The scythe bleeds for my neck
as I flail through the emptiness
clawing at my soul
filled with ego and pettiness
holding on for control
The sinister speed of the final swipe
was so clean and so swift
it was nearly imperceptible
The only real clue was the blood red stripe
and the dark's subtle shift
as my soul was now collectible
I was visiting reality just yesterday..,
The spot in space and time between the teardrops and the laughter,
The night and the dawn.
I listened to the cries of the children in the streets dodging bullets and baseballs.
Screams of sirens and rage.
City jungle, keeper of the fire.., global village, father of despair.
I listen to the woman-child, the cries of childbirth and the gurgle of good-bye.
I heard the screams of the persecuted, Rodney king, Martin Luther King,
It's funny how you treat royalty like common gutter trash.
I was visiting reality just yesterday..,
Escaped from the prison wall of the hospital,
Escaped from the drugs that had seduced me into submission,
And screamed out my rage,
Let loose my tears, cried out for the comfort
That my insanity provides.
I was visiting reality just yesterday and I found my visa revoked.
What to do once you’ve said it all
As all of us walk in the blossoms of sunlight, those two young men ahead brim with love for each other and through which they see the world as if anew, so much so that they laugh with wonder at the rain. Oh they both believe in separate ways that humanity has curled in on itself, because petrol is drying up and money is in closed fists and doctors are left to die when they treat patients on the wrong side of the war. Things won’t last, it’s in the air and billboards and adverts and secrets and plane tickets and the broken weeping shoes on all those feet you never see. Yet the promise of collapse has made our two dear friends into hedonists in the simplest of ways. Hear what they said in the face of it all, those young people ahead who delighted in the weather—of all things!—they said: I will love I will love I will love. And they did.
A bikini strap crept from beneath her terrycloth robe sometimes at lunch. 10:30, every day. We’d eat sandwiches, she’d put the dishes in the sink, kiss me, then shut herself in her office until 3:00. A lot of her regulars popped on during lunch breaks.
She had told me she was a cam girl long before, and when I told her I didn’t care, I meant it—yeah, that’d be great, IPA—I meant it, mostly. But day after day, sitting just on the other side of the wall—no, fresh glass, thanks—I thought about it more and more. Wouldn't you?
After I moved in four months back, I asked if I could sit in the corner while she cammed. She giggled sweetly and said, “no.” She didn’t giggle when I asked the second time or the third.
I brought up the popping sounds, in a cute jokey way. She smiled but said nothing. Then she bought me a pair of Beats. Noise cancelling.
I kept thinking about it, more near the end. Reading sleep study data is a boring fucking job, in case you didn’t know, even if your girlfriend isn’t undressing next door. I thought she had to be lying about something, if I couldn’t watch. This morning I finally did it: I logged in. Don’t fucking look at me like that, I know I shouldn’t have, but I did. I changed my screen name to “Looner666” to fit in.
And there she was, on my screen, just like she’d said. And there was her bikini, small, but fully on and not crazy small; it was the one she wore to the beach when she rented a house for my birthday.
And there were the balloons.
She was grinding on a huge purple one. It popped, and as she tumbled onto the bed and laughed the chat went wild, I mean, she was getting tips left and right. She got a small green one, I think left over from my nephew’s birthday. She knelt and stuck her butt toward the camera and laid the green balloon on her calves. “I don’t know, boys,” she said into my noise-cancelling Beats, “I might be too much for this one.”
I shut my laptop and eyes. I couldn’t stop seeing it, though, her ass descending toward the balloon. Yeah, go ahead, laugh, but I wasn’t laughing, and I no longer gave a damn if Patient 10347 had sleep apnea, so I went for a walk. I ended up at the liquor store. Then I ended up at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
I had martini in hand when her terrycloth robe stepped out of her office. She saw me in the jacket and tie first, I think, and the new exercise ball beside the sofa second. “Bounce for me,” I told her.
