June 23rd, 2006

The following was transcribed from an audio file discovered by the Tucumcari Highway Patrol on June 23rd, 2006.

Unknown Speaker, female (US):

It’s a long drive back, so I thought I’d get this down while it’s still fresh in my mind. Honestly, it was a huge waste of time. What is it with whackos and trailer parks?

[sighs]

Alright, I’ll try to keep this official for the archives. The date is, uh, June 16th, 2003. We received a call three days ago on the hotline about some unusual activity in New Mexico. The caller wouldn’t go into specifics, one of those “won’t talk on the phone, you never know who might be listening” types. So, I drove down from Chicago.

Turns out the town was a dustbowl: trailer park, convenience store with a fifty-year-old gas pump, and one stop sign which was apparently optional.

I met the caller at the address they left with the hotline… umm…

Papers rustle in the background

US:

It’s in my files somewhere. The caller was male, 5’6” maybe, about… Oh, I’m not good at descriptions. He was old and bald and completely out of his gourd. I mean, I’ve heard some crazy theories, everything from little green men to government conspiracies, but this was a new one even for me. I drove 1,200 miles to be told that Earth is being invaded by, wait for it, space wizards. That’s right, folks. You heard it here first. Wizards from space come down to recharge their cosmic mana.

[laughing]

I don’t know who this guy thought I was. He kept rattling off acronyms, some I’ve never even heard of: CIA, NSA, FBI, PTA, WTF. I tried to explain an organization funded by UFO fanatics and museums didn’t have that kind of pull, but he kept saying we had to alert NASA. He had this whole theory worked out that they’re here to siphon energy from our nuclear power. Blah, blah, blah, something about temporal inconsistencies, time jumps, metaphysical phenomena, blah, blah, blah.

[sighs]

There’s not enough tinfoil in the world. The data he pulled looked real though, so that’s worth checking out. Anomalies over Japan, Russia, and the lower United States. Don’t ask me where he got that information. Seriously… don’t ask me. Anyway, that’s worth looking into. Probably nothing more than…

The ambient sound of the vehicle softens, suggesting it slowed.

US:

Uh… I seem to have driven into the middle of some kind of historical re-enactment.

Cattle mooing can be faintly heard in the background.

US:

Wow. These people are really committed. That’s a lot of cows. They even have—

There’s a dull thud.

US:

Hey! What the hell?!

A window rolls down.

US:

You! Yeah, you! On the horse! I saw you throw that! You’re going to pay to get that dent fixed! Oh, what’re you going to do? That gun’s like two hundred years old.

Yelling can be heard faintly. There’s a loud bang that seems to be a gunshot.

US:

He shot at me! Oh my god, these people are insane! They’ve all got guns. They’re… I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Just get these cows out of my way! I’ll just go if you—

There’s more gunfire, the sound of a vehicle revving, and angry voices. It eventually fades into the background.

US:

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ! [omitted expletives]. I’m reporting these people to the police.

He could’ve killed me! Stupid cowboys! There has to be a town nearby. I’m going to… [static] …when I… [static] …to…. [static] ….wait…. [static]

Is this thi— working? [static]

…what… [static] … can’t be… [static]

…help!… [static] …no!

The audio goes dead for several minutes.

US:

I, um… managed to get this working again. My car’s dead and I… I have no phone signal. I can’t…

[crying]

I think we’re under attack. There was a huge cloud to the… I think it was the west. Everything went dead. I couldn’t get the radio to work and… I tried to call the police. Anybody. But there’s no signal. The cloud was so huge… It…

[crying]

I’ve been walking. There’s nothing out here, and it’s dark now. There’s no way it’s nighttime, but I can’t see the sun. It’s just… it’s just dark. I don’t know what to do, and…

A low whining becomes audible and gradually grows louder.

US:

[whispering] There’s lights in the sky. Everywhere. Oh my god… They must be bringing more bombs. Who is doing this? I have to try to tell someone, but my signal is gone. I—

[static]

Those… those aren’t planes. It’s just light. So bright. It’s… I can’t see anything. Wait, something’s moving. I can’t quite…

A low voice speaks, gibberish.

US:

Is someone there?!

Gibberish. There seem to be multiple voices speaking.

US:

Who’s there?! I can see you moving!

Running footsteps and heavy breathing. The low voices grow louder, overlapping.

US:

[yelling] What are you?! What are you doing?! No, I—

A loud rumbling grows until the audio cuts out. Several hours of blank audio follow.

