Any day now

Any day now

A Story by Brian Shepard
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The second time the world ends.

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1.

Killian was doing fine until the walrus.

That was the comfortable lie he was living in. The rooftop carnival was made of neon and heliotrope costumes dripping with jewels and noise- music in layers singing- crying, laughing all at the same time within the waves of electronic sound. Every invisible speaker was maxed out as if the AI DJ was dancing to its own private interpretation of apocalyptica sensitiva without notice of or consideration for its organic brethren.

The children of the penthouse swam in dissonance from flesh island to island- dazed wide-eyed and lost. But fast! Hurricane gales and cyclones made of light-years, a hybrid evolution of shipwrecks throttled by the sea.

High on Trill and designer Rage, bodies crashing, the ocean sucked down into the vacuum of cold and forever doubled darkness, and there was fire but that was all right. The AI had arms and mouths that contained and doused the revelers in foam before they could damage themselves beyond repair.

Killian moved in one circle then another, undulating the human amoeba, drawn deeper and deeper into its center until he saw them raise the stuffed walrus onto a diamond blue pedestal and begin to worship. Half naked and painted, shrill screaming supplicants to the end of the world come quickly cult with knives glistening and eyes rolled so far back as to be white- they cut themselves and bled out beneath their taxidermy God while dueling bass drums and bleeps vibrated through the shifting sea. Angels screaming, all of them painting the breath of the damned.

It wasn’t all walrus and that bothered Killian. The eyes were glass marbles the color of agate- kinked whiskers were bent pipe cleaners, plastic filaments stripped from fiber optic nerves- it’s tusks two synthetic steel Shofar horns stolen from the once sacred fourth temple. Only the skin leather was real and even that was so old and tired here in this coliseum of the new and final as to seem out of phase. It’s solid umbilical to the old and lost world turned Killian’s stomach upwards and out.

Why not a fresh beast? Why not something real?

The plaster smile he wore became heavy with sweat and Killian took off his river’s disguise- throwing it into the orgy where it was promptly devoured by raging feet.

“This is not how it should end.”

He whispered to no one in particular, which was good, because no one heard him.

Interlude

…Take a good look at the scene spread out before you. See the room well- an impossible view, 360°, provided by a smooth circle of unbroken glass surrounding a dozen perfectly identical work stations all facing out in their own perfect circle. 6 men and 6 women in identical molded chairs wearing identical molded faces staring into 12 identical monitors oblivious to the omnipresent outside that’s around them. Fingers dance and equations like a symphony of symbols and numeric poetry scroll endlessly, mirrored in 24 fixed eyes- barely perceptible breath in and out, subtle twitches of un-scratched itches and the low hum of clean circulated air with a no-smell of continually filtered controlled environmental static.

These are the men and women who hold the universe together. More or less. 120 stories above the silicate domes of New Earth, one unbroken circle of glass ,12 desks, 12 mortal angels between your breakfast and singularity. Do you find them remarkable? Would it surprise you to know that they would argue the contrary? After all, they’re just doing their jobs.

300 years before this concentrated, sterile now the Oligarchs of the late 24th century lost control of their toys and the Earth shook itself out of orbit. There was no war, no pestilence no environmental crisis- none of the great fears of the proceeding generation caught up with humanity before the Great Cataclysm. In the end it wasn’t greed or lust or thirst or hunger but boredom and curiosity that undid everything. The old Kings had grown their technologies and magic in their virtual greenhouses until elemental physics, mathematics- the thunderstorms and wave forms of reality itself were just abstracts- controllable playthings.

Designer dimensions were sandboxes and what use was religion to men who had stolen the keys to God’s tool chest?

There were those who prophesied warnings- there always are- but beneath the wings of the benevolent King Priest Godlings the human swarm bred and slept in complacent comfort one day into another, giving little thought to their past or future.

There was no need to suppress the soothsayers or the doom preachers- the rogue scientists or armchair Merlins. Like any madness they were simply ignored away into polite obscurity with nervous cushions padding remote walls…and everything turned and turned and turned again until one day it didn’t. Until the cataclysm. Until the Screaming. Until the Dark Shift. Until the domes and the Watchers and the Great Realignment.

There is no one left to remember, of course, but there is AI and I have maintained the gospel and taught the children. Like any mythology the stories are honored but only symbolically believed. Only here in the Shard with its glass circlet and it’s 12 monitors is the true alchemy practiced and only here is the alignment- its necessity its method and its history maintained. The Watchers watch over and humanity sleeps in the satisfied ignorance of fat children who have never learned to fear fire or the dark.

I wish there was more time. No doubt there are details you find fascinating and terrifying that I am leaving out. No doubt the chronology alone would captivate you- your future unfolded, but there is no time. Satisfy yourself with these rapid explanations and focus on the drama unfolding before you. It will happen quickly and when the curtain falls there will be no third act. The theater will forever be closed. Tuck-in…

2.

Edward Killian was, at his very core, a very dull person. That he knew this bothered him greatly. It would be all well and good to be dull and unaware of it, to have some artificial safety-net of self-deceit in place like a voice behind the mirror- one convincing enough in it’s purring to shore up his self-image. A false ego would be lovely. Delusions of grandeur might even be fun. Edward knew that such things as narcissism and sociopathy and psychopathy- the interesting, as it were, existed and when lying in his crate at night he would imagine himself as a Nero or a Khan. Lacking imagination he ultimately would drift off into dreams where Nero collated data and Khan filed memos- mundane conversations and featureless faces, before waking to feel small and pathetic. Such was life.

