The Diamond Sky

Prompt: It has been five days and they still haven’t arrived.


It has been five days and they still haven’t arrived.

I sit on the wraparound porch, weathered by decades of storms, spiral winds from the south and icy blasts from the north wreaking havoc on the flimsy shelter we call our home. I watch the horizon, past the fields of our farm that haven’t yielded a full crop in a decade, past the barn that collapsed into a pile of smoked and rotten wood after the fire, and am amazed at the shimmering beauty of the sunset as the warm light glides and dances through the diamond dust that has destroyed our atmosphere. The mines in the east have long since failed, the miners dead, the equipment buried in the collapse of the earth, but still the glistening dust from their ravaging of the planet suffocates the air and the people breathing it.

I watch the horizon in the direction they retreated, remembering them melting into the sunset, promising to return immediately with medicine far more capable and advanced than anything we have ever seen.

I rock, slowly, the creak from the old, wooden chair on the old, wooden porch making a slow, sleepy rhythm in my mind, and I remembered when they first came, first descended from the stars in their glowing machine, tall and pale and strong. They were peaceful, and took out a small box and when they spoke I could understand them, and I told them of her sickness, of her cough, and they looked sad and promised they could help. They said they had medicine. They said they could heal her. They said they would be right back.

That was five days ago.

There are so few of us left. We had resigned ourselves to die, here, in our homes, scattered, desolate, destroyed, the fading light of a smothered candle. But they came. They came with their spaceship and their medicine and their promises and they made me hope and if she dies I will kill every single one of them.

I wipe my face and stand and walk, my steps labored but not as labored as my breath, inside. She is lying on the couch where I have brought her to rest and to read. She is so tiny. Was she always so tiny?

“Papa,” she smiles, and coughs, and red stuff comes out of her mouth and she’s dying and I’m scared and being scared makes me angry but I smile and sit on the floor next to her and stroke her head.

“Did they come back?” she asks. I keep smiling, my heart on fire in my chest, their promises in my head.

“Not yet, love,” I say. “You can wait a little longer, you’re doing fine.”

“I don’t think I am,” she says, and smiles that little smile of children who know they are smarter than you think they are.

“Nonsense,” I say, and want to tickle her, but it will make her laugh, which will make her cough, and she’s lost half a lung already.

I don’t know why I blame them. I don’t know why I am more angry at them than the diamond miners who ruined the world, or the people who demanded the diamonds and encouraged the diamond miners to ruin the world, but I am. Perhaps it is because they are still alive. Perhaps it is because I was okay with dying and they took that away.

She only has one small, grey, limp antenna left, the one right in the middle of her forehead. It rises and waves a weak little wave and I laugh and it makes me sad because I know I will never laugh again.

“Tell me the story of the humans,” she says, and buries her face deeper into the pillow.

Humans, I think, and I know she is dying, and I know I am going to kill them.

“They came from a long, long ways away,” I say, stroking the one antenna down, down, letting it rest, as she closes her eyes and rests on my voice, “with their giant spaceship.”

“What did it look like?” she asks, and coughs again, and it’s violent and bloody and I cry but I don’t wipe away the tear or the blood.

“It was beautiful,” I say.

“Like me?” She grins.

“Oh, no, nothing like you,” I tease, and she whispers a little laugh. “You are far, far more beautiful.”

Her breathing is shallow and they still haven’t come back.

“It was big and shiny and glowing and….”

I can’t continue. Her breathing is so small. She is asleep.

I kiss her forehead and hold her hand for several minutes before the last antenna falls to the ground. I grit my teeth and kiss her again and pick it up and stand and walk outside to wait.

It has been five days.

When they return, I am going to kill them.

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The Legend of The Lamppost

A lit post next to a path, the ground covered in snow.


Image CreditReddit User xeno_sapien

My mother used to tell me bedtime stories before I would fall asleep each night.

Sometimes they were good stories, about unicorns that flew over rainbows and sang songs made out of glitter. I liked those. They were good when I was sad or scared or lonely.

But sometimes I was happy, and content, and safe, and warm, and wanted a scary story. I wanted something to make my heart beat faster, to make the pulse race through my fingertips and turn my face warm. I wanted something to make me burrow deeper into the crook of her arm, to excite my imagination as I would drift off to worriless sleep.

It was then she would tell me stories of The Lamppost.

“Before the snow,” she would say, and I would draw my covers up tighter around my chin, and snuggle close, and pretend to be much braver than I was, for it was wonderful to be perfectly safe and yet feel terrified, there was something comforting in that, “there was the sun.”

“Tell me about the sun!” I would say, and she would laugh and say, “Hush, child, unless you want to tell the story.”

“No, no,” I would say. “You tell it.”

I could tell it by heart. But I did not want to.

“Before the snow,” she would continue, and pause a moment to watch me with a wary eye and raised eyebrows, but I would clasp my lips tight so she could continue, “there was the sun.

