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Monday, May 26, 2014

"For Auld Lang Syne"

“We have arrived in London,” spoke the plane, in a calm, toneless woman's voice. Burns rubbed his eyes, sluggishly rising out of his bed.

“Time?” asked the scientist, rubbing his eyes.

“December 31, 2099, 4:07 AM, Greenwich Mean Time,” answered the plane. Burns lightly slapped himself in the face, still trying to wake up. Shit. He'd asked for just the time. Didn't need the date. Didn't need a reminder he was out in the field on New Year's Eve. He should be used to it by now. He'd been doing this every day of the year for longer than he could remember. Still, the holidays were never easy. Not that they were any easier for the outside world, of course, but it wasn't their job to remember. They didn't have to know that there was a time, not too long ago, when these were days of joy.

Burns staggered over to the nearby sink, splashing water onto his face. He cupped his hands beneath the faucet, taking a drink. Maybe he didn't have to do the usual load of work today. Maybe he could just gather a few books, enough to say he'd done something, then get back to Urumqi. He could gather double tomorrow to make up for it. Not like there'd be anything else for him to do.

Burns stepped out of the plane, the dry air of England hitting him in full force. To his left was a pit. In the days of old, Burns was told, the hole was home to a canal, spreading rich, flowing water throughout the city. No more water to be found here, he thought. And this was the lucky part of London. Dilapidated buildings towered over him from each side. He looked up at one of them, imagined what kind of sights were lurking from within. Who knows how many survivors were sleeping near Burns, blissfully unaware of his presence. 

Above him was the night sky, stars twinkling overhead. Burns had learned long ago to go out at night whenever he could help it. Working in the dark wasn't easy, but working at day was even worse. Day means the Sun beating down on him. Day means packing extra provisions just to be sure an old man like him won't collapse from the heat. Day means survivors are awake, pleading to Burns with children in hand to take them with him, and every time he'd have to look them straight in the eye and say no. But worst of all, day means a clear view of what the outside world had become.

In the distance was a great building, its bricks dilapidated by the passage of time, yet majestic all the same. In front was Isaac Newton, clad in bronze, still peering over his diagrams, still standing sentinel after all these years, oblivious to the color fading from his skin. Burns waved to the statue, his only company at the library. It was sort of comforting, knowing it was still standing. He wondered how long it would be before the corrosion finally did it in.

Burns stepped into the building, scanning the shelves for books worth collecting. A Bible caught his eye, King James. Burns shook his head. You've got Bibles to spare, he told himself. First book you put in the collection. Skip it. Leave room for something else. The scientist kept wandering through the halls, occasionally stopping to grab any title that got his attention. The Communist Manifesto. A Study in Scarlet. On the Revolutons of Heavenly Spheres. Before too long, Burns was struggling to hold onto the stack. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a peculiar book sitting by itself, a neglected paperback collecting dust. With an odd hesitance, he set his collection down, rubbing at the book's spine for a glimpse at the title. “Vampires from the Deep,” it read. Biting his lip, Burns pulled it from the shelf, and began to read.

“Ocean vampires,” snorted the hunter. “The most nefarious of them all. Can't plunge a stake too well when you're underwater.” Burns shut the book, shaking his head in laughter. Awful stuff. Truly awful. He stared down at the book again, then placed it with the others in his pile. This was the work of a human being, probably long dead now. Someone decided to pour his effort into this, and for that it was worth more than gold to Burns. The scientist picked up the books, briefly struggling under their weight, then headed out of the library.

Burns returned to the outside world. The sky was getting lighter. Wouldn't be long before the horrible Sun returned. He had better be gone before then. Burns walked past the statue of Newton, pausing to take one last look at it. There was a pigeon perched on the statue, its head darting left and right. Burns set the books down on the ground, taking a moment to admire the bird. It had been a long time since he last saw an actual animal, besides the insects, of course. Wait a minute, he thought. A bird. There isn't one of those in the dictionary yet, is there? Burns hastily rummaged through his pockets, pulling out his phone. The scientist snapped a picture, mere moments before the pigeon flew off. Maybe he'd add that tonight, if there was time.

He lifted his books again, making his way toward the plane. A huge white jet, all for him and his work. Travel was a necessity for what he was doing, but Burns always hated having to look at the thing. It seemed wasteful, a big jet like that soaring across the world just for one person. Of course, with what the world had come to, he supposed it didn't make much difference.

Once the plane was in the air, Burns decided he had best prepare something to eat. Entering the kitchen, he approached the tank of mealworms, still blindly crawling through the terrarium, blissfully unaware of how far they were from nature. Maybe making a stew would be nice today, he thought. After a while, he was staring down at a bowl of peculiar brown broth, mealworms and shrivelled potatoes floating through it. He eagerly swallowed down his first spoonful, then stared again at the tank, paying close attention to all the writhing insects inside. Burns couldn't stand it. Elsewhere, people were being forced to eat the awful synthetic stuff. Others were fighting just to have a taste of that. And here he was, lucky enough to eat real, honest-to-God meat, every single day. He was spoiled, he really was. He couldn't stand that kind of guilt.

Hours passed. Burns paced, he napped, he thumbed through the books he'd gathered. This was probably the hardest part of the job, all the waiting. Even in a plane like this, you couldn't cross half the world easily. Burns shook his head, tried not think of all the distance he was travelling. It was easy to forget it, spending so much time locked up in the plane and the collection, but it really was a big world. So big, yet so fragile, bested and felled by the bugs living on her skin.