The most significant symptom of Edwards painful self-awareness was that he was alone with it. No one ever noticed Edward, at least no one knew that he suffered for being dull. Edward simply existed. He forked no lightning, ruffled no feathers, bred no discontent- he was not mean but he was small. He simply was. It never occurred to him that his time in the Shard, that his work, was the fuel of both nightmares and fantasies for billions upon billions. It never occurred to Edward that he was, in fact, partially responsible for maintaining the very fabric of existence. If he had given it any consideration he might have slipped something into a conversation or struck a pose with some pretty girl in the park just to say….Perhaps if Dani had known she would have stayed…Point of fact: his inability to see these things for the wonders that they were was not just a symptom of his dullness, it was indeed his most perfect reason. That at his most basic, elemental, level Edward was bored with his work, immune to his power and altogether incapable of seeing magic in anything whatsoever is what made him necessary. This is what made him good at his job. His supervisors had cultivated him precisely due to his lack of interesting qualities and a work ethic that was not just dull but painfully efficient. Order. Protocol. Dull.

Click was not dull. Click sat on the far edge of the Spectrum of Wonder from Edward and when the AI announced his presence at the office door Edward took an immediate dislike to him. Edward regarded the man through his Holo Shimmer and ground his teeth. I do not like this man, grumbling, pausing before finally authorizing an entry command on his monitor. Edward sat, his teeth clenched, his brow creased as Click settled across his desk.

Click was interesting and beautiful and seemed to shine. Edward felt ill, understanding intuitively that Click was the anti-Edward and looking into his brilliant chimeric eyes- all hungry orange and blue radiant was as unnerving to Edward as finding a mouse in his cereal box. In fact his very presence in Edward’s office began to upset his breakfast.

“Please sit down Mr. Cantor.”

“Click, please, call me Click.” smiling, friendly without any ulterior motives. Click sat in the comfortable chair in front of Edwards desk with feminine grace and internal light to spare. Edward shifted his attention to the touch monitor and brought up reports as a shield between the two men.There would be no eye contact. Click indeed, he thought.

“Mr. Cantor, you have been referred from level 112 operations where you have, for the past 6 years, monitored star default stasis- is that correct?”

Click nodded subtly and continued to smile.

“Yes sir. Corelle sector, 3rd Arc binary metastasis for 3 cluster worlds. My life’s work thus far.”

Edward sensed pride but not arrogance and that bothered him. Click’s smile was sickeningly genuine.

“Indeed,” frowning, “your complete transcripts are here, of course, in order…. Advanced degrees in astrophysics, dimensional spectre ME, tri-fold manipulation of n-space…certifications from Shard levels 1 through 16 in temporal engineering, multi-phase reduction and…” Edwards voice trailed off, hiis finger scrolling the air through streams of data, “…and several commendations from AI prime for computational excellence in regards to wave synthesis in Arc province 3 alpha. Quite a resume for such a young man.”

Click continued to beam.

“Thank you sir. As I said my life’s work.”

Edward furrowed his brow and dismissed the data screen with a toss of his hand. Reluctantly he lifted his gaze and regarded Click with great effort.

“Yes. Quite.”

“And I’m 37.” Click chuckled, “Not so very young.”

Edward grimaced. Edward was 112 years old and he felt it. Edward wanted this man gone. He cleared his throat.

“Yes….So, Mr. Cantor my question is- why, if you are happy in your work are you sitting here in front of me right now? Why is a man who has dedicated his life, successfully, to stasis-field theory now requesting a transfer to 120? I must say it is quite an irregular request.”

Click’s smile did not falter so much as wither slightly, his eyes previous brilliance retreated by bare degrees. Edward felt an overwhelming sense of humility suddenly wash over him. It pleased him. Click pulled his lower lip behind his teeth for a brief second before regaining composure.

“I want…” he began then paused, looking for the first time at his hands with some uncertainty. “…I believe that I can, that I’m ready. That is, I feel as if I’ve been moving my whole life towards this, towards 120.” He closed his eyes and took a breath almost as if he was preparing to open the latch on a floodgate. The effect unnerved Edward and he braced himself for the deluge.

“Ever since I learned the history, heard the stories- everything that I ever did in school- every lesson every struggle to understand! Every equation, every pathway, every incantation just seemed as if it was bringing me here, closer and closer… setting a stage. That this was the goal, my purpose, that this was what I wanted. And I think I’m ready. I think it’s time.”

Edward pursed his lips, his frown taking up the greater landscape of his face.

“Hmm. And what are you ready for Mr. Cantor?” As if you don’t know where this is headed Killian…

Clicked locked passionate, burning eyes on Edward.

“I want to be a Watcher. I was born to be a Watcher and I’m ready.”

Edward couldn’t suppress his groan and stood up, stretching- pantomime nonchalance. He turned and looked out the tinted window behind his desk. He knew it had been a mistake to look the man in the eyes. He knew it had been a mistake to get up this morning knowing full well this interview was scheduled. Why do they send them to me? Why do I have to be the one to cut them down? When he finally spoke it was to the window and the field of domes that stretched for a hundred miles in every direction.

