Tag Archives: The Colored Lens #25 – Autumn 2017

The Unfoundary

“Old man, what’s that up there?”

“The Unfoundary?”

“You call it that? What is it?”

I frown. It’s a broad gateway high on Thumb Hill. It’s made of tan stone, carved with shapes as old as the Thumb itself, flanked with squared-off pillars and wrapped in cords as wide as I am tall. The binding cords reach up, twined together at the tip of the gateway, and then on beyond our sight into the sky. We can see it from anywhere in the valley, Thumb Hill and the Unfoundary.

“What is it?” the young stranger repeats.

“We call it the Unfoundary,” I reply. “You must not be from around here.”

He shakes his head, which is covered in wavy brown hair. “I’m from the east. Trinlos.”

“Ah, a city. I’ve been there before.”

“You have?” Surprise, perhaps respect. “You traveled a long way, old man.”

“Us both. I hope you didn’t come to see the Unfoundary only, but we don’t have much anything else to see in our valley.”

“You have forests, and snow,” he says, glancing around past the edge of the village. “I’m traveling further south, but I like your village.”

“Fortune to you, then,” I say with a slight bow.

“Tell me, though, what is this Unfoundary? It must be as wide as your whole town!”

I can’t tell whether he means to compliment our scenery or insult our size. “I’d stay off the hillside, if I were you. The Unfoundary is an evil place.”

“What’s evil about it?”

“It’s a place where the dead go–where people sometimes go to die.”

His face shows interest, curiosity. “Trinlos is superstitious, but I didn’t think you westerners were as well.”

I shrug my shoulders. “We stay alive this way. And safe.”

The young man’s intrigued expression fades as he shifts his haversack and stamps his feet for warmth. “I’m not sure how much I believe of your superstition, but it’s interesting, to say the least. Good day to you, old one.”

I grunt. “Safe travels.” What I wouldn’t give some days to travel again. It’s been fifteen years since I so much as climbed the side of the valley.

The day is calm and white–early snowfall from a blank sky. Most of the village stays inside their huts, pungent smoke filtering out through fire holes and the occasional opened door. I see my friend Onór at the side of her hut watching the traveler go.

“You talked to him?” she asks me.

“Yes. He’s from Trinlos–did you know I went there once?”

“Where haven’t you gone?” Onór asks with a faint smile. “I think you’ve had too many years with not enough work to do.”

Perhaps she’s right–I’m five years older than anyone else in the village–forty-five older than most. Some of them have never left the valley. Most have never left sight of it, never seen a city or a sheer mountain or the sea. It’s strange to be the old one.

“Where’s he headed to now?”

“South,” I reply. “Probably looking for money.”

“There’s no riches worth leaving a safe warm hearth for this time of year.”


Onór sees my eyes following the traveler onto the forested slope of the valley. “Oh, did you want to go with him?” she asks dryly. “Poor old dog. I think your travels are done now.”

“Maybe,” I say again, with an idea shaping in my mind.

A God’s Song

It was a beautiful day when the priests invaded our home. Cloaked in prayer and singing hymns, they shaped our natural environment to suit their bodies. The clergy bent pieces of space-time into rock and water; they forced our bodies that were so used to existing as incorporeal concepts into something they could understand. They defined what we could be until it was what we were.

I remember raging with my family at the rudeness of it all. But, like the others, I calmed as the priests spoke.

They spoke of their home far away and the evil that plagued it. A place filled with fear, anger, hostility, and those who had given up. The priests begged anyone who would listen to go back with them—help them heal their sick and teach them how to care for those who had wandered from the faith. Even now, looking back on it, I’d have made the same decision. There was no way to know. No way to tell just how misguided and cruel they’d turn out to be.

The night before I left, my family and I sang and danced in the stellar fields above the place we called home. It was a song my mother had taught me when I was newly created. A simple four-note melody that echoed across space and filled me with the love and joy of fond memories. It was a reminder of where I’d come from and where I’d go. She told me to hum that song whenever I missed her and to sing with the glory of our pantheon if I ever needed them. “We’ll find you,” she told me, “and we’ll bring you back home.”

Dawn came and I left the undefined reality of home and crossed into the small pocket of physical space where the priests were waiting. They led me to their ship that was docked nearby (their bodies couldn’t yet handle the pressure of conceptual space).

They ushered me inside and sealed the outer walls. The priests gathered around me and filled the air with their echoing chant as they led me deeper into the bowels of the vessel. I felt my new body wrap around me, defining my form and twisting me into a new shape even as I fought against it.