Eventually, the plane landed. Burns stepped out, looking up at the mountains of Xinjiang. Above him, the sky was pitch black. Night to night. Funny how that works out. In the distance was home, a great steel cube in the middle of the wasteland. Books in hand, Burns stepped inside. As soon as he was through the door, he was greeted by an unconquerable row of books, everything Burns had been able to find worth saving. Homer and Darwin. Shakespeare and Locke. Dante and Nietzsche. Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Confucius, and Zoroaster, all peas in a pod, while Cervantes and Ovid stood guard. Every great mind that had picked up a pen in the last five thousand years was nestled in here somewhere. Them, and the author of “Vampires from the Deep.” Burns searched for any free space left on the shelves, placing the newest books wherever he could, then made his way deeper into the building, off to more pressing matters.

Burns ventured down the corridors, past the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. It wasn't an easy haul, but he'd managed to get most of the Louvre before the flooding got to it. Hell of a month that was. Further down, to the photographs. Images of the Pyramids, the Great Wall, the Statue of Liberty, and anything else he couldn't hope to fit. Pictures of steam engines and airplanes, printers and firearms. Pictures of war, in all its horror, children screaming, bodies on the ground, coupled with pictures of triumph. The soldiers returning home. Hillary on Mt. Everest. Armstrong on the Moon. Past all the spectacles, until Burns came to his destination. In the midst of all the splendor, his living quarters were rather plain. A bed, a bathroom, a kitchen with a tank of crickets next to it, and of course, the computer. Burns sat down and uploaded his photo. Soon the pigeon was on the screen, still staring back at Burns with those uncomfortably wide eyes.

“Bird,” typed Burns next to the picture. “Oiseau. Pájaro. Птица. . पक्षी. Πουλί. Avis.” Another entry in the dictionary. Maybe by the time he was dead, the book would be something presentable. Something whoever found the crypt would be able to put to good use. What if he left out a word, he wondered? What if he died forgetting to add something important? That word would die with him. The future would be stuck without it, forced to make do with fragments of all the treasures he'd left behind. The idea tore Burns up. He shook his head, forcing all the horrible thoughts out of his head. He'd just have to make sure he didn't forget any words. That's why he keeps going. If the project was complete, he'd have scrambled to find the nearest bullet to put in his head. But there was still work to be done, always work, and for that, he'd need to stay strong, trudge on.

Burns looked down at the clock at the bottom of the screen. Eleven fifty-seven, it read. Midnight was scarce minutes away. Soon he'd be looking at a new year, new century, yet the world would change little. No more than it already had, at least. He took a deep breath, rubbed his temples, tried to focus away from the heat that permeated the chamber. Time to carry on the New Year's tradition. He brought up the video. Had to watch it every year since it happened, remind himself of what he's doing.

The dictionary vanished from the screen. In its place was the sight of a great round chamber, its walls lined with the blurred sight of suited figures. In the center, being looked down on by the whole world, was Burns. A much younger man, still with a smooth face and color in his hair, sweating buckets as he awaited judgment.

“Your proposal interesting one, Dr. Burns,” said a gruff man's voice off-screen, clearing his throat. “But why should it be funded? You still can't seem to answer that. With all the pressing matters at hand, shouldn't all our efforts be focused on the future?” The young man took a deep breath, while the old man watching did the same in unison.

“This is about the future, sir,” said Burns, somehow managing a smile amidst the pressure. “I'm thinking far into the future. After we're gone.”

“You're saying that like we will be gone,” interrupted the voice.

“I don't want it to be true any more than you do, sir, but I don't have high hopes for us. At the rate things are going, we'll be dead before too long. But the good Earth will survive, scarred but far from defeated. Maybe one day, it'll have healed enough for it to allow animals with reason to walk on its surface again. And if that day comes, I want them to know about us.”

“You want them to have records, you mean.”

“We made mistakes, lots of them, and we'll suffer the consequences for it. But we did good things too. We created machines, built cities, told stories, painted pictures. We crossed oceans, scaled mountains, even stepped off-world. We studied our surroundings, learned how to think, how to love. We may have to die, but I don't see why our memories should go with us.”

“So your motivation for all of this is...” The young Burns sniffled a little, fighting to stay composed.
“I want to do this so whoever inherits this planet will know all we've done. I want our achievements to be remembered. For the sake of old times.” Burns paused the video. That was all he needed to see. He looked down at the clock. Twelve oh-two. Fuck. It was already too late to do what he should've, but it was best he try and go through with it all the same. He walked over to the fridge and pulled out the last of his treasures, Muscadine from a vineyard now underwater. Burns poured himself a glass and hoisted it into the air, a toast with all his dead companions.

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?”

Friday, December 21, 2012

"Eight Minutes"

One minute.
The elevator doors opened, allowing the man inside to make his way towards the interview. “This is the big day,” Ben thought to himself as he adjusted his tie. It hadn’t been an easy journey, but by the end of the day he was going to be somebody. He’d finally be a man making a real salary, the kind of person who could support a family one day.
When Ben was younger, his mother had always told him that everything he wanted would happen as long as he was willing to work for it. He did everything perfect in those business classes. He took all those internships, doing a company’s grunt work without complaint. In his free time he’d fantasize about the dream, looking into what else he could do to make it happen. As he navigated the halls, Ben came across a door with a familiar set of numbers on its front.
“Room 1288. This is the place,” Ben said quietly. He took a deep breath, then exhaled, letting serenity course through his body. He’d be fine, he told himself. This was the last step of the journey. He just needed to do the interview, and the job was his. With a calm confidence, he opened the door and stepped in.