Neither the speaker or her car have been recovered. No missing person has been reported in Chicago or the surrounding area. No UFO investigatory organizations are missing personnel.

The phone was at 25% battery when it was discovered. It was connected to an unlisted number, and no record of purchase exists.

No record of historical re-enactments taking place within the area have been found, and no nuclear activity has been reported. There was a single report of lights in the sky observed by a Tucumcari mailman on November 13th, 2004.

An investigation is ongoing.

Unintended Consequences

                I took my morning coffee to the balcony and looked out over the swaying trees as I sat and sipped. Living in the forest was as pleasant as I had always thought it would be. Peaceful. Calming. Once you got past the fact that just last week my apartment had been in the center of an urban tangle of cement and metal.

                A shiver ran through the red leaves. It wasn’t autumn. They were just angry. A lamppost on the street corner sparked and collapsed with a creak of rending metal.

                The best and the brightest had put their heads together, deciding that what we needed in the age of deforestation and ozone-shrinkage was the fastest-growing, strongest, tallest, most oxygen-rich tree ever, and they were going to make it. They’d succeeded.

               Sentience had been an unintended side effect.

                It had been on the news as the greatest discovery of our generation. And then there hadn’t been any news.

               The rain forests were gone. Only bare dirt and a few fallen branches and confused jaguars remained. It wasn’t our doing this time. They’d come north to return the favor.

               I’m sure it was horrifying to wake in a world ruled by fleshy predators who stacked up the skeletal remains of your kin to live and park their fume-spitting metal carriages inside, carrying bits of your skin around inside their pockets and bags and burning your remains for fun on a cool summer evening.

                The ground was a writhing mass of shattered concrete, dark earth, and twitching roots. If you were fool enough to go outside, and there wasn’t much inside left to speak of, it wasn’t long before the ground swallowed you up and the new, hungry trees turned you into a human juice box.

                Still, of all the ways to go, in the peace and quiet of nature, enveloped into the welcoming, dark softness of the earth, wasn’t the worst. The roar of the city had stilled. Birds flitted in the leaves, bursting out in laughing flocks as the trees irritably shook their heads. A soft breeze floated by carrying the scent of fresh blossoms.

                The foundation of my building creaked. A long crack lanced up the wall next to me. I took another sip of my coffee. It wouldn’t be long now.

PUBLISHED: Toward Light

My short story “Toward Light” was recently published in the inaugural issue of DreamForge Anvil by DreamForge Magazine.

For something to thrive, something else must be consumed. Or is it possible to circumvent the cycle wherein the energy to sustain life is taken from a living thing? What would such a world be like?

~ DreamForge Anvil introduction to “Toward Light”

Read the story by clicking here.

Access the entire issue by clicking here. You’ll find some wonderful fiction stories and articles about writing and story craft.


Photo Credit: Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Nisus III

               Nisus III looked like a marble from orbit, a swirl of purple and black beneath fraying sheets of white cloud. As the shuttle hurtled toward the surface, shaking and rattling in the thickening atmosphere, curls of gold began to streak across the mauve soil, growing to thick patches, the first sign of human settlement and habitation.

               The wheat had sprung up faster than we could have hoped. The rest of the grains languished, if they sprouted at all, but the wheat had lifted its golden head and spread like a weed. It grew faster than any crop at home, even without water or rain, coming to harvest in merely a few weeks. When we flew across it, making the fields ripple and bend in our wake, it looked like home.

                The shuttle came to rest on the bank of the black river where we made our camp. It was only a few portable buildings, a lavatory, and a water purifier chugging softly. Mona stood at the edge of the field, a broad-brimmed hat hiding her face. A few grains of wheat sat in her tan, wrinkled palm, and she poked at them, inspecting. “I think it’s ready,” she said.

                She pushed up the brim of her hat to gaze out over the fields. “From sprout to harvest in less time than even the fastest syntheticrops. Every agricultural unit in this sector is going to be dropping into orbit here.”

                “Are there more than yesterday?” I asked, shielding my eyes from the sun and peering toward the edge of the field.

                Mona shrugged and scattered the wheat kernels over the mauve soil. “They’ve been showing up off and on the past few days. Curious, I think.”