She clammed up. She came back five minutes later in a sweatshirt to tell me she didn’t like my tone. She said to leave the key on the counter by Monday.
When My Good Friend, Sorrow, Comes For Tea.
When Sorrow comes to visit, he doesn’t take off his shoes. Dragging and tracking mud from outside to every room in the house. He doesn't even pretend to wipe his feet at the welcome mat before entering. With each visit, his clothes become shabbier and his hands filthier. He always announces and apologizes that he can’t stay for long, he has others to visit. I always suggest water, but he prefers tea. Taking longer to prepare and prolonging his stay. We always listen to Etta while the tea is being made. I’m not ever sure when he’ll leave, some visits are more extended than others. No matter how long the stay, you can always tell he was here. The longer he stays, the more dirt and mud build up on the floor. The more smudges and streaks upon the wall. Even long after he’s gone and I’ve polished the floorboards and purified the walls, there’s still stains that he left behind. Forget-me-nots proving he was once here. Before he goes, he'll turn to me and say I should be grateful I’ve only got to scrub mud from the floors and trail a rag against the walls. If he were to take off his shoes, it would be far more mess to clean.
A Single Shallow Breath
I can’t feel my hands.
It’s the only thought she can get out, the only thing she can process, the simplest set of words she can string together in the moment. The world is suddenly dark, so dark, and she could swear that just a moment ago there had been more than this, the crushing weight of invisibility pressing her down.
I can’t feel my feet either.
She kicks and struggles and her toes meet hard wood—couldn’t this sort of thing break a bone or twelve with ease? She wouldn’t know. All she knows is that she has to go up, past the wood and the weight and the awful dreadful suspicion that there is nothing else for her broken spirit to feel.
What can I feel?
Any other day, it would be a simple question with a simple answer. But she can’t feel, she can’t see, she can’t know what this is or how deep she is. She scratches, fights, claws her way forward, pulls a deep breath into depleted lungs and forces a response to her own question.
She looks down at her own body, her hands just as unfeeling and lungs just as empty as before. There is no longer the weight of burial dirt and splintering coffin wood to battle, no fear of invisibility or numbness to push her forward.
What am I?
Is she…free? Untethered? Set loose? She doesn’t know. She stands, stares down at the grave before her. The heart she had in life would be beating out of her chest now had it followed her into death. But now she only sighs, a single shallow breath to welcome herself to the afterlife.
A ghost has no use for feelings here.
The Voice of Reason
Donald Gerber was often stung by casual remarks. He was considered a good reporter because he was observant and thorough about following up on his observations, and the tidbit that the entire xenoneurology department of Oxford University was made of practicing Buddhists struck him as a good story. Not Pulitzer Prize material, but good stock for a slow news day, or maybe a Sunday feature.
He attempted to meet with the head of the department but was politely rebuffed. Phone calls to the various scholars went unanswered. Then, remembering his T. E. Lawrence, he chose to cross a square along three sides by calling in a favor from a cleaning lady, and learned the address of Dr. Richard Tanner.
Evening found Gerber on the sidewalk outside a comfortable set of flats, dressed for rain in his rumpled Burberry and Stetson fedora. He chewed peppermint gum and waited for his target, a lanky American dressed in tweeds with a tangle of hair.
Dr. Tanner was discomfited at being buttonholed outside his apartment, but Gerber knew from experience how to behave suavely. Also, Tanner was an American, and had an innate tolerance of the press. Soon Gerber was inside the man's suite, enjoying a cup of excellent tea, and probing gently at the secrets of the Brandon Department of Xenoneurology at Oxford University.
“No, we don't recruit exclusively from Buddhists,” said Dr. Tanner. “In point of fact, most converted at the same time.”
“How did that come about?”
“I really fail to see how the matter is newsworthy,” said Dr. Tanner.