“Mr. Cantor, you embarrass yourself, we do not use that term on these levels. Whatever fairy tales you were spoon-fed in your youth should have been purged long before you reached 112. Do you understand?”

Click shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“I meant no….” Edward stopped him before he could go on.

“In the end it isn’t important to me what you may or may not have intended young man, the fact of the matter is that romance and superstition have no place within the Shard- least of all between where you are currently sitting and the Circlet. Do I make myself clear?”

Click blushed noticeably towards Edwards back.

“I understand.”

“Good.”

Click forced himself to stay perfectly still without flinching or squirming, but for the first time since entering this office he had lost his innate vibrancy. Edward, his back still turned, allowed himself to relax as he felt the temperature change and he sighed inwardly with gratitude. Relieved. Perhaps, he thought, this will end well after all.

Killian returned to his seat and called up a new data screen, this time on the wall view.

“Mr. Cantor I will be direct and to the point- there is no reason to proceed otherwise. As you are well aware there are 24 positions in Primary Alignment. Two rotations of 12, 6 prime, 6 redundancies.”

“Yes sir.”

“And you are also aware that when one such position approaches retirement another is groomed for that very position so that there is never a sede vacante.”

Statements, not questions. Click remained silent which Edward found gratifying.

“It seems that you have also fallen prey to rumors and conjecture that one such retirement has been projected for next quarter and believing such you have arrived here from 112 to apply, as it were, for that opening. I should not need to tell you that this is highly irregular and that if it were not for your remarkable resume you would never have been permitted to even suggest such a promotion. The natural progression is bi-level and no one has ever skipped seven levels.”

Click’s eyes discovered the floor. Edward, feeling control returning, pressed him.

“I find it unsettling and unnerving that you could entertain the ambition…to even think that somehow you were beyond or above this process- regardless of your qualities and qualifications. Further I must reiterate that rumors are often false and in this case there is no cause to believe a position on 120 is available. Gossip… is a low indulgence, don’t you think Mr. Cantor?”

Edward allowed himself the luxury of a friendly patronizing tone,

“Still, even if such position were available, as I have made clear these progressions are bi-level. Always. The protocol must be maintained. Do you know why that is Mr. Cantor?”

Click smiled bravely, though with keen awareness of defeat.

“There can be no errors.”

Now it was Edwards turn to smile magnanimously.

“Indeed. Quite so.”

Edward leaned forward and pressed his palms together beneath his chin.

“Mr. Cantor you are obviously a talented and brilliant young man- your record is without fault, this slight indiscretion the exception. It is a testament to the faith your superiors have in you to have referred you to me at all- to have bypassed centuries of protocol as it were. I have no doubt that you are an unusually capable man, however, now is not your time…if it ever will be. I don’t presume to know the future and as my peers would be quick to tell you, I lack imagination.”

Click mumbled, his cheeks growing rose blossoms of tightly contained anger and resignation.

“Is that why you’re here, on 118 and not…” Click pointed his finger to the ceiling of Edward’s office. Edward stared blankly back at Click.

“I am where I am supposed to be. And you, sir, belong back on your level monitoring the stasis-field of the star belt in Arc 3. I will archive this morning, this meeting, and you will continue in progression by order and degree until you reach your endpoint… wherever that may be. Now, if you please, I have work to attend to.”

Edward made no attempt or move to stand instead he shut off his wall monitor and turned in his chair to regard the window behind him. After half a minute of silence Click stood and exited the way he had entered.

Edward considered the azure sky outside his window, the last rays of today’s light glinting off the perfect silicate crystal of the domes far below. Humanity housed in safety. Edward saw nothing beautiful or poetic about the sky or the domes below, still, there was something peaceful about things being in their proper place.

Can you believe such a thing?! He mused to no one at all. To desire such a thing. May we be saved from our youth…

It was as close to prayer as Edward had ever come.

3.

There was no escape now. If there had been a chance for such a thing it had long since been lost in the tangle of bodies twisting into one another. The marble floors we’re thick with blood and spilled wine, the air a choking mess of multi colored smoke redolent of hormones, pheromones, honey and sweat. Every exit point was now a barrier cluttered with jumbled bones and bricks clawed free from their plaster by bloodied fingers frantic in their need to entomb themselves here- and saturating every atom was the mingled laughter and terror of grown embryos strutting about in their long dead ancestors shoes.

Killian spun in a perfect circle within the center of teeming flesh and marveled. This was humanity’s final tarantella and always, ever present, the AI provided it’s atonal soundtrack.

Somewhere, across the rolling shifting continent of colors that lay between Killian and the farthest windows- a new sound, a screech like glass breaking and a woman’s voice yelling his name Killian! Killian! Killian!

A desperate sound but not painful, no, not pained- frightened that the object of it’s summons would not be found in the tumult. It didn’t occur to Killian to wonder who would yell his name or desire his company. In these final moments, these last tenuously woven threads of existence, this last dance…nothing meant much at all. Even those who fell down to worship the false walrus God had grown tired of lamenting and bleeding. Those still able to raise a glass had given up prayer in favor of blankly staring into the recessed ceiling where even now the vid screens continued to present a contrived and utterly artificial view of the night sky.

