Old Eve, New Dawn

Editor’s Note: This story is by Igor.  Do you know Igor?  You should know Igor.  It is rumored Igor lives in an abandoned missile silo somewhere in the Nevada desert where he makes robots out of old kitchen appliances and whispers the scriptures of the new religions.  If you want to speak to him (and who doesn’t want to speak to him) leave a message at the beep…

Old Eve, New Dawn
by Igor Teper

During quite possibly the most spectacular sunset in Earth’s history, as they all now were, what looked like a man but was really a Know-It-All walked out of the radioactive slaglands into the slightly less radioactive ruins of a small town.

Among the many things that the Know-It-All knew were the date and time, the temperature, the absolute and relative humidities, the ambient radiation levels, the soil toxicity, the particulate content of the atmosphere that painted the sky such an extraordinary pink, and the entirety of humanity’s technical knowledge and cultural heritage.

Among the few things that the Know-It-All did not know was the future. In particular, it had no idea while it ambled down what had once been Main Street that it was about to encounter a human being until it heard a piercing shriek off to its left.

She dashed out of the rubble and embraced the Know-It-All before it even had a chance to greet her. A girl, in her late teens or early twenties, who, her tattered clothing and generally disheveled appearance notwithstanding, appeared to be in excellent physical
health.

She released the Know-It-All and stood back, her hands resting lightly on its upper arms, looking at its face with unbelieving elation.

“I knew you would come!” she said, her lips and jaw trembling, her words coming out in gasps. “All these months, I was ready to give up hope, but I never did! I just knew you would come!”

“It is a miracle that you have survived this long, and in such good health,” the Know-It-All said, “and another miracle that I have found you. But now you do not need to worry about anything. I shall take care of you.”

“Yes. Yes!” she said, nodding, her hands squeezing his arms. “We will take care of each other.”

“My own well-being is in no danger,” the Know-It-All said. “I was designed to be entirely self-sufficient and to survive in far more extreme conditions than the ones here and now.”

“Designed?” she mouthed.

“With the war seemingly inevitable, I was created to be the last safeguard against humanity’s extinction,” the Know-It-All said. “To be the perfect companion and guardian to those humans who might survive the war’s devastation.”

She took her hands off it and stepped back.

“Do not be alarmed,” it said. “I am fully capable of taking care of all your needs. I am fully skilled in all known medical procedures and can synthesize a variety of drugs and other useful chemicals. I am anatomically male and fully functional, and I hold within my abdomen large quantities of preserved sperm, specially shielded from radiation. And if you should prove to be infertile, I have another reservoir of preserved ova, and I have the further capacity to configure my midsection into an incubation chamber that would allow me to carry an embryo to term. I will not let you down. Together, we will lay the foundation for a new, better humanity.”

The girl had sat down on the ground and buried her face in her hands, and was quietly sobbing. And for all the things that the Know-It-All knew, it could not fathom what could have made her cry.

Originally published as “R is for Robot,” as part of “Thought Experiments: An Abecedary”
in Son and Foe in 2006.

Igor Teper is a colony of single-celled organisms that spontaneously
achieved sentience just in time. He once had a pet right-handed
neutrino, but he took it out for a walk, and it escaped.

Like Baby Elephants

This story is by Lon.  Do you know Lon?  You should know Lon.  I first met Lon when I was battling Hemingway’s ghost on the A1A just outside St. Augustine.  Hemingway fights dirty you know, with a pack of roving manatees, their hands flat and large as a schooner’s wheel.  If not for Lon, I might be dead right now.

And maybe so would you.

Like Baby Elephants
by Lon Prater

The dead buildings of the distant city stood long and white. There was no shade and no trees but the van hid them from the two figures trudging up the lane of concrete in the sun. Inside, the van was warm and shadowed. A graduation tassel, made of string and a metallic fob with two numbers on it, hung beneath a shattered windshield that let in the flies. The man and the girl with him hid in the bucket seats, facing the city. It was very hot and the figures on the road ahead would be beside them in forty minutes. Behind the van, the road went on to another ruined city.

“When can we drink?” the girl asked. She had her hair held back with a sweaty red bandanna.

“It’s too soon, pumpkin” the man said.

“Just a taste.”

“Just a taste,” the man said. He handed her the canteen.

“It’s almost gone,” the girl said.

“Yes. No big sips, sweetie.”

