Short Stories

Dreamcatcher by James Fowler

Ghosts, At First by Jim O'Loughlin

The Savior by H.T. Grossen

Unknown Landmark by Dominic Leah Conda

Love's Dark Matter by Pearse Murray

 

Dreamcatcher by James Fowler

    Soon after the Oneiric DVR for capturing dreams launched, they started to appear online. A mad scramble to gain market share in this red-hot sector ensued, with Dreamland clawing its way to dominance, largely due to a generous profit-sharing model. As tastes grew more discriminating, this platform added premium channels that could only be accessed through subscription. The top dreamers in the field signed exclusive contracts and enjoyed celebrity on a par with movie and sports stars.
    It took viewers some time to adjust to the slippery nature of the genre. Characters and situations were constantly morphing, and the dialogue often made little sense. Some scenarios, if they could even be called that, lasted little more than a few seconds. A two-minute video was the equivalent of a feature-length film. 
    Once the initial stream-of-unconsciousness experience lost some its novelty, and viewers realized that other people’s nightly ventures were by and large no more diverting than their own psychic rambles, a tiered system began to develop. Garbage dreams, a mere clearing of the short-term memory buffer, populated numerous low-end domains. More bizarre or action-packed offerings were culled and recommended for viewing on prominent sites. The elite night visions, though, seemed to have little or nothing to do with the dreamer. These had an iconic, revelatory quality, spoke a universal language ever suggestive, ripe for decoding. A sign of the times, books like The Golden Bough and The Interpretation of Dreams became best sellers. Jung was in again too.
    Dream programming came to fall under the usual categories, and nobody was surprised that nightmares drew a lot of traffic. The host sites posted boilerplate warnings that they weren’t liable for any neural damage that might result from consumption of scary material. At first people scoffed this was a come-on, so much carny barking. But then stories started circulating of addictive viewing, adrenal dependence. Legislators wanted ways to keep minors from accessing the more horrific dream caches. Cases were reported of sleep avoidance due to fear of nightmare infection and dubbed Freddy Syndrome. Rumbles of pending class-action suits neared like thunder.
    It could hardly be denied that partaking of other people’s dreams had an effect on one’s own. Theorists speculated that humanity, through its tech, was reaching a stage of boosted collective unconscious. That’s why postings by such figures as Horizon Boy, Lady Nycteris, and Ganesh Gharry drew such a wide following. Those were just the kind of streams you wanted circulating in the dream pool. Psychiatrists actually prescribed doses of this good stuff to counteract the trauma of the Freddy crew.
    Governments have found themselves playing catch-up. Among early responses were bans on anyone with security clearance posting dreams online, for fear of unconscious disclosures. Worse, adversaries could plant subliminal messages in doctored videos to render a populace passive, uninclined to meet aggression. Plans are afoot in leading countries to establish a Dream Defense Initiative (DDI).
    Experts debate whether the whole phenomenon is a fad or turning point. Those in the latter camp point to dream convergence, as if a species-wide vision were emerging. Certain emblems, the first stirrings of a new style in music, architecture, poetry, have appeared on the scene. The movement, seemingly more spontaneous than deliberate, goes by the name alt-Earth. Its more cosmic adherents posit a sister planet in a strange-attractor or entangled relation. Skeptics wonder whether inhabitants of that orb have recently woken with a taste for fusion cuisine or e-cigs. Another, more local, explanation has it that humans are ushering in a version of Earth that might have evolved had cold-blooded materialism not gained the upper hand around the time of steam harnessing. The thought that nationalism and economics might be losing their grip on a growing number of the dream-happy has rattled governments and markets around the globe. Politicians may have to shift the very grounds of appeal dramatically.
    Enthusiasts, though, predict imminent easing of mass, friction, gravity. Sunlight has softened, as if by partial eclipse. For some, dreamtime impinges on waking hours. “Get ready,” they confide, and those with ears to hear imagine a fresh orientation. “Here it comes. Here we go.”  
 