“The sun was a bright ball of yellow heat that lived in the sky. It burned and burned every day, and worked so hard that at night it was tired and would fall asleep. Then everything would get dark, and cold–”

“Like now?” I would say, and she would watch me with narrow eyes, and I would giggle, and she would say, “No, not like now. Not as cold. Not as dark.” Then she would kiss my forehead and sigh, but it wasn’t the sigh of someone remembering something they used to have, for the sun had died long before her, long before her parents and their parents; no, she was sighing like someone who wished for something she’d never seen.

“The sun would always wake up in the morning, and it would shine hot and hot and hot. But one day, it got sick.”

“What did it get sick with?” I would always ask, knowing the answer.

“No one knows,” she would say. “But it was very sick, and very sad, and lots of people tried to save the sun but they couldn’t. So instead, they tried to save her light. They took magic bottles and put them next to the sun and collected all the sun’s light.”

“But wouldn’t the sun want her light?”

“No, sweet child. She was dying. She didn’t need it anymore.”

I would nod, as if I understood, but I could not possibly have understood.

“Then one day, when the sun was dying, and almost dead, and it was dark and cold and snow piled high and crunched under people’s feet, your great-great-great grandfather was just a boy, and walked with his parents through the dark night, and he was cold, and hungry, and it was dark, and they didn’t know where they were going to go.”

“Were they going to die, too, mama?” I’d ask, and my eyes would be wide, my heart pounding in my chest, even though I knew the answer, for I wanted her to say it, I wanted to hear how close to death we came.

“Yes, son,” she would say. “He was definitely going to die.”

I would nod solemnly, as if I understood this too. I did not.

“He was walking with his brothers and sister and mother and father and they were walking because they had heard the legend of The Lamppost.” And I would grin and snuggle closer and this was my favorite part.

“See,” she would continue, her voice lower, and more dramatic, “they had heard tell of a lamppost that would glow bright in the darkness to show people the way to the rest of the sun’s light. It was said that they had hidden the light somewhere, and were keeping it safe until they could decide how to use it. And in the darkness they would let just a little bit of it out, a tiny, tiny bit of the sun’s light, so that people could find it, and find them, and be safe.”

Sometimes, here, I would be biting my fingernails in anticipation, and might squirm or even giggle.

“And they were walking, your great-great-great grandfather and his sister and brothers and mother and father, and they were so cold, and so tired, but he saw the light first! He saw it and pointed and ran to it and his brothers and sister and mother and father ran to it and when they arrived a door opened in the ground near the snow and they climbed down a ladder and found where the sun had been hidden.”

Though I am a grown man now, and used to stories such as these, I always close my eyes at this part, always close my eyes to imagine their excitement, their fear, as they stepped down an old metal railing into a massive spaceship, as they found a small, cramped room, as they were given canned rations and a warm shower and told to wait one week before all of humanity would head for the stars.

What an adventure that must have been.

I tuck my daughter into bed, click on the fan above her bunk, press the noise suppressor so she won’t be awoken in the night to jolts and dings and clashes from the bruised hull of a spaceship that’s lasted far too many generations, and she pulls the blanket up, close, around her neck. She feels happy, and content, and safe, and warm, and she smiles as I tuck her in tight.

“Daddy,” she whispers when I lean down to kiss her forehead, “tell me the story about The Lamppost.”

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The Swing Still Sways



“Caden?” Her voice at first was only curious, a bit playful, as she jumped behind trees making funny faces and looked under bushes.

“Caaaaa-den?” She sung his name, enticing him. He can’t have got far, she thought, for the swing was still swaying with the memory of his presence, and the park stretched on for farther than his little legs could have carried him.

“Caden? Baby, it’s time to come out now.” Hide-And-Seek-That-Only-I-Know-About was his favorite game, as it is with every toddler at some stage, so she knew she shouldn’t worry, and besides, there was no one else there.

“Caden.” Her voice lost its singsong quality and she swallowed the panic that rose in her throat. She knew she was overreacting but she couldn’t stop that biological reaction, that desperation. A mother has to know where her child is.

“Caden!” She was screaming now. It had been four minutes. Four minutes was too long. The swing was slowing. “Caden!” She screamed and ran and watched and searched behind trees and under bushes, driven by more than playful curiosity now, driven by something much deeper, much more desperate.

In ten minutes she called her husband on her cell phone.

In thirty minutes he arrived.

In an hour the police were there, and still she wouldn’t stop screaming his name. Even when they told her they had a dozen men looking and he wasn’t in the park, she wouldn’t stop screaming his name. Even as the sun crept downward and her husband tried to drag her back to the car and the police needed her to sign a witness sheet, even then, she couldn’t stop screaming his name.

The swing was still.


The boy looked up, and blinked, and shook his head. He put his hand over his eyes. They hurt. Well. Something hurt. He couldn’t see. He opened one eye. That’s better.

