The first blurb for Afterglow is in, and ngl: reading this made me cry. If only little kid me who was obsessed with scifi and spec fic could see this… Wow.
Second bit of news today: This is the first Afterglow story I wrote, a piece on nostalgia & memory & sickness & a shopping mall from the beforetimes where rain & vines now get through the broken skylight. Hope you enjoy this spec fic!
I’m having a recurring dream that I’m a glam rocker living in London in the early ’70s, or at least I’m embedded in that scene at that time. In the dream, I don’t grace the stage so much as lace the pages of other singers with my music. I’m not myself, but some tall, lanky, bespectacled creature with mop hair and a crooked nose, and I’m getting drunk on brandy and writing at night by the light of the television, playing Top of the Pops. In the dream timeline, I’m living in Soho, paying my rent off the words I sell to others, making just about enough to also afford a pack of fags and a couple bottles of brandy, and I’m indulging in both, and it’s all starting to feel less like a dream and more like a long-forgotten memory.
I’m watching the Pops, and getting proper pissed on the brandy (I don’t know where these words are coming from), letting the ash of my fag come perilously close to dropping on my lap before ashing it, writing down chori and verses, then ditching them, scratching them out, as Pan’s People boogie to Jeepster by T. Rex. I stand up and mimic the moves, only partially imagining those people up and dancing to my music instead, sung by me, not belted out of the bleating mouths of addled singers snorting what wages are left to them like crumbs from their bloated record company, which is what’s presently happening in the dream. All of these things and more run through my mind as I keep myself locked in that flat night after night, writing about things I’m not doing, writing for people who are doing them but who just can’t find the right words.
On Saturday evenings, I find myself in the back row of the cinema, transported to other worlds where ghoulish zombies shamble over American countrysides and cities, where metal men come down to Earth in silver saucers that you’d swear were models hanging from strings, especially when they wobble as they “fly” through the air in what’s meant to be a vicious attack on our planet.
I come back home to my flat after these showings, still a bit pissed from the earlier brandy, and I lie down in this dream flat, on my dream bed, and I fall asleep and enter a dream’s dream, where I find myself standing in the center of a cutting-edge sci-fi film set (cutting-edge in 1971 anyway), with myself as the primary actor, makeup applied and prosthetics fitted as I am made into a monster and forced to sing my woes for no one in particular to hear, as everyone is too busy making sure the scene comes to fruition, milling about here and there as they go.
Like clockwork, I’ll awake from this recurring dream, still feeling like a creature with no agency over his creation, usually just in time to hear a song I’ve written being performed on the radio by someone I’ve never met personally. I can never quite seem to wake from this dream once I’ve entered, once I’ve heard those mangled words rendered in generic, saccharine melodies, the bubblegum banality. But at least my words are at the core, at least my words remain undisturbed, I convince myself, my thoughts like a pendulum as I consider singing along and throwing my radio out the window, alternately.
I wander the streets now, at dawn, knowing that I’m dreaming but not quite wanting to wake up, maybe not able to, stuck sometimes in a dream within a dream. I know in the back of my mind that I’m in a pod, alone, somewhere in a barren future I’ve only seen in passing glances when the simulation glitches. I’m somewhere in a world I’d rather not be in, but here in this dream within a dream I can at least make music, make use of my body and move through a world that is not torn.
I think tomorrow I’ll sing. If this simulation, this dream, is a lucid one, I see no reason to stand in the back of the hall, to lend my words to other people in other pods who are similarly comatose. I’ll put on the best damn glam rock opera show in all the great, wide wasteland.
They got me through subdermal registration. I’d taken the precaution of digging the chip out of my arm, sewing myself shut, and letting it heal. Only thing is I didn’t take into account the nanos. As I tried to make it past customs, the nanos showed up on my scan like a thousand tiny internal bees, buzzing and moving through my circulatory system. None even at my arm, where the chip released them as a last ditch effort, but all throughout the rest of my body.
