Star Gazers

Watch. You have to watch the sky, day and night, because you’ll
never know when they have been, when they’ll be, or when they are. 

The cabin stood at the edge of the sea. Wind and water had evaporated the tannins from its planks, and it and the sky and the water were all expressions of the same hue.  Grey mixed with blue.

We followed, one after the other, to the cabin’s porch. Leonhart turned; his magenta robes dusted over the grey ground.  “Come.” He swept his arm out and across, the gesture gathering us in a semi-circle around him.

“I need not remind you of the oath you took,” he said while gazing into each of us.  “This place, these lessons.” He inhaled deeply.  A shimmer of electricity seemed to dance over the exposed flesh at his hands, face and neck, and blurred beneath his clothes.  “What you are committed to do is sacred. Honorable, though it is not honored.”

We bowed our heads under the weight of what he said, under the weight of what was to come next. We have no choice, my lips formed the words.  I closed my eyes for a moment, and relished the shelter of darkness the action brought.  The silence of sight, and the subsequent expansion of the self beyond the shell of the body.

The sea air touched me.  In it, I tasted eons.  Bones, scales, ships and wrecks, tears and fire.   Calcium, sodium, potassium, and hundreds more minerals.

In the distance, wolf pups called out, tuning to one another.  The wind rushed over the glaciers.  At the edges of things, I could hear plates clanking against tabletops, and the hollow sound of a lid scraping over a cast iron pot.

A hand, hot, wrapped over the bony protrusion of my shoulder.

“Maxentius,” Leonhart said.

My eye lids drifted open.  “Aye.”

“You will be the first.”  He pulled me forward, and bade me stand at his side, right in the middle of hardened mound of silver and cobalt.  It felt like layers of dried paint, but looked like thick slabs of skin. “Your robe,” he said in a stern tone, which invited no argument.

I pulled the drab burlap over my head, and placed it in his outstretched hand.  How many others had worn it?  How many others would come to dwell under its meager shelter?

He folded the shift into a perfect square and set it down on the ground.  Then he gripped a rusty ring of metal, which was recessed into the wood floor of the porch, and yanked the covering free of its seat.

The hole hid a 5 gallon bucket, and a carefully wrapped brush.  Grunting, Leonhart pried the lid of the bucket free.  He handed me the brush.  “Here.  You must do it yourself.  There is no magic in it if I do it.  And cover everything, except your face.”

The brush trembled in my hand for just a moment.  For just a moment, the faces of my peers bobbed before me like pale lights.

Maxentius the First, I thought as I dipped the brush into the metallic syrup.  I stroked the loaded bristles across my collarbone, and down my arm. I painted the liquid between my fingers, forced it under my fingernails, and dragged it all along the line of my jaw.  I even coated the very bottom of my feet before it was done.

The liquid felt like armor, and it squeezed the breath from me.

Leonhart looked me over and nodded.  “Good.  It is good.  You must all do as Maxentius has done.”  He opened the door to the cabin, which was less like a door, and more like straps of steel woven together.  Something you couldn’t get into.  Or out of.

“Go,” he said.  That was all.  There were no formal proclamations, or renunciations.  There was no glory stomping.  Just one simple, single syllable word.

I looked up at Leonhart and with a smile, I said, “Gone.”

That rebelliousness faded as soon as I stepped inside the cabin.  The door shrieked shut behind me, and with its closing it banished the sound of the outside world.  Inside, all I could hear was the electric ticking of the sea.

I walked toward the trickle of pale light.  The entire wall was gone where the cabin faced the roiling water.  Waves crashed against the opening, but some invisible barrier kept them from rushing in.

“Step forward, Maxentius,” a deep voice uttered the command.

I stopped just before the opening, and stared out into the violence.

“For your crimes against The Common, you are hereby sentenced to 100 years of star gazing, in service of The Common.”

“But I’m just a boy,” I said, as if it would make a difference.

“Step forward, Maxentius.”

Lips sealed, I tried to close my eyes as I stepped through the invisible wall, but they would not shut.  The sea closed around me.  My body did not bob or float. It sank to the bottom in mere seconds.

Faces stippled the sea floor all around me and into the distance.  Wide-open eyes gazed up through the water.  Into the heavens.  I tiptoed through the vast field of them, and searched for an empty spot.

After what seemed like a lunar cycle, I finally found my place just before the edge where the shelf dropped off into an abyss.  I nestled under the sand and silt, and stared up.

the places you’ll go

A compass should point North.  That’s how they’re built.  That’s what they’re supposed to do.  This one doesn’t, though.  I’m standing here with this lump of metal in my hand. It snaps and bites.  And it points, but not North.

The shopkeeper who sold it to me had cackled as soon as the door jingled the bells.  He was curled over like a question mark, and his paper bark skin rasped.