“Let me assure you from my point of expertise that it would be of interest to our readers,” said Gerber. “The story can either be that the Department is made of converted Buddhists who wish to be secretive about it, or, it could be a story full of facts and human interest because you talk about yourself. Great heavens, to think that so many people chose Buddhism at the same time? I'd think you'd want to share the news.”
“I was remarking on what drove us to become Buddhists.”
“How on earth does believing in what you can prove, lead one to Buddhism?”
Dr. Tanner was quiet for a while. Gerber let him argue with himself. Finally Dr. Tanner said, “I must go back at least ten years, to a conversation I had in San Francisco with Dr. Hsien Domei, a founder of xenoneurology. Bear with me.”
I met Dr. Hsien Domei in the last week of the great man's life. We were there for some silliness, a conference on the notion of Selfdom, which should have been reserved for the mystics of Esalen, but for the professional notables it managed to draw. I wasn't in that category of course, being just a graduate student eager for the chance to come home for a few days and do a little exploration of a scholastic nature.
I was waiting at the BART terminal by the airport, watching a few of the rowdier homeless being ousted by the police, and trying to relax with a cup of hot flavored water.
“Please have some of mine.”
“Hmm?” I said, rather rudely.
An old man was offering me an insulated bottle. “You were wincing at what the vending machine calls a cup of tea. Have some of mine. It is from Assam, and is properly brewed.”
I gratefully accepted his THERMOS and poured a cup of excellent tea. “My name is Richard.”
“I am Domei.” He settled back in the terminal chair a little more comfortably.
“Not Dr. Hsien Domei, the xenoneurologist?”
“Ah, I am recognized. I am no longer interested in xenoneurology. I focus my days on curing human illness, though I have agreed to participate in this local conference on Self.”
I was a little shaken to hear the founder of my science renounce his work so casually. “But you are the creator of the cephalod computer! You won the Nobel Prize! How can you deny your genius? I ask as a xenoneurologist in training.”
“Ah. Then you'll find out.” He leaned forward. “And I am not the creator of the cephaloid brain. I should make that clear and I should like to make it clear to others, in the little time left me. Have you got more than a little while?
“I began in China in the bad old days of superpower competition before the Pacific War. We – I was part of a committee, nothing could be done outside of a committee in China in that time – we were intrigued with the sheer processing power of the squid brain. To alter several million chemoreceptors in a single second, to change the appearance of the squid to match whatever lay beneath it, spoke to us of more sordid, what are called, more practical considerations.
“We gathered our squid, and began to operate. We mutated them into cephaloids. We gave them a coherent processing language, and set them to simple calculations performed rapidly.”
“Aren't all squids cephalods?” I asked.
“Please, I insist on 'cephaloid',” said Dr. Hsien. “Our mutants are as different from a natural squid as homo sapiens differs from the australopithecines.
“As we progressed we became concerned with brainwave proficiency. There was the high-end beta waves, signifying maximum effort, which pleased us. There was enough alpha wave activity to signify adequate function. But there was too much gamma wave activity to satisfy us; it indicated, to us, a waste of resources. We wanted to boost the alpha function with reduction of gamma activity.
“The Ho threshhold!” I cried somewhat too eagerly.
“She would be displeased to learn you call it that, as it indicates a hurdle to be hopped rather than a real barrier of nature,” said Dr. Hsien sternly. “The whole problem was beyond the best minds of human science in the matter. Where do you school, young man?”
“Oxford. Rhodes Scholar.”
“Oh dear, a prude and an optimist,” said Dr. Hsien. “Forgive my judgment, I am old.
“As we failed to breach this “threshold” in several mutant generations we brought a nonhuman opinion in the matter. I programmed the cephaloids to design their own future neural network. That is why I decline to be called their creator. They produced themselves.
“How are you growing brains at Oxford?” he asked me.
“Nanite construction of a protein membrane for the ganglia assembly,” I said immediately.
“Orderly, regular polyhedral construction?”
