Month: January 2017


The cruise seemed to have been going on forever. How many days now since they had left Vancouver? Brad leant into the breeze with his elbows on the rail, gazing disconsolately at the distant snow-capped mountains that slipped slowly past. And there was the curious way the sea seemed to curve up to the horizon, almost as if the ship sat at the bottom of a great bowl.

A few other passengers, some standing, some in deckchairs, were sharing the view, while the inevitable attendant watched them, oblivious to the wind. Turning, Brad could see the ship’s broad wake extending behind them, diminishing to a white line that curved through the channel between the islands. Islands, sea, mountains–endlessly changing, and always the same.

The wind gusted; Brad turned to go in.

“Had enough?” came a quiet man’s voice from beside him.

Brad turned to see an old man in a deckchair, his head turned enquiringly. “Nearly!” he said with a laugh. “It seems ages since we left Vancouver. How many days is it now?”

The man grunted and turned to gaze again at the horizon. He wore a cap and sunglasses and was wrapped in blankets. Must be very old, Brad thought. In truth, that had been one of the disappointments of the cruise. Cruising was a retirement thing; his mates’ ribbing about ‘the pick of the Alaskan lasses’ had proved sadly wide of the mark. Most passengers were like this chap, in their declining years. There were few young people, fewer children.

Brad tried again. “I can’t remember our last landfall.” This was almost true–somehow the smooth succession of days made it hard to track the passage of time.

The man nodded. “My wife feels the same.”

As if on cue, an angular but sprightly woman tripped out of the swing doors from the ship’s interior and grasped the back of the deck chair.

The old man raised a limp hand. “Elsa, have you met my young friend?”

The woman smiled, her face crinkling into lines, and extended a bony hand. Brad clasped it and introduced himself. Elsa proved responsive and, glad of the contact, Brad vented his frustrations with the cruise, the sameness of everything, the unvaried food.

“Oh, my daughter’s just like you!” Elsa said delightedly. “You must meet her–don’t you agree, Henry?”

The taciturn figure in the deckchair inclined his cap, and Brad also agreed. It was determined that they should meet at lunch. “We are the Ullmans,” Elsa confided; “the waiters will know our table.”

Excusing himself, Brad glanced once more at the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The sameness was uncanny: he could almost swear he had seen a particular double peak before. It was if the mountains were sliding past them on an endless conveyor belt. As Brad stepped into the warmth of the ship’s interior, his last impression was of Henry gazing fixedly at the horizon like the eternal watcher in some Greek legend.


I jolt awake, foggy at first. I’m sitting in an armchair, hands gripping the armrests, leather cool under my palms. Directly ahead of me, mounted on a beige wall, is an oil painting. Men in dark suites, and women in long dresses mill about in a sunny park.

I’m wearing a sharp tuxedo. Personally tailored. The jacket is unbuttoned, revealing a wrinkled dress shirt. My pleated black slacks are soft and comfortable. Shiny Oxfords complete the ensemble.

Where am I?

I turn my head from side to side. Plain walls, evenly-spaced doors and room placards, stand stoic guard down carpeted corridors. Each side is a mirror of the other. Ceiling-mounted lights illuminate the carpet’s brown and black diamond pattern. Clean and orderly. A five-star hotel, four at the least. But which one, and how did I get here?

A worse question occurs to me, one that drives out the others. Who am I? My name is there, ready to be taken but each time I reach for it, it slithers away like a wriggling eel.

Think, damn it. Think.

My mind bumps into one wall after another. It’s an awful feeling. Lost, helpless, insecure. The answers are beyond those walls but they’re impenetrable, inscrutable, silent.

I push myself up, stand on stiff limbs, and gaze at the painting again.

A pinprick of memory stabs through the wall. I owned this painting, or rather a reproduction of it. Sunday afternoon on some island I’d never heard of. I made an important decision, a life changing one, while staring at this painting. I squeeze my eyes closed, take in the darkness, and reach for the full memory. All I get are the dregs. Nevertheless, they’re powerful. There’s a bone-deep sadness there, a twinge of fatalistic resolve, and even a little curiosity. Despite their power, I can’t resolve these feelings into anything concrete.

My hands tremble as I smooth down the wrinkles on my dress shirt.

The hallway is quiet. Not even the sound of guests, ambient street noise or the ever-present buzz of hotel air-conditioning. I stand there concentrating, listening. I make out the faint electric hum of the hallway light bulbs. It’s like I’m in the vacuum of space, where sound waves die unheard, and the hum is my spacesuit keeping me alive in an airless void.