                They stood as dumb and still as trees, great bulbous lumpy things, watching us with black eyes. Their skin was knobbly and rough, like lichen-covered rocks. Someone had called them Ents, and the name stuck. Sometimes they bent down to the soil, spreading their elephant-like hands against the earth and humming, or waded into the black water to stand there quietly. Mona had scanned them. Brain waves indicated they were somewhere been dolphins and octopuses, too intelligent to become farm animals but not intelligent enough to understand resource management. They never touched the wheat fields, never came near them, but they watched.

                The scythe glimmered in the sun, and the wheat fanned out over the soil. It could stay there to dry, in the eternally temperate weather, but we filled our arms with stalks, impatient for a taste of our labors. We shook the tiny kernels from their papery skins until only the small oval grains remained.

                “What are they doing?” I asked, looking up to see that more of the Ents had gathered, standing mutely between us and the field.

                Mona glanced up from the small engine unit she’d been rewiring into a grinder. She snorted. “They’re getting comfortable. Likely to be a nuisance soon. Jorn will have to put up that electric fence.”

                We, five lone researchers in a strange purple land, gathered reverently around the small cookstove as Mona mixed the fresh ground grain with water and a sprinkle of salt, the only piece of home we could bring with us across the expanse. The sticky mass of dough clung to her fingers as she shaped it into an uneven round.

               The smell of baking bread filled my nose, and my mouth watered. The intensity of the sensation after weeks, months, (had it been years?) was almost overwhelming.

                The warm, flat cake was pulled from the burner and broken between us, the jagged pieces held like precious stones in our palms.

                “To human advancement,” Mona said and bit into her piece.

                The brown surface crackled against my teeth. It was dry and had the bland, dehydrating taste of under-seasoned grain. It was the best thing I could remember tasting since I’d left home. But something was wrong.

                A strange sensation burned in my chest. Mona collapsed running to the portable buildings for med supplies, one hand outstretched, fingers digging into the soil. Jorn was on his knees next to me, retching. Through bleary eyes, I saw another one of us fall into the river, trying to drink the black water. Bubbles gurgled then nothing broke the dark surface.

                I collapsed backward. Figures appeared above me, lumpy and solid against the pale sky, staring down at me with black eyes. A murmuring filled the air, a stirring whisper like wind through the trees. In the last struggling gasp of breath, I realized they were laughing.

Wait! There’s More…

           The ground wavered far below as I uneasily stepped over the gap to the top of the building. The door slid shut behind me, and with a whoosh, the airbus rejoined the lanes of aerial traffic whizzing past. Rows of dormant aeromobiles lined the rooftop, and at the far end, a sign emblazoned with ‘Fergin’s Discount Transportation Sales & Services’ hovered in midair, affixed to the transparent, electrostatic walls of an office. Inside, a man sat with his feet thrown up on a desk, his back leaning against the wall. Only open air lay behind him, and it looked like he was sitting on the edge of oblivion.

            I wove through the vehicles and knocked against the solidified air of the office wall. A low snore floated through the door.

            “H-hello? I’m… here to buy an aeromobile.”

            He jerked awake with a curse, sending a flood of papers to the floor as he yanked his feet off the desk. “Course you are, course you are, course you are,” he mumbled, jumping to his feet and shaking the dazed expression from his face. “And may I compliment you on your good taste.” He proudly patted a faded plaque. “100% sales rate. Satisfaction guaranteed when you fly off the lot.”

            He popped a giant, pink square into his mouth and loudly gnawed on it as he joined me outside.

            “This is a strange place for an aeromobile dealership,” I noted, inching away from the dizzying drop over the edge.

            “Where else would I sell them? On the ground?!” He guffawed loudly. “Naw, you need to see the vehicle in its natural environment.”

           With a deep sigh, he surveyed the open sky around us, filled with whizzing traffic and towering buildings, before steering me toward a vehicle near the end of the lot. I stopped halfway, eyeing a sleek red model. “What about this one?”

            “Good eye, good eye, good eye,” he rattled, bobbing his head and gnawing viciously on his gum. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to be a good fit for you.” His eyes flickered across the empty lot as he leaned closer, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Between you and me, you’re better off without this one. Gravity manipulator has a nasty habit of malfunctioning. Only upside is the fall would kill you before it turned you into a metal pancake. Now, this bad boy”—he slapped the walls of the gray, amorphous blob next to it—“can’t go wrong. State-of-the-art technology back in its day, and only a 2% chance of it hurtling you into the fourth dimension.”

            “E-excuse me?”

