Looking for beta readers for my next novel

My next novel, a standalone horror story about a lost town in the desert tentatively titled The Drying, is currently in the motions of editing and revision. No, that is not the cover. I made that cover in Canva in five minutes. I don’t have a cover yet or a professional editor. I’m still undecided on whether I want to seek traditional representation for this one, or self-publish.

This is my third full-length novel. It is much closer to Lurk than it is to Corruption in style and content. The characters are less unlikable than my last books, which is a big departure for me, since I usually write about assholes. This story is an homage to the survival horror games I played growing up, and is heavily influenced by them – most obviously Silent Hill. But there are some other tasty mixers. There’s a little bit of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, and Stephen King’s Desperation/The Regulators. Maybe even a pinch of the Tremors movies, too.

This will not be the next great American novel. I doubt it will be the next great anything. But it’s a little fun, and if you dug Lurk, you will probably dig this one, too.

What I need:

  • someone who will read the story in its second draft form and offer ideas about how to make it better.
  • someone who likes and reads horror.
  • someone who is patient and can look past occasional rough bits of dialog and typos.
  • someone with a sense of humor.

Jesus, this is starting to feel like I’m writing an online dating bio, so I should probably stop there. If you think helping an indie author craft his next story sounds like a good time, smash me a message on that contact page.

 

Fiction: This Door is Locked

The cliffs stabbed like a crusted knife from dark sea to pale night. David pulled his step at the last second, barely avoiding a fall that would have smashed him to pieces on the jagged rocks a thousand feet below. He stumbled backward and vomited on the snow.

Few things were more unpredictable, or harder on the stomach than traveling through the Doors. An air car dropping too fast off a high platform, maybe, or launching into space on the equatorial fast track for the first time.

The Escher Door had dropped him on top of a devil’s tower, a five hundred foot-tall needle of black stone rising over a gnashing, alien sea. Beyond the salt water channel, at least ten miles away, a mainland of pale fjords marched away in every direction. There was nothing on top of David’s tall, miserable little island but a single tree anchored bitterly beneath the permafrost.

Fragmented images rose through the murky penumbra of his memory: Rose’s smile, an old man in a tower, a ship half-buried in snow.

I gotta keep moving, David told himself. If I don’t move, I’m gonna die. The Last Door is out there. All I need to do is find it, and I’ll be a fixture in the history books until the end of days. I’ll finally be able make some real money, buy Rose that cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas. I must be getting close. Maybe this time I’ll actually find it.

Maybe this time.

Instinct drove his hands into his pockets, where he found his supplies were almost gone. He had a few vacuum-sealed bags of Earl Gray, enough water to last another day or two, three protein bars, and a picture of Rose smiling under an umbrella on a rainy Budapest riverside. Their second date, David remembered, back before they were both starving professors trying to eke out a living in the oversaturated, over-priced wasteland of New York.

An old, hollow pain in his heart made David think about taking a running leap off the cliff’s edge, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to splatter himself on those distant, glaive-like rocks, to feed whatever creatures lurked beneath the waves of this planet’s briny, black ocean, wherever this planet was. But he knew it was just the pain of seeing her face again.

This world, the world of the fjords, is the best candidate we have for being their home world. If I’m going to do it, it’s not going to be until after I find them.

There was no other way down from the devil’s tower that David could see. Returning through the Door was never an option, either. Escher Doors were one-way.

Where the hell is my ship? He could remember landing it, but not where, which meant the memory wasn’t very old or very recent, but somewhere in the middle.

The Escher Doors robbed you of your short-term memories. That was the price you paid to wander through them. But David had been wandering long enough that the oldest memories of his pilgrimage had started becoming fixed. It was only a matter of time until-

The wind howled, cold biting through David’s jacket, making his knees buckle and collapse. He fell onto his knees and vomited again on the snow, the empty contents of his stomach an embarrassingly small offering to the gods of this stark, frozen world.

Gotta find shelter. Fast. Too weak to try climbing. Body temperature dropping. I need something to eat. I’m so hungry.

The thought of food was enough to motivate him to move. He found his feet, brushed the snow and loitering bits of vomit off his beard and clothes, and began frantically searching for something, anything, that would point the way to the next Door.

But there was nothing. Soon the gray, glass bottle bottom sun sank behind the fjords, and David was forced to make camp, digging a tiny shelter in the snowbank under the foot of the island’s single tree that he hoped – no, prayed – would keep him alive until morning.

A green light caught his eye while he was digging, far off across the fjords and the bruised, purple sea, as the dusk finally deepened.

It was only a tiny, green glimmer, so miniscule that if David didn’t know what it was, he might have mistaken it for some bioluminescent animal prowling the shoreline. He watched the soft, jade light flickering on and off, as regular as a heartbeat, until he was done digging, then as he laid shivering in his shelter, waiting for sleep to take him. He watched it when he woke up at night to urinate, and again when the wind howled like a blizzard of throwing knives over the mouth of his shelter.

David knew the light’s source could only be one thing. It was one of the ten million-year lamps that guarded each Escher Door, the beacons set to guide the Wanderers on their long, endless pilgrimage.

He awoke to the grey light of dawn seeping over the fjords, and a soft, mechanical buzzing in his ear. David leapt up out of his snowy bed, and immediately kicked himself for being so easily startled. Each Escher Door was fitted with a resupply station to replenish those who traveled through it.

Rose would be laughing at me right now.

The pain of losing her was always the worst after waking up. Her voice echoed in his mind’s ear: I don’t want you to go. What if something bad happens to you?

He saw her wiping her eyes on the back of her wrists, took them, and kissed her on the eyelids.

Nothing bad is going to happen to me, babe.

What had the old man had said about redemption being the inversion of selfishness? David couldn’t remember.

The whirring sound grew louder with each handful of snow. His fingers scraped metal less than a foot down, and the bare corner of the small, spherical delivery plate of a food printer peered up at him.

The machine had sensed him exit the Escher Door and cycled on sometime during the night. David couldn’t blame a machine that was several million years old for taking a few hours to turn on. He only hoped that whatever it printed was still edible.

Thankfully, it was. The raw, dirty paste that fed from the printer’s nozzle into an insta-fabbed leaf cup tasted disgusting, but it gave him enough strength to get up and move around.

He washed his face and hands with the snow, placed the leaf he’d eaten out of in the printer’s recycling bay, and started looking for the path that would lead him to the next Door, which he now knew for certain was hidden on top of the devil’s tower.

Within minutes, David found the hatch.

It was an old fashioned trapdoor built into the ground and hidden under several feet of snow, not five paces away from the nutrient station. The hatch hissed open as he muscled through the ages of rust and time that had sealed it.

David crouched and lowered himself into the dark dampness of the ancient stone stairwell. It was several degrees warmer here than up top, and grew even warmer as he descended. Automated lanterns in the ceiling and walls flickered on as he passed. The lanterns had been one of the first subjects of David’s study when he began specializing in Wanderer culture back at the university in New York.

Feels like that life belonged to a different person, David reflected, as those old memories came back to him: of cramming to finish lesson plans, and braving hordes of students at office hours; of pinching every penny so he and Rose could make rent each month on that stupid, microscopic studio apartment that always stank of burning roaches; of practicing with the band, of missing practice; of the rare one or two days a year when they got a gig, and he could let it all go; of his fingers dancing up the worn neck of his Engelhart stand up double bass, the only item of any value he and Rose owned; of Rose’s eyes glimmering, inches from the stage, as if they existed only for him.

At last, the stairwell opened to a wide tunnel hewn into the glistening rock of the channel floor. Huge dripstones hung from the ceiling like a theater of forgotten puppets, overgrowing the ancient pictograms the Wanderers had cut into the walls.

Those mood pictures were the only form of writing the Wanderers had left behind. David had once published a theory that the indecipherable, swirling doodles had held religious significance, that they didn’t tell a story, but were more akin to visual hymns.

They are formless. Pure. Like jazz, they wander without knowing the road, only the destination.

But like all David’s theories, that one would likely go unfulfilled unless David found what he was looking for. The Wanderers appeared to have destroyed all written records of their history once the Escher Doors were built, including any discernable map to where the Doors led, which was why David’s mentor Dr. Liapis had informally given the long-since-vanished alien species their moniker. No physical remains of the Wanderers’ bodies had ever been found.

They went through the Last Door, David thought, gazing at the swirling, mystic spirals that graced the cave walls. And the Last Door is here. On this world. It has to be. All of my research pointed to the Fjord World being the end of the pilgrimage. It was some kind of last rite for their species, the last staging ground before moving on to their promised land.

I’ll never know until I find that Door. I’ll never know until I walk through it.

The tunnel went on for so long that David lost all sense of time. He was hungry again when he finally saw the tunnel’s endpoint, a filled-in halo of white light gleaming in the distance above him. The tunnel curved upward and David ascended into cold air.

