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In This Issue!
Welcome one and all! to Beorh Quarterly, the Speculative Fiction magazine sharing with the world the very best stories out there!
In this third issue of BQ, Pierre Comtois, editor of the smashing magazine Fungi, joins us yet again as he shares another of his heartfelt tales of lost humanity in “The Day the Computers Failed.”
Daniel Hale brings us the trouncing “Passing Crossroads,” another story in the arsenal against the unseemly second-best.
Studied writer S. R. Hardy graces us with the timeless masterpiece “The Acolyte,” a story of bad choices—and healing forgiveness.
Alex Scott gives us a new classic in “The Tether,” a heartfelt story of friendship between two boys reminiscent of Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade from Something Wicked This Way Comes.
I then share with you my latest faerytale “Jack-o-Lantern,” the story of a cruel man, and the children who loved him still.
Stefani Christova gives us her subtle horror in “Suzie Wants To Know the Truth,” a piece found securely in the new tradition of brilliant women writers of Magic Realism/Fabulism. (more from Stefani in February 2014 as she again stuns with her strange and beautiful worldview!)
William Page then brings us “The Air Serpent,” a classic Sci-Fi work from the year 1911.
Scathe meic Beorh
Founder & Contributing Editor,
The Day the Computers Failed
a story by
Jon Kinespee remembered how it was before baseball, before cooking, and even before the existence of Time.
In those days, when he was much younger, machines had done it all and people did nothing for themselves…except for Mr. Lenoir who alone knew what to do in the days immediately following the arrival of the Pulse.
The funny thing was that before the Pulse, no one realized that anything was missing from their lives. Not Jon’s dad, not his mom, not his little sister Sal, not even his dog Spot, or the two goldfish the family kept in a compu-tank in the living room.
Life had always been complete from the automated homes people lived in to the smart highways that they drove along to the intel-games they played. Nothing was left out; nothing left to chance; nothing missing.
Every morning began the same way when the house computer would awaken family members to begin a new day. First, dad and mom would be woken with the soothing tones of a wordless ditty and when they had reached the required level of post-sleep consciousness, the computer’s strategically hidden speakers would resonate with carefully chosen words whose modulation were designed to bring its listeners to full alertness with the least chance of discomfort.
When fully awake, dad would get up and head for a shower that was already running with water at a temperature intended to complement the wakening process. Emerging from the shower, dad would take his place in the auto-chair where machines would shave his face, comb his hair, brush his teeth, and massage his body with scientific exactitude. Getting to his feet once more, dad would step into his clothes for the day which were also chosen by the house computer on the basis of information provided by the business computer that ran dad’s place of employment.
Meanwhile, a similar procedure had been performed on mom in her own computerized bathroom and when she emerged to head for the kitchen, the bed was already made and any loose articles left around the night before picked up and put away or whisked into hidden laundry chutes. In the kitchen, mom arrived just in time to make sure breakfast was ready before saying good morning Jon and Sal.
Although timed by the house computer to all arrive in the kitchen at the same time for breakfast, the children had undergone a slightly different early morning procedure than their parents.
Although both Jon and Sal were awakened in the same soothing manner as the adults and gently urged into their separate bathrooms for their morning ablutions, Jon’s hair was applied with an oily compound then popular with 11-year-olds that allowed it to be molded into any shape desired while Sal’s dress was adorned in the latest ankle length style with a trim of tiny bells attached around the hem.
Eventually, the entire family was gathered in the kitchen and as they took their places around the table, an assortment of mechanical instruments emerged from beneath the surface to serve breakfast.
“Will you be home at the regular time this evening, dear?” asked mother of her husband.
“6:15 as always,” replied father dabbing lightly at the corners of his mouth with a disposable napkin. “You know my schedule has been arranged all in advance by the company’s central computer. I’m sure the house computer will be informed if there’s any change.”
“I’m sure,” said mother. “It’s just that I won’t be home for dinner this evening as I have choir practice tonight.”
“The church computer on the blink again?”
“No, but I have to make sure the new arrangement downloads have been installed properly by the music company computer.”
“Don’t trust the machines?” It was a rhetorical question, an old joke really, that had lost all meaning over the decades since the last major computer malfunction in 2057.
“I don’t understand why we can’t just go to school at home,” complained Sal only for the thousandth time it seemed. “We can plug in to the virtual classroom just as easily here as across town.”
“You know the answer to that question as well as I do,” said mother. “Computer studies have shown that children your age need regular interaction with young people of your own age. Walking to school with the other children is valuable for proper social development.”
“Humph,” said Sal, holding her mouth open to allow the computer assisted spoon to place cereal in it for her.
Jon watched as his own spoon vanished into the table top along with his cereal bowl and sighed as he lifted a glass of orange juice on his own and downed its contents in a few gulps.
“Jon!” said his mother. “Where are your manners? Let the computer feed you.”
“Aw, ma! I’m too old for that now.”
Following breakfast, father headed for the garage stall while the children kissed their mother goodbye and left the house by the front door.
In the garage, the door to the family car opened by itself and father slipped into the driver’s seat. Disregarding the steering wheel (which only existed in case of computer failure), he hit the start button and the vehicle’s automated systems came to life. Light’s glowed and a familiar hum emanated from the computer regulated engine that operated on a microscopic fragment of atomic material. Slowly, the garage door began to rise and in another few seconds the car rolled outside and down the driveway to the road in front of the house.
Sitting back and catching the news on the vid monitor mounted in the dashboard, father let the on board computer do the driving as it opened communications with the city’s master computer that recognized the family’s particular vehicle and integrated its intended course with hundreds of thousands of others that made up the morning traffic stream. The trip to work however, was far from the frustrating experience that had once plagued commuters as the master computer, in cooperation of the thousands of other workplace computers, arranged work schedules in such a way that hindrances in traffic were reduced to nothing. Accidents involving motor vehicles were unheard of.
Meanwhile, after leaving their home, Jon and Sal stepped onto the sidewalk conveyor that took them and other neighborhood children to a branch conveyor down the street and with increasing numbers of young people, they were conducted to PS 12 where they were met by their teachers who separated them by grade and led them to their respective classrooms. There, each child immediately took their places at personal consoles, placed learning hoods over their heads, and entered a virtual classroom for their first lesson of the day.
Back at home, mother went to the house computer console to begin setting the program for the rest of the day. During the morning, she would observe the house electronic aparati as they made the beds, dusted the furniture, tended the yard, and a hundred other tasks, making sure that all was done according to her wishes. In the afternoon, she might take the sidewalk conveyor to do some errands, work on her column for the daily newspaper, and finally join other women in the neighborhood for refreshments and conversation while they waited for the children to come home from school.
Yes, to Jon, life in those days seemed complete with nothing left to chance…except for old Mr. Lenoir.
Mr. Lenoir lived by himself in the big house at the top of the street. Dominating the neighborhood, the house looked down over the rest of the neighborhood as if it were a creature out of time and in a sense it was because unlike other buildings of its kind, it was the only one Jon knew that did not have a house computer. And strange as it seemed, Mr. Lenoir didn’t mind the personal hardship of being cut off from the electronic network that made life as easy as it was. In fact, Jon recalled more than once seeing him puttering about his well manicured yard trimming the hedges, mowing the lawn, or pruning the apple trees while humming a jaunty tune or two; exactly as if he were enjoying himself.
Indoors, or so Jon had heard from adults who shook their heads in pity for the old man, Mr. Lenoir was similarly bereft of computerized help doing his own housework, preparing his own meals, and even driving his own car! Jon could hardly imagine what that kind of life could be like with its tedium and drudgery but it was one they would all learn much more about the day after the Pulse hit the Earth.
Afterwards, Jon had heard on the television that the Pulse had begun somewhere far out in space, maybe following the collapse of a dead star, or an unexpected shift in the radio waves caused by the collision of negative and positive galaxies, or the sudden surge of dark matter emanating from a black hole. Whatever its origins, the Pulse had probably been traveling through space for thousands or millions of years before striking the Earth and shorting out every computer on the planet.
In an instant, without any warning, the memory banks of every electronic brain from vast and complex central cores that coordinated the activities of whole continents to Jon’s personal all purpose GPS monitors were wiped clean and all activity linked to any kind of computer at all seized throwing the whole world into chaos and confusion.
Luckily, however, there were no real panics and government agencies stepped into the breach to reassure the public that the disaster was not life threatening. Quicker than most people realized (at least so it seemed to Jon at the time), the major functions of civilization were taken over by human operators, albeit with chores being accomplished at a much slower rate. Traffic for instance, became a confusing mess for a while and for a few months food distribution became spotty. But all that was on a scale beyond Jon’s direct experience. For he and Sal and their friends, the new world created by the Pulse was a frightening one filled with an uncertainty that even their parents were hard pressed to comfort them over.
Then reassurance came from an unexpected quarter.
One by one, people in the neighborhood began to make the trek up the hill to the home of Mr. Lenoir. At first, forced by the inexorable plant growth around their homes, they asked to borrow his hand tools: hedge clippers and grass cutters, then water cans and yard rakes. Following their husbands’ example, the women of the neighborhood began to appear at Mr. Lenoir’s back door at first seeking advice on how to prepare food themselves and later for items that were suddenly indispensable in preparing their meals: sugar and flour and eggs.
Suddenly thrown onto their own resources, Jon and his friends were at a loss how to entertain themselves. Temporarily suspended from school as lesson programs were reorganized, the children discovered that they had plenty of free time to do what they wanted but with no idea how to use it. Their virtual vid helmets were useless and the games and music available on their all purpose GPS monitors had been erased. In addition, their individualized home entertainment systems that allowed them to visit and play anywhere and anything they wanted to from ancient China to the ice fields of Pluto were down for the count.
As a result, children were seen wandering about the neighborhood in aimless circles or sitting on the curb beside the useless sidewalk conveyors or simply sprawled on their beds listlessly waiting for the computers to come back on. At last, frustrated with the situation, Jon tore his useless virtual vid helmet from his head and dashed it to the floor with such violence that the pieces flew in every direction. With a growl in his throat, he stomped to the bedroom window and looked out over the dead streets of the empty neighborhood.
It was a hot summer day and the green leaves of the trees fluttered here and there in stray gusts of warm wind. Along the streets, he could see some of the neighbors as they attacked lawns and shrubbery that had grown noticeably longer and shaggier in the days since the computers failed. Forced to do the work themselves, many of those adults who had gone to Mr. Lenoir for advice had returned with borrowed tools which they had to operate by hand. Not familiar yet with how to use them, the results of their yard work was spotty at best and not at all as uniformly efficient as when it had been performed by domestic machines. But seeing the work being done gave Jon an idea. If the adults could get useful information on how to cope with the new situation, why couldn’t he?
Energized by the revolutionary thought, Jon left his room and took himself outdoors. There, in the bright sunshine, he walked up the street along the stilled sidewalk conveyors in the direction of Mr. Lenoir’s house.
As he approached, the first thing he noticed was that there were no security cams around the property nor were there any garden robots anywhere in sight. Although both would have been out of order due to the Pulse, their metallic carcasses should have still been in place or stored somewhere around the property. But what surprised him was how neat the landscaping around the old house was in spite of how Mr. Lenoir never having used robots to keep things trim. Somehow, Jon had never expected a single person to have been able to keep up with the work of trimming, cutting, pruning, painting, sweeping, and all the other work incumbent upon home ownership. He had expected a ragged look to everything with a yard that resembled more a jungle than a well manicured garden.