            He slowly shook his head, his eyes fixed on the sloping metal walls, his jaw still working furiously. “Not many of these left in this condition. Honestly, at this price, it’s a steal.”

            “Did you say… the fourth dimension?”

            He ignored me, dragging me across the lot to a black, boxy model. “Now, over here we have an interesting find. Only one owner. Foreign import, but it’s been refitted with all the standard safety features.”

            He nudged one of the blank walls, and a panel popped out, sliding aside to reveal the interior. I peered inside at the deep seats and neon lighting lining the ceiling. “There aren’t any controls.”

            “Ah, that’s the beauty of this model! It’s all powered through, um…”—chew, chew, chew—“synaptic energy. Instead of using the telepathic abilities of the native manufacturers, they put together a new system. You drive it”—he leaned closer, tapping a forefinger to his temple—“with your mind.”

            “Fascinating!”

           The exterior was surprisingly free of scratches or burn marks from atmospheric re-entry. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but I had a feeling this might be the one.

            He bent over, digging through the vehicle. “Yup. It’s real simple. You just stick this”—he emerged holding a headpiece with a giant needle protruding from it—“into your brain, and voila!”

            I gaped at the needle. “Th-through your skull?!”

            He frowned at it, turning it over in his hands. “Ya know, I think it might have to go through your eye area. I’m sure it’s not so bad after the first time.” He extended the headpiece to me. “Wanna take it for a test drive?”

            “I… think I’ll pass.”

            “Suit yourself,” he mumbled through his gum, tossing the hardware back into the vehicle. “Can’t blame you. Don’t trust those foreign builders anyway with their non-auditory communication. It’s not natural…” He shook his head again, his jaw furiously chewing. “Not natural.”

            I myself was from two planets over and beginning to regret this whole situation. “Well,” I clapped my hands together uselessly. “Thanks for your time. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. I’m going to sleep on it, and uh… I’ll let you know.”

            He waved a dismissive hand in my direction. “Yeah, sure. Whatever you need.”

            I glanced around, looking for an exit sign or an airbus pad. “How do I… get out of here?”

            He gnashed on his gum, pointing past a line of vehicles, but his extended finger only led me to the edge of the building and a steep drop.

            “There’s nothing here.”

            “It’s there,” he called, lounging against the invisible walls of his office. “You just can’t see it.”

            I scanned the open air, looking for any flicker of electricity or sign of a platform. “Could you show me?”

            He stalked over and frowned at the air, hands on hips, jaw working furiously. “Well, look at that,” he sighed. “Looks like it’s out.”

            “I’ll just wait for the next airbus then.”

            “Sorry. No buses run here without special request.”

            “Can I use your communication device then?”

            “Eh,” he gnawed loudly on his gum. “’fraid that’s not working either.”

            “Well, how do you get down?!” I snapped, reaching the end of my patience.

            “I use my aeromobile.”

            I stared at him, the reality of the situation dawning on me. “So, the only way I’m getting out of here is if I buy—“

            “Looks like.”

            He watched me expectantly. I wanted to argue, but I wanted to leave more. My shoulders sagged. “I guess… we’ll have to make a deal then.”

            “Great!” He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll draw up the paperwork.”

            My payment was exchanged for a worn activator device, and he carefully inspected the vehicle, muttering to himself and making haphazard marks on his clipboard before planting himself in front of me. “Would you say you were satisfied with today’s transaction?”

            “Actually—“

            “Because if you’re not, I am morally obligated not to finalize the sale until you are.”

            “Then… yes, I’m satisfied.”

           He was watching me intently, his jaw tirelessly gnawing. “100% satisfied?”

            “Yes,” I sighed.

           He triumphantly placed the last check on his clipboard before saluting me with it and striding back to his office. It landed with a clatter on his desk before he threw his feet up after it. The panel slid closed behind me, and I eased off the roof, merging into the flow of traffic. Maybe this wasn’t so bad. It was only a 2% chance, and the fourth dimension was supposedly nice this time of year.


This story was inspired by a very unfortunate encounter I had with a, for lack of a better word, skeezy car salesman.

~ R. E. Rule

Published Jun 17, 2020
Updated Dec 11, 2020

The Lost Goodbye

The writing prompt for “The Lost Goodbye” was provided by Reedsy.com: write a story that starts with two characters saying goodbye.