“Come on, come on, pick up, pick up…” Geoff chanted anxiously. A week, Stephanie told him. She wouldn’t be able to talk for a week. It had been a month since then. Why couldn’t he still reach her? She couldn’t have been angry at him. He’d done nothing wrong. Was she in trouble? Maybe she got in a car accident or something. Geoff’s stomach churned uneasily. He hoped she was OK. He just needed to reach her…
“Hi, this is Stephanie!” said the recording cheerfully. “I’m sorry I can’t make it to the phone, but if you leave me a message, I’ll get back to you.” Geoff hung up and put the phone away. He tucked in the covers of his bed, looking at the familiar surroundings of his room. Looks like he wouldn’t be talking to her today either. He checked the time. Three in the afternoon.
“I should be outside,” Geoff thought. If he couldn’t talk to Stephanie, he should at least do something. But what else was there? The town felt more barren every day. People kept moving to livelier places, businesses kept closing down. What was it about the place that made people want to leave, Geoff wondered? It wasn’t him, was it? The only light left in the godforsaken place was Stephanie, and he had no idea what came of her either.
Geoff turned in his bed, trying to lay comfortably. His eyelids began to grow heavy. For lack of any better options, he decided, he might as well just sleep.

Ninety-three million miles away, the Sun had gone nova.

Two minutes.
            Tiffany walked towards Mrs. Basil’s classroom, staring at the ground the whole time. Her grip around the straps of her backpack tightened. Don’t look up, she told herself. If she couldn’t see them, maybe they couldn’t see her either. Just keep heading for the classroom, and you’ll be fine. Maybe they’re not even around.
            “Where do you think you’re going?” asked a familiar voice. Tiffany looked up to see Josh, surrounded by two more of the older kids.
            “I…I’m just going to class,” Tiffany answered faintly.
            “Why? So you can go cry to the teacher some more?” Josh and his friends stepped closer towards Tiffany, forming a circle around her.
            “Please leave me alone!” she shrieked. “Come on, guys. I never did nothin’ to you, did I?”
            “That’s a nice backpack…” said Josh, rubbing his fingers against the case.
            “Well it’s mine!” Tiffany retorted. “You can’t have it!”
            “Oh, yeah?” Josh replied, wrestling the backpack off of Tiffany’s shoulders.
            “Hey, cut it out!” yelled Tiffany, struggling fruitlessly to resist. “Stop it!” Soon the backpack was in Josh’s hands.
            “Keep away!” he yelled, tossing it to one of his friends. Tiffany ran back and forth, trying to retrieve her backpack, though as soon as she reached one of the bullies it had already been tossed to another.
            “Come on, guys! I mean it!” she screamed. “This isn’t funny! Give it back!”
            “You really want it back, huh?” asked Josh. “Then you can have it!” He threw the backpack forcefully at Tiffany, knocking her back as she caught it. The bullies walked off laughing, leaving the girl on the floor, quietly groaning in pain.

            “Ben…Paulsen? Is that right?” asked the interviewer. He stared at the young man in front of him with a very quiet form of impatience.
            “Yes, sir! It is!” Ben answered cheerfully.
            “It says here you’re good with computers?”
            “Very good, sir. If you needed a spreadsheet, I’d have it done for you in a snap!” He gave a weak chuckle to himself. The interviewer curled his lips into a small smile of his own. “I’m also…I’m really good with people too, sir.” Ben added. “I’m very sociable, I get along well with others. So in, you know…a cooperative working environment I’d do really well.”
            “What else can you do?” asked the interviewer. The smile vanished from Ben’s face.
            “E…excuse me, sir?”
            “Plenty of people know how to work a computer. And getting along with others is expected. It’s the bare minimum. What can you offer me that the other schmucks lining up to work here can’t?”
            “What…else can I do?” Ben repeated.
            “Yeah, that’s right.”
            “Well…” Ben smiled again, this time a little more crooked than before. “Well, this job’s always been sort of a dream of mine, and I’ve been working towards it for a very long time…”
            “That’s nice, but what do you have to show for it?” interrupted the interviewer. “If you’re so special, what can you do?”

            The Sun’s brilliant, all-consuming flames shot out in all directions, moving through the cosmos at unfathomable speeds.

Three minutes.
            “Father?” asked the assistant, stepping into the priest’s office. “Father, they’ve started singing already. The mass has begun. We need you!” Father Walker paid no heed to his assistant, staring at his desk, lost in thought.
            “I don’t know, son,” said the priest. “Am I really needed after all?”
            “It’s the funeral, isn’t it? You’re still thinking about yesterday.”
            “I tried to save the boy, you know,” Walker said with a heavy sigh. “He came to me asking for help. Me, of all people. I could do it, I said to myself. Giving other people hope is my job. I could stop the lad’s troubles. But in the end, he still did it, and I’m the one who’s got tell the boy’s parents it’ll be OK.”
            “You did what you could, Father. Nobody’s judging you.” Walker looked at the door leading out of his office, straining to hear the choir singing its hymns outside.
            “I’d beg to differ,” said the priest, donning his robes. “I suppose I’d better get out there, though.”
            “Have you prepared a sermon already, Father?”
            “Of course I have. I know just what I need to say.”

            Tiffany ran into the bathroom as fast as she could, locked one of the stalls, and sat on the toilet, bringing her legs up to the seat so nobody could see her feet. Every day it was the same. People were mean to her at school, then people would be mean to her at home.
            Her father told her it was her fault when bad things happened. She’d always have done something wrong herself, and whatever she got was a punishment. She must have done a lot to be punished as much as she had. Tiffany began to sniffle.
            Were her grades too bad? Did she not brush her teeth well enough in the morning? Tiffany puzzled as hard as she could, trying to figure out what she did wrong. There must have been something if she was getting punished so much. It wouldn’t happen without a reason. She was sure of that.
            Her thoughts shifted to how she’d see Josh again before the day was over. After that she’d go home. Mom and Dad would probably be fighting again. She never knew what they were saying, but it was always so loud. Then she’d go to bed, and the same thing would happen again.
            Tiffany put her face into her hands and started to cry, loudly and without shame. As she heard her own sobs echo through the bathroom, she quickly closed her mouth, struggling to stay as quiet as she could. She shouldn’t make too much noise, she decided. She could be punished for that.

