“Bert”

Short Story by Ava Reiss

I received positive feedback for the short stories I posted at the end of last year. As a show of appreciation, I’m sharing another :). This one was in my original short story anthology, Ava’s Shorts, and is sci-fi. I hope you enjoy!

            An unassuming black sedan with armored doors and bulletproof one-way glass arrived at its destination, an old and worn down barn. The barn stood larger than average and the boarded up windows suggested it was abandoned. Faded blue paint chipped, indicating decades of neglect. As the car rolled to a stop, a man stepped out and adjusted the lapels of his suit jacket. His dark skin glistened in the desert sun as his eyes scanned the distance. They were hundreds of miles from the nearest sign of civilization.

The heavy front door of the barn opened creaked open. Steel reinforced bars lined in the inside. “Agent Clagney, thank you for arriving on such short notice,” a stout man approached him with heavy steps. He stopped to straighten his lab coat before shaking hands with the man. “I am Dr. Jiminez.” 

            A strong hand extended from a standard gray suit, “Call me Michael,” the tall man responded in a commanding voice. His request for the doctor to call him “Michael” was not out of cordiality. He preferred to be unassuming. It often helped to drop his title as “Agent.”

            “Of course,” the man in lab coat nodded with a nervous twitch. He pushed his sliding glasses up his nose. “Come with me. The sooner we can figure out what’s going on, the easier everyone can be.” There was a slight tremble to his voice.

Michael began to smirk at the doctor’s uneasiness, but stopped. Instead he remained stoic as he followed inside. Contrary to what the outside of the building would suggest, a gray box of a lobby with minimalist décor greeted them. Electronic eyes covered every square inch, with the closed circuit feed linked to a hidden location. As the men approached the elevator at the far end, the door opened automatically like a convenience store entrance. One inside, the man in the lab coat pressed his thumb against a rectangle on the wall. As he removed his thumb, a green light blinked accepting his print.

“Doctor Jiminez and Agent Clagney to level thirty,” Dr. Jiminez spoke.

“Accepted. Please stand clear of the doors,” an automated voice announced.

The stainless steel doors closed and the elevator began to move. Michael felt the usual sensation in his stomach as the car lowered thirty levels. When the doors opened again, he was met with a dimly lit corridor. Lights in drop ceilings illuminated their path as they marched towards an unknown destination. They did not see anyone else along the way. Michael had been to this facility once before. Everyone was tucked away behind their own titanium door that lined the halls. Each was on separate project, all marked top-secret.

The last time Michael visited level thirty he was escorted to a titanium door far from the elevators. As he made his way through the narrow halls, he sensed they radiated from a central location. He even passed a gate and caught a glimpse of an especially heavy titanium door. It appeared to be the only door leading to a central room.

Michael’s job was to ask questions, but only to his mark. He saw no need to question the doctor. He didn’t need to know where he was going and the man in the lab coat was sworn in under securities so heavy he couldn’t breath differently without permission.

Dr. Jiminez made a turn and stopped at the gate. Michael lifted an intrigued eyebrow but remained silent. He watched as the doctor pulled out a keycard and swiped a panel. The gate unlocked for him and Doctor Jiminez waved for Michael to follow. The two entered and approached the heaviest of all titanium doors on level thirty. Behind them, the gate swung closed and locked with a click that sounded too similar to a gun cocking. Michael fought to calm the hairs that rose automatically on back of his neck. He worked with some of the most dangerous people in the world and rarely do things go as planned. More often than he liked to admit, Michael found himself at gunpoint, hearing the familiar click.

Doctor Jiminez pressed his thumb on a panel next to the door. It glided open to reveal a retina scan machine. He went first. Then Michael scanned his iris. He waited patiently as the computer confirmed his identity. A green light flashed in his eye. There was a buzz followed by the sound of the heavy door sliding open.

Michael stepped back from the panel and followed the doctor through the door. They entered a small passaged with a grid that confirmed bio-signatures. The door closed behind them and sealed shut with a hiss.

“What would happen if the bio-signature scanners were to malfunction?” Michael could not help but ask.

“They wouldn’t,” Doctor Jiminez answered with borderline pomposity. “But if they determine you are not who your iris scan show you are, the lasers in the grid will paralyze you.” 

Michael was seldom impressed, but at that moment he felt a hint of excitement. He and his escort exited the passage into a large room filled with three-dimensional screens. They stepped down from a landing that circled the dome shaped room and onto the floor. At a glance, about a dozen other men in lab coats were busy running tests and twice as many security personnel patrolled the walkways surrounding the room. 

“Here is his file,” Dr. Jiminez handed Michael a tablet. Agent Clagney scanned his thumb and the device unlocked. He began to review his target. 

Michael had worn many hats when it came to national security. In recent years his job was to pull information from uncooperative subjects. There was a formula to breaking people. Secrets were kept to protect someone or something. In his experience, the most common culprit was money or blood. Michael only needed to figure out what the subject wanted to protect, no matter how messy it got for them or him.

After reading quickly through the information, he raised an eyebrow. “Are you serious?” Michael lifted his head to the doctor.

Dr. Jiminez shrugged, “Three weeks ago if you told me it was him, I would have thought that you were crazy. After the ‘astronomical anomaly’ last week, I am open to anything.” The doctor let out a long shaky sigh. “It’s terrible, my sister’s kid almost lost an arm. Luckily they were able to get her to a hospital on time.”

Michael was uncomfortable with Dr. Jiminez’s newfound openness. He ignored the words and instead stared at the information on the tablet, trying to find a pattern. After another moment he shook his head. “This kid is a community college student who flips burgers for a living. He has no living relatives and spends most of him time alone with minimal social media action. In fact, since 2013 he hasn’t had any online activities. What person in their late twenties stays off the internet for two years? Are you sure you’ve got the right person?”

“Hey, that’s your job!” the doctor lifted his hands in the air. He turned to point at the far end of the room. A smaller titanium door waited with a guard positioned beside it. “You’re the interrogator,” he added, “Figure out how he’s involved.”

Michael sighed and steeled his gaze, “Let’s see what he has to say.”

#

            A one-way mirror separated Michael from a young man wearing a standard issue jumpsuit. They had shaved his head but allowed him to keep his goatee. A few colorful beads were braided in, creating a haphazard pattern. Michael glanced down at the photo on the tablet. A crooked and crazed smile was plastered on the kid’s face. His dreadlocks poked high on his head as if he never bothered with hygiene. 

Dr. Jiminez spoke to Michael, “I’ll be monitoring the interview from the other room. If you need anything, just signal.”

Michael took a breath and waved the doctor away, handing him the tablet. He approached the door and with a firm hand, twisted it open. He stepped into the room like he had stepped into thousands of other rooms. The familiar sound of a sliding bolt behind him assured him this was just a standard day of work. 

Michael kept his face impassive as he pulled out his chair as far as the chain would allow. He took his time sitting down. There was nothing else in the room except a table and the young man’s chair. Both were chained to the ground. The young man fidgeted, looking around wildly in a terrified manner. His eyes would study Michael’s face for one minute, then dart over his shoulder the next.

“Bert, is it?” Michael asked.

            “Yeah, man,” he coughed, “That’s my name.” A second later those fleeting eyes locked on Michael’s face. “Are you?” he paused. Then leaned forward and whispered, “From the exchange?”

            “What would make you think that I am from the exchange?” Michael asked neutrally. Though he was trained not to make assumptions, the phrase “conspiracy nut” wormed its way into Michael’s mind.

            The young man let out a sigh and leaned back, “Look dude, I just want to go home! Crazy stuff has been happening and I need to know if the folks I care about are okay.” 

Michael studied Bert’s haggard face. It was apparent that he had not been sleeping well. A lot weighed on his mind. Michael considered briefly who Bert’s “folks” were.  Their records were thorough and it showed Bert had no living relatives. 

            “Tell me what’s been bothering you, Bert?” Michael asked. “The friends you work with at the burger joint tell us that you’ve been antsy the past few weeks.”

            “Yeah something’s been bothering me!” Bert was impudent. “Were you not here three weeks ago?” he exclaimed in frustration. He gestured rudely into Michael’s face.

            Michael took a deep breath to keep his patience, “Tell me about what happened three weeks ago.” He remained impassive. 