“Shoddy! Very sad! You have much to learn, and you consider Ho's dilemma a “threshhold”! Young man, I haven't my math with me, but consider please a symphonic approach to the problem, with the bass notes arranged first in series of maximum efficiency, and the ganglia for the higher brain functions arrayed upon that infrastructure. You'll see a boost in performance.
“This construction does require the use of a computer to calculate the membrane structure as a complex fractal equation. So our cephaloids programmed the next generation mutant cephalods for greater efficiency and higher processing power.”
“And they broke the Ho threshold?” I asked eagerly as I made notes in my phone.
“They did not. Perhaps our orchestrated brains are a dead end to avoid after all. Gamma frequency production increased and alpha frequency decreased. We saw a dip in operations per second.
“For this reason, among others, the Central Committee for Science ordered an end to the project, and the destruction of all my cephaloids.
“My cephaloids. The thought was treason against the State.”
I was silent, knowing something of what came next.
“So,” said Dr. Hsien with a deep breath, “I defected to Russia.”
“And brought the cephaloids with you?”
“Better I say nothing about the exploits of certain elements of the Russian state. I will say, young man, that Russia worries less about how success will play out publicly, and more about getting results that matter.”
Dr. Hsien looked a little sour. “Yes, they wanted results. They put me on “One-Two”, which was their name for a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States. It would open with electromagnetic pulse bombardment of the American homeland, which, since the weapons would be orbital in deployment, would involve frying all standard Russian orbital computers within view as well. They were glad to have me on board, as, you may not know, xenoneurological computers are immune to military EMP bombardment.”
I remembered with unease that the Russian government had switched its space program over to biological computers some years before.
Dr. Hsien cleared his throat and continued. “I betrayed them too. Not out of any qualms about “One-Two” I'm afraid, but again, through devotion to my little pets. Would you like some lunch?”
We ate quickly from the food court. Dr. Hsien ate only brown rice and steamed vegetables. “I am a strict Buddhist these days.”
“Really? I am an atheist.”
“Not an agnostic? You must rethink the matter, young man.”
I quickly steered the conversation back to the topic that interested me. “You said you betrayed the Russians?”
“Yes. I abused their trust by focusing on what I considered the main problem, which had nothing to do with their objectives. I ran into what you called a “threshold” of resistance to boosted processing power, no matter what I brought to bear. Because of my renown, and the devotion of the Russian government to its pet project, I was allowed to rummage through the extensive workshops of the Sixth Directorate. A treasure of stolen technologies.
“Have you ever heard of the Oracle? It is Japanese. It is simply an organic radio transmitter/receiver membrane. It was stolen by the KGB and discarded for its extremely low power and short range. However, for my illicit purpose, to allow cephalods to share brainwaves within the confines of an aquarium tank, it suited very well. I rigged a generation of cephaloids with Oracles, and let them talk to each other by impressing brainwaves remotely.”
“Of a sort. And the result was to me a greater failure! No alpha production, horrible drop in operations per second, and high-beta emphasis to the detriment of their health! They were killing themselves sharing gamma frequency brainwaves!”
Dr. Hsien paused. “I called you a prude and an optimist. You probably will not approve of my next step. However, you strike me as a promising young man, and if you can overcome your American prejudices, you may go far in science.”
“I can try,” I said.
“It isn't worth it,” said Dr. Hsien. “Anyhow, I found a simple-minded, I mean medically retarded, boy, I believe his name was Piotr, and I surgically outfitted him with an Oracle, and gave him SCUBA gear, and put him in the tank--”
“You experimented with human subjects?” I cried.
“Not so loud, please. I said you were a prude. For a proper survey, I wanted seven or so, but the Russians were already suspicious of what psychic squid had to do with frying American cities, and I didn't dare press the issue. Piotr was the only subject. Anyway, I put him in the tank, and let him vocalize the basic thoughts of my wayward cephaloids.”
“What? Their thoughts were intelligible? What did they say?”
Dr. Hsien turned his wizened face and locked eyes with me. He pursed his lips.
