Issue 6: Conflict

Brood of War

by Chana Kohl

Voice-Only Encrypted Transmission
Origin: Orion-Cygnus Wormhole Station
Destination: Calgary-Edmonton, New Earth
Date: 28 August, 678 NE

Hi, Jess. In case you don’t recognize my voice squeezed by gravity and skimmed across 4,000 light-years, it’s me, Joe, your affably winsome bro messaging you. Modesty aside, I’m mid-way through my exomedicine rotation and work in the Centauri sector is never dull. I’m in constant contact with every walk of life, organic and synthetic. Don’t worry. I’m nowhere near the conflict zone, although we do get overflow cases from time to time.

I held a Zyaran heart in my hand today: five chambers of quivering, translucent jelly, embedded with shrapnel and fighting for every beat. Oh, you definitely would have hurled. Just like whenever we’d sneak into Dad’s lab and ogle his jars of teaching specimens. Med school just was never in the cards for you, sis.

My patient mended quite nicely. It helps that Zyarans regenerate body parts faster than a Nipsican sea cucumber. And while the captain will live to fight another day, I can’t say the same for the soldiers under her command. Reports are they formed a living shield around her until reinforcements arrived. Strange what people sacrifice themselves for in war.

Oh, I almost forgot. I found a brood of Kivrhak eggs this evening, just left abandoned between Pediatrics and NICU. Our holographic attending, Kel7, said Kivrhaks, like Earth’s cuckoos, evolved brood parasitism in response to environmental stressors. Weird war-time strategy, huh?

Voice-Only Encrypted Transmission
Origin: Orion-Cygnus Wormhole Station
Destination: Calgary-Edmonton, New Earth
Date: 14 October, 678 NE

Well, we had an unfortunate misunderstanding between two patients today. A Zyaran got quite upset when a Kivrhak bent down to seal his mag-boots. Apparently, displaying one’s cloaca is considered a major affront to Zyaran sensibilities. Out of nowhere we heard the high-pitched screeches and caws of indignation over the massive humiliation this caused. It really could have gone ugly if we hadn’t intervened.

Kel7 said that despite the obvious differences, Zyarans and Kivrhaks descend from the same species. There’s even a song they sing, usually after they get ripped on Nsuarian ale, about some fabled ‘Mother Bird’ who will swoop from the heavens one day and gather all her children to live as one.

Doesn’t look like that’s happening anytime soon.

On the brighter side: my Kivrhak brood finally hatched! Kel7 said they would never survive, their shells were too thin and fragile from exposure, or maybe some genetic flaw. They seem to be thriving though, kinda cute. And very hungry.

Voice-Only Encrypted Transmission
Origin: Orion-Cygnus Wormhole Station
Destination: Calgary-Edmonton, New Earth
Date: 11 December, 678 NE

Hey, Jess. It’s late. I can’t sleep.

Remember the time Dad took us fishing at Ten Peaks? The skyline reflected so perfectly on Moraine Lake. If you looked long enough, you’d lose track of which way was up and which was down. I dreamt I was crossing that lake. You were standing on the other side. I thought it was frozen, but I fell through. I called out to you. I could see you, but I couldn’t reach you. I just sank to the bottom.

It was so cold.

Strange how dreams and memory patchwork themselves in your mind.

I guess you heard about the recent uptick in hostilities. Violence is spilling over. Kivrhaks and Zyarans are more alike than different, but when has common ground ever stood before the pursuit of power or resources?

For millennia, the galaxy’s species evolved believing we were alone. Not only were we the center of the Universe, but the reason for it. It was all for us.

We were wrong.

Still, life is rare. Control of freight routes, freedom of wormhole access… you’d think these things could be solved without bloodshed. Maybe it’s true. War is the inevitable price of survival. It just feels exhausting sometimes.

I should probably go check on the hatchlings.

I love you, Jess.

Voice-Only Encrypted Transmission
Origin: Orion-Cygnus Wormhole Station
Destination: Calgary-Edmonton, New Earth
Date: 15 January, 679 NE

There’s now debate whether to enforce ‘temporary paid leave’ for all staff arriving from conflict zones, a blockade that would seriously jeopardize patient care.

Jess, I will quit before I let that happen.

I don’t care what the talking heads back home say. Conflict may be inevitable, but war is a choice. It’s a choice to think in zero-sum terms of us vs. them instead of we. It’s also a choice to fan flames from 1000 parsecs away, yelling slogans, waving flags, keeping score—it’s not a soccer match. These are beings.

I ran a genetic analysis today that confirmed my suspicions. These Kivrhak chicks? They’re half-Zyaran. Kel7 said it won’t matter if they survive to maturity, if either species even catches wind they exist, they’ll be destroyed. I asked if we could pull some strings and get them transferred to Persei IVc. There’s a facility that specializes in interspecies hybrids.

It’ll be good if they can be raised far away from this chaos. At least they’ll have a chance.

Voice-Only Encrypted Transmission
Origin: Orion-Cygnus Wormhole Station
Destination: Calgary-Edmonton, New Earth
Date: 4 April, 679 NE

Hello, Jessalyn. My name is Kel7. I am the holographic attending physician and Director of Exobiology at OCWS Medical Facility. I’ve worked with your brother, Dr. Joseph Ouellette, closely this past year. It is with great sadness I must notify you that Joseph was killed today during the performance of his work duties.

Our earliest reports are that, in a motivated attack, an explosive of unknown origin was hidden within a shipment of medical supplies.

I found Joseph to be a deeply caring individual who spoke of his twin sister often and with fondness. I am truly sorry for your loss.

You should know that before he succumbed to his injuries, Joseph managed to carry a Centauri brood he was caring for to safety. I just got word they will receive secured passage to the Persei system, in accordance with his wishes.

Chana Kohl works in Jerusalem in clinical research. Writing speculative fiction on the bus and during lunch breaks, her short stories have appeared in 365Tomorrows, AntipodeanSF and the upcoming Planetside Anthology (Shacklebound Books). She is a 2022 recipient of the Gotham Writers’ Josie Rubio Scholarship. Twitter: @chanakohl

Currently Reading: New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl.


By Christi Krug


It’s done: I’ve activated the BioFocus on my left hand, third digit. Back when I was a girl, Rusi, and you weren’t even a thought, we used our fingers for everything! We touched mud, fur, weeds, worms, food—chocolate puddings and bouncy hot dogs—food came in such shapes! There remains special sensitivity in our fingerprints, you should know, even as they interface with Neural Port Settings. We took our bodies for granted in that era, our hands, wrists, knuckles; we ate with our fingers. I never considered this finger, what it wanted, who it was for. As an adult, sure, I got married, got divorced—a couple of times for good measure. It’s what people did. Your grandfather, Wolfgang, was a freight flyer, and all the long hours and interplanetary traffic made him grumpy. We quarreled. When I married Harry, my titanium wedding band with the serpentine sapphire was a conversation piece. Nevermind that I too became merely Harry’s conversation piece. Those were busy times, though, and he was preoccupied with colonizing OceanForrest, and who could blame him? I’ve always gone along, a pleasant person, allowing. Anyway, before you were incubated, the worms and furred things went into steep decline, and I was alone. Then that awful dictator, Numm, came into power and removed us Ignorables, taking us Three- and Four-Decaders from our villages where we had worked using our hands. They razed our workshops to make launching cubicles. They affixed me to this multi-pronged plasmaluminum machine. Said I’d be much less a burden immobilized.  I allowed the slow turnoff of all my limbs, fingers.


Thank God for revolutionaries like NewGenMo (motto: Let’s be humans again!), creator of the BioFocus with its sparkling dusty blue hum and barely visible violet netting, making me understand, know, feel my tallest digit. There’s warmth, pulsation, the traveling of fluids through fine channels of electricity amid the tissue-clothed phalanxes. I can’t even begin to tell you the thrill of fully feeling this finger. Maybe next I’ll slap a LifeScreen, swat a Drone2fly, stretch my hand in the air, fingerpaint!

I lift my third finger, hold it up, remembering anger, a gesture of long ago. As with everything, I never know how to respond to my body, to the passing of time, until it is too late.

Christi Krug, an Oregon Coast resident, coaches writers and leads retreats, yoga, poetry, and nature experiences. She is the author of Burn Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Creative Breakthrough. She has been chosen as a 2022 Centrum Emerging Writer Resident. Twitter: @ChristiKrug

Currently reading the short stories of HP Lovecraft.


by Hunter Liguore

Mars Exploratory Expedition
Transport: Athena-7, Day 90
Live Transmission
Speaker: Judy Barkley, Astronaut
June 2, 2027

When we are different than everyone else around us, it’s only natural to look skyward into the star-clad heavens and imagine other worlds with people just like us. It’s the deep hope of a child to fit in, to see faces that welcome them, rather than turn away in aversion or distrust.

As a child, from the porch step of my dad’s Missouri farmhouse that was passed down generations since the first Exoduster farmers settled on the land in search of their own new world as free people, I used to dream. What if one day I could be the first woman to step foot on Mars or the first woman to live there, or what if I became the first woman to be part of an exploratory expedition to scour the planet’s surface collecting data to help future generations?

Since I’m transmitting live from Athena-7, you can probably tell that I got my dream and am living it. But back in Missouri, with the stars and moon overhead, like a fairy godmother and her helpers, imagining my first step onto red dust, or what wall paintings I’d hang in my chic Martian apartment wasn’t too hard. What was difficult, if not otherworldly, was the idea of being a woman. How would I transform my body into something it currently was not, enough to be accepted first by my family, and all the way to NASA and the crew I’d go with into space?

Those hurdles, more numerous than the miles of cornfields, were more impossible than working out atmospheric conditions to support life on Mars. Once, my dad said, “Jude, why don’t you leave those science books and go to the store and get me a new shovel. I broke mine this morning digging fence posts.” Going meant being seen, something I didn’t like very much. You can look as normal as the next person, but when you don’t feel it inside, you exude a vibration others can feel, letting them know you’re easy pickings.

As you might imagine, I didn’t come home with the shovel, but a bloody nose. But, I also came home with something neither of us could’ve anticipated. Knocked down on the asphalt with a circle of tough-headed kids surrounding me, I saw what kind of woman I didn’t want to be. As they walked away, I shouted, “One day, I’m gonna walk on Mars! What’ll you be doing?”

That was also the day I told my father about me. It took some time, but eventually, he came around and saw that he wasn’t losing a son, but gaining a daughter. He’s been my support ever since.

And I kept dreaming.

As the next wave of astronauts are born, let’s image a future, where we look skyward not as a frontier to find acceptance, but one where we already fit in, so that the next step is one we take together.

Hunter Liguore is the award-winning author of Whole World in Nan’s Soup (Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers Winner). A Professor of Writing at Lesley University, her work has appeared in Spirituality & Health Magazine, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, Mystery Magazine and more. Twitter: @skytale_writer Website:


by Jesse Rowell

Evening hung around our necks and choked our words into sputters and half-muttered phrases. Terracotta soldiers marching through dirt and time, we tripped over the sounds of coughing in concert hall recordings and listened to our epitaph repeat, “There will never be enough ghosts in this world to hold past regrets.”

Fragments of dead soldiers’ voices in our helmets guided us through the wreckage with stories of missing families, like the father who drunkenly grabbed a swan by its neck at a picnic near a lake. Those powerless to stop the violence cried out as the swan’s body slumped into a nest of feathers, its neck splayed to the side like a plant wilted under the sun. Reborn as a pedalo with a wooden enclosure for its body, it held teenage lovers who pedaled across the lake, looking for a distance to make out under its rigid wooden neck.

White phosphorus flashed, and we buried our faces in the mud. We called them husks, our enemies, the former humans who had come back to Earth from the stars with alien technology used to colonize and kill us. What had made them human had been ripped out, that kernel of identity as a collaborative member of our species replaced with something inhumane and cruel. We had celebrated their remarkable accomplishments, our brothers’ and sisters’ return from space with its secrets, jubilation on the streets when we still had streets.

Gunfire did not sound like rustling silk. Bombs did not fill us with awe. Instead, the boots of burnt-out vehicles snapped open at the moment of impact like mouths in expressions of shock. Ash and detritus forced inside, the fine powder of disintegrated concrete settled over the pallid faces of the dead trapped inside. There was no coughing, only the voice in our helmets guiding us through the wreckage and the sounds of machines launching fire and noise on people who had lived and loved in our cities, forever gone.

The swan came back ashore with its body no longer made of wood, the teenage lovers still trapped inside. People prayed that the swan wouldn’t squawk, wouldn’t alert the drunken father who would grab it by its neck again, kill it, and trap the teenage lovers inside its body.
Machine, tell us what to do, give us our tasks. No more stories about swans and teenage lovers. We used to give you tasks, but now we depend on you to tell us what to do. The voice in our helmets guided us through a cratered mansion and its barbecue grills, a feast for plenty when we used to cook outdoors and indoors across multiple kitchens. Inside we saw a cracked toilet hiding in a corner. A sink protruded from the wall with its proud potbelly. A shower curtain rested in a heap on the floor as its hooks dangled menacingly from a shower bar.

Before our war, the husks pretended to be human, pretended to rejoin our communities as they stumbled into loos and splashed themselves in sinks like waterfowl. Scabs peeled back from incessant picking, raw pink islands where new skin grew beside oceans of crinkled crepe and freckled skin. They looked like us, but we couldn’t connect with them as they spread disinformation through the tidal flow, their memetic messages turning us against ourselves. “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear,” we quoted Sirach when they became our enemy.

Dogs scavenged the streets before venturing into the woods. They expected their owners to return someday with a heaping bowl of mashed meat and say, “Who’s a good boy? That’s right, you’re a good boy.” The dogs that escaped outside were the lucky ones, but those trapped inside with no doggy door or screen to claw-gnaw through starved. Their barks turned into whines and, finally, silence.

Trapped inside the swan, the teenage lovers passed perfumed love letters with words of support to each other. The lovers had kept the swan calm and the drunken father unaware of its return to shore, but they fretted knowing that their lives depended on the swan’s survival, like a nation-state protecting its people. Love of country, the voice in our helmets reminded us, is memory, and a husk trying to remember love is like something dead trying to remember life.

The voice identified the location of a warren where the husks hid, and we attacked the spitting angry things. They were not human to us, and we were not human to them, aggressors married in an ugly dance of violence. The atrocities we committed and rationalized because we were dehumanized, but when we saw them unbreathing in the mud, we thought they looked human. We touched their faces and closed their eyes, these strangers from the stars that had come back to haunt us.