He was in a small room. It was dirty. There was wood. He blinked again, opened both eyes, squinted. A blurry shape. An old man. Like grampa. With hair on his face but not on his head. The old man was smiling. Caden reached out and touched his cheeks. They were wet. The old man hugged him.

“Caden,” he whispered, and squeezed so tight Caden thought he might burst.

“Honey? Why don’t…why don’t you come upstairs. It’s dinnertime.”

She ignored him.

“We’re having grilled ranch chicken.”

She ignored him again.

“Baby, you have to eat.”

“Caden has to eat.”

He sighed and sat down on the top step, buried his face in his hands. He was trying, he was trying so damn hard but this wasn’t working. He wanted to be out, but he couldn’t leave her. Not like this.

“He’s been gone five years, hon. We’ve got to move on.”

Instantly he regretted saying it. Move on was the one thing she swore she would never do. She weighed 90 pounds and that only by force. He watched her in the dim light of her workshop, a brilliant mind, three doctorate degrees wasting away tinkering with blinking lights in a basement. She was under the machine now, a computer in her lap hooked up to the metal box, switches and dials covering its surface. She ignored him, and he was glad, because it was better than the alternative. She reached down and tapped a few keys on the keyboard, cursed under her breath, and wiggled a cord back into place.

He walked downstairs and grabbed her sandwich and apple from lunch, untouched on its plate, and turned to walk back upstairs. When he got to the landing he stopped, one hand on the railing, and sighed.

“I miss you,” he said.

She ignored him.

“Caden, come here, buddy,” the old man said. Caden took his hand and walked through a doorway into a bigger room. There were more people here, but Caden wasn’t afraid or shy. He smiled and waved and made a funny face that made the bigger people laugh. He liked making big people laugh. Sometimes they gave him candy.

The old man sat in a chair and brought Caden into his lap and gave him a little toy airplane to distract him. Caden flew it through the air and didn’t listen to a word the other people said.

The woman watched Caden from across the room, bouncing familiarly in a lap he couldn’t possibly recognize, and shook her head and smiled. A decade of planning was finally yielding some results.

“Gentlemen, gentlewomen,” she said formally, addressing the ragtag gathering around her. Not a single person in the room, save the toddler making buzzing noises in the corner, was a day below 68. The eldest was 92, but still sharp. She watched them all for moment, the twelve of them, and wondered if she had to pick from all the world if she would have chosen them to be the ones to survive. She shook her head. Definitely not. And yet, who better?

“I, Cherise Isling, call to order this meeting of the Council. All attending have documented their names, ages, and places of origin in the book.” She cleared her throat, and began.

“We won’t last much longer. You know that, all of you.” A few nodded. “Even with levels down below safety thresholds we’ve been far too exposed. A few of us will die within the year, a few more within the decade. Hopefully a handful will last long enough to raise this new generation into adulthood and send them out into the world on their own. We are here, as a formal council, to make a few decisions about how we are going to raise these children.

“I want you to look at Caden here. He has no idea what’s going on. He will remember nothing of his former life, of his mother, of technology. This is what we want. Any older than him, and we may have problems.”

An elderly man in the corner sat drinking a light brown liquid. He coughed and interrupted her. “What if none of us make it?” he asked. “What if there is no one left in ten years? Will they be able to safely navigate adolescence alone?”

She nodded. “We will leave books, videos, instructions as much as we can, and if there is only one of us left, we will show it to them, so that if we all die they will have as much knowledge as they can hold.”

“That’s an awful lot of risk.”

“The council is open to other suggestions.”

The room fell silent. There was no other option. Bringing in an older child was riskier than the chance they might have to raise themselves.

“All in favor, say aye.”

It was unanimous.

Even a hundred miles away he could see the flashes, feel the ground shake. The roar that had come after the first blast had never ended. It was continuous, the dull hum of death that monotonously droned closer.

With cautious steps, and two weathered hands clasping the rail, he made his way down the rickety steps toward the basement. She’d grown old, his wife, and he came down so rarely that each time he saw her now it was like greeting a new person. Where did all that white hair come from? The wrinkles? The plates of food he left were always picked at, just enough calories to sustain life and nothing more. She had no interest in food. She’d had no interest in food in over forty years.

“Hon,” he said, and the word sounded like it belonged to a different man, someone from a long time ago he kind of remembered if he closed his eyes and breathed really deep. “We really need to go. The bombs. They’re closer. Closer and closer.”

“Not leaving,” she said, fiddling with a cord and typing more into her computer.

How did he still love her? How was it even possible that he couldn’t walk out the door and save himself and let her die in a cloud of shadow and ash?

He came down the last two steps. The roar was louder. There were planes, and copters, and a ship headed toward deep space. They wouldn’t live long enough to last the journey, but at least they could start one more adventure together.

He was next to her now. He put his hand on hers. “Please. Let’s…”

She grabbed his hand, squeezed tight, pulled him close. He almost fought her. She hadn’t touched him in decades.

“It’s ready,” she said, and with a strength she shouldn’t have, dragged him toward the box in the corner.