My suit…

Sudden inspiration has me patting my jacket. I find a pair of glasses in my breast pocket but ignore them. I almost weep with relief when my hand comes down on the bulge of a wallet in the inner pocket of my jacket. I pull it out. It’s a dark leather like the chair, but more worn. Soft and pliable, where the chair had some strength left. Barely breathing, I rip it open. Inside is a driver’s license, credit cards, and a hundred dollars in twenties.

The license says my name is Jacob Sheppard. Jake. It doesn’t feel right. My name should fit, shouldn’t it? It should feel as uniquely mine as my hand or foot.

The picture on my license is of a man in his late thirties. Pale skin. Dark reddish hair. Trimmed mustache and beard, blue eyes framed by glasses. A hand to my face confirms the mustache and beard. I rub at it, feeling the soft facial hair.

The credit cards are mine too if the silver lettering is to be believed.

I still can’t dredge up anything about myself and it turns my stomach sour. A hundred hastily-formed explanations coalesce and then melt into oblivion under scrutiny until only one remains.

I’ve had an aneurism or something similarly catastrophic. I need medical help.

“All right. All right,” I mumble, tamping down the panic. “Go get help. There’s plenty of people who can help.”

Turning to the right, I see elevator doors. Taped to one of them is a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Scrawled on it, in dark green crayon, are two words.

Lobby. Hurry.

The message is for me, I’m sure of it, so I snatch it off the door, fold it and jam it in my pocket.

Gratitude and fear mix. The second word is ominous, but someone’s guiding me and that bolsters my courage.

I take the elevator down and when the doors glide open, I look out on an empty lobby. Sunlight pours in through tall plate-glass windows. The striated marble floor, buffed to a high shine, reflects the glare.

The elevator dings, prompting me to step out. I take two tentative ones and peer around.

The reception desk has no one behind it, but above in gold lettering is the name Cheshire Hotel. It means nothing to me, and there is nothing familiar about the empty lounge bar, or the abandoned concierge desk. The entire lobby appears pristine, the smell of some lemon-scented product hanging in the air. The hum of the ceiling’s florescent lights are my only company.

“Hello?” My cracked voice echoes about the lobby, rebounding off the walls and empty furniture. I clear my throat and try again. “Is anyone here?”

No answer. The hotel can’t be closed, and there’s no sign of it being under renovation. It’s midday or at least looks like it. There must be guests in the rooms above, and if there are, there must be hotel staff to cater to them, but no one’s around.

I find the phone at the concierge desk, pick up the handset, and listen. No ring tone at all. I try dialing, but the buttons don’t produce tones. So much for calling nine-one-one.

The emptiness and silence gives me the creeps. I’m like a lone man wandering the interior of a snow globe.

Outside, parked cars line the street and more buildings stand tall across the way, but there are no pedestrians. And worse, no traffic. Not a single car, minivan, or box truck passes. There are no waiting vehicles at the intersection.

My blood runs cold. Has there been some disaster? A chemical weapon attack? If that were the case, there’d be evidence of panic, of chaos, and there is none. Fear washes through me, and I force myself to turn away from the windows. The hotel lobby must have some clue to make sense of this hollow madness.

A flash of bright yellow catches my eye by the check-in counter. It’s out of place in a room so meticulously orderly and clean. Another piece of construction paper lays crooked on the hardwood surface. I hurry over to it and read. The words Saint Mary’s Confessional and Hurry are scrawled in that same handwriting.

Another memory breaks through. I made a confession to a priest, but not in a church. He was a small man, wizened and wrinkled, with kind eyes. Soft hands enclosed one of mine on a hospital bed. Reluctantly, I confessed to a series of illegal acts. I should’ve been guilty but all I felt was pride and a touch of fear. What if he broke our confidence and told someone? He wouldn’t do that, would he?

The crisp construction paper folds neatly and I tuck it away beside the first. These notes are my only clue. They’ve been left for me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Without anything else to go on, it’d be foolish to ignore them.

All right. I’ll find Saint Mary’s.

How Many Angels?

Two of the three experimenters learned that God exists and that He values human life. They made this greatest of scientific discoveries almost an hour ago. Conrad remained outside the capsule in the atmospheric suit, delivering last month’s results. Technically the most isolated man alive, he still didn’t know. Chase sat stunned and staring on the flattened padding of his swivel chair where he practically lived for eight years. Millet, however, spent most of the hour with the lab rats.