                 People in brightly colored jumpsuits bustled around us, loud voices echoing off the spaceport’s metal walls, as we stood in silence, foreheads pressed together. I held him as long as I could until the blaring voice announcing the last call for his flight tore us apart. His hand slid from mine as he reluctantly moved toward the gate, but he stopped halfway, turning back to me.

                  “What are you doing?” I asked.

                  “Memorizing you.”

                  Tears spilled down my cheeks. He stood with his bag over his shoulder, watching me until the attendant told him this was the last chance to board before the doors closed. I waved half-heartedly as he paused in the doorway, and he raised a hand in response before the metal throat swallowed him completely.

                  I walked to the window and watched his ship detach from the station, silent plumes of steam evaporating in the vacuum of space. My head sagged against the glass as I fought against my grief, but the garbled voice blared again, calling for me this time. I sprinted through the spaceport to the ship that would carry me a world away from him.

                  We had met at the base of the small metal craft that was to be our new home. His unruly hair and bright red jumpsuit matching mine marked him as a fellow researcher in the sea of buzz cuts and starched uniforms filling the docking bay. He had been sent from our sister station on the opposite side of the planet to be the other half of our two-person team.

                  “You must be my fellow sardine,” he laughed, extending a hand to me.

                  His easy manner was a welcome relief from the tension of what lay before us. I eagerly shook his hand, opening my mouth to respond, but a man with a clipboard and a permanently creased forehead interrupted us, greeting us each with a curt nod before launching into his lengthy briefing.

                  “Sir. Ma’am. You will be entering RA 2-15-2 and passing through an unknown energy field. Once inside the field, all electronics in the craft will malfunction and communications disappear due to the ele… electro…”

                  I exchanged a glanced with my shipmate as our lecturer stumbled over the technical jargon, holding back a smile as he dramatically rolled his eyes. We had dedicated our lives to researching space phenomenon and undoubtedly knew more about what lay before us than our dedicated informant, but we dutifully listened as he droned on.

                  “Our calculations place you emerging from the other side approximately three months after entry. Our ship will retrieve you and take you to the main Earth transportation hub where you will return to your respective research stations.”

                  We were handed emergency supplies, a thoughtful but useless gesture considering where we were headed, and told to strap in for departure. When he turned to climb the ladder up to the small door, I could see a fresh incision matching mine at the base of his skull. We entered our tiny craft to resounding applause and blaring klaxons as the hangar cleared for our launch. They sealed us in and threw us into the void.

                 I gripped the safety belt across my chest with white knuckles as our craft shuddered and jerked in the lingering gravity from our mother ship. He was muttering to himself, apparently unfazed, engrossed in the stack of papers in his hands.

                 “What are you doing?” I croaked, desperate for a distraction.

                 “Reading our new operations manual.” He tapped a finger on the incision on the back of his neck.

                 Only organic machines worked inside the field, the electricity in our bodies stubbornly continuing to flow when all other electronics shorted out. We had each been given a chip, wired into our brains, to record everything we experienced, turning us into living sensors. There was only one problem.

                 “Not that it matters since I won’t remember any of it,” he laughed.

                 Removing the chip erased our memories from the moment it had been activated. When they sawed my skull open to jam it in, I thought that was a mercy.

                 The cushion of space caught us, smoothing out our flight, and we tossed aside the safety belts. Stacks of papers clamped in clipboards lined the walls, and in the center of the ceiling, a large glass portal faced up into the blackness. There were two small rooms with beds and various exercise equipment, and that was it. It reminded me of the black and white pictures of antique submarines, small and suffocating, but it had to be. Our bodies were our heat source, the insulation of our tiny vessel keeping the cold out and our warmth in. Blankets and packs of hand warmers had been provided, but we were on our own except for the microscopic organisms in the walls, gulping down our carbon monoxide and excreting oxygen.

                  We drifted ahead, carried by our momentum, until the lights on the consoles blinked rapidly and died. The whir of machinery faded, leaving us in silent blackness.

                 “We’re here.” His voice floated through the darkness, filled with infectious excitement.

                 The ship gradually solidified around us again, stained pink in the faint light, and the field came into view through the glass portal, arcs of rosy energy lacing across the void. Our feet lifted off the metal grating, and the papers lining the walls swooped up into art deco motifs.

                  “Well, that’s interesting.”

                  I turned to see him floating upside down, grinning at me. Our first day in nothing, he made me laugh.

