ‘nice’.”

Sherman thought he heard a brief rustling outside and snapped his head up, military instinct going wild. But it was just the wind. During the silence that followed, his eyes were drawn to the scar on the back of Weston’s hand.

“How’d that happen,” he asked, pointing to it.

“What, this old thing,” Weston asked, lifting his hand up. “Factory accident…long time ago. Back on Earth I used to help make spaceship parts for military and commercial use. Or I guess I should say that I oversaw the robots that did most of the work. I only got my hands dirty if something went wrong.”

“From your scar, I’m guessing that something went wrong.”

“Nice work detective,” Weston remarked in a mocking tone. “But yes, one day one of the robots on the line malfunctioned and couldn’t shut off its plasma torch. So I went down there to take a look. But when I got close the robot suddenly whirled around toward me. I threw up my hands to shield my face and the torch caught the back of my wrist. I don’t know if you’ve ever been burned by a plasma torch, but it’s not pretty. It can tear right through your flesh and down to the bone. Fortunately it only lasted for a second or two before someone managed to pull the breaker and shut everything down.” He looked down at the scar. “But it was enough.”

“So…did you quit after that,” Sherman asked.

“Hell no. I loved that job,” he replied.

“Then how did you end up here?”

Weston sighed.

“Not by choice kid. I think it was about three or four years after the accident. There was this bunch of corporate shakeups…companies merging…acquiring each other…that kind of thing. Powerful people playing powerful games. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that when powerful people play games the people in the middle? Saps like you and me? We’re the ones that get screwed.”

“The factory closed down and you were laid off.”

“Bingo. Automation was getting better and better and they needed less and less people. Our factory was just one of the casualties that year.”

“Couldn’t you just find another job,” Sherman asked.

“You think I didn’t try? I scouted month after month for almost a year, but nothing permanent ever turned up. Thank god for temporary work.”

Weston sighed again.

“My wife, Sonja…she kept telling me it would be fine, that I would find something eventually. But even she had doubts. I could see it in her eyes…her lovely blue eyes…”

Weston’s eyes glazed over and he trailed off.

“How did you end up on Otho,” Sherman asked.

“I had been through so many help ads and other bullshit…I even tried writing my Statesman but you know how politicians are. They don’t even bother to send back a real letter…just some uniform shit thanking you for writing in. I heard about Otho shortly after the huge pyronium discovery.”

“When they broke into that massive, natural cavern?”

“That’s the one.”

“Man…that was over ten years ago. I remember hearing about it when I was still in high school. People were excited.”

“And why wouldn’t they be? More pyronium meant more jobs, more money, and more power for spaceships and other technology those rich, well-off schlubs depended on. It took some time to convince Sonja, but eventually she saw that it was in the best interest for both her and Benny.”

“Benny?”

“Yeah my son, Benny. Such a hyperactive boy, but then again who isn’t when they’re a kid?”

“Yeah,” Sherman agreed with a laugh.

“So we made our way out here,” Weston continued. “Bought a house in a small, developing town and I got to work in the mines. It was good money for a while.”

“Why do I sense a ‘but’ coming?”

“Because all good things must come to an end. It’s funny…I left Earth to get away from all the political bullshit.”

Weston’s eyes went dark.

“But eventually, I found myself drowning in it.”

 

The day was late. The sun had slunk down to the other side of the sky and shafts of light no longer streamed in to their underground prison. Sherman took his eyes away from the rocky ceiling and turned them back on Weston. It was obvious the fever was getting worse, but with no medical supplies there was little Sherman could do to alleviate the pain.

He tried the radio every half hour but it refused to work. They would just have to wait for someone to come looking.

“Do you remember when the revolts started,” Sherman asked.

“Of course I do. I was living here after all.”

“What happened? What started it?”

Weston let out a short laugh.

“Tryin’ to keep me talking, eh kid? Okay…I’ll play along,” he said with a groan as he shifted position. “It all started with the taxes.”

“The import taxes?”

“Yep. Earth started taxing anything the colonists tried to bring in. Which was a problem because they depended on those imports to survive. The massive surge of people moving in after that pyronium find meant that the planet’s food and water supply just couldn’t keep up.”