            “Um, hello! The near total invasion? It’s kind of hard to miss! They wiped out over three million people!”

            “Do you remember why they attacked?” Michael asked. 

            Bert rolled his eyes, “Those friggin’ cretins have always had a problem with us! Don’t you guys call them something here? I dunno, was the word ‘terrorist’ or something?” He shuffled his weight onto on arm and stared off to the left, tapping his foot nervously. 

            Michael recognized that Bert did not taking him seriously. The kid felt entitled to some sort of protection and was just waiting for Michael to leave. That was not going to happen and Michael was done wasting time. He needed to accentuate to Bert the severity of his situation. This honky will fix his attitude, if not by his own free will, then by fear. The large man took his sweet time reaching across the table and grabbed the shrinking Bert by the collar. 

            “I don’t have patience for your crazy talk,” Michael growled, leaning into the boy’s face. “You will tell me what happened or you won’t be talking at all.”

“Okay, dude! Just chill!” Bert whelped and lifted his arms in defense.

“What is you name?” Michael demanded shouting into the boyish face.

“It’s Bert!”

“Where do you live?”

“On planet Earth!” Bert quaked, “Oh gawd, please don’t kill me!”

Michael saw in Bert’s eyes surrender to cooperation. The boy was quick to break. Michael held on for a moment longer to stress his point that he did not take nonsense. He then shoved Bert back into his seat and sank with calculated motion back into his own chair.

“Now, Bert,” Michael continued in a calm voice, “Tell me what happened last week.”

“I got angry and I attacked them,” Bert said meekly. A flimsy hand scratched at the back of his head. He didn’t say anything more. Michael folded his arms on the table and heard the kid gulp. He engaged Bert with his most poisonous look.

“You are in a lot of trouble here,” he began. “Those alien ships that appeared three weeks ago were hovering peacefully in our orbit, unknown to the civilian population of the world. Before we could sort out their presence, some idiot attacks their mother ship and a war begins.” Michael leaned over the cowering boy, “By some miracle, that idiot manages to destroy the mother ship and then fall back Earth, alive.”

            Bert was meek, “Sir, if you are asking if I am that idiot, I’m not denying it. I said that I was angry when it happened. Right now I just want to know if you can get me home. I’m sure my actions are inconsequential.” 

            Michael felt his anger flash, something that rarely happened, “I would hardly call the loss of millions of lives inconsequential.” He struggled to keep his cool.

“You’re not from the exchange then?” Bert asked with tears brimming in his voice.

            “What do you think?” Michael snipped. In the back of his mind, he wondered about the exchange. Did it have something to do with the events three weeks ago? “I’m here because you will tell me what technology you used to attack the aliens. You will also tell me how you obtained this technology.”

            Bert lifted a trembling finger, “One question at a time please,” he said. He shuddered when Michael glared back. After pausing to regain composure, he continued. “What do I think? I think I’m screwed. I figured that after all the crazy stuff the exchange would send for me and take me home. I haven’t heard from them in over a year and now I’m worried the aliens took them away to leave Earth vulnerable. You know, to cut off communication or whatnot.”

            Michael narrowed his eyes, “What are you talking about?”

            The boy scratched nervously. “I am also surprised that you don’t know about the exchange program.”

            Michael leaned back in his seat and studied Bert for a moment. He contemplated whether he was genuinely delusional. Regardless, facts don’t lie. This young man was found amongst the ocean debris. They had tracked his unknown craft falling from orbit. The men in lab coats were given custody of him and his technology.

The broken ship was reported to be of an unknown ceramic. The circuits, which would have been silicon-based on Earth, were made from undetectable materials and solid gold. None of the countries were known to work with that kind of technology.  

“To answer your other questions, I’ve learned the history of your planet and I knew where many crafts were hidden. They taught us all the antediluvian stuff at orientation,” Bert added.

Michael blinked slowly. He tried to process the words that left Bert’s mouth. Orientation? Did this runt think he was at school?

Bert continued, “I wasn’t really sure how to fly it, but I guess I managed and I got the weapons to work too. I got lucky, I guess.” His eyes wandered off to the side. “Normally if I need to go somewhere, I just contact the exchange. They send for people to take me away.”

“Don’t you mean ‘our’ planet?” Michael spoke after a lengthy silence. He was having a hard time finding an approach to his line of questioning. If the boy was delusional, he needed to be careful or the subject might lapse into a psychotic break. The alternative was that Bert was telling a version of the truth convoluted by misunderstandings. Michael would have to decipher Bert’s interpretation of information.

Bert shook his head, “Look man, I’m scared. I’m trying to see things from your point of view, because that’s why I’m here in the first place, you know–to learn about Earth’s humans. But I can’t help but think that you’ll think I’m crazy.”

Michael scoffed, “Tell me the truth.” He put on his most amiable expression. Bert’s cringe told him that it was not successful. Michael had never been a friendly man. Despite trying, he often failed. He had been around too many hardened criminals.

Quickly discarding the “good cop” attempt, Michael got straight to the point, “You’re facing a precedent crime, one that has yet to be named. Your preemptive attack on the alien fleet in Earth’s orbit elicited a counter measure on their part. The death of millions around the globe is blood on your hands. Your one redeeming act would be to tell me where you obtained your technology, how we can replicate it, and use it if and when the alien’s reinforcements return.”

Bert shook his head sadly, “The aliens you refer to are a race called the Shubans. I don’t expect you to understand. Earth is on the outskirts of our civilization and out of touch. This planet has been forgotten for countless millennia and is unique to the galaxy.” Bert fidgeted his hands but was appearing calmer. “In my studies I came across these islands that I could use as an analogy.” He paused and stared at the ceiling. “What was the name of them again? Some dude named Darwin found them. The species on them had all evolved separately.”

“The Galapagos?”

“Yes, that’s it!” Bert waved a finger. “Anyway, Earth is a rarity. A lot of stuff here, like the cultures that emerged independently are awesome! It’s sad though because this settlement is dying. The planet’s ecosystem can’t keep up with humans’ needs of productivity. Especially not with the rate the population has grown here.”

Michael thought back to his reports. The men lab coats had done a thorough physical exam on Bert. By all intents and purposes, the boy was human. So what was he saying?

“You think you’re a Shuban?” Michael asked.

Bert let out a raucous laugh. When he saw that Michael was not joking, the laughter died. He cleared his throat. “No, man. I’m definitely human. Though the Shubans and the humans evolved away from a common ancestor over what would be 60 trillion Earth years ago, we are both ancient races existing far before the formation of this tiny planet.”

“Then what are you saying.”

Bert let out a whistle and tilted his chair back, “Oh man. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone like you to hear this for the first time. I mean, I’m someone who grew up knowing about all humans, but you guys out here on Earth, you all have no idea!” Bert leaned forward on his elbows. His face took on a serious expression as if he were about to share a friendly piece of advice. 

“Dude, what if I told you that Earth is not the only planet with humans? There are thousands of settlements with our species spread out across the stars. Our home planet is a place about twenty five thousand light years away called Ollipsa.” His eyes grew misty. “It’s beautiful and about ten times the size of this little settlement, Earth. Ollipsa has eight moons, each rich with our life and culture.” Bert paused for a moment to reminisce. Michael sat silently, waiting for Bert to continue. As difficult as it was, he kept his reservations to himself.

“It’s natural and within our human nature to explore and learn from the universe. That is why we have colonized countless other planets. Most of them were prolonged successes, Earth being one of them. However as our population grew, so did the Shubans’. Territorial disputes have been growing increasingly violent.”

Bert frowned as his voice took on an unfamiliar accent. His saddened posture indicated that he was losing hope. Whatever he was hiding, he was beginning to not care anymore. “About an Earth month ago, my private transmissions to my family were going unanswered. They live nearby on Prisma, that’s a planetoid orbiting Alpha Centauri. Well, you guys call it that. We call Alpha Centauri Fish-Eye, because from Ollipsa it’s in the Fish constellation as the eye. 

Anyway, my transmissions were not receiving a response. I got really worried, man! Four years ago, when I came here to Earth I heard that the Shubans were drawing near. I was all chill about it, thinking that everything would work out.” Bert leaned towards Michael and spoke in a low voice fraught with fear, “You want to know what I think? The Shubans must’ve destroyed our settlements on Prisma! There have been reports that they were committing routine genocide missions to protest the humans colonizing fresh planets!”

