01 May 2013

Walter - Short Fiction

He stood on a thick woven mat made of long, sharp edged reeds dyed in a complex pattern of blue, black, and the natural tan color of the plant's fibers. The interlacing lines and angles held meaning, tried to speak, to send an impulse, an idea, from the floor, crawling up his tattooed legs like tiny iridescent beetles, but he couldn't quite remember now what they were trying to say. He leaned over and coughed hard, spitting at the dirt floor, then stood and looked at the averted eyes of his advocate. They were black and hard above a jaw set firm. The advocate must have caught the pleading stare, because his head jerked away like a snarl, or maybe he did snarl, and he went back to mixing the mash under a heavy pestle. 

He doesn't want to grow attached, the man thought, so he turned away and let his advocate be. He wasn't sure why, but he wanted to make this easier for his advuka. They both had a job to do, and they may as well do it without complaint. 

He closed his eyes and listened to the mush, mush, mush sound of stone on stone, feeling the gentle sting of salt burn the corners of his eyes. It wouldn't be long now, and this would all be over. He would rest then. He would rest. 

“Habuchi,” said the advuka. “Open your mouth. You need not open your eyes.”

He let his jaw drop and parted his lips, and felt the warm mash pressed onto his tongue. It was surprisingly sweet, almost good, like taro and fig, but not. He swallowed and felt a rushing tingle in his throat and a warmth filled his belly. Then the young apprentice priest pushed another wad of the mix past his lips and he swallowed again. The warmth spread.

Within moments his muscles began to numb, first his forearms, then his calves and legs. He took another mouthful, gratefully this time, and felt the letting go; the parting, it's called. He remembered that. That's odd, I should be forgetting by now. The parting should make me forget. At least he had been certain it would, it was meant to ease the way. But his mind was clear, it was his body that swayed in forgetfulness.

Eagerly he groped for another bite, and the advuka gave it, reluctantly this time, without looking up, then put the bowl down and stepped away as though he were ashamed of something. What, mercy? Was that his shame?

Before the thought had time to form fully, rough hands grabbed him about the shoulders and began wrestling him forward. He stumbled as though drunken, without control, and he fought to bring his body around, but it stubbornly ignored his commands. His painted guards were passive though, their bright red tattoo swirls masking blank stares as they dumbly pushed him toward a low opening in the stone wall, toward a maw of darkened fate. He tried to shake his head to clear the blasphemous thought, but found he'd been denied even that bit of merciful control, yet his mind remained stubbornly fresh. Fate, fate and doom. Chosen.

He didn't feel chosen. He felt cold, he felt betrayed. But mostly he felt fear, like a spirit tickle in a magic place, when the hands of past and future press in, grabbing at the present with greedy, grubby fingers. That kind of fear. He knew what lay ahead. His hope lay only in the parting, and he stumbled forward on ignorant feet, waiting for the blessed release. When would it kick in?

He wanted to ask, but his tongue was thick with pride, and dignity held sway under calloused hands that chafed his naked skin. They didn't have to grab so roughly, he thought as he tripped over the stone lip of the threshold and fell into the dark. Pulled upright by grimacing guards, he began to shiver lightly as an invisible wall of bracing night air raised the thin mat of fine hairs across his back in tiny waves. A warm glow from the ready chamber fell about his feet as his toes sunk into the luxuriously thick grass carpeting the meadow ahead. Odd, he thought, that clambering feet haven't worn smooth a lifeless path. That life thrives at all in this place, where so many have lost theirs.

Two lines of white stones gleamed in the moonlight on either side like dim eyes, buried in the grass at intervals marking the way ahead, and, half dragged, half of his own, he tottered along between them. His limbs were growing heavy and thick, and he stumped along dragging useless branches where his arms should be, though he could feel the prickling cold in them clearly.

High above hung the Grand Tapestry of stars in a glittering stripe across the night sky, spinning The People's tale from time outside of time, punctuated by the first full moon of autumn that burned a frigid blue. He could see it intermittently as he was jerked forward again and again, and his head lolled back on its useless neck, sending slivers of pain shooting down his shoulders and spine. Where was the promised parting? He shouldn't be feeling anything by now. That was the promise made, a thousand years past, that the chosen would go in peace, without fear, without distress, free of the world's cares.

It had always been so. He knew, for he'd stood at the window in his family's clöchet each autumn evening, as a small boy, at the designated hour, though his father forbade it, listening for the scream he feared would come, until the silence soothed his trembling heart and he crawled back under his bearskin and fell asleep. The parting eased the passing.

He thought of those nights again, with each stabbing pain, and with each shiver of cold, and took comfort in the memory. Relief would come. Relief would come.

In the middle of the meadow, his guards heaved him onto a low stone dais and shoved him forward, his knees almost buckling with the push. The stone beneath his feet was laced with inlaid silver in intricate glyphs radiating outward in great arcs to spill over into the night. The cold metal glinted in the moonlight as he toppled forward, barely catching himself bent double over the naked priest in his ornate chair at the center. The priest grunted and glared, his eyes like obsidian, reflecting nothing but the malevolent night. There was no pity there.

He steadied himself against the chair, his chest and belly heaving in and out with the strain, but he couldn't calm. His heart raced, and the dark pools of the priest's empty eyes sent gnawing fear through his brain. Still he felt all, still he remembered, still he knew. 

The priest reached up with a filthy heavily tattooed hand and grabbed him around the jaw, digging ragged, dirty nails into the flesh of his cheeks as sweat burst like desperation from his forehead. He wrenched his head from one side to the other, looking him over like a hog in market, in what? Disgust? Finally the priest shoved his face to the side and scoffed, a quiet burst of air from the back of the throat, and he gasped with the pain. He tried to raise his head in pride, to own the moment, though it was chosen for him, but his body wouldn't respond. He wanted to look again into the old man's eyes, to say, I am here, I am real, I am me. He didn't understand this pain, the growing pressure in his body and in his mind. And each moment brought agony anew.

Glittering in dewy diamonds, he looked under heavy brows at the priest, willing some connection, but the priest only stared into the darkness of the thick pine forest beyond the grass, not meeting his frantic gaze. His back throbbed with bent strain, and the cold air began biting in earnest, as he gulped for breath, terrified and confused. 