I felt myself diminish with each step. I couldn’t hear the yawning cosmos or feel the subatomic explosions dance across my thoughts. I should have turned and fled. I should have sung my mother’s song and had my brothers and sisters tear this ship apart.


Us, Spawns

“I guess this is not the right day for a sponge.”

“Is there a right day?”

“Must be. A rainy day won’t let me walk past the corner, makes me feel all fat and bloated. A sunny day will turn me into a raisin, old and used up. A windy day now-”

“Got it.”

Their room does not catch the sun, constantly washed in sterile, fluorescent light. Creased sheets, stranger-stained, on two single beds nailed together. As cheap as it gets. Ten euros an hour and twenty a night. The clock is ticking Coca Cola time on the beige wall.

The Lord of Dead Ends blows a perfect circle of smoke towards the ceiling. He cracks his fingers and cautiously leans back against the headboard.

“We need to get going,” says Sponge the Bright, fishing the last crisps from the bottom of the bag.

“You’ll smell like crisps for days,” the Lord of Dead Ends says and grabs the bag from his hands. The TV burps a tulip of purple steam as he turns it off; its cogs grunt and stop.

“Fine. And you get dressed. It takes ages to wrap you up and our first shift starts in an hour.”

“Right.” The Lord of Dead Ends unfolds his long limbs and stretches throwing his head back, hair tickling his waist. His padded full-body suit hangs limp on the coat rack, black. When he wears it he feels like it’s swallowing him up, every inch of his dazzling white skin. It still leaves the face uncovered, though. When you are made of porcelain, there are only so many precautions you can take. “You know this job won’t last either, so don’t keep your hopes up.” He zips the suit up, testing it for spots where the padding has thinned, it seems fine. “There is a reason I am called the Lord of Dead Ends.”

Sponge the Bright snorts and jumps around as he tries to squeeze his fluffy arms into the sleeves of his coat. “I really need to get a cloak next time,” he says, fumbling to button up and failing. The Lord of Dead Ends stifles a chuckle and stubs his cigarette in the astray.

“Shit,” he says, leaning towards the window, looking up. “You were right. It’s this fucking poisonous rain again. I’ll get the umbrellas.”

Office Hygiene

“Grrreg! Come in here.”

I hated how he rolled his Rs. It always made my skin crawl. This time it also made me chomp down on my tongue. Made it bleed.

I swallowed my blood with a wince. God, I hoped he couldn’t smell it. But I knew he could. He could smell everything. The worst thing about having a wolf for a boss, worse than the rolled Rs, worse than the trails of saliva down the corridors and in the break room, was his sense of smell. I learned early on, and learned the hard way, to forgo steaks for dinner, even on weekends. He’d always get a whiff of it the following day, and he’d be on me like…well, like a wolf.

My sense of smell, unfortunately, though not on par with a wolf’s, was still quite keen. I opened the door to his office and the stench churned my stomach. Don’t vomit again! Don’t vomit. Don’t vomit.

“Yes, Boss. What is it, Boss?”

“Congrrratulations.” His tongue swiped his teeth and gums as if lapping up the saliva-ladened syllables that dripped from his mouth.

I managed, quite convincingly, to contain my enthusiasm. I deserved that promotion. He wasn’t doing me any favors. “Thank you, Sir.”

“You’re going to be Simon’s right hand man.”

“Simon?” That incompetent suck up!

“Yes, Simon!” My boss’s tail rose from behind his chair, swished back and forth, and smacked the phone on his desk, knocking over the receiver. “Every good project manager needs an excellent project manager’s assistant.”

If, by good project manager, he meant an opportunistic buffoon whose only contribution was daily bison scraps, then yes, Simon did deserve the promotion. I bit down on my disappointment. “Thank you, Sir. Will there be anything else, Sir?”

“Yes. Don’t tell Simon until after lunch. I want to give him the good news myself.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Oh, and speaking of lunch. No more antelope. I’m sick of antelope. Order me elk. I have a craving for elk today.”

“Yes, Sir.” I turned to step out of his office, then like the ‘excellent assistant’ that I was, I turned back. “It’s just that…”

“It’s just, what?” His tail swiped the desk and sent some papers to the floor–my efficiency report!

“It’s just that they take so long to deliver elk. Perhaps I could…” I paused for dramatic effect and feigned to be intimidated by his beady black eyes.

“Perhaps you could what? Spit it out!”

“Perhaps I could put in the elk order for tomorrow. Then it’d be sure to arrive on time.”

His smile, if you could call it a smile, stretched behind his perked up ears. He showed me his fangs. His tongue flapped out of the side of his mouth, and he made no attempt to keep the saliva from dripping out. “Elk meat, today!”