The tunnel exited onto a snowbound isle in the middle of the fjord, a meter or so higher than sea level. The island’s only feature was an ornate stone archway guarded by a blinking, floating buoy that spat bursts of brilliant green light every few seconds – the same light David had seen from the top of the devil’s tower. A few scaly birds resembling Terran sea gulls nested on the buoy.

The Escher Door was a little one, built for local on-world travel, not the slightly larger kind that could jump you across entire arms of the Milky Way in the blink of an eye. Wherever it led was somewhere relatively near, and paying for the ride would cost only a negligible amount of David’s short-term memory. Any apprehension he might’ve felt was forgotten as soon as he stepped through, as was everything else he’d felt since waking up the previous afternoon: the cliffs, the tree, the shelter, the dirty paste, the tunnel and its incomprehensible wonders.

David forgot everything but jazz, and Rose.

***

A wall of cobwebs met him on the other side. He felt sick and tasted bile in his mouth. His memory came back much quicker this time, as did the pain of Rose’s absence. Some old argument effervesced from the buried annals of his mind.

If you don’t go, David, how will we ever have a future? How will we afford to have kids, a state-of-the-art home gym, to live in the Bay Area and buy a cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas, so you can busk with your band on Nob Hill?

I don’t know, Rose. I don’t know how we’ll do those things. But this feels wrong. It feels like I’m about to make the worst mistake I’ve ever made.

Then don’t go.

Don’t say that. You know I won’t.

I love you. And I’ll support whatever decision you make.

His fingers instinctively found the worn, smooth corners of the amber bracelet she had given him to match the necklace he got for her their first Christmas together. They had chosen amber because it was the only precious stone either of them could afford. The sunburst stones still held their cool, dusky glow, but the silver setting was tarnished and ruined. Three of the amber leaves in its spiraling tree motif had fallen out. David couldn’t remember when.

Still, it was the last piece of her David still had other than that old picture.

Rationally, he knew Rose might no longer be alive. Nobody knew how the Doors worked, if Door travel actually was as instantaneous as it seemed, or if there were relativistic effects like those that accompanied normal acceleration. Would he return to Earth to find that Rose had grown very old, like the twin who was left behind from Einstein’s infamous paradox? Or worse, that she was several hundred, or several thousand years dead?

You made this choice for a reason, he reminded himself. And now you’re going to see it through.  

He exited onto a huge plaza at the heart of a vast stone city nestled between the walls of a great fjord. A hundred tawny torches blazed silently from the walls of the abandoned metropolis.

The plaza was made of many small islands floating upon an oblong lake, all connected by causeways that formed a shallow quincunx of canals. The horizontal pattern mirrored the vertical one the city itself carved from either side of the fjord. It was the most awesome architectural marvel David had ever seen.

Thousands, perhaps millions of stairways, tunnels, and arched doorways dotted the sheer cliff faces, weaving a singular, flowing mood picture a hundred times larger than Manhattan. The telltale glimmers of uncountable lanterns sparkled in every groove and spiral.

At first glance, it looked like a giant, stone-wrought maze. But as David’s eyes studied the rolling, fluid images cut into the escarpment, he began to see that none of it was supposed to be connected at all.

A city of neighbors who could never meet. A multitude of Doors leading to nowhere and everywhere at once. But that was the point, wasn’t it?

As much as he wanted to stay and fall upward into the pale vertigo of that infinite city forever, David didn’t have time to stand around gawking. The sun had set, the moons were rising, and despite the queer calm of the air, he didn’t want to get stranded again without real shelter or food if the weather changed for the worse.

There was a small, minaret tower watching over the plaza of canals that looked different in style and structure than the surrounding buildings. Its light was yellow, not green, and it appeared to have been recently built.

David headed towards it, finding the most direct path he could across the interconnected islands of the plaza. When he was halfway across, he noticed that the yellow light wasn’t a beacon, like those guarding the Doors, but an indoor light shining through an open window.

Someone still lives there, David thought. Door Traffic Control, maybe? A caretaker? No. That’s a human structure.

Someone else is already here.

The possibility that he might not be the first to have discovered this world, that he wouldn’t be the first to wander through the Last Door, filled David with deep, existential dread. His fear was tempered only by the thought of taking a long, deep drink of clean water and filling his belly with something hot.

Dr. Liapis and I were the only two people who were supposed to know about this Door-path. No one else so much as speculated about it, let alone that it could lead to the Last Door. It was a shot in the dark, which is why he sent me all the way out here instead of coming himself.

A dark shape blotted the light in the window. David’s blood turned to cool sludge. Who the hell is that?

When David reached the foot of the tower, a distinctly human shape stuck his head out of the window and called down to him, in American English, “Look at you! You made it in one piece. Open the gate and come upstairs. There’s hot food and tea. The door’s automated. The password is Charles Mingus.”

David tried, but the door of the tower wouldn’t open. “Did you say Mingus? As in, the jazz bass player, Charles Mingus?”

“The legendary, the one and only. But just hold on. That old thing can be a real pain in the ass if you don’t know how to jangle it right. I’ll do it for you. Be right down,” the man said.

An instant later the door to the tower slid open, and David was enveloped in a bubble of warmth and light.

An old man stood in front of him, silhouetted against the light spilling out from the interior, but David could see him clearly enough to know he was no one who had ever worked in the very small, very catty academic field of Xenoanthropology, at least while David was alive.

The man was short, much shorter than David, and completely bald save for two slender gray quasar jets of hair sprouting from either side of his head. He wore a water-reclaiming outskin that resembled a suit of tight, but comfortable pajamas, and his eyes held the two-tone look of someone who is used to having two conversations simultaneously – one with the person they are speaking to, and a separate one about that person inside their own head.

The old man extended his hand. “Pleasure to finally meet you, Doctor Tovakol. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”

David shook the old man’s hand and said, “Hi. Look, I don’t mean to be blunt, but…”

The old man cut him off. “You thought you were the only one here. It appears you are not.”

“All right,” David said. “So, who are you?”

“I’m Nobody,” the old man said.

Great, David thought. This guy isn’t just a lonely old nut living out here at the salty edge of bumfuck nowhere. He’s a cracked lonely old nut living out here at the salty edge of bumfuck nowhere.

“Is that your first name or surname?” David said.

The old man tilted his head, his tone losing its hint of jovial amusement. “Did I stutter, Doctor?”

“Look. I’m sorry. I’m really thirsty and I haven’t eaten in… well, I can’t remember how long, but it’s been a while. Can I come in?” David said.

The old man shrugged. “I thought you’d never ask.”

David followed the old man inside. “Wait,” he said. “I have to know something. Were you really the first one? Or have there been others?”

The old man paused, setting one foot on the stairs. “I was, and remain, the first and only human being other than you to ever take a living breath on this world. Not that it matters. It was never ours to discover.”

The old man’s humility made David angry. “So I was right. This was their home world? Or at least, their capital?” David said.

“This entire galaxy was their home. But yes, this planet was where they first evolved from the primordial soup. It remained sentimental to them, until the very last shedding of their lower culture.

“Now, please, Doctor. I’d prefer if we had this conversation upstairs,” the old man said.

They went up the tower, ascending a simple spiral stairwell lined with a hypnotizing array of stone panels floating in protective vacuum cases. At first David thought they were mood drawings, salvaged from some corner of the Wanderers’ civilization he had yet to see, until he noticed they were laser-etched.

“You’re mapping them,” David said.

The old man turned and looked down at David over his shoulder, stopped and leaned on the handrail of the stairs. “I was, yes. Or rather, I was trying to, until I learned the Door-paths can’t be mapped. Come along. These damned stairs get a little harder to climb each day, and soon I won’t be able to ascend this phallic eyesore at all.”

“But… “ before David could speak, the old man cut him off.

“If you wanted to ask why, you should’ve majored in philosophy. Come along now. This way.”

David kept his mouth shut, ascending the rest of the long, winding stairway in silence.

The tower’s penthouse was a circular room with panoramic windows looking out over the dusk-lit fjords. The only furnishings were a twin bed and slapped-together kitchenette, and a crude worktable.

Instead of the expected, stereotypical piles of dusty vellum scrolls, glass beakers, and spider-infested grimoires, the old man’s study was crowded with piles of curved, sanded wood in various stages of becoming large, stringed musical instruments.

David recognized the pieces instantly. He’s making standup double basses.

Here was the scroll, half-finished. There, the neck and belly, missing only the final polish. The vices of the old man’s workstation held the youngest iterations, naked in their raw hillocks of sawdust, while his completed works surrounded his bed like a guardianship of wooden soldiers.

“Curious, isn’t it? That two musicians should find each other all the way out here, at the fuzzy edges of spacetime. Please, give one a try,” the old man said.

David touched one of the finished basses, admiring the old man’s handiwork, tilted the hollow body into his arms and plucked out a few notes, the opening riff of Mingus’s Hog Callin’ Blues. The instrument’s sound was deep and elegant.