It’s a three strikes and you’re going to penal situation. Funny, no one’s played baseball in a couple hundred years, but the phrase still remains. Some things just stick. Anyway, they asked if I had anything to say about the nanos. I kept my mouth shut, but I was already incriminated. My parole officer gave up on me. Recommended I go to penal.
It’s a generation ship. Built to last a thousand lifetimes, and with the capability of sustaining all of those lives through nanosleep. No need for cryo or preservation, because the nanos do all the pruning at the cellular level. You could wake up a thousand years in the future and be just the same as you were when you went to sleep.
This ship has me thinking of Australia. Legend goes that before Austrolasia, Australia used to be its own continent. There used to be an empire called The Brits, and they sent their nastiest to a penal colony in Australia. (Still feels weird saying Australia instead of Austrolasia.) Anyway, move the clocks forward a couple decades and you’ve got a fully functional country born of the descendants of criminals.
Wishful thinking to compare this ship to Australia? Maybe. Either way, you wouldn’t want to be on board. They don’t have much in the way of actionable punishments other than The Hole.
They can’t execute you, but what they can do is keep you in nanosleep indefinitely. Rumor is that some of the guys have been in The Hole for hundreds of years. Hard to tell who, because when you peer through the thick glass of their pods, you see nothing but the standard issue morphsuits. Nothing to give them away like state of dress. Can’t judge by haircuts either, because they’re all bald. Nanosleep does that to you after a while. Like in the old days, before they cured cancer, people used to say you’d go bald just like that. No eyebrows, nothing.
So I got into fights. Out of camera range, away from patrols. I got guys so pissed off that they’d attack me in plain sight later on, get detained and put into nanosleep. Somehow I got through without so much as a slap on the wrist.
You forget faces after a while. I wish I could say that’s a reversible side effect, but it’s not. The disease is time itself. Your wife, kids, parents… All of them go away. Tabula rasa. Just wiped, man. Nothing.
It’s easy to get institutionalized if you’re not proactive. Dudes staring out the windows, watching as we blueshift from the ship’s speed. Their heads lolling, holes for eyes. We call them Husks. Might be a fate even worse than permanent nanosleep.
I keep myself busy. Read every book I can find. When after a few years I finish all the books in the ship’s scant library, I write my own. Work with the prison librarian to bind them by hand, produce covers.
I start my own library. The librarian helps me out with a number of volumes, but I supply my own, too. Most of them fiction, but some old books from what I can remember. I read, we fly. To where, nobody knows.
We’re not meant to know where the destination is. I ask the librarian. He flushes like the first time we met, when he wasn’t yet sure that I was one of the “good guys.” Funny term, that one. Everything is relative, not just time.
I read up on Einstein, find out about the idea of time dilation. Of something moving so fast that time is slowed down relative to it. Works with supermassive black holes too, but it’s more feasible for humans to get a ship going that fast than it is to make it out of a black hole alive.
It’s to the point where six months aboard a ship traveling at nearly lightspeed would be a thousand years back home. We’ve been blueshifting for months. Who knows what’s back there on Earth.
It’s hard to keep track of time, but one day we reach it. A nearly barren, inhospitable desert planet. We all hop off, stretch our legs like it’s been nothing more than a long car ride. We enjoy being in spacesuits for the first time. This is penal. This is a new home. So why does it feel so familiar?
I run the library for weeks before it hits me. I sneak out at night. Wait for a sandstorm that will cover my tracks. And then. And then:
Gleaming in the distance, planted in the sand. The Brooklyn Bridge. Spanning from one desert plateau to the other.
Turbulence isn’t much of a factor as our ship enters what used to be the planet’s atmosphere, much to the surprise of everyone on board. Early readings pointed to atmospheric inactivity, but you can never be too certain. The water planet has an eerie stillness to it, and I can see as much as I watch our approach through the window. An orb of blue for as far as the eye can see, the water absolutely still since the planet it finds itself on has long since died.
It’s a routine stop: harvest what resources we can for the ship, take some readings and mappings for data purposes, and maybe see if we can’t dig up a few things for the boys over in Archaeology.