James Fowler teaches literature at the University of Central Arkansas. He is author of the poetry collection The Pain Trader (Golden Antelope Press, 2020). His literary essays have appeared in ANQ, Children’s Literature, POMPA, and The Classical Outlook; his personal essays in Southern Cultures, Cadillac Cicatrix, Quirk, and Under the Sun; his short fiction in such journals as The Labletter, Anterior Review, Little Patuxent Review, The Chariton Review, Southern Review, The Chiron Review, and Elder Mountain; and his poems in such journals as Futures Trading Magazine, Aji Magazine, Evening Street Review, Dash, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Caesura, and Cave Region Review.

 

Ghosts, At First by Jim O'Loughlin

     Today, when people talk about when the ghosts first started appearing, they’ll tell you they weren’t scared. Don’t believe them. We were all petrified.
     That may be hard to imagine, now that ghosts are everywhere, but try to envision what it must have been like at first. Here you are, in a small town in Iowa, stopping to pay your respects at the gravesite of a departed relative, and all of a sudden you get a buzz that you have a message. Then when you look at your screen, you see that the message is from the person whose grave you are standing next to. Pretty scary, right? I mean, pretty scary if that kind of thing didn’t happen all the time now.
     I wasn’t the first person to encounter one of the original ghosts, but it happened to me, too.            Admittedly, and I feel guilty about this now, I specifically went to the cemetery after reading one of the first news stories about the ghosts. I hadn’t been to the plot where my grandmother had been buried since her funeral, which I suppose made me not the best granddaughter. I missed my grandmother, but I didn’t particularly like going to cemeteries, unless they were the elaborate Victorian kind with lots of sculptures and crypts that were filled with people who had been dead for centuries.
     But my grandmother’s cemetery wasn’t like that. Maybe at one time it was a tranquil place, back when it had been carved out from a farm field on the outskirts of town, but since then the town had grown up around it. Now the cemetery had strip malls surrounding it on every side. There was nothing historic about it. Looking at the family names on the tombstones was like hearing attendance called in a class from my high school. It was all a little too familiar.
     So, when I approached my grandmother’s gravesite, alone in the cemetery, I was feeling a pretty complicated set of emotions. I was sad, because visiting a gravesite was nothing like visiting my grandmother, but I was also wistful, thinking back to when I was a little girl and her house was a favorite place to visit. I was afraid that she might suddenly appear as a ghost, but I was excited for the same reason.
     It was a nice, fall day, and the leaves in the short trees in the cemetery had begun to turn red and yellow.  Though I could hear the white noise of traffic from the adjacent road, it was otherwise quiet.  I found my grandmother’s grave and paused at it, thinking about the end of her life, when she wasn’t able to recognize me, or anyone else, anymore. But then I remembered her at an earlier time, when I was one of the kids who would run through the kitchen while she was cooking, and she would tell us to stay away from the stove but to take one of the candies in the bowl on the coffee table. “Thanks, Grandma!” I’d call out, already halfway to the living room.
     My thoughts were interrupted by a message on my phone. I looked at the screen. It was my grandma. 
     “Hi, Chloe, how r u?” the message read.
     I would have screamed if I hadn’t already expected this to happen.  Tentatively, my fingers shaking a little, I typed back, “Hi, Grandma, is this really you?”
     “Of course, it’s me. R u still Cing that Logan?”
     I looked around, as if I expected the apparition of my grandmother to be floating over my shoulder. I knew even then that that was silly.
     “Logan and I are seeing other people,” I typed back.
     “That’s 2 bad. Ur not getting any younger, u no.”
     “Yes, I know.”
     “Wood u like 2 meet my friend, Mary’s, grandson? His name is Tyler.”
     Of course, even then I could tell that the conversation was AI-assisted, combining language from texts my grandmother had once sent with data stored on her phone. Undoubtedly, Mary had been one of my grandmother’s contacts, and Tyler was tagged as Mary’s grandson on social media. Still, it was pretty close to the kind of conversation my grandmother and I would have had IRL.
     My grandmother was among the early adopters of the first generation of tattoo phones. A lot of senior citizens were. It made sense. They were the “Inked Generation,” after all, and what difference did another tattoo make if you already had a couple sleeves of them. Besides, if your phone was tattooed onto you, you never had to worry about losing it. 
     The telecom companies swore that the whole ghost phenomenon was just a software bug. The AI-assist was designed to help senior citizens keep up with social media as they aged, and the fact that phones would initiate contact with people in close proximity was just a feature gone wrong. Who could have guessed that the tattoo phones would keep working after people were buried? This was why the ghosts only appeared at cemeteries.  There was nothing supernatural about it. The telecoms promised that the bug would be eliminated in the next software update.
     That’s when things really got interesting. It turned out people didn’t want the bug eliminated. They liked being able to communicate with deceased relatives, and there were online protests against companies that threatened to upgrade the software and eliminate the ghosts.  In fact, older people began getting tattoo phones specifically so that they could still send text messages after they died. The telecoms promised that they wouldn’t shut down the ghosts. In fact, they began promoting the “ghost feature” in the next generation of tattoo phones.
     I go to the cemetery to visit my grandmother pretty regularly now, but I’m never there alone. Cemeteries are pretty busy places these days, and with the enhanced text-to-voice capabilities now, my grandmother’s cemetery can be as noisy as a bar at happy hour. She would still like to set me up with someone, but I’ve been able to get her to move on to other topics. Right now, we’re going through the history of each of her tattoos (wow, that generation was really into tattoos!). She’ll text me a picture of a shamrock on her ankle or a unicorn on her bicep and then tell me all about what was going on in her life when she got it. That’s how I found out about her college boyfriend and about the time she went into low orbit on the space elevator.
     I realize now that my grandmother and I never talked much about her life when she was alive. I guess like most kids, I couldn’t imagine that someone that old would have had such interesting experiences. So I appreciate that, as a ghost, she’s able to tell me so much now. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that my grandmother is not an actual ghost. I get that it’s not really her I’m talking to, but I have to admit, in her last few years of her life I didn’t really feel like that was her either. I feel more in touch with her now than I did then.
     The most recent time I went to visit her, she asked me to tell her about my tattoos, and I had to admit to her that I didn’t have any.  I had to explain that no one my age has tattoos.  It’s just a generational thing, and what’s cool for one generation is gross for another. 
     “W/out tattoos, how will u remember da important things in life?” she asked me.
     “It’s a good question, Grandma. I guess I’ll have to count on you.”

