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In The Machine

I’m a little late posting this story — it’s been a busy week. But it’s still Friday and so I’m considering it on time. You may have gathered from my site that I both write and draw. My main occupation at the moment is as an illustrator. So this science fiction short story has a taste of verisimilitude to it, but lots of pure fantasy as well. Can an artist get too caught up in their work? Read on to find out.

The artist knows what he wants to capture. The artist knows the ebb and flow of life, can feel it through his practised eye and a steady hand.

What a load of bullshit. I get paid for what I do. I’m a professional artist. But you know what? Every fucking time is like the first time. You’re scared. You’re a fraud. How is it they pay you to do this? Why don’t they get someone who knows what they’re doing?

But they hire me. So they get me. And they seem pleased. Who can say why? Right, right, I should be happy and realize that I am skilled. I suppose so. I mean, sure, it rings of truth and logic but deep inside it doesn’t resonate. But I’m trying.

Like today. This guy dropped off these photos. Usually, I do individuals, portraits. Or a group, like a family. I work in watercolour. Direct to watercolour, no pencil here. I take photos and I filter it through my brain and eye and hand and come out with… something. Art is like seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Do we gain such a deep perspective on the world in that action? Some do, some don’t. I guess we do it for ourselves and, if someone else does enjoy it, then all the better.

And they pay. I gotta eat.

Today I’m eating something different. These photos are not your usual fare. And the guy, he was the oddest little fellow I’ve ever seen to be quite honest. He wore a heavy trench coat and a wide hat, all grey. Now that I think of it his skin was a little grey too. Perhaps he has some weird skin condition, can’t be out in the light. Why else would he be wearing that get up when it’s 25 C and sunny? Fear of the sun, has to be. Quite the small guy too, fragile it seemed. And big eyes.

Anyway, these pics he gave me to go by… very abstract stuff. Symbols of some kind, like ancient runes or cuneiform. Whatever, it’s something different. Not the usual girlfriend, mother or, hell, even mistress. I don’t ask questions. I only paint. Today it’s abstract. I can deal with that.

What have we got? A stack of sixty Polaroids; I kid you not. Who shoots Polaroids anymore, aside from your vintage shop hunting, retro hipster in suspenders? And that was definitely not this scrawny twerp. Again, who cares. It’s money.

So sixty little symbols, all black on a white background. Some are solid, some thin lines enclosing shapes. One is an open rectangle with a dash, one a solid rectangle with an open circle. Others are triangles, open and closed. Decahedrons even. Lots of sine wave looking stuff. Stuff I haven’t seen since high school math. Other stuff I’ve never seen. The only instruction he gave me, aside from reproducing them in black on white — I use only the best premium, pre-stretched watercolour paper so no problem there — was to fill the open shapes with the primary colours. He was very insistent on that. It couldn’t be any blue or red or green. It had to be the average spectrum colours. I tried to explain to him that paint doesn’t work like that, that it’s subtractive, not additive. He told me to get as close as I could. I said, of course, that I would. I don’t question, I do the work. Keeps me in Cheetos.

And a damn load of Cheetos too. This job is paying fifty times, yes fifty, more than any usual gig. He said he needed it ASAP and wanted me to cancel my other gigs. I quoted a crazy price and, crazier still, he agreed. It was so much that I made the guy pay half up front. He didn’t blink. And he paid in cash. Didn’t even want a receipt. Sorry, Mr Taxman.

I’ve got my clean water, my brushes, my palette and my tubes of Cotman paint. So no more fucking around, let’s dig in. To be honest it’s a God damn easy job. Aside from that colour matching shit. But even that’s not bad. I’ve got a prism and it’s a sunny day. I’ll match as best as I can. Watercolour is nice like that too, being transparent. It’s luminous. But, yeah, an easy job. Reproduce a bunch of simple shapes.

I asked him was there any particular order, any particular arrangement. He told me, in his little squeaky voice… come to think of it that voice was rather odd, almost artificial. High and yet gravelly. Whatever, bundled up like that he probably had a cold. Didn’t want to shake hands either. That explains it then. Whatever. Anyway, he told me to do what felt right to me. Those were his exact words, whatever felt right. So, let’s see what feels right.

I shuffle the thick Polaroids so I’ll be surprised and lay them on the desk next to my easel. The top one is a wavy set of lines with a few dots, open all around them. I’ve already determined that I’m going to do the colours last. I mix a nice thick black in my palette, lots of it too; there are a lot of shapes. I take my liner brush, a nice thin Kolinsky sable hair job, and dig in.