            The planet Mercury was consumed by the light.

Four minutes.
            The phone rang. Geoff was roused from his slumber as quickly as he had entered it. Groggily, he reached his hand towards the phone. “Stephanie,” read the screen. His eyes widening, Geoff answered.
            “Hello, Stephanie?” he said, still not fully awake.
            “Hi, Geoff,” greeted the voice on the other line.
            “Steph, there you are!” his voice began to perk up. “I was starting to worry about you! How have you been?”
            “I’ve been fine,” she answered apathetically. “But there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
            “Of course, anything. What is it?” The phone stayed silent before Stephanie continued.
            “I think it’s better if we stopped talking.” Geoff stared at the wall in disbelief.
            “What? Why? Did…did I do something wrong?”
            “It’s not that, it’s just…every time I talk to you it’s draining. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and…what do I get out of talking with you? I listen to all this shit you have to say, but when have you ever been willing to do something for me?”
            “I…I like talking with you, though.”
            “I’m really, sorry, Geoff, but I think it’d be better for both of us if we stopped.”
            “But Stephanie, wait!” the man demanded. “You don’t know what it’s like, you know…being me. I’ve never really had a lot, you know. Talking with you is all that’s really kept me going. If you’re not in my life anymore…what am I supposed to do?”
            “Good-bye, Geoff.” The phone hung up. Geoff slowly put the phone down, his mouth agape in shock.

            “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” the priest’s assistant read to the crowd. “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.”
            Father Walker looked out at the crowd. Most of them were listening attentively. Some of them, mostly children, were looking away in disinterest. Even the boy’s family was there. Yesterday he saw them in tears, and yet somehow they managed to stay so composed.
            All of them were there to listen to him. The priest allowed himself a small smile. Most people didn’t have the benefit of an audience. People cared about what he had to say. Even the boy cared. Society had placed a value on his words, a luxury only a select few were allowed.
            "And the Lord said 'I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them,’” the assistant finished. “And now, I believe Father Walker has prepared a sermon for us.” The assistant walked away from the podium, letting the priest take his place. The minister looked out towards the crowd and cleared his throat.

Five minutes.
“Well, Mr. Paulsen, we…uh, certainly appreciate you coming over.” The interviewer stuck out his hand. Ben shook it heartily, still sporting his eager smile.
            “Thank you for making the time for me! So, uh…what do…you know, what do you think?” The interviewer got up from his chair.
            “There are a lot of things we have to look over before we can make a real decision,” he said gruffly, making his way to the door. “We’ll call you when we’re ready.” He opened the door and gestured towards it.
            “Uh, OK…” Ben said nervously. “Well do…do you have any idea of how long it’ll take for me to hear back?”
            “There is none,” answered the interviewer. He gestured to the door.
            “Excuse me?”
            “There’s no time you’ll expect to hear back. We’ll do it when we’re ready, OK? You can leave now.”
            “All right, then,” said Ben sheepishly, steeping out of the door. “Have a great day!”
            “Bye,” said the interviewer, slamming the door shut. Ben looked out at the hallway. No set time, he thought to himself. It could take weeks for him to hear back. Months, even. Ben slowly walked forward.
            Maybe they’d never call back, he thought to himself. What if all of that was just something they said to shut him up? Ben shook his head. No, no. He couldn’t think of that. Always assume the best. Everything he wanted would happen if he was willing to work for it. He’d get the job. It’d all go as planned. Everything would be fine.

            “Tiffany, you’re late,” said Mrs. Basil, the whole class turning to face the student walking through the door. “Do you have a tardy slip?”
            “No,” answered Tiffany hoarsely, trying to avoid the gaze of the other students. The teacher looked at her with concern.
            “Class, why don’t you take a minute to review your homework?” asked Mrs. Basil. “I’ll be right back.” The teacher stepped out of the classroom, taking Tiffany with her, and shut the door.
            “Are you all right?” she asked, kneeling down to the young girl’s level.
            “Y…yes, I’m fine…” Mrs. Basil looked carefully at Tiffany’s face, the area around her eyes so red and puffy.
            “Were you crying?”
            “No,” Tiffany answered firmly. Mrs. Basil reached into her pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, offering it to the student.
            “You don’t need to lie to me, Tiffany.”
            “Please don’t punish me!” she begged fervently.
            “Why would I punish you? Just tell me what happened.” Tiffany took the handkerchief and brushed it against her face.
            “W…well, Josh and his friends have been picking on me…”
            “You mean bullying?” asked the teacher. “Oh, you should’ve told someone about this sooner. I’ll take care of this, don’t worry. I’ll tell the principal about what Josh was doing, maybe even call your parents so they know…”
            “No! Please don’t call my parents!” Mrs. Basil gave a deep sigh.
            “Look, sweetie, let me worry about this, OK? Just go inside and try to pay attention to the class. I promise, afterwards Josh won’t bother you anymore.”

Six minutes.
            Geoff laid in his bed despondently. She knew it’d hurt him, he thought to himself. She knew it would hurt and she didn’t care. There was one thing left that he cared about in this town, and now that was gone too. His arms started to shake involuntarily. Overcome with fury, he grabbed one of the pillows on his bed and threw it at the bookshelf opposite him. Several books fell out, upset by the force of the throw. Returning underneath the covers, Geoff hugged the remaining pillow tightly.
            Stephanie was all he had left. Talking to her was the only thing that made it worth waking up the next day. Without her, he was just a man alone in an empty town where nobody knew who he was. There was nothing to look forward to anymore. He turned in his bed uneasily.
            He couldn’t be angry, though, Geoff told himself. He knew who to blame. It was him who pushed away Stephanie. He was the reason why he was stuck where he was. He wasn’t sure just what he did to end up here, but he was always told he brought everything upon himself. Taking in a deep breath, Geoff let the tears slowly stream down his face.
            He hated himself. He wished that he’d die.