Michael scoffed, “That’s an interesting story, but why are you the only one who believes we are from this Ollipsa and in the Shubans? I have access to hidden recesses of the internet. There is not a single mentions of Ollipsa or the Shubans.”

Bert grasped his head in frustration, “Dude!  I’ve been trying to tell you! I’m here on a student exchange program! Just me, no one else! It’s illegal for me to talk about life outside of Earth with native humans. I study Advanced Human Anthropology in Outlying Settlements. My thesis is on how to inform Earthlings that they are not alone in the galaxy without inciting panic. I’ve spent the last segment of my life learning how to walk and talk like an Earthling! Oh yeah, a segment is like twelve years here.

Anyway, the point is in a few segments, Ollipsa was planning to send officials here to tell you guys that you’ve gotta move! This planet is dying!” Bert shook his head, “In fact, the Shubans kind of did you guys a favor. With all the people who were killed, it’s bought you Earthlings at least another ten years. I’m telling you all this now at the risk of spending of the rest of my life in jail because there is no one left of Earth for me to go to for help!”

Bert was exhausted. He dropped his head onto the table and covered it with his hands. A long dejected groan escaped as he mumbled to himself incoherently.

Michael sat keenly across from the young man. His training taught him to consider all possibilities while remaining objective. The look in Bert’s eyes told Michael that the boy was telling the truth. Yet the words were so absurd that Michael didn’t know how to believe. Perhaps Bert suffered from PTSD or a hallucination. No, the better story here was that Bert worked for an enemy country as a test pilot on new technology. 

Michael grabbed his chin and frowned. That could not be right either. Most of the countries on their watch list took heavy hits from the aliens during the counter attack. If their enemies were going to use a weapon, wouldn’t they only target the alien ships that hovered over the Western Hemisphere? Another thing that bothered him was Bert’s bizarre accent. Michael could not place it and he had dealt with men and women from all over the planet. He even spoke seven languages himself.

“It’s going to haunt me forever,” Bert grumbled as he lifted his head. “I knew it was the Shubans, but I waited. I didn’t do anything. Meanwhile the mother ship was right here all along. Right here,” Bert cried, “while the other Shubans probably went to Prisma and slaughtered everyone! I should have taken them out sooner!” 

His eyes drooped as he shook his head, “I should have known bad things were going to happen when I lost contact with the exchange advocates. I think the Shubans sent down assassins to take them out. Since I was just a lowly student who wanted to blend in with the Earthlings, they probably thought they could eliminate me out when it became Earth’s turn for a sweep.” Bert dropped his head again, “This is a nightmare.”

A thought occurred to Michael, “Why were you able to destroy the Shuban mother ship?”

“Oh yeah, you don’t know your complete history,” Bert looked up. “Earth was originally intended to be a military research base. They gave up when the ecosystem proved that it could not sustain the necessary demands. That’s why it became a forgotten settlement. Some of the old, really brutal fighter crafts were left behind. The heavy firing equipment causes massive damage to the hull, making atmospheric reentry dangerous. That’s probably why the ship I used fell apart. Anyway, after that big flood mentioned in that bible book, they all became buried.” 

Bert stared Michael in the eye, “My brother is in the military. He used to tell me all about the crafts and weapons.” He dropped his head sadly, “I haven’t heard from him in years. His ship lost communication on its way back to Ollipsa. I think the Shubans got to him.” Tears streamed down Bert’s cheeks.

Michael cleared his throat, “Let’s say I believe you. Why now? Why did the Shubans select Earth at this time if our ecosystem is pending collapse?” 

Bert rolled his eyes, “You Earthlings really are geocentric, aren’t you?” He threw his hands into the air. “The Shubans don’t care about Earth in particular. They are a systematic species. They are sweeping from point A to point B. Earth just happened to fall in between.” He let out a sigh, “Many of us thought the issues would have been resolved by now, but I guess not,” he finished with a shrug.

“Are you saying all this so that you will not be charged with the death of millions?”

“What?”

“Based on your story, you are a savior for the rest of us Earth humans.”

Bert shook his head, “Whatever man. I was just angry when I attacked the Shubans and acted emotionally. Think, if you were studying some exotic tribe in a rainforest, away from modern civilization and you get word that your country’s enemy just slaughtered a bunch of your citizens, how would you feel? Then you see a bunch of the enemy camped nearby and you have a weapon. What would you do? I admit that I was impulsive, but at least I slowed them down. It was all for the human race.”

Those words resounded with Michael. His job gave him many sleepless nights and constant glances over his shoulder for tails. He didn’t do it for the pittance of a pay, he did it for the people of his country. Michael rubbed his jaw with a hand.

Yet, how much could Bert’s words be trusted? It was all so absurd that he didn’t know how to continue with the questioning. This was a first. Perhaps he could ask the men in lab coats to do a psych evaluation to see where they stand. After considering for some time, Michael decided to give it another crack to see if he could poke holes in Bert’s story.

“Let me get this straight. Earth was settled by humans after the flood in the bible.”

Before the flood in the bible.”

“Whatever. Earth was settled by humans from elsewhere.”

“Yes, Ollipsa.”

“Stop interrupting.”

“Sorry.” 

“So, Earth was settled. Meanwhile, the humans on our home planet are having territory disputes with another race that systematically destroys settlements. Earth was only targeted because it is a settlement. Why not target Ollipsa?”

“Because Ollipsa is unreachable. It has eight moons. Beyond the eight moons are other planets also settled, and beyond them are asteroids hollowed out to create biomes. In these asteroid biomes are the patrols that constantly scan for threats. The outer planets are all required to keep a strong battle fleet. If the Shubans ever make it to Ollipsa, the eight moons have these, what do you call them here? They’re like antennas. I don’t know exactly how it works, but they can activate a protective force field around Ollipsa.”

Michael listened intently. Against better judgment, he was starting to believe this crazy hippy. He just had one more question. “If you came here to blend in, then why are you taking like someone from decades ago?”

“That was my carelessness, man. I didn’t account for the time difference. I began preparing for this trip well over two segments ago when I was still in primary school. I always knew that I wanted to visit a settlement! Back then, I had only selected my embedding location and everyone talked like this. So I learned to talk that way too.”

Michael opened his mouth for more questions, but the sealed doors to the interrogation room opened, cutting him off. Doctor Jiminez escorted three men and one woman into the room. Michael recognized the first man as his chief. The woman and one of the men wore clothing with odd designs. Michael furrowed his brow. The material was smooth and seemed to lack thread count. It also didn’t appear to have seams. He was trained to read people based on their clothing and posture, but these two gave him nothing.

Then the third man stepped into view. He could not be mistaken. It was the Vice President. Michael stood quickly and saluted.

Bert leaped to his feet, “Lorton!” he exclaimed in a voice filled with emotion, “I thought you were dead!” He moved to rush towards the group but the chains on his legs kept him behind the table.

“Please unchain this young hero,” Michael’s chief ordered. Dr. Jiminez moved to comply.

Bert’s eyes were locked on the man in the strange clothes, “Prisma, is it?” he asked desperately.

“It’s safe,” his friend nodded and spoke in a soothing voice. “Our friends and family are fine.”

Bert slumped back into his chair as Doctor Jiminez worked with his stubby fingers to remove the boy’s cuffs. He turned to Michael and smiled as if they were chums. “This is my brother,” Bert announced quivering with relief and pride. “Judging by his clothes, he and his diplomat friend are here from Ollipsa. Things are about to change here on Earth.”

#

            A year passed since Michael’s interrogation of Bert. He stood in humble silence looking out the windows of his apartment. He had lived on the twenty-eighth floor for over a decade and always enjoyed the clear view of the skies. During the alien attacks the year before, his building was lucky to be spared. Throughout the city, debris remnants were still scattered, some as close as two blocks away.

            A knock came at his door. Michael called for the person to enter. The sound of the turning handle caused unease, but there was no more looking over his shoulder. The duty of protecting the people was no longer his.

            “We’re ready for you, Michael,” announced a kind, familiar voice in broken English.

            Michael let out a sigh. “I can stay. I can help.”

            Footsteps approached his side. “I’m sorry, friend, but you must come with me. Earth is no longer safe. The Shubans are returning and only military personnel from Ollipsa’s home system are allowed to stay.”