Today is the sixth day of the sixth month. The year is 3944 AC. I don’t mention to the others that today marks the three thousand nine hundred forty-fourth anniversary of the collapse of our planet, as that’d be unnecessary. For nomadic castaways like us, the fact that we have no world to call our own has been embedded in our DNA as intrinsically as our physical makeup.
Being as I’m the lead researcher, I get the dubious honor of first dibs on a wet suit. The things are all the same, and since they’re composed of nanomachines that can reorganize and mend themselves as necessary, it’s not like my choice will matter much. I pick the first one I find and instruct the suit that I’d prefer it to change its color to azure. I’ve always been a blue guy. The nanomachines comply at once.
The perfluorocarbon liquid in my suit’s helmet goes down my lungs easy, a result of a task that’s been repeated ad nauseum. It’s a neat trick, this breathing water–lets you dive down as far as you want since the liquid’s pressure is pretty comparable to water, as opposed to the plain old oxygen our divers used to use centuries ago. There’s no risk of the bends, either, which is a nice bonus. Progress.
I send the drone out before I drop in. If it doesn’t go haywire (as the stupid thing has a tendency to do), then it should collect up a decent supply of water for our reservoirs while us humans swim below in search of artifacts.
I set my torch on as I begin my descent, long-submerged bits of matter stir around in a cloud and flutter past my vision in the same way dust will when light comes in through a window. Whatever this stuff is, it hasn’t been stirred around in God knows how long, and I almost feel guilty as I rouse it from its weightless slumber.
It’s kind of hard for living beings to exist on a dead planet (go figure), but I keep my eyes peeled anyway. We’ve been wrong before, and while I have to die someday, I’d prefer my last moments to not be spent in the jaws of some aquatic alien monster.
A shape begins to appear below me, faintly visible in my torch’s light. It isn’t moving, though, and it looks fairly geometric in shape. I adjust my suit’s fins so I can drop right beside the thing, whatever the hell it is. The other researchers follow my cue and head toward it too.
I can’t believe my eyes. I’ve seen a lot of weird shit over the years; rock formations on igneous planets that had to be the work of intelligent hands, mountains made entirely of diamond, I’ve even seen alien microorganisms under the microscope. But never in all my years have I seen this.
It’s an alien city of impeccable design and ingenious craftsmanship–spires and towers stretch up toward the ocean’s surface like snorkels that have since been submerged, strange looking roadways snake and twist around like capillaries which must’ve once carried alien travellers as if they were macrocosmic blood cells. And all of it is as pristine as it must’ve been when this planet used to be dry, each construction frozen in time as if the whole thing is some sort of photograph.
All of our readings told us that this planet’s been long dead, if it ever lived at all. Nothing in the data pointed to the possibility of an advanced alien civilization once living here. But like I said, we’ve been wrong before.
I continue my descent, my pulse audible and carrying loudly in this liquid medium of the perfluorocarbon in my helmet. I make my way for one of those snaking roadways down below.
When I touch down, a cloud of silt kicks up that refuses to clear for several minutes, as if the planet itself wants to hide its secrets. But it finally clears and allows me a view of where I stand.
Right there in front of me a sign is erected, rusted in parts but still visible thanks to my torch’s light. There’s a message on it. My heart stops as I realize I can read it. It’s written in an ancient language. A dead language from a dead planet. My planet. And the language is English. This is what it says:
WELCOME TO CHICAGO!
Sam Jackson stood patiently in the clinically oppressive elevator, his livelihood about to be decided by what someone else thought of his life experience boiled down to a sheet of paper. He wondered how long it would take to be brought up. It. The elephant in the room. His name. Sam practiced his laugh in the mirror, hoping beyond hope that his disdain wouldn’t come through when the interviewer inevitably riffed on the goddamn name.
He decided he’d be a good sport and laugh along with it, but get off the subject as soon as possible.
But should he? Realistically, Samuel L. Jackson is a pretty popular actor. Chances are good that the interviewer might be a fan. Maybe Sam could slip his work experience in between a casual review of Pulp Fiction and a discussion on the man’s versatile use of the f-word.