“I have what you’re looking for,” he said.  His voice sounded like his skin.

“How do you know what that is?”

He smiled.

“You have a Roman coin?  It has a capricorn on one side, and the face of a bearded crowned man on the other.”

His laughter ricocheted inside my head.  He shuffled around the counter and disappeared through a door.  A moment later he came back with a overcooked and stained box in his hand.  He placed it near the cash register.  “That’ll be 150.”

I peeled the lid off and peered inside.  The tarnished dented casing of an old, obsidian-faced compass stared back at me.  “Is this a joke?”  But I had picked it up.  My nerve endings crackled, and the needle spun and spun.  The whole thing heated in my hand.

“150.  And you best start moving before that thing burns you.”

I spread the cash over the glass, and drifted out the door.  As soon as I had crossed back over the threshold and returned to the haze of smog, the screaming of sirens and people and vehicles, the needle slowed.  The compass cooled in my hand and the needle came to a stop.

The rules of the compass are simple.  Go where it points.  And keep going and going.  It lets you know when it’s displeased.  And you can never let it go.  It is your shepherd.

Ice sheets have a language.  They are white and cerulean.  They breathe and cry.  The floor of a redwood forest is dense with ferns, and fallen tree bodies.  Roman ruins are shells, pilfered of most things of value except for the very fact they exist. That commodity has to be enjoyed in situ. Volcanoes gush ash, stone, lava or gas.  Crabs scuttle sideways.  And when a landscape ends, it can be abrupt, defined by an edge and spilling into forever.

I only know these things because of the compass, and the places it commands me to go.  And now I’m here, standing on a street that’s been empty for decades.  Cracks break the asphalt into chunks.  Skeletons are hanging in broken windows of stores, which once sold ducks and dumplings.

Up the street it compels me.  I go.  I can only see the steep slope, and the empty shops.  There is no wind here.  No birds or crickets.  No cockroaches.

The top of the road is the end of what’s left of the city.  Bridges, two-story row homes, Victorians, and skyscrapers rest in a jagged pile.  The needle whirls again and points me into the mess. I go.  It is a maze of beams, splintered wood, fractured pipes, and shards of glass.  Fire lances the underbelly of some of the old neighborhoods, and smoke dances soulfully.

Finally, I am standing on the bare wooden floor of a living room.  The house lists toward the grey sea, and there is a chair by the window and a figure in it.

The compass has stopped.

It’s not telling me what to do any more, but I drift toward the chair.  The mummified woman stares out the window across the inlet at a house not unlike this one. There is a hole in her chest, waiting.

“I think this is yours,” I whisper, and place the compass in the desiccated wound. I’m almost out of the door when I hear her sigh.

“Thank you,” she says.

see, purr, meow

Mr. Mittens stared out the window.  A bird, some finch or other, bounced along the branch just outside.  Sweet little bird.  Crunchy, tough, yummy little bird.  Mr. Mittens licked his kitty maw, and stared, and stared.

In the sliver of a second before he was going to pounce at the glass, Mr. Mittens lost his head.  He could still feel his tail twitching, his hunches wiggling in anticipation, but his head—  Well, that drifted through space, through galaxies.  It reminded Mr. Mittens of the time he’d played with a garden snake.  When it was tired of playing, he had dragged the snake, a full four times as long as he, through the grass in the yard.  It was a difficult task, but he loved the snake so, and he wanted to introduce it to the family.  It felt like that.  A long journey stumbling through the grass.

Mr. Mittens watched.  The stars did not twinkle out here.  They emitted, like pinpoints of lasers. Hot, bright spots in the cold space. They glared at him and he glared back.  What did they taste like?

His brain ached; it spit out commands in fragments of energy, neurotransmitting in spurts.  His tail was a memory, a ghost that lingered.  He gave a little meow bark.  How was he supposed to be a kitten if he couldn’t play?  Maybe his eyes could grow claws.  It wouldn’t be as fun, but it would be something.

One blob winked at him.  Mr. Mittens yawned.  He wasn’t tired.  It was this aura of light, this great eye in space; it did something to him.  The feeling coursing through him was better than curling up in a pool of sunshine.  “Brrryao?” he asked.

It extruded another ring of light, and the whole eye glowed pink, and blue, and green.

Mr. Mittens stopped moving.

A deep sound poured through space.  “Meow,” it said.

His eyes widened.

“Thank you for coming,” the eye said.

The tone of its voice made Mr. Mittens feel something.  It was like when a bird was gone, except for a few feathers.  Or like when friends didn’t want to play anymore.  Empty.  If he had had his paws, he would have kneaded the soft squishy overflow of the eye.  A sigh blew across his face, and stirred his whiskers.

“I am dying, little star.  I am called NGC 6543, and I get lonely in these final eons.”