            Ben stepped out of the elevator, back on the ground floor. In his head he replayed the interview again and again, every last word still freshly burnt into his mind. Something must have gone wrong, he told himself. If he was good enough they would’ve said something. They would’ve at least told him when he could hear back.
            Ben walked out of the building, stepping towards his car. It wasn’t right. He did everything he was supposed to. He wasn’t a slacker. He worked towards his goal. He gave it all, and he still ended up a mediocrity. Ben turned around, looking up at the colossal building, at all the offices up top that would never be his. What kind of world is this, he thought to himself? How could someone work their ass off and get nothing to show for it?
            Ben pulled his car keys out of his pocket, preparing to unlock the door. Before he could put his thumb on the button, though, he stopped. The man was completely frozen, save for the furrowing of his brow.
            “FUCK!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, stopping his feet. “Fuck!” He looked up at the building again. That was his dream. He’d spent his life slaving away towards it, and the men up there shot him down as soon as they had the chance.
            Ben hated them. He wished that they’d die.

            The planet Venus was taken by the flames.

Seven minutes.
            “Yesterday,” began Father Walker, keeping his gaze focused on the crowd before him. “I faced the difficult task of helping a family bury their son. This boy…things had been hard for him, and I suppose things reached the point where the world was too much for him to bear.” The priest paused, swallowing his saliva and thinking over his next words carefully. Not once did he look away from the crowd.
            “Perhaps if things had gone a little differently, that boy would still be here with us. Maybe if his peers had been better to him, or if the world had stopped trying to pile on more troubles. Or if…if the person he turned to for help did more for him.” He looked at the boy’s parents, their faces betraying no emotion at the sermon.
            “But none of that happened. Everyone causing him so much grief…they didn’t care how much they were pushing him. They had their own lives to go about. We’re all so occupied with our day-to-day affairs that we forget about the bigger picture.” He raised his arm into the air, the excitement in his voice growing.
            “God is watching all of us. And one day, he will judge all of us. Only he knows when that day will come, but it will. All of us need to look inside ourselves and ask what we’ve done with our lives. Will we have any regret when the day of our reckoning comes?”

            “Now, class, today we’ll be learning about the speed of light,” Mrs. Basil said to her students. She spoke slowly, emphasizing each word to make sure the children could understand her. “Now, the speed of light is very fast. Does anybody know how fast it goes?” A few hands shot up in the class. “Yes, Greg?”
            “A hundred miles?”
            “No, faster than that. Sue?”
            “A thousand miles!”
            “Not quite. What about you, Tiffany?” The teacher looked at the student up front, her head laying apathetically on her desk. “How fast do you think the speed of light is?” Tiffany continued staring off at the wall, refusing to say a word. Mrs. Basil gave a quick frown before reaching for a marker.
            “Well, students, the speed of light is actually around 186,000 miles per second!” She wrote the number on the board, drawing a few lines underneath for good measure. “That’s really fast, but light still has to travel. It can’t go somewhere instantly. Like in outer space!” The teacher drew a large circle on one side of the board. At the other end, she drew a much smaller circle.
            “Now, let’s say this is the Sun and this is the Earth,” explained the teacher, labeling the circles with her marker. “They’re really, really far away! Millions of miles, even! It takes the Sun’s light time before it can reach the Earth. Because of that, we never really see the Sun as it is right now. If anything happened to the Sun, nobody on Earth would know about it until after…”

Eight minutes.
            The raging nova continued onward, devouring the planet in its path. Billions upon billions of screams were heard at once, the world’s last noises unheard by the cosmos. Still in his bed, Geoff managed a brief smile before the light took him, knowing that for one brief moment the world was as it should be.
            Ben looked up at the building once more. For the faintest moment, he could hear the agony of the men up top, crying as their own flesh seared off of their bones. Ben had no time to feel any satisfaction, as the same fate soon met him.
            Father Walker ignored the heat, continuing his sermon. Whatever was happening, he knew these people needed hope. They needed him. The priest talked on until the light had finally taken him, and the whole church with it.
            Mrs. Basil pushed Tiffany down to the floor, trying to shield her from the flames with her own body. She looked down at the student, staring at the fear in her eyes.
            “It’ll all be OK, Tiffany,” she said uneasily, looking at the flames around her. “It’ll all be…”
            The planet Earth was taken by the light. The brilliant flames kept moving, their journey still having only just begun.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

"The Daemon, Amends"