            “You’ve forcefully evicted the entire planet! How can you do such a thing?” Michael cried, barely containing his cool.

            Lorton spoke in a low voice, “This cannot be easy for you. We are sentimental creatures and partings are always painful. We have this energy that grows within us and it entwines things into our lives, let it be living or an object. It is called love. You love your home and that is understandable. I apologize on behalf of our home planet for not negotiating peace in time for you to stay. You have suffered the travesty of losing so many of your local brethren. Now I ask you to look at the facts. Earth was originally intended to be a military base. Even as we speak, they are uncovering the abandoned ships and repairing them for use. This planet will become a battleground.”

            “Why do we not have a say in this?”

            “Quite frankly, I am surprised that many of you Earth humans are holding on so tightly,” Lorton continued. “The ecological state of this planet is in shambles. You must understand that an environmental collapse is imminent, brought about in part by the humans’ stressful contribution. Prisma, where we are taking you, has an ecology more suitable for our species’ demands.”

            “Where is our voice? Earth’s humans–we did not choose this.” Michael turned to Lorton.

            “Friend,” Lorton’s eyes were compassionate, “there is very little we get to decide for ourselves in life. The best we can do is to understand the facts presented to us. The facts I have presented to you are irrefutable. Earth is no longer safe. Your home is not just here. It is in many places amongst the stars that welcome you with open arms. Now come,” his tone took on firmness, “it is time to go.”

            Michael let out a shaky breath. For as long as he could remember, he followed the facts using them as anchors of logic as he deduced his subjects. Now Lorton was using the same tactic to rationalize with him. Though he did not feel ready, he knew Lorton was right.

He bent down and reached for his bags. Lorton took one from his hand to be helpful. The two were soon on their way to a spacecraft in a city nearby. As it prepped to launch, Michael glanced at the sky. His eyes could only see a few wispy clouds, but he knew there were Ollipsan fleets made up of millions of fighter crafts defending his planet, Earth. Beyond them was Prisma. There, Bert eagerly waited to show him around.

The End!

If you’ve enjoyed this tale, and would like to read others, please check out my anthology on Amazon: Ava’s Shorts.

“Fractured Shadows”

Short Story by: Ava Reiss

“Kelsey, don’t forget to check your firewall after brushing your teeth,” a voice called from downstairs.

            “Okay, mom,” the fifteen year old rolled out of bed. Fragments from her preloaded dream program flitted across her eyes. The first day of summer vacation greeted her as she eyed the backpack by her closet. Warmth expanded through her. It’d been packed and repacked weeks ago in preparation. For her sixteenth birthday she was taking her first unchaperoned trip with two friends.

            Skipping into the bathroom, Kelsey stuck a toothbrush into her mouth and found a gadget about one cubic inch amidst hair clips and nail polishes. She turned it around finding the magnetic side. Placing it at the base of her neck, she felt it latch. After a few soft clicks, a familiar relaxation graced Kelsey’s mind. Her neural link synced.

The gadget hummed for a few seconds before a pleasant ping indicated completion. “Firewall up to date.”

            Shaking her hair loose, Kelsey replaced the scanner on its dock. It’d been a quiet morning. She had wanted a good night’s rest so the previous evening, she did something rare. Kelsey had logged out of her MeedFeed account, the current rage in social media.

She couldn’t wait to see what her friends were up to and spit out her toothpaste. “Open MeedFeed,” she spoke. A tingle sparked at the base of her neck where a nano-chip rested beneath her skin. Its signals communicated directly with her frontal lobe.

            “Connecting,” a voice caressed her mind. A second later, “Identity confirmed. Welcome back, Kelsey Gaines.” A virtual screen arched in her mind’s eye, as if surrounding her on three sides. Immediately messages populated on the right as short videos appeared on the left. With regular vision unaffected, Kelsey scrubbed her face while focusing on the video feed.

            Scroll down, she thought and the video page obeyed. A clip of her boyfriend’s dog made her giggle as she reached for her makeup bag. Comment she thought, and a small window popped up below the video. “Aw, I heart puppy,” she spoke. The words appeared in her window. “Post.”

            On the right, a small box wiggled, marked as urgent. It was a private message from Mara, sent about an hour ago. Assuming it concerned the trip the two would soon embark upon, Kelsey squealed as she opened it.

A frown creased her lips. “What’s this?” Instead of playful images or words of excitement, an article was shared.

            “What’s that hon?” her mom peeked into the bathroom.

            “Here, look at this,” Kelsey squinted, thinking hard to forward the article to her mom.

            A second later, her mother’s eyes glazed as her mind scanned the words, “Oh, that’s terrible!” she exclaimed. “Maybe we should postpone your trip to the Freya Islands?”

            “No mom, please!” Kelsey whined. “It was just one incident, and the guy’s okay!”

            “He’s in the hospital!”

“But they say he’ll make a full recovery, mom!”

“If there’re pirates out there hacking into neural links, I don’t want you far!”

            “But I’ve got my new firewall, and I checked it just like you said!” Kelsey begged. “It’s the latest of year 2032!”

            “The article says they got past that update,” her mother raised her voice.

            “Oh mom, they’re just sensationalizing to get more readers. Besides, what’re the chances there’ll be a hacker at the Freya Islands? Everyone has a neural link these days and posting all the time! I promise I’ll be the first out of there if I anything sketchy in the area pops up!”

            “I don’t know, Kelsey. We like to think bad things only happen to others. All it takes is once to be wrong, for regret to happen.”

            “Please, mom! I’ve been waiting forever for this!” Kelsey instantly dug into her past feed and found images of her mother’s first trip to Freya Islands. Kelsey was just a toddler. “Remember how you kept going on and on about how beautiful it is, and how family friendly it is!” Her mother sighed. Kelsey dug in her heels. “You’re being overprotective.”

            Her mother looked tired as her eyes glazed once more. Kelsey could tell she was researching online. A moment later, she conceded. “All right, but call me every day!”

            “Yes! I will, mom! Thank you!” She gave her mother a quick squeeze before returning to preparations. Kelsey caught her giving a lingering look of concern before walking away.

She peeked at the wireless speaker mounted above her mirror. “Play ‘summer playlist’ at volume twenty.” Beats spewed forth as she bounced on her toes, anticipating the trip of a lifetime.

            In her mind-vision, another box wriggled on the right. This message was from Beth, Kelsey’s other travel companion. Beth had copied Mara too. Without much thought, Kelsey opened the message.

“My dad won’t let me go to Freya. It’s that stupid report on the attacks.”

Kelsey’s eyeshadow brush froze mid stroke. A tinge of uncertainty crept upon her, soon overshadowed by disappointment.

            Mara responded immediately, “That’s so unfair! I hadda bargain with my parents to let me go after they read that article!”

            “OMG me too!” Kelsey chimed in. “Is there anything u can do to make them change their minds?”

            Beth sent an emoji rolling her eyes. “They won’t budge.”

            Mara sent a curse. Kelsey creased her brow, “We can’t let my mom know you’re cancelling. She’ll make me stay home too!”

            Mara chipped in, “Kels, I can pick u up early and say we’re meeting Beth for lunch. We should head to the airport early.”

            “Yeah, but if my mom doesn’t see us posting pics over lunch, she’ll probably call your parents.” Kelsey sighed out loud and set down her brush.

            “Damn our narcissism,” Mara added a wicked grin emoji.

            “Hello! Beth’s still here! Still pissed! Make me feel better!”

            “You should sneak out and come with us,” Mara posted. “I mean, u have the tickets and everything. It’d be wasted if u don’t go.”

            “Tru,” Kelsey weighed in. “But aren’t you on lockdown?”

            “Not really,” Beth answered. “I think they want to keep an eye on me, but they planned something this evening, so they’re running around getting ready.”

            “Well then why are we talking about this?” Mara asked. “I’ll pick u up now. Once we’re through airport security, there’s no turning back.”

            “Disaster averted!” Kelsey posted.

            “Oh man, lol, my parents are going to kill me!” Beth messaged. “But it’ll be so worth it!”