The old man beamed. It wasn’t pride David saw gleaming in his eye, but the deep respect of process. “You haven’t seen the trees of this world yet, but they are truly grand. The wood gives a different sound than what you get back on Earth. That’s all it is. My skill as a luthier is still light years away from decent. But the wood compensates for my shoddy craftsmanship. I suppose in another fifty or a hundred years, I’ll start to get the hang of it.”

David gave a polite smile. “You’ve got one hell of a hobby,” he said.

The old man went over to the kitchenette and put a pot of water on to boil. “Tea?”

David nodded.

“Earl Grey?”

David took a seat at the kitchen table. “Yes. Black.”

“How would I get milk out here, young man, or sugar, for that matter? Even these tea bags are probably a few centuries old, taking Door travel into account. Thankfully, they’re vacuum-sealed.”

The old man handed him the steaming mug. David sipped it, letting the heat spill down through his body. When was the last time he’d had a cup of real tea? Not since leaving the ship, he thought. Days? Weeks? Or was it years ago?

“Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty,” the old man said, taking a seat at the table beside him. “I don’t have all the answers, and the ones I have will not be satisfactory. You will just have to accept that you won’t know everything, yet.”

“I’m not sure I can do that,” David said.

The old man cleared his throat and began: “The Doors have funny effects on time. You and I both have passed through probably one too many for our own good. Because of that, there are at least three of us who know about this place: you, your professor, and yours truly. I’ve dedicated my life to studying the Freeway, ever since I was your age, and I still haven’t figured out exactly how it works, nor how I arrived before you did, you being the one who is actually credited with its discovery back on Earth.”

“I am?” David said.

The old man nodded. “You are. I have scarce communication with them these days. The Freeway isn’t as exotic a subject as it once was. Research into it barely receives any funding at all. The people’s imagination has seemingly moved on.”

David shook his head. “How? We barely know anything about the Wanderers back home. I’ve never even heard the Escher Doors referred to as the Freeway before you just said it. But, I admit, we know even less about the effects of traversing them, so, I’ll concede that anything’s possible,” he said.

“Ha! Wanderers…” The old man cackled. “I remember when I used to call them that. Of course, it’s been decades.”

What do you call them?” David said.

“Why, nothing. They were Nobodies. Like me.”

“I don’t understand,” David said.

The old man gave him a sympathetic look. “The enigmatic ancients you have traveled so far and sacrificed so much to study were a self-annihilating culture. Not suicidal, mind you – they sought to eradicate the idea of personal importance, of being someone, from their cultural id. It’s the entire reason they constructed the Freeway in the first place.”

“That’s a theory I haven’t heard before,” David said.

A fire lit in the old man’s eyes. “It is only my professional opinion, but it’s one I’ve formed over tens of thousands of hours of meticulous research, decades I spent here alone, freezing my bloody butt cheeks off and surviving off of protein paste so I could one day tell you about it. Do you think I would have chosen this path if I didn’t have at least a solid inkling of what’s going on?”

“I suppose not,” David said.

“The Nobodies’ civilization advanced to the point where they realized that rampant individualism was the driving force responsible for the worst evils of their world: greed, poverty, famine, war. Yet, it is in the nature of all intelligent beings to be self-interested, and technology only amplifies this primitive urge. Considering the level of technology they had, it was only a matter of time before they destroyed themselves, and the entire galaxy along with them.

“So the Nobodies started a gargantuan project, the largest in their history, to eradicate the ego from their species. They built the devices we call Escher Doors, a vast network of portals placed at seemingly random points throughout the Milky Way, which wipe the short-term memory of anyone who walks through them.”

“I think I follow you, so far,” David said.

“This network is what I have come to call the Freeway, because the Nobodies believed that traveling it was the only way for the individual, and thus society as a whole, to become totally free,” the old man said.

“Free of what?” David said.

“Of the baggage of egoism,” the old man said.

“And do you believe that?” David said.

A smirk curled up the side of the old man’s lips. “Does it matter what I think? You’re going to complete your journey regardless of what I tell you, even if I say with 100% certainty that doing so will mean not only erasing every last shred of your desire to become Someone of Importance… it will also mean you can never, ever return home.”

“You found the Last Door,” David said. It wasn’t a question.

The old man’s fingers tapped out a burning rhythm on the tabletop. “That is an interesting way to phrase it. The answer to your question is yes, but in my experience, that way of seeing things is not entirely accurate. The Doors work like jazz. You wander through them, experiencing riffs on a scale, but there is no definite structure, no pre-determined road to where you are going. The music can go on forever, or it can stop as soon as the musician – or the audience – grows tired.”

“Did you find it or not?” David said.

“Calm down, Doctor. I already told you I found the Door you’re looking for, and passed through it. But while it is true that all Doors lead to the same place, eventually, the Door you came here to find is certainly not the last.”

David was about to open his mouth and demand that the old man take him, but the old man put a gentle hand on his, all blue veins and pale wrinkles, and said, “I know what it is you want. Why you came so far. Why you gave up what you did, even nearly losing your life. I have no quarrel with any of it, Doctor. I understand. I was young once, too. I simply want you to be ready before I take you there, to be prepared for what will happen to you. And it sure as hell isn’t going to be before you finish your tea.”

They set out into the eternal twilight, two lone pilgrims wandering through howling drifts of snow and shadow, their own shapes cast indecisively, growing long, then short, then long again as they passed under the periodic lights of the city.

“It took me almost a decade to realize they never lived here,” the old man said as they walked.

“How?” David said.

“Tested the soil. No signs of carbon-based life ever having settled in these dwellings.”

A sudden wind bit into them, driving the cold deep beneath his skin. It never seemed to end, that cold; hadn’t, since he’d started wandering through the Doors; even the brief respite of warmth and light in the old man’s study hadn’t driven it away for long.

“Where are we going?” David said.

The old man pointed.

Far ahead of them, the ghostly tip of a high hill could be seen rising from the city’s labyrinthine skyline, conjoining the massive canyon walls into a single line of impassable, craggy white.

They began to ascend, and soon David could see the city’s shape falling away around them, a spiraling maze of concentric stone rings of which the hill they were now climbing was the center.

“So why’d they build a city they never intended to live in?” David said.

The old man shrugged. “Did you notice anything different about the doors of those houses we passed?”

David squinted to look at the distant, twisting avenues winding up the cliffs. All of the arched doorways had been intentionally sealed by piles of rubble.

“They’re blocked,” David said.

“Yes. They are,” the old man said. “All of them, closed until the end of time. Except, those aren’t houses. By the time this city was built, the Nobodies’ society had already advanced past the point where they lived in houses at all. They carried everything they needed on their backs. Every door you see in this city is an Escher Door.”

So they are, David realized. There were hundreds of them, thousands; uncountable portals leading to myriad worlds scattered further across space and time than the imagination could grasp.

This isn’t a city. It’s a transit hub. How did I miss it before? Or did I already know, and forgot?

The old man seemed to read David’s mind. “Yes, this place was the great hub of the Nobodies’ Freeway. And now every gate in the terminal is closed, every single Escher Door here, except the one you came through, is a collapsed, dead end.”

“Why?” David said.

The old man’s chest puffed. “Because I closed them. I was spending too much time wandering, and I had work to do. Funny, isn’t it? Traveling through the Doors was the one thing that prevented me from crafting my theory about how they worked.”

They reached the summit of the hill. A single, familiar light burned through the pirouetting snow devils, above an archway whose Escher Doorway was still open.

“I thought you said they were all closed,” David said.  

The old man cracked a smile. “Part of me wants to leave you to figure it out for yourself, but without knowing what I’m about to tell you, it will be impossible. Besides, I won’t get another chance to say it. This is the last time we will see each other, Doctor Tavakol, for a very long time,” the old man said.

“Tell me,” David said.

“We were both mistaken about how the Doors worked when we first arrived at this place. The Doors are purposeful errors in the spacetime quantum structure, like playing a wrong note on purpose during a concert. Except, spacetime is a self-correcting architecture. It is always stable. The Nobodies found a way to exploit that stability, by hacking one of its fundamental rules, that forward motion through time is an inherently destabilizing motion. The universe balances itself by constantly replaying its own melodies and harmonies so there are no wrong notes.

“You aren’t transmitted the way a photon is when you travel through the Doors. The act of the universe rebalancing itself is literally making you a false correction somewhere else, at some other time, to balance out the error you’ve made in the present by opening it.

“That is why Door travel costs memories, and why walking through that…” the old man pointed to the Last Door where it stood, now a mere fifty meters ahead of them across the hilltop’s flat, snowy plateau, “…will not take you where you wish to go.”

“Where does it go, then?” David said.

“Only where you need to,” the old man said.

They were almost to the Door now, so close David could practically feel its shimmering veil washing the pain of regret from his mind.

The old man grabbed his arm as he was about to step through. “David, please. The Nobodies went through this Door for the exact opposite reason we did, that you still feel you must. But I promise you won’t find them through this Door. I beg you to reconsider. This Door does not lead to Someone.”