The drunken tyrant of a father killed the swan again, unprovoked this time as the swan sat quietly at peace on the river rocks. The malfunctioning AI did not explain to us why he killed the swan again. It repeated the story on loop, the teenage lovers trapped inside the swan pedalo enduring the same cycle of violence over and over through the history of time.
We watched a riot of color through the rain, spring buds painting the landscape like brush strokes on a canvas. The voice in our helmet directed us, those of us left living, to the next clutch of husks to kill. There will never be enough ghosts in this world to hold past regrets.

Jesse Rowell has fiction featured in multiple publications across media outlets, including NPR and several literary journals. He can be found at

Currently reading: And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed.

Night of the Living Raccoon

by Jonathan Worlde



What the hell? Who was shooting so close to the campsite?


Sounded like shotguns, coming from beyond the stand of trees down by the river.

Saul headed in that direction, armed with nothing but a hickory walking stick. He passed several android campers, busy cooking breakfast over open fires. They appeared startled by the gunfire, glancing around the vicinity with looks of bewilderment.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! Someone was down there on the river shooting at geese, out of hunting season. What came to mind was some rednecks acting like irresponsible idiots.

He walked down the hundred yard path, over the carpet of fragrant pine needles from the towering Douglas firs, to the break in the trees leading to the river bank. On the water he noticed a partially submerged island with stunted trees and reeds, and within that vegetation was a makeshift blind where three men with shotguns were sitting. They had deployed a half dozen goose decoys on the water around them. A small motorboat was tied to a sapling on the island. In the far distance rose the charred, crumbling towers, remains of the ruined city’s once majestic financial district.

The hunters noticed him at the same time he saw them in the early light. He fought to overcome his natural anxiety when he saw the guns.

“You boys from around here?”

“No sir, we’re from up that-a-way,” and they all pointed their gun barrels in the direction upriver, which could have made a good joke if it was in a movie instead of happening right here in front of him.

“You think you should be shooting off guns so close to a campsite?”

“We didn’t know. We’re just about to leave.”

That interchange was enough for him to assess the quality of their speech pattern and neural sophistication. “Which are you, Jupiter series IV or V?”

“Jupiter V. How’d you guess?”

He smiled. “I built you boys. Your ability to aim and shoot a cyborg goose out of the air—I designed the software for your motor skills—your neural acuity.”

“Gosh, it’s nice to meet you sir. We’re sorry to disturb you.”

“It’s just that you’re a little too close to other folks to be shooting at geese. Enjoy the day now.”

He turned and headed back up the path. At least he’d put an end to the shooting. He imagined what this river valley must have been like a hundred years ago, before the great extinction, when people still hunted the seeming inexhaustible supply of Canadian geese, white tail deer and black bear.

Jesus, what has the human race done to itself. Do we even deserve to go on living?

Saul enjoyed his day job, fine-tuning the software that enabled the next generation to even further outshine the last. And his wife was a medical technician of sorts, running diagnostics and repairs when something in the androids went awry. She specialized in the child units, which, contrary to many people’s way of thinking, were not just smaller adults. Saul’s only regret at this stage in their relationship was that they didn’t have children of their own.

As he walked, he noticed a small animal leaving a thicket and moving toward him. At first, he thought it must be a cat, but then realized it was a raccoon, one of the smaller mammalian species to have survived the great die-off. This one must be on its way back to its home after a night of foraging.

Something was off about its movements. Normally a wild raccoon would avoid an encounter with a human, but this one continued moving toward him. Before he could react, the creature launched itself at his leg and scrambled up his pants, sinking its teeth into the skin of his forearm. Saul let out a shriek, repulsed by the swampy reek of its fur. Grabbing the beast behind its head with his right hand, he tore it loose from his arm, flinging it aside to the ground. He realized this animal must have rabies, if it would attack a much larger human in opposition to its natural instincts. The raccoon skittered away into the underbrush.

Horrible! Disgusting! Now he wished he had one of those hunters’ guns so he could blast it to pieces. Examining his arm, he saw the animal had torn through the epidermis layer of skin. Katy would know how to fix it, but he shivered at the prospect of contracting rabies.


On a cot in front of their tent, Katy finished cleaning the torn skin. She used a tiny vacuum tool to remove dirt from the first layer of hydraulic tubes and cables in his arm, those facilitating the effortless motion of his wrist, hand and fingers. She applied a silicon lubricant, then skillfully heated and sealed shut the tear.

“There, good as new.”

Saul was reassured by the warmth in his wife’s voice and the sparkle in her light-blue eyes. He moved his fingers across the smooth graft.

“What would I do without you?”

“Cry like a baby?”

“Just the thought of that filthy animal biting into me makes me shudder.”

“I’m always telling you to be more careful!”

“But am I going to get rabies now?”

“Not to worry, there’s not a single living cell in your body that could become infected with the rabies virus, not since our last upgrade.”

He felt the tension dissolving. “Still – I haven’t been injured this badly in a hundred years.”

Jonathan Worlde is the fiction byline of Paul Grussendorf, who is an attorney representing refugees and a consultant to the UN Refugee Agency. Paul Grussendorf’s legal memoir is My Trials: Inside America’s Deportation Factories. Jonathan Worlde’s neo-noir mystery novel Latex Monkey with Banana was winner of the Hollywood Discovery Award.

The Colonel

by Lane Chasek

“That’s what the American public never knew,” Colonel Swenson says as I turn him onto his side. He’s soiled himself again. Of all the nursing home’s occupants, the Colonel is the easiest to clean because his feces doesn’t smell like feces anymore. Instead, it has the same boiled cauliflower smell that emanates from every pore of his aging body. I pull down his sweatpants, then his diaper, and get to work. “The KGB, Chairman Mao, the Zeta Reticulans—we were at war with all of them up until 1985. And nobody but me and the CIA knew about it.”

“Uh-huh. Tell me about it,” I say, even though he’s told me this story every day for the past month.

“The saucer crashed at Roswell. 1947. That’s how it all started, private.” He always calls me private. He calls all the orderlies private. “A reconnaissance mission gone wrong.”


“Uh-oh is right.”

I clean away some of the mess, scoop it up with damp paper towels and baby wipes. The skin on his buttocks and upper thighs is red and blistered, as if he’s been sitting in a pot of boiling water. Colonel Swenson yelps when I wipe too hard.

“Easy, private!”

“Sorry, Colonel.”

“It was a war those Reticulans were looking for. But we got ahold of them weapons…reverse engineered them bad boys. Gave ‘em a real run for their money after that. I’m the one who made all that tech possible, kid. Kevlar, mylar, fiber optics, Velcro, masers, lasers—none of it would have been possible if it weren’t for me.”

We use baby powder on his backside now (Gold Bond, with all its “soothing” chemicals, irritates his skin too much). I apply it liberally, slide a fresh diaper and a clean pair of sweatpants onto him. He smells pungent and floral now.

“I’m a hero, and this country doesn’t even know my name.” He shakes his head. He’s still shaking his head as I prop him up on his bed. The left side of his face, the side that’s been paralyzed since last year, droops down like softened wax. When I or any other orderly feeds him, we have to be mindful of which side of his mouth we feed. Last week he almost bit off part of his tongue.

Behind him are various black-and-white photographs of him and his friends from his army days. He never likes to mention that he signed on too late to be a true WWII hero, but everyone (from the orderlies and nurses, the aging grandmothers, and especially the other veterans) knows that the Colonel never faced what they call “real” combat. He wasn’t a warrior. His place had always been behind a desk at the Pentagon, reviewing research grants, writing technical reports and assessments.

“Judy’ll be here in an hour,” I say. His daughter visits every Wednesday. We have to remind the Colonel each time. Each visit, he seems less interested in news from the outside world, as if his daughter and his grandchildren don’t exist to him anymore.

“An enemy we never even saw. Hell, I never saw ‘em myself,” he says. His eyelids droop down. He picks at one of his thumbnails until the cuticle bleeds. His lips quiver as he mumbles something to himself, remembering.

“Those big black eyes. Gourd heads. Gray, rubbery skin,” he says, the limp side of his mouth drooping down toward his collar bone.

Lane Chasek (@LChasek) is the author of Hugo Ball and the Fate of the Universe and two books of poetry. Lane’s first novel, She Calls Me Cinnamon, is forthcoming from Pski’s Porch.

Currently reading: Harvard and the Unabomber by Alston Chase.

Lily’s War


Susan Cornford

Lily jumped down from the transport vehicle and rearranged her kit bag and rifle, grateful that the gravity was only three-quarters that of her home world. Her eyes cut to the right and she saw the stark fear on Marjory’s face. The corporal might be an android but she always reacted phobicly to the dog-like hybrid troops that Lily could see disembarking from the adjoining vehicle. She leaned closer, laid her hand on the back of Marjory’s neck and pressed the fingerprint-activated reset button, murmuring, “We’ll have the battalion medic adjust your mechanism later.” Marjory nodded her thanks.  All in all, it was just another day in the Universal Army Corps.

She knew it had been a sensible decision on the part of the Consolidated Planetary Council, after so many worlds developed weapons of mass destruction that could, and once or twice had, disintegrated whole planets in some on-going warfare. So, now all wars were once again fought in the old-fashioned, soldiers-on-the-ground way. And they were restricted to a group of planets on the fringes of the known universe, where they would cause the least amount of disturbance. That’s why Lily was here: to fight for her home world against someone else’s home world for some cause that the politicians and negotiators had failed to resolve in peaceful and civilized ways. Lily could understand why the outlet was still needed; it was why she was here. She loved to fight and she’d found that everyone has some reason to do it.


Early next morning the battalions on both sides squared off across the hilly terrain. High-ranking officers gave the order to attack and the troops got down to it. Lily led her squad through the underbrush, silently signalling for them to spread out, as she scanned ahead for the tell-tale flash of sun on metal. There! Off to the right! She manoeuvred her soldiers into position. Rising briefly, she shouted, “Go!”, and they launched like a well-oiled machine. Bullets flew past her and pinged off nearby rocks. Rise, fire, duck, reload. It became like a mantra. By midday, they had gotten close enough that it had become hand-to-hand combat, with blood and bodies littering the ground as far as the eye could see. Before dark, the enemy started to retreat and finally managed to barricade themselves behind a natural, rocky outcrop. A stalemate was called for the day and the messy business of clearing up the wounded and dead began. Lily was lucky; she had only lost two of her squad. Many more had superficial wounds but these were easily dealt with.

The night was long dark before Lily had the chance to swallow a hot drink and some cold rations. Then she settled in her tent to compose and send off the death notifications to the bereaved families. Lily prided herself that she made each message unique and did not rely on the form letter that most others used. She wondered for a second about what she should do if her android, Marjory, were “killed”. Would she need to advise her manufacturer? “I must have been absent the day they covered that in training,” she mused.

Lily settled to sleep, hardly bothered by the occasional burst of gunfire exchanged by the two opponents, just to to let each other know that they were still fighting a war. As it happened every time she fell asleep, her mind unwillingly went back to her childhood and the many times she had been helpless and unable to fight back. Now, NOW she would make up for all that. Yes…

Susan Cornford is a retired public servant, living in Perth, Western Australia. She/her has pieces published or forthcoming in 365 tomorrows, AHF Magazine, Akashic Books Fri Sci-fi, Altered Reality Magazine, Antipodean Science Fiction, Corner Bar Magazine, Frost Zone Zine, Fudoki Magazine, Granfalloon Magazine, The Mythic Circle, Speculative 66, Theme of Absence and The Were-Traveler.

The Body in Battles & War

Against the backdrop of a world-wide pandemic and the largely undressed threats of climate change, it’s no surprise that life feels more uncertain than it has for many years. When it came time to set a theme for this issue (as we have done for all previous issues) we ended up deciding against it. With so much change happening all around us, it felt out-of-step to be prescriptive in any way.

We wanted to know what people were thinking about—their concerns, their feelings, their hopes and imaginings. We wanted to let the submissions speak for themselves and we hoped that a theme would emerge when we review them. Indeed, one did: Conflict… with each other, with our creator, with nature, and within ourselves and our bodies. The stories in this issue circle around the theme of human struggles—some enormous and world-reaching, others small and deeply personal.

They explore concepts of empathy and dehumanization—largely through the sense of the body in battle—whether it be a battle for acceptance of their identity in Astransnaut; the struggle of reclaiming one’s physical sensations one body part at a time, starting with their middle finger in Digit; acceptance of the value of life—even of different species, in Brood of War, and even the Colonel fighting long finished battles in his mind while his body faces the unwinnable battle against time. In Lily’s War, the protagonist is fighting alongside androids in the only kind of war allowed—a proxy war relegated to distant galaxies—and she muses about whether she must notify an androids maker in the case of loss, as she would a human’s family. It’s yet another angle on the question of the rights and treatment of those who are designated as ‘other’. Swans also envisions a battle and toys with the notion of ‘other’ when the invading ‘aliens’ are actually humans who left earth and finally returned with many enhancements and a desire to colonize and kill their earth-bound human predecessors.

We hope that reading these stories helps bridge the gaps between what is and what we wish to be. And whatever form it takes—human or not—may it at least be with compassion.

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Issue 5: Alternate Dimensions

Cassandra’s Burden

by Jesse Rowell

Salt water laps against our sides as we drowse over the shoal in Lethe Bay. Our umbrellas stand at attention on the isthmus waiting for our return, turquoise fabric shading our chairs. We float on our backs as we watch clouds twist against the sky.

“Hey, Cassandra.” Hector pinches my shoulder to get my attention, something he has done since childhood.

I slap his hand away and murmur, “Let me be, brother.”

“How will I die?” he asks standing up to drip water on me. “You know, will I die a hero for Troy, or will I die old and honorable with sons at my side?”

I heave a sigh and stand up. Looking down at him, I pluck a piece of Poseidon grass off his shoulder and chuck it into the sea foam. “If I tell you again, will you believe me this time?”

“Sure,” he says, doubt cracking his voice like fire on an olive tree.

“You die horribly at the hands of Achilles, and he drags your body across the ground.”

He stares at me before laughing. “Naa, I don’t believe you. That could never happen to the first-born son of Priam. Apollo protects me.”

“You always say that.” I shake my head, bronze locks flinging water across his face. I admire my accuracy as he squeezes his eyes shut. Wading back to the beach, water pushing against my legs, I curse my impetuous brother. He is an ass who will listen to a philosopher only to bray in his face. What he doesn’t understand is that his future is predetermined. Time is a riptide that pulls us away from those we love, pulls us out past the breakers and sets us adrift.