            Kelsey scrambled to finish her make-up. Meanwhile she scrolled through well wishes for the summer. Stuck somewhere between the dozen messages was a conversation request from an unknown sender. She thought to delete it, but at the moment her hand accidentally knocked into nail polish remover. Kelsey cried in surprise as it spilled, kicking herself for not listening to her mother. She’d always yelled at Kelsey for leaving things open, bottles and messages alike.

Kelsey froze, noticing she’d accidentally opened the strange message. There was no subject, no body. With a shrug, she deleted it.

            Another urgent message came from Mara, “Outside now.”

            “Hey mom, I’m going out for a jog!” Kelsey sent a message to her mom.

            Old fashioned, her mother called out from another room, “Okay, don’t forget to kiss me goodbye later!”

            Guilt gripped Kelsey. She blew a kiss in the direction of her mother and felt a bit better.

Dashing into her room, she grabbed her backpack and swiftly exited the house. Outside, Mara’s auto-buggy waited behind a bush. Kelsey dove into the self-driving vehicle and it was on its way to Beth’s. They parked a block away and messaged Beth. It didn’t take their friend long to appear.

            “That was close,” Beth griped as they pulled away. “As I was about to climb out the bathroom window, my sister came in.”

            “How rude,” Mara scoffed.

            “Yeah, she just wanted to borrow my brush,” Beth shook her head.

            “Idiot, why didn’t you lock the door?” Kelsey asked.

            “What if someone needed to use it while I’m in Freya? They’d hafta break it down!”

            “Who cares, we’re going to party on the beach!” Mara started dancing and soon the car’s sound system synced to her neural link. Music flooded the cabin. Kelsey joined, waving her elbows about. Anticipating their adventure, she envisioned herself running through waves and feeling the sun on her skin.

Search images of beaches popped up in the background. She closed them out and cleared her cache, chalking it up to her excitement feeding loud thoughts. Sometimes when emotions were high, she accidentally triggered a search.

            Beth slowed her dancing. “Hey, are you guys having trouble with your dream emulator app?”

            “No, why?” Kelsey asked.

            “I got rid of mine a few nights ago because images from it were creeping into my daytime searches.”

            “Ew, no emulator? what’s that like?” Mara made a face.

            Beth grew peaceful, “It was actually kind of nice. I had real dreams. They were weird, made no sense, but left me refreshed when I woke up.”

            “You sure you weren’t just emotional? Maybe on your period?” Kelsey snorted.   

            “Shut up,” Beth laughed. “No, it was weird, it’s like my neural link thought I was asleep and would start playing the dreams. One time, I almost passed out. It was almost like the dream emulator was trying to put my brain to sleep.” She looked genuinely worried. “Good thing I was sitting down. That’s when I decided to uninstall it.”

            “Um, are you sure you’re okay then?” Mara asked. “Maybe you should’ve gone to see a tech doctor.”

            Beth waved dismissively. “When I get back.”

            Kelsey grew thoughtful. She’d been setting the dream emulator to tropical paradise mode, obviously because of their trip. The images she closed down a few minutes ago could’ve been from the app. She didn’t look too carefully.

Should I be concerned?

A message came from Mara, interrupting her thoughts. She shared a video on last year’s Freya music festival. Kelsey smiled and played it on expanded screen.

She hardly realized arriving at the busy airport. Absentmindedly Kelsey heard Mara send the auto-buggy home. They checked in for their flight with videos of Freya still streaming through their minds. Wandering the terminal at a slow pace they occasionally checked the airport map loaded to the side of their videos. It indicated the best places to eat and the location of their gate. All around, others walked and talked to themselves, connected through neural links.

            Absorbed by a video of the beach, Kelsey imagined warm sand running through her fingers as wind kissed her cheeks. A message appeared from Beth. Kelsey opened it to see rows of exclamation points. She composed a response of excitement for Freya. It was then she realized her physical sight was darkening fast. She’d been on autopilot, allowing her subconscious to avoid obstacles.

“Beth? Mara?” Everything went black. “Is this a power outage?”

There were no cries of panic. Confusion filled Kelsey. She turned attention to MeedFeed, “Compose message.” The app was frozen. It was as if the power outage- if that’s what it was- had affected her neural link too.

“Hello?” Kelsey reached for her friends. Her arms moved slowly, as if covered in sludge. “This isn’t funny.” She thought to frown but couldn’t feel the muscles around her mouth. She put a hand to her lips, but found nothing. “Wha-?” she exclaimed. “Somebody, please answer!”

Dead silence.

Why haven’t I run into anything? Kelsey felt she should’ve covered distance in her stumbling. In moments like these, a gross feeling usually settled in her gut. Where is that feeling? She couldn’t sense her legs either. They must be numb. How long have they been that way?

The frozen images on her MeedFeed flicked and pixels scattered. Kelsey wanted to hold her breath, but realized that she actually hadn’t been exhaling for a while. It made her want to panic, but her nerves were unexpectedly steady.

The pixels flicked again and disappeared. In that instant, thousands of images populated and pulled her towards them. Kelsey tried to scream, but no sound came. The new pixels sliced through her mind, leaving Kelsey disoriented.

I’m dreaming. This feels like a dream. All these images here, words, everything just darting in and out. It must be a new dream sequence on the emulator app. Beth said hers was acting up. Mine must be too. Logical. Very logical

… But mother says I’m not the logical type.

Kelsey aimed to pull herself together amid the flashing pages fogging her mind. She tried to hone in on an image or article before it disappeared. But her thought commands were ignored.

Ctrl+Alt+Delete.

Nothing.

Kelsey rethought the action, harder this time.

The pixels changed direction and she lost what little control she’d grasped. Spinning helplessly, Kelsey found herself surfing headlines. Looming over the ever changing images was the word, “Trends.”

Stop scrolling. Kelsey begged. Have I been hacked? Despite her mind in a frenzy, her body felt unnaturally calm. What’s the matter with me?

Sometimes the scrolling would slow and select pages moved to a pile. She soon discovered they were being grouped by numbers. Is- Is that the date? Using enormous effort, Kelsey studied the numbers carefully. That can’t be the date! If it is, then it’s September and summer’s over!

Kelsey struggled to turn and run, but her legs felt mired. Her physical eyesight hadn’t returned and when she reached hands to galvanize her body, they found nothing. Even the sensation of her arms had diminished. The idea of dread visited, even though Kelsey felt no fear.

“Investigation of Teenagers Returned Results,” a glaring headline flashed.

Curious, Kelsey turned her attention to the trend. The title went by instantaneously, but a similar page soon appeared. Kelsey pushed her mind forward, and the page drew her in. She didn’t resist as pixels wrapped around her. Kelsey bounced around sentences, reading the article out of order. It took her a while to piece it together.

She released a gasp.

“Teenage girls cleared of hijacking charges posthumously. It was found their neural links were compromised, therefore they were not responsible for bringing the bomb onboard flight MQ4516 to Freya Islands.”

What the hell?

            “… the Mara Smith case, where fragments of code believed to be the girl’s consciousness were downloaded into the Smith’s computer. Doctors and technicians alike have been trying for months to solve the mystery; the age old question of sentience asked repeatedly. The family shared nearly a thousand hours of interaction with the program. After thorough discussion, they determined the code was not their daughter. Specialists believe it to be a copy of her thought patterns, somehow casted into the world wide web at her moment of cyber abduction.

Mr. Smith comments, ‘It’s not our daughter. It’s not self-aware, only responding to our prompts in a manner similar to our daughter. Like the techs said, the program formulated an algorithm of her personality through information found in her online accounts. Please, in honor of Mara’s memory, delete any remnants of the code.’ The specialists have since obliged.”

Kelsey stopped reading. Omg, did the same thing happen to me? Am I dead? Am I just a copy of my consciousness somehow injected on the net?

But I’m self-aware! What if Mara was too? Where’s Beth? I don’t want to be alone.

Kelsey tried to leave the article, but pixels poured over her as more articles were cached. Caught in the avalanche, the words “It’s not our daughter, It’s not self-aware” flashed repeatedly. Each instance elicited an emotional reaction. Something she hadn’t been able to experience since the blackout. As she tried to sob, anxieties boomeranged back, breaking Kelsey apart. She felt her mind coming undone.   

A piece of Kelsey remained trapped in the article. Another latched onto an image of the charred plane her hijacked body had destroyed. A third escaped into numbers and soon found itself drifting amongst algorithms for ads. Many smaller pieces were carried away to far reaches of the internet. All remained linked and the buzz of endless information made it nearly impossible for Kelsey to reorganize her mind.

