Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Bringing Home Our Dead: A Recovery Team Travels through Time

May 11, 2018


That morning, the rescue and recovery team’s hired truck left the dry wadi they had been following and wound up a trail to the top of a rocky ridge. Far off on the shrubby plains below they saw the skyline of the city called Tel-on-the-Plains.

“I don’t see any vehicles on the plains,” said Stan.

“No,” said Paul, “and by the end of the twentieth century, Tel must have had an electric line.”

Their driver stopped so his brother could climb up to man the machine gun mounted behind the truck’s cab.

Paul and his teammates were riding under a canvas in the truck’s bed. They were tired and sore from two days of bad shocks and the desert heat. The four men strapped on their sidearms as the driver let out the clutch and the truck descended onto the plains.

“I want this to be quick in and quick out!” announced Stan.

Paul looked closely at Stan. Not just his jaw was set. All the muscles in his body were tight. Stan reminded him of the drawn whipcord on a crossbow. He remembered the ones their escorts had used during the team’s mission to Genoa. Stan was intent on his goal and eager to act. He had always been that way, even when they were cadets.

Steve, the team’s linguist, looked old and tired. He was. This was his last mission before retirement. He was also sad, with the sadness of a man who has lost too many friends over too many years.

The fourth man, Andrew, was new to the team. He had been transferred into Rescue and Recovery from Personnel Records, to cover losses. He was a big guy and very fit, but the way he pulled in his arms and legs said he did not want to be there. He already had the start of a twitching tick below his left eye.

While his teammates studied the distant city, Paul closed his eyes to relax.

#

It was late November and just after dark. Paul’s parents led him, each taking a hand into the boarded-up house where his grandmother was waiting.

“You will be safe here,” his father told him.

The house had no electricity, no heat. Paul’s grandmother patted his head. Paul knew from her touch she was sick.

“We will come back when we can,” Paul’s mother told him. “No matter what happens, we love you, Paul.” His mother and father both hugged him goodbye, then hurried out to their car.

“I still have some food,” his grandmother reassured him.

Paul watched his parents’ car slip away through the dark with its lights off. He knew he would never see them, never again.

#

As the team’s truck approached Tel, it passed through cluster after cluster of low mounds, the tombs of Tel’s ancient dead. From among the mounds the team could not see the city. But Paul felt the presence of Tel’s dead in their tombs as little waves of pressure washing over him. Waves from lives lived long ago. The waves from these buried dead seemed like faint murmurs of content.

The little waves reminded Paul of very different waves. On a mission to the Dutch East Indies in 1883, the team had experienced the eruption and final explosion of Krakatoa. That explosion was the loudest sound humans have ever experienced. But it was not the massive explosion he remembered most. It was the tiny human waves he had felt among the final ripples from Krakatoa’s explosion. Little waves of fear and pain from thousands upon thousands of lost lives. A murmur of anguished death and soul’s discontent.

Krakatoa’s explosion continued below human hearing as a pressure wave in the air, moving silently around and around the earth three and a half times. Continuing after 100,000 people of the Indonesian coastline had tried to flee inland. After they had been caught, swallowed and drowned by the tsunamis. After their bodies had been left in trees or buried under wreckage or pulled back out to sea by the retreating flood.

The displaced dead. Left to float for months among the hungry gulls and the tsunamis’ debris. Only 36,000 people were identified in history. The rest were lost. Whole villages dead and scattered, unnamed, forgotten. The uncounted dead, never to be brought home.

Now, as they left the mounds, the city of Tel grew before them behind its ten-foot stone wall. Beyond the wall, they saw rows of adobe buildings rising up to the top of the steeply sloping tel. Beneath the mound on which the current buildings sat, Paul could feel the layered ruins upon ruins of the city’s ancient past. Broken stones, crumbled adobe, rotted wood. Layer on layer down to the holes for the posts that once supported the nomadic founders’ tents. The team’s driver stopped before the narrow gates. As the team’s intuitive, Paul was overwhelmed by the city’s heaviness and its age, and its otherness. He felt no kindred thoughts or feelings.