“You can’t keep this up much longer,” said the daemon. “Why are you still doing it to yourself? You know damn well what you’re supposed to do.”
            I laid on my barren mattress, naked, scrunched into a fetal position, trying to make myself as small as I could. I don’t even remember how long it’s been since the daemon took control. He’s grown so much now, while I’ve turned frail. Everything’s turned into a chore with him around. Even the simple act of eating reminds me of him. He’s always there, even when I can’t see him, whispering into my ear, telling him what to do.
            “You don’t even know why you’re still fighting back, are you?” he asked me. “You’re just a kid, struggling mindlessly to resist what’s good for him. Just give in already, and you’ll be all better afterwards. Shut up, stick out your arm, take the medicine.”
            “…People would know, wouldn’t they?” I asked weakly. “Other people would know I was dead.”
            “That’s part of the beauty, isn’t it?” the daemon replied. “People would know. The very same people who have stepped on you your whole life. You’d show to them what happens when you push a man like that. They’ll go to your grave and realize they were the ones who put you there. In death, you’d tell them the error of their ways. A martyr to the noble cause of treating each other better.”
            “There are other people, aren’t there? People who care about me. People who’d really miss me. I think there are people like that. Probably.”
            “They’d get over it,” the daemon dismissed with a wave of his hand. “They’d probably even understand. If you’re in pain, you do what you need to make the pain stop. Who are they to let you keep suffering?” I turned my face away from the daemon and grimaced, using what remained of my strength to fight back the tears.
            “…I don’t want to die.”
            “If you didn’t want to die, you wouldn’t have created me.”
            “No, I mean…a part of me wants that, sure, but it’s not what I really want, is it? All I want is a better life.”
            “You tried that already, remember? You worked your ass off for a better life, and you still couldn’t get past the million shitheads that didn’t want you to have one. I’m afraid you’ll just have to settle for the next best thing.”
            “I could work harder. I could, fuck, I don’t know, talk to a therapist or something. There’s got to be another option.”
            “You want to go out into the world and let yourself get hurt again? Fine, go for it.” The daemon rested in a nearby chair, putting his arms behind his head. “I already know how it’s going to turn out. You’re going to step out there, wide-eyed and hopeful, ready to make things right. You’re going to start your big plan to fix your life, and something will get fucked up. Maybe the job you did wasn’t as good as you thought. Maybe some asshole you needed to give you a chance decided he didn’t want to. Either way, you’re going to be back here telling me I was right.” The daemon rose from his seat. I could hear his footsteps making his way towards the bed. He placed a hand on his shoulder.
            “The world rejected you, so reject it back. It’s that easy. Sit up.” I hold my breath, laying as still as a corpse. Maybe he’s just like a big animal, I tell myself. Maybe if I stay still, he’ll go away.
            “Sit up!” he screamed. “I’ve got a present for you.” With uneasy anticipation, I turn towards the daemon, doing as he commanded. He pulled his left hand behind his back, revealing the pistol he was holding.
            “Brand-new, fully loaded, just for you,” the daemon said warmly. “When was the last time someone gave you a gift, huh? Go on, take it.” He opened his palm, placing it in front of my face. Almost involuntarily, I slowly lift my own arm and grab the gun. I feel the solid grip of the handle in my hand. I was secretly hoping all this shit was still in my imagination, but the daemon’s as real as the gun in my hand.
            “Put the barrel in your mouth and point upwards,” suggested the daemon. “It’ll go right through the brain stem. Any other way and you’re likely to misfire.”
            “…You really want me to do it,” I said to him. “You want me to do it now.”
            “How many times do I have to tell you this, you stupid fucker? I’m you. Everything about me comes from you. Everything I say, you’re the one who thought it. You want to do it now. And I’m letting you do it. Put it in your mouth and pull the trigger.” I look down at the gun again. I’ve never held one before. There’s something scary about it, but at the same time, holding a weapon like this in my hands makes me feel powerful.
            “Think about the ones who have hurt you,” said the daemon. “Think about what they said. You’ve wanted to hurt them back for a long time. I know you have. They’d have to spend the rest of their lives with the guilt of what they did. Maybe they’d even kill themselves too. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? You can stop all the pain right now. All you have to do is pull the trigger.”
            I look down at the gun again. I think long and hard about the life I’ve wanted to leave behind. My family, my old classmates, my lovers, my enemies. Decades are coursing through my brain. A lot’s happened in this journey the daemon’s telling me to put an end to. I close my eyes, locking all those memories away for the last time, and take a deep breath. I look at the daemon again.
            “All right,” I tell him. “I’ll pull the trigger.” I point the gun at his face and fire. The daemon falls to the ground, a pool of blood growing around him. I can still see his body moving. I fire again. I empty the whole goddamn clip into him just to make sure. I’m panting very rapidly now. My eyes are wide and unblinking. I open the drawer to my nightstand, and put the horrible weapon away. I look again at the corpse. The daemon used to be so powerful, and now I’m so far above him.
            “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” I say aloud, just in case he’s still around. “But if I was willing to end my life, how hard could it be to change it? Now where are my goddamn clothes?”
            I get dressed for the first time in what feels like ages. As I clothe myself once again, I feel like a new man. Like I’ve been reborn. Maybe I will fail again. Hell, maybe things will get so bad the daemon will come back. But if he ever tries to drag me as low as he did again, this time I’ll be ready.
            I make my way towards the door of my apartment and step outside.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Comstock's Revenge