At the end of the day, though, it all came down to that sheet of paper. That nakedness on the page. He didn’t have much experience, there were no two ways about it. If he could get the person on the other side of the desk to laugh, that was fine, but it would still come down to that fluffed-up, generic crap that he’d obsessed over for weeks and still not been happy with.
The door’s light proclaimed “42.” This was it. Sam’s heart leapt into his throat.
But for some reason, the door wouldn’t open. A few seconds passed by, enough time for Sam to nervously gulp twice, but still it wouldn’t open. Was he stuck here? That’d really be his luck, to blow it before he even stepped through the door. It’d be back to subsisting off ramen for sure.
The whole elevator lurched, ready to drop.
Oh God, don’t let me die here. I’ll let you take the interview away, but at least let me live.
There was a loud snap, like a gargantuan thread had been snipped by the world’s largest pair of scissors. The bright, digital forty-two stood out in sharp relief, every detail of its shape stuck in Sam’s brain as his eyes desperately took everything in.
The forty-two disappeared, replaced at once by forty-one. Sam was too scared to yell. The numbers were plummeting faster still. Now twenty, now fifteen. Sam clamped his eyes shut as it counted down to one. And then…
Sam opened his eyes. The numbers still flashed brightly as they counted, but this time they were seemingly getting larger as opposed to smaller. That is, until Sam noticed the little digital minus sign in front of them. The elevator just kept falling. First Sam’s eyes caught a glimpse of “-23,” then “-67.” The numbers climbed into the double digits, past “-248,” then “-946.” He thought he was going to be sick.
The elevator suddenly came to a halt with the delicate touch of a mother placing her baby in a crib. Sam gulped for air like a fish out of water, his pits as soaked as if they were just in water themselves. His shitty resume lay in a crumpled mess at his feet, desperate shoe prints stamped all over it. The little digital number proclaimed “-1234.”
Sam’s eyes went to the door, wide as could be. Time crawled slowly by on all fours. The elevator door quivered, as if it was just as scared as the elevator’s occupant. And then it opened.
Before Sam Jackson was a massive subterranean metropolis. There were pillars and caves, buildings and spires, waterfalls and bioluminescent bugs that glowed brilliant colors as they whizzed by. There were reptilian, winged beasts and many-eyed, furry creatures that were riding them.
The latter of these sights, the beasts with many eyes and thick, coarse fur took immediate interest in the new arrival. They halted their conversations, landed their dinosaur-like rides and all just stopped and stared, poised to strike.
There were several possible courses of action for Sam Jackson, but none of them seemed to him to be too promising at the moment. He could try his hand at escaping through the elevator, but experience had already proven that that hell-machine was not to be trusted. What’s more, there wasn’t even a button to open the damn thing’s door back up.
He could drop to his knees and cry, beg for mercy to creatures that he wasn’t even sure would understand him.
But fuck that. He was sick and tired of all this nonsense. He’d worked his ass off on that resume, a resume he wasn’t even happy with, only for it to be ruined by some faulty, supernatural elevator. What’s more, he just missed out on the interview of his life all because of some freak occurrence. And he didn’t even get to discuss Pulp Fiction.
The beasts sprinted toward Sam, bellowing a battle cry as they went. A second passed. Then another. Before he could stop himself, Sam ran headlong toward them too. His battle cry was a little less impressive than their mighty roar, but at least he was trying.
Without a second to spare, Sam spied one of the winged beasts alone, set free from its now-sprinting owner. In one fluid motion, Sam ran to it, leapt into the air, and landed precariously onto its back.
With a swift kick he had it flying away, above the heads of his pursuers. Another kick and it sent flames barreling out of its prehistoric mouth. Bolstered, Sam turned the monster back toward the furry beasts below and swooped down for them. He kicked the beast, sending flames spilling forward.
Sam smashed into the ground, dazed. He got up, clutching his head. Sparks issued from his downed steed. Its scaly skin was ripped away, exposing electronics and wires.