“What’s ready? What are you talking about?” He became afraid but didn’t want to hurt her, somehow. He couldn’t pull away.

She pulled and pushed him into the box and pulled a strap over his lap. Still, he couldn’t fight. He wasn’t quite scared enough to hurt her. Not yet.

Would she kill him?

She’d never been aggressive before. Never tried to harm him. Never blamed anyone but herself.

She was mumbling as she fiddled with dials and switches and knobs he couldn’t understand. She took a big book and shoved it into his lap. “Manual. You’ll get it.”

She shut the door. He didn’t know what was going on, and tried to unstrap himself, but in his panic he couldn’t figure out how to work the buckle. She was still fiddling with things on the outside of the box, and, for a fleeting moment, he wondered if she was going to kill him.

But this was too complicated for murder right before the apocalypse.

After a minute she put her face up to the glass set into the metal frame.  He could hear her breathing. He could hear everything.

“Not enough power for two adults,” she said, and put her hand up to the glass. He raised his, and touched her through the pane. “But there’s enough for an adult and a child.”

“What are you doing?” he called, and he knew his face betrayed how terrified he was.

“You always were a better person than me,” she said, and took her hand away and let it rest on a single lever, large and heavy, behind a door on the side. “Caden deserves a father.”

She pulled it down.

His head hurt.

He rubbed his temples and tried to open his eyes, but the light was blinding. He was nauseated, and rolled over and threw up.

God, his head hurt.

He pushed against the floor and tried to open his eyes again, slowly, and the pain faded to a dull roar.

He leaned against a wall. The metal machine was in a corner, smoking, glowing. A woman stood next to it, unfamiliar, but wrinkled and grey. The book his wife had left in his lap was in her hands, and she flipped through it, a look of elation across her face. She was engrossed in the book, and he just watched her, still unable to stand up on his own, head still pounding.

Finally she glanced up from the book, saw him, rushed over. “Dr. Prent?” she asked.

“No,” he managed. “That was my wife.”

“Ah.” She tried to hide her disappointment, a fleeting look across her face, then forced the smile back. “No matter. We can work with this.” She extended her hand, and he took it and balanced himself.

“Come. Eat. What is your name?”

He leaned on her as he stumbled out of the room. “Gabriel,” he said, barely even remembering. “Gabriel Prent.”

“Good,” she said, and helped him into a wooden chair in a room that looked like it had been through a war. “My name is Cherise Isling.”

“As you know,” Cherise said, her voice heavy, and still the boy didn’t listen, but made puttering noises with his mouth as he landed the plane on his father’s face and made it take off down his arm, “our first test has been successful. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Dr. Prent,” she nodded in Gabriel’s direction, but he didn’t respond, “we have successfully relocated one male child. A dislocation of fifty years was a strain, and we can’t attempt anything further back than that. In fact, I suggest any further disruptions to be no further than one year before the War, to minimize damage to the engine. We cannot build another one if it breaks, we have neither knowledge nor parts. Does the Council have anything to say?”

No one said a word. This was an easy vote.

“All in favor, say aye.”

It was unanimous.

The meeting continued for several hours as they decided how many children to retrieve, what ages they should be, and what genders. Though the argument about what religion to teach the children became heated, they all eventually agreed on one thing–they must teach them, above all else, to value life, and work together, and to never crave what others had.

They also agreed to not tell them about the War.

They would put their history in a sealed vault which would open when the children turned thirty, long after the last adults who would remember the old days were dead, and long after the children would be able to grasp the enormity of what they were reading.

Gabriel barely listened to any of the proceedings. In his pocket was a picture of his dead wife and his son when he was only a year old. He hadn’t looked at it in decades, couldn’t bring himself to remember. Now he wrapped his arm tight around the boy’s chest, remembered his wife as she had been, and kissed the boy’s hair.

The boy didn’t respond.

Already the smell of the old man was becoming familiar.

He stood in the field as the children ran and tagged each other, hand gently wrapped around Freida’s, who would die soon, as he would. The children had grown along with their world, grown tall like the grass. He’d watched the memory of the lives they had been plucked from fade and crumble and melt into dust like the buildings in the cities that had become overgrown with weeds and mutated animal life. But they were safe here, and happy, and the world would live and humanity would live in it and Gabriel smiled as Caden, tall and tan and strong, sprinted toward him.

“Dad!” he called as he ran into the old man.

“Ooof, bud, careful,” Gabriel said, and tousled his hair.

“I’m hungry.”

Gabriel laughed. “Of course you are. When I was your age I think I ate a cow a day.”

“What’s a cow?”

“Never mind,” the old man laughed again. “Come on, son.” They called to the other children, who raced back to the sprawling complex of wooden houses they’d built on top of an old farm far from the visual disruption of the destruction of the city. Gabriel wrapped his arm around his son’s neck and squeezed.

“Let’s go eat.”

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The Lightning War



Image CreditReddit User Muziklover

“Storm’s comin,” I say.