Mr. Mittens closed his eyes, and flicked out his tongue, raspy, to lick at the eye.  He purred and the eye roared a purr in return.  They nuzzled for a moment, stared at each other, and came to an agreement.

The first star they pounced on burst sweet juice into Mr. Mittens’ mouth.  The galaxy was a nest full of them.  Captive toys.  Sometimes he used his eye claws, sometimes his teeth.  Each star was a wonder.  Each star had its own peculiar flavor, and when it finished playing, it tore holes in the curtains of space.  By the end, a huge drain sucked at the center of the galaxy.

“It was a good play,” NGC 6543 said, purring.

Mr. Mittens licked his kitty lips.  Yes.  It was.

He returned home soon after.  His head felt wide and diffuse like the sky, but his body— so tiny and small.  Constricted, he felt as if he was contained inside a box.  It took a great bit of effort to move away from the window, where his body had been waiting that whole time.  He staggered to the fireplace, where a baby star sputtered.

Once he settled next to the warmth, he felt something squirm in his teeth.  He snatched it with his tongue.  NGC 6543 glowed over his taste buds.  He swallowed it, he loved it so.

 

For those of you not familiar with Mr. Mittens Big Adventure, here and here are the triggers for the story.

Buddha’s Hand

James and John looked over the carcass of the tree.  Its legend went back generations. Only one branch had any life on it these days.  One leaf, and one tentacled piece of fruit.

The tree sat in the middle of a field and the weight of the sky pressing down on it seemed to flatten its twisted blackened trunk. It hadn’t always been so.  The tree used to be a brilliant green, frocked with glossy leaves, which grew as long spiraling blades.  It wasn’t until James and John’s father had come running home as a child with one of the leaves that people realized anything was happening.  The vigil started then; and the truth came.  Each year during the summer solstice, the tree shed one of its leaves.

“We’ve done spent enough time observing the damned thing,” James said.  He was the younger of the two brothers.

John pinched his lips together, and skewed his mouth to one side. “Well, we’d best save the fruit.”

James nodded.  According to the almanacs and myths, the fruit-a bright yellow citrus oddity closely resembling a grapefruit, with the exception of the fat appendages extruding from it-was the very same fruit that had always been there.  For generations.

The last leaf broke away from the branch.  A sound like thunder broke the sky, and when the leaf landed, the ground shuddered.

James rushed up to the branch, but it was John who grabbed the fruit and twisted it loose.  It followed him easy, an Excalibur to his Arthur.

They wrapped a chain around the trunk and pulled it down with the tractor.  They dragged the whole carcass to the house, hardly concerned with the gash it drew in the earth.

John had kept the fruit cradled in his hand the whole time.  When they reached the house, he moved like a sleepwalker to the kitchen, not minding to turn off the tractor.

The linoleum  was crinkled near the door like dried mud.  The plywood cabinets were warped, and the veneer around the knobs and the edges was worn to nothing.  Black mold slicked the edges of the sink.  Coffee stains and burn marks blemished the laminate countertops.

John set the fruit down there and knelt on the floor.  His nose was flush with the counter, and he watched as the fruit deflated.  It lost its plump rigidity.  Its skin shrank, grew opaque and dusty.  It even wrinkled in some places.

“Eat it.”

He jerked at the sound of James’ voice.

“You should eat it.”

John nodded.  His hands curled over the ledge of the counter, and he hauled himself to standing.  Picking up the fruit, he contemplated it.  Then he bit.

The flavor accosted him first.  Putrid bitterness, sharp and bright, flooded his tongue, and made his teeth hurt.  Next came washes of rotting sweetness and dull metal.  Grimacing, John forced his jaw to work on the flesh in his mouth, forced his throat to swallow it.  His brain screamed for him to stop, but his thoughts spasmed.  Parts of them repeated, retreated and returned, order rearranged.  His thoughts were out of his control, though his body still moved on its own.  It still chewed and consumed the fruit.

John’s senses screamed like a torn muscle.  They were pulled out of their normal, everyday limits.  Pulled into something more. His eyes began to twitch, and vibrated back and forth in his skull, as if he was reading a book at the speed of sound.

“Reading,” he said.  He turned to his brother, who watched with wide eyes and a pale face.

He took the last bite, chewed and swallowed.  “Transmitting.”

The juice clung sticky to his chin.  Beyond that, John could feel the juice lysing the membranes of his skin cells, and denaturing the instructions written inside of them, altering the instructions.  The juice and his skin acted one on the other.

Data streamed through him.  A beginning.  A star.  A cluster of stars and the birth of a planetary body.  The first, second and third waves of life. And more until them, the makers of the fruit.  He had a notion of hope, of failure, of secrets, but the everything of them dribbled through his mind like a melting painting.

He stared at the seed nested between the tips of his thumb and forefinger.  It was all that was left of the fruit. “I ate it too late,” he finally said.