Stan, Andrew, and Paul jumped out and helped Steve climb over the truck’s gate. The four men stretched, and looked around. Their driver propped up the truck’s rusty hood with his baton and shifted his rifle back on his shoulder to look inside. His brother stayed with the machine gun. From his position behind the gun, the brother looked down at the faint distortions in the air that he knew to be the four men. Then he spit out his spent khat and muttered something in a local dialect of Arabic that Paul could not understand.

Steve shuddered and looked away. Already at 10 a.m. the sand under the men’s boots was as hot as the truck’s smoking manifold. No one approached them or spoke or even looked at them. All around them, the people of Tel were living a normal day. The team’s armed arrival in their world an apparent non-event.

#

When his grandmother returned from the city, Paul was waiting at the door. Christmas had almost come and it was snowing. She looked at him and she knew that he knew.

“Yes, Paul, your mother and father have passed on. I am so sorry, son! They wanted to find a new home and come back for you, but these are dangerous times.”

#

Moving past the men and in or out of the city were groups of half-starved donkeys and camels driven by tall, thin people with wrapped faces. An intense babel of human and animal voices mixed with the buzzing of flies.

“Shit!” said Stan, “This place doesn’t even look like the right century. It seems to be the right place. It could be the right reality. But it sure isn’t 1995.”

Andrew gave Stan a sick-looking smile. “Well, Stan, you definitely picked the wrong costume for the ball.” Andrew looked back into the bed of the truck. Paul knew he wanted to hop back in and leave.

Stan scowled. “What’s your read, Paul?”

“No kindred thoughts or feelings. If our people are here, we are probably doing pure recovery.”

“They could have put themselves into a dreamless trance,” said Steve.

“Maybe, Steve,” said Stan. “Why aren’t these people responding to the truck’s presence?”

“If we have changed times,” said Paul, “the encapsulizer in your backpack will have encapsuled the truck and the two brothers in their base reality and time, just as it did us when we came to their reality in 1995. The people of Tel will see barely a trace of them, just as the brothers can barely see a trace of us without a filter.”

“But why did the time change?” demanded Andrew. “And if it is no longer 1995 where we are now, how do we get back to our temporary bridge home!?” Andrew’s eye was twitching like an earthworm attacked by ants.

“We’ll deal with de-capsulating ourselves when we make it out of here!” barked Stan. “We have a recovery to complete. Having an invisible truck will only make it easier.”

It had been a year in Pre-Event time since the sudden onset of spacetime turbulence had cut off all travel and communication between Op Support and its embedded operations in alternate realities. The rescue and recovery teams were quickly assembled and began their work. But forming temporary bridges to other worlds and times was difficult and the results were uncertain. The intelligence outpost at Tel was already distressed by unexplained time anomalies before the turbulence arrived. With little chance of the outpost’s survival, Op Planning had given it a low priority during triage.

“Janet’s carrier transmission stopped months ago,” Andrew said. “It could take all day to find the right adobe from just this hologram.” He waved the hologram at the maze of buildings before them, “What is going to make this building even recognizable? We can’t look for Janet’s Kawasaki parked in front!”

The other men studied the image of the station house, circa 1995, and turned it through its full range. Then they looked at the world around them.

“We know it was near the city’s center in 1995, on a plaza,” said Steve.

“The station house would look the same to us,” Paul said, “if its encapsulizer is still working. The people of Tel can’t see it so it should be empty.”

“But everything around it could morph completely through time,” said Andrew. “The plaza might even be gone!”

“Stop whining, Andrew!” said Stan. “Let’s go find the damned building.”

The four men adjusted their packs and holsters and walked off on foot.

#

“Grandma?” Paul asked, “can we go to see Mom and Dad, like we did Granddad?”

“No, too many are dying, Paul. No one cares for the dead.”

“We should bring them home.”

“They are in heaven. They are thinking of you, but they cannot come back. Someday we will all gather in heaven, Paul. Your parents. Granddad. My parents too. All of us will finally be home.”

Paul again followed his parents’ car with his mind, but his search ended with a burned out shell in a snow-covered and empty lot. His mind did not reach heaven.

#

Adobe brick walls crowded in on narrow streets. No one looked at the men or swerved aside. Paul felt out of place but almost invisible.  Still he was sure the people of Tel were watching their traces, listening even as they seemed only to chat of their lives.