“Why did the government start taxing you?”

“They thought we were getting too rich off the pyronium mining. We weren’t, but who’s going to tell ’em any different? They saw an opportunity to make money, and the people of Earth were more than happy to gobble up the story about well-off Othians making the big bucks.”

“But I’ve heard there’s a lot of money in pyronium.”

“Oh there is, but we hardly got any of it. No…the corporations saw to that. They squeezed us out of every damn nickel and dime they possibly could. Before long most of us were barely making enough to get by. If it wasn’t for some enterprising Othians streamlining our insulated greenhouses with genetically modified crops, we’d all either be bankrupt or starving.”

Weston shifted position with a pained groan.

“But yeah, it started with the taxes. And they kept getting worse and worse. It was really only a matter of time before the pirates came about.”

“I’ve read about them,” Sherman said. “They would attack cargo ships and steal their contents, then sell it to the colonists at a reduced price.”

“Yeah it all sounded great…until you realized it was a scam. The prices the pirates were selling stuff at…it was the difference between paying ninety-five cents instead of a dollar. But it was all we had. And our collusion with the pirates made Earth angry.”

“So they sent in the military.”

“Oh yeah they did…and they swarmed the planet looking for the pirates. They assaulted people, stormed houses and businesses…anything to get the information they wanted. These were the kind of guys who could make children cry and not give a fuck.”

“But there are rules barring the mistreatment of children and non-combatants.”

“Were you here kid? No, you weren’t. Don’t talk about things you don’t understand.”

“But-“

“But nothing. All the way out here? Those rules mean very little. I remember those days…they came up to me at work several times demanding information. And every time, I had nothing to give them. But to the EM, we were all potential suspects. One of them actually rifle-butted me in the eye once. Stung for a week.”

“Did you file a complaint?”

“With who? The Earth government didn’t give a damn. In their eyes we were all in bed with terrorists. No…it was better to just keep your head down and stay out of the way. Eventually the military tracked the pirates to an old, abandoned asteroid mining facility they’d re-purposed.”

“I remember seeing the news reports. The pirates fired upon the military, forcing them to shoot back. Eventually the facility was destroyed by all the fighting,” Sherman said.

“Wow…people really swallowed the pill on that one didn’t they?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh the pirates fired on them all right. But that was only after the nuke was launched.”

“Wait…they nuked the place?” Sherman was in disbelief. “No way.”

“Oh they nuked it all right…blasted that fucker into stardust. Then they suppressed all knowledge of the incident and Earth was none the wiser. If anyone ever tried to pry into it, they cited security concerns and kept the information confidential. That’s the government for you…miles of red tape.”

“But what about the Liberation Party,” Sherman asked. “They helped with the pirates right?”

“That part was true,” Weston confirmed. “They were the ones that supplied the military with the location of the pirate base.”

“Who were they?”

“Just a band of determined colonists who believed that a free Otho, existing in peaceful cooperation with Earth, was the only way to go. In exchange for the information on the pirates’ location they were promised that Otho would be free to do as it wished. It was only later they found out it was all bullshit.”

“That was when they instituted martial law, wasn’t it?”

“Yes sir,” Weston said. “The military took over running the government because supposedly we were too dangerous to rule ourselves.”

“That pissed a lot of people off I imagine,” Sherman said.

“Hell yeah it did. There were protests in the streets almost every day, some of them even escalating into riots.”

“Did you join them?”

“I thought about it. But then the Woodhurst Massacre happened.”

“Oh god.”

“Yeah. The military and protesters met in the town square of Woodhurst and traded words. Eventually someone threw a stone or fired a shot…no one knows for sure. But everything went to shit. Once the gunfire and smoke had cleared, over three dozen people were dead.”

“Jesus,” Sherman said, fiddling with the cross on his neck.

“You know, my wife made me something like that once.”

“Hmm? You mean this cross?”

“Yeah…one of her hobbies. Back on Earth she loved making jewelry. One day I came home from the factory and she presented me with this golden cross covered in tiny red gemstones…beautiful little thing. She told me she’d spent weeks perfecting it. Of course it wasn’t really gold but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.”

“Where is it now?”