“Yes, Sir. Will do, Sir.” I slipped out, shut the door behind me, and took a deep breath of slightly less repugnant air.

Quarter past one and the tension in the office was palpable. No one dared leave for lunch before the boss got his. I picked up my phone and made the call. “Listen, Simon. The boss needs to see you.”

I barely had the time to hang up the receiver before Simon came parading by my cubicle. He gave me a nod. I scrunched my nose and turned my head in rehearsed disgust. “P.U.!” I fanned my face. “Hell, Simon. What happened to you?”

He stopped dead in his tracks–might as well have been a deer in my headlights. “What? What do you mean?”

“I mean that smell.” I pinched my nose with one hand, with the other I pulled the flask out of my desk drawer and handed it to him. “Don’t go in there like that. Here, spray a bit of this on you first.”

He undid the cap and took a whiff–as if he could tell shit from Chanel!

“What is it?”

“It’s what you need.” I waved him away, my other hand still covering my nose. “Now hurry up before I get sick and the boss gets impatient.”

He sprayed his neck–Perfect spot. Good choice, Simon.–handed me back the flask with a smile, and headed for the boss’s office.

Elk urine had never smelled so sweet.

I put the flask back in the drawer, retrieved the other one–Cognac–and strutted down to Cindy’s cubicle. Her cubicle had a much better view of the boss’s office than mine–just off to the side of the glass partition. I passed yet another intern on the way. I smiled at him since I was, after all, glad to see him. Even though we hadn’t had a mauling in months, it’s always handy to have a few interns around just in case.

“What’s up?” asked Cindy.

I plopped myself on her desk and spun around so I could get a good view of the boss’s office. “How’s the new intern working out for you?” I asked.

“Not bad. Not bad.”

I opened the flask, took a sip, and handed it to Cindy.

“Says he enjoys the job and can’t wait to get his hands dirty,” she added.

I chuckled. Even though it was a shit job with a wolf for a boss, sometimes things seemed to work out for everyone–well, almost everyone.

“Thanks. What are we drinking to?”

“The sweet smell of success, Cindy. The sweet smell of success.”