So it was with rising curiosity that he approached the big front door and waited to be scanned and announced but after a few minutes he suddenly realized that even if Mr. Lenoir had employed a house computer, it would not have been operational. Feeling somewhat foolish, Jon knocked on the door the way he had seen others do it in the virtual vids about the times before computers. His knocking was rewarded with the sound of approaching footsteps from inside the house and a moment later the door swung open and Mr. Lenoir stood in the opening.
“Well, young man, what can I do for you?” he said.
Suddenly, Jon was at a loss for words. He had indeed been bored but what exactly was he looking for to relieve the tedium? What could Mr. Lenoir, who had never relied on computers, offer him in the way of divertissement?
“Cat got your tongue, lad?”
Jon stared at Mr. Lenoir’s kindly features. He had thought him elderly but now on closer examination, he seemed younger than that. In fact, he did not seem that much older than his father. His hair was gray to be sure, but it still had many dark threads woven among the white and only the corners of his eyes displayed wrinkles that appeared when he squinted. His posture was erect and when he extended his hand in greeting, Jon could not help but notice how firm it was.
“I know you,” said Mr. Lenoir then. “You’re the Kinespee boy aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Jon, finding his voice at last.
“Come here because your mother has a question about what to fix for supper? Your father want to know how to change a spark plug in the lawn mower?”
“Uh, not exactly,” said Jon. “I came to ask you something for myself.”
“I see! Well, then, why don’t you step inside so we can discuss the matter?”
Jon did so and as Mr. Lenoir closed the door behind him, he noticed immediately a strange smell that permeated the inside of the house.
“Something bothering you, lad?” asked Mr. Lenoir, noticing how Jon’s nose had wrinkled up at the smell.
“Just something in the air I guess…what are those?” asked Jon suddenly, pointing at the rows of shelves that lined the walls of the house.
“Haven’t you ever seen books before?” asked Mr. Lenoir not without some irritation.
“Is that what they are? I’ve never seen real books before. Just in the virtual vids.”
Mr. Lenoir shook his head in pity.
“Never seen a real book before? Never held one in your hands? Never felt the spine of a new book crinkle when it was opened for the first time? Never smelled that aroma of ink and pulp paper?”
“Is that what I’m smelling?”
In reply, Mr. Lenoir took down one of the books from the shelf, opened it and held it up to Jon’s nose.
“Breath deep,” said Mr. Lenoir. “Because if you were 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Captain Nemo, it’s a sure bet you wouldn’t be able to.”
Jon did so and the peculiar aroma tickled to the back of his throat and he almost sneezed.
“Here try this one,” said Mr. Lenoir, replacing the first book and taking down another. “Can you smell the water of the mighty Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn?”
“No,” said Jon with some disappointment. “It sort of smells just like the other book.”
“Pshaw!” declared Mr. Lenoir in disgust. “You’re nose is just out of practice. You don’t read enough.”
“Read? The computer teacher does that for me. And besides, reading is too slow, too dull!”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Jon knew he had said the wrong thing.
“Reading…dull?! Impossible! Listen, lad; have you ever actually read a book before?”
Jon had to admit that he had not.
“Then how do you know what you’re talking about? Don’t you know that every book has its own scent? The Maltese Falcon smells of gunpowder and The Call of the Wild like wet animal fur. You can almost smell the rotting jungle in Tarzan of the Apes and the dank scent of wet stone in Jane Eyre; but best of all is the rocket fumes in books like The Martian Chronicles and The Gray Lensman! But never mind about those, you can start with Doc Savage” he said, handing a very old book to Jon with the cover long since missing. “There’s the smell of the ocean in that one and sweat and laboratory experiments gone wrong, and even a dash of talcum powder…but never mind all that for now. First, read it and savor it and enjoy it. You’ll be back for more in no time, I’ll guarantee it!”
Jon said nothing, preferring not to upset Mr. Lenoir more than he had already done. Carefully, he slipped the battered paperback into the front pocket of his shirt.
“Now here,” Mr. Lenoir was saying, “I keep my magazines filled with adventures in time and space and every exotic land in between…”
“Uh, Mr. Lenoir…” said Jon, clearing his throat.
“What I really came for was to ask if you had any ideas for what I could do with my friends now that all our virtual vids aren’t working…”
“Bored, eh?” said Mr. Lenoir immediately.
Jon nodded. “I thought that maybe you could give us some advice the way you’ve been doing with the adults.”
Mr. Lenoir paused and rubbed his chin.
“Ever hear of baseball?” he asked suddenly.
“Wasn’t it a show they used to have a long time ago on something called a television?”
“Pshaw!” said Mr. Lenoir again. “No one ever intended baseball to simply be watched but played and played by real live people…running, jumping, catching, hitting!”
“Hitting?” said Jon, slightly alarmed.
“A ball, lad. Why do you think the game is called base-ball?”
“Oh,” was all a relieved Jon could muster.
“I take it you haven’t got a base or a ball…or even a bat?”
“What are they?”
Mr. Lenoir heaved with the heaviest sigh Jon had ever seen.
“Looks like I’ll have to start from the beginning. Come with me, lad.”
Jon followed Mr. Lenoir through the house to a door that led down a flight of wooden stairs to a musty basement filled with tools and another smell that he later learned to associate with the cutting of wood.
Mr. Lenoir reached up and pulled a cord that lit a fluorescent light situated over a work table cluttered with tools and metal receptacles filled with nails. Fascinated, Jon picked up a hammer and wondered at how it felt in his hand.
“Like that feel?” asked Mr. Lenoir, recognizing instantly the instinctual connection of a boy to a tool. “Here’s what I’m looking for.”
Mr. Lenoir had taken a broom with a long wooden handle and laying it lengthwise in a vise clamped to the work table, he spun a handle until the sweeping implement was held in a fast grip. Next, he took a hand saw down from the wall, measured a length of the broom handle with his eye, and began to cut.
Jon watched Mr. Lenoir work with fascination, never having seen anyone do such a thing.
In a remarkably short time, Mr. Lenoir had cut through the broom handle and was giving the loose piece a few tentative swings in the air. Satisfied, he put it down and began rummaging among some old boxes on the floor. Presently, he returned with something in his hand. He tossed it to Jon.
“Think quick!” Mr. Lenoir said with a chuckle.
Startled, Jon reached out and tried to catch what proved to be a soft sponge rubber ball but missed.
“You’ll have to do better than that if you want to win at baseball,” said Mr. Lenoir watching him as he scrambled to retrieve the loose ball. “Now toss it back to me.”
Finally in control of the ball, Jon did as he was told and was surprised to see how easily the old man caught the ball even while holding the broom handle in one of his hands.
“Don’t look so astonished,” he said. “It’s simple once you get the hang of it and you will, faster than you think.”
At that point, Mr. Lenoir led the way back upstairs and at the kitchen table with glasses of lemonade at their elbows, he drew a diagram of a diamond shaped object that Jon soon learned was a representation of the playing field upon which baseball was played. At first, as the old man explained the concept of “bases” and “outs” and “home runs,” it all seemed terribly confusing to Jon, but gradually as the rules began to sink in, the picture in his mind jelled and soon he was imagining himself swinging the broom handle at the ball and running around the bases with the wind running through his hair.
At last, Mr. Lenoir folded up the paper with the diagram and tucked it in Jon’s shirt pocket along with the copy of the Doc Savage book and conferred on him the broom handle and sponge ball with all the gravity of a king of old giving a knight his sword.
“There you are, lad,” said Mr. Lenoir stepping back. “Go forth and play baseball!”
Not sure how the other children in the neighborhood would take to the new game, Jon determined to at least give it a try. After all, the old man had insisted that it was more fun than a virtual vid, which even Jon found hard to believe.
After a lunch of ham sandwiches, a wedge of angel food cake, and chocolate milk (which his mother took pride in having prepared), Jon left the house to round up as many of his friends as he could. When he did, and they were all standing together in a rough group in an empty lot a few streets away from his house, it was a strange sensation because he could not remember a time when he had associated at the same time with more than one or two other boys in his life. More often, they gathered on the virtual plane to play Dungeons and Swords or World Wrecker or to go mountain climbing in Tibet. As a result, there was quite a bit of foot shuffling with no one really sure how to associate with the others on a personal level. At last, by reason of his having interfaced with Mr. Lenoir, Jon took control of the situation.
“All right, gather round,” he said as he crouched down and unfolded the paper with the diagram that Mr. Lenoir had given him. “I’ll explain to you how we’re going to play this game.”
“What did you say it was called?” asked Swifty.
“’Baseball,’” said Jon as he flattened the paper on the grass.
“Never heard of it,” said Tom. “Is it like virtual bashback?”
“No, nothing like that,” replied Jon. “You play this for real.”
“For real?” said Swifty. “Like in we have to run and stuff?”
“Yeah, what’s so bad about that?”
Swifty shrugged. “Just don’t feel like knockin’ myself out chasin’ a ball all over the place.”
“Oh, get over it,” said Jon, exasperated by an attitude he himself had shared not a few hours before. Since then, the idea of playing a game for real had grown on him and he was anxious to give it a try. “Now here’s how it’s played.”
The next half hour was taken up with explanations and answers to his friend’s questions. In the meantime, other children who had observed them from nearby houses began to drift over, drawn by the possibility of being relieved of their boredom. In no time, there were enough children to form the “teams” Mr. Lenoir had spoken about.
Finding bits of metal and disposal waste containers around the lot, Jon instructed the others how to place them to represent the “bases” and standing in a circle, they began to toss the ball to each other, getting used to its feel and how to move in order to catch it before it struck the ground.
Soon however, with a young boy’s patience being what it is, there was a general consensus that the game should begin. Choosing “teams” in the manner Mr. Lenoir had showed him how to do Jon, acting as one of the “captains” asked for another for the opposing team and when Tom stepped forward, they began to choose sides. That done, the broom handle was thrown to Jon who caught it in a single hand (a skill that delighted and surprised more than one of the boys). Tom then placed his hand above Jon’s followed by Jon’s free hand and in such manner, Tom’s team was selected to “bat” first.
After that, Jon lost all track of time as did everyone else as cautious and clumsy play slowly evolved into something resembling self-confidence. By late afternoon, at least two games had already been concluded with everyone exhausted but paradoxically exhilarated from running back and forth in the “outfield” and dashing madly from base to base. It took no time at all for them to discover the pleasure of sliding into home base under a wild throw from the “infield” or diving full length for “fly balls” in the outfield so that by supper time there was not a boy whose clothes was not streaked in dirt and who didn’t take pride in knees covered in grass stains. They were having so much fun that supper time had come and gone and the glow of the streetlights had been illuminated for quite a while before anyone noticed how late it was.
“Gee, my mother’s going to be wondering where I am!” said Tom.
“I didn’t even notice that it got dark!” said a breathless Swifty.
“Should we quit and go home?” asked another boy.
There was silence. Although the streetlight gave some illumination, it was near impossible in the dark to see a ball plunging into the outfield. Nevertheless, it was proving difficult for anyone to tear themselves away from the “diamond” that by then had been etched in the grass. Suddenly, however, the problem was solved when Jon’s father appeared from the darkness.
“Jon, is that you?”
“It’s me dad,” replied Jon, stepping into the glow cast by the streetlight.
“Wow! Are you a sight!” said his father who found it difficult to recognize his son beneath the grime that covered his face and arms and the dirty clothes that boasted a number of tears that had not been in them when Jon left home that morning.