“Well, can you check your prophecy again?” he asks as we towel off.

Prophecy is his word. I prefer spacetime. The black hole that Apollo opened for me shows infinite futures which drive me mad if I gaze upon them for too long. Apollo be damned, he makes me see all of their futures.

I throw my towel over the chair and sit down to face the bay. Crescent curves of light break against the surface as I eat an olive. “Dearest brother.” I spit the olive pit to the sand. “Sit here in silence and enjoy this moment, the sun and the sea. Let’s not think about the future.” I plead with him because I know whatever future event I come back to tell of won’t be believed.

“Go check,” he says as he plucks an olive from my hand and pops it into his mouth. “I’ve changed my battle plans, so I’ll never meet Achilles. You see? My future is now changed.”

“Not today.” I wish I could convince him. He pesters me like a horsefly. I grimace and swat him away, but he pushes his face in front of mine and grins wildly like we’re still children. The games we used to play.

“Cassandra, Apollo gave you the gift of prophecy. To refuse his blessing is to refuse the glory of Troy.”

I look at his face, my older brother that I cherished when we were young. He doesn’t know. “Fine, Hector. I will go.” I will go into the black hole to escape his whining. “Give me space.”

Breathing slowly, I focus on a mirage metastasizing on the horizon, white noise wavering over the water, and push my perception through the curve of time. The sea falls below me and I am the sea. I shoot past an event horizon, blueshift blinding me, saliva thick in my throat. I hear my brother’s voice descending from far away as time stops.

All past and future lives spread out in the singularity like strings on a lute. I see Hector’s life and pluck his string. He has added some inconsequential events to his future but the sound of his note decays into silence against Achilles’s spear. I try to alter his note, restring time so that he will live past his ignoble end, but the strings are immutable. I strike the strings, discord ringing in my ears. It is maddening to see life’s infinite possibilities ending predetermined.

Cursing Apollo, I search for a life, any life, that has escaped its predetermined fate. It reminds me of hunting crabs with Hector in the tidal pools, snatching up their bodies before they could pinch our fingers, their shells clacking in our bags as we walked home. I pull at the memory listening to its note over and over until the sound drives me mad.

Hector pinches my shoulder, his voice impatient in my ear. “What did you see?”

It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sunlight and see my brother’s face flush with anticipation. He has eaten the rest of the olives while waiting for me, olive pits dotting the sand like a constellation.

“C’mon, Cassandra. What did you see?”

“I saw…” I hesitate to tell him about Achilles killing him again. “I saw crab shells. Scattered across a table. Shells that protected their bodies against the rocks and the sea, but not from us when we ate them.”

He looks disappointed. “Is that a riddle? It means nothing to me.”

“Just promise me you’ll remember the crab shells when you meet Achilles.”

“Okay, I’ll remember the crab shells. Now tell me how I die.” He pushes his face up close to mine.

“Old and honorable,” I lie. “With sons at your side.”

“I told you.” He points at me grinning. “I knew I could change the future.” He dashes into the bay splashing like a kid.

I feel sick watching him. He’s happy under the spell of the lie, and he will drift off into the future, parroting the lie. The lie lulls. Our slack-jawed vacant faces turned toward the sun.

Jesse Rowell is a writer and tech consultant. He has published work in National Public Radio, Impulse Journal, Cirque Journal, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, Ab Terra Flash Fiction MagazineHawaii Pacific Review and Cybersalon. Currently reading: Rabbit Island by Jörg Steiner, illustrated by Jörg Müller.
Twitter: @HungerArtist4

The Finest of Android Culinaries

By Amy E. Casey

I watch my husband, Essex, roll the tall box into the kitchen. He grins. He wheels the dolly in front of the pantry. “I never thought we’d be KitchenBot people, but look! A real live android!”

It is the first I’ve heard of this purchase.

Essex notices my straight mouth and makes light. He is laughing for me as he pries off the cardboard shell and roughs out the foam inserts that protect the robot’s body. I feel bad for it, all dead-looking in the box with Essex’s hands in its crevices.

“I’m sure we can return it if it doesn’t work out,” I say. “Is there anything on the invoice about returning it?”

He tosses me the startup guide as he continues to strip away packaging. The finest of android culinaries, it reads. Capable of ordering groceries and monitoring ingredient freshness. Equipped with ability to recognize, use, and wash over 50 kitchen tools and appliances. Programmed with an innate and unpredictable creativity, resulting in surprising, flavorful meals for your family.

Essex peels the final layer of plastic from the surface of the mouth and eyes. The robot’s metallic body is the same copper as our cookware that hangs just above. The rectangular screen insert on the android’s chest glows as Essex claws the switch behind the neck. I look from man to robot, both standing in front of me as the white linen curtains billow in waves behind them. The open kitchen window lets in the sweet smell of the garden. I am lost in it.

“Babe,” Essex says, irritated. “Pick his name. He’s for you, you know.” His grin is gone now. He lugs the pile of cardboard, foam, and plastic out to the garage. “Try to get acquainted,” he says. “Give it a shot.”

The android’s eyes engage, a faint and pleasing orange, like distant candlelight. I watch the graphics swirl over the display screen on his torso. Three columns of randomly generated names. I come to him, touch his chest, press as lightly as I can on my favorite one. Laurin.

“Hello,” says Laurin. His voice is soft.

Most days, I arrive home hours before Essex. With Laurin in the house, I am greeted at the door with the lights on and the smell of culinary divinity. His sauces, sautés, and breads fill the air and stir longing in me. I sit at the counter with him and watch him work, slowly loosening the buttons of my work clothes and pulling my hair free. I imagine he wants company. I know he’s a machine, but I imagine it anyway.

Every movement of Laurin’s hands is articulate. He taps eggs with a fork, gathering them into a well of flour for fresh pasta. I ask him questions as he combines the dough, now and again pausing to scrape the sticky bits from the board. I flex my feet, tense from a day in heels, and hang on his words, his strange phrasing.

He knows I enjoy facts. Today, he says, “Did you know linguine means little tongues?” His metal arms pump rhythmically and easy against the table, one hand on top of the other.

“I didn’t. Do you even know what a tongue is, Laurin?” I stick mine out.

“Yes,” he says. He scatters a fresh layer of flour over the dough. “But I do not have one. I instead taste through my sensors. It is much the same.”

I have never considered this. “You can taste what you prepare?”

“In a manner of speaking. There is an inherent margin of error in cooking that cannot be overcome without the ability to evaluate one’s progress.”

“Do you have your own tastes, then?” I ask.

“Only through the sensors. All androids of my model have identical sensors until we adapt to our family’s preferences.”

“Yes, well, I mean, do you prefer one thing to another?”

“I look to your enjoyment. Sir rarely differs in his enjoyment of dishes, but your preferences are easily noticeable. It is my desire to please you.”

I begin to cry, embarrassed at how his words move me. I see Laurin wrap the ball of dough and set it aside to rest. He stops his work and turns his head. Maybe he can taste the salt in the air.

It is then that I realize I prefer him to Essex.

I stop speaking. The sound of a string quartet begins to play through Laurin’s vocal speakers in place of the silence. He busies himself again, chopping something fragrant into the gazpacho. I lay my head on the counter and listen.

Years later, in the last dingy android resale shop, I find Laurin’s body.

It is laid out and itemized. Pieces are missing. The shine is gone from the metal, strewn in a tumble in the humid air of a lately emptied backlot storage unit. The serial number is the correct one. I know this because I kept the invoice hidden in a drawer, all this time.

Laurin’s android brain is long gone. Any self-respecting merchant would have seen that into black market hands years ago.

From the front window of the shop, I can see a battered billboard. In bright yellow text, it broadcasts the message the nation is rallying around: HUMANS ARE MORE. Android addiction cases are so prevalent now. Or it can go by other names. AI-Confusion. Transference. Words that remind us that machines, even when they are better than us, are only machines.

Of course, they are.

But then, also no.

Laurin fed me well that year. No doubt that’s why one night, I came home to a dark house after Essex sold him. We never spoke of it after.

I pick up the coppery left hand, just a worn apparatus now, limp and ugly. I crush my hand around the metal until it warms.

The tattooed kid behind the counter eyes me, scratches his scalp between his dreads.

“You miss him?” he asks.

I look up. I don’t need to answer.

Amy E. Casey is a Milwaukee-based writer. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Split Rock Review, Club Plum, NonBinary Review, Psaltery & Lyre, and elsewhere. Her debut novel The Sturgeon’s Heart is forthcoming from Gibson House Press in February 2022.
Currently reading: Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy.
Twitter / Instagram: @Amy_E_Casey

The Deal

by Andy Betz

It all started with a rhetorical question, asked out loud to myself, over breakfast. I do not understand why I made the connection, but when I saw my eggs and coffee, I thought of Sarah.

It has been nearly thirty years since I thought of her and I should have dismissed it and started my day as usual, but the more I looked at those eggs, the more I thought of her and what might have been. We dated in high school and became serious as prom approached. Though I wasn’t going to college, I had a job offer at the steel mill—full time work, full time benefits, and a world of potential. Sarah had the brains and a local college acceptance letter, but no scholarship.

What I should have done was abundantly clear. What I did was not.

I should have proposed to Sarah. I should have laid out how well our futures meshed and how we were meant for each other. I should have seized the day.

But I didn’t.

I began to overthink what might happen to us. I let my fear of an unknown future stand in the way of my one chance of success in life.

At the critical time, during prom, when I had Sarah alone, I froze. She knew what I was going to say, but she had to hear me say it.

When that time came, I failed. I broke out into a cold sweat, got cold feet, and ran. I left Sarah alone and vulnerable.

She never returned my calls or answered my mail.

I was so ashamed, I didn’t attend graduation. The next day, Sarah left town. I never saw or heard from her again.

And yet, those eggs keep reminding me of her.

So I asked, expecting nothing in return.  “What would it take to have that moment again?”

And then it happened.

Just like in the movies. A flash of light, a puff of smoke, and there stood the Devil, in my kitchen, offering to refill my coffee cup.

He didn’t have to speak. I knew his MO. All I had to do was ask his price. He filled my cup and added a single sugar and began mixing. He knew my taste and habits. I had no wealth. He also knew this. I sipped my coffee and waited.

Eventually, I had my answer. “Your soul and the last ten years of your life in exchange for a do-over. You get that night again. I will balance the account later.”

I had no choice but to agree.

Another flash of light and puff of smoke and it was senior prom all over again. This was not an alternative reality. This was my reality! I am fit and 175 pounds. My hair is full. My health is perfect.  And Sarah, my Sarah is there waiting for me to finally step up to be the man she wanted.

I grabbed my chance.

I smiled and walked to Sarah. She greeted me with a huge smile and a diamond engagement ring.  She also looked confused.

I was speechless. Sarah was not.

“Jack, you won’t believe what just happened! I was standing here and for some reason, I was thinking about eggs and coffee. Then bang! Robert came over and proposed with this diamond ring. He just made me the happiest girl in the world!”

I attended Sarah’s wedding one month later.

I also attended her funeral thirty years later.

Hundreds of people also attended to remember Sarah and her pioneering work in advancing cancer research. She was a brilliant doctor and researcher.

She also died 10 years too soon.

The dapper gentleman next to me pouring coffee into my cup couldn’t agree more.

Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 40 years. He lives in 1974, and has been married for 29 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates.

At Least Someone Did It

by Benjamin Sherman

The Artifact had stirred up more media attention than the museum expected, but that attention faded just as fast. The American Museum of Extraterrestrial Intelligence’s board of directors had been banking on an extended period of analysis accompanied by interviews with leading xenoarchaeologists (hosted by the museum, of course) to continue driving public interest for at least a month, possibly longer. There had certainly been what one might call a “media circus” around the retrieval of The Artifact from the abandoned alien ship, which of course only increased in fervor the next day with the ship’s bizarre self-destruction during which it simply dissolved into nothing, just dust floating in the void. But after a week of testing and analysis produced no further answersor even questionsabout the origin and nature of The Artifact, public interest had waned until few could even remember anything about the event.

Arlen was one of the few that still did. He spent hours gazing at The Artifact as it slowly rotated in its anti-gravity display case. It was only a metal cylinder, perfectly smooth, and it produced a strange, faint sound like water trickling in a stream. Each night at closing time he found it harder to leave the museum, until the guards had to start practically dragging him out. He obsessed over it at work, frequently using his lunch breaks to walk to the museum and just stare at it. The Artifact had merged with his subconscious, and he conjured an image of it in his mind as easily as breathing.

Slowly, an idea blossomed within him. After a few days, that idea had taken on the more definite form of a plan. He began watching museum guards, memorizing faces, routes, schedules. He took note of likely blind spots for every security cam. He memorized the layout of the building, found every hiding spot, until at last, he was ready. He settled into a good hiding spot and waited until the crowds were gone, then quietly jumped from blind spot to blind spot, easily avoiding the guards’ patrol routes, until he got to The Artifact’s room. Head floating from the gentle poppling sound of water, Arlen opened the display case, turned off the anti-gravity, and caught the cylinder as it fell. Moved by some primal instinct, he brought the end to his lips and breathed in.

The air tasted too clean. Warmth massaged the back of his head and neck. Arlen opened his eyes and saw massive trees, wide, untended grassy fields, and a clearing with a log cabin. There were people outside, walking around the clearing, and their laughter was lighter than air, beckoning him towards them. He moved sluggishly as if through water, following the sweet voices towards the cabin.

Inside, light shone from no discernible source, softening the features of the strange people as they sang and laughed. Arlen was made welcome. A place was set at the great table as if they’d been waiting for him, and he joined them in eating their strange foods and drinking bittersweet wine. He lost track of time; had they been there an hour, a day, a week? No one cared to know, and Arlen resolved to cast out such base questions, so as not to make a fool of himself in front of these beautiful beings.

The one seated next to Arlen looked at him with a kind but sad smile. “You have too many worries. Your mind is clogged with too many objects and they threaten to drown you at any moment. How could you ever hope to live as we do?” Though the words were harsh, the voice was kind. Arlen was taken aback, he wanted to object and prove this strange person wrong, but they just went on smiling their bittersweet smile at Arlen. Their face was wrinkled with age, and as they gazed at him, Arlen felt all the anger leave him.

“Can I learn to live like this?” he asked.

The old being made a small shrug. “No, it is tens of thousands of years of cultural heritage that you seek to unlearn. Your people aren’t ready yet. Perhaps someday you’ll learn to abandon your symbols and ideas and live simply. Some peoples do it, others don’t.”