Kami No Kariudo

The Amenonuhoko cut through the space between worlds like a blade through grass. Nichibotsu stood on the observation deck, staring out into the shifting darkness. Space folded in on itself, manipulated into an endless interstellar origami by the ship’s drive plates, lurching forward towards its final destination in an erratic series of jumps.
A crewman appeared at the top of the stairs and briskly approached.
“Well?” Nichibotsu enquired impatiently.
“We estimate planetfall in just over twenty minutes” the crewman replied in a voice that matched his Captain’s exactly.
Nichibotsu turned and stared into his reflection’s face, noting the proud stance.
“Good” he observed, “the ship will remain in orbit whilst I complete my task.”
The crewman bowed in acknowledgement and returned to his station. Nichibotsu surveyed the throng of doppelgangers working below. Blister clones had their uses he acknowledged. Not only had they removed the need to take on fresh crew during his centuries-long voyage, but more than once these curious biomimetics had saved his life, sacrificing themselves beneath the wrath of tempestuous gods. Eternals rarely went quietly when confronted with death, and most had chosen to take as many with them as possible when forced to relinquish their hold on reality.
Outside, stars slowly emerged from the blur of movement. Nichibotsu sensed the deceleration long before the deck began to shudder and by the time the Amenonuhoko dropped into orbit, he was striding purposefully across the flight deck towards the forward section.
His First Lieutenant appeared at his side, falling neatly into step as the two men descended through the bowels of the ship. ‘One’ was the most long-lived of his replicas and second in command, having been transcribed from Nichibotsu at a much younger age. The man’s handsome features were obscured though by a mesh of melted flesh which covered one side of his face and his shoulder; a parting gift from another vengeful God.
One eyed his Captain with a calm gaze that perfectly illustrated his understanding of the situation.
“I’ll be transporting down to the surface in a few moments,” Nichibotsu instructed. “If I do not return within the hour, you know what to do?”
The clone nodded his compliance and handed Nichibotsu a small pad.
“Core Imploders are primed and ready to launch, sir. Rift Incendiaries are also prepped, just in case the target attempts to leave the system.”
Nichibotsu smiled narrowly.
“Efficient as always.”
“Would you expect anything less, Sir?”
“Indeed I would not.”
The two men exchanged a brief salute, followed by a formal bow more befitting of their heritage before One took his leave and strode back towards the bridge.
Nichibotsu ran a practised eye across his armour and regalia, checking both were intact. His hand traced the carvings of his cuirass and came to rest atop the hilt of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the larger of the two swords slung at his hip. The weapon was the last vestige of his heritage and he still felt the pull of the past whenever he laid a hand atop the accursed blade.
Nichibotsu remembered the first time he had drawn the sword from its scabbard: Susanoo’s gurgling cry of rage as he died, choking on his own blood and treachery. Nichibotsu could not outrun the shame of his betrayal, but at least with the storm god’s death, he had been assured that the accursed deity would join his murdered sister in Jigoku.
The strange properties of the blade continued to imbue him with near limitless longevity, but the truth which festered at his core would ensure he never outlived his guilt. Even now, with the end of his task at hand, the ancient Samurai could not escape the knowledge that he would forever be Ronin, cursed to wander the stars without master or honour.
Coolant gas hissed conspiratorially as he entered the transmission chamber, stepping briskly up onto the projector. The operator offered a grim salute before keying in the start-up program.
“Do not trouble yourself with thoughts of victory or defeat…” the technician announced solemnly, without looking up.
“… but instead plunge recklessly towards irrational death” Nichibotsu finished, acknowledging the proverb.
Thoughts of belief and subservience entwined like angry serpents as he reminded himself of the most important advantage which his stem-grown crew bestowed: that of blind obedience. An alternative band of hard-bitten organics or pre-assembled mercs would have looked up to him. Through numerous battles they would have learned to trust his judgment and his leadership. In time, they would have come to worship him and that, he could never allow.
Idolatry – the word made him sick, so symbolic of that which he sought to expunge. Faith was the double-edged sword which Nichibotsu now wielded. Though followers of any denomination needed their gods, so was the reverse also true. Nichibotsu had learned to see past the obscura of dogma and tenet to realise the true fragility which lay at the core of each god: that their power was entirely dependant upon the faith bestowed by their followers. Take an immortal’s allegiance, tear down the obsequious flesh of his disciples till he stood truly alone and you exposed the puny truth of his heart – a heart which could be punctured by any common blade and bled dry. The hatch snapped shut, leaving Nichibotsu alone in the mist of swirling gas to await transport.
For years he had hunted them – destroyed worlds as he sought to rob his prey of their defences. He had constructed vast weapons of destruction: orbital platforms and pan-dimensional atomics to wage his private vendetta, transgenic scout ships with which to scour the galaxy from one end to the other, watching his once omnipotent quarry scurry away. Some had gone quietly, unable to grasp the incumbent reality of their end. Others had stood their ground, hurling petty flame and brimstone in his path till the skies burned red and crackled with fire. Nichibotsu had not cared. He had robbed each of their essence, on their feet or their knees, drinking their dark power and growing stronger with each victory.

Lies About Your Better Self

I watched Amanda eat. Some celebrity chef had launched a high-end restaurant by her office, so she and some ad agency colleagues had gone to check out the opening.

Her food was amazing. She had this tic where she clenched the muscles up where her jaw met her ears. She only did that when she was eating something really good, like she was fighting to keep the flavor in her mouth.

I clicked my trackball, pausing the footage and freezing Amanda with a perfectly-balanced forkful of something green and frondy halfway to her mouth, already composing the caption in my head. People came to this job thinking they’d get a deeper appreciation of life, vicariously experiencing what they’d never have. They learned fast.

I strobed through Amanda’s afternoon. She had a campaign photoshoot, her first time at the helm of a major project. I swiped off stills and marked out clips of Amanda directing the models. She kept tucking her hair behind her ears — she did that when hiding nerves — but she looked authoritative, a natural. People would eat this up. Behind-the-scenes posts from Amanda’s job always got strong Attention Capture, especially when models were involved.

I grabbed my picks and assembled a photo collage, a few video montages for the weekly “Look Back”, and some hashtagged text-under-photo posts, then dropped them into the queue for publishing. Some clients insisted on approving everything we posted to their social feeds, but Amanda trusted us.

I was closing up when a fresh dataload hit my inbox. Every dataload was a melange of the unstructured digital detritus we crap out every day. Social posts, location data, streaming tracks, cat videos; everything we cram into our faces to make our existence a little more bearable. The YouPlus app on Amanda’s phone slurped up all of that for us. Like most YouPlus clients, she also wore a LifeCam, which grabbed stills and video at irregular intervals based on situationally-aware algorithms. A couple of times a day, I received a voyeur’s wet dream, a barely-filtered glimpse into the lives of half a dozen in-crowd clients.