Lines and dots, a swish here, a flick there. By the third photo, I’m into the zone, the groove, the flow state. Whatever name doesn’t matter. Time slips and falls away. It’s a marvellous experience. When I was a kid, sketching super-heroes and spaceships with a mechanical pencil, this feeling scared me. I stopped drawing one time and the room was buzzing. Only it wasn’t the room. It was a bee outside. Everything was silence except for that sound. Every breath I took, too, pounded in my ears. All my senses were so hyper-aware. It was amazing but, like I say, scary if you don’t know what it is. So I stopped drawing and moved around, trying to find someone to talk to. But no one was home and it took minutes to shake myself out of that state.

Now I fight to return to it every day. Some days it comes, some days it doesn’t.

Today is a good day. Each one is easier than the last. I don’t stop to think of where to put them. I just know. Before I know it I’m on the last symbol. Only they aren’t symbols any longer. They’re pieces of a puzzle that makes sense now. How is it I didn’t see it before? This rectangle fits into this set of dots, like the teeth on gears. And this set of lines flows into that set of lines. It’s beautiful.

The black on white is complete. I step back to inspect and, unbidden, a tear emerges from the corner of my eye and slips over the lid and down my cheek. My senses so engaged, so focused, I can feel its salty track until it runs into the corner of my mouth. Why? What is happening to me? I am elated, joyous. These pieces are the story of life, of everything.

I force myself, no, that’s wrong, there is no force now, no choice. I am compelled to continue. The colours. I set up the prism so that its rainbow pattern of split white light spreads across the wall behind my easel and desk.

The colours are streaks of brilliance. My God, isn’t the world amazing? All day, every day we live in this world of light rays, photons dancing on everything. And yet we don’t see the palette of nature, painting each and every object. Of course objects, trees, water, whatever, none of it has colour. The colour comes from what they reflect back from that white light. Everything has its own wavelength. The harmony, the mathematical symphony of physics astounds me. I never understood it before and now it seems so simple, so natural.

Mixing the colours is not a chore or task, it’s an honour. Like some religious sacrifice. I dip a large flat brush into one of the thin, watery pools on the palette. I let my feelings take over and put reds and blue and greens all over the image of the machine.

For that is what it is. A machine. I can see it now. I can almost see it moving. With each dab of paint, it comes into focus more. That gear, it is a gear, yes, wants to strike that other one, there. And that piston wants to thrust in that engine over there. I add the last spot of colour. I clean my brush and return it to its spot in the jar where I keep them.

Then I step back once more. The machine is alive now. And not metaphorically either. It’s actually moving. The shapes, those symbols, those gears and circuits and pistons are moving. Electrons are flowing down black pathways and nanotechnological machines, atoms in the elements of the pigments, are executing instructions of some kind. How do I know this? How is this happening?

The canvas is alive. It can’t be. But it is. Am I going crazy?

New colours are forming now as the primaries mix and flow and move through the machine. The whole palette is alive there now — secondaries and tertiaries slide and shift as I watch. What purpose can there be for such a machine? And the little grey man, what of him? What of everything?

An artist, that’s all I’ve ever been. Once I thought I could have been a damn good physicist. But that dream was dead on arrival. No funds for college. So I worked. And discovered joy in my brushes. And joy it was, I had no regrets. But maybe all roads lead to the same place eventually. Maybe science is art is life.

The watercolour paper is buckling. No, it’s melting in on itself, the colours receding, deepening into the easel behind. But not the easel, it’s a tunnel, a hole. I step to the side and look at the easel in profile.

It is fine, as it should be. I can look at its flat back and all is wood and lacquer. There is no hole punching through it, no distortion in its flatness.

But, returning to view the machine on the paper, the hole has increased and widened. The machine is moving and working, whatever that work is. The paper is large, three feet by three feet, the size the little grey man selected. And I can feel a pull now. What is that?

I want to move away from that tug and yet I want to leap into the painting too. I step toward it a little. The pull increases. The machine on the paper has moved now, formed a perfect circle, a cylinder reaching into a void. The centre of that void is pure black. The paint is pulsating, racing around the perimeter of the cylinder. It’s changing colour as it passes through various components. Those machine components were only pigment on paper moments ago.