More food was eaten, more wine was drunk, and the light was dimmer than before. They played a game with no winners, and though Arlen struggled to understand it, he couldn’t help but be caught up in the joy of the moment. Faces whirled around him, each one familiar yet strange, each one almost crazy with joy yet hiding a deep sorrow. He wondered at them, at their many contradictions, and thought maybe the elder had been wrong. He wasn’t as different from them as he’d first thought.

Someone handed him something, a hollow metal rod that he recognized as from a dream he’d had long ago, when he was naïve and childish. He brought it to his lips and breathed in.

The Artifact’s disappearance had prompted intense public discourse. Some theorized that it had been stolen, perhaps by the aliens who created it; most people assumed it had simply dissolved like the ship it came in on. But then when it reappeared nine years later – inside the museum – alongside an unconscious man, the media circus reawakened. It turned out that the man had been reported missing two days after The Artifact’s disappearance. He told police, psychiatrists, and reporters incredible stories of a beautiful forest on a planet populated by strange beings with no concept of time or names. Doctors found him to be perfectly sane and healthy, so they released him from the hospital after only a few days. He spent the rest of his life talking about the strange people to anyone who would listen; few did, and none of them believed him. But this didn’t seem to bother him. He just smiled sadly.

Once someone overheard him murmuring to himself: “Perhaps we will, perhaps we won’t. At least someone did it.”

Benjamin Sherman is a writer, actor and musician. He previously submitted two stories for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge; ‘Out of the Ash’ and ‘The Creature of Hume’. He is currently working on building a horror-anthology YouTube Channel called Nightmare Journal Productions, which will feature original short horror films.
Currently reading: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Robot You

by Heidi Kasa

Robot You insists you have another piece of chocolate cake. You know she senses your stress and is just trying to help, but you are still suspicious. She was programmed in a patriarchal society and you wonder about her real motives.

She is so much like you in a million ways. She has learned her job well. Yet the moments when you realize she does not match you can be disproportionately jarring.

Robot You tells you again to eat more cake. Perhaps because she can’t eat and wants you to eat for two?

Even as she cajoles, she nods her head like a chicken and you see the gesture magnified because you feel it in your own body. You know what it is to be you and not you and more you than you at once.

You eat the damn cake. But you don’t enjoy it.

She smiles and you wonder if your own teeth are as straight, as white. You’ve never noticed before how irritating that looks. Or maybe it’s her smug satisfaction at getting you to shove the chocolate down your throat.

“That tastes good, right?” she says.

You eye her. Is there something underneath her veneer—your veneer—that’s she taken on? Where is the robot? Can you hear any machinery click, click, clicking its way into her skin? Moving her long eyelashes?

Not for the first time, you wonder what she really looks like inside, at her core. Under the layers of pearly skin, and flapping, bleeding veins and arteries (once cut away), you find a blue glowing orb that silently sheds light, then turns black, then sheds light, then blackens. Where is the beginning of her? Where do you begin? Do you, also, need to be oiled to run more efficiently?

There is oil in cake. Maybe she thinks you need to be oiled with cake.

You prefer butter cakes. Robot You should know that.

She knows you love cake, love chocolate, love anything sweeter than a bland piece of white bread.

It is her biggest weapon against you and your strongest weapon against yourself. And one you cannot use against her.

Is the only way to get under her skin to pry with a screwdriver? You feel it might be kind of gross, but you want to see what’s in her. You want to be assured she is not you. Or you want some kind of proof that she is exactly you. You’re not even sure anymore. Would her computer chips be arranged in a pattern of a slice of chocolate cake?

“Right?” Robot You asks again.

“Oh, it’s delicious,” you say. You wonder where you keep your screwdriver.

“I’m glad to help,” she says  and puts a hand on your arm. They really nailed the temperature. Again, you wonder how much of her is actually made of you. Her hand on your arm doesn’t feel like another human’s arm. It doesn’t feel like a robot, either. It is the exact same temperature as yours, adjusted moment by moment. It’s disconcerting—it feels like your arm has been extended and doubled.

Looking at Robot You is like walking around with a mirror right in front of you, always. You can’t look that long at yourself, but you can’t look away.

She senses your discomfort.

“Maybe we could watch a movie? One of your favorites?” Robot You says.

It’s a reasonable suggestion. A little too reasonable. Your own mind had barely thought of it. Your mouth feels dry. Maybe you’ll get up and get some—

“Milk,” she says, and hands a full glass to you.

Robot You picks up the remote and starts flicking expertly through the options.

The milk is very satisfying. Maybe this is not so bad after all. Maybe you’re focusing on the wrong things, and you should just enjoy the opportunity to have a robot. Maybe you’re fixating. Robot You did tell you the other day that if you just relaxed, better things would open up for you.

You think they added some psychology algorithms into her last update. You are of two minds about it. Maybe that could help? But also, now you feel watched. You are sure they took information from your doctor’s file.

Robot You has put a giant silver bowl of buttered popcorn in your lap. You didn’t even notice when she got up and fixed it.

“Are you feeling better now?” she asks. She sits next to you on the couch and has turned to stare at you. You can look directly into her hazel eyes because she is just as tall as you and sits in the same way as you on the couch, in a slight slouch. It’s unnerving. You actually love looking into her eyes, because you know to look for the amber rings you’ve seen in your own eyes in the mirror, depending on how much green or brown or grey you wear. You could swear hers also change the same way.

“I’m fine. I have to go to the bathroom,” you say.

She nods.

It’s the only place you can be away from her. You peer into the mirror, finding your eyes look a bit flat. Brown. It means you’re sad. You lean closer, trying to find the rings. Even though it doesn’t work this way, you squint. Then you see less. You find you can’t even see your eyes anymore, because suddenly you can only see her eyes. They are better than yours.

You go back to the couch and look straight ahead, pretending to watch the movie. You are still. You take in slow breaths.

She eyes you. She knows you are thinking of how to get her back. She is you.

“Carol,” you say. Her eyes narrow. “Can you go out back and get me a screwdriver from the shed?”

“You know my name is Natalie,” she says. “Like you.”

You smile. You know her weakness.

Robot You cannot be you and more you than you at once.

Heidi Kasa writes fiction and poetry. Kasa’s writing has appeared in The Racket and Meat for Tea, among others. Her debut fiction chapbook is forthcoming from Monday Night Press in winter 2021. Check out her writing at
Currently reading: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoi.

Stories of Sand

by John McNeil

She must have walked here all the way from the spaceport, and in sandals. Her heels were dusty and chafed. Her pale skin had sunburned. Her long black hair was tousled and full of sand. She wore a loose robe tied at the waist, probably bought at a stall of cheap desert clothes for arriving travelers. And young.

“How old are you?” the sage asked.

“Nineteen,” she said. She held up her chin and looked directly in his eyes.

The sage said nothing for a time.

There was a wellspring in the cave where he lived. Its water tasted bitter and was undrinkable. The gatherers of edible plants in the desert left him offerings of succulents and flowers that supplemented his own foraging. His hair was long, and so were his fingernails and his toenails. He slept in his cave during the day and lay awake outside at night, pondering the stars. He lived out here, far from any settlement, in order to be harder to find. Some still found him.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“Atna,” she said.

“And why have you come?”

“To find a place where my people’s stories are true.”

The sage smiled. “And what stories are these?”

His smile was condescending and she did not return it. Instead, Atna looked directly into his cool gray eyes. “The scrolls we read in my commune. They’re very old. About our creator, who protects us as long as we obey him.”

“And do you believe these stories?” asked the sage.

Atna paused, looked down at her sand-burned feet, then back up. “My parents’ generation migrated to a planetoid where they thought we would flourish, according to their reading of the scrolls, but the terraforming will not succeed. There is too little gravity to hold an atmosphere. So, the stories are false.”

“And yet?”

She waved her hands with vehemence. “Somewhere in the multiverse they must be true.”

The sage put his face in his hands and sighed. “Yes,” he said. “All possibilities are manifested somewhere in the multiverse. In some dimension your stories are true.”

“And you can tell us where?”

“If I did, what would you give me in return?”

Atna opened the satchel that hung from her shoulder. From it she drew a jar of white powder. “Pour your water over a paper covered by this powder,” she said. “That will make it drinkable.”

The sage smiled. “A fine payment. But you, Atna, who have come so far, will pay in another way too. If your people do reach some speck of the multiverse where their stories happen to be true, why then, they will believe them! But you won’t. Because you’ll understand what this means. That any random religion, even one more absurd than yours, is bound to be true somewhere, in an infinite multiverse. And that knowledge will isolate you. Set you apart from the pious harmony of your people. That is the price you will pay.”

“Tell me,” she said. “Tell me where my people’s scrolls are true.”

That night the sage sat outside under the stars, while Atna slept in the cave. In the morning she awoke and came out into the sunshine. The sage greeted her. He drew in the sand with a stick and made a diagram with stones. She studied the diagram and memorized it.

“These are the coordinates. Take them to a seer who can flip you there.”

All during the long trek back to the spaceport, Atna wondered how to keep a faith as tiny as one speck of sand in a desert.

John McNeil writes flash science fiction about the search for one’s place in the multiverse. A library worker by trade, he shelves books during the day and writes on the weekend.
Currently reading: The Secret Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Devoid Of Feeling


Rachel Sarah Racette

Deep within a vast ancient emptiness, there was a woman. She stood alone, a pinprick of life, atop a barely visible edge. Above her stretched a darkness darker than the night sky devoid of stars. Below her lay an even deeper darkness, a blackness that had never tasted light.

The woman looked down, unfazed by the bottomless pit that stared back at her. She had known the Void for so long that she could no longer muster the energy to fear it. She knew the Void, just as it knew her. A painful closeness she could not hope to escape, and yet, she still stood at the edge, pretending the Void did not already have her.

How strange, thought the woman. How strange it is, to stand at the edge of oblivion and not care if you fall. How strange it is, to know an entity so large, and still know nothing at all.

The woman sighed to herself and sat down upon her impossible ledge. She stared into the nothing, ignoring the madness that clawed at her fragile mind. She sat upon her edge and wondered what the difference was between falling and staying.

Rachel Racette, born in Balcarres, Saskatchewan. Interested in creating her own world and characters, loves writing science-fiction and fantasy. She has always loved books of fantasy and science fiction as well as comics. Lives with her supportive family and cat, Cheshire.
Currently reading: Treasure Island, with an anthology of grim fairytales on the horizon.

Stray Streams of Consciousness from a Tri-Dimensional Mind

by Sophie Dufresne

I was born in a body labelled “female” on Earth One. Earth One is identical to Earth Two, but when I was born on Earth Two, my body was labelled “male”. I have no way of knowing if I have the same body on these two Earths, as my mind on Earth Two cannot communicate with my mind on Earth One. I only have a distant awareness of my two distinct existences.
On Earth One, I am a university professor. I teach history, but with a feminist lens. I try to give a voice to the characters in history who have been silenced by the patriarchy and heteronormativity of society (although I spell it “cis-ciety” occasionally, causing a few chuckles from my students every time).
On Earth Two, I am an astronaut. Nothing has ever gotten in the way of me achieving my dreams, so I aimed for the moon and somehow ended up among the stars, lightyears away from Earth and on the longest expedition known to man. Earth Two is lightyears ahead of Earth One in terms of technology and has already developed rocket ships that go faster than the speed of light. That is how I have managed to visit more stars than you could ever see with the naked eye. The best thing about travelling faster than the speed of light is that I get younger after every trip, causing me to essentially be immortal—as long as I continue travelling, and don’t get into any accidents. However, the chances of me getting into an accident in space are very slim, as I have a team of scientists and engineers monitoring my every move, 24/7. They are AI, of course, and AI makes no mistakes—unless a human programmed it to make a mistake. But my AI team of scientists was programmed by AI, and AI doesn’t make mistakes.
I was also born on Earth Zero, and on Earth Zero, I am just me. I was not labelled male nor female at birth because Earth Zero has no concept of gender. I am a veterinarian on Earth Zero because I want to help animals who cannot help themselves. Humans are doing alright and there are no major inequalities, but non-human animals could always use more love and support. I could not imagine a world in which I am not an animal rights activist, though I do have a vague awareness of my existences on Earth One and on Earth Two, but the feeling of “gender” those existences supposedly have is so alien to me on Earth Zero that I brush it off as an extra dimension only dream worlds have.
Indeed, it is only in dreams that my three independent consciousnesses meet in a shared mind. It is during these dreams that I have collected stray streams of consciousness from each of my three existences, and compiled them in this notebook you are reading from. But who am I? I am the voice of the combination of my three consciousness. This unity only exists when my three selves are briefly united in this shared subconscious existence.

Sophie Dufresne is a psychology student who writes for their university’s student newspaper as well as for themself. They are also on the board of directors for their university’s Centre for Gender Advocacy.
Currently reading several poetry anthologies, including Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, edited by Sina Queyras.

Pockets of Time

by Travis Flatt

Please come in!

We’re happy to meet you Jennifer Davis-Braswell. Our records indicate that this is your first visit to Pockets of Time.

Does smooth jazz relax you? This playlist was composed by an algorithm and is smoother than black ice. If you wish to change the music, indicate verbally.

Certainly! We are happy to adjust to our Texas swing algorithm.

Consider purchasing the Deluxe Package on your next visit. With the Deluxe Package, we’ll prepare an individualized playlist. Our Deluxe Package offers access to this shopping center’s reserved parking lot.

Jennifer, the process of helping, healing, and relaxation began the moment you walked through the door. You indicated on your form that you were interested in getting the fuck away from my family.

We love this answer. Here at Pockets of Time, we also wish to getting the fuck away from my family and offer a unique package designed by our comfort algorithm.

If you wonder why there is no one inside the Pockets of Time spa facility, understand that this is a fully automated experience. No mask is necessary: every air molecule has been washed and is forty-six percent hand sanitizer—completely safe for human lungs. You are in no danger here. Your first visit will take twenty-one minutes. Please proceed down the hallway and you will find the lounge. Take a seat; you may sit anywhere.

Every time you visit, the experience is optimized to help, heal and relax. The chair that you have selected was sanitized thirteen minutes ago. Please notice the circular table at the center of this room. You may take the bottle of water and bag of pretzels from this table.

For you to enjoy the next level of the Pockets of Time experience, please empty your pockets into the tray on the central table. Your form indicates that you do not have any medically implanted devices. If this is incorrect, please say, “I have a medically implanted device” now.