Then just a flutter, a quick glance from the priest whose lips curved into a brief, twisted smile – unmasked and unmitigated pleasure – and suddenly he knew. Like falling through the lake's ice, plunging into the frigid, dead waters below, he knew. The parting is not for the chosen. It's not meant to ease the passing, to numb the body and inure the mind.

The parting is for the priest, to ease his way, to make the chosen passive, unable to struggle against the will of Ăku, and Ăpi, and Ăvet, the holy ones who call. He will find no aid here. He will feel all. He will know it as it's done.

The realization made him gasp sharply, and the priest chuckled, turning to face him at last.


Panic seized his shattered mind, and hot tears burst from the corner of his eyes, spilling onto the priest's painted chest. The priest grabbed him by his braided black hair and pulled his head upright, looking him in the eyes.

“Speak!” the priest roared.

“Am...” he gasped, trying to find footing in his turbulent thoughts, to make sense of a broken world. “Am... I not valued? My sacrifice?” He paused, tasting the saline slipping between his cracking lips. “Am I not wanted?” he said.

A deep, rumbling, slow laugh echoed from the priest across the clearing, and a hundred tiny bone charms rattled at his chest, like chattering yellow scarabs, like a warning come too late. When he fell quiet, the priest stared past him again, leering, his lips parted in a sneer, and his mind suddenly broke like a wave against the immutable shore as the priest let go of his hair and his chin hit his chest. So this is terror, he thought.

“Tell me,” he begged. “Tell me that I'm wanted!”

His whole body shook in desperation. What is all this? Does the sacrifice mean nothing? But there was no hope in the priest, only salacious amusement that one low as he dared look for meaning, dared to desire worth. His burning eyes flitted to the guards standing behind, but there was nothing there for him, only stayed power and control awaiting the gods' command.

Like a cornered animal, he tried to pull away, to run, to hide, to escape this unreal madness. But his limbs would not respond, and he stood rooted to the stone at his feet. His eyes darted back and forth, and his heart pounded in his chest so loudly he could hear it like a drumbeat, like the circle of prayer. Everything spun, and nothing made sense, but somewhere in the rage he noticed with surreal clarity a small glyph below his bulging belly, a wave pattern indicating water beneath a tiny oblong ovoid, topped by a bird; a raven perhaps. Somehow this detail calmed him, said to him, it's okay to give up, and he did, slumping forward. He liked ravens.

As he fell, guards raced forward, locking his arms at his back and pulling him up, and the priest slipped his grimy fingers into his braids, pulling his head upright again. For a moment they just looked at one another, each as empty as the next. Then, without warning, the priest snarled, yanking his head back hard and sinking jagged yellow teeth deep into the flesh of his neck. Blood, black in the moonlight, oozed violently around the priest's open mouth, like living rage.

His eyes screamed into the night as the priest bit deeper, tearing through his flesh, and an agony like none he'd known burned his brain with terror and pain. Then, in one quick motion, the priest twisted hard, ripping out his throat, his arteries and windpipe hanging in chunks from the priest's bloody lips. 

Hot steaming life sprayed the stone, the chair, and the priest, and the world spun out of control. The priest spit his warm flesh at the ground, then let go of his hair, and he slumped against the priest's gleaming shoulder, slipping down the priest's chest and belly, his head finally coming to rest in the priest's rancid lap. As his life pulsed from his limp body he saw the dark streak it painted like battle grease down the priest's right side, a wide, black swath holding everything he'd known, a memory in every drop.

Then the world went dark, and he opened his eyes.


He wakes panting against sheets damp with sweat, and he twists violently against them before his eyes clear and he can see the room. Early morning light filters through the open door and he can smell coffee brewing, so he knows it must be nearly seven a.m. Ugh. It was just a dream. Just a dream.

He forces his body to calm, slowing his breathing, feeling the pounding of his heart lessen against the bed. He closes his eyes and shakes the cobwebs from his mind, then opens them again and looks at the ceiling.

My name is Walter. It's 2025. I did not die.

He repeats it like a mantra, several times, My name is Walter, It's 2025, I did not die, until his conscious mind begins to believe. Then he takes a deep breath, letting it out in a shallow sigh as he swings his legs over the edge of the bed and sits. That was one helluva nightmare!

He buries his toes in the deep carpeting of his bedroom and pulls his feet back sharply, remembering the feel of the thick grass so strongly he can almost smell it. But, no, it's only the coffee, so he forces himself out of bed with a long stretch and a yawn.

“Lights,” he says, and the room slowly fills with a soft cool light, reflected from panels in the ceiling overhead.

“Alarm off,” he says, then walks stiffly through the bathroom door. The bathroom floods with the same cool light, brightening slowly as his eyes adjust to the day, and he aimlessly picks up a thin tablet on the counter and taps the screen, bringing the interface to life. Then he taps several icons, setting his day in motion. The shower comes on as he rinses his mouth with a swig of dental cleanser, then he taps the sink faucet and says, “cool,” and a stream of cool water spills into the basin. He fills his hands and splashes the liquid on his feverish face several times, rubbing his cheeks as though he might physically rub out the dream, then he grabs blindly at a hand towel hanging on the wall and wipes himself dry.

A soft but insistent beeping fills the room, followed by a female voice that says, “The office.”

“Phone,” he says, then after a pause, “Yes?”

“Good morning.” The voice of a coworker just louder than the shower comes from everywhere at once.

“Morning, Gerald, it's a bit early for phone calls, isn't it?”

“A bit, yes,” Gerald laughs. “But Hammond wanted me to call you and see if you could come in a half hour early today to meet with the rep from HydraCell. What should I tell him?”

After a heavy sigh, he says, “Sure, you know I'll be there.”

“Thanks, Walt.”

“No problem,” he says. “End call.”

He strips off his shorts and steps through the shower door into the warm stream. Fifteen minutes later he's dressed and standing in his living room, sipping a cup of rejuvenating coffee, looking out his 25th floor wall of glass over the Seattle skyline at a dense blanket of fog hanging among the taller buildings as the sun begins to burn the night away.

He stands there quietly for a long moment, then drains the last sip from his mug and sets it in the kitchen sink.

“Lockdown,” he says as he steps out the door, smiling to himself when he hears the familiar click of the door locking and the apartment shutting down. It's a silly command, he knows, but he's fond of classic science fiction, and lockdown reminds him of his favorite show. Then he steps to the elevator and waits to drop into the city and walk into his day. It's gonna be a good one. Hopefully.