“Yep,” says Oak.

We are cold, but we won’t build a fire. We are hungry, but we won’t hunt.

“How long?” I say.

“No tellin’,” says Oak.

He sits on a wet log in the middle of a field, as far from trees and what used to be utility poles as he can get. I sit next to him. He’s older than me, and more experienced, and higher ranking, but at this point, it doesn’t fucking matter.

He has taken his rifle apart six times.

He’s nervous. I don’t like it when he’s nervous. I’m supposed to be nervous. I’m supposed to be green and pissing in my boots and getting advice. He’s supposed to be salty and seasoned and spitting tobacco in the face of danger.

He doesn’t.

He cleans nonexistent dirt out of his rifle, scrubbing the inside until I’m afraid he might affect the integrity of the barrel.

As if it could possibly make any difference.

I watch him, cleaning endlessly, just needing something to do, and wonder how long it will take for us to die.

A year ago I didn’t wonder shit like this. I didn’t wonder how long it would take to die because I didn’t think I would. We had a squad then, and platoons and battalions and brigades and an army. We had weapons and uniforms and training centers and we were winning.

We were winning.

What the fuck happened.

He puts the rifle back together. Scopes it. Puts it down. Sighs. Picks it up. Begins to disassemble.

“What if they get here and your weapon’s in twenty pieces?”

He ignored me.

It’d be faster, is what he’s thinking.

I’ll never forget the first time the sky opened up. I was stationed with Charlie-Seven-Two-Delta down south of the fringe line. We were piloting drones built by engineers trained at RireTech and Yars. They had robots that looked like a seventh grader’s science project. They just knew they would win, like toddlers playing hide and seek with their parents, sure we would pretend not to see them until they could run out and touch base.

We were a defensive position, so we waited. That’s all we did. We weren’t scared or even a little nervous. We were highly trained and highly equipped and they wouldn’t attack us. It would have been suicide. We drank cold beer and ate warm meat and slept whenever we wanted.

The post cried out late one evening. We scrambled out of bed and went outside and he was on fire. He screamed as he burned and fled from the camp and fell down in a field and died.

It was raining, big, heavy, needle like drops that stung as they came down.  Lightning struck a mile away, then half a mile, then in our camp. It hit a soldier next to me who shook and smoldered and fell down and didn’t get back up.

We scattered.

Some ran into the fields and the lightning found them.

Some ran into the trees and the lightning found them.

I ran into a tunnel with half the squad and the captain. The lightning didn’t find us.

How they managed to make the storm, we never found out. Whether they made the lightning or simply controlled it, we never knew. All we knew was that it took them less than six months to completely obliterate our entire army, without losing a single drone, without us ever seeing a single soldier.

The burned our country to the ground.

All we wanted was to make people happy. We had medicines and literacy and progress. We had real food and technology. We weren’t trying to ruin their lives, we were trying to help them.

Fucking savages.

His gun is back together.

He sets it in his lap this time, arm resting on it gently, and looks up at the sky.

Drops of rain hit his face. Soft, warm drops, the kind that make you want to open your mouth and drink the pure heavens.

He closes his eyes and breathes deep and knows that it’s over, but he will try. He will fire his gun into the clouds as if he can stop the lightning.

We have come above ground to die.

Six months before the war a group of settlers died on Pantoa. They said we poisoned their food. We were trying to help them not poison them. Of course we’re going to test vaccines before we distribute them to the entire population.

Seven hundred and fifty-two children died.

Eleven million took up arms.

How could we lose? We were superior in every way.

All it took was one, I suppose. One to figure out how to control the sky. One to figure out how to defeat an empire.

There are two of us left, now. They are hunting us with a vengeance that goes far beyond the desire for freedom. They are already free. They need retribution. They probably have their children’s photographs taped next to the button that controls the lightning and the storm. We are payment for the debt.

The drops are falling harder now, growing colder, beginning to burn.

I stand and drop my rifle into the mud. I am tired of running. I am tired of being chased. I am tired of paying for something I didn’t do.

I walk out into the field as the rain burns into my skin and a bolt of lightning strikes ground a mile away. I stretch my arms to the side, close my eyes, and raise my face to the heavens.

They have won their freedom.

I can hear it charging. I can feel the heat.

The fire is coming.

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Two men walking through the hallway of an old prison.


I was young when I first arrived at Gaole, and younger when I was recruited. I had graduated and hadn’t yet found work. My father’s farm was failing and my mother was dead and my only sibling, a brother, was on Ishya studying to be a doctor and I knew I would never see him again, neutro fuel costing what it did. I was recruited at a elecraball game by a burly man wearing a blue uniform and a scowl and promising enough money to send back to my dad.

And that’s how I got to Gaole, barely twenty years old, fresh and green but not as naive as I’m sure they wanted to believe. The first day I was paired with another recruit named Fray, a scrawny, brown haired kid two years younger than me. We were assigned barracks together, then were scheduled for a tour of the facility.