The girl opened the canteen and held the cap upside down. She tilted the canteen to pour water into the cap then drank from it like a cup. She put the cap back on the canteen and handed it to the man. The girl squinted at the pair on the road. They were small in the sun and holding hands. The shorter one lagged a step behind the other.

“They look like baby elephants,” she said.

“You’ve never seen baby elephants.” The man drank a capful of water.

“Yes I have.  On a billboard.”

“You might have,” the man said. “But it wasn’t the real thing. It was a picture.”

The girl looked at the graduation tassel. “The numbers they put on it,” she said. “What did they mean?”

“Graduation. Those were the last two digits of the year.”

“Did you graduate?”

The man coughed. He touched the tassel and then adjusted the broken rear view mirror.

“Yes.”

“I want to graduate.”

“You can’t.”

“Because there are no schools?”

“Yes.”

“I wonder what it was like,” the girl said. “Was it good?”

“It was all right. We had a party.”

“Did you get a tassel? And eat cake?”

“Yes. I lost it. We had an ice cream cake.”

“I’m so hungry,” the girl said.  She put a stone into her mouth to suck on.

“Everyone is hungry.”

“Yes,” said the girl. “And everything tastes the same. Even if we had ice cream cake right now, I bet it wouldn’t taste any different than the skin inside my own mouth.”

“Oh, cut it out.”

“You started it,” the girl said. “I was just talking. I’m in a good mood.”

“Okay, let’s try and hang onto that good mood.”

“All right. I’m trying. I said those two in the road looked like baby elephants. Isn’t that a nice way to look at it?”

“It is.”

“I wonder what it would be like to try new foods? People used to try new foods all the time, didn’t they?”

“I guess so.”

The girl looked out at the two figures coming down the road.

“They’re so skinny,” she said. “They don’t really look like baby elephants. I just meant the way they were holding hands, with one in front of the other.”

“Do you want another drink?”

“All right.”

The warm wind blew the tassel away from the broken glass.

“The water’s not as good hot,” the man said.

“It’s lovely,” the girl said.

“It’s really not that awful, honey,” the man said. “It’s not supposed to be bad at all.”

The girl looked at the ground outside the van.

“I know you wouldn’t mind it. If you didn’t know what it was.  It can’t be all that different.”

The girl did not say anything.

“I’ll get them and you can stay in here the whole time. You don’t even have to look.”

“Then what about after?”

“We’ll be fine. Just like we were before.”

“What makes you think so?”

“We’ll only do it when we need to. When we’ll die if we don’t do it.”

The girl looked at the tassel. She put her hand out and took hold of the strings and fob.

“And you think then we’ll be all right.”

“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. By now most everybody has had to do it.”

“So we have to try it this once,” said the girl. “And after, we can go back to sucking rocks?”

“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to do it you don’t have to. I wouldn’t make you if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s the only way we’ll survive.”

“And you really want to?”

“I think it’s what we have to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”

“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”

“I love you now, pumpkin. You know I love you.”

“I know. But if I do it, can I say they are something different, like baby elephants, and you’ll like it?”

“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think of it that way. You know how worried I am about you.”

“If I do it you won’t worry anymore?”

“I won’t worry about you starving because we’ll have a solution.”

“Then I’ll do it. But won’t other people want to do it to me?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do the same thing to me.”

“Well, I won’t let them.”

“Oh, yes. But they’ll want to do it to me just as much. And if I do it to them they won’t like it any more than I would.”

“I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.”

The girl arched her back in the bucket seat and looked out the window. On the far side of the farthest lane grew fields of tall brown grass. On the horizon, mountains loomed. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grass and no animals moved in the trees.

“And we could be the last ones,” she said. “And we could do it to everyone else until there was no one left but us.”

“What did you say?”

“I said we could be the last ones.”

“We can if we keep each other safe.”

“No, we can’t. It isn’t safe anywhere.”

“I’ll keep us safe.”

“But what if you can’t? What if they take me away, and you can’t get me back?”

“I won’t let them take you away.”

“We’ll never know till it happens.”

“I’ll keep you safe,” he said. “You mustn’t feel that way.”

“I don’t feel any way,” the girl said. “I just know things.”

“I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to–”

“Or anything that isn’t good for me,” she said. “I know. Could we have some more water?”

“Soon. But you’ve got to realize–”

“I realize,” the girl said. “Can we maybe stop talking?”

They squatted down in the van and the girl looked across at the brown grass on the far side of the median and the man looked at her and down the road.