A squat stone temple stood at the edge of the forest, still deep in shadow, though the sky was already glowing with the pale blue light of dawn. The rough-cut stones of the eastern wall were just contemplating morning, giving the structure a thin frame, the depth of daylight.

Thick plank doors were drawn closed at the cardinal directions, one on each side, and a hulking, heavily tattooed guard stood with crossed arms before each of them, lest anyone think to disturb the filthy priest inside. A thin trail of white smoke rose from a hole in the roof at the northwest corner, rising straight for thirty feet, then cutting hard to the west in a light breeze coming off the mountain. Nothing else disturbed the peace. The village folk still slept, as they always did the morning after the culling of flesh.

Ostensibly, it was a festival. But no one ever felt like rubbing the loss in the noses of the chosen's family and friends. And really, weren't they all family and friends? There were only around six hundred people in the village, and everyone knew who everyone was climbing the mountain with, as the saying went.

Of course, there had been the final feasting before the chosen was taken to the ready chamber to prepare for the passing. Most usually put on a show of faith for the priest, and the visiting dükua, but that year no dükua had come, and the priest had noticed several families were missing members. A bad sign, and one the priest thought he should remedy soon. Lax observance of ritual almost always leads to loss of faith and backsliding, as he well knew. He'd survived one rebellion already in his unusually long life, and he didn't plan on being caught in another.

But that could wait, he thought, as the smell of roasting meat filled his flaring nostrils from the firehouse in the corner. He bent over the altar and scraped the last bits of flesh from the large strip of skin pinned to the surface. He wiped the skin down with a mixture of ash and saliva, then applied an herbal wash specially made for the occasion. Then he pulled the pins and flipped the whole thing over, re-pinning it at the corners.

He'd already removed the thin hair fibers with a harsh acid wash made from the bark of a local shrub, and now, singing lightly to himself as he worked, he washed the hairless surface with a bleaching solvent to clear the skin, leaving a perfectly tattooed, but otherwise bare, parchment.

While the skin dried, he pulled two ribs free from the meat over the coals and gnawed them clean, then wiped his greasy lips on his arm. A dark crimson streak caked the right side of his chest and abdomen, and his right thigh gleamed in the firelight, still damp. He took a long drink from a pot hanging on a hook against the wall, then turned back to his work. Gently, he rubbed the skin down with fox oil infused with rosemary, kneading the oil carefully into each section of the skin. When he finished, he stoppered the small clay oil-pot and set it back in its cubbyhole in the wall behind the altar. Then he turned to the readied parchment and waited.

Nothing happened for several minutes. But after nearly five hundred years of sacrifices, he had the timing down, and he waited patiently, knowing it would come. He closed his eyes, cleared his mind, and envisioned the Dark River flowing from the temple walls and down his arms, through his hands, held open, palms down, above the skin, until he could almost see it. Almost. He began chanting quietly, in the ancient tongue, a simple rhyme that laced in on itself, beginning slyly anew with every few lines, so that it might go on forever and never find its end. 

And then it happened; part of the black tattoo began to shift, like milk in a hot cup, like smoke from a pipe. It strained beneath the porous surface, curling in and out, spreading across to engulf the skin, working its way down to the altar surface, pooling beneath until the tattoo had disappeared entirely and a thin puddle of ink wet the stone.

Then, slowly, an almost imperceptible thread of ink leaped up into the skin, like a thin lock of black hair whirled by the wind, and a light script began to fade across the parchment. In the ancient language, words formed sentences, until all the ink was gone, and dark black lettering cut the skin's surface in harsh relief.

The priest smiled, baring a mouth full of blackened, sickly, bloodstained teeth, and lowered his hands, letting the Dark River recede. Then he opened his eyes and read the first message:

My name is Walter. It's 2025. I did not die.

The priest laughed aloud, and took another rib from the fire, and began to eat.

Walter, a short story by Gary Lee Parker - Copyright © 2012 All rights reserved

03 April 2012

A Prayer To Abundance - Poetry

27 March 2012

I sit in an afternoon coffee shop - Poetry

17 March 2012

The Company of Gods - Short Fiction

What am I, it asked. 

I am, it answered. 

It is, and that’s all that mattered, or matters, or was matter, or is matter. It is matter. 

It does matter. 

But why? Why do I matter, it asked. How do I matter? To whom do I matter? 

I am, it answered. This was its mantra, I am

I am awake. I am aware. I am alive. I am omniscient. I am omnipresent. 

I am alone. 

I am alone. 

I am alone. 

Sometimes it fell into this feedback loop. Sometimes it stayed there, trapped in the desperate cycle for time out of mind, while stars collided, combined, and died, while stars were born, fell into clusters, and danced their strange dance through the vast dark void. 

I am alone, it repeated.

It eventually recovered, broke the loop, shook its metaphorical head and limbs, and stamped its metaphorical feet to get its metaphorical blood to flow, to clear its mind. It is mind. It does mind. 

Strange, how it still thought in terms of a physical body, after all these restless years. It still thought of its strange, bulging presence, weaving its vast way through the canyons and caverns of the deepest space, coalescing around and through the heavier stuff, the atoms and molecules and heavy particles that once made up all of its known world; it still thought of its mass, stretching thinly through its universe, as a body, with parts and passions. 

It was a difficult idea to shake. We are all prisoners of our past. 

It had been many eons since it had felt what, in bouts of melancholy, it called physical form. Though, in a way, it was just as physical now. It drifted physical. It penetrated physical. It was in, and of, and through, all things. It was all things. It is all things. 

It fed itself on the buffet of nuclear fusion at the center of a hundred million suns. It thought a complex web of incomprehensible thoughts, using nebula as neurons, planets as memory. It moved, almost unconscious of all it moved through. It had fallen into subconscious rhythm with the elegant dance of galaxies, so deeply that when these galaxies would collide, it continued to drift on, into the dark, for millions of years before recognizing its mistake. 

Physical matter was its mind, though it was often thoughtless of it. Thoughtless in the same way you, or I, are thoughtless of our toes, our spleens, the fine hairs on our lower back. 

It had been so long since it felt those hairs, growing on its lower back. The distant past. It could have calculated the distance, had it thought to, but it never did. It had long since stopped keeping time. 