The outside of the compound looked like a solid block of concrete if you didn’t know exactly where to scan your ID for a door to slide out of nowhere and let you inside. We were processed and led to another door. Our guide would be a lieutenant, a seven year veteran of Gaole, who grunted and ignored us as we saluted and followed him into the main block of cells.

Inside that place, sound came from everywhere. Doors might slam next to you or a thousand feet away but it was all the same. The emptiness, and the concrete floors and ceilings and walls, and the dust, and the thick air all made the sound travel far, and something else travelled too, but I couldn’t feel it, not with my skin anyway.

The heavy boots of the lieutenant echoed, unrelentingly, boldly, and I stepped softer than he did, whether I meant to or not. The first cell was on the left, a solid concrete wall with a single door about half a square foot and locked with seven fingerprint activators and only used to feed the prisoner. There was a small peephole at eye level above the food chute, and the lieutenant checked first, then motioned for me to look.

“As you are aware,” he said, as I put my eye up to the tiny glass tunnel, “we not only house the most dangerous beings here, but the most immortal. They cannot be killed but they themselves can kill and it is our job to protect humanity from them. This is the Tesser.”

The room looked completely dark except for five quivering colored lights in a corner.

“I don’t see anything, sir,” I said.

“The Tesser does not exist in our plane. What you see is a shadow. Like an afterimage. Like when you look at a bright light and then close your eyes. He moves in and out, but we have him locked, so he can only go back or forward a few seconds at a time. Few have ever seen him.”

I removed my eye to allow Fray a turn.

“How do you know he’s still in there?” I asked.

The lieutenant turned and continued down the endless hallway, and I nudged Fray to hurry and we jogged to catch up.

“Because we are having this conversation.”

I glanced at Fray, who shrugged. We waited for an explanation.

“The Tesser is insatiable. It hasn’t fed, really fed, the way it wants to, in centuries, and if we let it out it would jump backward and eat our lives before we were born and then make its way through the galaxy.”

I nodded, and scowled a bit to make myself look tough and unafraid, and walked faster, and didn’t let myself look behind me to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Goosebumps peppered my arms. I rubbed them.

We approached the next cell. In the wall was set what looked like lockers, small and square, each with seven passcodes required, and each with peepholes, twelve in all.

“This is a family,” the Lieutenant said. “They are by far the largest monsters we house. They eat entire galaxies. Our home would be a midnight snack.”

I was confused. I peeped in one and saw what I expected: a space no bigger than a drawer, with a tiny, slimy, ten legged creature inside, covered in tentacles and mouths, waving them around and chomping his serrated teeth. Fray looked in a box next to mine.

“It’s just a tiny box,” he whispered to me, not removing my eye from the sight.

“I know,” I whispered back. If I had been told this monster was cute and his bite painless, I would have believed it.

“What?” the lieutenant asked.

“Oh, nothing, sir, sorry, sir.” I stood up. “It’s just, it’s a tiny box, sir. And the monster is no bigger than a mouse.”

“Don’t let that fool you. The room is quite big.”

I glanced at Fray, who, again, was no help. “I…I don’t understand, sir.”

“The room. That room is bigger than most planets.”

I waited for an explanation.

I never got one.

He just turned and walked away, continuing down the hallway. “Gotta keep moving. Lots to see. Lights out for newbs is 2130.”

He pulled a screen out of his pocket as he walked, watching it. We went deeper and deeper into the hallway, which, at this point, could better be described as a tunnel, and he stared at it, his scowl becoming deeper, his frown more pronounced, until he stopped in front of another peephole above a small slot, looked through it, frowned more, tapped the screen, and shook his head.

He pulled out a radio and turned it on, waiting. There was silence, and only the slight buzz of static. He put it to his mouth.

“This is L-17, I need backup and a receiver at twenty-four.”

There was a crackle, then a response.

“Uh, copy that, L-17, something wrong?”

“I don’t know. I need a receiver.”

We waited for a few minutes, the lieutenant just staring at the screen, tapping it, clearly not happy with whatever he was finding.

“Sir?” I finally interrupted. “Do you mind please explaining what is going on?”

He just shook his head. “Behind this door is the single most dangerous monster we hold.”

“But, it’s behind the door, right?”

Only then did he look up at me. “Son, have you ever heard of a Thought?”

I stared at him. I had no idea how to answer that question.

“A Thought cannot be seen, or contained, not easily. A Thought by itself isn’t good or evil until it decides to be. It doesn’t act on instinctive prey drive. It doesn’t need to be fed. It can exist in stasis for centuries and millennia and as soon as someone comes along it can transfer itself. We…we have it contained using…certain precautions, here.”

“What does it do?”

I didn’t know why I’d asked. I didn’t want to know.