“Sorry,” said Jon, looking down at himself. “We were playing baseball.”
“You know it?” asked Jon, catching a strange tone in his father’s voice.
“I remember the word,” said his father, rubbing his chin. “I think your grandfather mentioned it to me once…something people used to play before virtual vids.”
“That’s it. It’s a game like we play on the virtual plane except you play it for real.”
His father wrinkled his nose at the notion. “Running and jumping and skipping? Ugh. Anyway, time to head for home. It’s late and you missed your supper.”
“See you guys tomorrow?” asked Jon in a last look over his shoulder.
“You bet!” said the other boys all at once clapping each other on the shoulder and shaking hands as they broke up and headed to their various homes.
Jon saw the family car parked alongside the road directly beneath the streetlight and when he had slid into the passenger seat, noticed that a number of components were missing from the dashboard.
“What happened to the vid monitor?” asked Jon.
“Didn’t need it any more,” replied his father as he actually turned a key in the ignition to start the engine. “I had a technician take it out but had to make an appointment to go back and have the space filled with a computer free music console. It’ll have a receiver so that I can hear the traffic reports on the way to work. No more computers to automatically avoid slow downs you know.”
Jon marveled as he watched his father take hold of the steering column and guide the car away from the curb and into the middle of the road. All the way home, he fought against holding his breath while the car moved strictly under the guidance of a human hand. The whole experience was positively eerie.
Later that evening, all scrubbed clean and feeling more contented than he had ever felt in his life, a smiling Jon lay back in his bed, his hands folded behind the back of his head and dreaming of all the homeruns he would make the next day. What fun baseball was! How exhilarating to use his body and expend his youthful energy for tumbling in the grass, racing from base to base, swinging the bat with all his might and watching the ball as it climbed into the blue heavens and then arc down almost out of sight!
Looking around his room, Jon’s eyes spotted the vid helmet lying useless on the floor. He had no desire at all to put it on, even if he hadn’t smashed it earlier in the day. The vistas of Tibet and Mars and the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean now seemed unreal and unsatisfying. How could he ever have thought living in that world was fun, even fulfilling? With a new perspective, he realized how empty and shallow those worlds were with their too sharp images and perfect settings that didn’t even allow him to suffer so much as a scratch even after wrestling with Bengal tigers or Venusian swamp snakes. Touching one of the half dozen scratches that adorned his body, the sting reminded him of the day’s exertions, and proved that he had actually gone and done the things he remembered doing. Could he ever have said the same thing about the worlds he had visited in virtual vids?
Jon swung his legs off the bed and going over to the remains of his helmet, picked it up and took it to the window. Lifting the sash, he flung the helmet out into the darkness and listening, heard a satisfying crash as it struck the pavement of the street out front. Back inside again, he began to pull the room’s house computer unit and individualized home entertainment system outlets from their housings; wires snapped and fastenings groaned their resistance to being ripped from the wall, but at last they were all free and collected in a pile in the center of the floor. Tomorrow, he would throw them all out.
Suddenly there was a noise behind him and whirling, he saw Sal at the door. She was staring at the pile of wires and switch panels on the floor.
“You think father and mother will be angry?” asked Jon.
“Maybe, except that I think I saw mother herself throwing out components,” said Sal. “She said she needed more room in the kitchen for groceries. C’mon.”
Jon followed his sister into her own room and there found a pile of junk on the floor that looked very much like the one he had made.
“I’ve got better things to do than play house with Neptunian ice princesses and designing clothes for the miss alien species pageant,” said Sal.
“Oh, yeah? Like what?”
As if waiting for the opportunity, Sal rushed up to Jon, her hands clasped at her breast, and said, “I went to see old Mr. Lenoir today and…”
“Mr. Lenoir!” said Jon, startled. “Why did you go see him?”
“I was bored with nothing to do so I thought if Mr. Lenoir can show mom and dad how to get along without the computers, then he could do the same for me,” said Sal. “And I was right. He told me about this wonderful game I could play with my friends and we’ve been playing it all day! In fact, according to Mr. Lenoir, the game can be even more exciting after dark!”
Jon, recalling how well Mr. Lenoir’s advice had served him, found himself eager to discover what other game he may have come up with for Sal and her friends. If it was anything as fun as baseball…and could be played after dark when baseball became difficult…
“What’s this game called?”
“Kick the can,” said Sal. “You see, we get a can (Mr. Lenoir gave us one of his but told us soon they’d be a lot more plentiful when the new supermarkets open) and someone is chosen to count to 100 while everybody else runs to hide. After that…”
Virgil listened with increasing interest and found himself wondering what other games Mr. Lenoir could teach them. At last however, with exhaustion overtaking him, he yawned and said goodnight to his sister.
In his room again, Jon sat back in bed. He was just reaching over to switch off the light when he noticed the old book that Mr. Lenoir had lent him peeking from the pocket of his shirt. Curious, he reached over and plucked it out.
The Submarine Mystery read the title.
Flipping through the yellowing pages, Jon speculated that if Mr. Lenoir had been right about baseball being fun, could he have also been right about reading?
In the proper frame of mind to experiment further, Jon turned to the first page of the book and as he struggled through the first chapter, the chore of reading began to fade and was replaced with delight and wonder as he plunged not only into the world of Doc Savage, but also on a voyage of discovery of his own little dreaming of the amazing vistas that lay beyond the pages of a book or the boundaries of a baseball diamond…
a story by
It’s a cramped little bar I play tonight, dark and small. Old license plates and sports memorabilia on the walls, electric neon signs. I’m setting up my stuff on the little stage; my chair, my amp, my stand. It doesn’t take long to set up for a gig. Music isn’t about numbers or about power. It’s all about music.
The owner of the bar went a little overboard with the advertising; I saw dozens of flyers on my way out here, on telephone poles, shop windows, actually blowing through the streets. I don’t know what he was thinking. I suppose people are slightly more eager to come to the bar with live entertainment, even if they don’t know what to expect.
Then again, it probably is a larger crowd than he’s used to; every table occupied, every booth filled. Mostly older folks looking for a little novelty, and a few younger folks who couldn’t find a better one on a Saturday night. They look to me for that novelty, for something different, or at least distracting. And they may think, if they think about me at all, that I do this for the exposure, for a pretense of fame.
It may have started with dreams, with longings for something greater. But I go on because the music goes on. I’m not here to be a star; I’m here to show people the music, for just a little while.
A lifetime ago, sitting on the porch, in the rain. Fingers tracing the strings on my first guitar. He’s standing at the edge of the yard, in his thick brown coat and dark glasses. He’s smirking a smug little smirk, hinting at what he has to offer…
Country, jazz, soulful tunes and lively ones alike. I play them all the way they should be played, each strum of my guitar a ringing in the darkness, each word sung like the name of a lost friend. Not extravagantly, but carefully and respectfully. Older songs, mostly. You’d recognize most of them, or thought you did. A few I wrote myself. People are talking quietly amongst themselves, brooding over their drinks. One or two are looking at me, nodding in time. I’m just a backdrop, but the music frames and flows through everything, gives it life. It glides through the room, through the ears of everyone listening.
There’s one man in particular who stands out, sitting at the bar, stool turned towards me. His big, thick coat hangs like fog on his shoulders. A slight smirk plays on his face, dark glasses shade his eyes.
He hasn’t changed. He never does. He is what he embodies and always has been.
The night of my first gig, the talent show in high school. Prize went to the break dancing kid. My voice was too desperate, too erratic, though I played the tune well. He waited by my locker, saw my disappointment. He knew I wanted more.
Two hours later. The bar’s closing up for the night. I’m sitting on my stool, a basket of records by my feet. A few people compliment me as they walk out, and I smile and thank them. One or two records go out with them. The tune spreads a little farther.
The owner hands me my money, murmurs a few inaudible words of gratitude, tells me he’ll have to call me in again. He probably will. It wasn’t a rollicking crowd, but it was full.
Down to the car, amp and guitar in my hands. He’s already waiting there, at the corner of the crossroads. Just my little joke.
He speaks tonight, for the first time in my life. I pack the stuff away, set the amp down in the truck, place the guitar case in the backseat. He whispers his promises, shows me the futures I could have. Fame and fortune, devoted fans. Nothing he hasn’t offered anyone before. He tells me the names of those who took him up. Some I suspected, others are a disappointment. The rest I don’t believe.
And he tells me his price. He isn’t a con man, not really. He always delivers, and he is always straight about his fee. They always take him up. Living to play is never enough, and there comes a point where they want to play to live. Blinded by visions of flashing lights and screaming hordes, deafened to the music. They’ll take the stage, at the cost of who they are and all they mean. They’ll take the stage, at the cost of their voices. Their souls.
He beseeches me. He cajoles and pleads with me. It’s no kind of life, he tells me. It’s an echo at best, a mockery at worst. With my talent, my voice, I could be more. He could give me the nudge, offer the note, and conduct the tune. I just have to take it…
I don’t say a word, and leave him there as I drive into the night. He could set my name in stone; put me in the center ring. But he would take my voice, and my own self, to do it. It would be his voice, that people can’t help but listen to. It would be an imitation, a true mockery, coldly designed for desire. It would not be me.
I may fade away, but the music goes on. It always goes on…
a story by
S. R. Hardy
The figure on the beach grew in size and definition as the Acolyte approached, first appearing as an undifferentiated mass, then as a man sitting and, finally, as the Priest. He sat in the sand, his long brown beard standing out starkly on his chest against a white robe. The robe was cinched at his waist with a black belt, signifying that he had reached the highest level of the Priesthood, and billowed out onto the sand so that it covered his legs.
The Acolyte looked back over his shoulder, at the masts of the harbor and the long curve of the beach that he had traversed to get to Ancestors’ Rock. He had never actually been this far down the beach before, but he had seen the Rock from the walls of the Seminary. It was widely reverenced as the place where the first of the People had landed many years before when they had founded the Realm, but it was rarely visited.
The Acolyte quickened his pace, as he had no idea how long the Priest had been waiting for him and he did not want to exacerbate the precariousness of his situation further. He had awoken in his room that morning after only a few hours’ sleep to find a note on the floor next to his bed. The note had summoned him to the beach in front of the Rock when he awoke. He had expected some type of punishment following his failed attempt to run away from the Seminary, but he had not expected it to take place on the beach. The note had not mentioned a time, and upon reading it the Acolyte had hurriedly put on his black robe and set out for the beach without taking the time to eat breakfast.
Finally the Acolyte found himself before the Priest, who remained seated. Not sure whether to sit without being invited to do so, the Acolyte remained standing, with his hands clasped in front of him. He bowed to the Priest but did not speak, as he was not allowed to address a superior in the Order without being spoken to first.
The Priest smiled at him and nodded. “Sit down.”
The Acolyte sat down cross-legged in the sand and arranged his robe around his legs in the same manner as the Priest and bowed his head again. “Thank you, Master.”
“Do you know why I invited you here, to this place?”
The Priest did not speak, but reached out into the space between them with an extended index finger that, even in its small way, exuded both age and power, and drew a circle in the sand.
“What is this?” he asked.
The Acolyte did not respond at first. He was confused by the question and suspected some sort of trick. The answer seemed too simple.
The Priest did not repeat his question. He just looked into the Acolyte’s eyes without blinking, waiting for an answer.
“A circle, Master.” said the Acolyte.
The Priest nodded. “Yes, it is a circle. But what is its nature?”