                  We threw ourselves into our work, taking measurements, shoving liquids and instruments through the tiny airlock into the unknown, checking and re-checking oxygen levels and air quality, and monitoring our internal systems as closely as we did the ship’s. Temperature, pulse, blood pressure, muscle mass, hydrations levels, all recorded in pencil on rudimentary charts. He sang while we worked, and if he wasn’t singing, he was turning slow somersaults in the air and pelting me with questions about myself, my life, my research. I had volunteered because I had no family, no attachments, no one to grieve if this ship became my crypt. He had too.

                 At first, the days passed easily. But days became weeks, and the sensation that my feet were where my head should be, and my head was where my feet should be, that everything was inside out and upside down, grew until I locked myself in my room where he couldn’t see to throw up into vacuum-sealed sanitary bags. I tried to focus, to pour myself into the work, to distract myself from the immensity of the darkness closing in on me, but there was no time here, just an eternal pink light, unchanging. The X’s we drew through the days on our paper calendar meant nothing.

                 Every eight hours, we tried to sleep, shutting our doors against the pink light. The bed had straps to hold me in, but I couldn’t sleep tied down. I hovered over it instead, wrapping blankets around myself like some miserable nebula. His singing had stopped for the night, and silence closed in around me until I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. I couldn’t touch anything. There was nothing. No sensation, nothing to cradle my body, no gravity to press me to the earth. I didn’t exist. I was a lost consciousness, disembodied, floating on a sea of blackness, and it took him shaking me for me to realize I was screaming.

                  “I can’t,” I sobbed, panic blotting out everything. “I can’t do this.”

                  I gasped at the cruel air that refused to let me land. I needed touch, the security of gravity, the sensation of my body, and I thrashed against the merciless nothing. His arm closed around me, pinning my arms to my sides and anchoring my back to his chest.

                  “Look.” He shoved his wrist in my face, showing me his watch dimly illuminated by the pink light filtering through the door. “It’s practically an antique, but it’s the only thing that works out here.”

                  I stared at the tiny glass face as the second hand marched in deliberate circles, its quiet tick deafening in the silence. My breathing gradually slowed to match it, and his grip loosened as I regained my senses.

                  “How are you so calm?” My tears floated through the air around us, tiny diamonds shimmering in the faint light, and he caught one on his fingertip.

                  “I’m not calm. I sing because it’s too damn quiet. I ask you questions because I desperately need anything to distract myself. I’m terrified. When you started screaming, I thought it was me.”

                  He smiled weakly at me, but his face was drawn and haggard. I wrapped my arms around his neck, needing anything to hold on to.

                  “This is the warmest I’ve been in weeks,” he laughed shakily, embracing me back.

                 Any lingering unfamiliarity between us vanished, and we clung to each other, the only specks of life in a vacuum. After that night, we slept holding each other. It was the only way to combat the excruciating nothingness. I fell asleep to his breathing and the tick of his watch and woke to his soft singing and a protein bar hovering over my head.

                  We fell into a dance, a rhythm, orbiting through the ship from waking, working, exercising so our bodies didn’t waste away, back to sleep, over and over, always together, always talking. He became my gravity, and as the weeks passed, so did my fear. I left behind the jumpsuit, the fabric becoming suffocating against my skin, and stopped ferociously pinning my hair to my head. I would hover under the arcs of pink light, eyes closed, strands of hair lightly brushing my face. I was free. I didn’t need to know I was anything; I was nothing. I was everything. When I closed my eyes, I became the universe, limitless and unending. And when he touched me, it was not my body I felt but the heat of his skin, the pulse of life he carried within him echoing in my ears and beneath my fingertips. While all was still and silent, he moved freely. He spoke. He laughed. There was a universe of existence within him, and he fascinated me. I was happiest when he smoothed my hair away from my face and smiled at me.

                  We continued our work only because that was our routine, but the numbers stopped meaning anything. I couldn’t remember why this mattered, and I hastily scribbled data into white boxes, rushing to when we could hover together on our backs, gazing up at the pink arcs of energy.

                  “I think I’m in love with you,” I said, staring up at the expanse.

                  On Earth, I would never have been so bold, but I was free of that weight, looking into the mouth of eternity with the only other being in existence at my side. He was warmth in a sea of coldness, the only light in a void of darkness, my gravity, holding me together, and we were eternal. His fingers twined with mine, and the pink light splashed across his face as he pulled my forehead to his. When he kissed me, I wondered if I had ever known what sensation felt like.