One of the furry monsters held up a remote control. It reached toward its head and pulled it off. A pleasant-looking man smiled within the now-revealed monster suit.
“You’ve got the job.”
In the third century LE, mental incarceration became a thing of the past. Speaking for the Bureau of Interdimensional Beings, Larry Fleming was practiced in the art of lobbying for a cause he never had a stake in.
But what started as a paycheck turned into a belief when Mr. Fleming lost his wife. Thirty years, two kids, and the God he wasn’t sure existed had taken her away from him. Malignant melanoma. Two words, two otherwise insignificant words that had sent his world crashing around him.
When the dust had settled, Larry realized that there was nowhere he’d wanted to be less than his 1300 cc of skull space. His wife was gone. His life was gone. A difference of one letter, but not much of a distinction. Her perfect flaxen hair, her pure emerald eyes… Nothing that the miracles of modern science could muster could compare.
And so he thought of it. If magic had swapped its wands for microscopes long ago, why couldn’t the limitations of the human mind be superseded? When it came down to it, he was little more than a slightly evolved ape, so how hard could it be? He’d get the eggheads from R&D to free him from his prison. They’d do it. If not for the benefit of their boss, they’d gladly do it for the glory of a fresh discovery.
After months of research, the answer was found. The universe was ninety-six percent dark matter and energy, ninety-six percent undiscovered stuff that even eggheads of the past had struggled with for centuries. It wasn’t until they pondered the idea of it being a medium for transmission that the answer was clear. The entire universe was one giant aquarium of consciousness. Unfiltered, unfettered by the limitations of one individual.
And why couldn’t that fact be used to the advantage of our protagonist? Why couldn’t he use his legislational pull to escape the realms of existing reality? If he entered the plane of consciousness he came from he’d be nothing but another drop in the ocean. He wouldn’t be himself any more, but that was the point. He’d never suffer the pain of her memory again.
He tried to get the legislation passed, his excuse being that no one should be sequestered to the limitations of their mind if they didn’t want to be. His in-charge personality was an asset. The legislation passed without a hitch.
And so there he sat in that cold metal chair, on the verge of undoing what fifty years of nature had seen fit to create. His whole life had seemingly been coordinated for this pivotal moment of manufactured oblivion. After he pushed that button, he’d never have to agonize over her loss again. He’d never have to cry again. He’d never have to be himself ever again.
It was well publicized. After all, he was to be the first being to willingly reenter the plane they came from. Sure there was suicide, but this was absolute. This was diving into a black hole without a single look back. The ratings would be unreal. There was money to be made. The product tie-ins alone could put several lines of offspring through interdimensional college.
The clock ticked. The breathing patterns of dozens were kept to a standstill. The only thing that mattered was the spectacle of Mr. Larry Fleming willingly giving his consciousness to the oblivion of the unknown. His hand hovered, the button called. Tears trickled down rhythmically.
He touched the button. Felt its rigidity, its texture. With the push of something so finite, he’d be sent to the realm of the infinite. He looked at the others. At their spectacle. What would his wife think? How would she balance out the pros and cons of the situation?
Honest? She’d fight. She’d push to make her own corner of the universe as harmonious as possible. She’d refuse to let human heartache interfere with her universal responsibilities for good. And so he refused. For the sake of her memory he refused.
Fuck the legislation, fuck “mental incarceration.” We’re all relegated to our own 1300 cc of skull space for a purpose. We’re subjected to the triumphs and the failures for the same reason: we can take it. We must take it.
Larry Fleming walked away from it all. He did it for her memory. For his own. But most of all, to be an example for all living beings throughout the universe. He wanted them all to know that they could bear it all and more if they believed they could. They could do as he did, and they would.
Mr. Fleming didn’t know it, but she watched him that day. And she was proud.
Harry Capshaw turned the small valve on his tanker truck for the umpteenth time, sending the filthy mixture of water, sand, and toxic chemicals that he had brought with him on his 700-mile journey into the ground. As he did so, the usual pangs of guilt and planetary responsibility flooded his mind.