I step toward it again. The pull is stronger still and increasing.

Is this the bee all over again? Has something snapped in my brain? Has all the isolation and days and days of seeking the flow state stretched something in my head until it snapped?

But it doesn’t feel wrong, it doesn’t feel bad. So I step forward again. Now my hands are resting on the easel, holding myself against that interminable tug. Is it gravity? What is the blackness in the middle of that swirling machine? Is it a black hole, sucking me to oblivion? Or to somewhere else?

The grey man was very short. His eyes were very big. He asked strange questions too. Was I married. Did I have family close by, or at all. Did I have close friends. I assumed he was just making conversation and yet… Now they seem very personal questions. Why hadn’t they seemed so at the time? Those eyes were very big. Big as saucers. They weren’t human eyes.

What have I painted? What will become of me?

The pull is getting stronger. My pelvis is being pressed against the edge of the table and I have to fight to keep my head out of that hole. My eyes are at its edge now. The lights of the machine are flying in my peripheral vision, faster and faster.

What is in that blackness? I have to find out.

Still gripping the edge of the easel I raise one foot and brace it against the edge of the table. I do the same with the other. If the easel was the floor — and with this artificial gravity tugging at me it could be — I’d be squat above it. All I have to do is jump in, let go and see what happens.

I take one last look around my studio. I live here. I eat here. I paint here. I am alone here, alone with memories of those I have loved and lost. Of lives I could have lived. I wasn’t unhappy but I was unfulfilled. There is nothing to lose. And so much to gain. Thank you, Mr Grey.

I leap into the machine, fitting easily into the large sheet of watercolour paper. Shifting lights and lines of the machine I have created from Mr Grey’s blueprint pass by. I am in my painting, in the machine. The blackness approaches.

What a dream is life. A waking dream of colour and light.

Finally, something new.

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A Lone

So, Flash Fiction Fridays have turned into Short Story Fridays but I’m good with that. I hope you’ve been enjoying these stories as I have several more written already and they’ll be up here in the coming weeks. This week’s story is a science fiction tale about a couple and the impact advancing technology is having on their relationship. What will our relationships look like once computer telepathy and brain-to-brain communication become as common as smartphones? And, no, that’s not a typo in the title.

If you like this story you can also read some of the previous stories: Rufus Snarblax, Garbage Day and Earthrise.

“I hate you sometimes!”

Trista hadn’t meant it, she never did. But the words were out there now. And, as always, that sad don’t you love me look on Sarah’s face made her insides churn. Sarah didn’t say anything though, only turned and retreated, like a wounded animal.

“Sarah, baby, I’m sorry!” The slamming door down the hallway was the only response. “Fuck,” Trista muttered, fuming with frustration at her own stupidity. She wanted to lash out, wanted to kick something. Not really though, she knew that. She only wanted an outlet for her emotions. Instead, she sank into the couch, wishing it would swallow her.

What had started the fight anyway? She couldn’t even remember. Something about money. Maybe. Or about Sarah’s PDD addiction. Of course, she wasn’t alone in that, nearly everyone was addicted to them. Did that make it okay though? Trista’s mother had always said: If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you? The fact that she had often answered yes was beside the point now.

It didn’t matter what the cause was this particular time. They didn’t communicate well. They both knew that. That was the crux of it. And yet they did love each other.

Time passed. Trista sat there, wallowing, yes, self-pitying, yes, but also trying to clear her mind, trying to find a solution. None came to her.

She had no idea that Sarah was doing the same. The difference was that Sarah had a solution.

The bedroom door opened, creaking — Trista needed to oil that. Though, at that moment, she was happy for the warning. She didn’t look up, only listened as Sarah’s feet padded down the hallway and into the living room.

“Can we talk now… without shouting?” Sarah asked.

Trista nodded. “I’d like that, yes.”

Sarah came and sat on the couch, but not exactly next to Trista. All either of them wanted was to throw their arms around the other, to find solace and strength in togetherness. And yet neither wanted to be the first, neither wanted to show the weakness they both felt.

“I’m sorry,” Trista said, still looking at her own knees.

“I know you are, and I know,” Sarah sighed hard, “I know you didn’t mean it. But, it still hurts, you know?”

Trista nodded. “What can we do? I don’t like fighting with you.”

“I know that too. When we do I feel completely alone. But, there is something we can do about that.”

“Oh?” Trista had no idea where she was going with this.