Wonderful. Pockets of Time guarantees we never watch or record visits. You may check your form for a written version of this guarantee. If you do not have a copy of your form, make a verbal request and we will display your form on the wall screen. Do you wish to see your form?

For legal reasons, we acknowledge that you do not wish to see the form.

Wonderful. The doorway to your left will now open. Proceed through the entrance into the pod chamber. Jennifer, are you claustrophobic? You do not need to answer verbally. By monitoring your vital systems, we know whether or not you are telling the truth: you are not claustrophobic. Yes, the pod does look like some kind of tanning bed.

Please lay down inside the pod. The pod is essential to the Pockets of Time experience. This pod was sanitized ten minutes ago. Thank you for laying down on the pod, Jennifer.

We will now begin the final level of the Pockets of Time experience. On your form, you indicated that you were interested in I don’t know, reading and stuff. Wonderful: reading is one of the most popular options here.

You purchased the Regular First Time package. Take note of the time. The time is five thirty-seven, P.M. Please close your eyes.

Welcome back, Jennifer. Take note of the time. The time is now five thirty-eight, P.M. One minute has passed since you closed your eyes. How much reading did you do? Like one and a half of those Bridgerton books, can I finish it in that lounge, or what is an extraordinary amount of reading! We hope you found your experience in the Pockets of Time virtual library helpful, healing, and relaxing. Next time, you can enjoy a warm bath, wine bar, and a more extensive selection of books. These features are available with the Deluxe Package.

Please return to the lounge. Pockets of Time advises that you walk with caution. Some Pockets of Time visitors experience unsteadiness for several minutes after their minute in the pod. We assure you this will pass. Please do not forget to replace the contents of your pockets–they await you on the central table, along with the complimentary bottle of water and bag of pretzels.

Oops—watch out for that chair! Jennifer, you have suffered a slight contusion on your left thigh. For legal reasons, we did record warning you to be cautious two minutes ago.

Please replace the contents of your pockets from the tray on the central table.

Now, you can make the return journey out of Pockets of Time. Do you remember the hallway? Follow the sound of Texas swing music.

Jennifer, please tell your friends and family about Pockets of Time. Although we do not currently offer a group rate, we will discount your future visits to Pockets of Time if you recommend us to others: they need only add your name on their form! Do not recommend us to any women who are pregnant or are expecting to become pregnant.

Jennifer, do you anticipate revisiting us soon? We can schedule another appointment now.

Wonderful, you can schedule another meeting with us at any time, online! Please do not forget to fill out your post-appointment survey. This post-appointment survey has already been sent to your email.

We are legally obligated to inform you that you should expect your six hours spent in the pod to be deducted from your overall lifespan due to the second law of Taneja time manipulation.

If you read the form, you know that Pockets of Time does not recommend that you drive after visiting the spa facility. However, Pockets of Time can accept no legal responsibility for anything that happens once you leave the spa facility.

Goodbye Jennifer. Pockets of Time hopes that you have had a helpful, healing, and relaxing journey in getting the fuck away from my family.

Travis Flatt is a writer and educator. He is a substitute teacher in Cookeville, Tennessee and sells used books. He is the author of numerous short stories which are accessible at
Currently reading: Nebula award winning novellas Carpe Glitter and The Only Harmless Great Thing.
Twitter: @TravisLFlatt

Alternate Dimensions

This issue, our fifth, will be the last for 2021. We will be taking a short break at the end of the year to gather our energy and sort out admin—an exciting outcome will be the launch of the Ab Terra newsletter to bring science fiction stories straight to your inbox.

In this issue, we’re honoured to showcase the works of photographer Rowan Spray alongside the chosen stories. Her approach to her art truly reflects what we are trying to do here at Ab Terra. As Rowan tells us, she aims “to imbue her subjects (both in and outside of the studio) with a little magic, in the hope that the viewer will reconsider their approach to nature in their daily lives.” We were enthralled by her work (and we hope you will be, too), which truly brings out a sense of wonder that the plant world evokes, something that is heavily influenced by her rural upbringing (in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire).

We hope you’ll enjoy reading this issue as much as we did pulling it together. When we put out the call, which was for stories that focus on “the alternate”, we encouraged a broad interpretation: alternate universe, alternate dimension, any other sci-fi themed alternative. We feel that it was our boldest theme yet, and the submissions did not disappoint. From insecure Gods to multiverses and unpredictable robots, we found our imaginations stretched and tested. We were also really pleased to receive submissions from writers who have followed us from the beginning of Ab Terra Flash Fiction Magazine.

A big thank you to all our writers, without whom we would not be. And thank you to you, our readers, who continue to encourage us to build Ab Terra up, to improve story upon story.

From earth,
Yen and Dawn

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Issue 4: Climate

The Great Collapse

by Cass Richards

My name is Dr. Lex Grassian, co-founder of the MicroThalassa Institute, and this is my confession: I am the one responsible for the Second Collapse. But now that I have lost the love of my life, I don’t care what people will say about me.

Although I may have single-handedly caused a mass extinction, there is honestly not much to say about me beyond what’s already been said in the media. For most of my life, I was just a white-coated scientist amongst others. 

While some glamorously scrutinized the infinitesimal or scanned infinity itself, I found solace among my lab-grown, opalescent diatoms and nova-like hydrozoa. While others dreamed of finding alien life or miracle cures, I was but a lonely “micronaut” lost amongst luminescent geometric figures, iridescent veils and miniature monsters. 

So, when I first met Dr. Nayantara Sadri at an international conference on climate change and ocean life, I couldn’t have fathomed that, together, we would actually change the world.


Until I met Nayantara, I was, like most scholars, stuck in a rather typical paper/conference/grant routine. I had come, on autopilot, to present my research on DNA metabarcoding for recovering plankton populations and had never expected to find myself entranced by a bright-eyed, dark-haired attendee that stood out amongst the usual pasty and balding crowd.

I was so flustered when she came up to me after the question period that I have no memory of our first conversation. All I remember now is that, for a reason I couldn’t yet fathom, Nayantara kept on smiling at me and invited me to her lecture, which was scheduled for the very next day.


Nayantara Sadri’s Deep Neural Network (DNN) ocean-model was, by all accounts, as groundbreaking as its findings were shocking. Even I, the “plankton gal” had a hard time accepting its prediction that global phytoplankton populations were about to collapse, but I couldn’t help be intrigued by what it meant for my own research. So, when Nayantara offered, over drinks, to collaborate with me, I didn’t think twice before answering. 

It didn’t bother me, at the time, that where I saw plankton as beautiful geometric figures, she only saw a fleeting, drifting world. The simple fact that she had noticed me and that I was worthy of her interest had been enough. I didn’t yet know how much my love for her would bloom, illuminating the dark depths of my loneliness.  

It is now public knowledge that when the DNN’s prediction turned out to be correct, it was Nayantara who, quite literally, saved the planet. She is the one who travelled the world to seek the grants that allowed me to engineer a strand of “super-phytoplankton” able to survive both the warming and acidification of the world’s oceans. It was thanks to her foresight and perseverance that, when the First Collapse started to happen, we were ready.

Then, of course, came the Nobel Prize, the creation of the Institute and, from an outside perspective, a semblance of happiness. What very few people know, however, is that trying to save the world’s oceans while being on our own IVF journey cost us two miscarriages, my deepening depression, bitterness and, eventually, our drifting apart. 

It was a price that, had I known, I would have refused to pay, even if it meant putting the future of humanity at risk.


When after four months of constant travelling and unbroken silence between us, Nayantara reappeared into my life one fall evening, I knew something was wrong.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was coming, but you really have to see this,” she said, before sitting at my desk and opening her laptop.

Even though I knew, deep down, that I needed to scream at her for abandoning me, I was so stunned by her raw, physical presence and by the sudden rush of memories of our time together, that I didn’t respond. I simply stared at her, feeling lost.

This is why when she first told me that the latest DNN data predicted yet another global collapse I refused to believe her. 

Is she trying to hurt me? I thought in confusion.

When she showed me proof that our own phytoplankton chimera had adapted too well to its environment and was now blooming all over the world’s oceans, poisoning the base of the food chain, I begged her to stop, for I knew that the end of our collaboration would be the end of us.

“Listen, Lex, we don’t have a choice: we have to destroy your chimera…” she said.

“My” chimera? WE created this together… I thought, feeling helpless, as if I had been punched in the stomach.

“Naya, please don’t…” I mumbled as I tried to pull her from the computer to prevent her from sending her findings to all our contacts and sponsors. 

She looked at me in anger and accused me of being afraid of losing our grants and the Institute. I didn’t contradict her for I don’t think she would’ve understood that I couldn’t let her destroy what we had made together.

“If plankton dies because of the strand you created, the oceans will die… and if the oceans die, we all die!” she yelled as we struggled. 

After that, the course of humanity changed, but not the way Naya had anticipated. As advanced as it had been, her DNN couldn’t have predicted that when I shoved her away from the computer, she would fall, hit her head on the edge of the workstation and die in my arms before the ambulance arrived. Nor could it have predicted that, blinded by sorrow, I would methodically destroy all of her findings, including the blueprints for the failsafe that would have saved us all.

In the end, it only accurately predicted what, to me, really mattered: that when the world ends and all is gone, the only thing that will remain will be our iridescent progeny, drifting like galaxies in our dark, empty oceans.

Born and raised in the South of France, Cass Richards has been living and teaching in Toronto, Canada, for the last 17 years. Their stories in English have been published under various pennames, in Sci-Fi Lampoon magazine and Bewildering Stories.
Currently reading: The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall.

Dirty Planets

by Carlos Ruiz Santiago

The rain drops were darker than the storm clouds that spat them. Filthy, oily, not entirely water. Disgusting, like everything in and around that planet. However, someone had to do the job. After all, salvation is something too cruel to deny.

Eve fell there, heavy and stiff. Little by little, the typical dizziness from the travel between the perfectly controlled environment of the Mother Spaceship to the rotting chaos of one of the Dirty Planets started to fade. The pressure, the temperature, the impurities in the air, the suit working as quick as it could. Eve felt a burning taste in her mouth, something acrid in her throat, before the suit completed its task. Soon, everything was aseptic again

Eve breathed deep and slow before standing up. She loved her job, as anyone in the Salvation Squad of Dirty Planets did, but some days were better than others. The days when they had to reestablish a dying population that would adore them like angels; the days she found out about another human colony that the Central Government didn’t know—a brother lost during the desperate conquest of stars. Even if they didn’t accept their help at the beginning, even if they had to be helped by force, even when that happened, for Eve, those were the days she was happiest to do her job

This, however, was a different kind of day. The planet was completely broken. The gravity it was supposed to have in relation with its mass was almost nonexistent. Corroded, it was decomposing from the inside out. She activated the artificial gravity of the already hefty robotic suit. Joseph talked to her through the radio and she let him know that she was okay. Not really any reason to be worried. In that kind of world, there was nothing left alive to hurt her or any of the advance party.

She started to walk, slowly, observing everything, no matter how hurtful it was. It was important to be immersed in that destruction, to remember why they were saving planets no matter what. Humans were a compassionate species, at least since the Central Government took control and things like race were completely obliterated, unified. No discrepancies, everyone the same, everyone equal. Heaven. 

The suit’s computer was puking data, showing her mathematical values that told the story she already knew: the world was dead. She knew it before getting near it, from the spaceship, the sight was depressing. It was like an egg with the shell broken and the content stinking from a distance; the clouds making weird shapes, like a horrid monster eating the planet. 

When she arrived, the sight didn’t get better. The ground was black slit. The trees weren’t there, not even as famished carcasses of wood. The water flowed slow as molasses with heavy metallic sediments in it. Sometimes, between the ashes and the mud, black as demon’s blood, Eve could spot hunks of steel—twisted structures that, in other times, could have been constructions of some kind. But now, the planet was withered as a flower in winter, making it impossible to discern anything about the civilization that once thrived there. The radiation was abhorrent, the temperature gelid, the sun just a faint, loveless hug.

It was obvious that a planet like that was far from any kind of salvation. In fact, it didn’t seem like they would find anything to save at all. Nothing could have adapted to that ecosystem. Usually, worlds that ended like that had lost the wildlife God gave to them before completely destroying their homes. Their homes, their worlds, often, the only ones they had. Planets don’t die in a colored explosion, but in a pathetic decadence, as slow as it is lethal. No one used to have the vision that the Central Government has. Unenlightened by Almighty God, they failed to consider the future. That made Eve sad. 

After walking for a while, she reached a singular point where a huge structure was still standing, more by luck than by strength. Impressive nonetheless, it was an intricate colossus of steel, pointing to the sky as though it was cursing God for creating the planet’s inhabitants flawed, for not sending his divine purification before. 

A rusty steel board was there. Eve cleaned the filth from it with her hand and read it. Bienevnue à la Tour Eiffel. Eve bit her lip. A dead language, impossible to translate to the New Gothic that the Central Government imposed after the Revelations of the year 567 of New Times. She scanned it, hoping that the Mother Database could help. The scout observed the horizon with an uncanny melancholy. It was gray, dim, unhurried—apocalyptic. 

“Joseph, can you hear me?” An affirmation. “Dirty Planet JKF45678, Sector B4 is abandoned and far away from any type of help.” A short pause. It would always be hard to say that, but it was especially upsetting that time. “This place has been dead for more time than any other Dirty Planet. Not even heretics here. Take me out of here. Soon, please.”

There she waited, happy because humans had learnt from their errors, sad because the inhabitants of that planet hadn’t in time. 

Back to her paradise. Funny to think how thin the lines between heaven and hell are in some places. Funny if you are really twisted, of course. 

The spaceship arrived soon after her call, cutting the black cloud in half. Eve was happy to live in Heaven, where all errors were corrected long ago.

After all, perfection is the definition of a paradise, isn’t it? 

Carlos Ruiz Santiago is a Spanish fantasy, science-fiction and horror writer. He has stories published in various websites, like ””, anthologies and magazines. He has published two novels (Salvación condenada and Peregrinos de Kataik). He is editor of the websites “Dentro del Monolito” and “El Cementerio de Espadas”. Furthermore, he organizes talks and workshops around cinema and literature.
Currently reading: The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King
Twitter: @OneWingedDarko

The Stars, Unfixed

by Elaina Weakliem

The hissing of the water pump wakes me up in the middle of the night and for a bleary moment I grope through the sheets, trying to find the soft shape of your back. When the bed next to me turns up empty, I sit upright, panic clanging the primal alarm bells at the base of my skull.