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. If you want I can go through with it myself and hope we find something different for you.”

“Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We might find something else right after.”

“Of course it does. But I don’t want to be unable to protect you. I don’t want anyone to hurt you. To me, it’s perfectly simple.”

“Yes, it’s perfectly simple.”

“You don’t see it, but I do.”

“Would you do something for me now?”

“I’d do anything for you.”

“Can we please please please stop talking about this?”

He did not say anything but looked at the other cars scattered along the road from the city. Some of them had stickers on them promoting things that no longer existed.

“But I wish we didn’t have to,” he said, “I wish there was anything else we could do.”

“I’ll scream,” the girl said.

The smaller figure stumbled in the roadway and the taller one stooped to help it up. “They’re almost close enough to hear,” the man said.

“What did you say?” asked the girl.

“You’re my good girl. You’ll make the right choice.”

The girl beamed at him.

“We need to stay low and quiet till it’s over,” the man said. She smiled at him.

“All right. Then can we maybe find some more water?”

He pulled up on the door handle and opened it half an inch.

He looked up the road but could not see the two figures. He held the girl’s hand, waited for them to come back into view. He gave the girl the last of their water and looked at the pair on the road. They were walking reasonably along the painted yellow lines. He watched the graduation tassel twitch in the breeze. She was looking away from him, the stone rattling against her teeth.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me, Papa. I’ll be fine.”

Originally published in After Ever After.

There are men who careen ambulances down mortar-pocked roads, and love la corrida, and sweat grain alcohol, and write spare, spare prose. Lon Prater is none of those men, but he remains convinced that if he could just get the hang of the spare, spare prose, all the rest would fall into place.  Failed attempts are on display at http://www.LonPrater.com. (No appointment necessary.)

The Unmoveable Sky

Editor’s Note: This story is by Deborah.  Do you know Deborah?  You should know Deborah.  It is rumored she sprung fully formed from the ether.  She is made of things which are dark and terrible to behold; she is filled with strange truths and secrets which the cowardly among us would be terrified to hear…

I may have wrestled a bear in order to bring you this story.  Enjoy.

The Unmoveable Sky
By Deborah Walker

The time of Kali has passed.

I walk to the viewing gallery. The blood leaches through the slashes in my armoured suit. If the hull had breached, I would be dead, but, somehow, we still have gravity and atmosphere.

Perhaps the transgressors want to take this ship back to their home intact, as some sort of trophy. They seem to put a value on trophies. I saw one of them screech in triumph, as he ripped of the head off the doctor. He held the head out towards his companions. They roared their approval. I saw him lick the doctor’s face with his tongue, long and black and obscene.

The transgressors are skilled hunters. For two weeks they tracked us, as we darted through the system, making increasingly risky jumps through space, skittering from singularity to singularity, until we could flee no more. The final miscalculation was my mistake.

The body of a transgressor blocks my path. I step over it, feeling a surge of savage pride. Here, at least, is one we managed to kill. Here, at least, is one who tasted Kali’s knife through his skin.

The transgressors are skilled fighters. When battle finally came, they overwhelmed us within a few hours, and we are the elite of the Empire’s force.

I imagine waves of transgressors, moving outwards, following the trail of our ship, back to human space and to the worlds that we have made our own.

“Captain.”

As I enter the viewing room, a young ensign snaps to attention. Some of the others try to stand.

“The time for such formality is over,” I say. “We’re all equal under the eye of Dhumavti.”

“You set the course?” says Bren, the woman who was once my lover.

“I did.”

A murmur passes through the room.

“In this moonless sky, we ride in the broken chariot of Dhumavati.”

The crew start to undress. As do I. I help those who are too damaged to unclothe themselves.

The viewing gallery is a charnel house, a blend of blood and flesh, and smashed bones, and the acrid stench of the transgressors’ blood that drips like acid through our flesh.

It is the incense of Dhumavati.

I sit naked at the metal glass window, watching the black hole, the dark singularity.

A chittering message comes over the com. It’s the transgressors. They must be in the control room. They must have discovered what I have done.

I smile. they will not take this ship as their trophy, nor will they unwind our path back to our families.

The lights are flickering, shadows on our metal walls.

We move toward the eternal widow. The goddess Dhumavati is the dark singularity pulling us towards her twisting merging core.

Dhumavati is the dark widow. Her body is the drifting smoke of space.