The Acolyte lowered his gaze, afraid of causing offense. “I am sorry, Master. I do not understand your question.”
“Stop trying to think and start trying to remember.”
Confusion turned to shame on the Acolyte’s face as he raised his head and met the Priest’s eyes. Now he understood. The Priest’s admonition to rely on memory rather than logic meant that he should reference the Way, the memory of the People. He dispensed with the formal form of address, as was the custom when reciting the Way. “The circle is both the All and the Nothing.”
The Priest nodded and relief flooded the Acolyte. He felt that he was now on familiar ground, though he still was not sure of the Priest’s purpose.
“And where is the Will?”
The Acolyte used his left index finger to make a small hole in the center of the circle.
The Priest smiled and nodded again. “Very good. You have not been sleeping through your lessons.”
“And what does this symbol signify?”
“The point in the circle is the Will, which is life.”
The Acolyte paused before answering. “The Will arises in reaction to the inertia of the Nothing.”
The Priest shifted his weight and leaned forward, his beard separating from his robe and scraping the sand in front of him. “But if the reactive Will arises from Nothing, by what is it engendered?”
“The Will arises from the latent potential inherent in the All, which is also the Nothing.”
“But how can the All be the Nothing?”
“Only that which can be, can not be.”
“Exactly. You have studied well.”
The Acolyte bowed his head. “Thank you, Master.”
The Priest leaned back and looked first to his right, at Ancestors’ Rock, and then to his left, at the open sea.
He spoke while staring out at the hazy blue horizon. “Where did you intend to go?”
The question was one the Acolyte had asked himself more than once since he had been brought back to his cell in the middle of the night. “I intended to go to the harbor and take ship, Master.”
The Priest focused his gaze directly at the Acolyte. “To where?
When the Acolyte did not speak, the Priest asked another question. “With what money?”
Still the Acolyte did not speak. He had had no thought other than the foolish idea to stow away on the first ship he was able to board. The intended destination had not been important.
“Were you trying to die?”
“I do not know, Master.”
The Acolyte bowed his head in shame. “I do not know, Master,” he repeated. He saw out of the corner of his eye that the incoming tide was reaching closer to where he and the Priest sat.
The Priest leaned forward again to emphasize his point. “But you chose to exercise your Will in a destructive manner, to run away rather to engage your problem constructively. This is against the Code.”
Tears formed in the Acolyte’s eyes. “I know.” He realized with horror that he had addressed the Priest impolitely and added, “Master.”
The Priest’s gaze intensified into a look that was unsympathetic, but not unkind. “Cry if you must, but tears do not bring understanding.”
The Acolyte nodded and raised his arm to wipe his eyes with a black sleeve. “I am sorry, Master.” He felt that he had been unworthy of the Priest’s questions and of the Code.
The priest stroked his beard, his hand beginning just under his chin and ending up in his lap. “Why did you want to die?”
Tears now streamed down the Acolyte’s face. “I will tell you the true reason, Master, though it shames me to do so.” He paused and took a ragged breath. “I failed my Test. I am not passing on to the Priesthood with my class. I have disappointed and shamed my family, Master.”
“Failing the Test is indeed unfortunate,” the Priest said, “and cannot be taken lightly. However, it does not bring eternal shame.” The Priest smiled, this time kindly. “You can take the Test again.”
The Acolyte nodded. “I know, Master. But my uncle is the Mage. My failure will be an insult to him when he learns of it. More than an insult, a mortal wound, Master.”
The Priest laughed at the Acolyte’s words. “The Mage is a strong man. He will surely survive the experience.”
The Acolyte hung his head and listened to the sound of the sea, its slow and steady rhythm providing a counterpoint to the raging emotions in his breast. He was confused by the Priest’s levity and he still did not know the purpose of the conversation, nor what his punishment would be.
“In your studies, you have learned the principle of the Forking Paths, correct?”
“Please explain it to me.”
Remembering the Priest’s earlier admonishment to rely on the Way, the Acolyte took a deep breath and said, “The Path forks infinitely in all directions and our choices determine our personal Path. Constructive choices lead to constructive Paths. Destructive choices lead to destructive Paths.”
“Exactly.” The Priest paused, as if preparing to deliver a speech. “Your actions last night led you down a destructive Path. But now you stand before a new fork and you face a choice.”
The Acolyte nodded to indicate that he understood.
The Priest continued, “What type of decision will you make?”
“A constructive decision, Master.”
“Tell me specifically what you will do.”
“I will take the Test again and approach it with positive intention and energy, Master.”
“Very good. I think that is the wise course.”
The Priest turned his head and looked at the encroaching surf, which was now only a few feet away from where they were sitting. He turned back to face the Acolyte. “The thing you must remember is that your Path is doomed to failure if it does not stem from a constructive impulse.”
The Acolyte nodded. “I understand, Master.”
“You must also remember that you choose a Path not to reach the goal. The goal is something that is simply arrived at as the end result of many small decisions and it may not be the one that was originally intended.”
The Priest paused to let his point sink in. “It is only by making attempt after attempt, decision after decision, and by continually exercising your Will in a constructive manner that you can hope to develop, to change your black robes for white and, maybe someday, for red, like your Uncle. This effort is your Duty and leads you down a Path which is unique to you and is the culmination of all the decisions you have made in your life. Do not worry about the destination of your Path. It goes where it goes.”
“I understand, Master.”
Both men sat in silence on the beach. The Priest stared out into the empty ocean to the West, as if waiting for something, while the Acolyte stared down at his lap waiting for the Priest to speak. The tide came in again and lapped the outer edge of their thighs. The cold ocean water was shocking to the Acolyte’s senses, but as the Priest did not acknowledge it in any way, he remained silent and still.
After a few moments, the Priest leaned down and drew four hooked lines that bent away from the dotted circle, which remained in the center of all the possible paths. He then turned his attention back to the Acolyte and pointed at the figure in the sand. “Tell me what this represents.”
“The point of decision, Master.”
“And what is the point of decision?”
“The point of decision is the Will poised at a fork in the Path,” said the Acolyte.
The Priest again looked out at the limitless ocean. “Now watch.”
As he said this, the surf came in again and rose a few feet higher up the beach than it had previously and swept past where the two men sat. As the water receded, the figure drawn in the sand was made flat and smooth by the inexorably shifting sands being dragged back out to sea by the tide.
The Priest nodded at the now empty space between him and the Acolyte. “The tide of time has negated your decision, the result of your Will and, hence, your momentary life. What will you do?”
The Acolyte paused for an instant, then reached down and drew a new circle in the sand between them, and added a dot in the center. He then quoted the Way without being prompted. “The self may be extinguished, but there are many selves and the Will creates them.”
“Very good.” The Priest smiled but did not speak further. He reached forward and again drew the hooked lines indicating the paths were converging on the figure drawn by the Acolyte. The he sat back and stroked his beard, waiting.
The Acolyte sat in silence waiting for the Priest to speak as the smell of salt filled his nose and the sound of the ever closer surf filled his ears. Then, a small wave soaked his legs and he saw the water cover the design he had drawn in the sand and recede, leaving a smooth surface in its wake.
“Again,” said the Priest.
The Acolyte complied and drew the circle and dot in the sand again, and again the Priest silently drew the lines of the Path. The Acolyte sat with his back straight, breathing deeply and slowly, waiting for the tide to come in.
After another minute, the water returned, rising slightly higher on the Acolyte’s legs and again erased the figure in the sand.
He looked at the Priest, who nodded and said, “Again.”
The Acolyte did as he was told and the Priest added his lines. When that figure had been erased by the tide, the Acolyte repeated the process an additional six times at the behest of the Priest. Each time, the incoming tide erased his work.
Then the Priest stood up and smiled at the Acolyte. “I think you have seen enough to understand. Let us go back to the Seminary and have some breakfast.”
The Acolyte stood, his cold and aching legs threatening for a moment not to support him. “Yes, Master.”
The two men, the bottom halves of their robes sodden and dripping, began to walk back toward the City and the relative comfort of the Seminary. After they had walked ten paces, the Acolyte heard the tide come in again. He turned around and looked back to the place where he and the Priest had been sitting and watched the foaming surf recede, leaving a smooth and unblemished stretch of beach in its wake.
S.R. Hardy is a poet, fiction writer, and translator whose work has previously appeared in venues such as Northern Traditions, Eunoia Review, Death Head Grin, Eternal Haunted Summer, and The Shining Cities: An Anthology of Pagan Science Fiction. He is currently at work on a variety of translations, poems, and stories. In addition, he blogs at http://anarcheologos.com
a story by
Nick gazed out the window of Gemini Deck on the Big Lift, searching for the tether that attached it to Earth. Clouds swirled over the ocean, where the coastline emerged as a gentle brush stroke. But the Earth was too bright, and the tether too thin, for him to see it. He could only trust that it was still there.
Just a week before, Nick was at home on the Florida panhandle. He had flown to the Lift only yesterday. Now he was floating in an indoor garden inside an elevator above the atmosphere, halfway to the Jefferson space colony. Flowers and bushes were sticking out of the wall. He ached from the airplane seats, the drawer he slept in, the padded walls he’d hit while floating. He still wasn’t used to the weightlessness. The bars mounted on and between the walls were the only way to move or stop.
He had dreamed of riding the Lift his whole life, yet he hadn’t expected it to be so lonely. His parents had arranged the trip as a once-in-a-lifetime birthday present. Unfortunately, they could afford only two tickets, one each for him and his mother. And it wasn’t the same without Dad or Perry. If they were here, they’d have the time of their lives. They could play games in Turbo Deck, check out the exhibit on Crystal Deck, or just goof around in zero gravity throughout the Lift. It could have been a blast.
Nick finished the cereal bar he’d bought at the cafeteria on Galaxy Deck, and breathed in the scent of the flowers that filled Gemini.
A boy about his age floated up next to him. He wore baggy clothes and had hair that flared out everywhere. He pointed out the window. “I can see my house from here.”
Nick smirked. “Very funny. I’m Nick, what’s your name?”
The boy turned, and bugged his eyes out. “Nick? No way, it’s really you. It’s me, Michael. I can’t believe you’re here.”
Nick took a second look. “Michael? Michael Shand? My god, it’s been forever! What are you doing here? I mean, here, of all places!”
Michael glanced out the window. “I’m going up to see my dad. He lives up on Jefferson now.”
“Who’d have thought he’d end up there?” Nick let himself hang off the wall. “My cousins live up there, too. Haven’t seen them in two years, but my mom’s taking me up for my birthday.”
“Dude, happy birthday. Should’ve got you something.”
“Because of course you knew I’d be here,” Nick said. “What about your mom?”
Michael rolled his eyes. “She still hates his guts. I’m lucky I made it this far.”
Nick remembered their divorce, and cringed. The Shands would fight any time, any place, no matter who was watching. It was a wonder they never killed each other.
“At least you still get to see him,” Nick said. “How’ve things been since you moved?”
“Not too bad. I have a brother now. His dad’s an airline pilot, married my mom last year.”
“Can’t wait to meet them. Wanna hang out?”
“Sounds good.” Michael glanced at the wrapper in Nick’s hand. “Where’d you get that? I’m starving.”
“Oh, it’s Galaxy Deck, right under us. I’ll show you.” Nick tugged on the handle and launching himself downward, then grabbed another one beside the corridor to Galaxy Deck. Michael caught up, and they went through.