In 1873, a man named Anthony Comstock convinced Congress to pass the Comstock Act, banning the distribution of obscene materials through the Postal Service. Those who wished to share their writing could be arrested if it was deemed obscene by the eyes of the law. It was even illegal to send books of anatomy to medical schools due to their depictions of nudity. Fifteen people were driven to suicide as a result of Comstock’s efforts to suppress the artist.
            Since then, we have entered the age of a new breed of censorship, one very different from its predecessors but every bit as ugly and devoted towards the persecution of the creative. What institution is responsible for this cruelty? Not the government, not the church, but the common man, imposing a censorship upon themselves. And what crime are the oppressed artists of this generation guilty of? Blasphemy? Obscenity?  No, instead they have committed a sin far more heinous to the modern world. They are guilty of simple creativity, of attempting to work towards art in a world that no longer has a need for it. We are in the middle of Huxley’s nightmares, a society where books need not be banned because nobody wants to read them.
            This is the generation of instant gratification. As information becomes faster to receive and to transmit, the concept of “take your time” becomes more of a taboo with each year. In the digital age, we have all the minute-long videos we could ask for, an army of amusing pictures, and every celebrity’s thoughts in 140 characters or less. All entertainment must be easy to create and easy to consume. If not, then why bother with it?
            Every film’s an adaptation or a sequel, or perhaps both. The familiar is comforting. There’s no sense in spending time and money on something unless you’re sure you like it, and the only way to be sure of that is if you’ve already seen it before. Our culture continually vomits up the familiar, playing it safe, never treading new waters, because that’s exactly what we want it to do. The new game is content aggregation, not content creation.
            And what of those who dare to attempt something different? What about the few who wish not to rehash, but to create? What if you want to make something out of whole cloth, blow everyone’s mind away, change the world? In today’s society, in the land of keeping it simple, the answer is as plain as our entertainment: God help you.
            Why should we dignify your work with the honor of our attention? We’ve never heard of it before, and we’ve never heard of you either. And look at everything else I can pacify myself with. Giving you a chance simply isn’t worth the time. Run along now, and never bother anyone else again. Don’t you dare ever pursue such a despicable dream.
            The aspiring artist is a fossil, a relic with no place in today’s world. He is a drop in the ocean, fruitlessly fighting for his work to shine in an environment that has left him invisible. Imagine being greeted by a society where everything you love is now hated. You’d almost be tempted to die.
            Throughout the years there have been those who dreamed of destroying the spirit of the artist, countless maenads eager to tear apart poor Orpheus. They chose to fight directly. Censorship, persecution, even physical violence. Though their efforts failed, in the end their task proved not to be so impossible after all. To kill the artist, you do not focus your attention on him. You focus your attention elsewhere, and get everyone else to do the same.
            You can almost hear old Comstock laughing, wishing he’d thought of it himself.

Friday, September 21, 2012

"Per Astra" is here!

Well, it's been Hell trying to get it out, but I'm pleased to announce that Per Astra Ad Aspera is finally available for Kindle. I won't lie, I'm pretty nervous hoping things turn out well. At the same time, though, I'm really proud of the book's quality. I like it, and I'm hoping everyone else does too.

So...check it out! It's got science fiction, it's got drama, it's DRM-free, and it's only five dollars.

"The Lamentations of Azrael"

One day, I will go blind.
            I am a hideous pulsating mass of billions upon billions of eyes, one for every person who ever was, and ever shall be. For every soul I claim, another eye closes shut, lost to me forever. I am not what most people imagine an angel to look like. But then again, I’m not a normal angel.
            The other angels are selfish. Stupid. They’re too busy occupying themselves with the workings of the heavens to notice what happens down below. But I do. I have to. It’s my job to go wherever there is death, to collect the fallen. I must gaze upon humanity. Ugly, filthy, violent, raw humanity. I’ve seen infants suffocated by their own mothers. I’ve seen the crippled and the diseased tossed into the wild and left at the mercy of the elements. I’ve seen men executed for crimes they didn’t commit, a crowd of the masses cheering their demise being the last sound to fall upon their ears. All that is evil in creation, I’ve been forced to watch.
            I’ve seen kings and tyrants humbled, learning in their final moments that they’re as weak and pathetic as the commoners they ruled. I saw Saul impaled upon his own sword. I witnessed mighty Caesar bleeding in the streets like an unloved dog. I heard Harold’s screams of agony as the arrow pierced his eye. I have walked through the ruins of Hiroshima, and stood at the foot of Chernobyl. Wherever there is death, I must also be as well.
            When I let someone see me, there’s always a reaction. Most of them, the older ones, aren’t fazed. They’re not happy, but they accept it. Some of them are overcome with joy at the sight of me, begging for me to release them. I never dare show it, but I can’t help but feel pity for them. But then there are the others. The young, the sick, those in the wrong place at the wrong time. They gaze upon my presence, they look upon the grotesque visage of an angel, and they plead to me “No! I’m not ready!” I wish I could tell them that I’m not either.
            I should stand up, I tell myself. Why do I follow my orders? What sense is there to take those against their wishes? If I were in charge, the only deaths would be planned. Take them when they’re ready, and never a day sooner. But I’m not in charge. I tried to be once.
            It was a misty summer afternoon. I had my assignment. I was to go to a cliff over the ocean. There’d be a woman standing over the scenery. The wind would grow too strong, she would lose her footing, and I would take her.
            I stood at that cliff, anticipating the event. After a while, she appeared. I don’t know what made me feel the way I did. I’d taken hundreds of millions of maidens just like her before without trouble. But I saw her looking over the cliff, her arms stretched out, her hair blowing in the wind, and something overtook me. After all the millennia of seeing nothing but death after death, murder after accident after illness, I could sense serenity. It seemed almost like I was asked to take this girl away because the other angels had envied her. I didn’t know her name. I didn’t know her life. But I knew this wasn’t her time.
            The wind blew strong that afternoon. Strong, but not overpowering. The woman looked over the cliff for a while, admiring the majesty of her world, then walked back home without incident. My monstrous appearance had as many eyes as it had before. I went to where else I was needed. If I could defy God once, if I could spare just one soul that wasn’t yet ready, perhaps I could carry on with just a little less pain in my heart than before.
            Years passed after that fateful day. I continued taking souls as always. I wished I could spare others, but I knew I had taken too great a risk already. It’s no easy task hiding a secret from the Almighty. I began to dread every new day, knowing full well I couldn’t carry on with impunity forever. He’d know. He probably knew the whole time. One day, I would meet that woman again.
            One day, I was at a hospital. I hate the hospitals. They’re proof that the men down below see all the ugly deaths that shouldn’t happen as simple, bland, acceptable routine. Not even in Hell are the dead treated quite like they are in hospitals. How do they feel no qualm for the premature births, struggling to keep their malformed bodies alive? How can they witness a life end and keep their faces so firm? How can they deny themselves the ability to feel? I can only take comfort knowing they will one day be taken too.
            I went to the room of my assignment. As I entered, each one of my billions of eyes widened in shock. There she was, lying on the bed, fighting to breathe. There were people around her. An older man and woman, hugging onto each other in fear. A younger man was holding onto her hand, whispering false assurances with an uneasy smile. It was time for me to kill her, and to hurt all of them.
            “You’ll do it this time,” said a voice. The eyes on my back caught sight of him. He was so beautiful. His long hair, his flawless face, his radiant wings. He saw himself better than me. Perhaps it was true. Who but an immortal could mock death?
            “You know what happened the last time an angel questioned his orders,” he said smugly. “Be grateful you’re being offered a chance to correct yourself.”
            “It isn’t right,” I told the angel. “She hasn’t done anything. It’s not her time yet. I’ve taken too many beautiful things from this Earth already. Why does it have to be now?”
            “Because that’s when he declared it to be!” he insisted. “She’s gone on longer than she was meant to already. Take her.” I looked at the girl on the bed, staring as long as I could. The angel drew his sword.
            “Take her, or I’ll stab every last one of your eyes until I’ve hit hers.” I silently pray for forgiveness, though I’m not sure to who. It isn’t his forgiveness I want, I know that much. I let myself be seen. I let the girl’s last sight on this earth be the disgusting image of a monster. I whisper “I’m sorry” to her, hoping she’s able to hear it. I close one of my eyes.
            One day, I will go blind. One day, there will be no more moments like this. No more slaughter, no more youths taken too soon, no more families left in tears. When that day comes, when there is no more death for me to see, all my eyes will shut, and I’ll never again look upon all that this world has to offer.
            I cannot wait for that day.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Video Games and Storytelling