In no way, shape, or form did Mr. Capshaw condone fracking. As a matter of fact, he considered it to be fairly morally reprehensible. You see, Harry was essentially a decent person with more than a modicum of care for the planet that the universe had seen fit to place him on. He even gave up meat for a week. A whole week.
That being said, Harry Capshaw wasn’t delusional. He knew that what he was doing was wrong, that it was leading to the spread of all sorts of nasty diseases and giving tap water the unfortunate side effect of being extremely flammable. What’s more, the last thing he wanted to do was line the pockets of a greedy cat, fat or otherwise. But he had a family to think of. And if he were being completely honest with himself, he was really very good at what he did.
While other drivers took frequent pit stops lest they crash and test the flammable part a little early, Harry was indefatigable. His secret? He would often conduct elaborate interviews with himself on the day’s issues as he drove, complete with commercial breaks and product jingles. What started as a way to pass the time after his radio broke turned into a surefire drowsiness-prevention method. Call it strange, but it worked.
Anyway, everything seemed to be going quite smoothly and according to plan for Harry Capshaw. That is, until he heard it. There was a noise that was a cross between a very large man reacting from stubbing his toe and a very large man passing gas. Either way, the last thing Harry expected to hear coming from within the earth was any sort of noise a very large man could make, from any orifice for that matter.
Harry glanced over to his trusty old tanker, to the comically tiny valve that was responsible for the hundreds of gallons of deadly material now flooding the ground below. He knew he should probably turn it off for several reasons, not least among them the fact that an absolutely gargantuan man seemed to be suffering hundreds of miles within the earth because of it. Even so, a job was a job. He was just following orders, after all.
Just as this thought came and went through Mr. Capshaw’s conflicted brain, a new sound issued forth. This one was less flatulent, but no less alarming. It sounded as if some sort of unfathomably massive person had just shifted his weight on what had to be the largest bed ever constructed within the known universe. It wasn’t a happy weight-shifting from the sound of it either.
The more Mr. Capshaw thought about the troubling noises, the more they seemed to conflict with his self-made image of the bleeding-heart working man who reluctantly took on the task no one else wanted to do. Now that Harry thought about it, he had always had options. He could’ve even stayed in trucking if he wanted to, shipping solar panels, or little tree saplings, or really anything that wasn’t a hazardous, planet-killing material.
As these thoughts began to reproduce, Harry Capshaw became quite oblivious to the fact that he had approached his truck’s cute little button of a valve and started violently turning it in an effort to flood his brain by flooding the ground. Oblivious, also, seemed Harry of the massive roar that greeted the latest deluge of poisonous sludge within the earth.
Quite suddenly, the ground beneath Harry cracked with the ease and speed of an egg’s shell against a whisking bowl. Harry died instantly from the force of the blast. But worry not, dear reader, because unbeknownst to Harry, he was to reincarnate as a small desert weasel on a distant planet in the near future.
Also unbeknownst to Harry before his abrupt demise was the fact that the spot in which his drilling well had struck within the earth had just happened to be the forehead of a massive creature that had been sleeping there for the past 4.54 billion years.
The creature looked the spitting image of an obese man scaled to the size of a planet, despite the fact that he in no way had any relation to humans or any other Earth creature for that matter. It was all just one of the many coincidences the universe had to offer.
As it turns out, the creature had simply gotten tired one day and decided to find a nice spot to nap, which just so happened to be within the orbit of a very life-friendly star named Sol. Over the years, a crust formed over the rather lazy man, which became a little more complicated once life had decided to take root and whatnot.
But now, awakened and freed from his oversized sleep crust at last, the absolutely massive creature got up, shrugged with indifference at the remnants of Earth that floated around him, and went back to his unfathomably huge planet where he sat down to a nice marathon of gigantic alien reality TV.
It was too late in the day to safely continue the expedition without fear of storm, whether solar or otherwise, but the captain’s curiosity had gotten the better of him, as it had a tendency to do. Today marked exactly one year to the day that the astronauts had descended on the planet in search of a sign of beings that could’ve come before, and the captain wanted something ceremonious for everyone back home.