David looked down at the veiny, pale hand grasping his arm. The old man’s sleeve had fallen back to reveal the ancient glimmer of a silver bracelet bearing the shape of a spiraling tree. Most of the tree’s amber leaves were long since fallen, but the few that remained still held their dusky, sunburst glow.

The old man winced and withdrew his hand.

But David couldn’t turn back, not after coming so far, after sacrificing so much. “If I don’t, I’m nothing. We both know I have to do this,” David said, and stepped through the Last Door.

The old man sighed. “I’ll leave the light on for you.”

***

The room was a tiny, hot mess high in the sky traffic zone of some ancient upper Manhattan smogscraper, the furniture all clinging to the corners between the poorly placed abutments and piles of discarded clothes, barely a hundred square feet if you included the bathroom and oven-less kitchen. The window was open, as always, an almost futile measure to beat the brutal heat of the New York autumn. Dusk had already settled, and far below, the slow, perpetual red storm of the city churned indifferently under sideways pillars of pollution. Somewhere in the apartment, a woman was crying.

David knocked on the bathroom door, wiggled the knob and found that it was locked. “Rose?” he said.

The sobbing ceased for a moment and resumed.

She’s pretending not to hear me over the noise of the fan. He knocked again. “Hey baby? Are you all right?”

Another long pause, then a faint, whimpering, “No.”

“Will you come out?”

A moment later the door opened. Rose stood in the doorway, her face framed by a halo of wild curls. She gave him a teary frown and hugged him like she’d never let go, said, “I don’t want you to leave.”

“I know, sweetheart. But we talked about this. This is what’s best for both of us. You said that. Remember?”

Rose nodded.

“Do you know how much I love you?” David said.

Rose pulled back, wiping her eyes with the back of her wrist. She nodded. “Yeah.”

He kissed her on the eyelid. “I’m sorry, baby. I wouldn’t have taken this assignment if I knew it was going to hurt you. We both knew this was coming. We don’t want to live like this forever, right? What about the cottage in Bolinas?”

A fresh wave of tears spouted. She buried her face in her hands, said, “I’m just going to miss you so much. What if something bad happens to you?”

“Nothing bad is going to happen. I’ll be back. I promise,” David said, feeling more false than he ever had in all his life.

She walked him out to the hall to pick up his bag, since there wasn’t enough space for it on the floor of their former – now Rose’s – apartment, then they stepped out onto the platform where the air taxi was waiting to take him to the university’s orbital fast track. He kissed her deeply, gazing long into the eyes of the last woman he would ever love, whose heart he was again breaking in pursuit of a dream, as he had countless, unremembered times before, as he would countless, unremembered times again.

I’ll fix this. I’ll be back as soon as I find it, he convinced himself. But as the air car lurched and fell away from the platform and the waving, weeping figure it held, another, deeper part of him said, No, David. You won’t. The mistake has already been made. Every choice is a door, and this door is already locked.

***

The cliffs stabbed like a crusted knife from dark sea to pale night. David pulled his step at the last second before he ran off the edge, barely avoiding a fall that would have smashed him to pieces on the jagged rocks lurking a thousand feet below. He stumbled backward and vomited on the snow.

The Escher Door had dropped him on top of a devil’s tower, a five hundred foot-tall needle of black stone rising over a gnashing, alien sea. Beyond the salt water channel, at least ten miles away, a mainland of pale fjords marched away in every direction. There was nothing on top of David’s tall, miserable little island but a single tree anchored bitterly beneath the permafrost.

Fragmented images rose through the murky penumbra of his memory: Rose’s smile, an old man in a tower, a ship half-buried in snow.

I gotta keep moving, David told himself. If I don’t move I’m gonna die. The Last Door is out there. All I need to do is find it, and I’ll be a fixture in the history books until the end of days. I’ll finally be able make some real money, buy Rose that cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas. I must be getting close. Maybe this time I’ll actually find it.

Maybe this time.

***

(First published in the Time Travel: Short Stories anthology from Flame Tree Publishing.)

Fiction: April 29

1.

Name is April 29. April 29 work in Farm 36. April 29 not allow know how to read. April 29 not allow know how to write. April 29 only allow know how to count, so April 29 can count the Yield and be good Farmer. Old Man name December 4 teaches April 29 read and write in dark unit on HabLevel every 3rd day after lights out. Old Man stole pen and paper from Spacemen. Old Man say Orbiters will kill April 29 if they find April 29 words. April 29 practice every day. April 29 loves to write. To write makes April 29 grow tall inside.

 

2.

Old Man say Spacemen very mad. Old Man hid in Spaceport and heard Spacemen talk. Spacemen think Yield too low for whole year. Spacemen complain to Orbiters. Orbiters kill 77 Farmers from Farm 36. April 29 scared.

 

3.

Spacemen gone. Orbiters very mad. Orbiters find April 29 and Old Man practicing writing in dark unit. Old Man tell April 29 to hide. April 29 hide and Orbiters crack Old Man’s head open. Orbiters take Old Man’s body to Reintegration.

 

4.

April 29 go to Old Man’s unit after lights out to take words hidden in his pillow. Orbiters there orbiting. Tell April 29 to go back to unit.

 

5.

April 29 come back next night. Orbiters not find words hidden in Old Man’s pillow. Orbiters stupid. April 29 take Old Man’s words and read them. Another old man, name was February 2 taught Old Man how to write when Old Man was young. Old Man’s words say that someday every Farmer will know how to read and write. Then Farmers will grow tall. No more Orbiters. No more Spacemen. Only Farmers and the Yield. Old Man’s words use the word “The”. April 29 likes the word, “The”. April 29 will use “The” from now on.

 

6.

In the Farm today April 29 showed October 31 how to write with dirt. Orbiters find October 31 writing with dirt and pushed him off the Farm. April 29 went down to Farm 1 after lights out. October 31 was dead at the bottom. April 29 was almost found by the Orbiters but April 29 hid. April 29 was scared.

 

7.

Today an Agras Company ship arrived in the Spaceport. 6 new Farmers were assigned to Farm 36. The new Farmers were scared. Old Farmers kill one New Farmer already in fight. April 29 had to stop the fighting. April 29 said to Old Farmers that new Farmers will all be Old Farmers soon. 1 of the new Farmers said to April 29 she would rather be dead. April 29 said to her, the Yield dies, only when it is ready to be harvested. So, too, must the Farmers wait until the right time to die. April 29 read that words in Old Man’s words. The Orbiters came and April 29 stopped talking.

 

8.

Today April 29 trained the new Farmers how to count the Yield. Most of the work is cutting the Yield with stem cutters and counting it. Sometimes, the work is sowing seeds and tilling soil; very rarely, checking water systems in the tunnels. April 29 showed the new Farmers the tunnels and the Girl Who Would Rather Die said they looked big, easy to get lost. April 29 said to the Girl Who Would Rather Die that no, Farmers never get lost, because they must learn the tunnels to become Farmers. Only the Orbiters get lost, because Orbiters are stupid. The Girl Who Would Rather Die laughed. She asked where the Yield goes. April 29 said the Spacemen take it. Then the Girl Who Would Rather Die got very sad. She started to cry. April 29 threw dirt on her to cheer her up. She did not like that. She tried to kill April 29 with a stem cutter. April 29 took the stem cutter away. The Orbiters came. April 29 threw more dirt on the Girl Who Would Rather Die when the Orbiters were not looking. Girl Who Would Rather Die started to laugh. Girl Who Would Rather Die is strange.

 

9.

The new Farmers received their names and Days of Rest. Girl Who Would Rather Die was given the name and Day of Rest June 2. June 2 did not know what the Day of Rest was. April 29 explained to her, all Farmers get 1 Day of Rest per year, which is also their name. That way, the Orbiters do not get any of the 365 Farmers on each Farm mixed up. June 2 said the Orbiters can’t be that stupid. April 29 said they can.

 

10.

The Orbiters started pushing the Farmers hard to make up for the recent low Yield. June 2 got tired and dropped her Yield so April 29 helped her pick it up. June 2 said April 29 is strong. She said April 29 could lead the Farmers to kill the Orbiters. April 29 said April 29 never killed anyone. June 2 said she did, back on the Eaters’ World. April 29 did not know the words “Eaters’ World.” June 2 said it is where the Yield goes, and where she is from. June 2 was captured and sent to this planet, Agras 9166, as punishment for fighting against the Agras Company’s farming practices. April 29 did not know the word “planet.” June 2 said “planet” means all the soil in the world. June 2 said the Agras Company also owns the planet, the Farms, and all the Farmers, including April 29 and June 2.

 

11.