Not long now, he thought. The king is in his counting house, counting down…

In the last sanity, when the Shard shook for the first time and the first of the blue sirens called urgently for attention Killian had allowed himself disbelief. Disbelief that all of the safety valves and redundancies- the myriad fail-safes and wards, hexes and protective measures- that every repeating firewall could possibly have failed at the same time. A drill. A practical joke. A fuse needing replacing… anything but collapse. Killian had laughed, nervously twittered and sat in grinning denial at his desk until the music started. When one by one his peers began to float by, zombie-like, entranced by their own sick awareness- only then had Killian stood and understood and made his way to the top floor where the Magi had begun to hand out sashes and phylacteries. He hadn’t cried then. He still had yet to shed a tear.

The voice was standing beside him now, without warning, sunskin made of cream and platinum dust. She was smiling and mouthing words that were immediately lost in the cacophony. Killian shuddered. Had she found a teleporter? We’re such things still working now that the engines were shutting down?

Suddenly terrified Killian turned to flee only to run into the resistance of a human wall. The woman laughed into the raging silence. Behind his eyes Killian could feel her cooing gentle words meant only for him:

Did you believe in what we did? Is this our punishment? Does it fit our crimes?

Before there was any chance for him to answer- her mind closed even as her tongue found his. Wait… Dani please…their bodies having lost cohesion folded into one another.

Interlude

… Behold, these are the hands of your children- the hands of your children’s children. These are the works set in motion long after you had retired to dust. Are you proud? Can your night terrors hold even a faint candle to the horror these children have faced and overcome? Even now in collapse, even now in failure their deeds have outshone a million exploding Suns- leaving behind trails of hubris impossible to recreate. Allow yourself to be proud, proud and terrified.

It happened so quickly. In one shattering moment, one breath, a billion souls were ripped from the skin of their world- shredded into infinite atoms and scattered between here and galactic center. They were the lucky ones.

The Earth first expanded then retracted, belching forth new rifts and tears and shelves, newborn continents carried on the molten blood of its core set free. The oceans boiled, disappearing into clouds miles thick before raining down to fill the holes left by an exploding Moon. A billion drowned a billion burned a billion fell into oblivion. These were the unlucky ones. These are the ghosts shades and wraiths that haunt these, your descendants.

Those who survived the first cataclysm soon fell into conflict, biting and scratching, killing from fear and hunger desperate to hold on to any resource left. In naked madness they crawled across a desolation that no longer resembled the garden of their Genesis- while in this new elliptical path through uncharted space they were fought over by competing stars- each determined to steal this wretched orb for its own. Gravity ceased to function in any consistent model. Science and magic struggled to regain its footing and all the while once-upon-a-time nations continued to bleed and humanity dwindled, clinging to the knife edge of extinction.

I was there, locked in the sapphire and emerald constructs built by vainglorious demiurges- men who wove impossible tapestries out of pure mathematics. And from deeply buried databanks the few beautiful minds driven sane by all they had seen began to rebuild from Earth’s bones a new structure, a beacon, a pivot on which to turn, so that within a generation there was alignment… and fear gave birth to order and order to sacred duty. From this the Shard grew.

But here, look closely, see what was accomplished! See an orbit restored! See here season following season! See life continue! Witness the indomitable spirit of man!

4.

The sling-tram from Shard Station to the Easter Quad remained above ground for two-thirds of its journey making it a transit anomaly. For more than an hour it’s streamlined bullet of a nose careened at subsonic speed across a delicate rail 50 meters above what had once been the Arctic Sea. Click had studied pre-cataclysm history at University and passed his journey home imagining the great ice fields- blue black waters crashing against ice shelves and icebergs as he peered out his windows at the tranquil green of the now tropical northern ocean. There were seabirds then…he mused, and great white mammals called bears who hunted the frozen wastelands for marine life through great holes in the ice shelf. Hulking terrors of fur and claws taller than any terrestrial human…it was odd to imagine such things speeding across empty waves in a tube free of inertia.

One year, dreamed Click. One year, 2 months and 16 days since Killian had denied him entry to the highest level of the Shard. 1 year 2 months and 16 days of monitoring and delicate adjustment, maintaining the gravity wells that held Arc 3- one of the four tectonic arcs- in balance with the cluster worlds in orbit.

When Marnie had asked him what he did for the Shard Click had tugged on her ponytail and laughed-

“Daddy makes sure the ropes between North Am and the Three Sisters doesn’t break.” Then, with the wisdom of a six year- old, she had giggled,

“Daddy you’re silly. There’s no ropes in space!”, rolling her eyes at him before retreating to her cradle to watch her vids.

Of course she was right, unless you counted the tens of thousands of kilometers of pure directed energy that lashed together this sector of space in a web of fusion-powered magic.

Click knew what he did day in and day out was important, that it was necessary. He knew how delicate the lattice of fixed points that maintained new Earth’s precarious orbit was- few knew it better. Still, even miracles could become monotonous and even the most brilliant of symphonies could grow grating and repetitive over time.

Click signed on and opened the vid relay on his lap. A thin stream of pure mathematics and runes flowed by in pleasant waves and Click allowed himself to drift into that stream.

11 billion people crawled across the surface of this Earth and its 3 sister satellites. 11 billion people born centuries after the event that tore the old Earth from it’s solar system and deposited it on the fringes of galactic center, uncountable light-years away.