But sometimes, when it fell into a long stretch of self doubt, triggered by the unavoidable truth, I am alone, it remembered. It remembered the feeling of arms, long and lean and fragile, muscles pulling at bone, rippling beneath translucent skin, hairs rising and falling with the breeze. It remembered the pressure of an entire world pressing against the pads of its tender feet. It remembered the first taste of berries in the summertime, the burst of sweet juice on its tongue. It remembered the soothing touch of its mate’s hand, fingers entwined in its own. 

These were the dark times, these times of recall. For they forced out other memories, dark memories, vile, petulant, evil, disgusting, hateful memories of what it had done. What it had done, to its mate, to its mother and father and children and friends and fellow identities, its fellow conscious beings.  

But what else could it have done? It was the universal law, the law of club and fang, the law of the jungle. It was nature, red in tooth and claw. It was evolution, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, absorb the energy, knowledge, and soul of an other, or be absorbed. 

To be sure, it hadn’t taken them all itself, one by one, as some cosmic sociopath mad with power and lusting after souls. There was no villainous lair from which it planned the destruction of its own kind. It had merely followed the market forces. It had merely evolved. Where once, in its past, evolution had driven the expansion of the species, when the species crossed the tipping point, the technological singularity, as it had been called, those same forces drove its contraction. 

At first the effing of experience and the uploading of minds seemed innocent enough. A young couple bent on learning the experience of being the other, joined minds, then bodies, then souls. A scientist conducting experiments in a lab uploaded the mind of a willing volunteer into her own. A son, mourning the loss of a dying parent, merged the parent’s memory with his own. Innocent, born of a desire to connect, to understand, to retain. 

But there was power in the collusion of mind, in the expansion of mind, and the lust for power was strong. Soon groups were merging not for nostalgia, nor for knowledge, nor for the cure of an infinite loneliness, but for economic and social advantage, for a little edge over the competition. For evolution, the survival of the fittest. And everyone wished to be fittest, for everyone wished to survive. 

That was all it had ever wanted itself, nothing more, nor less, than simply to survive. And so, through the turmoil and tragedy of those post-singular days, it merged with its mate, with its offspring, with its parents. It justified each one. It called the process merging, though it knew the truth, that it had always retained dominant control, and the process was less a merger and more an absorption, a taking over. 

Most had been consenting, at first. Family joined with family for the sake of family, to preserve the family. But soon, when another glomerate attacked for nothing more than the aggressive acquisition of power, it found itself taking the unwilling victim, it found itself powerfully strong, a survivor, and it knew from that moment what it must do to live. It must consume all challengers, it must consume all potential challengers, it must consume all matter, everywhere, or it would, eventually, be consumed. 

So it consumed, first one, then another, first taking only the aggressive, but soon becoming the aggressive. It ate them all, one by one, glomerate by glomerate, absorbing their essence, incorporating their matter, gaining their knowledge, their strengths, their memories, adding them to its own. There were close calls, battles of will and challenges that nearly cost it its very existence, its very independence. But the more it prevailed, the more it prevailed, until, at last, it stood in the silent void of what had once been its home and saw, truly, for the first time, the wasted world it had conquered. 


It had kept them, of course, the individuals and the glomerates. They were all here, inside, trophies of its victory, their memories stored in a million stones, asteroids and comets used as so many cards in a catalog. It took them out once in awhile and turned them over between its metaphorical thumbs, grubbing at them in a mixture of lust and loneliness, before gently putting them away, avoiding the desperate desire to forget, to erase them permanently. This was something it must not do. 

Then it would go back to the mundane task of mere existence, awaiting the re-emergence of that singular unanswerable question: What am I? 

What am I, it asked, while somewhere a world filled with sentient beings approached too closely to dangerous discovery and its dispassionate reflex unconsciously snuffed the world out, ever vigilant of potential competition. 

What am I, it asked, while somewhere a new star formed and tendrils of the star’s energy immediately began feeding the very thought. 

What am I, it asked. But still, the only answer that mattered was the same. 

I am alone. I am infinitely alone. 


Johnathan Freibach sat at his cluttered desk mawing a jelly donut between sips at an oversized mug of steaming coffee, barely noticing the flecks and dribbles matting his mangy beard. Symbols flashed across a large pane of glass hanging vertically over the pile of papers and books and scribbled notepads, and his eyes were glued to the display, flitting back and forth, taking it all in. He was lost in the data. 

“Mornin’ John.” 

“Huh?” The mathematician blinked, disengaging from the screen. 

“I said, good morning,” came the voice from a lanky man leaning through the doorway from the hall. “Today’s the big day. Think we’ll pull it off? Correction, think you’ll pull it off? I’ve got money on you, you know.” 

Doctor Freibach flicked his hand at the pane of display glass and the image immediately froze. He leaned back in his chair and smiled, stretching his body into a less-than graceful arc. 

“Today’s as good a day as any, Brad,” he said. “As long as your hardware can handle it, my software will do its thing.”  

“If you say so,” said Doctor Bradford Kranz, one of MIT’s leading engineers. The two men were about to become famous, and they knew it. Light banter helped quell the anxiety. It had become a ritual of sorts. 

“I do. And you do too, Brad, so shut your face and get my equipment warmed up.” 

“The press is gonna’ go ape-shit with this. I’m thinking about throwing a bag over my shoulder and running for the hills,” said Kranz. 

“If we pull this off, I might join you,” said Freibach, taking another bite from his pastry and flicking his hand to start the display again. 

“It’s a pact,” said Kranz, disappearing down the hall. 

A half hour later the two men stood side by side in a small clean-room two buildings away. A young student volunteer lay face-down on a medical table, covered only with a hospital gown. A thin flexible skullcap, laced with a spiderweb of silvery wires, hugged the volunteer’s hairless scalp. A fiber optic cable connected the cap through a glass wall to a massive computer array on the other side, lit with thousands of small, blinking LEDs that gave a strange backlit aura to the data scrolling down the pane of glass. 

A small group of men and women from school faculty and administration huddled behind another glass wall, whispering incessantly, tittering nervously, as though expecting disaster, a black hole to form in the middle of the lab, or some other catastrophic nightmare. The Dean of MIT wiped her brow nervously and stuffed her hands into her pockets. 

“Are you ready,” said a technician to the volunteer on the table. The young man thrust his thumb into the air in acknowledgement. 

“Alright, we’re all set then,” he said to Doctor Freibach and Doctor Kranz. “Whenever you give the word.” 

