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.

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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.

A Story About Nothing

The car idled.  “Aren’t you even going to look?” Bobbie Lee asked.

“There ain’t nothing there.” Betty folded her arms over her chest and nodded.

Bobbie Lee let out a puff of air and shook her head.  “I can’t believe you.  Why on earth would you come all this way if you weren’t even going to take one little peek?”

“To get a moment’s peace.”

“What? Now, Betty, how many times do I have to tell you to speak up.”

“Peace, woman.  Just one moment of peace.”

Bobbie Lee’s eyes widened.  Her mouth snapped shut and she sat back.  Her head jittered on her neck like a bobble dolls.  The moonlight snagged on the peaks in her skin, which was as crinkled as forgotten wrapping paper after Christmas.

Betty knew she didn’t look much different.

Bobbie Lee sat there for a long while before she turned the key.  The car sputtered into silence.  The lights dimmed.  She turned those off, too.  Her finger, grey and ghostly, drifted in front of Betty, pointed out the window at that damned doorway.  Then she fumbled around in the dark.  Metal clanged on metal and the door creaked open.

“Are you even supposed to be driving at night? Dr. Ottman passes just about anyone these days.  Really, it’s a godawful thing.”

Bobbie Lee said nothing.  Instead, she pried herself out of the car, and hefted the flashlight with both hands. A narrow band of light emitted from the thing.  Bugs attacked it.

Betty jumped at each muffled thud and hard crack of bodies hitting the glass.  “Crazy old biddy.” She popped out her dentures, floated them in her mouth as she glared at the dashboard.  An owl hooted outside, and she couldn’t not see Bobbie Lee shuffling past the car and into the ditch.

She snapped her dentures into place, and threw her own door open.  The air was tepid, stirred only by the racket the crickets and moths made.  When she was standing by the car, she finally looked up at the field.

The door was the first thing she saw.  Aside from the fact it wasn’t attached to anything, it looked standard for these parts.  A weathered grey thing, with four panels and a bronze knob stained a dull shade of rust.  It looked normal aside from the second fact it was glowing.

Bobbie Lee limped through the field, made her way around the tumbleweeds and razor bush.

“Stubborn old witch.”  Betty dragged her feet through the dirt as she trailed after Bobbie Lee.

***

Bobbie Lee was from these parts.  And she wasn’t, too.  It was the time she spent following her Air Force husband around from New Mexico to Arizona that changed her.  The first time Betty had met her back home, the woman mentioned the doorway.  It started out innocently enough.

“Have you ever been on Route 207?”  Her catalogue-bought blouse and matching skirt fluttered with her movement as she lifted her arms up and, birdlike, settled her feathers.

“Plenty,” Betty said.  “Not that there’s much out there to see for the trouble.”

“There doesn’t have to be much. There just has to be one thing.  One significant thing.” Bobbie Lee stared at her so long, she thought the woman was having a fit.

“You stroking?”

“Have you seen it?”

“Seen what?”

“The door on 207.”

“Bobbie Lee, you’ve lost your mind.  There ain’t hardly a thing out there, except desert and armadillos.  And I don’t pay no mind to run down, old wrecks of buildings.”

“This door is not like anything you’ve ever seen before.” Her voice took on a strange lilt, became full of breath.

“I’ve seen doors before.”

“You’ve seen doors without a house?”

“Easy.  Hardware store, over on First and Main.”

“You’ve seen a door, in the middle of the desert, standing upright without no house around it.  A door, and nothing else.”

That’s when they knew Bobbie Lee was crazy.

***

“Look.  Just once.”

Betty tapped her middle finger against her purse.  “I thought you’d let go of this madness.  We all think so, you know.  Madness.”

“I am not crazy and if you’d take two seconds of your precious time to look out the damned window, you’d know it.”

“Have you seen yourself lately?  When was the last time you ran a brush through your hair, let alone wash it?”  Betty turned to Bobbie Lee, who sat in the driver’s seat of the Buick, and looked the woman over.

Bobbie Lee’s faded straw-colored hair was clumped into mistletoe bunches in some parts, and stood out perpendicular to her skull in others.  Her face was coated with grime, which congregated in her wrinkles like earthworm trails.  Alluvial fans of dirt spread out from her nostrils.

But nevermind her head.  Her feet were an ever-loving mess.  A homeless person couldn’t have looked worse.  Scuff marks gouged her house shoes.  Of course, the fact she was wearing house shoes out in public in the first place was a damned good sign Bobbie Lee had well and truly lost it.

It looked like she was wearing dirt socks.  Then there were the cracks in her heels, as intricate and layered as the Grand Canyon.

“I’m not crazy,” Bobbie Lee said.  She didn’t fuss with her hair.  It was like her body didn’t exist.  It was like the only thing that mattered was the door.