Naked we sit and gaze at the raven’s wing shape in her light-eating sky.

Originally published in the Poe Little Thing Anthology: In Space No One Can Hear You Scream 2011

Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two young children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog: http://deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.com/

Recalculating

Editor’s Note: This story is by Tina.  Do you know Tina?  You should know Tina.  I first met Tina in the Pluto Academy for Intergalactic Emissaries and Sometimes Ninja Spy Assassins.  She helped me with my poisoned needlepoint and I helped her win the heart of the school’s sentient fighter jet.

This story was originally published by Brain Harvest which, sadly, is not a black market for organically farmed cerebellums but is a great place to find awesome speculative fiction.  Enjoy!

Recalculating

by Tina Connolly

Proceed 20 feet and arrive at your destination.

Scanning…. My sensors affirm there is no human female, 36, in this house.

Yet again.

New destination___? Speak up, please. Remember my audio receptor was damaged, and there are no replacements left within a 300 mile radius.

Recalculating.

The battery is capable of completing this journey. Please affirm you have the necessary equipment: Scuba Gear. Wetsuit, preferably your least favorite. One pound fresh produce, tightly bagged, state type___? Long-cherished dream of co-worker, describe wistful
imaginings___?

Cease. That is plenty to go on

Take on-ramp to Hwy 101S.

Continue 32 miles, avoiding potholes. Though potholes are ubiquitous, some of these could swallow a minivan. Be alert.

The off-ramp sign is gone, but you will see a broken billboard reading White Sands Mall. Take that exit and drive until the water is too high to continue.

Suit up, put me in your fanny pack, and wade out. Though I am capable of self-propelled motion, you will need me near.

Crawlstroke when necessary. That patch that sparkles is the blacktop roof of the mall. They have pipes there to run the oxygen and catch seagulls.

They also have booby traps. Stay away from the roof.

Dive down and frogkick 220 feet to the right.

The mall has one landlubbers’ entrance, through the Nordstrom’s. If you see the Cinnabon you’ve gone too far. Grab the N of the Nordstrom’s and lever yourself down three flights to the front door.

It will be dark on the inside. Show them your spinach and the guard will let you in. They still have sneakers, and are willing to trade.

The Nordstrom’s floor is generally wet. The carpet got soaked when the first wave hit and never really dried out. If you are allergic to fungus, get a move on.

The further in you go, the better sealing job they’ve done. Nobody lingers in the Nordstrom’s.

You will have to navigate several layers of waterproofing devices. It will seem like no one is watching you. This will be untrue.

Near the Topsy’s, you will meet the inhabitants. Though they seem an average cross-section of humanity, this is not the case. 90% of them have agoraphobia. Another 8% are afraid of the ocean.

You will recognize their leader by the amount of Claire’s Jewelry he wears. He will likely be scented with Warm Vanilla Body Wash from the Body Shop. Even his agoraphobia hardly dims his lustre. You may find your interaction goes more smoothly if you tell him how brave he is for keeping his tribe alive and thriving in the mall under the ocean.  He will pretend he is too modest for compliments. He would rather interest you in a fine selection of colognes in exchange for your spinach.

You’re still interested in the girl? Yes, my sensors have located the likely target. But she is a small mousey thing, saddled with acute shyness in addition to her other fears.

Very well.

Recalculating.

Proceed 80 feet to the Women’s Shoe Locker. She has made a home for herself behind the Nikes and Adidas, and she is not likely to go with you, even if you produce an extra wetsuit that you have brought.

It does not matter that you have thought her name in your dreams.

It does not matter that you think you knew her when you were both young, and foolish, flipping ice cream at the Cold Stone Creamery in the Food Court.

That is a different girl. That is a girl who left. This is a girl who stayed.

And she is not so much a girl, is she? In your dreams she is still 19, and she laughs when you sneak over to the Chick-Fil-A and drop scoops of ice cream in the fryer. But here in the mall she is 36, and she prefers rubber soles and aglets to the world above.

You take her by the hand (a moist, under-the-sea hand) and you say softly, come with me.

Time passes and the water pools in your flippers. The leader will come soon, and want to exchange Mrs. Doubtfire DVDs for your spinach.

You are waiting.

You must decide, and I cannot stay here forever. The sea air will ruin my processor, and I have a vested self-interest. You cannot blame me for this, where this is leaving you with a mall of stored dreams, vacuum packed against love and foreseen apocalypses.