A window spread across the opposite wall, displaying a glowing panorama of Earth. There were tables and chairs on both floor and ceiling. The sight still made Nick a little dizzy. He navigated slowly toward the vending machine using the bars that crossed the room.
Michael floated behind, twisting around with no way to stop. Nick waited, and grabbed Michael’s collar, and straightened him up. Michael laughed. “Still not used to this.” He looked at the selection on the screen, and ordered a cinnamon roll. “Hey, Nick, got any money?”
“You didn’t bring any?”
“I’m out of cash, and I left my card in the room. What about you, when did you get so greedy?”
“I didn’t–you can use mine, okay?” Nick dug his card out of his wallet and swiped it. The machine fed the roll through the slot.
Michael slapped Nick on the shoulder. “Come on, just messing with you.”
They snagged a table, and strapped themselves into the chairs.
Nick heard his mom’s voice. She was waving at him from a corridor on the side, coming in from Bright Deck. She pulled herself out, pushed herself off the poles, and flew toward the table. Michael snorted with laughter as she dogpaddled through the air. Nick had tried to tell her weightlessness didn’t work that way.
She stopped on a pole, straightened herself out, and adjusted her hair. “Lord, this zero gravity–it’s a miracle I haven’t broken something yet.”
“Good morning to you, too,” Nick said.
“Who’s your friend?”
“It’s Michael. You remember Michael Shand, right?”
Michael waved. “How’s it going, Mrs. Tallier?”
Her eyes flickered. “Of course I remember you. Look at you, you used to be so tiny. Your mother must have such a handful. How is she, anyway?”
“Doing okay. Got married.”
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it. Are they around?”
Michael glanced at the corridor. “I think they’re still in bed. We had a long trip.”
“So did we,” Nick’s mom said. “I hope I see them later. Nick, can you get me some Pop Tarts, and some orange juice?”
“Fine.” Nick didn’t feel like fighting it. She gave him five dollars, then he unbuckled and went back to the vending machine.
When he returned, she was, naturally, talking about him. “Oh, Nick cried all day after you left. I could hardly do anything.”
“Here you go, Mom,” Nick groaned, and passed along her breakfast.
“Don’t be so embarrassed. It’s true, isn’t it?” She opened the Pop Tart packet as the bottle twirled in front of her.
Michael grinned. “Don’t cry for me, Nicky. I’m just fine.”
“Shut up,” Nick said.
“So what are you up to today?” his mother said.
“We were just about to leave. Right, Michael?”
“Sure,” Michael said. “Let’s check out the arcade.”
“Got your phone?” Nick’s mom said.
“Right here.” Nick tapped his pocket.
His mom grabbed the bottle and popped the cap. “Have fun.”
Michael was still grinning when he and Nick reached Gemini. “She hasn’t changed a bit.”
“What about you?” Nick said. “When was the last time you saw your dad?”
They turned toward the Spark Deck corridor. Michael counted on his fingers. “About five years ago.”
“Five years?” Nick turned, and kept turning, and spun through the corridor, into the fitness room on Spark Deck. Treadmills, ellipticals, and rowing machines whirled around him, and he had no idea which way was what.
Michael snatched him, pulled him to the wall, and grabbed a handle. “You okay?”
“No.” Nick felt his breakfast climb up his throat.
Michael hopped from handle to handle, holding Nick behind him like a banner.
When they reached Turbo Deck, Nick wrapped himself around a pole to breathe and let his breakfast settle. Michael drifted around to explore. Every wall was divided into cells, each with a different game, and Michael peered into each one. Nick felt better by the time Michael came back and took Nick to an empty cell with an augmented reality ping-pong table. Nick swiped his card, and a slot opened in the wall. He took out the paddles and goggles, and passed a set to Michael.
Before they could start, Nick’s phone rang. He drew to a corner. “Hey, Mom. What’s up?”
“Nick, is Michael still with you?”
“Yeah, he’s right here. Why?”
“I just called his mother. She never changed her number, so I thought I’d say hi. Do you know where she is?”
“Oklahoma. She says he ran away a week ago, hasn’t seen him since. I’ve never heard anybody so frantic.”
Nick stared at Michael, noticed his nervous tapping on his paddle, his eyes darting all around. Was that really something Michael would do? Was this really the same kid who would spend days with Nick playing on the beach, or whole nights gazing up at the stars? The same one who would let Nick come over any time to play games just like this? Was he really someone who would run off into outer space on his own?
Michael’s eyes caught Nick’s. “Sometime this century,” he said.
“What should I do?” Nick whispered into the phone.
He heard his mother sigh. “Listen, he might be a stowaway. I hate to ask you to do this, but can you bring him down here? He needs to tell her he’s safe, and we need to keep him out of trouble.”
“Sure, I’ll be there soon.” Nick closed the call.
“Got you on a tight leash, huh?” Michael put on his goggles.
“Sure.” Nick wondered what to say, whether Michael would come along or do something drastic, and what would drive Michael to try and do this. He’d mentioned his father…
Michael watched him with an impatient scowl.
“Sorry,” Nick said, putting on his goggles. “Let’s play.” He clicked a button on the paddle that made a small white ball and a score counter appear over the table. He served.
And he could not focus. His worry yanked on his arms, pulled his eyes away, froze him. He kept thinking about Michael’s mother and his father and the colony and what it must have taken to get here, and it distracted Nick from some easy shots. Michael pounded him in a few minutes.
“You sure you’re okay?” Michael said. “Wanna play something else?”
“Sure.” Nick followed Michael, full of questions, but unable to let them out.
Along the way, Nick got another phone call. “Hello?”
“Nick, are you coming down here or not? Mrs. Shand’s desperate.”
“Uh, sure. Just a minute.” He closed the call.
“What does she want now?” Michael said.
Nick sighed. His heart was a balloon ready to pop. “Michael, I… well…”
“Come on, spit it out.”
“Look, my mom called your mom. We need you to come down and talk to her.”
Michael’s eyes spread open.
“We know you ran away. It’s okay, really. You oughta be able to stay with us until we get to the colony.”
Michael began looking around the deck, as if searching for something.
He kicked himself off the cell wall, then caught a pole and swerved to the corridor into Spark Deck, all before Nick could react.
Nick felt numb. All this time, he had been hoping to hang out with Michael at the colony. He didn’t have to be alone, cut off from people they loved. It would have been fun.
What if Michael was a stowaway? What if he got caught? When would Nick ever see him again?
Taking in a breath of resolve, he jumped out, reaching for the same pole. His fingers slipped, and he had to drift across the deck before he could grab another one. When he did, he clutched it tight and tried to breathe. What now?
First off, he thought, call Mom.
He dialed her up, biting his lip, dreading the way her voice would stab him in the ear when he told.
“Bad news,” he said. “I tried to talk to him, and he ran off.”
“Ran off? Where is he?”
“If I knew I’d tell you.” He looked toward the Spark Deck corridor, wondering how far Michael could have gone. “Let me look for him, okay?”
His mom groaned. “Call me when you find him. I’ll be in the cafeteria.”
“Sure thing.” He hung up, turned himself around, and aimed for the corridor. After taking a few deep breaths, he kicked himself off, and flew straight through.
The deck made him just as dizzy as before, as left and right refused to stop moving. He caught a treadmill to stop himself; the girl running on it goggled at him, and he gave her an awkward grin before he pushed back to the wall, where he caught a bar. From there, he climbed along the wall, keeping his head down.
When he reached the next corridor, he risked a look through the whole deck. He had to turn away after only a few seconds; but he could tell Michael was not here.
He wasn’t in Gemini, either. Nick went to the same window where they had met up, and scanned every tree and flower bed. Other than the cafeteria and the bedrooms, that left Crystal Deck, above him.
It was a gallery on the history of space travel, depicted in statues, dioramas, and holograms. In the center was a glass column, with a miniature of the Big Lift crawling from one end to the other. It was tiny, and had come a long way on a very long thread.
Nick spotted Michael up in the corner, staring out a window, toward the Earth. His throat tightened as he approached. “Michael,” he said.
Michael turned, and only now did Nick notice the bags under his eyes.
“It’s okay,” Nick said. “What’s going on?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I might have a few ideas. How’d you even get here on your own?”
“A fake ID, a credit card, and so much planning,” Michael said. “I have a cabin, but as far as the crew knows, I’m a nineteen-year-old named Gary.” He gazed out the window. “I’m sorry I ran off. As soon as you mentioned my mom, I panicked.”
“What’s going on?”
Michael groaned, rubbed his face. “Well, first she married that pilot, who hates me, and got me that stepbrother, who hates me even more. Then I found–” He balled his fists and shook. “I found my dad’s letters. Turned out he’d been writing to me for years. They were all stashed in the attic.”
“And nobody ever told you?”
“No. I mean, he was never the best dad, but he was still my dad. And I miss him.”
Nick thought about his dad back home, how empty this trip had felt without him. “Why don’t you stick with us? I’m sure my mom can help.”
“Sure, until we get to the colony. Then you’ll have to send me straight home, ’cause if you don’t, my mom would make sure you regret it. Especially if it means I get to see Dad. She’ll probably have you two charged with kidnapping, or something. You know what my mom’s like. She once called the cops on a neighbor’s barbecue because she didn’t like the music.”
Nick pictured Mrs. Shand breathing fire over this, and cringed. What was he supposed to do?
His phone rang. “Mom?”
“Nick, please tell me you found him.”
He took a long look at Michael. They had barely spent an hour together, and already it seemed as distant as their childhood. Nick felt as though no matter what, he would lose his best friend all over again.
At the same time, Michael deserved to see his father.
“Sorry,” Nick said. “Can’t find him. Must have gotten away.”
Michael perked his head.
Nick’s mother groaned. “Mrs. Shand’s going to be furious.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. Just slippery, I guess.”
He heard his mother sigh. “Can you come back down here?”
“Sure. Be there in a minute.”
She said goodbye, and they hung up.
“Holy crap,” Michael said.
“I know. I can’t believe I did it, either.” Nick wiped sweat off his forehead. “Think you’ll be safe till we get there?”
“I can lie low in my room. Maybe we’ll run into each other on the colony.”
“I’ll keep an eye out,” Nick said. “But just in case we don’t, good luck.”
“Thanks a lot, man.” Michael gave him one final hug. “I dunno what I’d do without you.” Michael flew off toward Turbo Deck, and turned and waved on the way out. Nick waved back, and went through Gemini to Galaxy Deck.
His mother was hanging up her phone when he arrived. “Mrs. Shand again. She won’t stop calling.” She sighed. “What am I supposed to tell her?”
Nick shrugged. “I looked everywhere.”
His mother stared at him for a moment, and a shiver crept up his spine. Had she figured him out?
She let out a heavy groan. “Come here.” When he did, she wrapped her arms around him. “Nick, I love you, and your father loves you, and Perry loves you, and I wish more than anything that we could all be together right now.”
“I love you, too,” Nick said.
She let him go, and he strapped himself into a seat. “I think he’ll be okay. He made it this far.”
His mother gave him that stare again. “But why would he do it?”
He felt that shiver again. “Well, he did mention something about his dad being up there.”
The stare in his mom’s eyes changed, as if no longer aimed at him, as if somehow, she were staring at Mrs. Shand. “She never mentioned that.” She leaned back. “We should look his father up when we get there, make sure he knows what’s going on.”
His mother stretched her arms. “God, the stress. You want to go look around the Lift?”
“Sure,” Nick said, hoping Michael was out of sight.