“Steve!” said Stan, glaring at the people around him. “What is all this chatter?”

“Don’t know. They could be speaking an obscure dialect of Arabic I haven’t encountered. It sounds more like an older Aramaic language. I don’t see any sign of a mosque.”

#

“God and heaven, Grandma, do they really exist?”

“They must exist, Paul. Otherwise, life would be too terrible.”

#

At times Paul caught glimpses of people sniffing like dogs at the team from around corners and through open windows. Neither Stan nor Steve noticed. Andrew did. Paul could see Andrew’s hands trembling.


The four men followed the flow of overloaded animals and people for an hour until they found a side street that emptied through a slit into a crowded plaza.

At the far end, Stan spotted a dark space between two jutting buildings. Set well back in the dark was a smaller building. “That looks like the place.”

They walked into the shadow and looked around. Paul noticed it felt less hot and was almost quiet.

The men walked up to the door. Steve had worked with Janet years before. He stepped forward and knocked hopefully at the door, then opened it part way. The air in the opening was cool as a refrigerator’s. He spoke softly into the darkness, “Janet?”

Stan stepped up and kicked the door open. “Janet!”

They saw no lights, no windows. No one answered. Just silence, and a stale, earthy smell. Paul took a flashlight from his pack and they all stepped inside. Andrew closed the door. It was actually cold.

Against the far wall a seated figure leaned stiffly on a pile of long bags. “Janet?” Steve asked, “are you sick?”

Stan walked up with a light. “Shit,” he mumbled. She was dead. She had been dead a long time. The skin looked mummified. Andrew set up a portable lamp from his pack. Paul noticed a group of flies clustered on the ceiling above the bags. They must have been resting, holding vigil in that cold darkness long before the men arrived. Now they woke up with the fresh air and the light. They began circling.

#

Paul and his grandmother were lying next to each other under all their blankets and clothing. It was a still, clear January night and very cold. Paul’s grandmother was snoring, but Paul was shivering and still wide awake.

“Paul?” He heard his mother’s voice and he looked around the room. It was her voice exactly. The tone had been full of concern. But he could see nothing, and he heard nothing more.

#

The men opened the twelve bags and found the others wrapped inside. Some had been sent shortly before Janet arrived. The men knew them. Of the older ones they knew nothing. They were all mummified. Andrew scanned their chip implants. Then Paul and Steve wrapped Janet like the others and zipped her in a bag from Steve’s pack. Stan removed the memory from the station’s transmitter for analysis.

“We need to get out now!” said Andrew. “Our scent is already in the air. It is probably drifting everywhere.”

“We have a job to do,” said Stan.

“Sure,” said Andrew, “but, Stan, time is unstable here. And we don’t know why!”

Paul heard the louder buzzing of the flies. Thirteen people were a lot to bring back. It would be very difficult with only one truck and a temporary bridge home. But they needed to do it. They couldn’t find peace here among the people of Tel. Paul looked up to find Steve watching him.

Steve seemed to be reading his thoughts, and he nodded.

At one end of the room, a cold draft blew out of the open end of a four-foot titanium tube. Paul studied the entry tube that only last year had been the mouth of the station’s traversable bridge to home. Then the spacetime turbulence had reached earth and destroyed all fixed bridges through spacetime. Now the tube was just a hole that led to a broken link opening somewhere far away into what felt like a frozen Icelandic version of Hell. Faint cracking sounds could be heard through the conduit, like the movement of ice. The cold draft passed through the dark room like a wind in a cave.

“We’ll get both gurneys from the truck,” said Stan. “We can transport all of them out of here before sunset and start them on their way to those Dr. Frankensteins at Restoration Services.”

“They do need to come home,” sighed Steve.

“Right, Steve. You can have Janet back for your retirement dinner.”

Yes, Paul thought, Restoration Services might restore life to some of these mummies. They would probably succeed in giving their bodies new life, in making them useful workers again. They could even restore their characteristic thoughts and feelings from their mental profiles, and reload their memories from backups of their mind data in Personnel Records. But talking to restored people was never the same. It was like talking to an AI avatar. Something essential was missing. The important thing, Paul thought, was to bring all of them home.