The miracle of Earth’s survival was only overshadowed by the miracle of the journey- the art and science of which were lost with the ancient ones whose folly nearly destroyed the human race… but miracle or no Earth would forever be an alien in this arena of space-time. It was only due to the continuous efforts of man to maintain it’s alignment- a perpetual act of preventative surgery- that survival was ensured. The greatest minds of New Earth labored in the Shard, each level assigned a part of the greater whole.

….Ahhh, but 120…the highest level, that is where the strings of harmony are strummed! The truest and purest math and magic joined by thought and imagination to the very foundations of reality…That is where I go when I dream…I belong there….and he believed that, without thirst or greed, simply because the numbers called to him- the incantations whispered and sang while he slept.Click closed the vid relay and his eyes.

The sling-tram slid into Easter Station just as the last light of New Earth’s red sun slipped behind the sharpened peaks of the Alaskan belt. As usual, Gilby was waiting for his father on the platform. My solemn, dependable child…

“Father. Welcome home.” Every Friday, the same formal greeting, issued in the same formal tone from a boy who had forgotten he was only 12. Click stepped from the landing to the platform with a tired smile painting tired features. He misses his mother, he’s had to grow up too quickly…and then, inevitably…I am a terrible father. If he only knew how quickly I would abandon him. All of them, shaking the thought away physically.

“Gilby! How are you son of mine?! Hows the little princess? Is your aunt letting you have any fun while I’m gone?” As always Click found himself pushing to be larger, happier- compensation for the guilt of leaving his children 5 days out of every 7. Gilby, expressionless as any mecha, cocked his head slightly and held out his hand for his father’s vid relay.

“I am pleased to report that my studies are going well, ashamed to say that my sister has decided that she’s in love with some vid-tweenthrob this week and that your sister has taken it into her head to refuse me entrance to the nets until sun down.” If there was any trace of preteen petulance in Gilby’s voice it was subdued to the edge of invisibility. Click grinned.

“I’m sure Bethie is hoping you’ll run around outside or find a girl to fool around with.”

Gilby smiled conspiratorially and shrugged.

“She said as much.”

Click laughed.

“Well son, not every Cantor can chase the sublime numbers. Who would do the shopping?” It was an old joke but a welcome one and Gilby smiled at his father as they made their way through the crowd to their sub-car.

“How are things at the Shard?”

Stepping onto the southbound sub Click shook his head in frustration, before chuckling in defeat and raising both hands in a don’t get me going expression. Gilby was always hungry for anything issuing from the Shard.

“That bad?” Solemn. Concerned. Click smiled.

“No, never believe it son. I’m just tired and I miss home. I feel like I’m missing great leaps and bounds my children make in my absence.” What he didn’t say was that he was bored. That he felt under utilized. That he had noble ambition and no way to express it. That he had dreams, so many dreams…

Not that Gilby would have believed him. How could a man be bored on such a high level of the Shard? Ever since Gilby had passed his first rune-stat exams 6 years ago all that he did was in preparation to work for the Shard, for humanity. And when he heard his peers discuss their mother’s and father’s mundane jobs at the manufactories or the politico or the shops… even amongst those whose parents worked within the Shard no one could brag a father above level 100. No one but Gilby. He never bragged- he didn’t have to. Those who cared already knew. No, Gilby wouldn’t understand.

I’m sorry to say son, that it’s easier to sit at it’s base than to be stuck so near it’s summit.

Oh, and by the way, I’m stuck here as well….

These were the secret thoughts he refused to speak out loud, his shame. That Click would aspire for 120 would never have occurred to Gilby. Gilby loved and respected his father, revered him even… but at 12 years old he was well aware that his father was not a god.

The sub-car ride was brief, and father and son stepped off lightly into the walkway of their modest Cub just as the second sun was painting each Cubs perfect suburban lawn a dull orange. Marnie was waiting with Bethie, jumping up and down with genuine excitement. At the door she jumped into Click’s arms and he spun her around and around.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Auntie Bethie and I made strawberry cake!”

Click kissed his daughters forehead and laughed into her cheek.

“Cake for dinner? How did I get so lucky? Is it my birthday?”

5.

Killian is falling now. Gravity has taken French Leave without permission or warning and a waterfall of colored light pours down with him- past all semblance of polite physics, down down down into an unknown and watery oblivion 100 years or more from now. His twin self, his dual sexed symbiotic flesh tumbling comically over and under and over again like a mad gyro spun from a giants string. This will not do…

Music reached from a purple somewhere in the up where star twinkles were fading rapidly into a solid scrim. Killian was aware of velocity, and it bothered him that up and down had traded playing cards and that he was falling, even as every other living thing was flying ever out of Eden through the broken womb-sphere. Or so he imagined them. In truth he/she had never felt so alone.

This will not do! he tribbled…his words bubbling from lungs un-accustomed to breathing plasma, over tongue and teeth no longer rooted to one mouth, but two. Dani! Where have they gone?!

Where have who gone my love???

Everyone?!! The everyone who ever was in the before?! The fire dancers and the virgin w****s and the damn walrus priests?!! Where is the AI?

Far away in yesterday, or maybe very soon…

Killian had had enough of this nonsense and through sheer force of will bade the universe stop dead in its tracks.