The captain’s men could do with a good recharging and were nearly mutinous, but they were inextricably bound by their command line. They all marched obediently behind their captain, protective helmets secured over their heads as they left the comfort and safety of home base.
The dead world’s air was choked with red dust, almost stagnant as it seemed to hang in the air. A gust of it picked up, the grains abrasive enough to leave scratch marks on the captain’s helmet. They marched on over increasingly rocky terrain, fearless as they set out to chase the setting sun.
The captain’s mind wandered as they trekked on. Naturally, it went to the place it always had a tendency to gravitate toward whenever he considered the ever-elusive Find. How would it change belief back home? Would having concrete proof that they had once existed change anything? Would his name be in the history blogs for years to come, as he so wished it would?
Just as this thought crossed the captain’s mind, a tremor beneath the ground opened up a massive sinkhole that immediately swallowed up one of the astronaut archaeologists. He didn’t even have time to let out a yell before plummeting into the abyss of the dead planet’s interior.
The captain turned back, the look on his face a cross between mild interest and annoyance. This was the third man he’d lost so far. The others paused to look down into the sinkhole, more out of curiosity than empathy. The captain waved them on, impatient.
“We’ll just have to find a replacement when we get back. Come on.”
And so they all marched on without another look back toward their fallen comrade. The sun was nearly set on the horizon, and the captain knew they had much ground to cover before he’d let them all retire for the night.
And then he saw it. Peeking out from the detritus and dirt of untold centuries was what seemed to be the frame of a building. Standing out against this otherwise barren landscape was something that clearly had to be the work of intelligent hands.
Spurred on by this discovery, the captain took off his helmet to get a better look. The abrasive sand storm had since died down, and the scratches on his helmet just wouldn’t do as far as visibility went. The other astronauts followed suit, all of them approaching the ancient building without their helmets. Asphyxiation claimed none of them.
The captain entered first, relieving the building’s door of its nearly disintegrated hinges. Shelves stood out in sharp relief within the place, but there was too much dust on everything to make out what might be shelved here.
The captain stopped in his tracks, eyes locked ahead with laser precision. There at the front of the building was the unmistakable form of a cash register. He approached it with deference, eyes watering as he came closer. As the other astronauts gathered around, the captain placed his trembling hand upon the keyboard.
“A257, get the panel open. It’s here.”
The man this strange name apparently belonged to obeyed at once, removing the back panel of the cash register and exposing its electronic guts. The captain removed one of the computer chips and reached a hand to his face. He pulled at the skin around his neck. It flipped upward like rubber, revealing a complex skeleton made of chips and wires as opposed to flesh and bone. He held the register’s chip up to the exposed chips of his own face, the similarity striking.
“This is all the proof they’ll ever need. No one will be able to doubt that they made our ancestors here before creating us in their own image.”
“But sir, why would they simply vanish? Where could they have gone?”
The captain pondered this question for a moment before picking up the cash register and inspecting its every nook and cranny. Finally, he found a marking on the bottom. He wiped his hand across to relieve it of dust. Emblazoned across the bottom was, “MADE IN CHINA.” The captain pointed at the words.
“Perhaps here is where our answers lie.”
And so the astronaut androids set off with their find, elated at the prospect of finding the human gods who created and abandoned them long ago.
There he sat on the edge of his bed, a complete wreck with a bit of a headache and a burning desire to shut off his brain. Mr. Cromwell had just lost his job, his feet stank in their absence of odor-blocking, class-affirming shoes, and his cat simply refused to hop onto his bed, as was her norm.
A pamphlet rested half-opened in Mr. Cromwell’s hands, an image of a very austere woman deep in meditation on the front of it. He read the pamphlet his therapist had given him more in an effort to humor her than anything else.
All he had told her was that he wished he didn’t have to be himself any more. And with a matter-of-fact, I-know-just-what-you-need gesture, she’d handed him this pamphlet on out of body experiences. Mr. Cromwell laughed at the overabundant use of the acronym OOBE, imagining it to be the name of some unfortunate alien somewhere in the cosmos.