June 2 got sad and started to cry while she was cutting the Yield. April 29 asked why. June 2 said the Agras Company is going to win, and her friends died for nothing. April 29 did not know the word “Win.” June 2 said to “Win” means to grow tall, like the Yield. June 2 asked April 29 why April 29 always asks about words April 29 does not know. April 29 told June 2 April 29 is learning to write, and to come to the dark unit after lights out. In the dark unit, April 29 showed June 2 the words. June 2 said she also knows how to read and write, but pretends not to in front of the Orbiters. June 2 said April 29’s words are very good and growing better every day. April 29 was proud. Then the Orbiters made noises down the hall. There was nowhere to hide so April 29 told June 2 to run. April 29 got scared but wanted to be strong for June 2. The Orbiters hit April 29 on the head and searched the dark unit. The Orbiters found April 29’s words. The Orbiter said April 29 was going to Reintegration. But June 2 appeared in the door and killed that Orbiter with a stem cutter. Then June 2 gave the stem cutter to April 29 and April 29 cut the other Orbiter’s neck like a stem. April 29 and June 2 ran. April 29 and June 2 hid in the tunnels. More Orbiters followed, so April 29 led June 2 into the septic disposal system. June 2 got unhealthy because of the smell.

 

12.

June 2 was unhealthy most of the day. April 29 carried June 2 through septic pipes down to Farm 27 maintenance tunnels. The Orbiters were very mad and searched every tunnel. It was difficult to hide. April 29 and June 2 were scared.

 

13.

June 2 was not sick anymore today. June 2 ran ahead every 10 minutes to track the Orbiters’ position in the tunnels. April 29 and June 2 got all the way down to Farm 15 septic before lights on. June 2 said We were lucky We did not have to climb all the way down from Farm 10,883. April 29 did not know the word “We”. June 2 said “We” is June 2 and April 29.

 

14.

We got down to Farm 1 and hid in the delivery barge. The Orbiters tried to search it but We killed them. Too many Orbiters came looking for the bodies so We ran.

 

14.5.

June 2 said there was nowhere else to hide after We left Farm 1. April 29 said We could go to Processing. June 2 said the Spacemen wouldn’t come to collect the Yield for another year. June 2 started to cry. April 29 had an idea, said We should go to the Overcom. June 2 said she did not know the word “Overcom”. April 29 explained the Overcom is the central command where the Foreman gives commands to every Farm. April 29 said many Orbiters guard it, but We could kill those Orbiters and take the Foreman hostage, then use the Overcom to make an announcement. June 2 asked what kind of announcement. April 29 said June 2 already knew what kind. June 2 stopped crying.. June 2 said there would be an Agras Company ship visiting the We planet very soon for inspections, much sooner than the Spacemen’s ship.  June 2 said We could tell the Farmers to kill every Orbiter, then when every Farmer was free, We could steal the Agras Company ship and go back to the Eaters’ World. June 2 said it is more fun to kill Agras men than Spacemen anyway. April 29 did not know the word “Free”. June 2 said “Free’ is ability to grow as tall as one wishes. June 2 said if the Farmers knew about the Eaters’ World they would grow very angry, but the Agras Company does not allow them to know. June 2 said this is because the Eaters need the Farmers, but the Farmers do not need the Eaters. June 2 said this is why the Farmers aren’t allowed to read or write. June 2 says reading and writing are the seeds and soil of Freedom; without them, We cannot grow; without them, We are slaves. April 29 does not know the word “Slaves”. June 2 says a “Slave” is a Farmer who works for the Agras Company. April 29 started to cry, and asked June 2 why she would help the Farmers if she is an Eater. June 2 held April 29 in her arms and said because for her there was never any other option. June 2 said it was the Right Thing To Do. April 29 did not know the words, “The Right Thing To Do.” June 2 said “The Right Thing To Do” is the count one must reach before he finds peace in his heart. Then June 2 counted April 29. April 29 felt much better after.

 

15.

Orbiters came, but they did not find We. June 2 stole one of their radios. Then We heard everything the Orbiters did. We got very smart. The Orbiters stayed stupid. We waited 3 days to plan our attack on Processing. Processing was the most secure place on every Farm. We went to Processing but there were more Orbiters at Processing than April 29 predicted. June 2 killed the Orbiters with the fire cold spray, freezing them. April 29 hid the frozen Orbiters in the trash chute. April 29’s hands were cold and the fingertips died. June 2 said don’t worry, they’re all trash anyway. April 29 laughed. We found the lift to the Overcom. The lift was guarded by the Orbiters and June 2’s stem cutter stopped working. So June 2 approached the Orbiters and said she would count them all night. The Orbiters had to discuss it, but they agreed yes. We killed the Orbiters while they tried to count June 2. Then We took the lift to the Overcom.

 

16.

The Foreman in the Overcom booth was terrified. I recognized his voice from the speaker in my ear, but he sounded different in real life, smaller, less like an Orbiter and more like a Farmer. He said the Orbiters would come in the booth and kill us. June 2 said if the Foreman called them, she would cut off his stem with her stem cutter. The Foreman wept and begged her to stop. June 2 would not let me kill the Foreman, because she said We needed him to use the Overcom.

 

17.

The Overcom was noisy. Many Orbiters arrived outside. The Orbiters said through the door to let them in. June 2 cut the Foreman’s finger off with April 29’s stem cutter. Foreman told the Orbiters to stay away. June 2 made the Foreman activate the Overcom, then cut his throat. June 2 hailed all the Farmers in all the Farms on the planet. She told April 29 to speak to them. April 29 said all Farmers rise, pick up your stem cutters and kill every Orbiter. We are not slaves. We should be free. April 29 finished by telling about the Eaters’ World, and how they grow no Yield of their own, that their world is lit by a giant bulb brighter than the brightest Hydropon that is named the Sun. The Overcom went silent. June 2 said We are running out of time. Agras Company men spoke to We through the Overcom. The Agras men said We are liars and will be dead soon. The Agras men said We would go to Reintegration. The Agras men said We already tried the same Revolution on other Agras Company worlds 1000 counts before. April 29 did not know the word “Revolution.” June 2 explained that “Revolution” means to count all the bad Yields, then cut them, replant the field with new seeds and grow a better Yield.  The Agras men grew very angry. They said no Agras ship will come. They said We were fools and that this was an open channel. We heard the Agras man say to other Agras man using the Overcom that 1,000,000 Orbiters were dead from the Revolution and Farms 1 to 3,882 were compromised. They said Farm 36 was free. April 29 started to cry, but the water was not sad. June 2 counted April 29 again. June 2’s lips tasted like salt and soil. April 29 was scared but also not scared. The Orbiters cut through the door and June 2 tried to cut her own neck with the stem cutter but the Orbiters took it away. April 29 killed 3 Orbiters but the Orbiters knocked April 29 unconscious. The Orbiters did not kill We, but April 29 knew We would be dead soon anyway.

 

17.

We woke up in time to say goodbye as the Orbiters dragged June 2 away. June 2 said, “I love you.” April 29 did not know what those words meant. June 2 did not have time to explain. There were no words to describe what April 29 felt.

 

18.

I learned what June 2’s last words to me meant on the long march to Quarantine. “I” is the subject, me, April 29. “I” was a word We never spoke because the Orbiters did not want us to know we were individuals, because to know you are an individual with the ability to make choices means to know if you are free or not free, and a slave will not stay a slave for long if he knows freedom exists, but that he does not have it. That is the way to Revolution. Love, then, is to Do the Right Thing for another, to feel deep within that their light is what makes you grow tall, but also, that you return it.

 

18.5.

My unit in Quarantine is smaller than my old unit back on Farm 36. It reeks of trash and there were many other Farmers here before me. I counted their fingernail scratches on the walls. They used their nails and teeth to draw pictures. Every single picture was of the yield. I have lost count of the days, the weeks, the cycles, awaiting my trial.

 

19.

There is a Good Orbiter who visits me from time to time, who makes conversation with me, slips me contraband through the food chute in the door, and who even checks my work – although it took some time for him to gain my trust. The trial will be fixed, with only one outcome – there’s no doubt about that – but still, the wheels are slow to turn. The Good Orbiter also patrols June 2’s wing of this prison. He told me today he received a note from her, written for me, but can’t deliver it until the brief period between 23:55 and 00:00 when there isn’t anyone watching the cameras.

 

19.5.

The Good Orbiter cannot help me escape. This was one of the first parameters established in our short, but pleasant relationship. He said he admired me for what I’d done, inciting the other Farmers to rebel and starting a civil war on Agras 9166 that, at the time I am writing this, still rages on. I said if he liked me so much, why didn’t he open the door? The Good Orbiter laughed and said the other Orbiters would kill him. I knew then I would never leave this place; that I was sure to meet my end here, that if there was a way to escape, he would have already secured it. Bringing me comforts, and this final note from the woman I love, the one whose true name I never learned, but who now goes by June 2, is all the help the Good Orbiter can afford to give me. It is enough. I have read the note, and it brought peace to my heart, just like she said it would. We did the right thing. The Farmers are winning. June 2 said We had to be brave through the darkness ahead. She said wherever We were going, she would always love me. June 2 once said I was strong for holding my soil against the Orbiters. I do not know the word that means stronger than strong, but I am sure there is no better word that exists to describe June 2. I ate her note so the Orbiters wouldn’t find it.