The four men trudged back through streets empty in the midday sun. Hungry dogs came out from under carts and followed Andrew at a distance. He kept looking back at them and mumbling.

“Where did everyone go?” asked Steve.

“It’s hot out!” barked Stan. “Haven’t you noticed?”

“Yes,” said Paul, “but I don’t even hear their chatter in the buildings.”

“The truck is gone!” shouted Andrew.

Not even its tracks were left in the sand. A searing wind blew in across the desert and it drew the moisture from their skin. They were all suddenly weak. Steve collapsed to his knees, vomiting in the sand.

“The truck didn’t have an encapsulizer,” said Paul. “It was only encapsuled for the time we arrived. If we have shifted time again, it is still back when we left it. And we have been re-encapsuled for a new time.”

“We have to get out!” said Andrew. “We can grab some camels and ride back along the wadi.”

“You can’t ride a camel,” said Stan.

“I’ll try!”

“Not in this wind!”

“We will have to return to the station house,” said Paul.

“Shit!” said Stan. “That’s enough puking, Steve. Let’s go!”

#

That morning Paul’s grandmother had walked off through the snow to find help in the city. Paul was afraid. All the nerves of his body tingled in the cold. By sunset she had not returned nor did she return that night.

In the morning Paul put on all his clothes and pulled out the plastic toboggan sled he had found in the shed. He followed his grandmother’s tracks down the road. The tracks stopped by an orchard and she was sitting there against a tree.

“Grandma?” Paul said, even though he knew she could not speak. Paul tugged her frozen body onto the sled and pulled her back to the house.

#

They saw, they heard no people, no animals in the streets. Just wind. And, in sheltered spots, they saw ghost lines rising through the air, shimmering from the heat. Sand had blown around the doors and in through the broken windows. Everywhere outside lay bleached, weathered carts and tools and bones. Inside, dirt-covered tables and chairs had collapsed onto floors in rooms long abandoned to shadows.

Back inside the station, Paul could hear sharp breaking sounds through the conduit. The air suddenly became much colder and a few gusts of snow blew into the room. His mind followed the sounds back to their source. A time fault! Breaks in the local fabric of spacetime could shift the mouth of the conduit in time. Such local stresses must have developed ahead of the main event. They would have been the source of the time anomalies that vexed the outpost before the general turbulence arrived.

The four men sat down and huddled against the bundles in the cold. Steve looked sick and sad. Andrew looked blank, almost comatose. Stan entered the team’s final status report. He had no way to send it home, but he locked on the transmitter’s carrier signal to serve as a beacon should anyone come looking for them. Despite the cold, the flies circled and bumped against them in the wind. Paul counted thirteen flies. Their combined buzzing was a chaos of frantic little voices.

Op Support might send another recovery team, Paul thought, if their algorithms could relocate this reality of Tel in time. If they came, the transmitter’s carrier wave would help locate the station house, but it would only last a few months.

“What does that mean?” asked Stan. The display on the encapsulizer read “Wait Mode Level 5.” They had all heard of Wait Mode, but none of them had experienced its levels.

#

“He’s skinny but he seems healthy, and he talks intelligently for a kid his age.”

As he studied Paul, the captain rubbed the arm above his missing hand.

“He may have a gift. We’ll keep this boy alive,” he told the other officers. “Implant an I.D. chip and set up a cot for him among our cadets.”

#

All they could do was wait in the cold and dark. They must wait to be brought home.

Paul’s tongue was already dry as it moved in and out of his mouth. He tried chasing flakes of snow through the air, but the few he caught didn’t help. Paul’s eyes ached as they swerved about the room and then came to rest looking down on the men from the ceiling. Sixteen flies had settled around him on the ceiling, and below four leaning figures were slumped among the bags.

I must be inside Wait Mode, Paul thought. All the flies around him had gone still.

Wait. We wait on the floor and on the ceiling. It is all we can do … but we are very dry and cold.

This dark is so very cold.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Desert Scene circa 1960. Photo by Bernie Smetzer.

Desert Scene circa 1960. Photo by Bernie Smetzer.