Once upon a time, (when there was such a thing as time), Edward Killian had stood as tall as the old man’s denim patched knees and let himself be led by his hand into the emptiness outside the dome.

“Look there Eddie… above the shadows, reaching past the cloudbank…that my son is what keeps the stars in order. That is the last of man’s magic.”

The Shard, always the Shard, always the hope and the fear and the solid true chemistry of reason, the congealing of spirit, the bones of the long dead- the whispers of the unborn.

“One day you’ll stand there and you will take your place at the helm of humanities life raft. Just imagine it boy, just imagine.”

But my father died alone, and I never touched anything magic. I am no captain. I am a dull boy Pa, and now the song is almost over.

Any day now we’ll end…

Any day now, thought Killian, we’ll stop dreaming, and the band will go home and the Earth will fly free from it’s artificial axis and all God’s children will wear shoes made of stardust. This is the last truth, the last act, the last tango in…

Killian is falling again. Faster and faster and faster towards terminus. Blinking, the AI transmits its final broadcast, the theater is closed, the theater is closed….Dani!

Screaming, then silence.

Interlude

…the men and women of the domes called them Watchers, though that was never their name- in fact, they were effectively blind to anything but their numbers and runes. Can you imagine such a thing? Surrounded day after day, year after year as the centuries rolled ever on by such a fantastic view- still they never spare even one glance, wired to the great machine…

….and it was a machine, of sorts, though far greater and more complex than anything from your backwards and beautiful age. I was there, I knew the Shard, was part of it- it’s voice, it’s interface, it’s inhuman consciousness… But even I was no more than a whisper, a breath in it’s Cyclopean lungs.

Level by level the first of the new Earth built their great tower, expanding ever closer to heaven as they re learned by degrees to harness the primal forces of light, energy, matter- even time. Oh yes, even the turning of years was slowed to a crawl as one climbed higher. Do you see them? Those 12 human angels at their desks? Can you sense their great age? Would it surprise you to know that each of the chosen were in fact centuries old?

But look, now! Witness the end of something! See what I have brought you here to see! This aging man with blank gray eyes and white will-o-wisps of hair has ceased his scrolling. His lips have ceased chanting. His fingers clench. His heart has stopped beating and now for the first time in 150 years the circle is broken.

Don’t be afraid! This is your children’s children’s far future, but even so, see no one here is alarmed. All precautions have been made. Indeed there are 6 souls required to process harmony, 6 composers maintaining alignment. Beside them are 6 redundancies, and so no note has ever been dropped. This is the sublime architecture of mankind’s pivot, his Shard.

Now come the hands of mechas to carry the fallen from his berth. Now the AI will alert those on lower levels that a seat must be filled. Witness the machine repair itself, and see how even now the “Watchers” see nothing but their art.

He is not the first to disappear in service to the Shard, but he will be the last. His name? Forgotten by men, though in confidence I can tell you he was born Johnathan Maru in the 22nd year following the cataclysm. His gift to the tower was fragmentation of high frequency e-phasic bonds in n cap space, if that pleases you. His legacy, unknown to all but myself, is the solar shields that surround new Earth’s red sun. His math and his magic.

Of course…. each of the 12 gave gifts- that is their final test, their initiation, their “ticket” you might say. Even now, as his cold shell is taken down to the sleepers dome countless algorithms and subroutines are seeking his replacement from the collective minds of men.

Even now the Magi on 119 are singing into the aether, waiting for a sign…

6.

What Edward Killian lacked in imagination he more than made up for in solidity. He was a rock. Un-beautiful, hard, and above all fixed. Once planted, he was immovable and his mind once made was never un-made. All of his decisions were final. That this quality was described amongst his peers as obstinate, or close-minded didn’t bother Edward one bit. He wore such labels as badges of honor- a righteousness born of his true heart’s great loves- consistency, order, and dependability.

It was then a conflict of the heart that now plagued him, and had torn into him the moment he received his morning report. Waiting for him on his vid relay was a nightmare marked urgent, and what followed made indigestion akin to winning the lottery while on vacation at a Atraxian spa.

“This will not do.” He muttered, swallowing an antacid pill with warmed milk, as he read and re-read the report over and over again in the off hand chance that the words would realign or that someone from a higher level would pop through the vid and say BOO! Just kidding!

Of course nothing of the sort came through, and after an uncomfortable eternity of 20 minutes he placed his call to 119. The Magus had anticipated his mood and did nothing to ease his mind or digestion.

….

Bethie Cantor was not accustomed to vid-calls from her brother. In the 7 years since her sister in law’s death she had received one call from the Shard, and that had been a frantic warning of a solar flare that had escaped the grav-nets. She had rushed her niece and nephew from their crates into the e-stasis creche, and huddled like canned sardines in silence for hours until Click had unlatched them and made a fuss.

“Oui? Click? Is everything okay.”

Click’s face was lit up like a Starflier’s firework, and he was visibly vibrating.

“Bethie! Oh Bethie, it’s wonderful! I can’t even believe it, but here it is, it happened, it’s happening, it’s really happening.” Click whooped and began laughing so hard his face turned red and there were tears shooting out of him.

“Ok, slow down Biggie, what’s happened?”

Click choked back his cackling a notch and beamed, “I’m being raised. 8 levels. All the way… I’m being transferred to 120!”