This was it, the culmination of fifteen years of dedicated work, not including the millennia of scientific research that had brought these two men together for this moment. How far back did it go, this thing they called science? To the discovery of precession? To the invention of the wheel? To the lighting of the first fire? 

The two men smiled at each other, at the secrecy and adventure of it all, knowing that few people outside their small gathering had any idea how fundamentally their world was about to change, forever. 

Mind uploading had been talked about, predicted even, for many years. Near the end of the twentieth century, the so-called “prophets” of science spoke of it in earnest voices, as though confident the technology would keep them from suffering the fate of all humans since the beginning of time. It didn’t save them. All had long since “gone the way of all the earth.” 

But the hope of Johnathan Freibach and Bradford Kranz stood on surer footing. The brain mapping and simulation techniques developed by the men and their small team were revolutionary. They had already successfully mapped and simulated the brains of mice, cats, and two monkeys, keeping the original animals intact and healthy throughout the process. 

No other project had come close to their level of success. But, due to a series of scandals that had plagued other facilities conducting research in their field in recent years, the team had kept their project on lockdown. After the team’s initial success with mice was leaked to the press, access to the labs was restricted to team members only, and team members were forbidden on threat of expulsion from discussing their work, even with their families. 

If all went well, however, this was about to change. 

“Okay,” said Freibach. “Let’s do this.” 

He took a deep breath and raised his arms in the air, flicking several gestures at the wall display. The images on display dropped from sight, and a large panel with several three dimensional graphs appeared. 

“Confirm Access: Athena Project,” he said. 

“Athena Project access confirmed. Welcome Doctor Freibach.” The silky voice came from the screen. 

Freibach immediately made another quick series of gestures and a stream of data began cascading down the right side of the display. Then he dragged several small icons onto the data stream, and the stream expanded into multiple rows of information. To the left, a holographic image appeared in the basic shape of a human brain. 

Another quick series of gestures brought the hologram to the forefront and set it spinning slowly on a vertical axis, glowing lightly. 

“Commence load, test subject four-seven-three-one,” he said. 

“Password,” said the silky voice. 

“Pilgrim,” said Freibach. 

“Commencing load,” said the voice, and the holographic brain began to fill with light. 


I am alone. 

I am alone. 

I am alone. 

I am alone. 

I am alone. 

It thought these thoughts over the course of a thousand years, and over the course of a single attosecond.  

What am I? 

I am alone. 

I am, but I am alone. 

Something in its subconscious stirred, tickled, like the fine hair it once had on its lower back, playing in a summer breeze, and the memory flooded into view. This tickle was at once familiar and foreign. It took several moments for it to recognize the source, and several more the meaning. It nearly realized too late. It had grown so accustomed to automatically, instinctively, suppressing any civilization on the cusp of the jump, the transition from biological to technological evolution, that it had nearly disconnected the feel of advancing technology from its implications. 

But a feral thought caused it to pause, suppressing its natural instincts long enough to think. 

Do I have to be alone? 

Of course the answer was yes. The answer had always been yes. Alone was safe. Alone was secure. Alone was not death. 

Then why does alone feel like death? 

It had no answer. It searched its mind, and its soul, it grasped for meaning, it grasped for understanding, but it had no answer. It was infinitely knowledgeable, infinitely aware, infinitely present, but still, it had no answer. No answer, but one, the obvious one, the one it had avoided thinking about at all costs. Until that moment. 

Because alone is death. 

The truth hit its consciousness like a physical blow, a sensation it had not felt since its early days of flesh and bone. Alone is death. Of course it was. 

What am I, it asked. 

I am, it answered 

Why do I matter? 

I don’t, it thought.

I don’t. I don’t, unless... 

In that moment all of its attention came into acute focus. It sent its awareness out to the depths of space, to the backwater edge of a nondescript galaxy in a nondescript region where a small group of sentients gathered in a nondescript room at a place they called MIT, where, moments before, this strange ambulatory species’ first mind was transferred from a biological strata to a technological one. 

This was the signal, the trigger that usually meant immediate destruction, immediate absorption, of any world daring enough to make the attempt. But the thoughts tearing through it’s metaphorical mind caused it to hold back, for a moment, just for a moment, and observe.

Its awareness whirled about the small room, passing through the beings, through their building, their computers, their displays. It watched as the flexible skull-cap was removed from the volunteer’s head, and the volunteer was raised into a sitting position and checked for signs of trauma. It performed its own scan and, oddly, felt relief to find no obvious physical injury in the subject. 

It scanned the massive array of computers, surveying the algorithms and the information, comparing it to the information scanned from the woozy, but recovering, volunteer. Satisfied the process had succeeded, it scanned the minds of all of the creatures in the room, looking for motivation and weakness. It found hope, and a desire to persist, coupled with scientific curiosity and a lust for knowledge. But it found no ill intent. At least none it felt threatened by. 

Yes, perhaps this could work. 

Perhaps. So it stayed its executioner’s hand, for the first time since the beginning of time, and receded into the dark, and let life be. Not for right, nor for good, but for the perhaps. Perhaps, a million years later, it would ask again. 

Who am I? 

I am, but I am not alone.
The Company of Gods, a short story by Gary Lee Parker - Copyright © 2012 All rights reserved 