“I still can’t believe it,” Chase said to the tiny screens nearly pressed to face. “I mean, I believe it, but…you know what I mean. The shock won’t leave. God exists. And He values human life.”

Millet stretched in his chair and tried not to bump into anything important–which meant everything. He felt no awe, only a steady joint stiffness from eight years of this capsular confinement. He felt the months of training in the test tank stacked on his bones too, that cramped, extra time required for a psychological evaluation. The discovery of God hadn’t done much for him to relieve the cravings for space and freedom.

He also still had work to do, preferably with some grace now that you-know-who watched for sure. He exhaled extra hard at the curved wall of the capsule, the experiment station which immured him and his two colleagues. His long sigh seemed almost visible, for in here the breath always bounced back to the breather. The rows of switches and gauges numbered in the hundreds just in the small patch of wall pushed up to Millet’s face. It looked the same everywhere. The three experimenters lived in a squalid eggshell of controls which, like the men, clustered in the smallest space achievable by science.

Millet left his chair–everyone’s chair–and clambered around Chase to the opposite side of the capsule. He pressed his hand down on Chase’s shoulder twice. It lessened the risk of toppling while he maneuvered half stooped. Despite the paper-thin tawny coveralls they wore, the balding environmental technician didn’t notice. He kept gazing slack-jawed at the onscreen data, the proof of God. No one reacted to getting used as a crutch forty times a day anyway.

Still hunched, Millet leaned toward the little station of the capsule he could call his. He didn’t have to walk to it, but just bend closer to the segment of wall with the greasier controls. There at stooped chest level, the row of three lunchbox-sized chambers remained closed. Their black doors still gleamed a little in the fluorescent light, despite eight years of accumulating smudged fingerprints. One chamber never got used; it served as a backup. The other two each contained a live rat.

Millet knew this despite how the chambers forbade a single photon to enter or leave with the doors closed. He had sealed the rats in there himself. Nonetheless, a little white light above each door indicated “filled” or “unfilled.” They helped on those dreary days when Millet forgot what work he had done earlier. No one would need the idiot lights today, though, nor ponder over Schrödinger’s cat problems. No one forgets anything on the day man discovers God.

Now, Millet threw the switches in the long sequence which always annoyed him. He had done it exactly 24,000 times before. Even Chase could probably flick the switches in order just from hearing the constant rhythm of snaps and seeing the procedure peripherally.

Over the years, however, only Millet ran the chambers. He pushed the flashing red button a final time and heard the expected buzz muffled by the middle chamber door. A hissing sound followed. Whatever mist remained of the vaporized rat now suctioned away into a vast tank below the capsule.

He killed the last rat the eight-year experiment required. This final death punctuated mankind’s greatest discovery. As always, Millet leaned his forehead on a familiar bit of wall oddly devoid of buttons and dials. The spot cooled his head briefly, a relief from the sudden heat of the chamber doors. While bending his head today, Millet wished he could vow to never harm another animal. But he couldn’t.

“Twenty-four thousand and one rats,” Chase said without looking. “Congratulations.”

The last rat to die served as a post-experiment test of the equipment. Millet, although having killed so many, still felt a pang in his gut. The cruelty of man’s thoroughness had created both the God box and witch burnings.

All the other rats, though, through their deaths combined, squeezed out a message to God in His dimension. By killing so many sentient animals in perfect timing, man had asked God if He values human life. A response at all meant that God necessarily exists.

Millet mustered a smile at the wall, for he at least had that answer. The experimenters gained irrefutable proof. God had sung a reply to every rat which asked a quantum snippet of the question, and He had ignored the rats man intended for Him to ignore.

Each rat had to exist in a witness or no-witness state at their individual times of death. The states measured God’s responses in a sort-of quantum Morse code. A rat functioned as a bit, a zero or a one in God’s eyes, potentially. The brief observance of God by a rat left a different reading than a death with God choosing to hide. For reasons Conrad understood much better than Millet, the animals had to die in a matter of Planck seconds for a reliable measurement. Hence the vaporization.

Only at the experiment’s end could the team look at the data and see that God’s message had gotten through. He had let some of the dead rats observe Him as man requested, with each assigned rat “witnessing” God in His own dimension for a Planck second. The readings pieced together a message to and from Him one death at a time. Though the rats didn’t have time to truly perceive the Almighty, God certainly saw them, and the machines recorded the blip of interaction.