                  We would hover over the blankets, weightless, only the insistence of our muscles holding us together, my hair floating around us, the heat of his breath in my mouth keeping me alive.

                  “I wonder how this will show up on the chip,” he laughed, and the coldness that washed over me at his words was more agonizing than the vacuum of space.

                  When our journey first began, dread overwhelmed me whenever I looked at the calendar and saw the sea of days remaining before our return. The same dread filled me now when I saw the days we had left growing fewer. We had survived, and now they would erase him. Us.

                 On our last night, I woke him with my crying. Work abandoned, charts blank and data unmeasured, we clung to each other until the pink light faded, and we were left in darkness. I hoped this was death, that we could spend eternity here in the black void, but the ship shuddered around us. Metal shrieked as the door was pried open, and gravity welded us to the bed. I tried to hold on to him, but a flood of medics and researchers tore him away. I was laid on a stretcher and adorned with sensors and needles and liquid running through tubes. I tried to see him through the crowd, to find any trace of him, but he had vanished. The lights, the colors, the noise, the grating touch against my skin was unbearable, and I ripped at the needles, deaf to my own shrieking, until someone emptied a syringe into my arm and merciful nothingness returned.

                  They put us in chambers with dimmed lights and soundproofed walls, not together but close, separated only by a plexiglass partition. We would sit as close as we could, our foreheads leaned together, palms pressed against our transparent prison. Our vitals were under constant observation, red alarms screaming if our heart rates wandered too far. Doctors poked and prodded, asking questions and gauging our reflexes. I couldn’t remember how to fake sanity, but time slowly secured my mind back in my body. I had lost myself in space, but I still loved him even though gravity had made him thin and tired. He spent most of his time writing furiously. When I knocked tentatively on the glass, he would turn to watch me for a moment before smiling and turning back to his writing, and I wondered if he had already forgotten.

                  By the time we reached the transportation hub, we were deemed fit to return to our work and released from our plexiglass prisons. The first thing he did was reach for my hand, and we walked together through the halls, out into the bewildering crowds, to his gate.

                  “I can’t. I can’t do this,” I sobbed.

                  He took my face in his hands.

                  “I will find you. I swear.”

                  “But you won’t remember.”

                  He yanked his notebook out of his bag and flipped to the middle, showing me his meticulous notes.

                  You met a woman on board. You don’t know it yet, but you’re in love with her. Find her.

                  The pages were filled with our journey, our time together, me.

                  “I wrote down everything,” he said. “I don’t have to remember. I’ll find you. We’ll make a new story.”

                  “What if we don’t? What if it isn’t enough?”

                  “Then…” He swallowed hard. “At least we won’t remember what we lost.”

                  The vacuum of space had fused us together, but now gravity was too heavy. It was ripping us apart, wrapping our skin around us again. Even if he found me, those moments, those beautiful moments when we were alone in the universe, would be gone. He unbuckled his watch, securing it around my wrist.

                  “I’m coming to get this back.”

                  I held him as long as I could, but now I was back where it had all begun, where they had put a chip in my brain and told me I would be advancing space research by a hundred years. I traced my fingers over the watch face. He hadn’t shown me how to wind it, and the hands were slowing.

                 A nurse ushered me into a sterile white room, and I lay back on the chair as they shaved the base of my skull, wiping it with cold sterilizer. A needle pricked for the injection of the local anesthetic.

                  “The other researcher,” I said as I went numb. “Is he okay?”

                  “They removed his chip this morning. He’s fine.”

                  Hot tears blinded me. He had already forgotten, and no notes could bring me back. The doctor came in, snapping her gloves as she pulled them on.

                  “Like last time, we will keep you awake in case of complications.”

                  She disappeared behind me, and I felt a tug at the base of my skull, but no pain. I closed my eyes and let myself float back to those moments in his arms, weightless, fearless, when it was only him and–

                 I sighed, waiting for them to finish. I knew having this chip installed was necessary, but that didn’t mean I was enjoying it.

                  “Is it in yet?” I asked, twitching my feet nervously.

                  The doctor appeared at my side, a bloody chip clamped in a pair of forceps. I slowly realized I was on the other side of… I had no idea what. The clothing I thought I had put on just that morning was different, and my body was thinner. A hot tear trickled down my cheek, and I wiped a hand across my face, staring at the moisture on my fingers. An antique watch had appeared on my wrist, the second hand frozen in place. My heart ached, but try as I might, I couldn’t remember why.


~ R. E. Rule