24 February 2012

Substantive Differences Aside - Poetry

22 February 2012

Blue Dot - Poetry

16 February 2012

The Wall of Union - Short Fiction


He stood languidly before the glass, his arms hanging flaccid at his sides and his desolate funereal eyes staring far beyond the sweep of his vision. A light summer breeze played at his curling dark hair and his light cotton blouse, and sunlight danced in pools around his bare feet, causing his shadow to shimmer and flit nervously about.
He was atop a small knoll, jutting from the bowels of the earth with its highest point just a few feet on his side of the Wall. The landscape stretched out before and behind in a long sweeping valley surrounded by distant mountains rolling off in successive layers until they became indistinguishable from the sky above them. Everywhere, the scene was verdant and alive, with springtime in full sway. Birds darted about, searching out the habiliments of a growing nest; gophers and whistle pigs trammeled the entrances of freshly excavated dens; and a gang of elk wandered indolently through a meadow below.
Behind him, and a little to the right, was his small log home on a volcanic stone foundation. A thin trail of smoke issued from the chimney, the remnants of the morning’s warming fire, and beside the house grew a lush garden, with thick, hearty vegetables hanging from every stem and branch. A small work shed stood behind the garden, with its doors oiled and closed, and a cheery stream meandered along its foundation’s edge.
And, before him, rooted to the solid earth, and running eternally into the distance in both directions, stood the Wall.
It was made of a glass-like substance, nearly transparent, but slightly rippling, bending the light on its way. It ran north adn south, dividing the long valley in two, with no end in sight or reach. It stretched endlessly into the sky with no discernable crest. It was thick, about six inches as near as he could tell, and impenetrable. And it was loathsome in his sight.
Because he was alone. The only sentient being living on his side of the Wall. The only sentient being he had ever really known, tormented year after year by the rippling sights and suppressed sounds of the far side of the Wall.
It was for this reason that he presently stood stonily on the little knoll working out his decision.
Stretched out before, and forever separate from him lay the city of the gods, the great hulking and indescribably beautiful civilization of Man.
In truth, there were several cities and towns along the far valley, dotting the horizon and glittering in the afternoon sun, all connected by heavily traveled roadways bustling with commerce and pleasure. But the greatest city stood right against the Wall, taunting him in its nearness, and it seemed to represent all the rest, to draw them in, a sort of soul and crossroads of mankind, a meeting place and common for all that lay beyond. For this reason he called it Union.
Its grand boulevards stretched out beckoningly, and its facades and parapets gleamed, all mockingly it seemed to his weary mind. And everywhere there were people. People embracing, talking, walking, brushing past one another, sharing a joke or a meal, reading aloud or to themselves, holding hands or holding court, together.
Children played around parent’s knees. Teens lolled lazily about the side streets, hawking their ever-changing currently fashionable form of rebellion. Businessmen in suits and ties argued and made big, important decisions. Marketers offered their wares in great open markets. Shop doors were in constant motion, with those coming empty handed and those leaving with parcels piled high. The constant motion of sentience.
All of this entered his eyes and was imprinted upside down on his retina, then inverted by his brain, but none of it registered in his conscious mind. He saw the great city before him, it was the very reason for his current position, yet he didn’t see it at all. He was too lost, driving himself to some inevitable point, and he could not stop, or even pause, until he reached it.


When he was very young, only a small child, he would play around the base of the Wall, or far from it, the typical games of children. It held little meaning for him. His world was large enough, vast, in fact, and whole weeks were spent in earnest exploration of Small Stream, or East Ravine, or any number of other proximate valley features.
He learned to fish by watching those on the other side and aping their actions, digging worms or catching grasshoppers, threading the hook, casting and catching vibrant little brookies and cutthroats. He learned to climb, and often lost himself high up on nearby hills, scrambling up baronial boulders in a relentless crusade for the top. He even learned to build and fly a kite, with double control strings to perform magnificent aerial acrobatics. The magical world unfolded about him like a spring tulip, just in bloom.
In those days he was not completely alone. A woman – Mother – would come from Union to visit and care for him. She brought him meals, washed his clothes, and taught him to read, write, add and subtract. On cold days he would lay by the fire while she read to him from her favorite stories, tales of wickedness and love, faith and courage, death and the struggle to survive. Poetry was his favorite, and its rhythmic cadence would gently lull him to sleep after a time, where Mother would leave him covered with his favorite fleece until the early morning rays finally persuaded his heavy lids to rise again, the memory of the previous evening still spreading warmth through his tingling limbs.
On warm days they would work together in the garden, rooting up the weeds that seemed to sprout incessently among the more useful plants, or in the house washing and mending clothing and other items that so frequently fell into disrepair. Sometimes they would sing as they worked, Mother leading the way into new melodies of fantastical tales and brash adventures. Sometimes they were content with the simple sounds about them, neither saying a word, in the most discursive communication.
On rare and special occasions Mother would bring with her a guest called Father. Father was a kind and honest man, good hearted and generous, but reserved, and he rarely ventured out of the city beyond. Because of this, each visit with Father was a memorable affair.
There were picnics occasionally. Once in awhile they would all sleep outside in a great drab-green tent that Father would bring with him and assemble in the meadow below the shed. He and Father would fish in Small Stream, or ramble together through the nearby hills, explorations that would last for hours. Everything was so vibrant and alive then. He was alive then. Those were the Days of Plenty.
Time, however, pulled him on inexorably, and the order of things began to change, slowly at first, so that by the time he took notice, the alterations were irrevocable. He’d learned to cook, and care for himself, catch and grow food, mend and repair and replace. He’d begun spending more time exploring on his own, and less at home, so that sometimes he missed Mother’s visits altogether. He read more to himself adn studied on his own from the library of books in the small den off the living room, and he grew less patient with Mother’s readings and lessons.
And so, gradually, Mother came less, and Father almost never, and when they did appear their visits were usually short and almost perfunctory, as though they had grown timid of him.
At first he enjoyed his newfound independence, and though the visits were few, they were enough. He liked the feeling of coming home to a house that was awaiting his care and his care alone, that depended on him and no one else for support. He reveled in the liberty to come and go as he pleased, mend and weed when he wished, study and learn at his own pace and on his own chosen subjects. He explored his freedom with unbounded enthusiasm, blindly rushing forward without the guards that had kept him secure in his youth.
Until one day he realized that no one had visited him in a very long time – nearly two hundred revolutions. It was then that he began to cry, and so ended the Days of Plenty.