“Oh…I lost it a long time ago,” he said, averting his eyes. Sherman could tell there was more to the story, but decided not to push it.

“Anyways…where was I,” Weston asked.

“You had just finished talking about Woodhurst.”

“Oh yeah yeah…well after Woodhurst the Liberation Party sent out a call for peace talks with the Earth government. From my understanding they demanded that Otho be a free colony. Otherwise, they argued, something like this was bound to happen again. And Earth, still reeling from the disaster, was forced to agree. So the Liberation Party was placed into power and they did their best to ensure that Otho was treated fairly and respectfully.”

“Sounds like a golden age,” Sherman said.

“It kinda was,” Weston agreed. “Things were good for a while. People had money in their pockets. We had food and water and all sorts of stuff. Everyone was happy.”

“So what happened? Where is the Liberation Party now?”

“Oh they’re still in power,” he said. “Although their name has changed along with their tactics.”

It took a moment to hit Sherman. But when it did, his mind reeled.

“No way,” he exclaimed. “No fucking way.”

“Yep,” Weston said, looking Sherman right in the eye. “The Liberation Party and Otho Prima? One and the same.”

“But why…how? How does a group of concerned citizens transform into a bunch of-“

“Crazed fanatics? Dictators?”

“Well I wasn’t going to say that.”

“Yeah you were,” Weston said. “And you’d be absolutely right. They’re a bunch of crazed totalitarian shitheads.”

“What changed?”

“You know that old saying, the one about the corruption of absolute power?” Sherman nodded. “Well that’s exactly what happened. They got a taste of it and liked it so much they kept going and going. And then one day they woke up, looked in the mirror, and realized it was too late to turn back.”

 

The sun fell below the horizon and darkness reigned supreme. The land was permeated by the shadow of night.

Sherman fired up two large, blue glow sticks, clipping one to his belt and setting the other one on the ground nearby. Even under the surreal blue light Sherman could tell Weston was still pallid and weak. Each breath came as a struggle, quivering and raw.

Digging into his pack, Sherman found a blanket and draped it over him as best he could. Weston took hold of the blanket and nodded.

“Why did you join,” Sherman asked.

“Join what?”

“Otho Prima.”

Weston didn’t reply. Instead he lifted his quaking eyes toward the ceiling, as if trying to find any trace of the stars. But the tiny cracks in the rock walls weren’t enough to allow a glimpse of the cosmos.

“Weston?” No answer. “Why did you join?”

“Being a parent is tough, you know?”

Sherman blinked.

“I know,” he admitted. “I have a wife and a two-year-old back home.”

“Let me tell you, it never gets easier…just different. But despite that, I could never do anything but love Benny. One year, for his birthday, we decided to surprise him with this new virtual reality video game thing he’d been wanting. It took six months of saving money from the mines, but it was worth it…just to see his face light up after he tore off the wrapping paper. And man…you should’ve seen him…he’s thanking me and Sonja and giving us kisses and just bouncin’ up and down right there in the kitchen…”

Weston paused and laughed, wiping away a tear.

“So anyways, he takes the thing and he’s running upstairs to play it. We expected him to come asking us for help setting it up, but no…does it all by himself. That’s the thing with kids, you know? They’re way more clever than you’ll ever give ’em credit for.”

Sherman had to chuckle. But then the smile faded from Weston’s face.

“About three hours later, there’s a knock at the door. Sonja goes to open it. And suddenly, there’s five armed soldiers storming into the house. One of them shoves Sonja aside so hard she falls to the floor. I jump up from my chair, ready to fight but another shoves his rifle into my gut, knocking the wind out of me.”

“They were Earth Military, weren’t they?”

“Yes sir, Earth’s proudest and finest,” Weston snarled, his voice full of sarcastic venom. “So while three of them are keeping me and Sonja under control, the other two are ransacking the place. The man in charge, some jackass named Griffin, explains that they heard we were housing spies for Otho Prima. We weren’t of course, but try telling them that.”

Weston paused. His eyes were far away…lost in time.