Saint Ouroboros’ Day

The Sisters of Beneficent Misery orphanage and girls’ school sat precariously at the very top of the only hill in Orangeville. When Rita saw it for the first time, from the outskirts of the town, she thought it was about to topple over. It looked like such a shithole she nearly started to cry.

“Jesus-Christ-Mary-Mother-of-God,” she said. “That’s the dump you’re going to ditch me in?”

“Rita!” snapped Auntie Margie. “Watch your fucking mouth!”

“Oh God,” moaned Rita. “It looks like a prison, or a mortuary, or a lunatic asylum. I’m going to die of typhus in there. While you’re getting drunk at the Legion I’m going to die of typhus. It’s a certainty: I’m going to get typhus and die.”

Auntie Margie scrabbled around in her handbag for her smokes and ended up spilling cigarettes all over the vinyl seat.

“Just a couple of hours more,” she muttered and jammed the lighter into the dashboard, “a couple hours more.”

Rita glared out the window at all the clapboard houses with their neat lawns and their picket fences.

They pulled up at a four-way and a kid on a banana-seat sat at the corner staring at her. She gave him the finger.


Wirambi knelt and dug the moist ground with his fingers. He rolled a lump of soil in a ball and rubbed it on his forehead in a circular motion.

“I am Wirambi, son of Witjiti and Kinawinta, of planet Alcheringa. Please accept me on your land, Guriyal, and protect me.”

He watched the echo of his words bounce on the cliff face and fall on the ground, which shimmered with spirit energy in a multitude of shades of purple.

Now that his presence had been accepted, he could continue his journey knowing he would be able to draw his strength from this land, infused with the power of his totemic ancestor.

He had landed his spaceship at the foot of a snow-crested mountain on planet Currunjiwal. In the time of creation Guriyal had made love with Tjunkaya on the summit of the mountain after saving her from the evil Darluvouduk, and their spirit children had wandered along his songline, populating the planets he had created.

The same songline Wirambi was following. He had eight-hundred and eighty-eight standard time units left to complete his interstellar walkabout. At his return to Alcheringa, he would turn eighteen and become a fully-fledged adult member of the Guriyal nation. Only then could he ask the beautiful Elandra to marry him.

But that was assuming he would return. Boys who could not come back from their walkabout in time for their eighteenth birthday never came back at all. They settled on other planets where they had the same status of second-class citizens they would have had on their home planet, but without the shame of facing their families and friends. There was a settlement of such outcasts on Alcheringa, but they kept to themselves and Wirambi had never spoken to any of them.

He was confident he would make it in time, too confident in the eyes of the elders who knew the dangers Wirambi was going to face.

Whether or not Elandra was going to accept him was a different matter. He had tried to approach her, but she had waved him off like an annoying insect. She only had eyes for the ugly Galypilu, the son of the shaman who must have put a spell on Elandra to make her fall in love with his son. Either that or her father saw a union with the shaman’s family as a way to increase his influence on the tribe.

But things were going to change on Wirambi’s return. He pictured Elandra listening to the heroic deeds he had performed during his walkabout, her eyes ablaze with love and admiration, Galypilu burning with jealousy.

Squawking interrupted his reverie. He chided himself for being distracted, but he reminded himself that thinking about Elandra wasn’t a distraction, it was a motivation.

Darluvouduk had been defeated, but his descendants had survived and they had recognized Wirambi as a child of their ancestor’s nemesis. Wirambi shrugged. He had Guriyal’s strength on his side, more than enough to overcome the black birds with scaly wings who were circling his spaceship.

Wirambi’s task on Currunjiwal was to walk to the summit of the sacred mountain and spill a drop of his blood, as an offering to Guriyal.

He checked the contents of his backpack: a gourd of water, a bag of Darrangara nuts, two bumarits, curved sticks carved from the sacred Galimbula tree he could use as weapons, a length of rope and a coat he had made from the pelts of three tree-dwelling animals that looked like burumins he had killed at his previous stopping place on planet Badagaroong. Not only was he going to need it to keep warm here, it was also evidence of his passage he had to bring home. He put it on top of his purple kaftan and looked around him, searching for something unique he could bring back from this planet. The birds flew away as if they had guessed his intentions.