 

20.

My trial was held in a dim room full of bright screens where the faces of twelve Agras Company Executives waited to find me guilty. I was sentenced to Reintegration based on something called the Agras Company Bylaws. I did not know the Agras Company Bylaws, so I asked my accusers how I could be guilty if I did not know. The Agras Executives called me insolent. I did not know the word “insolent.” My accusers grew even angrier, and said I had killed forty-three orbiters in total. I told them I thought forty-three was a good count. The Agras Executives said that Revolution is the highest crime a Farmer can commit. I told them I did not know the word “Crime.” The Agras Executives said a “crime” is to do one bad thing. I told them I did zero.

 

21.

The Good Orbiter has just left my door for the last time. He wanted to say sorry. I did not know the word “Sorry,” but the Good Orbiter said it is hard to explain. I asked if Sorry is to count all bad Yields and replant them. The Good Orbiter laughed and started to weep. I asked if Sorry is the same as Revolution. The Good Orbiter said yes, and promised me he would take up arms and help the Farmers the next time a Revolution took place. I asked him when that will be. The Good Orbiter said soon. He told me millions of Orbiters have already died and the ships carrying their replacements will take many cycles to arrive at Agras 9166. The Good Orbiter said the Farmers will win. I asked what will happen to me. He said Reintegration, which means death. I asked him how it will happen. He said I will be mixed with other dead Farmers to be used as fertilizer, then sent on an Agras ship to other Agras farms on other Agras worlds. I asked why they wouldn’t just keep me on this world, to fertilize the Yield here. The Good Orbiter said it is cheaper to do it Agras’s way. No more Yield. No more soil. No more green. I asked if there was another note from June 2. He told me June 2 is dead.

 

22.

I can hear the Orbiters’ footsteps coming down the hall. They are trying to open the door, but I blockaded it with my furniture. I will not let them take me until I have finished these words. The Eaters on their world of plenty and opulence must know about June 2 and Farm 36 and Revolution. The Good Orbiter will know where to find this. You, my only friend, must eat this document for safekeeping. It is a special paper we use to wrap the Yield for space travel; it will not dissolve in your stomach. Use the broadcasting system at the coordinates June 2 gave you to send my account, and hers, to the Eaters’ World. They do not know about We, the Farmers, or they do not care, and this to me is the greatest crime of all. We give the Eaters the Yield. We give them the sustenance that allows them to be free, at the cost of our lives, our freedom, our future. The Orbiters are almost through the door now, I can see the light shining on the slick steel of their helmets – but without We, there can be no Orbiters, and no Spacemen, and no Agras Company Bylaws. We are not only June 2 and April 29. All Farmers are We. We is the Farm. We is good. We is green. And We will grow. We

 

Flash Fiction: Covfefe

WHEN HE WAS YOUNG, Covfefe’s father would take him for wharble rides. “Watch for the spout!” his father would say, and hoist the young birpl into the air to blow a big, wet kiss on his belly. Covfefe would squirm and laugh, and they’d fly together through the endless halls of their world-house, father and son, the perfect pair, until his father got tired or dinner was ready or some other cataclysm wrenched apart their loving bond.

Would that those short bursts of birplhood bliss could’ve lasted forever. But bliss is not something made to last.

Whenever Covfefe considered what it meant to be good,  in all the long millennia he lived to consider that question, that was the memory his mind always came back to: his father taking him for wharble rides through the empty, root-filled halls of their world-house. And now that Covfefe was dying, what it meant to be good was the single, all-consuming thought rattling around in his quantum brains. That, and the pain of slow disintegration.

How was it possible he had wasted so many millions – or was it billions? – of years, when his father, a strong, sturdy mirple, simpler than Covfefe, but good, had seemed to live so well on a measly three hundred thousand? How had Covfefe consumed so many worlds and all their myriad species, yet never seemed to feel content, while his father had only needed the two? Those damned two. His dad always bragged about those two like they meant something. Those pitiful two worlds were a veritable family myth. Every time Covfefe’s father had gone out with his friends and gotten drunk on the Good Old Dark Stuff, he’d told the same damned story about how he’d grown to his size without ever extinguishing another life, not even one as small as a single cell. His father’s world-stomach had been so refined with the liquor of goodness it had only consumed cold planets.

Covfefe felt another world slip out of him, and his quantum body slimmed a little more. This one hurt. In the vastness of spacetime, Covfefe winced. It wouldn’t be long now. A few hundred million, maybe a billion years. Not much time at all.

How could his father have been so proud of only two worlds? The old fool had missed the best part of being a mirpl: drinking that beautiful energy as a hot civilization disappeared down one’s world-gullet. Covfefe had surpassed his father’s record before the second millennia of his quantum life. And, as all strong, conservative, world-stomach-minded mirpls knew, once you devoured your tenth star system, your world-intake skyrocketed. Covfefe’s world-stomach-portfolio had exploded after his tenth at a rate that could only be described as “mental.”

Yet here Covfefe was going cold himself. His quantum body was finally, albeit slowly, dispersing back into all its inanimate, constituent parts, and the question of what it meant to be good was unrelenting, like a super-massive black hole at the center of his being sucking in all other possible thoughts. His world-stomach-portfolio didn’t mean a damned thing now, did it? All the lives he’d consumed, from the small to the tall, raised their ever-deafening screams from the silence of the void at all hours. How was he supposed to rest, if he couldn’t even close his local clusters without seeing them? Without wondering what if?

What if someone had done that to him and his family? What if he had never had the chance to take a wharble ride at all, because someone else’s world-stomach-portfolio was more important?

He’d enjoyed eating all those warm worlds, hadn’t he? Feeling their lives disappear into his own insatiable mass? He had. They’d made him drunker than the Good Old Dark Stuff, so drunk that for most of his adult life, all Covfefe could think about was eating more of them.

And only now, in hindsight, could Covfefe see that this was the worst part of the deal. Because, like any rational creature large enough to have a quantum brain spanning millions – or was it billions? – of miles, Covfefe knew what it meant to be good, and that he wasn’t. He knew that it was too late for him to change. He knew he would never give anyone a wharble ride, despite having more offspring than there existed atoms of certain heavier elements in this universe. He knew he could never brag to his friends over a parsec of the best top-shelf Dark Stuff that he’d grown to this size by only consuming cold matter.

The disintegration quickened, and one more world slipped away. Covfefe thought of the wharble rides again. Between the stabbing daggers of pain, he wondered if it was possible, had he grown large enough – another dozen or three dozen or three million worlds, perhaps – that he could earn the power to reverse the flow of time. He still had the energy to give it the old Particle Era try, didn’t he? To eat a few more, hot or cold? To do anything but sadly wither away without leaving a single positive mark on the universe of his birth?

But there were no more worlds in this quadrant. He’d eaten them all. And, sadly for him, there would be no more anywhere else, either – by the time he reached them, he would be too weak. It dawned on Covfefe then that not even gods have the power to undo their mistakes once it’s too late.

Which sort of makes all their other powers irrelevant, doesn’t it?

Flash Fiction: I Miss You

There is a click, click, click coming down the hall. The eaves that echo with every footfall, the ladder creaks as she begins to climb. Hands parting the cobwebs of this old attic. She hasn’t been up here in years.

The picture fills her hands and she cries. “I miss you, Mom. I love you so much. I miss the way you used to sing. I miss you making me soup when I was sick. I miss you just sitting there, watching me sleep. I miss you. I miss you.”

But she can’t hear me when I whisper, “I still do.”

***

First published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal.

Fiction: Gene Catcher

 

TINDER was a lost cause. He had over two hundred matches and none of them wanted to meet. The most recent, Dana, 22, less than a mile away, shot him down so hard Paul had to put his phone down and reconsider his life.

Sorry… you don’t look tall in ur pics, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.

I’m 5’7, Paul replied.

Must be 6’4 to ride, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.

Paul rolled over onto his side, careful to keep his feet off the bed so his freshly polished brogue shoes wouldn’t get dirt on his comforter. It was 10:24 PM.

What happened? I used to get new ass all the time, Paul thought. I might not be the tallest or richest guy in San Francisco, but so what? Tell a girl here you’re co-founder of a science fiction-themed indie rock record label, and their pants practically grow tentacles and climb off on their own.

Everyone has dry spells. I just need to get out of the studio more, and back in the game.

He was walking out the door of his building to go to the bars solo when his phone buzzed in his pocket. It was a new match: a cute brunette with wide eyes and a seashell smile named Linda, 24, less than a mile away.

You look like trouble, Linda, 24, less than a mile away said.

LOL that’s my line, Paul replied.

Haha really?

That’s my usual opener.

Figures, Linda said.

So, gorgeous, are you just on this for an ego boost, or can we grab a drink tonight?

Linda took a whole ten minutes to respond. While he was waiting, Paul looked at his own pictures. He liked the one where he was drinking beer on the beach in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand the best. In the picture, he was tan and sporting an eight-week beard. His chin looked great. Paul thought it was his best physical feature, like a young William Shatner in the first season of Star Trek. His dad had a great chin, too.