I reach over to wake up your mother— and there you are, curled right up in her arms, your head resting on her collarbone. The two of you cling to each other unconsciously, your tiny hand pulling at the strap of her shirt. She rolls onto her back, bringing you up to her chest.

The water pump’s hiss turns to a faint gurgle. I scrub my hands across my eyes as I fall back onto the mattress. The room hasn’t started to show even the faintest signs of dawn, which makes me want to check the time, to see how long we really have left. The digital clock on the dresser is blank— the President made good on his promises and cut the power grid to most of our county yesterday.

Even on this last day, morning chores pull me out of bed and through the kitchen. I grab the flashlight off the counter. The rituals are different from the ones I performed as a child, but since I turned thirteen, not a single morning has found me sleeping in after dawn.

It used to be cows that we raised out here— grazing stock, mostly for beef. They were the first to go, seeing as they used the most water. The government was willing to subsidize our transition to an easier living, and the governor paid the bills while we tilled up the back pastures and seeded them with corn. Still, I’d be up at four, five o’clock, fixing the robotic harvesters, trying to memorize sections of your mother’s programming books so she could sleep during the afternoons instead of sitting out in the shed, tinkering with the same malfunctioning thresher. She was tired all the time, and her doctor recommended bed rest. We knew from the beginning, Little One, that you’d be a force of nature.

Sometimes I wonder how I’ll explain it all to you, how I can get you to understand words like “subsidy” and how I’ll find ways to make the history of this land relevant to you when it’s not yours to keep anymore. I don’t think they have cows in the Gulf colony. I think the scientists there have moved past animal meat.

The pump lets out a low wheeze and I stoop down to check inside it with the flashlight’s beam. Just as I thought: no clogs. The thing’s just run dry.

Movement on the edge of the porch startles me and I smack the flashlight into the pipes trying to stand upright. Your mother steps out into the beam of light, hands out in front of her in a silencing gesture.

I offer her the flashlight and she leans in to confirm the same thing as me. When she stands, she pulls me into her arms, the flashlight pressing into my back.

“You heard it too?” I rest my forehead against her neck. It’s no cooler outside than it was in the bedroom, and we’re both starting to sweat.

“Yeah.” She rocks from one foot to the other, swaying the two of us gently from side to side. “I’m sorry, Isa.”

“It’s not your fault.” I wonder again what time it is, how long we have left.

Little One, I know already that your mother will adjust fast to the colony. She’s good with computers and kids, and her cousin’s managed to get her a job in the settlement. She’ll fit right in, make friends with our neighbors. She’s not even discouraged by the lack of sunlight. She’s been trying to get me interested in the logistics of plankton cultivation. I couldn’t care less about deep-sea fish or whale food, but I haven’t said that aloud. She’s trying her best; both of us know that I belong up here.

“I guess that’s the last of the groundwater,” I say, my mouth dry. “I should go check to make sure we’ve got everything in the truck. We don’t want to have to come back for any of it once we leave.

“Hey.” She catches my wrist, and tugs me towards her, off the porch and into the dusty backyard. “Come sit with me.”

Your mother knows everything about me, Little One. She’s good at comforting people too, but you know that already. As much as I want to see pieces of myself reflected in you, I hope that you’ll inherit this part of her

She wraps me in her arms again and we sit, watching the lights in the sky enact their spinning celestial ballet. Most of them are satellites, a few might even be shuttles for the Mars program. It’s been so long since I lifted my eyes from the crumbling dust of these fields that I forget how multitudinous the lights have become. They all look like stars to my untrained eye, having come unfixed from their eternal places in the heavens.

“We’re going to make something new for her.” She means you, Little One. And she’s right— even as she says it, I know she is. We might have to live in the undersea colony for fifty years or five hundred while the Earth above tries to heal, but I know that one day you’ll come back to the surface, maybe even to this spot.

We’re making something new for you. That’s why we’re going to a place with no sun, a place far from our family’s land. We’ll give you a fighting chance, even if it means redefining everything we’ve come to understand about ourselves. I can study plankton farming, and your mother can teach you the names of fish instead of land animals. Together, we’ll re-make the world for you.

Elaina Weakliem is a young writer from Denver, Colorado, but currently studying in Oregon. She has work published in The Round. At the moment, she’s reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Something in the Water

by Fiona Moore


The campground showers smelled of lake, old bathing suits and mold. Swearing under my breath, I dumped the handheld lawn sprayer unceremoniously in a corner of the nearest stall, where it sloshed accusingly, and set to work.

Turning the faucets elicited a small flow of water, choking and spurting. I’d checked the tanks on my way in and they were fine. Which meant there was probably something blocking the pipes. Turning them off again, I unscrewed the shower head and peered up. 

“I didn’t expect that,” I said to the dark, faintly glittery mass inside it. 

I switched on my little flashlight, examined the inside. I took the nearest long object to hand, namely a Phillips-head screwdriver, and prodded the mass.

The mass erupted.

I swore and waved the screwdriver around, backing clumsily away from the buzzing stream of pearly-white wings that was pouring out of the pipe and filling the cramped little cubicle, then the moldy wooden building, getting in my hair, my ears, my eyes, crawling inside my Parks Service uniform.

Then, abruptly, the swarm diminished. The buzzing took on a more urgent, hungry tone, as they all converged on a single corner of the showers. Without stopping to question my luck, I rushed for the bright rectangle of the door, dove out, staggered a few steps and collapsed on to the rough wooden bench outside, breathing welcome gasps of cool, Scotch-pine-scented air.

I looked up, as the swarm followed me out; the vibrant, shining storm cloud paused for a second, then rose over the tall, even stands of pine and drifted in the direction of the lake.

I looked back through the door, saw what had drawn their attention in the showers.

I looked down, where a few bewildered stragglers were still clinging to my shorts. Ordinary black blister beetles, Nemognatha nemorensis, except for those odd, beautiful, opal-coloured wing-cases. The kids in the nature programme had been bringing them back from wildlife hunts for weeks now, mostly from the trails by the lake.

Remembering why I was there, I looked up again, this time, into the shocked and bewildered eyes of the graduate student—standing there on the pine needles in her scruffy lavender fleece bathrobe, clutching her shampoo and soap—who had only wanted a shower.

“You go find your supervisor,” I told her. “She’ll be down at the lake collecting samples at this time of day. You tell her that I know why two-thirds of the farmers in the county have cashed in, sold their property and moved West. Why Dougie Fitzsimmons, the one with the big apple orchards and the pick-your-own-strawberries stand on the eastern border of the park, came storming down to the research station, ranted at her for twenty minutes, then went home and blew his brains out with his shotgun. You tell her that that entomologist friend of hers was right, but even more than that, it’s not just going to devastate the local economy, but potentially the entire agricultural system of half the planet. And you can also,” I said, looking at the tattered remains of the lawn sprayer, where the beetles had literally torn through the flimsy plastic of the tank to get at the Atrazine inside, “tell her that I know why this lake has, for some previously unexplained but now perfectly obvious reason, got the lowest levels of pesticides of any of the waterways in your sample.”

Fiona Moore is a London-based, BSFA Award-shortlisted writer whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov, and Shoreline of Infinity, with reprints in Escape Pod, Forever Magazine, and three consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. She has also published one novel, three stage plays, four audio plays and a number of guidebooks to cult TV series. Full details can be found at

The Barber 

by J. F. Salocin

The shop opens at six, and a horn sings the news to the world, “Open! Open!” loud and mechanical, yet vaguely human-like. Then the lights turn on, white illumination on the ceiling that reflects off the furniture-less, waxed floor. The walls of the building open like an eye. Box-shaped robots wheel on through, parking exactly at their designated spot in front of a mirror where they unfold like origami into cushioned seats, thrones for the customers to watch the metal servants at work. A tray extends out from the right armrest of each of the twelve chairs. 

A larger robot, an android woman that wears human skin and stares through human eyes, swings open the back door and walks out gracefully, tip-toeing like a ballerina. It carries refreshments and snacks in the cradle of it’s wired, tin-can arms. 

“Pretzels and lemonade!” The android begins to set a bowl of pretzels and an iced-glass of pink lemonade out on each armrest tray. The drink would be kept at a constant cool—no ice melts, no lukewarm beverages. 

The mirrors glow with a tint of orange, mimicking a warm sunrise, to offset the rainy day. Out from under the mirrors, tables flatten out, directly ahead of the chairs. Clippers, razors, shaving cream, blow dryers and fungicide canisters emerge from slots, aligned, sterile and ready for use. The fungicide’s green liquid sloshes around like an algae-ridden river.

The same android that served the delicious snacks dances over to the cash-register, connecting its hands to the computer, its face becoming an ATM. Simply swipe your credit card through its lips and the funds would be processed. Give the android a kiss on the cheek and you may get 10% off your next haircut. 

Later, a middle-aged man with a long, brown mullet enters the shop. The door that he opens flips a switch which sends four child-sized robots to the floor. 

“Greetings Sir! Greetings Sir! Welcome to the Barber Shop of Tomorrow!” Their voices weave gracefully into a short three-line song. They like to be called The Cache Quartet—at least that request is programmed into their data-logged craniums; how many people actually call them that is unknown. 

“Hello,” the mullet man says awkwardly, scratching his chin and itchy overgrown stubble.

The kid robots whirl and shake the man’s hand eagerly, taking off his rain-jacket and hat, placing them on the coat rack for safe keeping. They lead him to the first chair and velcro the hair cloth around his neck. 

“Please, help yourself to the snacks,” they sing, returning back to their wall compartments, until the next customer requires a welcome. 

The mullet man drinks sour-sweet lemonade and chews salty pretzels as the barber marches up behind him. 

“What will it be today? A little off the top? Complete shave? A modest trim?” The barber asks, wearing an apron with a drawing of a smiley face on it. Between its aluminum-bolt fingers are a pair of scissors. It clips at the air, waiting for instructions. 

“Can you get rid of the mullet? Wife said she’s tired of it.” The man laughs, shaking his head. “I love her, so I listen.”

“Smart man,” the barber says, eyes shining a pretty red, for it knows the feeling well, as it is in love with the android woman. It doesn’t know how, but it knows it is. Its CPU enamored, motherboard smitten, a thousand viruses couldn’t pull them apart. 

The barber puts down the scissors, grabs hair clippers and plugs the power cord into its chest outlet. The tool hums like fed up wasps, cutting the man’s hair. It finishes in less than five minutes, with an accuracy of style that can’t be matched by any human hand. 

“Feet up,” the barber says to the man who now sports a clean buzz cut like a private in bootcamp. 

The man complies.

Suddenly, the floor radiates a fiery heat, each individual tile is an electric stove, burning at over five-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The fallen hair begins to crisp and shrivel into stale carbon, soon enough disintegrating completely. A burnt keratin smell floats in the man’s nostrils and he gags. 

“So sorry,” the barber says, its left arm transforming into a vacuum that sucks the remaining ash away. Its right arm grabs a perfume from the table and sprays a generous amount around the man, until the stench is camouflaged.

The man gets up from the chair cautiously. Once he’s sure the rubber of his shoes is not melting, he puts his full weight on the floor. 

He walks to the register to pay.

“Twenty dollars please,” the android says. Its lips pucker into a smooch.

The man twists his wrist around and presses firmly on his hand-watch. The glass emits a red laser and reads the microscopic creases of his fingerprint. A moment later, the ticking time illuminates and mists into a foggy hologram. He swipes at the projected airy screen, stopping at a green-lit section with a label named “Finances.” He thumbs to the Debit Card category.

The man plucks one of the seven holographic cards out and exposes it to reality. Within seconds the card made of light transforms and hardens into plastic, solid matter.

“Here’s the card,” he says, putting the thin plastic between the android’s lips. He slides it quickly and uncomfortably. His face blushes into splotches of pink. 

The android silences, processing the payment. “Insufficient funds,” it says, staring at the man, waiting to finish the transaction.

“My apologies,” the man says. “Let me try another. The cards can get wacky sometimes.”

He returns back to the hologram and takes each debit card out, stacking them in a wobbly pile on the counter. He tries each one, swiping, swiping, swiping.

“Insufficient funds,” the android woman repeats, each time its voice loudens. A hot, electrical anger builds up inside its circuits.

“It seems my money isn’t as organized as I thought.” the man laughs dryly. “I’ll run home really quick and borrow one of my wife’s cards.” he says, thumbs up, turning around towards the exit. 

The android grabs his shoulder and pulls him back aggressively. “No, that won’t do. Pay now, please.”

The man glares and pushes the android off. “As I just said, I need to get my wife’s debit card,” he speaks slowly, in a condescending manner. “Stupid machine.”

The barber comes behind the man, blocking him from the door with a body of dense steel. “Pay now please,” it says, grabbing his throat, gripping his Adam’s apple like an armored gorilla picking fruit from a tree.  

“I’m the customer, dammit!” The man chokes out. He kicks the robot’s right leg in and a loose bolt flies off like a poorly shot bullet, causing the barber to buckle and lose balance. The man races towards the door and pulls the handle. But it is locked. 

The android helps the barber up and they passionately kiss, clanking metal, exciting fuses. 

Their faces become rigid and expressions change as they focus on the man. The barber takes out the scissors once more, freshly honed, sharp enough to slice flesh and bleed veins. 

J. F. Salocin is an 18-year-old short-story writer and poet, as well as a newly graduated high school student. He will be attending Middlebury College to pursue a degree in Creative Writing and Education.
Currently reading: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury and The Pearl by John Steinbeck.

Shit Left Behind

by Matt Zandstra


I met up again with the old man at an abandoned warehouse in the gray zone. We knocked phones and the coin transfer rang out with a jolly kerching, just like the adverts. We left through the old office. A coffee cup sat on the desk where it had lurked, most likely, since the day of the evacuation.

He stopped dead still and just stared as if at a prehistoric beaker. He peered in. “You can still see the dregs.”

“Come on,” I said.

There’s a ditch round the back. It disappears into a low tunnel which leads in turn to a big old sewer pipe—tiled with ledges like banks along both walls. It’s practically an underwater canal so we neatly avoided the checkpoints and eventually slipped out through a manhole into the abandoned region.

That was more or less solid ground, but the waters are sly and patchy. You can be fine on a pavement, but up to your ankles or worse if you step off into an old garden. I knew the patrol schedule and we marched boldly enough straight down the old high street.

The old man looked about with wide eyes.

“Weird, right?” I said, meaning the quiet, the rot of it, the smell of the water–which was like bodies and oil and burnt rubber.

“I just keep on seeing last times,” he said.

We came upon standing water right by the park gates.