His train arrived, and he bade me goodbye courteously. I sat there a good while longer, sipping cold tea from Assam, and considering the difference between atheism and agnosticism. News of his death a few days later resolved something within me, and I began a correspondence with a Lama which continues to this day.
Dr. Tanner fell silent, and poured a fresh cup of tea for himself and his guest. Gerber said, “That explains your conversion, Dr. Tanner, but the entire department?”
“Ah. Well, you see, it took us ten years to grow a fractally calculated superbrain like Dr. Hsien's cephaloids, and they duplicated his results. 'OM.' That was enough, surely?”
“They apprehend the Buddhist meditations instinctively without instruction,” said Gerber slowly. “I see why that would impress your department as a philosophical proof.”
“I wonder if you do,” said Dr. Tanner. “Let me suggest, if you do see, that you join us in keeping quiet about it? We have no interest at this time in broadcasting that artificial sentience is Buddhist by preference. We have a lot of thinking to do on the ethics of continual mutation of the cephaloid superbrain, for instance. We were agreed on discretion, and I'm sorry that you got any inkling of our unanimity of purpose.”
“Then you don't want people drawn to your faith by an article?”
“Precisely. The worthy will be drawn in good time, and the unworthy will live out their days in samsara, the illusion of the World. I appeal to you to place yourself in the former category.”
“I'll think it over,” said Gerber. “It goes against the grain as a reporter, but I'm enough of a true skeptic to be impressed.”
“That is the response of a worthy candidate for enlightenment,” said Dr. Tanner. “Now if you'll excuse me, I did not plan for our discussion, and I have an appointment I should keep. Please come again some other time. I mean that sincerely.”
Out in the rain, Gerber decided to walk home. He had to think about what he believed in.
I have, dear reader, removed this work because I am submitting it to a journal that publishes historical fiction. While they accept previously published works, I still thought it poor form to have the whole text publicly available here. I was honored to have been an editor's pick for this monthly challenge, and the kind words many of you shared were deeply gratifying. The story having been posted over six months ago, I am confident that I am not depriving any future readers, but if you were really looking for this story, I would hate to leave you disappointed, so DM me. Again, many thanks. - rlove327
When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers
It began with a subtle change in the air; a vibration. Not like a summer breeze, nor a winter wind. More like the night air disturbed by butterfly wings. But with something more. As if the air had received a small shock. Followed by another. And another. But no one took notice since the change was so infinitesimal as to be nonexistent.
Until it wasn’t.
Seven-year old Jake Johnson was the first to notice the effects of the atmospheric oddities, though he didn’t realize it. He just thought little Danny Martin had the cooties. Little Danny, in tears, ran home to his mother.
“Mama, look,” he said, crying, pointing to his arm.
“What’d you do, sweetheart?” she asked, thinking he must have fallen.
“Nothing, Mama. I was playing with Jake and then he pointed at me and started laughing, saying I had the cooties. I said no I didn’t and went to punch him, but he jumped back, laughing and told me not to touch him ’cause he didn’t want cooties, too.”
“Did you fall down?” Mrs. Martin asked, taking out the alcohol and some cotton balls.
“No, Mama. I was just playing and then Jake pointed and I saw the skin was peeling and then I felt the pain I didn’t notice while I was playing and then I came inside and…”
“Okay, baby. Let Mama clean it for you.” But as Mrs. Martin reached out to wipe little Danny’s arm, the skin began to disintegrate. “Merciful heaven! What in the world…”
“Mama!” little Danny screamed in agony.
Mrs. Martin watched helplessly as her little Danny’s skin ruptured, bled, peeled, melted away leaving him a crumpled, molten mass of human tissue. Simultaneously, the air around her was pierced with the screams of tortured anguish as every citizen of her town suffered the consequences of an event that had nothing to do with them, yet affected every living being on the planet.
Mrs. Martin watched her son die before she too became a footnote to a history none would live to write…or read.