“Everyone is doing it now,” Sarah said.

“Doing what?”

“Meshing.”

That one word changed the conversation. Trista felt her blood begin to boil again. “Everyone is not doing it.”

Sarah, ignoring the comment, didn’t look at Trista, kept looking straight ahead. “They even have a word now for those who haven’t done it. Lones.”

“Is it that bad to be alone sometimes?” Trista asked.

“You don’t want me to know all of you?” Sarah asked in reply.

“No,” Trista said, then added, “I don’t know. It’s weird.”

“Katie knew you’d say that. She thinks you’re scared.”

Trista snorted. “Katie isn’t even real.”

“Yes, she is!” Sarah snapped back. “The UN ruled last month that she was sentient.”

“No, it didn’t,” Trista said. “It ruled that the version running on Jeddie’s servers, the original, full-blown version in a lab, had the potential for sentience. The version you access is only watered-down, dummy AI.”

“It is not!”

“Look,” Trista said, “I just don’t want to. It’s good to be alone sometimes.”

“Are you scared of getting plugged?”

“No. Just leave it.”

“No, this is important to me.” Sarah crossed her arms over her chest. “Everyone else I know has it now. You’re — we’re both — going to get left behind. Look at Steve! He and Michelle got it last week. He told me it was amazing, like sex for your brain.” Sarah paused, thinking, trying to come up with the right argument. Trista worked with AI every day, this shouldn’t be a hard sell. Or it was hard because she knew too much about it. Sarah pushed that thought out of her mind. “Transhumans are out there now. The plugs let us mesh with each other but it also makes it easier to interface with, well, everything!”

“So? I see this shit every damn day. Decades now! When I was a little girl my parents didn’t let me have a smartphone. And you know what? Thank God! I remember seeing people, heads down, not looking at each other, only half-watching what they were doing. At least we got away from that. But now it’s happening again.”

Sarah was losing; she even felt Trista had a point. She knew she had a problem when it came to her PDD. But, damn it, she didn’t want to get left behind. “How can knowing each other better, more than we ever could have before, be a bad thing?”

“I didn’t say that would be a bad thing,” Trista said, sighing. She ran her fingers through her long hair, pushing it away from where it fell in front of her face.

She looked at Sarah then, for the first time since her wife had come back from the bedroom. The curve of her chin, the little ears, the slight upturn in her nose — all the little, unique things that she loved.

“Maybe,” Trista said, “the mystery is good.”

“Do you have something to hide, is that it?” Sarah asked, turning now to look into Trista’s eyes, daring her to back away, to prove her right.

Trista laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Sarah asked. “Are you making fun of me?”

“No, baby, no!” She reached out a hand and placed it on Sarah’s knee. “I have nothing to hide from you.” Trista had never said anything truer in her life.

“Then what is it? We’re going to get left behind.”

“Look, it’s never too late. The technology is still new now too — wait a year or two and it’ll be better. And foolproof. I still hear some scary things. Anyway, for now, I’d like to just be me. This,” Trista pointed back and forth between herself and Sarah, “me and you, like it is, that’s okay how it is. It’s not broken. We just need to learn to talk to each other. No Katies, no PDDs, just us. Like humans have been doing for thousands of years.”

“But you’ll think about it though?” Sarah asked. She wasn’t convinced, wasn’t giving up yet.

“I have thought about it, and will continue to do so, yes. Is that okay?”

“Sure, I guess.”

Trista pushed down the frustration that was rising again. How could she get it across? “Look, I’m me. You’re you.”

“Duh.”

“Obvious, yes, sure. But what am I? I’m a collection of my thoughts, my feelings, my experiences.”

“Right, again, obvious.”

“Is it though? They are me. If we mesh, then what? Some of our thoughts merge and mingle. You get some of my memories, I get some of yours. Am I still me? Or am I partly you then?”

“Is that so bad?”

“No. Maybe.”

“Maybe?” Sarah asked, her voice rising a little.

“I just want to be me right now. I want to be the me that loves you, the me that knows who I am. Maybe, sure, down the road. But I’m afraid, yes, there, I said it. I’m afraid. But not of getting plugged, not of the process. I’m afraid of losing who I am.”

“I… I guess I can understand that,” Sarah said. “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”

“It can’t be undone either. Once the patterns are in our heads they’re a part of us. And then part of me resides in you — which, sounds nice, I grant you — but are you then less, or more? You’re you, Sarah, my wife, my everything.” She took Sarah’s hands in her own. “You already have all of me. And I want you. Unique, amazing you.”