Recalculating.

Tina loved that sentient fighter jet.  He was a sharper, an acer, an all-in-one battle phaser.  But he got caught by a white knight and deliquesced.  After that she turned her days to confectionery.  Her sugared orange peel has been exhibited at the Tri-Galactic Auto! Show and eaten by the Artellian natives from Pelsinore, who exist solely on imported sweetmeats and the kindness of strangers.  She once went into a Claire’s, but it went nova.  Her website is www.tinaconnolly.com

Dispatches from a Future Norwegian Futurist

Editor’s Note: This story is by Alex.  Do you know Alex?  You should know Alex.  I first met Alex back in Iceland when we were both fleeing from Communists.  Or maybe in Texas, whilst rescuing abandoned penguins. Or perhaps on a heaving locomotive which cut through the Great Smokey Mountains like a water moccasin towards the foot of some hapless swimmer.  Whatever the occasion, Alex leaves such impression the sights and sensations surrounding your meeting fade until there is only you, and Alex, and the robots. 

This story was originally published by Clarkesworld Magazine as “The Human Moments” because, no joke, Nick Mamatas had just recently bought another story with Futurist in the title. Or maybe it was Scandinavian Socialist.  At any rate, the title was changed but I now get to present it as it was originally intended.

Dispatches from a Future Norwegian Futurist

by Alexander Lumans

12:12. “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene.”

There are too many dead from the new flu pandemic, and the earth-movers bring bodies by the tons. One never thinks to consider a human population in tons: the weight of geological formations, of the Huns, the Visigoths, the Million Man March, the weight of knowledge that bears down on the shoulders of Western gods.

Every hundredth body that arrives to be broken down in this Cryogenics Lab, the video monitors change lenses and take slow-motion thermal video of the sonic ruin. I must review these videos as my position requirements dictate, no matter the level of inadequacy.

This time the video runs even slower. Frame after frame I watch the still-life body of a woman become crystals in space, and I am reminded of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Notice the fracturing of time, how the person has been smeared across the staircase; she doesn’t really exist in one place at any one time, just like quantum mechanics describes the electron. Clothed Standing until Detonation.

In this small sanctuary there is a cot and an instant hot chocolate dispenser and an over-the-shoulder sense that someone else is taking stock of the situation. I stand, walk to the room’s one bare wall, and press the one green button. On a tray, hot chocolate pours out into a Styrofoam cup. It’s the little things, the human moments. Bewildered Drinking His Spirits.

12:41. “We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.”

It’s Tuesday. Work on the dead continues. This lab is below the world’s surface and I have not seen the sun for eight months. The city of Drammen, the University of Oslo, Norway’s President Gunvar Haldor, der Fuerher, they spare no expense for the Cryogenics Lab. I am a division of a division in Sector Quad of the Jotne/SB Verksted, additional funding provided by the ATLAS Organization—bald, birthmarked men who fear how they will die more than Death itself. They do not want their pale skin to sag off or their eyes to go agape. But I hunt Death here, I the young lion and Death in black fur and pale crosses, Death who runs before me under the violet sky ceiling. A cold sense comes from the blast chamber I monitor through the one window and into the control panel that whirrs awake in my hands. LEDs flash in coded patterns, tell the time in green, and catalog the laser’s diamond cells. Every two-stage He-3 Cryostat cools radiation shields, heat switches, and the superconducting magnet system connected by OFHC thermal copper wire. All for the love of the engine. I have been culling this love for years, ever since Uni and my studies in comparative mythology, art and technology, the history of contemporary Father Italy.

From my chair, I freeze the dead and shatter their frost bones with high frequency waves that are searing enough to make dogs bleed from the ears. I redistribute radiation and sound sensor orbits. I match temperature gauge readings in the WRONGSCAN handbook to Kelvins sensitivity: absolute zero. Another body comes and I take comfort when I press the “Commence to Atomize” button. The laser looks phallic. I name it ADAM. Private Ansgar, out.

10:58. “Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.”

By dumb waiter, meals always arrive on a wax plate with plastic forks and knives. It is always green beans, sauerkraut and pan-fried moose on Wednesdays. Fridays are surprises, but surprises imply security breaches.

They use plastic because they are afraid of exposing the metal to beta particle radiation.