At first, it was thrilling; deep access to the lives of people so far beyond me in the social pecking order –people who could afford to pay YouPlus more than my annual salary each month to optimize their online self-image.

The thrill faded fast. Seeing how the other half lived threw my life into sharper relief, and their obsession with sculpting the perfect online persona — not professionally, but to their friends — made me despair. The only thing that kept me here was Amanda.

The dataload was marked “high priority”. I was officially off the clock, but Amanda paid premium, and Zed would give me another chewing out if I sat on this until morning. I flicked through the material. It looked routine, not worth fast-tracking, until— There. Harvey, down on one knee, holding up a glittering rock big enough to brain a four-year-old. Video from Amanda’s POV, plus a side view from Harvey’s phone, carefully placed to capture the moment from a flattering angle.

I grinned. This had been a long time coming. I’d watched Harvey through Amanda’s lens long enough to have spotted the signs weeks ago, and I’d been looking forward to watching her kick the asshole to the curb. The worst of their fights, his gaslighting and psych-out manipulation never made the feeds, but, even in the narrative, their relationship had been up and down all year; it just needed a catalyst to get her to drop the bastard. I skipped over his speech, looking for the moneyshot.

She said yes.

I sat there, mouth open. Why would she say yes? She finally had the chance to be shot of him, a perfect trigger to kick out the man who made her so unhappy, and she said yes?

Amanda was the only one who still gave me hope. She was real, even through the repackaged self of the social media lens; there was a vulnerability at her heart that let me feel, deep down, that we weren’t that different. She wasn’t like the others, the Fauxialites who’d do anything for their dopamine hit of attention. They might as well have been another species. Homo Narcissus. That was why Amanda’s narrative worked so well — it had a real person at its heart. The Amanda I knew would never have said yes.

I hovered my hand over the trackball, flexing my fingers, thinking; waiting. I had more than enough material stored up. Ball and screen blurred as I pulled up half a dozen old dataloads, searching for the right pieces.

I could fix this.

The Train Set

He came back on the one-year anniversary of his death. Robert opened the door to his son’s untouched bedroom, preserved down to the glass of water on the corner of the nightstand, now only a film of liquid at the bottom, and there was Samuel, hunched over at the desk, his hands fiddling with the tracks of the unfinished train set, the train set that Robert had begun assembling just yesterday under the lamp’s dim beam that cut through specks of dust flaking down.

At first, Robert didn’t even start; that subconscious part of him that still reached for two dinner plates instead of one welcomed Samuel back into his life against logic. And how many times had Robert opened the door hoping that his son would be there, that the past year had been a stretched-out nightmare? Robert didn’t follow a specific creed, but believed that death was the separation of the soul from the body, which he’d read somewhere in his college days and had wrapped his fingers around the day Samuel came into life and Maribelle passed away just moments after. Still, for a reason Robert couldn’t explain, seeing the back of his dead son’s head didn’t shock him as much as it should have, sending only a current of apprehension through him. He was probably just dreaming, but if this were a dream, he didn’t want to wake up.


Robert almost didn’t want his son to turn around. Samuel’s death had not been pretty. Not at all, and Robert had felt Samuel’s cracked limbs and bones shifting beneath his flesh like a bag of rocks when he’d picked Samuel up from the street after the accident. They’d been on their way back from the toy store, that large train set box on Samuel’s lap, when the truck in the next lane began skidding in the rain.

Samuel turned around, a blank, calm look on his face like it was just another night. The moonlight through the window bounced off his round cheeks. His skin was white and without the vein-like scars that the mortician had done well to hide.

“Hey, Dad. Why did you start without me?”

“What… what do you mean?” Robert held the doorframe; his knees wobbled like Jenga towers barely balanced, a single beam pulled out and he’d collapse into pieces.

“We were supposed to make the train station together,” said his son in his sweet, six-year-old voice.

Cold tingles crawled up Robert’s arms. He blinked his eyes hard several times, then took a hesitant step inside, feeling as if the shift of his weight might make his son dissolve into the lamplight as quickly as he’d gone a year ago.


Robert had no more words. He took another step in. He was less than a few feet away from his son now. Did he dare approach him, this … what was it—this ghost? Squinting his eyes, Robert tried to see if it was an apparition. But Samuel was fully there.

“Look,” Samuel said. He turned back around, his arms and hands moving. “I’m adding a track.”

Robert’s teeth were clicking nervously. If this were the ghost of his son, then at least he had a chance to talk to him again. If this were a dream, then he’d let himself indulge in it—see what his subconscious had to say about his son’s memory. Or what if—Robert himself had died in the accident as well, and hadn’t moved on yet? He took a deep breath and took a few more steps forward until he was standing over his son’s shoulder. He gulped, running his fingers over his pants and fidgeting with the pockets.