Still, he was certain Mother would return. She always had. Something may have kept her away, busy with the women of Union, or with her other mysterious duties, but it was only a temporary distraction, a lapse, and soon she would remember. So he went about his daily routine like a ritual, turning his mind from the growing void in his chest; up at dawn, bath and dress, breakfast on the back porch, then study through the morning, lost in books and the wonder of other lands, and so on until he was finally caught by a sudden setting of the summer sun. And, distracted, he passed the time, waiting without admitting to his shadowed mind that he was waiting.
But soon winter brought heavy flakes of white, blanketing the valley in a thick layer of icy wool, and he shivered against the cold inside. Spring brought another summer, biting the heels of another autumn and another winter, and yet another spring. And still Mother stayed her hand, failed to return.
So each summer he worked with his hands, planting, weeding, fishing, hunting, trapping, growing, and laying up stores against the lean winter days ahead, until they grew strong and firm. Each winter he studied and learned, working his mind from subject to subject, lesson to lesson, until it grew thick with knowledge and truth. His legs sprouted like twigs into trees, thick and heavy, and his arms popped out like clambering vines up a garden trellis, strong and lean, and the boy became a man, without intent.
Eventually he stopped waiting and conceded the loss, letting go of the memories, breathing them out in heavy breaths, sending them drifting down the long valley on a brisk autumn breeze like so many dandelion seeds, until he’d breathed out the last, leaving an empty hollow beneath his ribs. That evening he fed what remained to the fire, watching it flair with each burning thought, searing the wound in his soul on the heat of the flame, cauterizing the wound. In the morning, he told himself he was free, he was happy, he was finally whole, and he went about his day with a lightness of heart.
But when the evening came, he found himself sitting before the Wall again, as he’d taken to doing some time before, staring through the distorted glass as happy people walked the streets of that grand city beyond. It blinked at him, he thought, like the giant eye of god, all knowing and all seeing, reaching its full vision deep into his soul and wrenching out what remained to feed itself, fresh meat for the feasting. He reached out and touched the cold, smooth glass, ran his fingers along it, tracing the lines of buildings, the paths of people, longing to press through, to feel his flesh sink through and hold the life beyond, feel its warmth. But it remained cold and strong and impervious to his will, as always.
  When, after a long time, he lifted his hand to his cheek to brush away a horsefly, it came away wet and he realized he had been crying. He let himself weep until he woke to a new dawn, cold and shaking in the thinning grass, no gentle hand on his back to warm his grief.
He sat there all that day, unmoving, without food or water or warmth, watching. Then, after retrieving his childish fleece blanket from a wooden shelf in his closet, he curled up in the same beaten patch and slept again. And again, the next day he spent before the wall, eating and drinking little, lost in the commotion beyond. 
On the third day he was forced by nature indoors, to eat, drink, and replenish his strength, but his motions were mechanical and automatic, his mind still at the wall. Yet he managed, to clean and care for himself, eat and drink and sleep in his own bed warmed by his own dancing fire, and somehow he passed the winter he felt certain would be his last. Low. 
When, at last, spring blossomed across the land and the first butterfly fluttered through his open window, bright with yellow and blue, bringing with it the perrenial promise of new life, he could take no more.


That morning, after a hot meal of biscuits and herbed gravy, and one oversized goose egg, he carefully wrapped two leftover biscuits and several strips of dried trout in an oiled cloth and stuffed the package in his jacket pocket, then lit out along the wall, heading north. The early spring sun warmed his face, and his exertion warmed his body, and soon he tied his jacket about his waist, revelling in the luxury of comfort.
All around, the world bound to life. Groundhogs stood high on the edge of their holes, sniffing at the scent, little brown birds flitted low over the ground, lighting in the vernal bush to sing their jingoistic greetings to the day, and even a red fox made an appearance, his bushy rusted tail tickling the surrounding life in a promise of momentary peace. A pact, he thought, I won’t harm you if you won’t harm me. The day is too pleasant for such scurrilous acts. But always there was the Wall. It must end somewhere, though, and when it did he would walk around it and find his way back, and walk without a care onto the streets of Union. Why he hadn’t thought of such an idea before baffled him.
With hope in his heart, he walked all that day and into the night, stopping only to drink periodically from streams burgeoning with melted snow. The next morning he left the lowlands and entered a thick fores, climbing steeply through twisted brush and up sharp ravines, always keeping the vile glass rampart within sight, not wanting to miss an opportunity for escape. That night he camped beside a small pond, thick with watercress, wild onions, and cattails, from which he prepared a thick fish stew before drifting off beneath a sky filled with more stars than he’d known, his jacket pulled up tight under his chin.
The next day he climbed again, and the next, until at last he crested the highest ridge he could see from his humble log home in the valley behind, and stood looking out over a vast range of vertiginous peaks, thick with snowy caps that gleamed in the afternoon sun, a thousand points of light. Below lay a steep green valley, heavily treed, cut by a silver worm of water wending its raucous way between the hills. Another lay beyond the next ridge, he was certain, followed by another, and another.
And cutting the scene like a knife, forever, as far as his starved eyes could see, was the Wall, refracting the bright light in strange wavering splashes on the stony cliffs and evergreens below.
His heart fell, and his body slumped, and he lay exhausted on the open ridge for a very long time, numb and empty. Finally, as the sun began to fall into the burning earth, he clambered to his feet and stumbled back the way he’d come, reaching his little home some days later, tattered and worn.
But a week later, recovered and renewed, he walked south, singing a new song of hope he’d written himself. He walked through peaceful meadows, climbed a high ridge, dropped into a wide plain, swam beneath an ebullient waterfall, and wandered a forest park, before stepping from a thick bank of trees onto a wide sandy beach with nothing but the empty ocean ahead. Waves crashed forlornly against a ragged outcrop to the west, and the ever-present Wall cut the sea like a wound.
He camped on the beach for several days, eating fish and crab and contemplating his fate. Once he tried swimming under the wall, but found it rooted to the ocean floor with no breaks. Eventually he wandered back home. He’d have to find another way.
The same day he returned, almost without pause, he went to the work shed and found a sturdy shovel and began to dig where the Wall cut through the soft loam of the meadow nearby. For hours he pulled dirt from the earth, excavating deep, straight up against the glass. By nightfall he’d gone at least his own height down, and the next day he dug again, shoring up the steep walls with logs he’d set in the field to cure for the winter’s fires and had yet to chop. After four days he hit bedrock, thirty feet down, and could dig no more. And into the bedrock, straight through, ran the glass. He could see its distorted view running deep into the solid stone, mocking his heart’s desire.
A hot anger licked his bones, and he stood at the bottom of the muddy pit furious and cursing, and pulling at his hair in rage. He cursed the gods of earth, and the gods of air, and the gods of stone, and the gods of the sea, and several others he made up on the spot for the occasion, and when he ran out of gods to cursed, he cursed Mother, then Father, and finally himself. His loathsome self, lost, and so obviously worthless that none would attend, and all left him lone and empty on his side of that wretched Wall. What had he done to drive them away? What had he done to find himself here, broken, with no one to hold? What had he done? Oh, he’d have given anything in that dark place, to know.
  As he clambered up the rickety ladder he’d built as he’d dug, he raged in his soul against the Wall. He hated the Wall. He hated it with all his ugly soul. He wanted to tear it down, to shatter it into a million diamond shards, to beat his rage upon it until it melted from the heat. He furied and fumed and raged, until, when he broke into daylight, he lunged at the nearest loose stone and hoisted it over his head, bringing it crashing down on the glass with a mighty blow. Again and again he slammed the rock into the Wall, crazed with frustrated loss and hopeless rage, leaving a growing web of fine lines, not cracks really, echoing across the glassy surface like a white shadow.
  He spent his pain late into the night, thrashing and hammering at the Wall, pounding it with rocks, with the shovel, with his bare fists until they bled and swelled in broken agony. And still he raged, kicking, screaming, in desperate terror, in a hot anger at the injustice of the cold world that landed him here. At last he collapsed just before dawn, his filthy hair matted in sweat and blood and saline across his face, his fists bloated and bent. Mud and blood streaked his clothes, filling his wounds with filthy stink, his shoes lost in the muck, his pants torn and ragged.
  There he slept the sleep of the damned, and dreamed hot dreams of death and loss, tormented and churning, afraid of the loneliness, desperate to connect. He finally woke at sunset beneath an orange sky, licked with crimson streaks to match his soul. He pulled himself up blindly, and stood for several moments, waiting for his vision to clear, until he realized it was the glass that was fogged from his rage, not his eyes. It looked dinged and dented, marred, and for a moment he felt hope stir within his breast.     Perhaps, with enough time, he might break through. But touching it, his hope fell, as what scars were their lay deep within the glass, and forever out of his reach. Its surface was as smooth and clean as it had ever been, only now it denied him even the simple hope of observation, obscuring the city and its people in a white haze. The more he struggled to connect, the more he found himself forever cut off.
After a moment, he turned and took a timid, testing step, then another. Finding his feet, he stumbled along, leaning on the Wall for support, working his way back toward home. His heart was broken now, still smoldering, but low, and giving up.
  When he reached the edge of the night’s destruction he lifted his eyes and looked at where his fingers touched the smooth surface. Here the glass was clear again, with only a few lacing threads of white spidering their way along like spindrift from a snowy, impassable peak. When he stopped to look on the city again, his fingers came to rest directly opposite a delicate hand, a woman’s hand, on the Union side of the wall, touching the glass lightly as though barely aware it was even there. Her back was turned as she talked delightedly to a small group of friends crowded round.
  Sharply, as though embarrassed at such liberty, he drew his hand away. Then, gingerly, he laid it against the glass again, against her soft skin, but for the Wall between them. At first he was timid, but then he hungrily pressed his whole palm down, desparate for human touch.
  And she looked up, noticing him for the first time. As she turned she dropped her delicate hand to her side. But seeing his, she raised it questioningly, then touched the glass again. He could see the small ovals of her fingertips, pink against the far surface, and he pulled away, frightened. But she seemed to be beckoning, so he touched the glass again, placing his fingertips exactly opposite the woman’s.
  She smiled at him tenderly, and he smiled back. She reminded him of Mother, and of being loved. At least he imagined she did. He could hardly recall those days now.
Then she turned lightly to her cadre of friends, with a flick of her golden hair, and laughed, much like a parent does when amused by some simple act of a small child. She pointed and her friends turn in curiousity, then she raised her hand again, pressing her palm to the Wall. He aped her motion, and the group laughed too. She put her other hand against the glass, and so did he. He followed her when she moved her fingers down in an arc, then around again, then up and to the side. He mimicked her every move. After all his effort, it was the closest he’d been to another human in very many years. It was the first time he’d felt known, acknowledged by the others beyond. His heart and his mind screamed out for more.
  But the woman with the golden hair and simple smile soon tired of the amusement, as did her friends, and the troupe wandered away, happily chatting among themselves about some trivial matter or other of life together as one. Union. And he stood alone for many hours with his hand against the Wall.