The largest chunk of intact consciousness surfaced from time to time, forming coherent thoughts. Help! I’m all over the place!

Data streams rushed her consciousness from one place to the next. Kelsey felt herself slipping away, being constantly bombarded by information. The largest piece of her consciousness recalled a prayer from her youth. She recited it, hoping to be saved somehow. But I can’t be saved, can I? This is Hell. Cyber-Hell.

An unfamiliar barrage of 1s and 0s swept through her mind. Kelsey noted their strange appearance.

A year went by. Kelsey only knew this by catching a glimpse of a “Today’s Horoscope” article. To her, it felt as if no time had passed at all.

Unexpectedly, the 1s and 0s appeared again. It latched onto the largest fragment of Kelsey and pulled her away. She tried to fight, but soon lost the will. The chain of 1s and 0s seemed to hold a purpose, expertly zipping around letters and numbers. Where are we going?

To her alarm, the 1s and 0s responded, “To answers.” Stunned, Kelsey fell mute. She desperately wished to ask more. But her scattered mind struggled to keep thoughts together.

Soon, a blue light appeared and the 1s and 0s rushed towards it. Apprehension crept over Kelsey, but she couldn’t break free. The 1s and 0s didn’t slow, charging into the light. Bright rays pierced Kelsey.

When the light receded, Kelsey gasped to see she had a body once more. Her mind was clearer than it had been since the black out. She stood on a Freya beach and palm trees swayed. Why can’t I feel the wind?

            “Because this is a simulation,” a voice answered.

            “Where am I?” Kelsey asked in a shaky voice. Her hand went to her throat. “I can speak again!”

            “You’re inside an NSA computer. We’ve screened out your other mind fragments to diminish noise. Don’t try to elicit emotion, or your code will break apart further.”

            “Am I- Am I like Mara? Am I just a copy of my mind?”

            “Yes.”

            “Are you the government?”

            “Yes and No. I am an artificial intelligence test program written by the NSA. They named me Beth because fragments of Beth Leary’s code are embedded in me.”

            “You ate her mind?” The information came as a jolt, but emotions didn’t register.

            “Beth’s code was fractured beyond repair. One could say we saved what was left of her. In your group of three, she was the first to be hijacked through her neural link. She realized this and tried to warn you and Mara. In doing so, her mind took the brunt of the attack. This meant you and Mara were left mostly intact.”

            “Then Mara…”

            “She was already gone. The deletion was only of a shadow of her mind.”

            “What happened to me?”

            “You opened an empty message which allowed hackers into your neural link. A classic phishing expedition. The perpetrators knew you were going to be on the flight to the Freya Islands. They used you to commit a crime.”        

            Speechless, Kelsey dropped her eyes. She squeezed toes in the sand and watched them move. The sensation of graininess was absent. I’ll never feel the sun in Freya. I’ll never kiss my mom again. None of this is real. She squeezed her eyes shut. To her relief, there was nothing but darkness. It felt inviting, to be absent of a MeedFeed screen. I wish I could get lost in this blackness forever. I wish I could die.

“You are dead. Your charred remains were laid to rest two weeks after the attack.”

            Kelsey’s eyes snapped open. “But I still feel! I still want! I can’t be dead!”

“What you experience as emotion is merely an algorithm of interaction your brain had with your body. You must be careful not to over-stimulate these emotional codes. Since they does not have a body to affect, it will rebound and shatter you. This is what happened to Mara.”

Kelsey wanted to weep at the information, but realized she didn’t really feel any way about it. Weeping was merely a reaction she would’ve once deemed appropriate. “Why am I here? Do you want to eat me too?”

“We did not eat Beth. We merged remnants of her data with the artificial intelligence program. We do not wish to merge you. You are more or less whole. We wish to study you to assist in coding sentience.”

Kelsey processed the information. “So, I’ll be like your pet?”

“Our subject. We would be able to create any virtual environment for you to ‘live’ in. Your perceived comfort is important to us.”

“So, I could stay on these simulated Freya Islands forever?” She wasn’t even sure she wanted to.

“Yes.”

Kelsey bit her lip. “Do you need my permission?”

“The process would be easier if you are a willing participant. If your consciousness were to reject the process, the data could be corrupted.”

“It sounds like you’re saying you could force me to do this.” Sher curled her toes in dissatisfaction. Still wishing she could feel the sand.

“Yes.”

Kelsey sighed, “What about the fractured pieces of my mind still scattered on the web?”

“We will eventually track those down and stitch them back into you. There is a chance we will never find all pieces.”

As she considered the words, Kelsey stared straight at the sun. It didn’t burn her retinas and felt disappointing. “I don’t know if I want to do this.”

“What else do you have to exist for?”

Her eyes dropped to lulling waves. Knowing they weren’t real, Kelsey didn’t have the desire to run towards them. She folded her arms and rubbed her shoulders. “My mom. Can I see her?”

A screen appeared before Kelsey, blocking the view of the ocean. It was a security camera at a grocery store. It showed her mother stopping before the fruits. Kelsey’s hand went to her mouth. The bags under her mother’s eyes were heavy and gray hairs peaked around her temples. “I want to talk to her.”

“That is not possible. Nor is it wise.”

“You’re lying!” Kelsey pushed, but knew the program was right. Her mother would only suffer to know Kelsey was trapped like Mara. Furthermore, Mara’s family would never forgive themselves if even an iota of second-guessing their decision existed.

It’s only you and me against the world, kiddo, Kelsey heard her mother’s voice rise from a memory. Now she had no one.

“Kels,” the voice changed to Beth’s. “If you help us, think how many people you could protect in the future. Once we program sentience and its learning patterns, we can improve our defenses. No one else needs be hacked.”

Hearing her friend’s voice, Kelsey felt emotion rise. She stopped herself, remembering the warning. Kelsey brushed hair behind her ear, making her decision. “Do one thing for me and I’ll agree.”

“What is your request?”

“Send my mother a kiss emoji, but back date it to the day of the hijacking.”

“Done.”

Kelsey watched her mother glance up from the fruits. The familiar distant look entered her eyes as she checked her messages. Tears soon beaded in the woman’s eyes as she dropped to her knees.

Goodbye mother. I love you. Kelsey felt emotions surging and turned away. “Please, no more.” The screen disappeared.

“Welcome to the future, Kels.”

The End

To read more from this anthology, Ava’s Short Short’s can be purchased on Amazon: here

“What We Keep”

Short Story by Ava Reiss

Mansako replaced a joint in his hip. It had been loose for a while, but they had lost track of the repair kit. He debated heavily on whether it was even worth the time. True, the worn joint made walking troublesome, but they wouldn’t be on Earth much longer. He and half-dozen individuals were the Record Keepers. The last human consciousness on Earth.

            When the kit turned up during moving, he thought, “Sure, why not?”

            They routinely moved deeper into the tunnels. The large structures once held other names, but Mansako couldn’t recall. It was lost information. So they referred to the tunnels by letters.

            When the sun had started to expand, plans were initiated to move to Mars. The effort needed to be coordinated, but the nations of Earth struggled to find agreement. They argued over what country should inhabit which section of Mars. Blood was shed. In the meantime, much of civilization moved underground to escape radiation.

            When a deal was finally struck and terraforming began on the red planet, the Earth was barely sustainable. Most surviving humans left in a hurry.

Yet, there was consensus none wanted their history to perish with the Earth.

            Thus, the Record Keepers volunteered to have their consciousness transferred into android forms. They would remain behind, without need for food and water. Daily, they worked to record and transmit Earth’s history to databases on Mars.

Centuries passed and their work was nearly complete, and in good time too. Even their artificial bodies could no longer survive the surface of Earth. They had anticipated this, and moved many artifacts underground. At their leisure, they could continue their work. Once their task was finished, each would transmit themselves to another robotic form on Mars.

Mansako lifted his box of personal belongings and marched into tunnel D. He stared at the mishmash: A baseball from his childhood. A fossil. A lock of hair. The rest were handwritten letters. The arcane practice became a fad around the time the exodus to Mars had occurred. He had a lover and she hadn’t wanted him to stay. But Mansako felt it validated him to become a Record Keeper.