“I notice one of them heading up the stairs. Of course my first thought is of my son, who probably has no idea what’s going on because of that headset he’s wearing. I jump up from my seat, startling the three men around us. ‘Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him’, I start begging, practically tearing up in front of ’em. Griffin, the commander, just cocks his head and stares at me. By the time he realizes what’s going on, it’s too late. His man has entered my son’s room and the next thing we hear is yelling and a loud crash.”

“I knew before I even heard the crying,” Weston continued. “They had broken his new favorite toy. They had destroyed the birthday present we had given to him just hours before. All that toiling in the mines…wasted because of one moment and one jackass.”

Weston paused before he continued, taking a deep, shaky breath.

“They left after that. Griffin, for as much of an asshole as he was, actually reprimands the guy who broke my son’s video game. But when I tell him I’m going to file a complaint with the government he gives me this look that says ‘try me’. He and I both knew nothing would come of it, that no one would take my word over his. So they leave in their shuttle, probably to go back to their cushy little lives. Meanwhile Sonja trudges up to Benny’s room and sits there comforting him. Later, when she comes back down, she tells me he cried himself to sleep…poor kid. No twelve year-old deserves that.”

Sherman nodded in agreement. Suddenly, Weston’s voice dropped to a sinister monotone.

“Hour and a half later, someone else breaks down the door…Otho Prima. They demand to know what we told the EM. ‘Nothing you assholes,’ I yell at them. And it’s the truth. But they keep demanding answers. And when I keep refusing, the man in charge points to one of the soldiers and motions him upstairs.”

“Stop.”

“And this solider…oh he rushes up the stairs with this demented excitement in his eyes…”

“Stop.”

“He jogs down the hallway, right up to my son’s door. He’s about to enter when the commander orders him to stop. The commander turns, looks me right in the eye, and tells me it’s my last chance. And I’m sitting there, begging and pleading, screaming over and over again that we told them nothing…that we know nothing….”

Stop!

Why?!” Weston’s eyes snapped toward Sherman, full of fiery malice. “Why do you want me to stop?! Because you know exactly what happened don’t you kid?! Because you and that piece of shit fraternity you call a military know the lengths the OP go to curb resistance and you don’t do a fucking thing about it!

Sherman averted his eyes. He had nothing to say. How could he? Of course he knew about it. It was common knowledge. It was even part of the propaganda the military used to recruit people.

Weston scoffed. “You’re all so damn blind. It’s just black and white to you, good and evil. You don’t see the people caught in between, the people who suffer because you can’t see beyond your pointless ideology.”

Sherman summoned the courage to lift his head up. But Weston was no longer looking at him. Instead he was staring off into space…his eyes shaking and his lips quivering. He’s reliving the pain of that night, Sherman thought, over and over again like his own personal nightmare.

Weston took a deep breath and managed to calm himself.

“One tiny ‘POP’, and we know it’s done. He’s gone…Benny’s gone…forever.” He turned and looked at Sherman. “I didn’t get angry. I didn’t lash out. I just…sat there…my entire body numb. Have you ever felt anything like that?”

Sherman shook his head.

“It’s the craziest thing. Your arms and legs turn to jelly. Your body feels like it weighs ten times what it should. It’s like you’re…drained…like every bit of energy has been taken from you…”

Weston bit his lip before he continued.

“Sonja, on the other hand, gets fuckin’ pissed. She stands up and takes a swing at one of the soldiers, screaming ‘you killed my boy, you killed my boy!’ Two of them level their guns on her, ready to fire. And they would have. They would have shot her right there in cold blood. But I begged them to stop, told them I would do anything.”

Weston sighed.

“I promised I would fight for the OP. One week later, I was shipping off to an OP boot camp.”

Outside, the wind picked up for a brief moment, an eerie howl sweeping across the desert like distant crying.

“That’s why you joined,” Sherman said, his voice barely audible. “You’re fighting to keep your wife alive.”

“Sonja?” Weston chuckled. “No…they put a bullet in her head ten minutes after I shipped out.”

Sherman’s eyes went wide.

“But…but why?”

“They couldn’t take the chance that she would seek revenge. They saw how fired up she was, how willing she was to take them on. They saw the anger in her eyes, so they killed her. I found out from one of my squadmates three months later. He overhead a conversation between two commanding officers. And that was it. I had nothing left.”