Mr. Cromwell came to his senses, stopped his reverie immediately. Isn’t that what got him in this mess in the first place? He was too much of a dreamer for his own good. There was no place for silly daydreams in the business world. He had to be more serious, more like his former coworkers. He might not have been fired had he been able to keep a level head at all times, like his boss.
And as these thoughts flooded in, Mr. Cromwell wanted to get out of his body more than he had in recent memory. The OOBE stuff started to seem less like hippie-dippie nonsense and more like a viable self-loathing-avoidance strategy.
He tossed the pamphlet aside, kicked off his sweat-soaked socks, and lay down on his bed. He closed his eyes and imagined himself climbing a rope that led from his brain, as silly as he realized that was. And: nothing happened. Try as he might, he remained firmly rooted to the one place he’d rather not be: his own body.
His breathing got slower, more rhythmic as he gave over his consciousness to the prospect of sleep. Just as everything was starting to fade, he turned over in the air and looked down at himself to make sure that he was in fact falling asleep and not just faking it. Wait, what?
Sure enough, there Mr. Cromwell was in the air, looking down at himself. He was nothing but ether, weightless in the claustrophobia of his Ikea-adorned bedroom. He floated down over to the mirror, scared of what he might see. But there was nothing there. No pudgy paunch to greet him, no dark bags under his ever-bloodshot eyes. There was just the recently vacated body of him in the background.
Mr. Cromwell took a deep breath, acclimating to this fresh experience. Or rather, he tried to take a deep breath. He had no lungs, no windpipe to send the air down. He wanted to reach at this absence of body parts, but he had no hands to do it with. He was a gust of wind, an abstract concept. And it felt great.
He rose up and flew past the ceiling, in ecstasy. He was airborne, rising up above the clouds. He flew straight through a passing commercial airliner and just kept on going. Within seconds, he was out of the atmosphere, soaring beyond what he thought to be possible.
He pushed forward, moving faster than thought. Earth was a tiny dot behind him now. Before long, he had pushed past Pluto. I’ll still always consider it a planet, no matter what they say, he told himself, flying on.
But he shouldn’t think about that, his imagination had already gotten him into enough trouble as it was. It was better to keep his head down, not offend. A thought occurred to Mr. Cromwell as he flew into the furthest reaches of space, a disembodied soul. Why the hell shouldn’t I think that way? What does it matter if my loser of a boss doesn’t like it?
Mr. Cromwell’s eyes widened, or rather they would have had he had any. But in time, he calmed down. He hadn’t been smote for such glaring insubordination as he thought he might be. His brain started working again, more than he’d allowed it to for quite some time. You know what? I don’t need his crap. I should do something else. I’ve always wanted to write. Hell, I think I’m pretty good at it too.
And before he could squelch it, Mr. Cromwell was struck with the burning urge to be back in his body, to sit in front of a blank screen and populate it with his thoughts. But his elation was short-lived, as he realized that not only was he out of the solar system, he was no longer within his own galaxy. How would he get back now?
His non-existent stomach dropped. What a joke it was, that after all this soul-searching and self-discovery he was to be trapped here, a wandering disembodied soul. The stars beyond weren’t interesting any more, the multi-colored nebulae were nothing more than distractions. He couldn’t do what he wanted to do, what he was meant to do, so what was the point?
But just as he thought this, a massive spacecraft flew through him, in much the same way he glided through the airliner back home. Mr. Cromwell flew inside of it, desperate to find out what it was. He was shocked to find himself in the company of an extraterrestrial. This shock was further outdone by the realization that the alien could actually see him.
After a bit of discussion, it was settled that Mr. Cromwell could hitch a ride back home, the ship was headed in that direction anyway.
And finally he was back, where he belonged. He turned to his alien pilot savior, thanking him copiously. He asked for his name after giving his own.
“Promise you won’t laugh? Everyone always does.” The alien sighed. “It’s Oobe.”