He scratched his head. Not that he had any hair. It was a tic from his behavioral code. Mansako couldn’t precisely recall the feeling of validation

“Fernia cried a lot,” Mansako recalled her saying so in the letters. He knew it should bother him but… it didn’t. He also wasn’t sure why he kept the letters. Mansako knew logically they were personal. But realistically, he felt no attachment. They were merely another stack of things he would scan to Mars.

Yet, parting with them seemed wrong. Perhaps it was another behavioral tic.

“Fernia died four hundred years ago…”

In the last letter to him, she said he had changed. That he wasn’t human anymore. Mansako didn’t understand what she meant. She broke up with him shortly after. He looked her up years later. He saw she had married and birthed three children. It was something she once described as her dream of a happy life. He felt satisfied for her.

Mansako’s happiness was in preserving human history.

He thought about smiling and the code for simulating joy was triggered. His android form would’ve reflected the thought, except his face coils were damaged. Half of his features sagged, unresponsive.

Mansako saw the other Record Keepers gathered around large metal tubes. Tunnel D had mostly been unexplored, and there were things left behind by previous inhabitants. His coworkers were peering into one tube with a glass window. Mansako set his box down and joined his coworkers. There were eight tubes in all, attached to a computing unit. Five were empty. Two held corpses.

The last one contained a perfectly preserved woman.

Tatiana was attempting to find an interface port with the mainframe. “I can attempt syncing one of my OS’ to see what information I can glean.” 

Loosil found one first. “I can do it,” he offered.

“Please,” Tatiana responded.

Loosil connected, and a moment later, he announced, “The meta data is damaged. I don’t know who she is. But she was a cryogenic experiment to a company that folded before the exodus. In the hurry, they abandoned her.”

“What do we do?” Tatiana asked.

“Simple,” Mansako responded. “She is a part of history. So we will transmit her consciousness as we do with all history. We will message Mars ahead of time and inform them to prepare an artificial body.”

“Appropriate suggestion,” Loosil commended.

“We must first wake her so we can copy her brain activity,” Tatiana said.

Loosil’s eyes flashed green as he interfaced again. “I have retrieved awakening procedures. Commencing now.”

Mansako and the others gathered curiously. None had seen a biological being in centuries.

There was a hiss and the metal tube vented gas. The top half lifted. Mansako’s sensors detected nitrogen and oxygen levels from before the exodus. He leaned his face close to get a better reading. Marveling at the state of the atmosphere from the past, he didn’t pay attention to the waking woman.

There was a moan. As the biological being tried to sit up, she bumped into Mansako. “Ow! What is this? A weird floor lamp?” She grabbed Mansako’s arm.

“Excuse me,” he shifted his eyes to her. Mansako felt the left one stick at an awkward angle. Those darn face coils.

Her lips opened and a shrill sound echoed off the walls of tunnel D.

The androids raced forward, concerned their biological being was injured. They had a wealth of medical knowledge in their databases, and were eager to assist.

The woman jumped behind the tube in a spry action. Mansako didn’t recall humans typically moving that fast. Perhaps something had frightened her and her sympathetic nervous system kicked in.

“Please, we’re here to help,” Tatiana spoke.

A slew of curse words exploded from the biological woman’s mouth. Followed by, “ROBOTS HAVE TAKEN OVER THE WORLD!” She found a deteriorated leg on the ground. Loosil had tossed it yesterday. She swung it wildly, catching Schemus in the head. His skull came loose and rolled beneath a table.

Mansako sighed. It wasn’t going to be easy to reattach. It might be a good thing for Schemus though. One of his vertebrae had been locking and he couldn’t look to the right. They could correct it during reattachment.

The woman continued swinging. The Record Keepers stayed back, trying to prevent future repairs.

“Please listen,” Loosil attempted to soothe. “We’re here to help send you to Mars.”

She stopped swinging. The leg held tenuously between her and the Record Keepers. “Did everyone finally go?” she demanded.

“Yes, and we’re going to send you there too. If you’d cooperate.”

She gulped, “Okay. Where’s the ship?”

“What ship?” Loosil asked.

“The ship to Mars!” Her grip tightened and her face grew red. Mansako tilted his head, fascinated by her change in mood.

“There is no ship. We are sending you there the same way we will be leaving Earth. By transmitting your consciousness.”

Her brow lowered, “There’s no ship?”

“No. They all left five hundred years ago.”

The broken android leg started swinging again. The woman dashed out of the tunnel. “Get me outta here!” she screamed.

“You cannot go above ground!” Mansako called after her. “You will die and we will melt before our assignment is complete!”

“She’s headed towards the gate to tunnel C,” Loosil declared, tracking her position through the walls with heat-seeking vision. Tunnel C sat above tunnel D, and was from there they had moved.

“That’s alright. Biological forms will tire eventually,” Tatiana spoke optimistically.

“You sealed the exits to tunnel B, correct?” Schemus’ voice came from underneath the table. Tunnel B had become uninhabitable for even androids. Their heat-seeking vision showed nothing there but a sea of red.

The Record Keepers exchanged looks. “I did not,” each took turns saying.

“Why would we need to? We all know better than to reenter tunnel B,” Loosil responded.

Tatiana gulped, “But she doesn’t.”

The Record Keepers galvanized in unison, all dashing and calling for the biological form to stop.

As Mansako ran, his hip started to lock. He hadn’t greased it yet. The uneven pacing made him trip and he hobbled behind the rest. He passed by artifacts of tunnel C and felt his code for pride activate. Their information had all been transmitted to Mars. Their work was so close to completion. Tunnel D was the last.

As he neared the gate to tunnel B, his sensors went on the fritz. His gauges detected high temperatures, and he saw artifacts instantaneously incinerate. “Tunnel B has been breached!”

Mansako froze in his tracks. A difficult decision stood before him. He could head back to tunnel D and attempt to seal himself in. Hopefully in time to save the artifacts. Then, it would just be him and Schemus finishing the assignment.

Mansako gazed towards the red spewing from a circular door. Or he could seal the gate to tunnel B and save what Record Keepers he could. His body might hold up to the challenge.

Fernia surfaced in his thoughts. She had said that he left her behind. That he should feel guilty. Mansako wasn’t sure what type of synthetic body was waiting for him on Mars. But if it had a guilt processor, he didn’t want to trigger it.

He staggered towards tunnel B.

Before he turned the last corner, the temperature dropped.

When Mansako approached the gate, he saw android forms melted against the frame. They had managed to shut it. The biological woman was nowhere to be seen. Not surprising. No trace of her could’ve withstood the temperature of tunnel B. It was unexpected that she even survived tunnel C. It ran around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps chemicals from her cryogenic state still ran in her body, dulling pain receptors.

Mansako inspected his friends’ CPUs. To his chagrin, most were fried beyond salvaging. Only Loosil and Tatiana’s appeared hopeful. Mansako carefully cradled them in his palm. With a sigh, he limped back to tunnel D.

On the way, he deliberately sealed tunnel C.

“What happened?” Schemus cried. “There was a ruckus, then lots of flammables disappeared in here! And you!” Schemus tried to roll out from under the table. He rocked feebly. “You appear half-melted!”

Startled by Schemus’ words, Mansako ran to his box. The baseball was a charred orb. The fossil cracked. All of Fernia’s letters and her lock of hair were gone.

Mansako sighed. A code was tripped, one he hadn’t thought of in a long time. He became debilitated.

He slowly realized it wasn’t that the words of her letters and genome sequence were gone. No. He had those scanned into his personal database. What was missing was the connection to her. Fernia had touched those papers. The hair was compiled by her cells and blew against her cheek. When Mansako stroked it, it activated a memory code in a different way than if he merely thought of brushing her hair.

Mansako stared dumbfounded at the artifacts surrounding him. “Schemus?”

“Yeah?”

“Has it ever occurred to you we’ve only been sending shadows to Mars? That the real history of people lies in the very objects themselves?”
            “I don’t know Mansako. Why are you speaking like this?”

Mansako walked to his friend and retrieved his head. He set him carefully on a lopsided table. “We’ve been ‘alive’ for five centuries. Yet, why are the things we keep in our memory boxes all from before that time?”