Sarah squeezed the hands that were always there, always ready to embrace her, to keep her safe. They were all that she needed. They were enough, for now.

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Earthrise

 

This week’s short story, Earthrise, is quite short — around 600 words. It’s a science fiction snapshot, a brief look into one woman’s journey to fulfil a lifelong dream.

I hope you enjoy it.

It would come up again soon, or rather they would come to it.

From her position in the observation lounge, Tess could see the grey, cratered surface of the Moon rolling by below. Beyond it was only the blackness of space.

For now.

She looked at the timer on her Personal Digital Device — though to her it was a pid, a PDD. It had been one hour and seventeen minutes since the last one. One more minute to go.

Her breath started coming faster, in anticipation. She forced it to slow down. Inhaling deeply, she held it a moment. Then she exhaled slower still, letting the carbon dioxide slip from her lungs.

The scrubbers would take it soon enough. She didn’t care how they worked but she had been forced to learn a little about them before she left Earth. Everyone, even the tourists, aboard Pandia Station had to know a bit about how everything worked, in case anything went wrong.

Tess had sat through the lessons, had studied at night even, to ensure that she could be right here at this moment. And she was here, orbiting the Moon on this station, looking out the observation lounge window. Looking at the magnificence now coming into view.

Earthrise.

It had been many days and she had seen it many times but it never failed to leave her breathless and with tears in her eyes.

The blue of the oceans.

The green, brown and white of the land masses.

The wispy, translucent clouds and the thick alabaster clouds.

Sometimes the Earth was a seemingly perfect circle, lit by the Sun, far behind the Moon. At other times it hung there like a sculpture, a floating semi-circle swallowed by black behind the terminator. Black, that is, except for the brilliance of the artificial lights that dotted it.

All that had ever been, all the stories of every human ever born took place on that pale blue dot. Sagan was on her mind a lot as she spun around the moon, watching the earthrise again and again.

Soon enough she would be back there, on the surface of her home. The insurance money had, of course, only purchased her so much time. She would soon be back where there was no perspective. Back where the ants couldn’t see the anthill.

Would she lose what she had learned? No, she was determined not to do so.

And what would she do then?

Tess pushed the thought from her mind and focused on the Earth, now fully risen above the sterile rim of its satellite. It swam through the void, through the vacuum, through the eternal night of space.

North America was clearly visible. Somewhere down there was her house. No, Tess corrected herself, not hers any longer. Now it belonged to a mister and mister Stevens-Smith. She hoped they would be very happy there. As she had once been. Likewise, her car was driving someone else around now; she recalled that his name was Khalid. She sent happy thoughts to him as well.

For she was happy right now and wanted everyone else to be as well. Would she be in a week, with her feet back on solid ground? Time would tell.

There would be no money left. Not even enough to get her to her sister’s house from the spaceport. But she had calculated well and had already purchased the transfer.

Bill had always commented on her foresight.

Her sister would be glad to see her, at first. Tess would get a job and start over. Alone. But it was okay. They had had their time together. She was grateful for those years, tears and all.

For now, she would watch the earthrise. Again and again. For as long as she had.

Another one was coming in an hour and eighteen minutes.

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Rufus Snarblax

Rufus Snarblax - Flash Fiction Story

Below is a short tale entitled Rufus Snarblax, the first entry in Flash Fiction Fridays. Each Friday I’ll publish a new story that will be around 1000 words. But I reserve the right to call whatever length I want flash fiction in this context (it is my site after all).

Most of these pieces will be science fiction but some, certainly, will not. I write in various genres, letting out whatever wants out from the strange, banana-fuelled recesses of my brain.

So, without further ado, I’ll let Rufus take it from here…

Frank looked at the typewriter again, for the fifth time. He looked at the words written on the blisteringly white paper wedged against the cylinder of the machine. Or, rather, he looked only at the white paper for there were no words upon it yet.

Frank didn’t like to write.

So why was he a writer? He couldn’t have told you that. Maybe he loved to write or could love to write if he could write what he wanted. He had loved to write, once. But now he wrote garbage. He thought it was garbage at any rate — alien romances. Who wanted alien romances?

A lot of creatures apparently. And it wasn’t like he had a choice.