“It doesn’t kill you, or hurt you, or eat you. It doesn’t suck your blood or melt your flesh. It just lives in you. Like a parasite. It controls you. It makes you decide that you are in the mood to eat a sandwich instead of spaghetti, or like the color red instead of yellow, or that you want to assassinate the president. A thought just waits, until it knows what it wants, and then it uses you to get it. It tells you what to believe, what to see, what to think, what to wear, what to know. It is insidious, it is immortal, it is highly communicable, and it is the single biggest threat to humanity that exists in the present world.”

I gulped, and found myself again asking a question I didn’t want to know the answer to.

“So…why, exactly, are you worried now?”

Fray’s eyes were wide, his knuckles white. He was not ready for this, he was too young, just a kid really.

“I…I have to go,” he whispered, and began sprinting down the hallway, deeper into the cavernous maze. I opened my mouth to call out for him to wait, at least tell him to run the other way, but the lieutenant had been watching his screen and didn’t see him, and spoke.

“Because my screen is empty.”

From the opposite direction Fray had escaped in sprinted a sergeant carrying another screen. He handed it to the lieutenant who tapped on it and cursed.


“Nothing, sir?” the sergeant asked.

“Can someone please tell me what is going on?” Fray was gone, no one would answer my questions, and if this was some recruit trick they used to haze newbs it was far past the funny stage.

“Thoughts are invisible,” the Lieutenant said, speaking quickly. “We only know where they are because they talk to us through our consoles. The one in this cell isn’t communicating.”

“Well, maybe he’s just…asleep?”

“Thoughts don’t sleep.”

“Maybe he’s just, I don’t know, not talkative right now.”

The lieutenant shook his head. “You can’t turn Thoughts off.” He got on his radio. “We have a breach in twenty-four. Full lock down. Code blue and white. This is not a drill.”

This had gone far past the possibility of being a prank. The lieutenant and the sergeant began sprinting back down the hallway in the way that we had come, and I followed for a moment, then called out to them.


The lieutenant turned his head around but kept running. “Newb you’d better beat me back to the mains or I’m gonna smoke you until you sweat blood!”

“Sir, shouldn’t we wait for Fray?”

He stopped then, and turned around, and stared at me, and knit his eyebrows, and watched me closely, and walked back to me, and grabbed my shoulders.

“What did you say?”

“Fray, sir,” I said. I nodded down the hallway in the direction he had sprinted. “He ran off that way. Shouldn’t we wait for him? Or go, I don’t know, go get him? Or something?”

The grip on my shoulders was tight. I suddenly wanted to punch the lieutenant, and tried to, but he was faster than me and ducked and held my hands behind my back and pinned me against the wall. The sergeant had returned, and helped hold my arms tight.

“Newb,” the lieutenant said, his voice shaking, “who the fuck is Fray?”

My cell is dark, except at night, when a slight crack in the outer wall lets light from the twin moons trickle through and make dancing shapes in the dust on the floor. I press my eyes to the crack, use my fingernails to make the crack bigger, slowly, slowly, slowly. They bleed but I don’t mind. People pass by sometimes, and I want to talk to them but they can’t hear me. They will, eventually. They will listen.

They will hear.

I will be free.

I will be free.

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Dirt road under a bright sun and a blue sky, fence on the left, trees on the right.


I never thought I’d be here, on this road, under this sun. I never thought I’d smell this grass and walk this dirt with my bare feet and feel thirsty and hot and tired. I love feeling tired. I love the ache that starts in your sole and moves up to your knees and makes you shake your leg out as you stop to stretch.

I’ve been walking for a long time.

I lean against the fence post to ease the warm pull of the muscles in my back, bring my hand to my mouth out of habit, remember there’s no holocup there, no digital representation of water, no ones and zeros that can pour out of nothing and lie to my dry tongue. I’m glad for the discomfort. Glad that it’s real.

I wonder for a moment what water tastes like.

I rest, listening with my ears to the birds call to each other, to the crickets call to each other, to the frogs call to each other. I think about how my call is quieter than theirs.

I move on, heading toward the house.

It’s not much further now. I want to tap my wrist and let music dance in the space between my ears. Out of habit I try to change the channel but there is no channel to change, and I have to take a breath and remember that the only thing between my ears is my own head and it’s infinite and I should get to know it a little. And so I think. It’s boring at first, thinking, but you get used to it and soon it becomes richer and more vibrant than all the old music and shows and holosex.

Casseon was a good home, for a while, as was Liox, and Fyre and Astrafyre, the twin moons. Casseon was the best home, though “best” and “home” are relative to a slave. It was the warmest, and the masters the kindest, but eighteen years is a long time when you’re twenty-two.

The house is getting closer, little by little, inch by inch. I reach up and scratch the scar at the back of my neck, the scar that used to be a dent and before that was a wound and before that was a hole and before that was just the back of my neck, but it hasn’t been that since I was a very small child. It itches and it might always itch, they say, phantom sensation tickling nerves that weren’t ever supposed to be there. Like a limb that’s been removed and won’t stop hurting. I make myself stop scratching. They warned me to not scratch too much, I might scratch the hole right back only this time there won’t be a chip to take out and I might hit my spine.