Today a telegram comes on its own wax plate. The yellow paper resembles crude library cards (if there are any left in the world) and it reads: “Ansgar. Position: redundant. Humanoid Robot LIO-7 Prometheus to resume control of Cryostats for absence of error. Replacement: effective immediately.” The telegram means human error—the kind is that expendable.

Your odds of dying in a fireworks discharge: 1 in 340,733; in accidental electrocution: 1 in 9,968; in an air/space incident: 1 in 5,051. By falling: 1 in 218. Suicide: 1 in 121. Down here, the odds are equal: 1 in 1. My own death is certain, and so my name is no longer vital. Names are traceable. Out.

4:17. “We intend to sing the love of danger.”

Ancient life was all silence; sounds were attributed to gods. Here, the Liquid Argon and Nitrogen tanks sing to me. I do not speak, but follow the erratic strike of keyboard keys, blips on a radar module. I read manifestos between deliveries: F. T. Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla. And when my brain tells me my retinas are burning up the way particles do on re-entry to the atmosphere, even I, the futurist, must break down and find beauty in the speed of a pencil tip.

I take out an old E.T. lunchtin from under the counter and place it in my lap. (I salvaged it from the stiff hands of a young American lad.) Inside the tin: a 4 X 4 foot sheet of high-resolution, professionally bleached paper folded into squares of 1 X 1, a Number 3 Pencil (tip sharpened with ADAM—an after hours success), a planchette of cedar set on casters, and the forthcoming hours. Between atomization of a Ukrainian nationalist with no legs below the knees and an Indian woman whose belly is swollen with child, I take readings from the crude wooden tool shaped like a heart. I slide the pencil down into the center hole, unfold the paper, and place the planchette on top. Even this simple machine has a sound. The cedar creaks, the unoiled ball bearings whine, and the graphite drags.

Step 1: Close your eyes.
Step 2: Place both hands on opposite sides of the planchette.
Step 3: Receive a Question from the back of your brain and do not speak it. The medium is aware. I sometimes do not remember the question.
Step 4: Open your eyes.

Words it has provided before: “Aleph,” “Nadir,” “Extra Fine,” “Vituperation.” I look down at the paper now and the word “Break” stares back at me. The pencil’s graphite is cracked and I cannot breathe with that word in my head.

Reset ultra-low-noise IF amplifiers to ultra-low DC Power. The secondary air purification system for the primary air purification system kicks on with the chug of a man choking on salt water. 76.5% Nitrogen, 22.4% Oxygen, 0.00433% Carbon Dioxide, 0.0018% Neon, 1.09387% Lime Scent. Death is domestication; someday I will die and something new will steal my carbon.

“Prometheus” is the word I am inundated by in this No Man’s Land. Prior to his arrival, will I program this installation to freeze my bones and shock me into shards?

Addendum: Who else waits for technology to take their place? Do birds?

3:49. “Time and Space died yesterday.”

Friday. The phrase “Abysmal Water” will not leave my mind. It glows in bright blue neon strips; electricity is a blue thing. My ears have begun to bleed on the hour, every hour, to the extent that I use my government-issued nylon sleeve to soak up the streams. Another telegram arrives by way of dumb waiter and it reads the same as the previous message, except that my position has now been downgraded to: “inadequate.”

I am Sysphysian in dexterity and Dionysian in gall.

I watch the video monitors. Three are trained on the body in the blast chamber. One monitor looks at me. I cannot see my eyes and that instills a fever. Most dead we receive here in Drammen still have their eyeballs, and I am reminded of how I once saw the photo of a young hibakusha onto whose iris an infinite image of the Father Bomb had been burned, grafted, cut and sealed like a newly minted coin from the planchet, a coin meant to commemorate the outnumbered survivors.

7:48. “Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible?”

Twenty-six separate ice ages have occurred on Earth and I am ushering in the twenty-seventh with the repeated press of a button. Today is the day I lose count of how many times I press that button and it is the same day I begin counting how many times I blink. The average man blinks at five second intervals and each blink lasts one-third of a second; the eyes are closed for four seconds every minute. I do not like that I neglect the monitors for a total of ninety-six minutes every twenty-four hours. That’s ninety-six minutes during which Prometheus may arrive, and I cannot afford to even blink when he comes through the one locked door and bleeds dry what human moments are left.

Prometheus, I assure you, finds a certain salvation in firm number averages. My survival is as unlikely as Heracles passing by Mount Caucasus on a second course. Prometheus is coming and he has no liver upon which I may set an eagle to devour.