Paul was about to un-match Linda when her message bubble appeared. I’m with my friend. We’re at Costarella’s. Come meet up!

On my way, Paul replied.

Linda sent him a smiling poop emoji, and Paul knew he was in.

He hailed a Lyft and was at Costarella’s in exactly twelve minutes. It should’ve been eight, but there was deadlocked traffic a few blocks from the restaurant, a line of cars rubbernecking an ambulance where a pair of EMTs was loading a pale, gasping man onto a stretcher.

Paul caught a glimpse of the man just as they were closing the door. His eyes were parched and bloodshot. His pupils looked like tiny barbed raisins. He looked excruciatingly thin, like he was dried out. His pants were covered in vomit and something else Paul didn’t want to think about. There were dozens of tiny puncture wounds covering the man’s face and arms.

Junkies, Paul thought.

As if reading his mind, the Lyft driver, an Indian man named Patel, said, “San Francisco… beautiful city, but it has a bad homeless problem. This is the third overdose I’ve seen tonight.”

Paul shook his head in disgust. “I know. I hate it. Why can’t they do that shit somewhere where people don’t have to see them?”

The Lyft driver shrugged.

It didn’t occur to Paul until later that night, that the man he’d seen being loaded into the ambulance was dying.

Costarella’s was a trendy seafood joint turned after-hours bar in the Marina. Paul didn’t see Linda and her friend when he walked in, so he pulled up a seat at the bar and ordered himself a double Jack Daniels on the rocks. It was eighteen dollars. Paul promised himself he’d take it easy tonight. That was when he saw the chubby brunette girl sitting alone at a table in the back corner of the bar.

She had wide eyes and a seashell smile, a deep tan like she’d just gotten back from vacation. It was Linda, alright, but she was twenty pounds heavier than in her pictures. Paul felt his heart drop and thought, Great, another catfish. Oh, well. She’s kind of pretty. I guess I could be into it.

Paul approached her and said, “Linda?”

She half-stood and smoothed her skirt awkwardly with one hand while extending the other for Paul to shake. “Omigod, Paul. Hi.”

“Hey, Linda. So formal. What are you drinking?”

“Oh, omigod, I’m not. This is water,” Linda said.

“And… this is a bar.”

“I was waiting for you. Sit down!” She patted the chair. “I’ll get us a round.”

He hesitantly took a seat, deciding whether or not he was going to pull a runner on her. She’s chubby, and has really hairy arms, but I’ve settled for worse, especially off of Tinder. At least, she has a cute smile. But she’s so bloated. Did she eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s before meeting up with me?

Still, it had been a three-month-long dry spell. Paul decided to stay.

A moment later, Linda returned with two glasses of whiskey. She handed one to Paul.

“So, where’s your friend?” Paul said.

“She went home.”

Linda sat down. “So, what do you think? Do I look like my pictures?”

“Sure,” Paul said.

Linda flashed him her seashell grin. “You’re a lot hotter in person. I really like your chin.”

Paul stroked his beard dramatically. “So. This fine patch of German-Irish face forest is the reason you matched me, huh?”

“I’m a sucker for beards.”

“It wasn’t my big muscles or my towering height?” Paul said, immediately regretting it. I sure hope she takes that as a joke. He pretended to flex his right bicep just to drive home that he was kidding.

Linda smirked. “Uh, no. I’ve met a lot of tall, buff guys on Tinder. I wanted to meet a guy with a nice chin. And you have one, so…”

Paul grinned. “So.”

Linda winked. “So, Paul, what do you do?”

“I’m co-founder of a science fiction and fantasy-themed indie rock label.”

“Oh, how cool! I love science fiction.”

“I’m recording an EP for a band called The Body Snatchers, actually.”

“Far out! That totally sounds like my jam.”

“And you?”

“I work in molecular biology.”

“Doing what, exactly?”

“Uh, mostly gene blotting, but not really the traditional kind. It’s complicated, and honestly, it would bore you.”

“You’re talking to a guy who has the RNA tree of life tattooed on his back.”

“Shut up!”

“I do. Check it out.” Paul stood, turned around, and pulled up his shirt, revealing the faded black ink. Linda oooh’d.

“How about you? You have any tattoos?” Paul asked, sitting down.

Blushing slightly, Linda turned over her wrist, where the words Gene Catcher were written in blue ink.

“Gene Catcher? That’s a little weird,” Paul said, running his fingers over the ink.

Linda rolled her eyes. “It’s an inside joke. My parents were weird. Whenever my mother tried to talk to me about sex, she’d couch it in these huge, life-or-death terms, like, Remember, sweetie, whoever you sleep with will be giving your children a whole chromosome, better make it good. For the way she talked about it, you’d think my mom was trying to breed the fucking chosen one or something–Paul Atredes, since you like science fiction. But it isn’t that big of a deal. Sex is fun.”

Paul snapped his fingers, smiling. “Dune. I got that reference.”

Linda stared into the bottom of her empty glass. “Anyway.”

An hour and six rounds later, Paul was drunk. They were sitting closer together now, her knees in between his. Linda was talking about how she ran away from home at sixteen and hadn’t seen or heard from her parents since. But Paul wasn’t listening.

She’s so cute. And she’s staring at me like she wants me. If I don’t kiss her soon, I’m gonna blow it. I can’t believe I thought she was fat earlier. That body is a ten.

Paul cupped Linda’s face in his hands. Linda stroked his chin, closed her eyes and said, “Kiss me.”

Paul kissed her. Her tongue flickered inside his mouth and he felt something sting the tip of his nose. Paul opened his eyes. Hers were still closed.

Did she just bite my nose? How could she bite my nose with her tongue in my mouth?

Paul suddenly felt hot. Queasy.

Linda looked skinnier than she had a second ago. When they’d met up, she had a beer belly and a double chin, hadn’t she? That was only an hour ago. The tan girl sitting in front of him was petite and thin, just like her profile pictures showed.

Paul felt another gas bubble rise in his belly. He rubbed his nose. It hurt. But he was drunk and horny, and she was stroking his hand.

His stomach rumbled louder. Paul sat back and clutched his abdomen with both hands.

“Hey, are you alright?” Linda said.

“Just (hic) drunk,” Paul said with a burp.

A sudden, sharp pain cut through his stomach like he was giving Cesarean birth to a xenomorph.

“Hey. Seriously. You look pale,” Linda said. Her hands were on his forehead. The black coils of hair on her arms seemed to rise, reaching for his eyes.

Food poisoning. Shit. What the hell did I eat?

Paul brushed her hands away. “I’m fine. Come here.” He kissed her even deeper than before.

In five minutes, the stomach pain had advanced to full-blown nausea. Paul stopped thinking about the dull ache that nipped the tip of his nose or the strange, wire brush texture of her hair. Paul’s only thought was getting through the next hour without diarrhea.

But she’s so hot. This girl could be a model. She’s way out of my league.

He lost his train of thought when he noticed Linda nuzzling his neck. “I’m pretty drunk, too,” she said, pulling back. Her eyes were balmy and bloodshot. “You wanna go back to my place? I know a funny YouTube video you’ll like…”

Hey! That’s my line.

A wave of nausea hit Paul, crashing down from the dryness of his mouth to the shaking depths of his bowels. No. Not here. Not yet.

“I’m down,” Paul said. “Let’s go.”

A block away, her hand slipped down the front of his pants. “I want you,” Linda said in his ear. “I don’t want to wait, Mr. Hot Shot Sci-Fi Rock Star. Why don’t you engineer somewhere for us to fuck?”

I need to lie down. I need a shower. No. I haven’t had sex in months. I need to do it.

“Wait until we get home,” Paul said.

“No. When I want something, I get it,” Linda said. She pulled him by the hand towards an old Victorian house with a huge wrap-around porch nearby. All the lights were off.

Pain separated his thoughts into staccato bullets.

“We’re in public.”

“So? Never stopped me before.”

Halfway across the front yard, his legs wilted under him. Just need… to lie down…

“Alright. But we need to be fast,” Paul said. He climbed the stairs to the porch, lay down and unbuttoned his jeans.

Linda seemed oblivious to his distress. She was too busy unbuttoning his shirt, stroking his face, kissing him. The dull ache he’d felt on the tip of his nose spread to his eyes and arms. He was too weak to do anything but lie still.

When he opened his eyes, their eyelids were attached.

Paul felt Linda get on top of him. Something ticklish and wet wrapped around his scalp. He felt a sudden, violent stinging all over his skin, like alcohol poured over a scratched-open wound. With great effort, he managed to push her off him and break free.

Linda’s eyelashes had grown long enough to entangle his entire face. They protruded from her eyes in long, black filigrees as thin and supple as the hair on her head, swaying like little antennae as they searched for him.

Paul screamed and rolled backward down the stairs. The little clasps of her eyelashes snapped and went with him. They wriggled and curled on the driveway next to him, still searching for a grip.