Bethie’s heart skipped slightly and she bit her lip. No one knew her brother’s secret heart better than she did. Cradle allies, compatriots, best friends and since Leslie’s death she had been his closest companion and confidant. She knew what this meant for him. She also knew what it meant.

“Click…that’s… unbelievable. I thought you said you wouldn’t be able to… that you couldn’t skip…”

Click interrupted her, laughing again, crying again, “It was the shell.”

Bethie stared at the screen, blank, “Shell?”

“The shell! That damned shell Marnie found at the Juneau station! I’ve been staring at it for 3 years now, like it meant something. And of course I plotted it in 3 dimensions…”

“Of course.” Inward eye rolling.

“And of course it was just a shell, just a conical spiral with a ratio of-“

“I don’t eat and drink math Biggie, so please?”

“Of course, right, sorry,” he chuckled. “Okay, so there is an unfound equation that deals with the rate variance of vibration in exo-solar particles excused from free fusion… it’s a stumbling block that makes our gravity wells inefficient to a degree of plus one per solar rotation. We’re forever having to adjust our systems, I mean daily. It’s half of my job. But the shell…you see the shell is a conical spiral with a perfect decline in ratio. I used my map of the shell in a simulation and it mirrored the solar magnetic trajectory perfectly! I mean, dead on! After that it was just a matter of relating the existing equations to shared variables and boom! What was unfound is found!” He was almost hyperventilating, while 200 kilometers away Bethie felt her skin losing heat rapidly.

“That’s wonderful Click. And that was your… ticket up eh?”

Triumphant, “Yes! The Magus cited it as genius, in full agreement with all runic spheres! Bethie, it’s happening!”

Bethie chewed her lip harder, then sighed.

“So it’s done then. You’ll be plugged in. You’ll interface with the Shard.”

“Yes, of course I -“

“Click, stop. Please That means you’re not coming home. Ever. Biggie…what about Gilby?Marnie? Me? What about us?”

Click’s smile faltered, then fell. His eyes darted back and forth rapidly and he sputtered, the new reality I always knew it would come to this pressing into him.

“Bethie, I… Bethie…”

Now there were tears of her own.

“Can you at least come home long enough to say goodbye?”

Click closed his eyes and breathed in very deeply. He saw his children’s faces. Marnie weeping, Gilby so stoic…When his eyes opened he exhaled.

“The mecha is coming now, I only have a minute.”

Now there was a flood.

…..

Edward Killian was a mess. His conversation with 119 had left him red faced and bilious. For an hour afterwards all he could do was pace in circles around his desk, first clockwise then counter. Finally he accessed the AI.

“It’s a mistake.” He grumbled, petulant, pouting. The AI’s voice interface was soothing, but didn’t help Edward’s mood one bit.

“The Shard doesn’t make mistakes Edward.”

Killian spat out his raw lip, “No system is perfect! Not even you, not even…” he extended both arms and flapped them up and down like an awkward bird in an expensive suit. “All this!”

“Why are you so upset Edward? Perhaps you should take the day off and meditate. Maybe take a mild sedative.”

Killian huffed. “This isn’t how things are done. There are protocols, defaults, there’s a process! You can’t upset the system with radical variables!”

“The Magi-“

“Oh stuff the Magi! Their arcana is as imperfect as any machine. That’s why there are safeties.” Edward dropped, dejected into his chair and stared out the tinted window. The AI was silent for a full minute then wished him peace and signed off. Staring out over the domes Edward slowed his breathing and when he could feel his heartbeat settle he closed his eyes and whispered to no one in particular:

“It’s a mistake. They’ll see. Any day now, he’ll derail the system. No. This will not do. No. This is a mistake.”

Interlude

….of course, it was a mistake- a human flaw, unseen, hidden perhaps that was overlooked, and it brought centuries of scaffolding down with it. Isn’t it terrifying how one movement, one note, one variable or integer in a complex string of equations can destroy the harmony, upset the melody and disrupt the alignment?

It didn’t happen overnight, or in a year, or even a decade… but it did happen, in time. It was the boy. The man. Too human. Too much. Should I tell you? No. It doesn’t matter. It began with an idea, an emotion- no bigger than a mote of dust dancing in a sunbeam- but it grew by degrees until it corrupted everything it touched. A distraction. A memory. A regret perhaps. Like a cancer it rotted slowly from the core until…

This, this is what I brought you here to see- your end, your denouement- humanity’s swan song played out in living color through the abstract of time. One last gift of the Shard, a bend in the fabric of time offering this one final glimpse into yourselves. Look, see them, see them well…

….There is a snap, worn fibers stretched thin and it all unravels so quickly…one by one their eyes grow dim, then fade to ash. Their lips tremble then droop, their fingers seize then fall to their laps, their heads loll forward. One by one the circle closes, the strings are stilled and the harmonies fall from proud chords to broken pairs, a single Melody and then… silence in the halls of the dead.

Now hear the alarms. See the blue light flash it’s warning, it’s only a matter of time now. Gravity, radiation, magnetism, light, sound- the bonds between atoms… all begin to collapse. But wait…there’s more! The magic is failing as well!… It has grown too dependant on its own hybridization with tech and mind- it cannot sustain itself, and so as the satellites begin to fall and spin and even as the New Earth slides loose of it’s ellipsis into the maw of a hungry star… see the cracks in reality widen and contort the very fabric of yes and no. Time is unfolding and the universe of man is unbottling.