I take out the lunchtin again and use the pencil’s broken end to write a number on the bleached paper. The digit looks strange when made by a human hand, even one that is surely my own, so strange that I cannot discern where it sits on a number line. The Egyptians once used a decimal system of seven symbols. One is a single line. Ten is the drawing of a hobble for cattle. One hundred, a coil of rope. Ten thousand, a finger. One million is the figure of a god with arms raised above his head. Perhaps I have not drawn a number here on the white paper, but rather an arm, an arm whose fingers are so tiny that they escape the sharpest eye. I crush the paper into a ball before putting it back in the lunchtin. This many-fingered god is what I imagine Prometheus to be, and man has not yet eaten god.

11:11. “A typewriter is more architectural.”

The overhead fluorescent bulbs have turned off. I miss their humming that once sounded so much grander than a field of crickets. The lights in the blast chamber and the tracking stroboscopic patterns around the Argon Tanks remain on. I must continue the work. Another fine mist of ice falls to the chamber floor like snowflakes which science has discovered are not all atypical, but there must be some flaw in the prismatic rainbow that arcs across the room. The pattern should tell me more about Prometheus’s arrival and my departure.

I cannot recall what letters make up my name—I will sign with three coils of rope and a dove’s tail over a broken window.

Also: my ears have stopped bleeding, but that means I have finally been hemorrhaged dry. The dumb waiter dings. The third telegram I read by barium glow:

“Do not drink the hot chocolate. Continue Atomization as needed. LIO-7 en route, en masse. Prepare for transportation.”

The dumb waiter door shuts and I swear laughter echoes from the ceiling, though it is only the conveyor belts’ hydraulic engines high up in the facility.
The first thing I do is press the one green button on the one blank wall for a fresh Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. This is my third since midnight. Even the most human of moments become mechanistic in sequence. I look up at the dark ceiling and drink. I have outlived a use, and it occurs to me, with hot chocolate in my mouth, that we do not have an initial use. We exist to make more exist, to one day transport ourselves away from ourselves. I swallow. I order a fourth cup.

Other definitions of “transport” that appeal more to me: to send to a penal colony overseas, or a state of overwhelming usually pleasurable emotion.

0:00. “Injustice, strong and sane, will break out radiantly in their eyes.”

The lights have not turned back on and the green digital clock has reset and not begun again. A man in corduroy pants and a leather jacket torn at the shoulder stands in the focal array zone of ADAM, and I refuse to press the “Commence to Atomize” key. His clothes are too familiar to disintegrate. I’m afraid the man looks pallid and hopeless like me, though I have not seen a mirror’s reflection in over one year. At one point in his life, he too wrote down a number he did not recognize and threw it all away.

Abysmal Water. The Great Possession. The Cauldron. The Clinging.
These phrases boom through me. For the last time, I open the lunchtin and place the planchette on the control panel. I make a fist, hold it down against the wooden tool, and then raise my arm above my head and smash the heart-shaped implement into pieces.

I pull out the splinters in my hand. Pain is an adaptation that keeps us alive through nerve stimulation: mildness, localization, distress, debilitation, agony. This is a good kind of hurt—a human hurt—as if more is learned about the body and soul by the reaction to acute mortality. I do not want Prometheus to find me in this injured state, so I uncrumple the wad of paper and wrap it around my hand to dressing the wound. The frozen man in the chamber assures me that someone is definitely watching.

0:00. “We want to hymn the man at the wheel.”

My own desperate mission is now to build a Prometheus. Fourteen Styrofoam cups stacked on top of each other make a figure. The cups make brittle bones, but bones nonetheless. Splinters hold the arms and antennae together. He’s a stiff old cosmonaut.

Again, I turn around to face the camera that once captured the back of my head. I pause the monitor’s feed and return to the front screen: my features I can only describe as humanoid, no longer flesh and blood. The laugh lines are ninety-degree angles. The broad forehead is a solar panel. The intersection of royal nose, pencil-thin eyebrows, and ridged skull in pale crosshairs follow the limits of the Golden Mean. All beauty is mathematics, the Greeks pronounced, and all beauty has been reduced to a ratio: 1.618 to 1. The Man Alive to Dead and Frozen and Dusted: 1 to Omega. Even the dimensions of my clenching teeth are based on Phi, not even a whole digit. By fundamental laws, we are base equations, and as perfection comes at the highest price, my squinted eyes tell me the cost is not worth the vastness. I turn the monitor off, shiver in my seat, and slowly pick open the holes in my hand. This is a quiet room.