Neither of them spoke for a long time. The only sound was the keening wind whirling through the landscape. Sherman felt like a stone had sunk in his chest. He stared at the ground, playing with the silver cross around his neck.

He heard Weston laugh.

“What’s so funny,” he asked, raising his head.

“Oh nothing…it’s just…you remind me of me back in the day, back when I still had that golden cross. I was always fidgeting with it…couldn’t keep my hands off the damn thing.”

“What really happened to it? You didn’t just lose it.”

“After Benny died I kept it in the front pocket of my jacket, right next to my heart. Then the night I learned about Sonja’s death, I hurled the damn thing as hard as I could into the desert.”

Weston’s voice grew somber.

“I bet it will still be rotting out there long after I’m dead…long after we’ve all turned to dust…”

 

It was the dead of night…no wind or light. The world was silent.

Weston grew worse and worse as time went on. His face was white and his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Sherman could tell he was having trouble keeping his eyes open.

“Hey,” he said, shaking him. “You have to stay awake.”

“Urgh…I’ve been awake for so long. Isn’t it about time I got to sleep?”

“Why did you stay with Otho Prima,” Sherman asked. “After what they did to you it’s not like you owe them any favors. You could have gone to the Earth Military and fought back.”

“Oh wouldn’t that be grand,” Weston replied sarcastically. “Become the glorious hero of the Othians, beat back the tyranny of Otho Prima. Maybe I’d even get a medal.” He scoffed. “Then I’d be forgotten, left to wallow in misery, my wife and kid gone. It doesn’t matter. None of it fuckin’ matters.”

“So why did you stay?”

“I guess,” Weston said, “I figured it would be an easy way to die.”

Sherman felt a lump in his throat and averted his eyes.

“I was too much of a coward to do it myself so I figured that if I marched headlong into battle, eventually I’d catch a bullet or two,” Weston continued, not paying Sherman any notice. “But it never happened. Victory after victory passed and I kept getting promoted. Eventually I made it all the way up to commander. Funny, isn’t it? I was the same rank as the man who ordered my son’s death.”

“What happened to him,” Sherman asked.

“The OP commander? Heard he got caught in a grenade blast. Died choking on his own blood after hours of suffering.” Weston shrugged. “Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving prick.”

And in his heart, Sherman found that he couldn’t agree more.

“So I kept fighting and fighting, hoping somewhere deep inside that my next fight would be my last.”

“You were hoping to die so that you could rejoin your family,” Sherman mused.

Weston just laughed, a choking and sputtering sound.

“Don’t be ridiculous Sherman,” he said. “I’ve stopped believing in an afterlife. I just want everything to be done. I’m tired…so damn tired.”

And in the darkness, Sherman couldn’t help but smile.

“What are you so happy about,” Weston asked.

“You just called me ‘Sherman’.”

“Well, don’t get used to it kid,” he replied. But Sherman could tell he was smiling too.

 

Hours passed. Light began to rise, a faint pinprick of orange appearing through the rocky cracks.

“Weston, the sun is rising,” Sherman said.

“The sun always rises,” he grumbled.

“Someone will come soon. Hang in there. You can make it.”

“Why? Why would I want to? I’ve lost everything. The only person I have left is my mother, and she’s in a home riddled with dementia.”

Silence fell over them for a long time. Sherman watched as the sun kept rising, the light growing brighter. But it was hard for him to feel good about it. For as the sun rose higher and higher, Weston’s head sunk lower and lower into his chest. The color drained from his face as if the sun was leeching the life out of him.

Sherman shook him awake a few times, but his heart was no longer in it. He had come to Otho on a mission to capture and extract a high value target known only by the code name “Ares”. Ares…god of war…god of the violent and untamed. It seemed fitting for a man who had won victory after military victory by sheer force of will and blitz tactics. But underneath the ominous name was just a man…a sad, broken man.

“Weston, come on, stay awake. They’ll find us soon.”

Weston uttered a weak, coughing laugh.

“You’re an optimist kid…I like that.” Then he sighed. “Goddamn, you should be at home, taking care of your wife and kid…not trudging through the sand on this assfuck of a planet.”

His breathing was slow and erratic. Sherman knew he didn’t have long left.