***

The buzzer buzzed for a good five seconds.

“That is just plain rude.”  Betty finished the stitch and set aside her reading glasses.  Another buzz vibrated through the house.  “Oh, for the love of—”

Again.  This time even longer.  Knuckles rapped against the window in the door.

“Coming!” Betty hollered.

Bobbie Lee’s shadow stained the curtain hanging over the window.

Betty twisted the skeleton key.  Click, click, click. “My Lord, Bobbie Lee.  Didn’t the devil deliver you himself.”

Bobbie Lee smiled.  Her teeth glowed, that was how dirty her face was.

“You have to come see it.”

“See what?”  Betty’s skin was already full of fire.

Bobbie Lee looked at her.  “You know what.”

“What in the Sam hell have you been up to?”

“It changed.”

“Bobbie Lee.  It would be nice it you could make some sense.  Just once in your life.”

She drifted through the door, and put her hands on Betty’s shoulders.  “I make as much sense as a person needs to make.  Now are you coming, or not?  It’ll be dark soon.”

Betty pursed her lips.

“I’ll drive.”

Just as much dirt coated the Buick as the woman.

***

Bobbie Lee must have been standing in the same place for days.  Two shallow holes, which didn’t match the surroundings, marred the place where she had come to rest.  She stood a couple of feet away from the wooden surface.

Once Betty arrived at the door, she realized Bobbie Lee looked at it without blinking.  Her right hand opened and closed, and every once in a while, her arm would twitch.

“You thinking about opening it?” Betty asked

“How can you not?”

She shook her head.  After all these years, here she was, standing in front of the door in the middle of the desert.  The woman hadn’t been lying.  It glowed around the edges, but no light came through the keyhole.  The doorknob was normal, only reflected the soft blue light whispering from the edge.

Betty shuffled around the door, stood behind where it should have been.  Instead of the door, all she could see was a rectangular swath of desert.  No road cut through that part.  No car waited in the dark.  There was no Bobbie Lee, either.

She reached out into the perfect scene.  Aside from the subtle change—so subtle she wondered if it was real—in the temperature, there was no difference between it and the real desert.  She walked through it, even, wandered a good ways into the scene.

Standing in silence, she breathed deep and waited.

Nothing.

Not a damned thing.

She shuffled back through to the desert she knew, shuffled back around to where there was a door, a woman and a strange blue glow.

“Did you try it?” Betty asked.

Bobbie Lee shook her head.

“Have you ever tried to open it?”

She shook her head again.

Betty nudged her.  “Do it now.”

Bobbie Lee stretched her fingers, lifted her hand.  When her fingers met the brass, they jerked away.

“What? What happened?”

“It—Nothing. It feels normal.”

“Go on then.”

Bobbie Lee gripped the knob.  She closed her eyes, breathed and turned it.  She twisted it in the other direction.  “No.  Nothing.”

“Let me.”  Betty grabbed the knob, but the door was locked. “Well, ain’t that a bitch.”  She turned to Bobbie Lee. “After all those years—”

Bobbie Lee wasn’t standing anymore.  She sat in front of the door, rocked herself and whispered something.  A blankness had come over her face.

Betty looked away, at the car, at the sky.

***

Betty pushed through the screen door, and nodded to the women in the room.

“Don’t you look lovely,” one of them said.  “Is that new?”

“Yes.”  She glanced at Bobbie Lee.  “Went all the way to the city, and a fancy store to find it.”  She moved toward the card table, and the woman of the desert, but the others shook their heads.  Stern expressions crept over their faces.  “Oh.  Well, then.  Just thought I’d stop by and say hello.  I suppose I’ll be off now.”

“We’ll see you next time.”

Betty managed a tight smile, and drifted back outside.  Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Bobbie Lee deflating with a sigh.  “Poor old witch,” she said as she ambled to her car.  It couldn’t be helped now.  What was done was done, and there were other things to worry about.

The car roared to life, and together they made their way to Route 207.  Dusk had settled in, but she found the door with ease.  After all, she’d been out here nearly every day since she and Bobbie Lee had tested the knob.

She pulled off on the shoulder.  Hands on the steering wheel, she breathed deep, but her heart still fluttered.  A giggle bubbled inside her, and escaped.

The door had changed just last week.  It no longer glowed.  It was probably back to the state Bobbie Lee had witnessed for decades.

“Come on, little darling.” Betty called herself after a nickname her grandmother had given her an age ago.  She got out of the car and, with her purse hanging from the crook of her arm, she walked into the desert.

As soon as she reached the door, she grabbed the knob and twisted it.  This time, it opened.

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.

By Hook or By Crook

(Fair warning: This story includes expletives, aka good old-fashioned cursing.)