We live in a time when there are very, very few people who do not play video games. While back in 1993 a person might be looked down upon by the mainstream for playing Doom, today the masses eagerly look forward to playing Call of Duty. Even those who don’t consider themselves gamers may be more of one than they believe. Have you ever played Angry Birds on your phone? Have you killed time with Solitaire on your computer? When you do so, you’re participating in a video game, albeit a simple one. Whether you’re male or female, young or old, in this day and age a person who avoids video games entirely is the exception, not the rule.
            In spite of this fact, though, video games cannot escape this negative stigma within the general public, even among those who regularly play them. There exists a belief that video games can never have any artistic merit, cursed to be simple entertainment and nothing more. Worst of all, some may even chide video games for being mere children’s toys, as they were often marketed as during their youth.
            To be fair, many video games don’t aspire to be anything more than simple entertainment (not that that’s an inherently bad thing. Doom may be devoid of plot and substance, but it’s still one of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever played), but that doesn’t mean they have to be stuck that way. In fact, as a writer, I find that the element of interactivity lends the medium of video games a tremendous untapped potential for storytelling.
            The simple fact is that video games, as a medium, are simply too new to be properly judged. Film has existed for a century, with its predecessor of theater existing since antiquity. Literature is as old as civilization itself. By contrast, video games have been around for only about forty years, and have only been particularly complex for around twenty. A critic may claim “A video game can’t have the same depth of storytelling as a book!”, and for the time being, they might be right. However, this is an unfair comparison as video games still carry the disadvantage of novelty. Imagine if written language had only just been invented. Imagine an author trying to bring a story to the page, only to struggle with using these strange, new symbols to form words as natural as those spoken. Would you quickly dismiss literature as a shallow language, never to match the beauty of oral storytelling?
            Imagine a story that you move. You decide the protagonist’s morals and actions. You decide who lives and dies, who thrives and suffers. Whichever one of the many myriad endings comes about, you are the one who brought it on. One day, as we understand the potential of video games more and more, we will have a story with this level of depth.
            That’s not to say attempts at such a thing haven’t been made yet. Plenty of games exist that try to let the player control the story, from Planescape: Torment to Deus Ex to Heavy Rain. I myself have been spending a lot of time experiencing Katawa Shoujo, a title so well-crafted it honestly makes me feel a little inadequate about my own writing. However, while all of these games are valiant efforts, we have still yet to tap the true power of the medium. We have yet to encounter a story that is not only beautiful, but so firmly attached to its medium that we can say “This could only have been done as a video game.”
            I think the current social reception of video games is an eerie parallel of how comic books were treated back in the 1950s. Like video games, comics had spent a long time being looked down on as children’s entertainment. In both cases, the industry retaliated by adding more adult content to their work. Back then, we had the wonderfully violent horror comics produced by EC’s William Gaines, and now we have the boom of first-person shooters, making it more and more difficult to find a big-name release without an M rating. In each case, however, it regrettably led to the medium being viewed as even less mature than before, with the added disadvantage of attracting the ire of moral guardians. While there were a few figures interested in the artistic potential of comics, such as Will Eisner and Osamu Tezuka, these men made up a minority.
            It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that comics finally had their day. The release of Watchmen and Maus caused critics to understand the true potential behind a medium that blended both text and visuals. As I see it, it won’t be too long before the Watchmen of video games makes its way. For all the issues with stagnation in the modern gaming industry, it’s nevertheless clear the potential behind the medium is growing. Whether I’m marveling at the aesthetics behind Aperture Science’s test chambers in Portal or the orchestral soundtrack of Super Mario Galaxy, games carry more and more elements these days that very few wouldn’t call art on its own. Why then, can we not call it art when attached to a game?
            As far as I am concerned, the day gaming’s potential is realized, the day we have a game even the harshest critic will call masterful storytelling, the day we embrace the medium as an art form, is not a matter of if, but a matter of when.
            Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll play some Team Fortress 2.