His mother unbuckled herself, and let herself float out of her seat. Her head turned toward the window. “Look, you can see the tether.”
Nick looked. “I see it.”
It was like a hair, barely glinting over the surface of the Earth, a clear line, pointing the way back home.
a story by
Scathe meic Beorh
A long time ago, in Britain, there was a wicked man called Jack. He was a thief, and a murderer of children. Jack was never happy to only take from others what was not his to take. No, he did more than that. He took children from their homes and sold them as slaves. When the children Jack stole away could not move as fast as he said for them to move—because they were sad or maybe sick—he would slit their throats with his knife and toss their bodies into the woods.
One bright, crisp day Jack was resting under an apple tree, enjoying the sunshine and birdsongs, when somebody tapped him on the shoulder. When Jack turned his head, he was astonished to see a brawny, half-naked man standing there with goat horns sprouting from his head. Ach! The Devil himself! thought Jack.
“Come along, Jack,” said the Devil. “Your way of life has been giving even me a bad name with your child-murdering ways! I want my work on Earth done smoother than all that, so I can gather more disciples. More flies are collected with honey than with vinegar, boy! And now I am collecting you! Get your bag. You’re coming with me.”
Jack, quick of mind, realized who he was up against. Being a crafty fellow, and he gazed up into the apple tree and said, “Alright then, sir. But before we go, could I have that last apple hanging up there? I bet it’s a long trip to where we’re headed, and I’m hungry. We can share it if you like.”
In truth, high up in the tree hung a bright red apple. Jack’s request seemed to be a reasonable one. So the Devil scrambled up the tree to get the fruit. With a quickness, Jack pulled his knife and carved a ‘Star of Solomon’ on the trunk of the tree, thus trapping the Devil up in the tree limbs.
“Ha! You thought you had me, didn’t you, old man?” said Jack. “Now I’ve got you! Stay in that tree and rot!” And off he rambled, chuckling to himself.
Now, it would be nice to say that, in meeting the Devil himself, Jack had learned his lesson. But he didn’t. He murdered more children after that than ever before.
Years passed, and Jack died. When he realized what had happened to him, he said, “I believe I’ll make a journey to the Bright Land.” But when Jack arrived, the warrior at the gate stopped him.
“Jack! What are you doing here?” said the guardian. “You were told of Christ and His transforming power an abundance of times throughout your life, and you only scoffed at the good news every time you heard it. You cannot come into the Fellowship of the Saints, for not only do you have no soul, but you don’t even have a conscience!”
Jack, deeply saddened that he had not listened to the message of the Cross of Jesus as he should have, wandered off, searching for the soul he lost in his childhood. Eventually, he found his way down to Hell. When Jack asked the demon at the gate for entrance, the Devil himself came out.
“You!” said the Devil. “You soulless good-for-nothing scoundrel! You trapped me in that apple tree for three long years, until the bark grew back over that symbol you carved there! Do you even realize what your stupid trick allowed Saint Patrick to accomplish in Ireland during my absence? Idiot! What do you want down here in Hell?”
“I have nowhere else to go,” said Jack as he placed his hand on his head in uncertainty as he had when he was little and his own daddy threatened him and beat him until he bled.
“Oh, no you don’t!” said the Devil, who was looking every second more and more like his daddy. “You come to my house and ask to come in after how you treated me? Go away! I have no use for you, stupid boy!”
“Where am I to go then?” said Jack, beginning to weep.
“You can go to Nether Gloom for all I care! Get out of here! Why don’t you go and look for your soul you lost as a child! That’ll give you something to do!”
So Jack wandered off into the Nether Gloom that is found between the worlds, feeling more lonesome and dejected than he ever had before. There were terrible things living there in the blackness and freezing cold. Unclean spirits wandered there, and ghoulish things, and unspeakable things that should be forgotten forever. They grabbed at Jack with their claws and bit him with their fangs and tore at his clothes until they were nothing but shards hanging from his tired body.
One evening before All Hallows Day, as Jack sat lonely and sad, feeling like his mind was about to be pulled into shreds, a gentle spirit passed by. This spirit, seeing Jack, took pity on him as he sat there alone in the darkness. She plucked a turnip from the field next to where he sat. Borrowing his knife, she hollowed the vegetable out, carved a face, and put a candle inside it.
“Here, Jack,” she said as she handed him the glowing lamp. “This lantern shall light your way through every darkness. It shall protect you between the worlds and beyond, until such time the Lord God may have mercy on your lost soul, and mayhap bring you yet into His kingdom. Jack, as it stands now, you are not important enough for even the wind to pick up and carry along. Christ have mercy on you, as well as the children in their prayers for you.”
Jack did not understand what the spirit meant about the children and their prayers, but he remembered every one of the little ones he had hurt and murdered in life, and these memories filled him with such grief that if he had not already been dead, he would have died of a broken heart.
After a while sitting there and crying, Jack took his turnip lantern and continued to wander. He walked around in Nether Gloom, and over the Earth, and through other worlds, and all over Time itself. He saw many frightening and dreadful things as he traveled, but the turnip lantern protected him from every evil that tried to rip him asunder… but never from the earnest prayers of children who heard his sad story, dressed up in torn clothes like him, begged for ‘soul cakes’ in their prayers for him, and carried their own lanterns to help Jack find his lost soul.
Suzie Wants To Know The Truth
a story by
Soap bubbles foam around Suzie’s hands as she washes the cup, the small plate and the big plate from her dinner last night. Some of the bubbles take off and drift around her in the sun-warmed air, reflecting the world outside and multiplying the kitchen cabinets, the chairs, the table with the orange globe above it, and the phone on the wall. The phone on the wall. Suzie’s heart skips. They should call her today, tomorrow at the latest.
The phone makes a short, whirring sound as if it is about to ring, and trying not to make noise with the dishes, Suzie waits to see if it will. When it doesn’t, she unplugs the sink and reaches for the towel on the stove door. The towel takes the bubbles away from her hands, and color and sparkle turn into wet spots on the worn-out material.
Suzie smiles an inward smile. What amuses her, even in the midst of self-pity and dread, is the irony of it. Is her wish for escape going to be granted finally, ten years later, when completely forgotten, the bitter taste left in her mouth from the sleeping pills gone, and when all she is looking forward to is the summer vacation and her painting class.
Suzie wants to be brave. She has been brave for three days already. Can she do it for a bit longer? For as long as it takes? She doubts it. The waiting is becoming impossible to bear, the wading through the fog of her days harder and harder. She may need to talk to her sister. She starts in the direction of the phone, but it looks so bloated with bad news that she cannot make herself touch it. She decides to walk; her sister lives only a few blocks away.
Suzie goes to the entry closet and rummages through her shoes. The shelf has given way, and all the shoes are piled on the bottom. She untangles one of her favorite sandals and looks in the pile for its pair, in the meantime stepping into the shoe she has just taken out. Her foot slips out to the side, and Suzie almost loses her balance. She picks the shoe up and looks at it. The upper part of the sandal, woven from straw-like material, has been cut through with what seems like a sharp knife. The cut has been made on the outer side, close to the sole. Suzie turns the sandal in her hands, wondering how this could have happened, then she drops it aside and pulls out a pair of rubber flip-flops, bright blue and easy to find in the pile. Each of them has its straps cut off the same way. She searches the pile and looks at shoe after shoe that is mutilated, damaged, impossible to wear.
“Father!” she cries, and her father opens the living-room door as if he has been waiting for her call, the paper in one of his hands, his eyes big and moist behind his reading glasses. “Has anyone been here? Eileen maybe? With the kids?”
He takes his glasses off to take a better look at her as she sits on the floor surrounded by her useless shoes, her face distraught to a degree he doesn’t seem to understand but doesn’t question. “I have nothing to wear. What am I going to do?” Suzie whines, and she knows she is whining but cannot help it.
Her father goes back to his room without saying a word and closes the door behind him. He comes back in a minute holding a hundred-dollar bill, which he gives to her. Then, he is gone again to the safety of his armchair.
Pressure builds up behind Suzie’s eyelids. She rubs her temples until it hurts. “How about a bit of self-control?” she asks herself. “How about you leave Eileen out of this?” After a few minutes, she feels ready and stands up.
She drives, still barefooted, to the mall and buys a pair of slip-ons. The shoes are a pearl-rose color that will go well with the new dress she is going to wear tonight for the end of the school year dance, but not so well with the summer dress she has on. Then, she drives to the campus—she has things to do there and she wants to have lunch in the cafeteria. She likes the cream pies they have and the spicy pockets with feta cheese.
It is already half-past one, but there is a long queue, students, professors, even parents, lined up for a last meal before the summer takes them away to their small towns, suburbia, second homes, Paris, the mountains, wherever. Suzie takes a tray and waits her turn. No one comes after her, she is the last one in the queue. The food they have today is better than usual, she can see that when she looks at the other people’s trays. Arugula sandwiches, stuffed peppers, crème brulée. When her turn comes, only some of the stuffed peppers are left, and there are no more clean plates at the line. The three women behind the counter turn their backs on her and start cleaning and tidying the kitchen. She waits for them to notice her, but they don’t. “Hello, hi there…no more clean plates.” “What? Ah, we just loaded the dishwashers, there isn’t a single plate left. Sorry.” “What about the crème brulée?” “What about it? It’s gone.” “But I see some over there.” Suzie points at the inside shelves where the crème brulée crinkles its sugary, golden-yellow crust in ovenproof, individual bowls. One of the women comes to the window and closes it in front of her face, without further explanation. Suzie lifts her hand halfway to the window, and stays like that, giddy with confusion, not knocking, her hand in the air, a little tic pulling the corner of her upper lip.
The tower clock downtown chimes two times. The sound is clear and sharp like a thorn, and it startles Suzie into motion. She wanders out still holding the tray until she reaches the first benches and leaves it there.
The campus is like a ghost town. No people, no moving cars, only a few parked in the vast, empty parking lots. Abandoned bicycles line the buildings’ entries, or are chained to lampposts and trees. It is like that every summer. The students depart in haste and leave their bicycles behind. On the first day of school, the unclaimed ones will be offered in an auction. Suzie glances wistfully at a bright red, foldable bicycle, and goes through her to-do list where two items wait to be crossed out. She returns the key for the biology lab in the administration office, leaves a memo for her adviser on the door of his office, and reads the messages on the board. It’s still two-thirty. She goes to the library, where she picks a Spanish magazine to read, checking in the dictionary every word she is not familiar with. She does that until it’s time to go home and get ready for tonight.
Suzie barely knows the boy who will take her to the dance. He has beautiful hands, long, with delicate fingers like the hands of a piano player. She will ask him if he plays an instrument if she goes out with him a second time. He shows up at her house with a bottle of inexpensive champagne he says she doesn’t need to open now—it’s a present for her. She insists, however, and they drink it from glasses that had been too long in the cupboard and give the champagne a faint dusty flavor. He drinks very little, he will be driving, so she finishes her glass, then his, and pours the rest in her water bottle to take along. The plastic bottle expands from the carbonation, and by the time they reach the campus, is inflated like a balloon. The champagne fizzes and spills out when Suzie opens it, and she drinks quickly, laughing and shaking the excess from her chin and her dress.
Inside, she dances with the boy, with other boys, with two of her professors, and with her friend, Amy, who has had a crush on her since their junior year. The boy wants to take her home around eleven, but she refuses, she wants to dance until midnight. He says he is glad she is having such a good time. When he drops her off, he doesn’t want to come in, he will call her tomorrow. Not tomorrow, she says, tomorrow is not good, the end of the week should be better.