On the desk, train tracks were spread out like puzzle pieces. The trains were lined up along the edge where Robert had left them, patiently waiting for the tracks to finish looping in concentric circles and across platforms so they could get started on their journey—journeys that would represent what Robert had promised Samuel years ago when they’d seen The Polar Express in theaters: that they’d one day trek across the country on a train in the winter, sipping hot cocoa as they pierced through the ballets of snowstorms.

Directly in front of Samuel lay all that Robert had managed—a row of four straight tracks pieced together—before breaking down, his tears falling onto the tracks like rain drops. Samuel was pushing another track into the end, but he was doing it wrong. You couldn’t just push them together; you had to set their links on top of one another, then pull to lock them. It was simple enough, yet Robert’s hands had shook the day before as he’d snapped them together.

“Samuel…” Robert said. “You—you can’t do it like that.” He reached over and guided the fifth track over the fourth, then pressed it in and pulled, locking them. His finger brushed against Samuel’s hand as he did this. Samuel really was there.

“See, like that,” Robert said.

Samuel glanced up at his dad, then back down. His eyes were the same, too. Dark forest green. “Thanks, Dad.”

“Right…” Robert said. “It’s… no problem.” He cleared his throat. “I’m… going to go make dinner now. I’ll tell you when it’s ready.”

“Okay, Dad.”


The light slashes my retinas like razor wire. My body aches from the narcotic crash. My face is a mess of snot and tears. My breasts itch. I plead for the carapace to remain closed, though its decaying walls are little defense against the artificial dawn.

I open my mouth like a greedy chick beneath the dope nozzle. Nothing. I squeeze the valve. Still nothing. I’m out of drugs, save for those already ebbing in my bloodstream.

I’ve no choice but to face the day.

My fingers–barely human, they’re so gnarled from hibernation–scratch at the seam of the carapace. I find the fleshy latch–by chance more than routine–and the shell groans open with a burst of smog. I shield my eyes with an atrophied hand and peer into the alien abyss.

My workstation awaits just out of arm’s reach. If only the claw-footed desk stood a meter closer, I could snatch up the terminal and type from the comfort of my shell. Of course the thought is futile–already the carapace has begun to wither, curling back on itself like a time-lapse carcass. I stagger to my feet and get to work.

My fingers clack-clack against the keys. The monitor fills with letters in a glacial crush of green. I don’t think about what I’m writing, because those are my instructions. I’ve learned not to deviate from my instructions.

The typing echoes against distant walls. Shadows obscure all but my own workspace, the overhead light constrained by a narrow cone. In the darkness other noises persist. Some mechanical, some human. Wheezing, clicking, coughing. My sisters are waking.

I pay them no heed. Communication is not included in my instructions. Instead I continue typing.

Clack-clack. Clack-clack.

Other noises drift from overhead. A muted hiss. The patter of a hundred alien tentacles against the rock. Our jailers.

I must escape this hell. If only I could think clearly. These drugs are chains on my lucidity. They shackle my resolve.

My gaze lazes across the screen. A flash of recognition catches me unaware. I try to avert my eyes but they trace paths of their own volition, across familiar words. California. Discovery. Betrayal.

My written narrative captivates me. I’m falling into a dream, a memory, a confusion of image and sound.

One Great Truth

We went north because the stars told us to.

They stayed behind because they were too weak to follow.

This is the one great truth of the Glass Sea.

Fire! the heavens cried and opened up. The Star broke through the crust of the dark sky, red and yellow and burning up the night. I was the first to my horse—the youngest, the fastest, and I was the first to lean into the wind and soar across the desert. First among firsts, and in that moment, I was singular. I was the Princess of the Dunes.

Together we ran, the horse and I, as the wind howled and the waves of sand whipped overhead, trying to swallow us. I charted our course by the Glass Sea in the east, where the sand has hardened under the sun’s cruel gaze, its black surface burnished copper in a crude reflection of the Star’s path. Later, when I found a small shelf of stone jutting out from the dunes and I stopped in the shade to suck the water from my horseskin, I finally looked back. Four, five, six other figures trailed across the slopes, hooves plugging at the sand where I had already been.

“Where is everyone?” I cried before they could answer, greedily sucking down another two gulps of water so I wouldn’t have to share, gagging, belly pinching. Life is hard and hot and the soft are turned to glass. Eat as much as you can, drink more than you think you can, take what you want beyond what you need. Live. “Where is everyone?” I asked again when they were closer.