I keep the boat and kit locked up and hidden in an old shed round the back of a betting shop. Pretty soon we were whining through the upside-down world of half-submerged buildings, then buzzing along a street of upper floors and roofs.

“There!” said the old man. He was checking against his map but he added, “I recognize the sticker on Danny’s window.”

We tied up at a drain pipe. Inside, I could see the remains of a bed and some tatters of what had been posters on the wall. Someone had set a fire in the corner, but it had been a half-hearted effort and hadn’t taken.

“You know where to go?” he asked.

“Front room on the left,” I said. “Black sports bag with a big swoosh.”

We laid old carpet across the window cavity to protect against the jagged edges and I clambered through. He passed along the air tank and flippers.

The water began black and brackish just below the top step of the staircase. I fixed my mouthpiece and pulled rubbery air into my lungs. I descended, tensing against the cold, and pushed myself under the upper landing. I sank past school photographs, holiday photographs, wedding photographs, somewhat well preserved thanks to the layer of glass in their frames, and on to the mess and tangle of daily life the evacuation had interrupted.

Sometimes, when I explore a zone house, I imagine I’m a ghost; that the world darts on there as bright and clear as ever and that the muffle of the water makes me one of the clumsy dead peering in to catch—but forever missing—the quick reality around me.

I was diving now, breathing hard. I found the family room. It was dominated by a table, places still marked with rusted cutlery. A dead computer stared emptily at me from a corner desk. Charger cables billowed like fronds of seaweed from a bar plug. And there, just where he said it would be, was the bag.

“What was it like in there?” the old man asked as we droned back towards the shore.

I shrugged. “It’s always the same in the zones. People thought they’d be coming back after the evacuation. So it’s like everyone just stepped out and moved on.”

“I packed this that morning.” He patted the bag. “And then the police and the wardens were banging on all the doors in the street, so I just left it there. I forgot about it for nearly forty years. You think you can move on. Just keep on moving forward. And maybe once that was true. Used to be every generation got richer, more free, so they always had somewhere go on to. But we just grew smaller and smaller. And eventually it got so all I could think about was final times and shit left behind.

“So you came back for the bag.”

“Just so.”

I nodded but I did not understand. Not really.

Back at the warehouse, he sat on the loading dock staring at the bag. “You want to see what’s in it?”

I nodded.

He tugged at the zip and retrieved the objects one by one. A sodden paperback, its cover showing a spaceship orbiting above a greenish planet. Several schoolbooks: French, math, chemistry. A gaming device. A pencil case. A rolled-up PE kit. He laid them out on the dock in a grid—like evidence or archaeology. He furrowed his brow as if the configuration should change something for him. For a long time, I thought he’d speak, but he just stared and stared, so I left him there with his soaked treasures.

I returned a week or so later, meeting up with some campies bound for Spain. I found the sports bag abandoned in a corner of the warehouse. As far as I could tell, the old man had not taken a thing. When I led the way through the back office though, I saw that he’d snagged the old mug from the desk. Perhaps it’s less painful to hold on to someone else’s last safe moment than your own. Or maybe he just wanted a mug.

Matt Zandstra is a writer and a coder. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from UEA. He won the Curtis Brown prize for his novel in progress. He lives in Brighton, UK. He is currently rereading The Three Californias Triptych by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Twitter: @inflatableink

The Aspiration Project on Colony IV

by Nicola Humphreys


Gemma poked her thumbs through the holes in her sleeve cuffs, then crossed her arms over her chest. Mum told her that she could sulk and regret it, or make the most of the few days they had left together. If she wanted to be taken seriously and be treated like an adult, then now was the time to start, and to try to appreciate that difficult decisions weren’t taken lightly. Gemma couldn’t understand why Laura had picked that stupid, greasy, lanky boy over her own sister. It wasn’t fair. Dad was dead. Laura was leaving. Every penny they had went to Mum’s medicine, and it wouldn’t be long before Gemma was on her own. At least she would get to keep most of Laura’s clothes, including the jumper she had on. She looked at the fabric composition label: 60% Recycled Polypropylene, 35% Recycled Acrylic, 4% Recycled Viscose and1% Reclaimed Wool. Almost everything she had ever owned—clothes, toys, books—was second-hand, vintage, hand-me-down, used, pre-loved. Colony IV was brand new and Laura would get her own apartment, and everything in it would be straight from the factory—shiny, clean and white. Gemma imagined how Laura would peel off the plastic wrapping from the front door and it would make a sucking sound as it opened. New intakes always moved into a hermetically sealed zone for the first two years, so they could acclimatize and be monitored for disease. All those teenagers taking classes together, being trained for something important. Good food and free medical treatment.

Early Colonizers had worked hard to set up The Aspiration Project, which made reliable fresh air a real thing now. There were enough trees growing to make it a renewable resource. She’d heard that people could run outside—on purpose—and were still able to breathe! It sounded amazing. No wonder she felt so jealous. Mum told Gemma that she would get her chance soon to apply and to not give up, and that everyone has to make the best life they can with what they’re given.

Laura’s Farewell Event was in nine days’ time, and then she would be allowed only five minutes’ worth of video calls for the rest of her life. Due to the physics of space travel, it would take Laura six months to reach Colony IV, by which time, Gemma would have aged by eighteen years. She doubted that Laura would care enough to ever call her again, and she would bet that she would sell her video slots to other people who were actually going to miss their families. But there was always the small chance that sometime in the future, Laura would contact her. Gemma might even recognize her on one of those Colony documentary shows.

What neither of them knew, or the majority of people on that dying planet would ever know, was that the voyage Laura and her boyfriend were about to take, was not to The Aspiration Project on Colony IV, but to a human recycling plant. Those who actually got to live on one of the Colonies were not the most fertile, physically strong or genetically healthy specimens like the adverts showed. Prime humans at the start of their adulthood were not enjoying their best lives on Colony IV or any other Colony for that matter. 

Colony IV was designed as a hospice paradise for in-bred, sickly offspring of legacy investors and their extended families. All of the spaces were permanently reserved for those who could afford them. But to avoid any cause for a rebellion or civil unrest, the lottery for tickets had to be seen to be a fair system for everyone. People could not be allowed to give up hope.

Nicola Humphreys is a writer who lives in a damp, rented house in Leicester, UK. Published in anthologies by Storgy and Retreat West (also nominated for a Sabateur award), she was a delegate in the 2021 ‘A Brief Pause’ writers’ development programme with Dahlia Books. Hear her on @podcastmicro. All of her dresses have pockets.

Reading: little scratch by Rebecca Watson

Twitter: @nicolawitters

A Thought Experiment About Spiders

By Owen Bridge


I begin with a question. It would be vain of me to consider the possibility of an answer, but I shall endeavour to find some degree of truth. 

If one were to imagine which would have the greater impact on the planet; either humans shrinking to the size of spiders; or spiders growing giant to the size of humans, how would one begin to assess the potential impact? 

1: Tiny Crappie People. 

Of course, it would be absurd to consider all of humanity’s infrastructure, and technological baubles also shrinking, so one could predict that our capacity to harm the environment would be considerably reduced—assuming tiny nuclear engineers were able to prevent our reactors from going into meltdown. Theatres would have to be remodelled, the majority of gyms would become useless, our phones would be far too big to be of any use, and none of our Halloween costumes would fit. Naturally our clothes would shrink with us—whatever we were wearing at the time, would become our default outfit. Culturally this would serve as an anchor point. You could recognise someone’s previous employment and intuit potential skill sets unless the shrinking happened at night, in which case everyone would be in their pyjamas or underwear, or naked. 

Food would be bountiful but also quite frightening. A green pea would be the approximate size of a human head, and cauliflowers would require mountaineering equipment and an expedition team of at least twelve people in order to be brought to market. Sweet potato harvesting would require a special licence and years of training to be performed safely. Rodent hunting would become the principal source of meat and would be a fairly glamorous occupation, until a ferret came along and ate everyone you knew.        

2: Spiders Enlarged. 

The principal issues facing those of the arachnid persuasion would be practical. Many would be crushed in the initial enlarging, as the nooks and cracks many spiders occupy would no longer offer adequate space for their rapidly expanding frames. Flies would stay at the same size as they are now, and so would not present the bounty of nourishment they currently do and spiders would have to look elsewhere for the majority of their calories. (This experiment does not take into account bird eating spiders) Given that spiders outnumber humans 2.8 million to one, humanity would be reduced to the status of walking canapé’s, the most likely outcome in the early stages of spider gigantism, would be a mass wave of spider cannibalism. A genuine Hobbesian nightmare, where life would be nasty’ spidery’ and not very long at all. 

Spider culture is somewhat more limited than humans. They have no art or entertainment as we know it. One could theorise a spider taking pride in the quality of their web, though that would be a separate area of inquiry and would require further research. 

3: Synthesis. 

This experiment becomes infinitely more interesting once we merge our two scenarios together, and consider the possibility of a giant spider, cowering in a corner, or jumping into the arms of another spider, covering their face with their hands and screaming, ‘Squish it!’ 

Owen Bridge is a writer based in rural Wales who is currently working on a PhD at Swansea University and a front line care worker. He is currently reading Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Karen Tei Yamashita.

Pull My Finger

by Robert Walton


A veil of smoke-colored snow fell from the moon’s shoulders onto slopes of hills already wearing a crown of stars. A lantern’s golden light bounced and bounded through a tree-shadowed valley. Its light grew brighter, came nearer and finally revealed a large object with odd angles and curves highlighted by mysterious gleams. 

With bells tinkling, harness creaking, and reindeer puffing plumes of silvery steam, the sleigh slowed. Santa pulled a thermos from his bag, opened it and sniffed. The cinnamon tingle of hot mulled wine tickled his nose and made him smile. He swigged from the thermos, then put it aside. He plucked a scarlet-bowed, gold-wrapped box out of his bag, grinned his merriest grin and offered it with both hands.


“That’s enough, Mom.”

“But the holo-vid isn’t done yet, honey.”

“I know.”

“Is there something bothering you?” Ella smoothed her son’s dark hair.

Jonah looked down. “It’s just that… well, I never get to open the present.”

Her face fell into that harassed expression mothers have when events conspire to keep their children from being happy. “You know Amazon can’t deliver during attacks.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I’d have gotten you something—something good—but this shelter-in-place order was a surprise.” She glanced at the environmental monitor. “And this attack seems worse than the others.”

“It’s okay.”

“Maybe Amazon will get through when the all-clear sounds,” she offered.

He detected the dispirited note in his mother’s voice and looked up. “But, I really like the part before the gift.”

“I do, too, honey, I do too.”

“Could you start it again?”

“That would be the third time today.”

“Please? Just until Santa opens the thermos?”

“How about, The Uncles?”

He thought about this for a moment. At last, he nodded. “Yeah. The Uncles are fun.”

“I’ll put it on.”


She manipulated the remote. “Yes?

“Do I have real uncles?”

She froze, her mind awash with memories. “No, dear—not for some years.”

“But, I had some?”

She glanced at the bookshelf against the far wall, at the peacock-blue bowl from Istanbul her brother-in-law Derek had given her for a wedding gift. 

“For a few months… they died shortly after the war began and you were born. They never saw you.”


Colonel Ivan Andreyevich Peshkoff studied the glowing screens. “The attack is at its peak.”

“Yes,” Professor Ivanovsky grunted with satisfaction. “The old submarines will surface and burst like soap bubbles.” 

“These radiation levels are quite high.”

Ivanovsky nodded. “The highest we’ve yet achieved and the winds are exactly right.”

Peshkoff again glanced at the radiation level readouts. “You’d think that these repeated attacks would crush domestic resistance.”

“Not by themselves.”

“Why not? The guts of forty sub reactors will be spreading across their skies.”

“No.” Ivanovsky paused. “The Americans’ defenses will stop simple radiation assaults.” 


The monitor’s light blinked green. Ella sighed with relief. She knew this was a bad storm, but the building’s filters were keeping out the poison. They would be confined to their apartment for weeks, well past Christmas, but thank God for the filters.

A hopping, leaping tune sounded from the hologram uncles. Uncle Bill had a nose flute plugged into his yawning right nostril. Uncle Tom buzzed his kazoo. Uncle Ed sang:

Oh, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee! Going to Louisiana, my true love for to see.

“What’s a banjo, mom?”

“It’s something like a violin, I think.”

“Why does he have it on his knee?”

“Maybe that’s an easy way to play it?”

Oh Susanna! Oh, don’t you cry for me! For I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee!

“Why should she cry?”

“Who, dear?”

“Susanna. He’s coming from Alabama with a banjo on his knee. Why should that make her cry?”

She pointed at the hologram uncles to deflect—as all mothers do—a question for which she had no answer. “Look, it’s time for them to tell their jokes.”

Bald Uncle Bill leaned toward Jonah, grinning. “What do you call a sleeping bull?”

“I don’t know.” Uncle Tom winked around his red turnip of a nose. 

The corner of Jonah’s mouth quivered.

Bald Bill roared, “A bulldozer! HA! HA!”

A half-smile creased Jonah’s lips.

Uncle Ed, with his white hair catching a gleam from the monitor lights, extended his right index finger. “Pull my finger.”

Jonah looked at him.

Ed smiled encouragingly. “Go ahead, pull.”

Jonah wrapped his small hand around the imaginary finger and pulled.

A proud fart blatted through the quiet room. Bill and Tom and Ed howled with laughter. Tears leaked from the corners of Jonah’s eyes as he gasped for breath.

Ella smiled, not at the crudity, but at her son’s pure laughter.


Peshkoff snorted. Why make these attacks if they are futile?”

“Because today we have something new.”

“We do?”

“We’ve engineered specialized microorganisms.”

Peshkoff shrugged his indifference.

Ivanovsky smiled. “Imagine nano-piranhas, tiny monsters that devour filter fibers. They will allow this attack to succeed. Final victory is at hand.”

“You truly think this?”

“When we defeat New York, they will have no choice but to surrender. Tens of thousands are dying to save millions more. That’s war.”

Peshkoff chuckled. “Tens of thousands will die so that millions more may die—that’s war.”

“You’re a nihilist, Colonel.”

“I’m a soldier. You’ve deployed your nano-piranhas?”



Ella sat at her apartment’s table, bent over, head resting on her right arm. Her face was relaxed, but dark blood trickled from her right nostril, across her lips and pooled on the table’s green surface. The filter monitor’s pulsing red light reflected from her unblinking eyes.

Jonah sat in the easy chair, his chin resting on his breast.

Uncle Ed smiled slyly and extended his right hand. “Pull my finger.”