The next morning, Suzie wakes up on a soft, feathery cloud, surrounded by apple blossoms and blazing blue sky. The peaceful feeling she brought out of her sleep is still with her, a drowsy happiness that could only be experienced at the brim of awakening. She accepts what she sees without questioning it. The apple blossoms seem frozen in space, not a petal moves or trembles, and their stillness gives the impression of a deeper but forged third dimension like in a holograph. There is a cluster of blossoms no more than six inches away from Suzie’s eyes, and she examines them closely. The ones that are fully open are pure white, the buds have a tint of pink on the edges. She wants to smell them, even though the fragrance is all around her, she has felt it seeping into her dreams all night. She reaches to bring the twig closer and the shift of weight upsets her cloud. Fully awake now, she moves back to firmer ground.
She is on the apple tree that grows behind their townhouse. Someone had built a platform between the branches for the kids to play on. Last night, she brought her down comforter here and fell asleep watching the stars. Her dress is probably all wrinkled now. Suzie wishes she were still sleeping among the flowering branches, breathing the sweet smell and believing she was in heaven. She closes her eyes and tries to make herself comfortable again, but moves the wrong way and almost rolls off the platform. A wonder she has made it through the night without falling down.
At least her shoes must be safe here. No one could have climbed the tree without waking her. She sits up carefully and searches the folds of the comforter for her shoes. Her heart sinks as she pulls them out one by one. They have been cut the same way as her other shoes. Sharp, clean cuts close to the soles. She falls back into her makeshift bed, hugs the shoes close to her chest, and turns on her side, curling around them. Now the view through the branches is no longer the bright blue sky, but the thinly grassed open space behind their building.
The trees on the other side look peculiar. They have never been that close or that dense or that old and gnarled. Now they are dark and looming, with shaggy curtains of moss draping their limbs. The artificial pond in front of them has turned into a bog. The bog, in the shadows of the trees, is so overgrown that it takes Suzie a moment to notice the two old women sitting in the murky water. For some reason they have taken their clothes off. The skin on their forearms is loose and their empty breasts hang to their waists. Their features are strange. One of them is bold and her head reminds Suzie of a straw mushroom with its shape and color, and with the gray peelings on the sides. The other one has the pasty skin of someone dredged out of the deep. The first woman is seated deeper in the water, and the second one is behind her standing or sitting on higher ground so they seem stacked behind each other like cards from some obscure tarot deck.
Suzie moves aside the branches and looks at the women. She hopes they will go away. They look back, unblinking and expressionless.
“What is happening to me?” Suzie cries so they can hear her in the distance. “Who is depriving me of shoes to wear, of food to eat? Tell me.”
The women gain an air of satisfaction about them as if they got something long waited for. “She wants to know the truth. She wants to know the truth,” they chant, their voices old and cracking and full of mockery. The one behind pulls something from the water and starts smacking it against the tree on their left in time with the chanting. Suzie can see what has been brought out of the water with clarity and in the finest of details. It is a skinless fish. The blood vessels on its body are bright red against the gray of its flesh. The mouth with sharp, pointed teeth is opening and closing. The big, frenzied eye makes rounds in its socket. The bark of the tree is deeply cut and ragged, and the fish makes a loud slapping sound when it is brought against it.
Suzie gags and starts to cry. Not letting go of her pretty, ruined shoes, she slides down the trunk of the apple tree. Just in time she notices Mrs. Pelham, the lady that takes care of the grounds, who is sweeping the pavement and the stairs on the side of the building.
“Good morning, Suzie,” Mrs. Pelham calls out. “Did you sleep in the tree house? Nice dress you have. Put your shoes on, you’ll catch a cold like that.”
“Yes, Mrs. Pelham. I will. Good morning to you, too.”
Finally, Suzie is around the corner. Loud sobs shake her whole body. She needs to talk to her sister. She will do it right now. She runs past the first and the second entryways, then past the third one where she lives with her father, and where the phone will ring any moment now. The townhouses with their columned porches and flowerpots with geraniums and pansies waver in front of her eyes as if the whole street has gone underwater and she is watching it from a submarine window.
Suzie cannot stop crying. The air is becoming salty and sparse. Soon there won’t be enough to breathe.
The Air Serpent
a story by
GENTLEMEN: The report which I now have the honor to submit to your honorable body is so extraordinary, and deals with facts so difficult to prove—beyond my own mere word and the records of my barograph which indicate the approximate height reached by my machine—that it is with much trepidation that I now appear before you. In presenting to you the results of my recent exploration of the upper ether, and the mysterious disappearance of my late mechanic, John Aid, of which cognizance has already been taken by the police, I realize that I am taxing the limit of credulity; yet before passing final judgment upon the extraordinary narrative I am about to place before you, let me call your attention to the fact that my record hitherto in the annals of aviation has been a story of unquestioned achievements, of daring which has often been characterized as reckless, and of an earnest and constant effort to discover new truths in that wonderful air world which has been opened up to exploration through the recent development of the aeroplane.
I cannot refrain, also, from reminding your learned body that pioneers in all fields of endeavor suffer martyrdom from the unthinking and the unbelieving. Half a century ago, a ribald rhymster mocked at Darius Green and his flying machine; yet within the brief space of half-a-dozen years, the perfect aeroplane expresses of to-day have been evolved before our very eyes. Even last year, when a new world’s altitude record of 16,374 feet was established by the lamented Renegal, your sub-committee on altitude adopted a resolution that the limit of attainment in the upper ether had been reached; yet less than two months after, Santuza, the daring Spanish aviator, flying his 200-horse-power Mercadio tri-plane with the improved ailerons, reached the incredible height of 23,760 feet, when the ink in his barograph ran out and refused to register a greater height, although Santuza is of the belief that he climbed almost 1,000 feet higher.
To pause for a moment from the subject nearest our hearts, let me only speak for a moment of the derision and ridicule heaped upon Columbus when he planned his first voyage; of the insults and scorn directed at Galileo; or of the thousands of martyrs in the realm of science, invention and discovery who, at first denounced as fakers and preposterous humbugs, were proven after a lapse of time to have been honest, sincere and truthful in their claims.
Bearing these facts of history in mind, permit me to present herewith a brief, accurate and truthful account of all that happened during my recent ascent when, with the aid of John Aid, my invaluable and greatly mourned mechanic, I established an altitude record which I do not believe will ever be exceeded, if indeed it is reached by other aviators within our time. For not only are the difficulties such that our machines will have to be improved in some miraculous manner to go higher, but there are living, breathing obstacles to further exploration of the upper ether which will make all such experiments extremely hazardous, and probably fatal, to even the most venturesome aviator. For I have the important announcement to make, almost beyond your powers of belief, that I have discovered that the upper ether is inhabited. This astounding discovery was made simultaneously by me and my mechanic, John Aid, for whom the voyage of exploration brought death in an unprecedented and most deplorable manner. Had not the mysterious creature of the air claimed my poor mechanic as its first earthly victim, he would now be standing here beside me upon this platform, to corroborate my unsupported testimony with his own verbal report of the most extraordinary experience that ever befell mortal man.
As your honorable body well knows, I have secured patents from time to time for improvements in the Gesler engines with which my aeroplanes have been fitted the past two years. By enlarging the plane surface and fitting four blades to each propeller instead of two, I have been enabled to increase the speed record to 97.16 miles per hour, this having been officially accomplished at the July Palm Beach meeting. Having established a new speed record, which I confidently think will stand for some months, I determined to try for new altitude records, but in view of the numerous unfortunate accidents resulting from experiments in the upper ether, I determined to secure safety at all hazards. I therefore reconstructed my last imported Gamier tri-plane so that the improved ailerons invented by Santuza could be applied not only to the main planes, but to the forward controlling and lifting planes as well. This preserved the lateral balance to such a perfect degree that it was easily possible to make a turn in eight seconds in a 25-mile wind, without banking the machine more than 30 degrees. I found, also, that by fitting the new plane with three propellers, three Gesler engines, and three gasoline tanks of ample size, I could feel reasonably certain that my power would not be exhausted without warning, for a single turn of the lever would put any or all of the three engines in operation, singly or together, and if I wished to economize on power, I could climb with only one propeller, holding the others in reserve for possible accidents or in case I wished to combat any of the strong air currents sometimes encountered above the 12,000 foot level.
It was a clear August day, late in the afternoon, when John and a couple of hangers-on wheeled the big tri-plane out of the hangar at Belmont Park, the beautiful Long Island aviation ground where aerial history has been made in the past two years. Both John and I were determined that before another sun should rise, we would bring back as a trophy from the air a record for altitude that would never be broken. How little we knew at what a price we would succeed, or through what dangers we would pass before I returned to that dear old hangar where we had chummed together and experimented so much.
I was determined to go after the record at nightfall, because’ so far above the clouds the sun’s rays prove a trifle too glaring. It was undoubtedly the tremendous light from the sun which affected the sight of poor Renegal when his machine fell from a height of 14,800 feet when he tried to exceed his own altitude record at San Francisco. Therefore I determined to do my high flying at night, when the moon was at the quarter and gave just enough light for us to see clearly and distinctly after we had passed from the lower levels.
The gasoline tanks were carefully filled, the engines tested, a supply of light provisions placed in the basket between the two seats, and the oxygen tanks carefully strapped in place on both of us, with the connecting tubes and the helmets under the arms ready to be applied when we had passed the 15,000-foot level into the upper strata where the rarefied air made the oxygen tanks a necessity.
Egerton Brooks, the official secretary of the Montauk Aero Club, personally adjusted the official barograph of the American Aeronautical Society, and sealed it with his own seal.
“I hope you will get the record above 25,000 feet,” he cried, as the mechanics began to start the engines. “It is a new Angiers barograph, adjusted to register up to 50,000 feet, though of course no living thing could attain such an absurd height. You will notice that it is surrounded by cork, so that if you fall into the water, the record will not be injured or lost.”
Giving Brooks a hearty hand-shake and a few words of farewell, I gave the signal and Aid started the middle engine, No. 2.
“You may expect me about midnight,” I cried in farewell. “Keep the beacons burning until then, and if I don’t return you wiU know I have been blown out of my course.”
The great whirring of the propellers drowned further speech. I rang the forward bell, the mechanics let go, and like an eagle the tri-plane sprang aloft.
Forward, upward, over the field, over the grandstand, and ever onward and upward the giant tri-plane mounted. I had tilted the lifting forward planes to 28 degrees, and now started engine No. 1. The added power sent us upward at nearly twice the speed first employed, and in a few seconds the earth below was but a dull, dark, blurred mass, with now and then a faint twinkling from an electric light far below.
The early twilight faded into darkness when we had reached the 3,000 level and I directed Aid, who was looking after the engines behind me, to turn on the electric search-light. The warning came none too soon, for almost as I spoke there was a little fluttering, crashing sound as the machine plunged headlong into a flock of sea gulls which had not noticed our approach.
“Better look at the compass,” shouted Aid. “You are out at sea.”
Brushing two of the dead gulls from the plane at my side, and turning on the pocket electric light which was placed at my left over the map and compass, I soon realized that we had indeed been following a straight course across Long Island and were now probably over the Fire Island light. Shifting the vertical planes in the rear a trifle I set them at 18 degrees, which would mean that the tri-plane would describe great circles approximately ten miles in diameter, as it gradually ploughed upward through the atmosphere.