He let out a huge sigh. Resigned to his task he started typing.

The keys made satisfying chunk sounds as he pressed them. The typewriter was old, manual. The corresponding typebars swung into position and stamped against the ribbon. They left the imprint of each letter on the paper. Frank’s fingers ached, thinking of all he had left to do. He missed his word-processor.

He typed Wormhole Rendezvous: An Alien Romance. His finger jabbed return. And he typed By: Rufus Snarblax. His pen name.

Another sigh escaped his lips. So it began again. It was all too real. The clock on the wall read 5:45 AM. He had a couple hours, a little more.

Then his editor would arrive.

He pressed return a few more times and then began in earnest. It was all he could do.

The words flowed, from his mind and through his fingers. Plastic and metal translated them into little drops of ink on pulped trees. Well, what looked like ink and paper anyway. The ludicrousness of it all made him laugh out loud. He stopped typing.

The clock read 6:23 AM. Was it 6:23 AM? Was it even a functioning clock?

Frank glanced around the spartan room. It contained only his writing desk and the clock. The old replica typewriter sat on the desk and to its left lay a stack of hundreds of sheets of 20-pound typing paper. One lone sheet sat to the right of the typewriter. The room itself was a perfect cube, as far as he could tell. The walls were all white, they looked like regular painted drywall. And in the ceiling was a single incandescent light bulb. Behind him, behind his battered and squeaky wooden — was it? — chair was a door.

His editor would come through that door at 8 AM sharp. Again he sighed, louder than the other times. He started the chunking and clacking once more.

After years it was only a matter of letting his mind go to work, hoping his tired hands could keep up. Today it was wormholes, yesterday a starship, the day before the surface of a cold, barren asteroid. The setting didn’t matter. All that mattered was that two, or more — depending on the target audience — beings found each other. His editor provided the specs.

He stopped typing again and his eyes went to the lone sheet of paper to the right of the typewriter. On it was almost a full page of type — today’s specs. The target audience was the civilian population of Erdilon VIII. There was a thriving economy there based around tunnellers, worm-hole jockeys. They would dive through in their ships, hoping to find something of value. Then they would hope to return with said something. It was gold rush days there now. The public wanted, craved was the word in the spec, stories about their gallant brethren. And about the aliens they met and seduced. Of course. Whether those stories were true, or not. On the spec, below the overview he had read, were a few choice snippets from some of these tunnellers.

Singleblad the Everlasting, a likely name, had written a couple of lines. It concerned his quest for the Serdedian Snudas, an ancient weapon of some kind. Barry Tysver — yes, Barry is a common name on Erdilon VIII, one of those cosmic coincidences — found love through one wormhole. Then the space harpy, his words, left him and took all the valuables he had squirrelled away. There were another couple tales in the spec but those two would do.

Frank had his through-line: Barry the Somewhatlasting was successful in his quest for the ancient Talmeredian Snarflas. It being the only thing that could save his people. But, would he choose his mission or the stunning Talmeredian maiden who guarded the Snarflas? With her pulsating, iridescent tentacles she was quite a catch.

Frank started typing, forcing the words onto the paper. He changed out the sheet of paper, then another, and another.

He finished and looked at the clock. It read 7:50 AM.

Once upon a time, he would read back over what he had written. Those times were long gone, years gone. So many years. What did he care anyway? If the story wasn’t good perhaps his editor would return him to Earth. Or, better yet, kill him. Either way, he’d be free.

7:55 AM. Five minutes to dream, to remember. To ponder what ifs.

What if he had stayed home that night, instead of chasing those lights he had seen in the sky? But he had been a new New York Times bestselling author. He had made his name with a book, of fiction, based on a personal experience. In the forest, he had found something odd and used it as the basis for his book. What if those lights had been the start of his next great work?

Instead, here he was, years later — how many? — writing pithy romance for aliens, trapped in a replica of an Earth room. Outside these four walls was an architecture he couldn’t fathom and an atmosphere he couldn’t breathe. The door behind him — through which his editor would soon emerge, dressed in a pressure suit — was one end of an airlock. The pressure suit hid most of the editor’s grotesqueness. But it couldn’t hide the six arms and the three rows of seven eyes.

Frank shuddered.

He glanced at the stack of blank white paper once more. It was so white, like a beacon.

What was it they said, death by a thousand paper-cuts? He picked up the topmost sheet.

The clock read 7:58 AM.