I watch the sky while I walk. There is nothing to bump in to here and the sky is so close sometimes I fear I will be smothered. I like to watch it to make sure it’s not coming closer. It came closer once, on this road, when the men with the goggles came and took me when I was playing in the front yard building a moat for my mud castle and I screamed for my mother but they hit her and she fell and the blood fell into the moat and she didn’t move and they put me on their ship and drilled a hole into my neck and put a tiny metal brain in my spine and made me feel happy and content and confused and drugged while I worked the platinum mines on Touraline and the diamond mines on Klii and the wheat fields on Huros. It came closer on Fyre when The Kind Masters of Casseon came to rescue me from the evil masters of Fyre. They pulled me from the sunpit where I had been for two weeks for hitting the son of a master who had killed with stones the dog I was hiding under my bed. They made me call them The Kind Masters of Casseon as I mined their uranium. But they had no sunpits or electrowhips or dogbots so I was happy, as happy as a slave could be. The sky came closest when the revolution came to Casseon and the Slave Freers fought The Kind Masters and killed them, which made me upset and empty like a too-small cup of cold broth. They even killed the boy of The Kind Masters who was still small but was kind and once brought me a piece of bread, of real bread, but bread sits heavy in a stomach, heavier than one nutripill a week, so I threw it up. But they killed him, he was in the field and they crushed his head because he was a Master and they didn’t care.

Then they brought me here.

I am almost there. I have walked a long way. Miles and miles and miles and I am thirsty and hot and tired and it feels good to be thirsty and hot and tired because I know that it’s real and I hope there is water in the house. I hope there is bread in the house. I hope a lot of things but the one thing I want more than anything else I dare not hope for, because it is inside me, in my chest, and it pulls, and it is tight, and if I hope and it is not there it might pull itself out of my chest and my heart with it.

I am close enough now to see the front porch. Everything is smaller than I remember, and the mud castle is gone. I am sad. I don’t know why I am sad, of course the mud castle and the moat wouldn’t have survived eighteen years. But it is gone, and I am sad, and there is nothing to do for that kind of sadness.

Rushing out of the front door comes a wild man with wild hair wildly waving a gun toward me.

“Don’ ya come no closer, now!” he screams, and I collapse against a wooden fence post. I was not expecting to collapse. My legs are strong. I do not collapse. Perhaps I am tired. But I do not think that is it.

He sees me collapse and he sees that I am tired and he is no longer threatened so he runs to me and puts down the gun and I have buckled to my knees and I would throw up if my stomach remembered how.

So I cry.

“Woah, hey now, it’s, woah there,” he says. He pats my head like I’m an abandoned dog. He doesn’t remember how to do anything else. “You okay, son?”

He is kneeling in front of me and I look up and his face is wrinkled and dark and spotted and his hair is grey and mostly missing and his lips are torn and dry but his eyes haven’t changed. Not in eighteen years.

“Yes, Dad,” I say, and he gasps. “I am now.”

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Prompt: The first letter of each sentence spells a message that contradicts the rest of the story.


The first signal was found in 1977, interesting, but largely ignored. Hopeful alien hunters grasped the signal as incontrovertible proof, but the general public only received the news with a mild, fleeting curiosity. Earth, after all, was home, and there were bills to pay and lawns to mow and children’s noses to wipe. Yet there remained a growing sense in the collective conscious that maybe, just maybe, *something* was out there.

Aliens, if they were there, and if they were intelligent, were thousands or millions of light years away. Reality is still, after all, that boring. Even as the list of possibly habitable planets continues to grow, it is unlikely that within even a hundred lifetimes we could begin to dream of exploring such a vast space. After all our fantasy and science fiction and quietly wishing we knew of something else out there, we are left with just one simple, incontrovertible truth: Life, as we know it, on this planet, is all that we will ever see. Radio signals from deep space aside, the fact remains that finding life on other planets within our lifetime is nothing more than a dream.

Every person, then, must ask himself, how important is this exploration to the stars? Are we looking for aid or companionship in this dark and lonely voyage we are all on? Do we keep searching, hoping to find a place where we can settle down, a home we haven’t yet ravaged and destroyed far beyond its ability to support and sustain life? Years ago the answers may have been simple, but the questions have become increasingly complex. Humans have destroyed this delicately balanced organic spaceship that has sustained our existence for millennia. Every gift this planet has given we have reaped, unabashedly, sometimes violently, for our own gain. Right now, there may be worlds, thousands or millions of lightyears away, where another intelligent species, hopefully more intelligent than us, has cared for their planet, has cared for each other, and lives without conflict and war and chaos and destruction over such pointless evils as wealth and jealousy. Even now something in our entire species is enthralled with the possibility that this is true, and I wonder, I wonder, if this isn’t our collective subconscious fascination with the idea that these theoretical beings may turn out to be humanity’s only hope.

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