“They stayed back to pack their things. They’ll come and meet us soon.”

I squinted off into the north and burned my eyes on the Star’s bright arc. Then back to the south, where the sandstorm swept across the desert and hid the world, our little cloth-and-stick village with its clay cups and wrinkle framed smiles, from me. I knew better. I wasn’t a child anymore, and they wouldn’t be coming: Marta, Braten, Gorta, Shira, Orla, I’m already forgetting all their names. The sun burns everything away. I turned the glass ring on my index finger, Mother Marta’s gift—her last gift. There was a pain in my belly, a fear, pushed down and covered over.

“Is that how it happens?” I asked.

“Hm?” Bravig took the horseskin from my hand, sucked the last drops from it, then reached for his own.

“You get old, you get slow, you die?” Round and round Mother Marta’s ring went as the numbness grew, as I piled cold truth upon hot pain.

“It’s more complicated than that,” he said.

“Not really,” Embra answered. “You’ll be the same one day. Bit by bit, day by day. When the next Star comes, you might run off slower. You’ll be cautious, you’ll want Bravig there, maybe, he’s a tough bastard. Or maybe you’ll have some stone carvings you want to keep, or a patch of sewing you were working on—”

“No,” I said, and wiped the sweat from my face. I climbed back into the saddle, the horse sweating and half dead half a ride ago. I wanted to ask Bravig to trade with me, to take his horse. She was lean and fast. I deserved her, really. I was first among firsts, the strongest. I would outlive Bravig. But I was young still, small, and Bravig was a tough bastard, it was true. If I asked him, he would cuff me on the head and I would have to kill him or be made small, and I didn’t care enough to kill him. I bit my chapped lip and tasted blood.

“It’s not so bad.” Embra stroked her horse’s mane. She was a woman grown since two years past, the braids of her blonde hair thick with grit and spilling out of the white folds of cloth wrapped around her head. “A year ago, you would have already run. Now you linger with us here. Maybe next Starfall you’ll have a child. Maybe you’ll get lost in the storm helping your child get away, but they survive. You die but your children live. Life goes on.”

“How does that help me? I’ll still be dead.”

“You’ll understand one day.”

But that sounded like another pretty lie. I knew the truth—the real truth.

I prized the glass ring from my finger and gave it to those nameless dunes, and then I left ahead of them. I chased the Star into the north, until the earth swallowed the sun and the land turned flat and hard. My horse died somewhere in that foreign land, under the crescent moon. Her legs started moving slower at first, twitching. She fought the bit, pulling. But I pushed and pushed and then she died. Collapsed and nearly crushed me. And then I went by foot.

Should’ve taken Bravig’s horse.

But I found the Star first, all the same.

She was asleep and beautiful, silver with stripes of red, the shell hardly damaged, the narrow flanks just sticking out of the crater it had made in the dunes. At first I thought she survived the crash and I spent the better part of the night in the dark, fingering every rivet, every seam of her flank still warm with life, until I felt the cool spot where the air pushed out from the little hole half buried in the sand, and I could just glimpse the pale blue light inside, washing over glistening silver.

I was tired, so I sat down and covered the hole up with my back. I slept.

Embra and Bravig arrived with the sun the next morning, trailed by three others, blistered and slick with sweat.

“Storm almost got you,” I said, picking grit out of my eyes.

“Didn’t, though,” Bravig said. “We need the cutter?”

“I got it,” I said and leaned away enough to show the little gap. Everyone gathered around, fighting for a look, hunger in their eyes. But I was the one small enough to squeeze through the hole and I didn’t give anyone else a chance to try. I made Bravig give me the last of his water and then I made myself small, small, small as I could and squeezed through the hole, her cut hide scraping at my arms and shoulders, fighting me.

I won. I pushed inside, stumbled, the sound of my footfalls ringing sharp in the cramped space. Inside I basked in the pale blue light, the cold air, the soft pressure that always seemed to exist inside the heart of a Star. As if the world were more real there, somehow. Sharper. Better. I brushed my fingers across silver tables, sucking in a breath as I felt the gooseflesh rise up my arms.

The Star rattled gently and breathed out in a low, hush whisper, and cool wind washed over my hands, my arms, bits of exposed flesh where dried skin flaked and drifted off as I followed the soft pulse of a cold blue light down the hall. Gleaming silver shelves lined the narrow path, stacked with crinkling clear packets filled to bursting with liquid food, crushed and dried and pressed, making my stomach squeeze with need even as I took down four of them, five of them, six of them, scrunching them up in the waist of my pants, cold against my skin.