“What about your mother,” he asked. “What is she going to do once you’re gone?”

“My mother usually thinks I’m her long dead husband, and that’s on a good day.”

“But don’t you want to visit her one last time?”

Weston managed a faint smile.

“And how would I do that kid?”

“I can take you there,” Sherman said. “I can bring you in and let you see her one last time.”

“That’s nice of you…but I’ll pass. The last message I received from the home said that the cancer was spreading faster than expected. They estimated she had at most two weeks left. No…I’d rather have my memories. She was a strong woman…my mother. She didn’t take shit from anybody. I’d rather remember her like that than as a skeleton wrapped up in a hospital blanket.”

They passed the time in silence. The sun continued its glorious ascension, warm light spilling in through the cracks. But Weston continued to fade.

Sherman started to think he was gone when suddenly he spoke up.

“Hey…Sherman?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re a good kid. Never forget that. Never stop being good…”

And suddenly, the sunlight was shining on one half of Weston’s face, leaving the other wrapped in darkness. Sherman was transfixed, his eyes locked on the seemingly impossible balance of light and shadow.

The light of lights looks always on the motive, not the deed…

An old saying…Sherman couldn’t remember where he had heard it. Some old poet maybe, from more romantic times when life could be summed up in colorful prose. A distant time, when things were simpler.

But nothing was ever simple. Sherman understood that now.

Just as quickly as the light appeared, it faded. Weston’s eyes drooped shut.

He was gone shortly after. The light had taken him…

 

“We know you’re in there. Come out with your hands up!”

The blast had come about an hour after Weston’s passing, blowing open a hole in the ceiling. Sherman snatched up his rifle and trained the sight on the opening. But no one stepped into view. No…they were too smart for that. A small rope was dropped down the hole from somewhere out of sight.

“You have three minutes! If you don’t come out, we will destroy the tunnel! You will die down there soldier. Be certain of that.”

A minute passed. Then another. Sherman was just about to grab his stuff and climb out of the hole when suddenly there was a new sound: an eerie, unnatural whining. It took Sherman a moment to recognize it. It was a military shuttle.

Seconds later the ground quaked with the sound of an explosion. A pillar of dust reached into the sky like a ghastly, diseased hand.

“Otho Prima, disperse immediately and you will not be fired upon,” an amplified voice announced. “If you resist, we will fire again. And we will not miss.”

There was no hesitation. Sherman heard a lot of rapid scuffling as the OP soldiers left the vicinity. A short time after they left he heard the shuttle land. Footsteps approached, then a new voice shouted into the hole.

“Corporal Morris! It’s safe now! You can climb up!”

Sherman slung the rifle and pack over his shoulder, then grabbed the rope and managed to climb into the sun. Two pairs of hands grabbed him and helped pull him up. He dusted himself off as a man approached him, dressed in a blue commander’s uniform.

The two shook hands. “You did a great job tracking down Ares,” the commander said. “Unfortunately, it seems Prima got to you before we could.”

“Yes sir.”

“What about the rest of your squad?”

“All dead sir…they were taken out in the ambush.”

“Son of a bitch…well thank god you’re still alive.”

Soldiers milled about, cleaning up the aftermath of the ambush from the day before. Sherman noticed one of them carrying an old rocket launcher, caked in dust. Then he saw another couple of men carrying something on a stretcher. When the pale hand flopped out from underneath the sheet, Sherman averted his eyes.

The commander pointed into the hole. “Who’s that,” he asked.

Sherman looked down into the old mine. Weston Harper’s body was still leaning against the metal arch, eyes closed. The light barely illuminated his face.

“Do you have a shovel,” he asked as he turned around.

“A shovel?” The commander was puzzled.

“Yes, a shovel. We should give that man a proper burial.”

“Why? Who exactly was he?”

Sherman took one last glance at Weston’s body.

“Human,” he replied. Then he walked off without so much as another word.

He paused just outside the shuttle, taking the silver cross off his neck and holding it in his hand. For so many years it hung there…a present given to him by his mother. It was an older piece of jewelry that had been handed down through generations. The silver gleamed so bright under Otho’s sun that it was nearly blinding.

 

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