 

(Apologies, I know it’s a tad longer than 500 words.)

Once more, with feeling

The door opened.  Lavender light flooded the ship.  It revealed dust and grease and frayed wires.  For the first time, I observed how worn the walkway was.  Aside from the sloping concavity made by my old feet, my newer feet had dented the walk at regular intervals.

I sensed the air vibrating, and turned to the source.  Forty-two humanoids—correction, people— stood in a group, and looked at me.

Mission review: Travel to Colony X.  Deliver the directive.  Reunite with the ambassador.  He had another role. <Cannot retrieve the record. File corrupt?> Stay with him.

Execute.

I walked down the ramp, and scanned their faces.  Their construct was soft, framework breakable.  Their optical processors—correction, eyes—dilated.  One of them stepped forward.  The blood flow to his skin diminished even though his heart rate exceeded its normal operating range.

“What happened?”  His output frequency modulated.

My neck twitched three times.  It happened when I processed complicated data.  Correction.  It happened when I thought.  I looked at the ship.  Large sections of the shell were missing.  “I had to recover metal from the exterior to make this container.”

The person’s face contorted.

“This body.  Is that expression called a frown?”

He said nothing.  His face became more <cannot translate>.

We looked at each other, registered each characteristic.  His container was different, too.  Specific details correlated to data in my archives.  The way he stood, the expressions playing through his  face.

This bit of data did not make sense: something lived in his eyes.  An energy, a spark.  It activated another processor.  It was an old one.  An original part.

I translated the data better.  His expression was horrified.

“The hibernation chamber malfunctioned.  And the drives.  The ship was in multi-system failure.  I sent a transmission.”

His face went slack.

My neck twitched three times.

He said, “The transmission was from the ship’s mainframe.  It said you were delayed and gave a new arrival time.”

I reviewed the records.  Yes, that was correct.  “I am here now.”

Silence responded.

I examined the other people, the landscape. The iron-rich sandstone was deep red and orange. Large domes, white and ethereal, scattered across the terrain.  A ceremony happened in one of them.  The ambassador told me about it in an archaic transmission.  A letter.  The data had been received a long time ago, and that transmission had initiated my directive.

Silence continued.

My neck twitched.  “I was damaged.  My options were limited.  The systems were malfunctioning.”

He still said nothing.

“I had to fulfill my directive.”

He only nodded.

There was silence and it was heavy.  If I had skin, sensation would have crawled through it to shake my spine, to flare through my head and pierce my heart.  There was silence and I had to fill it. “You are the ambassador.  Part of the convoy.  But you have another name.”

He finally made a noise.  It was a sob caught in his throat.  Wetness leaked from him.  “I call you Love, and you called me the same.”

Behind the Door

My hand paused on the handle. An unremarkable shade of grey covered the door.  It was unlabeled. I pressed my ear to the cold metal.  The crunching continued.

I’d worked at TRIST (The Research InSTitute) for five years.  Each time I went by this particular door, I heard the same thing.  Crunching.  The sound didn’t get more quiet or loud, more brittle or blunted.  It was always the same.

Blood rushed through my head, made waves in my ears.  Sweat lubricated my palms.

Stupid.  It was just a machine manufacturing parts.  Or a bunny eating carrots.  Or an alien child eating Cheetos to satisfy its craving for something more gruesome.

My hand slipped off the handle.  I walked away.

Weeks of ceaseless crunching passed before curiosity trumped fear again.  Standing before the door, the characteristic emptiness rolled over me.  The anxiety only set in when I touched the handle, and the outright panic only hit me when I thought about what could really be behind that door.

I didn’t allow myself the cowardice of thought. I looked up the hall, down it.  I grasped the handle, turned and pushed, all in one motion.  It barely moved and made a disappointing click.  Locked.  I should have known.

Just as I was about to let go, the handle twitched, then released and turned all the way.  The door swung inward, slow like a dog on a quick anesthetic.  Except for the arc of light from the hall, it was dark.  Almost pitch black.  I say almost because my eyes filled the darkness with a grey static.

I crossed the threshold as if I had been programmed for the task.  My right hand swept the inside of the wall.  Nothing.  I cast it out in front of me, like any blind person would.  A chain jangled.  I curled my fingers around the worn wooden pull and tugged.

Light flooded the room.

A child in a green dress with a lace apron sat on a small grey stool surrounded by a sea of human bones.  She had two mouths, poised one above the other on her long face.  While she was chewing on a femur, her chubby little fingers picked up an ulna and poised it at her razor-lined maw.

We blinked at each other. Hers took a little longer since she had three eyelids.  She didn’t stop chewing.  Her normal, pink as a sea shell mouth broke open into a typical six-year old grin.  “Is it a Cheetos day?”