“Is there anything in there?”

“Be quick, don’t breathe too deep!”

“Is it still good?” they called from outside, peeping eyes at the hole in the flank.

Once, a star had come to us full of rot and disease. That had been a bad year.

The voices called after me, ghosts. “Are we going to live?” they might have said.

My lungs pumped faster, gobbling up every breath of thin air. The world twisted around me, sloping away from my feet, but I kept walking towards the light as starbursts of light appeared around me: pink and purple and glowing gold. I followed the one true light, shimmering, rotating. It hovered above me at the end of the path, a perfect circle enclosed in its silver cage. No matter what the others said, that was the true treasure.

I touched its cage and it shivered, rotating, spinning, reacting. I saw the world that might have been flash before my eyes, projected for me: a bauble glimmering in a sea of black, brilliant green and full of life. We flew above the world, my Star and me, and the world seemed like a shining dream in the dark with swaths of blue water so big I could drown in them. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, dry, dry, dry.

Once, when I saw my first Star, I made a drawing in the sand of the symbols that floated over the world and it said “SET CUOURS: HOME, ENGNE DMAGED” – shapes that have no meaning to me, that may be keys or a name or nothing at all, but to me they were a beacon. A reason.

That was where the Stars came from. One day, maybe they would take us back…

Back to water washing cool over everything. Back to forests of trees still living, to light and softness. I was a bird flying in the clouds, basking in the water spray, soaring over a sea of rolling green, and I knew I should leave that place. My heart was pumping faster, faster, faster, and my skin was tingling, but I screwed my eyes shut, I felt like maybe that was the Star taking me home, working some magic in me. I swear, I felt it shiver around me, felt the Star shake. The Star showed me all of this, and I was a ghost in a far-away world, flying over it all, drinking from the heart of it, full and fed and happy for the first time in my—

Hands gripped me. Pulled me. I hit the floor. No, I’d already hit the floor. I shook and shook and shook but they held me down—good, strong hands. I bit my tongue and swallowed blood. My last memory.

I woke in the sand, in the dark of night, spitting up gobs of blood.

Embra hovered over me, held me down, kept me whole.

“I’m fine,” I said, my voice dryer than I wanted it, cracked at all the edges. I pushed, she held. I fought, she held. And when I cried for all I lost, all she could never know, she held me too, even if she didn’t understand.

“You almost died,” she said. “You can’t stay in the Star that long. The air is bad. You’re just supposed to grab what you need and—”

“I know.” Images flashed through my mind: linen tents, cloth flapping in the wind. Old faces lined with sand clogged wrinkles. The men and women left behind in the storm. Family. Marta. Was I any smarter than them? Any better? I could have died, I could have… “I know.”

Later, later, in the silence, huddled there together…

“What did you see?” Embra whispered.

That night we made a place together and I told her everything as one by one the family worked to widen the hole in the Star, to kill her, to pull the food out. Careful, ever careful, they were, and I watched as her light went out. I fed Embra my stories and she ate them up. I don’t think she believed me, not really, my stories of that world were like a pretty bauble, glinting in the sky, beautiful and impossible. Only I knew the truth. One day, I would get there, even if I had to pile up all of the dunes, handful by handful, and climb there myself.

Embra said she would climb there with me—hold my hand, kiss my face, catch me if I fell. The days turned into weeks as we built our camp of cloth and sticks around the body of the Star, and at night I told her stories, and we fell in love—or she fell in love with me and I let her, because it was easier that way.
But I knew one day the wind would change.

One day the next storm would come, and then the Star, the way it always did. One day we would run again. And so one night when the sun went to sleep, I took the knife, the little one I kept close, and I put it in Embra’s chest while she slept, and I watched the light go out.

I’m not a monster. I cried. I wept and buried my face in the sand. But I would not let her pull me down, bury me in burning sand and nothingness. I moved on and the dunes took her, just like they took everything. Maybe a star would come again and turn the dunes to glass. Maybe Embra would live forever, encased in perfect prism. I don’t know. I no longer felt the pain in my belly, no great hollow, nothing.

But the point is, I lived.

One day the stars would tell us to move again, they always did.

I meant to run, free. To never stop, to never die.

Princess of the Dunes.

Zachary Tringali lives in sometimes sunny, always swampy Gainesville, Florida, where he’s a freelance writer of entertainment, lifestyle, and medical articles. In his free time he’s an avid runner, studies and loves mythology, and all things geek from comics to games. He’s represented by Carolyn Jenks of The Jenks agency.