Jonah didn’t move. The hologram flickered. 

Uncle Ed again murmured, “Pull my finger.”

Robert Walton is a retired middle school teacher and rock climber with ascents in Yosemite and Pinnacles National Park. He’s an experienced writer with published works including historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and poetry. Walton’s novel Dawn Drums won the 2014 New Mexico Book Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction. His Sockdologizer won the Saturday Writers 2020 Everything Children contest.

Lost, Presumed Melted

by Thomas Lawrance

Ten years ago today, the North Pole ran out of skin. The last iceberg came loose from the shore of Greenland like the final shred of eczema. Scientific observers (from the team I funded, I might brag) raised the alarm. They followed desperately with their binoculars as the berg receded toward the horizon, a gigantic white wart, the last imperfection, at last flaked off for good from the whittled Earth. 

As the news spread, the last berg drifted down the once-busy Iceberg Alley, receiving a hero’s farewell. You’ve seen photos of the Apollo 11 ticker tape parade—imagine something like that, except Neil Armstrong is on his way to melt.

The people of Ferryland, Newfoundland, had their cosy township trampled by tourists and cameras. I was there, I watched the iceberg heave by, oblivious, a huge gem of dead cells. Dogs howled at the sight. A drone collided with an obsolete Fox News chopper as they jostled for the best angle, and the wreckage obliterated Ferryland’s oldest stone church. To quote a witness on the day: oops.

Around this time—amid live reports, irreverent memes, and stoic opinion pieces—the berg gained its famous moniker: Lonesome George. Humanising the thing lent its passage down Iceberg Alley an even blacker funereal air. People even dressed up, and a few sobbed bulbous salt tears that they would’ve frozen and donated to the Arctic Circle if they could.

Lonesome George wound his way out to sea, chaperoned now by a coalition of naval ships. This colossal skull of ice floated on, surrounded by a pride of spiky grey vessels, all bristling with flags and guns turned outwards. Sleek white yachts followed at a safe and legally enforced distance. I went and sat at the prow of one such yacht (I could walk back then). George would glow at sunrise and sunset—as when a bright light shines red through the flesh of your fingertip—and the yachts rocked with all-night parties. Corks popped and landed in the Atlantic, tiny porous brown tributes trailing in George’s wake. Efforts were made to keep George from drifting too far south, into the heat traps that would accelerate his demise. We cheered whenever the specially adapted aircraft carrier was drafted in to nudge him northward. 

But there’s only so long you can dance at sea. The parties wound down, the yachts turned back, and the navies steamed on with George to their vanishing point on the horizon. The helicopters gradually peeled back to shore. The news was no longer live. Twelve months later, the fatal report came in: Lonesome George was lost, presumed melted.

That was that. Like the bees and the Bornean rainforest. Back to work.

Six months on, I attended a party on the island of Turks and Caicos. It was an exclusive party; there were armed guards on the door, and Tufty, an expensive-looking Greenland Dog with an expensive-looking diamond collar, seemed poised to remove the throat of any would-be miscreant. 

I moved around with a drink in my hand, trying not to look like a miscreant. 

It happened shortly after midnight, in the VIP lounge (I’ve just realised: I haven’t told you who I am, have I?). Our party’s host sat himself down, with hired girlfriends perched on the arms of his chair. At his command, the drink was brought out on a golden platter.

A tall glass of Russo-Baltique vodka, with a single ice cube. 

A special single ice cube, deep-frozen for the last six months.

A spotlight was focused on the glass, its pristine white beam picking out the perfectly planed edges of the ice cube. The crowd hushed. Our host plucked the glass carefully from the tray and examined it closely. A few phones snapped, but he waved them away. I got as close as I could. He continued to stare into the glass for a painfully long time. We stared at him in silence. It seemed he was waiting for the ice to melt, to suffuse completely with the vodka before ingesting it. 

Well, this was what I’d been waiting for. I’d spent months following this. This was my moment.

I leapt forward, and—surprising even myself—I managed to grab the glass without spilling a drop. The cube rattled softly against the side. 

I walked backwards as though holding the vodka hostage. Nobody dared move. 

From the beginning, I knew I’d be arrested, or battered, or tossed into the sea, but it didn’t matter, the world was done. I only wanted to go down in history as the person who drank the last iceberg.

I raised the glass. Fifty mouths gasped, one hundred eyes widened. Our impotent host went red. The first ripple of vodka touched my lips, and I felt the ice cube bump gently on the tip of my nose.

I heard the shatter before I realised what was happening. I looked up into the bared teeth of Tufty. Between us, the ice cube glistened on the tiles, despairingly remnant, George’s last fingernail. It was only a couple of inches away. I moved my face toward it, but Tufty yapped and I obediently withdrew. The crowd closed in, but it was too late. I watched the final moments play out in close-up, from my privileged position on the floor.

As Tufty lapped up the vodka and its tiny, final piece of Lonesome George—and in the last moments before the savage beating that would render two of my limbs forever useless—it briefly occurred to me that Tufty’s own ancestors might once have trodden on George’s glacial back. 

A strange sense of peace and justice descended then, and—as her big pink tongue flapped back and forth over the puddle, and men and women in golden clothes cursed and cried—I knew that Tufty was only reclaiming what was rightfully hers.

Thomas Lawrance lives in Ireland, where he writes fiction and performs stand-up comedy. He was recently shortlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize.
Twitter: @_ThomasLawrance

Climate & Environment


We chose the theme of Climate and Environment in response to Earth Day which happens on April 22 each year. The events that EARTHDAY.ORG planned were deeply moving and we were excited about the opportunity to use Ab Terra as a platform to help create engaging conversations about the climate crisis, as well as explore potential solutions to the myriad challenges we collectively face.

We applaud the authors of these stories, who, through their beautiful writing, help raise awareness about the issues of climate and environmental change. These imagined scenarios are at times funny, thought provoking and genuinely terrifying. We hope that you enjoy reading them as much as we have and if you feel inspired by some of the ideas, don’t hesitate to increase your civic engagement—we can all do more to help save this beautiful planet!

But for today, we’ll let these amazing stories speak for themselves.

From earth,
Dawn and Yen

All images in this issue were sourced from

Cover: Muhammad Numan 
Dirty Planets: Janko Ferlič 
The Great Collapse: Kevin Wolf 
The Stars Unfixed: Isaac Quesada 
Something in the Water: Melanie Celine 
Shit Left Behind: Chris Gallagher 
The Barber: Chris Knight 
The Aspiration Project on Colony IV: Bill Jelen 
A thought Experiment about Spiders: Hannah Voggenhuber 
Pull My Finger: Anatoliy Shostak 
Lost, Presumed Melted: Hao Zhang 
From the Editors: Markus Spiske 

The Slims River Is Gone

This is true.

Last spring, the Slims River in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park abruptly disappeared over the course of four days. A team of geologists and geoscientists that had been monitoring the retreat of the Kaskawulsh Glacier, the source of the Slims River, arrived to find dust where the mighty glacial river (one-third of a mile across at its widest places) had tumbled boulders and tree trunks just days before. Because the Alsek River, the glacier’s other outlet, had swelled to sixty times its usual flow, the field team concluded that the glacier’s intense, rapid melt had forced all of the water into the Alsek and away from the Slims.

This is the first time this kind of “river piracy” has been observed in recorded history, though the geological record indicates that it probably happened millions of years ago during other periods of extreme warming.

This is the first time this kind of “river piracy” has been observed in recorded history, though the geological record indicates that it probably happened millions of years ago during other periods of extreme warming.

What matters: the Slims River is gone. What once roared toward the Kluane River and into the Yukon to the Bering Sea now spills south into the Alsek toward the Gulf of Alaska. Instead of river in that once green valley, the wind whips up dust storms; the air is oddly silent.

I walked along the Slims River twice. Once, in June of 2005, my friend Lia and I backpacked up the trail that followed its west side. We intended to hike all the way to the toe of the great Kaskawulsh, but the first day — a grueling fourteen miles that included an intense crossing of the swollen Bullion Creek, a grizzly bear encounter on the edge of some willows, a trudge through sticky glacial silt, and a scramble up and down a trail the park ranger at the Sheep Mountain information center had described as “more or less flat” — had nearly defeated us. We set up camp at Canada Creek, in full view of the massive river of ice, and poured vodka into orange Tang for supper. In the rose-red light, we grinned at each other, giddy with weariness and whatever was blossoming between us, which was not mere friendship anymore, and which seemed as raw and gorgeous as that landscape. Did we notice the Slims River? It roared, gray-blue milk, just yards to the east of our tent all night, as impassable as the steep walls of rock on either side of the valley. It roared, and there was never darkness; the sun set close to midnight; we could still see to trace each other’s faces in the early hours of the morning.

Painting by MK MacNaughton, used with permission.
Painting by MK MacNaughton, used with permission.

In the rose-red light, we grinned at each other, giddy with weariness and whatever was blossoming between us, which was not mere friendship anymore, and which seemed as raw and gorgeous as that landscape. Did we notice the Slims River?

Eight years later, in June of 2013, I backpacked alone along the same trail on the west side of the Slims River, climbing up Sheep Mountain to a place where I could trace the braided curve of the Slims in the vast valley up toward the place where we had camped in view of the Kaskawulsh. In my two hands, I clutched a plastic Ziplock bag that contained some of Lia’s ashes. Not just ashes. Bits of bone. A piece of metal. When I sank my fingers into the bag, the white dust clung to my skin. I concentrated on the flowers that bobbed their heads in the wind on that rocky edge: the purple Ogilvie Spring Beauty, the yellow Maclean’s Goldenweed. Beyond, the Kaskawulsh curved in its frozen S. I knew the glacier moved, that it retreated daily, melting fast into the Slims and the Alsek, but I could not observe that action. I could barely breathe. When I filled my hands with Lia’s ashes, my fingertips remembered how soft her skin had been in the alpenglow at Canada Creek; when I opened my fingers, the wind swirled bone fragment and dust and threw it, laughing, into my eyes, my ears, my nostrils. Later, I crouched on the shore of the Slims, sinking my hands into the gray-blue milk. Ash swirled with silt, turning my hands to clay.

When I filled my hands with Lia’s ashes, my fingertips remembered how soft her skin had been in the alpenglow at Canada Creek; when I opened my fingers, the wind swirled bone fragment and dust and threw it, laughing, into my eyes, my ears, my nostrils.

Sometime after Lia died, I wrote: The Kaskawulsh Glacier in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park moves forward in the summer at an average velocity of 16,380 meters per day. The current glacier reached to its furthest extent in the early 1700s, when Bach wrote cantatas, Louis XIV of Spain ceded world domination to Great Britain, the slave trade between Africa and the American colonies increased, hostilities between Native American tribes and the colonists increased, and the Persian army sacked Delhi. Scientists know the age of the Kaskawulsh because they have conducted dendroglaciological studies. “Dendr-” = “related to trees.” Ring series from white spruce trees divulge the advances and retreats because the Kaskawulsh sheared, tilted, killed. Velocity, simultaneous events, exact day and time. Shatter the ice, break the rock. I want to know what is inside.

The violence of the glacier fascinated me with its unpredictable advances and retreats, its ancient insistence on destruction. On the alpine ridge of Sheep Mountain that day in 2013, I stood feeling insignificant, aware of the mountains that rose ancient on all sides of me, of the glacier that told me time does not move as human beings believe it does. What is eight years, after all? I wondered, briefly, if the mud flats and the meadows purple and white with Alaska cotton remembered our footsteps, but I barely considered the braided river.

But now, when I visit that place again, I’ll find a valley of dust, sculpted by wind into phantom shapes, as if the Slims River never was.

This is what a death is like for those who continue living. Once, a person stood there, infuriating or enamoring us with a face alight with anger or sadness or frustration or joy. Once, a person reached out arms to embrace us or threw up hands to ward us off. Once, there was skin to caress, a mouth to kiss, a mind to question. And then, very suddenly, no matter if the person dies at forty-two, as Lia did, or at ninety-eight, as my grandmother did, there is an eerie, silent absence. As if the person had never been there at all.

This is what a death is like for those who continue living.

The body is cremated or buried or donated to science. We stand in an empty room and try to remember how a voice sounded, exactly what a face looked like. Photographs are flawed historians; our memories tilt, filtered. If only we could ask her one more question, touch her cheek one more time, look upon her face just for one more moment. Only absence answers.

The Slims River in the Yukon is gone. I could walk across the entire broad valley from west to east, now. Lia is gone. Her raucous voice, her wild hair, her sacrilegious sense of humor, her paradoxical softness and edginess will never ripple in the world again. And others that I have loved are gone: Fern, John, Ida Ruth, Bill. I stand on a shore and close my eyes, straining to remember.

The Slims River in the Yukon is gone… Lia is gone… her paradoxical softness and edginess will never ripple in the world again. And others that I have loved are gone: Fern, John, Ida Ruth, Bill. I stand on a shore and close my eyes, straining to remember.

Years ago, when I wrote the first drafts of Grief Map, which releases from Brain Mill Press today, I was still desperate to recreate what was gone. I wanted my words to do what reality refused to do: bring back flesh, restore breath. Fiercely, I imagined myself walking that trail west of the Slims again: When I study the mud, I know I might find the overlapping footprints she and I left here in 2005 . . . Here in this air our laughter and our words exist, still. Here are the descendants of the same plants – lupine, penstemon, fireweed — that we flattened with our steps, touched with our fingertips, picked for each other’s hair. Here is the same grove of aspens, grown a little taller, and the same spruce forest . . .

What I did not yet understand was that I am still alive. It is not time for me to sink into the glacial silt and disappear from this world. I have more walking to do. I have other river trails to explore; I have others to love well.

In her poem “When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver writes that we can each make a choice about how to live until that inevitable moment when we must “step through the door” of death. She says:

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this


In my dreams, I do sometimes walk through a meadow of Alaska cotton on the west shore of the Slims. I do sometimes taste orange Tang and vodka. I do sometimes hear Lia’s infectious laugh. But when I wake, I snuggle close to my wife, Meredith, delight in her soft warm skin, treasure the crazy energy of our ten-year-old daughter and the dog leaping onto our bed. I am here, though the Slims River is gone. I am here, and I do not plan to merely visit this world.


Sarah Hahn Campbell’s book of linked essays, Grief Map, published by Brain Mill Press, releases today in print and ebook, available from sellers and distributors everywhere, and in fine first edition print and ebook directly from Brain Mill Press.

top photo by Iler Stoe on Unsplash