The earth was now entirely out of sight. In daylight, as all experienced aviators know, the earth becomes practically invisible at the 7,000-foot level, even on a clear day. On cloudy days one is lost to the earth after ascending a few hundred feet. Just as the waiting crowds below at an aviation meeting find it impossible to distinguish even a speck on the horizon ten minutes after a swift machine leaves the earth, so the aviator aloft on his speedy career finds himself absolutely alone in a new world.
The sensation is indescribable. One feels that one has opened up a new territory, discovered a new realm, in which he alone is king. Preserving the balance when thus out of sight of the earth is not as difficult as one might imagine, as the laws of gravitation operate through the unseen space, and one has only to watch the delicate mechanism of the anograph to ascertain whether one is losing the equilibrium of the machine.
Slowly the needle moved round and round on the barograph, steadily registering our ascent. Within the first hour, when darkness had completely shut us off from the rest of the universe, we had passed the 10,000-foot level, which for almost a year in the early days of aviation had been a prize goal for the amateur aviators before the business had been placed :n the firm footing it now enjoys.
Then came the moon. It rose at 9:02 on the 75th meridian, but as we were nearly three miles above the horizon, we saw it much sooner. It seemed reflected in some faint, misty manner by the water which he knew must be far below us, but as we mounted higher and higher, even the faint reflection disappeared.
At 9:37 p.m. Aid leaned over my shoulder and grunted.
“Fifteen thousand feet,” he muttered. “We can do it faster if we use the other engine.”
“No,” I replied. “Hold engine No. 3 for emergencies.”
“Emergencies?” he repeated, with a laugh. “Good Lord, what emergencies can happen now? What? As if the tri-planes are not as safe as an express train or a submarine nowadays.”
I did not argue with him. Aid was noted for his fondness for a controversy. I merely signaled to him to get the oxygen helmets ready, for the increased difficulty of breathing showed me that the rarefied air was fast becoming too thin for us to breathe with comfort. I noticed, too, that our speed seemed to diminish slightly, as the planes found the supporting air becoming thinner and thinner. I fondly reflected, however, that the third engine would remedy this when it became necessary to get more speed to keep aloft on the last leg of our upward climb. However, we were soon inside the oxygen helmets, and once more I could take a long, full breath of life-giving ozone.
The helmets of course made further conversation impossible, but long experience in the higher altitudes had perfected a system of signals between my mechanic and myself which enabled us to carry on a conversation fairly well.
John leaned over my shoulder at 10:38 and pointed to the needle of the barograph. It registered 22,380 feet. He nudged me.
I understood that nudge perfectly. It meant that in less than ten minutes more of climbing, we would have passed the best record of Santuza, officially 23,760 feet, and would have the world’s altitude record within our grasp.
So absorbed were we in watching the barograph that we both neglected the engines, and it was only a miracle that something did not happen when engine No. 2 developed a hot bearing because of lack of oil. I sharply reprimanded John for not attending to such details, and bade him by signals to attend to his business, while I would watch the needle.
Up, around it moved. First it reached the 23,000 mark, then hundred by hundred, ten by ten, it moved on and on. I turned and gave a silent signal of joy when we passed Santuza’s mark. Then I set forward determined to establish a world altitude record that would never be broken. And I succeeded.
It must have been shortly after 11 o’clock when the barograph registered 30,000 feet. This gigantic achievement, nearly six miles away from the earth, higher than the loftiest mountain peak, higher than any balloon had ever floated, should have satisfied us. I deeply regret that we were not content to rest upon these laurels, but with a foolhardiness for which I can never forgive myself, I tried to see how much higher we could go without using the reserve supply of gasoline contained in the tank of engine No. 3—which fortunately, we had not yet started. In fact, I venture the assertion that had it not been for the precaution of providing a third engine neither of us would have been saved from the catastrophe that followed.
Onward, upward, past the 33,000 foot level the sturdy tri-plane, steady as a ship in a calm, continued to forge. When 35,000 was reached I turned and signaled John for his advice. The poor fellow, who didn’t realize how near he was to the end of all earthly things, answered to keep on going. So we went up past the 36,000 foot level.
And then we saw it.
Never to my dying day, gentlemen, will I forget the horror of that moment. Never will I be able to efface from memory the dread picture of that gigantic monster of the air, lazily floating along on the ether, scarcely moving the great, finnish wings with which a wonderful creator had endowed it. Although the cold was almost unendurable, and I had thought myself as nearly frozen as possible, I felt a sudden stiffness permeate my veins and I shook with terror. I felt John grasp my shoulder, his hand shaking as with the palsy, and though neither of us could speak because of the oxygen helmets, we both felt a grim horror which would no doubt have stricken us dumb under any circumstances.
For there, almost in front of us, a trifle to the right, coming in an opposite direction, and gazing at us with mild curiosity and perhaps astonishment, was a gigantic monster, utterly unlike anything I have ever seen before. The light from the electric searchlight cast a weird reflection upon the great creature, and this light, I believe, was one instrument which proved our salvation temporarily, for it struck the giant monster fairly in the eyes, and seemed to blind him.
The monster—or air serpent, for so I must call it—seemed to be about ninety or a hundred feet in length. Its physical structure seemed a cross between a bat and a snake. There were undulating movements as it slowly drifted, together with flapping of the twenty or thirty batlike wings which projected from its sides. The head was enormous, and it was not the head of a bird. Two great eyes, approximately a foot in diameter each, glared and blinked over a cavernous maw which opened and closed spasmodically as the creature breathed. This much we saw, and then as the swift tri-plane shot by almost under the creature’s startled eyes, I felt a sudden blast of hot air which made the tri-plane quiver and tremble for a moment. Then we had passed the creature and had sped forth into the darkness, for the moonlight was very faint.
I felt John grasp me for support. He was trembling. I turned, pointed toward engine No. 3, and at the same time deflected the forward controlling plane to an angle of 20 degrees, determined to make the quickest and yet safest descent on record. I had no desire to get a second look at the monster of the air.
The jarring of the third engine made a terrific noise, but we could not hear it. The stalwart tri-plane shook under the added pressure, and we sprang forward at a speed which I estimated at 80 miles an hour. The needle of the barograph began to settle quickly, as we dropped to the 35,000-foot level.
Suddenly I felt John’s convulsive grasp upon my shoulder. I turned, and he pointed off to the left.
“It’s there, sir,” he cried, as plainly by his signals as though he had spoken out loud.
I looked as he indicated. There, two hundred feet away, following us almost without an effort while we were making 80 miles an hour, was the air serpent.
I shifted the vertical plane sharply to the right and veered off to escape. Almost before I had settled down to a straight course ahead, I felt again that hot, nauseous breath, which I knew came from the giant monster hovering so near us.
John was trembling all over. We were descending fast, for the barograph now registered 33,750, and our course ahead was being made at 80 miles an hour, yet that gigantic, wonderful, monstrous thing seemed able to keep up with us without an effort.
I determined to try strategy. Remembering how the eyes had blinked at the electric searchlight, I suddenly turned a trifle to the left, shifted the searchlight, and struck the creature with it squarely in the eyes.
The air serpent backed off instantly, I turned sharply to the right, extinguished the searchlight as I did so and lowered the forward planes to 25 degrees, a dangerous angle for a descent, as all aviators know, but I was determined to escape from the monster if possible.
But it was futile. Before the barograph showed 30,000 feet, I felt the hot breath again, and this time it came from beneath.
With incredible ingenuity, probably realizing from the changing air pressure that its prey was trying to escape into the lower ether, the monster had placed himself under the aeroplane, and I firmly believe that if I had not suddenly shifted the forward lateral planes to the horizontal, we would have struck the creature from above.
I turned to John, mutely asking advice. He was quivering with fear. And I too began to tremble anew when I realized how completely this mysterious monster of the air had us in his power.
I switched on the searchlight again and aimed it below us. There he was, the giant, undulating, fin-like creature, his sixty wings flapping noiselessly, his hulking, soft, snaky body moving forward without an effort, and the great head and the cavernous maw turned upward as if it had not yet determined what manner of bird or beast this was which had invaded the upper realms where this creature alone seemed able to exist.
I turned the plane sharply to the right, and keeping the searchlight pointing downward, shifted the forward planes again for a descent. It was our only chance and we had to take it.
But the enemy was vigilant and ever-watchful. It followed us curiously to the 25,000-foot level. Then it evidently became oppressed by the thickness of the atmosphere, and decided we had gone far enough. With a quick, sudden lashing of the fins, it dived under us, the hot breath again making the planes tremble, and loomed up straight ahead. In another moment we would have struck it had I not tilted the vertical planes sharply to the left. I turned completely around in less than three seconds, the quickest turn on record, I believe, but while the strain on the ailerons was terrific, the tri-plane held on its course.
But we could not escape the enemy. The giant monster merely gave about two jumps, and with incredible speed, repeated the maneuver. Once more I jammed the wheel sharply to the right, and once more the ailerons creaked as the strain of the sudden turn almost tore them loose.
Then came the catastrophe. The next time the monster leaped before us I flashed the searchlight into its great wicked eyes. It blinked and ducked, and in an instant we had passed over it.
I firmly believe that John Aid expected me to execute another sharp tarn. Perhaps he leaned too far over in an effort to help maintain the balance. Perhaps fear and the terror took possession of his heart, and he thought the end was near anyhow. Whether he fell or jumped from his seat I know not, but when I turned my head the instant after we had passed the creature, I realized that I was alone.
I swung about instantly, and felt an ominous snap about the ailerons under the terrific strain of the turn, but fortunately all held. Then I directed the searchlight downward, and what I saw by the brilliant dashing rays I shall never forget.
There, three hundred feet below me, I saw the giant monster of the air, his great maw pointing upward. A dark object hurtled through the air, falling like a stone. It passed the startled gaze of the air serpent and fell into space below. Quicker than I can speak the words the monster darted downward after the falling object. Sick with horror, scarcely able to work the controlling levers, I saw by the faint, flickering rays of the archlight, down below, the monster suddenly pause in its mad dash. It had caught the falling object and swallowed it in its maw.
How I reached the lower levels I know not. My arms worked the planes automatically, the terrific descent was made in thirty minutes, and sometime about midnight I landed on the sandy beach of the south shore of Long Island near Montauk Point. Too weak to remove the oxygen helmet, which fortunately was charged for twelve hours, I lay there in a daze. About five o’clock some fishermen found me and aided in removing the helmet. The tri-plane, slightly injured by its sudden contact with the beach, was taken apart and shipped back to New York, and I personally brought the barograph, still sealed as I thought, to the rooms of the Montauk Aero Club. There a cruel disappointment awaited me, for it appears that the shock of landing broke the seal, and the record, while perfectly clear, could not be accepted as official without the official seal showing that it had not been tampered with.
I made a preliminary report on the extraordinary adventure to the newspaper reporters, and notified the police of the accident to my mechanic, but only to meet with such ridicule that I speedily decided to delay my report for careful reflection and consideration. The accepted version of the death of John Aid is that he dropped into the ocean, but gentlemen, I have made here my report, and in view of my hitherto unquestioned word, I believe I have the right to demand that it be accepted as authentic. Some day a venturesome air-man will penetrate to the upper levels, five miles from the earth, and discover new evidence to corroborate my unsupported word. And then, gentlemen, the world will realize that just as in the farthest depths of the sea, there are strange monsters we have never seen, so in the thin upper strata of air there are tenuous creatures living in a world of their own, which we have never seen.
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