“Thank you.” Schemus said as Mansako placed a stone carving to keep his head from sliding off. He blinked thoughtfully, “Are you saying to be alive is form new memories?”

“No. Because I can remember in crystal clarity every item we’d documented. They’re new memories, on old things. Totems that have built empires, and stood for hope… icons of monumental significance to masses.” Mansako scratched his head. “But I haven’t been able to trigger my emotional code unless it’s in relation to something in my personal past.”

There was a moment of silence. Schemus then asked, “Are you saying we died for nothing?” His brow furrowed, distraught.

Mansako unfurled his titanium fingers and gazed at Tatiana and Loosil’s chips. He retrieved an image of their biological forms, photos taken five hundred years ago. A wave of sentimentality swept over him, reminding briefly of a quality Fernia described as ‘human.’

“I don’t know,” Mansako spoke wistfully. “But why do we keep what we keep if the significance is something to be shared between people? Shouldn’t the memory of it be enough?”

About the Story:

Ava dreamt most of the story, especially parts about the sun expanding and transmitting consciousness to Mars. She also dreamt of the biological woman awaking from a cryogenic state to discover the world was no longer how she left it. In the dream, there was more going on with the woman being terrified of the androids and trying to breach the surface. Ava dusted the story with attributes of herself battling pack rat tendencies. She’s paranoid she’ll become a hoarder, buried in stuff she’s convinced holds sentimental value.

The End

To read more from this anthology, Ava’s Short Short’s can be purchased on Amazon: here

Reincarnation Considerations

post by: Ava Reiss
Starting in June 2020, we will be posting once per month, alternating between Ava Reiss and Ticana Zhu. Blog posts will appear the first Tuesday of the month.

I’m not certain I believe in reincarnation 100%. I do most of the time. Yet, when it comes down to it, the lack of proof stops me from accepting completely. There is no quantifiable evidence that can be measured and retested.

Let’s say—for sake of argument—that reincarnation is indeed fact. How does it work?

Is there a white light? Or are we merely drifting consciousness when we die?

I recall one conversation years ago, where my counterpart was surprised that I believed we could reincarnate as different races. He felt there was some sort of clan karma. To his credit, he was leaning towards non-believer. I tried to frame the concept that souls know no races. It’s simply a collection of unconscious experiences (to put simply).

This brings me to Brian Weiss, author of Many Lives, Many Masters, and a few other books on reincarnation. I can’t recall the title of the other book I read. It’s been some years. Anyway, in one of his books, he states that reincarnation is down through the family. That your past lives were shared with your current family members. I feel that if reincarnation is true, that is an exceedingly limited belief. (His books are still good, and worth a read)

I’m also a believer of statistics. Particularly the ones that state it’s unlikely were the only sentient creatures in the universe. One woman I spoke with was surprised that I believed we could incarnate across planets. She’s a believer of reincarnation, and extraterrestrial sentience. We never got to finish our conversation as the evening had moved on. I was curious if she’d thought that each planet, or solar system had their own rules of reincarnation.

I didn’t realize how radical my theories were. That we, as souls, could reincarnate anywhere in the universe. Alien planets included. Or perhaps they’re not, and I need to consider the fact that I live in a more-or-less conservative Midwest city. Remains to be seen.

Anyway, I had put my ideas into my novels. They are the mechanic that drives the plot and characters. The series is dubbed Cycles of the Lights. Yes, there are some kitchy things. Such as souls being little balls of floating light. I don’t think we’d really look like that. However… I paid homage the fortune cookie fortune that inspired me to start writing… “A book is a ball of light in the reader’s hand.”

Before I go, I should mention what I put into my novels as the main driver of reincarnation: Karmic debt. There are little strings of debt between souls. It’s a vast and holistic network across the universe. (There is a multiverse, but I if I talk about that now, I’m getting ahead of myself). A soul reincarnates towards the biggest draw of debt .It’s like gravity, however. Sometimes, a more immediate situation can draw them in due to proximity.

If you’re curious about more, please check out the first novel in the series: Fall of Ima. The second book, The Seed of Life is due out January 28th, 2021.

This is not a sponsored post.

The Moon

post by: Ticana Zhu
Starting in June 2020, we will be posting once per month, alternating between Ava Reiss and Ticana Zhu. Blog posts will appear the first Tuesday of the month.

It’s perhaps the moon that first started my interest in science-fiction. I thought asteroids were merely lost moons, without planets. That was where le Petit Prince resided. I wanted to live on “a moon” with a soft glow. A place near twilight when dreams are sweetest.

There’s always been something comforting about the moon. That it’s been there to see the birth of humanity, and will be there long after we’re gone. (Unless something unpredictably catastrophic occurs.)

A song I grew up listening to had a line that went something like, “The moon walks beside me.” It indeed feels like a companion at times. A un-judging presence offering at the very least a guiding light on the darkest of nights when streetlights falter. With the exception of the nights when it rests. Yet even on those dark nights when it renews itself, it gives us quarter to let out our darkest selves. If anything, to merely face our murkiness. Recognize, contend with, and accept a difficult truth.

At most, it offers up a feeling of freedom. Freedom in knowing that in comparison to its presence, we are nothing. Freedom to know that even if we amount to nothing, it will still continue to watch over us, un-judging. That we will all be forgotten, but it will not.

With the nihilistic concept translated to day-to-day, it allows us to take a breath, and not push so hard. Even if we can reincarnate, and our souls are eternal, the life we’re in now—in the state it’s in now—cannot last forever. Each person should take that to mean whatever they wish. I choose to see it as a reminder to live in the present. We never know when life can end.

With Covid-19 ravaging the planet and usual operations interrupted, we’re all granted a breather. I recognize this isn’t entirely a fair statement. Many are stressed out of their minds, trying to figure out how to pay the bills without employment. Those who are employed are adjusting to new methods. Whether it’s telecommuting, educating children from home, or added safety precautions. Yet, it’s undeniable that even if it’s not a “pause” button, the speed of things have certainly slowed.

I, for one, had been trying to use this time to push ahead. But the truth is, though some sectors are denying the effects of the Covid-19, it will run into roadblocks where it intersects with other industries. Because of this, I’ve been spinning in circles, moving little. It’d be frustrating.

It finally occurred to me to ease up on the gas pedal. To accept that things are outside my control. I simple poured myself a drink, and sat beneath the moon. Basking in its loving glow.

Wishing you all better times.

Ava’s Short Shorts

post by: Ava Reiss
Starting in June 2020, we will be posting once per month, alternating between Ava Reiss and Ticana Zhu. Blog posts will appear the first Tuesday of the month.

My anthology, Ava’s Short Shorts silently went live in March. There was little press about it, since it would hardly make a dent with Covid-19 absorbing all headlines. I was a bit concerned, but then remembered to count my blessings. I’m not sick. Neither is anyone I care about. (*knocks on wood)

Most of my book sales came from events. Book shows, art shows (I sell my art prints), and readings. These have all been canceled, or delayed until further notice. Effectively, my writing career has gone on hold. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. This space allows me to recharge, and gain perspective on my work. I could write smaller things as exercises, to return to a spring of inspiration.

Ava’s Short Shorts is filled with some late night (or early morning) writing exercises from over the years. Developed of course. It was nice to work on those, and step away from my Cycles of the Lights series. But I hadn’t written anything new in two years. Nothing substantial, anyway. I’ve been in deep editing-mode. I’m hoping in the coming months, I can reconnect to my creative source.

Some of the short stories in Ava’s Short Shorts are a bit quirky. In “What We Keep,” androids left behind on a dying Earth discover a cryogenically frozen woman. They wake her and she falls into hysterics. The androids hadn’t considered how frightening they appeared with their disintegrating bodies. With the last human on earth in a heightened emotional state, she threatens all they’ve been working towards.

Then, there are tales with serious tones. “Runaway” is about two teenage friends, who’ve known each other since childhood. Both love the other dearly, but their own feelings of insufficiency keep them apart. It paints how there is more than one way to run away.

“Through the Rainbow” is another serious one. It’s weaves modern-day mythology with an LGBTQ theme.

“Fractured Shadows” is sci-fi. “Finding Ada” is post-apocalyptic, and “Imaginary Jace” is a playful, heart-warming tale about a flustered, fly-on-the-wall kinda girl.

I’m hoping as this pandemic dies down, these stories will find their readers.