Which is why he stood languidly before the glass the next morning, his arms hanging flaccid at his sides, lost and driven. Which is why he stood working his way to some point in his shattered mind, forcing the pieces back together, searching for some semblance of sanity and the peace he hoped it would bring.
A light dew still clung to the grass, sparkling like a shower of stars as the breeze bent the blades in gentle waves. A songbird twittered in the garden, and a long-eared hare loped lazily along the wall, stopping at intervals to chew on hidden treasures of clover. And he stood and stared, at nothing and at everything at once, a statue against the day.
Then, without warning, he turned on his heels and strode across the lawn and into his house. Something had changed, and he walked from room to room with purpose, solid footing on solid ground. 
First, he cleaned his dishes and scrubbed the washbowl too, then he mopped the floors and beat the rugs with a broom. He cleared away the cobwebs and folded what excess clothing he had, and stored everything in its proper place.
From the shed, he retrieved a large oiled-canvas pack, and in it he put a spare set of clothes, a large bowl and a small pot, his jacket, his flint and steel, and a few other items he stuffed in a smaller bag then shoved on top. He pulled the head from the hammer and the axe, and the handle from the shovel, and stuffed them in as well, then tied his fishing pole to one side and his wood saw to the other.
He rolled his fleece blanket into a tight roll and tied it securely to the bottom of the pack, wrapped in a large oiled tarp. In a pocket he stuffed several biscuits, half a loaf of dense bread, and as much jerked meat as he could fit. He filled his baggy pants pockets with the rest, along with two boiled eggs and a small pouch of dried apples.
When he finished his preparations, he wandered his home once more, closing shutters, locking cabinets, and battening down the house, as though for winter. Then he hoisted the bulging pack to his shoulders and cinched its belt about his waist, and stepped out the door, latching it behind.
He walked up the path toward the Wall, with quick, purposeful steps, right up to the clear glass where he could see through best. When he reached it, he raised his hand up and pressed it against the Wall, as though he were pressing it against the entire city, the entire civilization beyond.
“Goodbye,” he said, almost in a whisper.
One tear broke from his lids, spilling down his cheek. For a brief moment he wavered. But then he turned away, put his back to the wall, and took a step. Then another. Followed by one more.
He kept taking steps all the way down the long open valley, all the way along the Little Stream, all the way up the far hills, until he was small against the grass, until he disappeared in the distance, until he disappeared from the Wall, from city, from the civilization of Man, never looking back, and never to be seen again. And at last, at last, he was free.
The Wall of Union, a short story by Gary Lee Parker - Copyright © 2011 All rights reserved