The rusted hull of the ship assailed me.  It was the only vessel in the space docks, and looked like something out of the Age of Exploration, long before the Collective had gained legitimacy, and well before the start of this so-called era of diplomacy, which has claimed you, Love, as a casualty.

The representative of Directorate waited quietly.  He was a docile thing with dark hair and skin so nearly translucent it belonged to a newborn babe.

I stared at him.  Hard.  “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“It’s the only available ship in the Collective’s fleet,” he said calmly, as if he’d been programmed to.

I clenched my teeth.  “This piece of Collective shit belongs in the basement of a museum.  It’s not good enough.  If you people hadn’t manipulated the convoy manifest, I’d already be to the edge of the galaxy.”

“That token was made in error.”

Breathe.  I had to command myself to breathe.  “There’s a jump freighter leaving for that vector.  You’ll barter my passage on that one.”

He smiled a passive simpering little smile that incited my amygdala to leak corrosive hormones into my body.  My hands clenched into fists.

“We cannot.  The freighter is full.”  He didn’t even try to care.

“The freighter is not full.  I know the captain.  I saw the manifest not 45 atomic minutes ago.”

“Hmm.  You are mistaken.”

I punched him then.  Not once, but twice.  Love, I know you would have been horrifically amused by the act, maybe not so much by the emotion behind it. I literally could not control myself.

After a couple of blinks, a little red light flared in his eyes. “System re-routed,” he said with a smile.  “That will not improve your situation.”

Motherfucker wasn’t even real.  It was just then I remembered Magnus.  He was that cybernetic Labradoodle you brought home from one of your missions.  An adorable cuddly thing, until you made me take out his hard drive.

“You’re sick,” I screamed at you from my perch on top of the dresser.  Magnus was snarling and lunging at me with the exact intensity of a rabid devil.

“My Love, my life,” you said, your voice exuding the calm of an ocean at dawn.  “You watched me do it.  Now you do it.”

“He was docile when you took it out.  Then you reprogrammed him into this maniac.”  I threw a jewelry box at Magnus.  He snatched it, shook it in his jaws, then release it.  It exploded when it hit the wall.

“It’s all about tactic.”

I glared at you, not exactly hating you.  It was those moments I hated. Whenever you came back from a mission, and I defrosted, we’d trace each other’s bodies with our fingertips, relearn the lines and contours, the texture of our skin.  We’d make love over and over. In between, you’d teach me things.  At first they were reasonable things, like how to clean the heads to improve a holo-projection. Then you’d have me dismantle the whole system and put it back together.  Perfectly.  That was when I started hating these moments.  And then Magnus.

You stared into me, love in your gaze and something else I could not quite decipher.  “You can do this,” you said.

I believed in myself, but you believing in me was so much more.  I focused on Magnus, jumped to the bed.  When he leapt after me, I shoved a pillow in his mouth, and wrapped my arm around his neck.

You handed me the knife.

I swallow back my own vomit as I cut into the dog, right along the sternum.  I jammed the knife into the slot, and amid the madness, heard a tell-tale click.  The dog stopped screeching, and went rigid in my arms. We worked on the program next.  You made me write the code for a parallel system myself, from start to finish.  By the time Magnus was whole again, you’d received your next assignment.

Before you left, you said, “I want you to do something for me.”

I nodded.

“Don’t go into hibernation just yet.  Study.  Memorize all the cybernetic lines.  Where the hard drives are.  The processors.”  You kissed me on the forehead. “Keep the tool—”

“The knife.”

You raised your right brow as your lips skewed to the left.  “Keep the tool on you at all times.  And perfect the program.”

Did you have this moment in mind?

I looked at the Directorate’s representative.  “Are you a C-87?”

He blinked, confusion perturbed his brow.  “I am a first-class S100.”

Nipple.

I tackled him, knelt on his neck and stomach.  In three seconds, it was done.  In three seconds, his nipple hung like the flap of a tiny door.  Open.  I held his essence in my fingertips.  It took five minutes for the program to transfer from my All-Comm to his chip.  After I reloaded it, I repaired his nipple with some skin glue, wiped away the ooze, and fixed his shirt.

He sat up, and looked from me to the ship.  “I do not presume you will travel in the vessel as is.”

“Then what do you presume?”

He walked to the ship and tore off a panel of the outer haul with his baby-soft hands.  “This is not part of my directive.”  He looked back at me as he tossed the rusted metal at my feet.  The light in his eyes flashed violet.  It was the output signal of the parallel program.  He tore off another piece.  “But I must make the ship suitable for travel.”

 

Author’s note: This story is part of a non-linear narrative called “My Life as a Robot”.  The idea of the Collective is credited to JTM.  This story was inspired by him, and something he wrote for me in another life.

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.”