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Done with Ralph

July 11, 2017

 

Where I meet Ralph?
In my world, before I immigrate.
You listen, officer. I tell you.
My earth good world once.
Sweet flowers. Sweet people.
Like this earth.
Everything go wrong.…

Wild, biting dogs run through streets.
Every day. All kinds of dogs.
Crazy birds, bats drop from sky.
“No problem,” Zosh say,
“just look up and watch your feet.”

Zosh and me, we sixteen.
Zosh, he big, ugly, nasty.
Never bathe.
Stuff grow on Zosh
like moss on rotten log.

People tell me,
“You too small, boy.
You too cute to live.”
So I hang with Zosh.

Zosh? No ask about Zosh.
He not immigrate. Never meet Ralph.
Zosh friend back then.…
You ask where I meet Ralph.
I tell where we meet.
We meet in my world.
You listen.…

When I not with Zosh,
I watch men close.
Sharp eyes. I see souls.
I know when to run.
I run fast, too.
I run and dodge
and stay on feet.
I still alive.

No, no.
Soul not just in eyes.
I see souls in way people stand, move, sleep.
From anywhere. From behind in dark.…
Sure. Right now. I see you.
You immigration officer
but you straight-up, cool guy.
So we talk.…

Nights it rain
I stay inside with others.
Plenty boarded-up wrecks.
Apartments. Stores. Offices.
Spirits move like drafts
through those rooms.
The dead!
I hate dead!

All of them.
My parents. My sister.
Let them move along to hell!
We done with them!

Maybe you not know dead.…

When dead touch you,
ice shoot up spine.
It take hours to warm up.

I not see dead coming.
Only feel them,
and not tell from where.
Which way to run?
Then that chill!

Zosh say dead want something.
I thinking stake through heart!

Funeral? Maybe funeral help.
We not have time.…

Every morning, fresh kills.
We chuck bodies out of
apartments, hallways, alleys.
Food for dogs!
They not stink up our space.
But chills linger.

I know dead by chill sometimes,
if they someone I fight or fuck.
Not much there for living.
Nothing for dead.
But chills stay.

I get out.
Needy dumbass take me out.
I spot him first time through.
I not see him before
and I watching.

Yeah, Ralph.…

Nice clothes. Hot flycar!
I get in off those streets
and Ralph fly me out.
We go to your earth camp.
Nothing back there I want.
Nobody neither.

Ralph safe.
Just tame dog sniffing round.
You not like his touch
but it candy after chill’s.
It get me out.

No. Not see him, maybe, five months.
No ask me where he go. We bust up.
He move along. Cold son of bitch!…

Yeah, I got his flycar.
He not need it. Sweet ride!…
No. I not keep that place. Too cold.
Got my own place. Snug. No drafts.
I trade fridge for bigger stove. It nice.…

Yeah, it hot for this coat.
People say I wear too much clothes.
Zosh say, you wear your clothes,
you know no one else is.…

Look for Ralph?! Not till I miss him!…
Hey! No ask me find Ralph!
You officers come round, ask questions.
I give something for reports. Me good citizen.
But I chuck Ralph out.
He not sweet as he smell.
I done with Ralph!…

Sure, I OK.
I learn English. I get job. Good job.
Everything fine.
Come from my world, not much trouble you.
I just go nowhere I feel chill.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Discussion

This story is cross-genre oddity. It is a science fiction story set in an alternate reality where travel and immigration between parallel universes are possible. It is also a ghost story, a sexual exploitation story, and possibly a murder story. And, of course, it is in verse.

Like “Skunky’s Steel Mill Story,” which was published here in June, “Done with Ralph” is a short short story or flash fiction written using the line structure of verse. Written out as prose, verse fiction reads like concentrated prose fiction. But the line breaks add intensity and emphasis that make the story more powerful. That said, verse structure simply will not work for most fiction. Even if you have a story that would benefit from verse, simply chopping up the prose to create lines will produce an embarrassment. Recasting a story as verse requires a complete line-by-line revision.

 

Swimmers, Acrylic Painting on wood by Mike Smetzer

Swimmers, Acrylic Painting on wood by Mike Smetzer