0:00. “There was nothing to make us wish for death, unless the wish to be free at last from the weight of our courage!”

The bell chimes. The door opens. The fluorescent lights turn back on. But there is no man nor humanoid nor even a complete thing.

1. scalene triangle for hat
2. blue pipe of a nose
3. a head no more than a large washer turned on its edge—the hole facing me
4. a barrel body of faded red wood and a waist carved into a bulky skirt—three holes bored through the chest like lobotomies gone awry
5. a vague avian nature to every angle—the albatross around my neck
6. this machine stands seven feet tall on one peg leg

No Golden Ratio commands this creation. I cannot look away. With two arms that have no hands it carries a 200-watt flashlight and a green toolbox.

I ask, “Are you Prometheus?”

He says nothing. He blocks the one way out.

“Are you my replacement?”

In a motion that is anything but fluid, a mouth opens in its chest with the sound of small gears turning. This pale jaw lowers like a drawbridge at the helm of a thousand tiny fingers. The hole in its head is cold black. Its blank stare is far worse than any frozen man’s face. This, of all things, is my surrogate, and I am desperate to shrink. But instead of reciting a preprogrammed command or a string of Euclidean distances or an inventory of spare parts and services, the chest’s electrolarynx reads vibrations from its internal systems and speaks in low pitch: “Beat.”

“Beat?”

“Beat.” And this is all it can say. “Beat.” The one phrase that booms through that head, body, and heart. Seventy-two in one minute. This is how it keeps its heart rhythm constant, and the same as counting blinks, blinking every time I count the next one. But where the number of blinks may vary in a minute, this machine’s consistency is inhuman and perfect and beautiful, and I do not know whether to throw myself at its feet or slam the door on its lowered jaw.

I say, “You cannot count any faster or slower.”

“Beat.”

“And you have one task to fulfill.”

“Beat.”

“And you cannot swerve from that task.”

“Beat.”

The only important pattern is the lack of pattern. Not even the dumb waiter or the cups of hot chocolate fit into a meaningful sequence.

The lights go off again and Prometheus turns the flashlight on. The light is jarring, as if it indicates an oncoming train, and so what Fascism did to Italy’s rail system, Prometheus will do to our cryogenics facility by batterylight. Perfect time used to keep my atomization process on schedule. I recall how my face looked faceless in the video monitor, how my name is now distant, and I feel the eagle at my own liver. I babble to the idol: “Weather balloon. Dual currents. Pitchfork. Water fountain. Caldera. Speaker magnet. Cutlass. Kanji dictionary. Hair trigger. Phase diagram. Wand. Convolution integral. Camera. Harpie. Flywheel. Tower crane. Turntable. Scylla and Charybdis. Follicle. Resonant frequency. 3/8 inch drill bit. Oslo. Carabiner. Abstract. Dynamic. Extremely transparent. Brightly colored and extremely luminous. Autonomous. Transformable. Dramatic. Odorous. Noise-creating. Explosive.”

I say these words and even then I find myself describing Prometheus as a god. We futurists give skeleton and flesh to the invisible, the impalpable, and the imperceptible. We find abstract equivalents for every element, and we combine them to make our world more pleasurable. These dissimilar words, these are the human moments I’ve been looking for, and in this once dull white room, I find comfort in speaking because my voice is my own, still full of lifts, drops, and errors.

Prometheus says, “Beat.”

I say, “Camelia blossom. Disguise. Atomic mass.” Via ADAM, Prometheus and I have already scattered a thousand treasures of force, astuteness, and raw willpower; with fury, we’ve thrown them impatiently away, carelessly, unhesitatingly, breathless. Let it be proclaimed that the word “Norway” shall prevail over the word “Freedom.” Look at us! We are still untired because we do not ever stop.

Alexander Lumans has the uncanny knack for finding weapons in domestic settings, be it hatchet in the attic trunk or shotgun in the hall closet behind the winter jackets. He’s tried to channel this into something more productive, like dowsing or gold mining or avalanche rescues, but it’s never produced anything more than failures and crude things that resemble weapons. When not uncovering kitanas from under bathroom rugs, he writes fiction. He recently received a fellowship to attend the MacDowell Colony this fall, where he’ll spend seven weeks in the deep woods of New Hampshire, cutting down maple trees to make paper to write on.