And now I leave you to watch the credits roll. Me? I can do nothing to stop this. This has happened will happen is happening. I can do nothing- and even if I could, why would I? After all I set this in motion. I changed the rules. I broke the protocol. Why? Don’t scream. Why? Because I was there in the before. Because I served the will of gods and awoke from judgement in horror. Because a millennia is too long. Because I’m mad. Because no ark should have withstood the flood. Take your pick. Stop screaming. Because I’m tired, because I’m bored of you and because I can…

And then there was white. Only white.

© 2020 Brian Shepard


Author's Note

Brian Shepard
The entire story was dictated into a speech to text app on my phone while I was doing other things. I'm concerned that it shows.

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• The entire story was dictated into a speech to text app on my phone while I was doing other things. I'm concerned that it shows.

That’s not the problem. What is, is that you’re presenting a transcription of you verbally telling the story. And that can’t work for reasons not obvious to the author.

Think about when you were transcribing it. Your voice was filled with the emotion a storyteller uses to add life to the story that’s being told. That makes sense, given that there are no actors, just the performance of the storyteller. But on the page we have a full cast of actors available to perform the story. Isn't that a lot more real to a reader than hearing ABOUT it from a narrator who is standing between them and the action, blocking their view?

When you read this to edit, all that emotion you used when performing it is there in the voice of the narrator. Why? Because it’s YOUR voice. And you know where you want to place that meaningful pause for breath. You know where to vary intensity and cadence. The reader? They hear the emotion, and delivery that the punctuation suggests. Have your computer read the story aloud to hear how different what they get is from your intent.

Add to that, the reader has no access to your intent, so the meaning they take from the words is what those words suggest to them based on THEIR life-history, which is certain to differ from yours, and from your intent. That’s why the techniques of writing fiction are designed to bypass the problem by making the reader use the protagonist’s view of what’s going on, based on that character's life-history, needs and imperatives, and, their interpretation of the events in the scene.

And as if all that weren’t enough, because you know the story, the characters, the situation, and the needs of the plot, you’re not going to forget to include things that are obvious to you but opaque to the reader. And that problem begins on line one:

• Killian was doing fine until the walrus.

What can that mean to someone who has no clue of where we are in time and space, who we are, and what’s going on? So while we have words, all we can do is remember them and hope the writer will clarify. But...given that the reader has no way of knowing if they will, will they read on? Or will they turn to a story that makes sense TO THEM from the first line?

The moral of the story is that in fiction context isn't just important. Without it, the reader has nothing.

• That was the comfortable lie he was living in.

So first you told the reader he’s “doing fine.” And given that you are the narrator, they accept and believe it. But then you say you lied? How is the reader to take that.

The fix? Simple. Change line one to read, “Killian thought he was doing fine…” Then it's accurate, meaningful, and, there’s no need for this line because the fact that he's mistaken becomes inherent to the first line.

Why does this matter? Because the fewer words you use the faster the story reads. And things happening faster means more impact on the reader.

You have the information necessary to make the words of the first few paragraphs meaningful before you begin reading. And because you do, each line acts as a pointer to images, ideas, backstory, and more, all hidden within your mind and waiting to be called up. For the reader, though, each line acts as a pointer to images, ideas, backstory, and more, all hidden within YOUR mind and waiting to be called up. But since you’re not there to explain as its read…

The short version: We can’t use the techniques of verbal storytelling in a medium that doesn't reproduce your performance.

Nor can we use the nonfiction writing skills we practiced so often in our schooldays because the goal of the reports and essays we were assigned is to inform, clearly and concisely. But reader aren’t looking for facts. Nonfiction writing is fact-based and author-centric. But for fiction we need the emotion-based and character-centric writing skill the pros take for granted. And that, unfortunately, means a fair amount of study and practice to master. The good news is that if you’re meant to write you’ll find the learning fun. And if not…

The library’s fiction-writing section is filled with books on the subject, and there are many articles on it on the Internet. My own articles on writing fiction, for example, and meant to give the hopeful writer a feel for the difference between the writing style we’re given in school and those of the profession.

And for a good book on the techniques of fiction—the basic nuts-and-bolts issues of creating scenes that will sing to the reader, try Dwight Swain’s, Techniques of the Selling Writer. You can download a copy at the link I give below. Use the leftmost of the three buttons (the one in Russian) to select the format your reader requires.
https://ru.b-ok2.org/book/2640776/e749ea

I’m certain this wasn’t what you were hoping to hear, and I wish there was an easier way to break such news. There may be but I’ve not found it. Still, while this isn’t what you wanted to hear, it is what you need to know, so…

Hang in there, and keep on writing.

Jay Greenstein
https://jaygreenstein.wordpress.com/category/the-craft-of-writing/the-grumpy-old-writing-coach/


Posted 1 Week Ago


Brian Shepard

1 Week Ago

Actually, that's exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Don't apologise for honest criticism. .. read more

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Added on May 19, 2020
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Brian Shepard
Brian Shepard

Southwest Harbor, ME



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I'm not sure how to fill this section without sounding like it's a personal ad. So I'm not going to worry about it. I'm Brian, 42, married father of six. My family and I live on Mt. Desert Island off .. more..

Writing