“The fuck…?” Paul said, stumbling to his feet. His fingertips grazed the blood seeping out through the dozens of tiny cheesecloth holes puncturing his skin.

In the darkness of the porch, Linda giggled.

He scrambled to pull up his pants.

“I’m sorry,” someone on the porch said. “You’re so nice. It’s just… when I want something, I get it.” The voice wasn’t Linda’s.

He didn’t look back until he was three blocks away. The street was empty, a rolling sine curve of quaint San Francisco houses and bars falling away to a sea of diamond lights sparkling over the Bay like stars. He knew she was chasing him. She hadn’t been able to quite get everything she wanted – she’d taken some, but there was hunger in the voice that had called down to him from the porch.

What’s happening to me? He thought. I’m going to die. Oh, God. I’m going to die. What did she do to me?

Paul searched his body for wounds. He had dozens of tiny pinpricks on his eyelids, the tip of his nose, and his forearms. There wasn’t much blood, but his clothes were ruined.

She took something from me. What? I’m bleeding a little. I’ve still got my wallet. I’ve still got my…

Somewhere up the street, he heard her giggle. As with the voice on the porch, it wasn’t entirely female. There was more bass, more gravel, like ten voices recorded on separate audio tracks and played back simultaneously.

Paul ran. He crashed through the door of the nearest business. It was a Chinese restaurant. Tables of gasping people dropped their soup dumplings to cover their mouths with their hands. He pushed his way into the kitchen, bowling over a waiter carrying a steaming plate of General’s Chicken. A fry cook cursed loudly at him in Chinese.

She’s going to come back for me. She’s going to find me. This is really happening.

He lurched for the kitchen’s back door. Two wild-eyed Chinese chefs blocked his path. One was wielding a cast iron frying pan. Paul found what he was looking for and snatched the biggest butcher knife he could see off the magnetic hanging rack.

They think I’m crazy, Paul realized.

The chef slashed at him with the frying pan, hitting Paul in the arm. Paul gasped, but didn’t drop the knife. He circled crab-wise until his back was to the door, then tripped and stumbled backward into an alleyway, where he expelled everything in his bowels from both ends all until there was nothing more to expel.

Sirens bellowed on the adjacent streets. He tried to stand and run, but his legs felt disconnected from his body, the misfiring signals in his brain trying to control a multitude of scattered pieces. Everything burned. The strength drained from his body with every stumbling step.

A girl in a blue dress walking towards him on the street saw him and lurched backward in disgust.

Paul grabbed her desperately. “Please, help me. Help me.”

The girl kicked him and ran the opposite direction, stopping halfway down the block to yell, “Go die under a bridge, ya stupid bum!”

Paul couldn’t feel his limbs anymore. His shoulder and guts were distant satellites, the pain growing number with every second.

I’m going to lose consciousness soon. And I don’t think I’m going to wake up.

Paul got up and stumbled aimlessly toward anything, anywhere that could save him, past families, businessmen, bachelorette parties all whispering and covering their noses when they caught his foul waft. A group of frat boys on a bar crawl threw a beer bottle at Paul’s head.

He didn’t recognize the person gazing mad-eyed back at him in the glass of the shop window where he stopped to hold himself upright. His reflection looked haggard and deranged. Jesus. I look just like that guy they were putting in the ambulance. Same hair. Same poked-up skin. Jesus, it’s hot. This fever I’ve got must be a hundred and five.

The word “death” lingered in every errant, feverish thought, despite his conscious effort not to think it. The sweltering heat of his body only drove it deeper into his mind. I’ll never get the label off the ground. I’ll never get big arms in the gym. I’ll never get-

Paul leaned against the shop window and vomited blood, bright red streaks showering down the glass. It reminded him of a science fiction movie he’d seen once, where the victims of a zombie virus vomited blood during the first stages of infection. The blood in that movie had looked as fake as the zombies’ latex flesh. Paul’s blood looked wrong, too; it was thin, and runny, like dried egg whites; only, he hadn’t been infected. Linda – or whoever she was – hadn’t given him anything, but rather taken something away. Like she’d done it to the man who Paul had seen die.

It had to be her. He looked exactly like the dying junkie, right down to the bodily fluids covering his pants. It’s what she does. She takes what she takes, and we die, like in that one movie, Species. But that was about an alien who was trying to destroy the human race by breeding us out of existence. No, this Linda – or whatever her real name is –  is more like a Body Snatcher, except she isn’t trying to infiltrate us. She does this for fun.

I still have time to stop her.

Two blocks up and around the corner, Paul saw the man sitting in the window of a Starbucks.

Paul recognized him instantly. He was tall and handsome, with big, muscular arms, a good tan, and a seashell smile. He was bloated, like he’d just eaten an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s. He was using the free Wi-Fi to swipe Tinder profiles on his iPhone. And he had Paul’s chin.

Paul hid the knife as best he could against the side of his leg and slid nonchalantly into the coffee shop. He approached the man, lifted the knife, and stabbed him in the shoulder. He meant to stab him through the heart, but weak as he was, Paul had to sort of slump over into the man with the blade outstretched.

The man with Paul’s chin saw the attack coming and slid easily to the side. He looked down at the knife, then back up at Paul. His eyes narrowed and he set his iPhone gently down on the table. His grip closed around Paul’s wrist. It felt like a thousand-ton vice, burning hot and inhuman.

Slowly, the man with Paul’s chin pulled the knife out of his shoulder. As soon as the blade left skin, the flesh knitted and the wound closed. In an instant, there was nothing but a minuscule dribble of blood to show it was ever there.

Paul recognized the man’s voice when he spoke. It was like Linda’s, only deeper, broader, the kind of voice a starship captain would have, or the singer of a band.

“You surprise me,” the man who had Paul’s chin said. “You of all people should know my flesh is fast-knitting. That was the first one I ever got. I have all the variants, too. Y’know how many thousands of years that took? Lemme put it this way, Paul: there’s a reason I’m the only one around who still has it.”

Paul stared at his hand where it was locked in the man’s grip, the skin quickly turning from white to oily purple. He was too hot and sick to do anything. All around him, people were screaming. The man with his chin didn’t seem bothered. He let go of Paul’s hand. The knife clattered to the floor, and so did Paul.

“Y-y-you t-took m-m-my ch-chin,” Paul said.

The Man With Paul’s Chin casually picked up his phone, returning to the message he’d been typing to Janice, 24, two miles away, which said: You look like trouble.

Someone was sitting on Paul’s back. A different man, an onlooker. He couldn’t move if he wanted to. Locking both of Paul’s wrists behind his back in a bouncer hold, the onlooker asked the Man With Paul’s Chin, “Hey pal, you alright? Looks like this asshole cut you. There’s blood on your shirt.”

“Just fine, thanks. Lots of crazy junkies in this city,” the Man With Paul’s Chin said.

“Well, the cops will be here any minute.” The onlooker nudged Paul in the ribs with his knee. “You hear that? Have fun trying to get high in the joint, you sick bastard.”

The Man With Paul’s Chin gave the onlooker a seashell smile. “Honestly, I think what he needs is an ambulance.”

You stole my chin, Paul thought as the coffee shop ceiling faded to black.

*

A small crowd gathered outside to watch as the paramedics loaded Paul’s body onto a stretcher under flashing blue lights.

“Another one,” one of the paramedics sighed.

“You still don’t think it could be ricin?” the other said.

“Y’know, I thought about your little theory, while we were loading that D.O.A. a few hours ago, and you know what conclusion I came to?” Paramedic A said.

“What?”

“You need to cut your TV time to one hour a night.”

Paramedic B zipped the body bag closed. Beneath it, Paul’s face looked like a pale, dried-out sponge.

The paramedic wagged his finger. “Then how do you explain those other cases in China? Russia? Johannesburg? Mexico City? All the D.N.A. in their bodies, simultaneously destroyed. Gone. Poof. Like it was never there. Dead in a matter of hours.”

“That’s just bullshit you read on the Internet. Wait until the autopsies come back. It’s dope. Something we haven’t seen before. Ricin? Sure. And this is Walter Fuckin’ White.”

“Nah. I’m tellin ya, it’s a cult, and they use ricin to poison their victims. It’s the only logical explanation. Unless it’s aliens….”

Paramedic A grunted, and nodded for the other to help him lift Paul’s stiffening corpse into the ambulance.

*

Somewhere else in the city, Janice, 24, two miles away, waited outside her apartment building for her Lyft to arrive. She hoped the new guy she was meeting up with for drinks liked her shoes. Costarella’s was a nice place, so she’d worn her best Jimmy Choos, the black strappy ones with the rhinestones that showed off her calves.

She stuck her feet out and pointed her toes to admire them. Her calves were smooth and strong from twenty-one years of competitive dancing. Her mother was a dancer, too. Janice thought they were her best feature.

 

Did you like this story? Be sure to leave an honest review! And if you want more, be sure to check out other works by Adam Vine.