Jim O'Loughlin is the author of the forthcoming science fiction novel THE CORD (BHC Press). He is also the author of THE LAST CAUCUS IN IOWA (Ice Cube Press) and DEAN DEAN DEAN DEAN (Twelve Winters Press).

 

The Savior by H.T. Grossen

     The Savior slid over pinpricks of light, passing silently through the impossibly deep darkness.
     She was the last of her kind, the only hope of a dying planet.
     This ship was gargantuan: cities upon cities, people and families, growing and moving and living and dying across time and space as it approached its destination.
     Their mission was clear in the beginning: an incredibly detailed and efficient book seven hundred and seventy-seven pages long called The Manual taught the people how to keep the ship running. But more than that--it told them how to keep each other alive, rules for living with one another, instructions for how to land The Savior and establish a colony on a new planet, laws and advice on how to run the new settlement.
     The Savior kept them fed; it kept them clothed; it kept the atmosphere clean and the lights on throughout its corridors and wide-open terrarium parks alike. It automatically monitored the moisture levels of plants and the movements and reproduction patterns of the animals within these parks and relayed the information to the ship’s inhabitants. The ship knew all that was happening within itself as well as all that was happening outside with its advanced sensors: steering a careful path clear of meteors, comets, and space-debris to keep its people alive. No one alive now on the ship understood how such a mighty vessel could have been built, but whoever built it knew exactly what it would take to sustain human life in space over a great amount of time.
     What the builders may not have known was exactly how the interminable journey would affect the passengers. It would take a multitude of centuries to arrive on the new world; generations upon generations, and over time the original copies of The Manual were mostly destroyed, corrupted, or incomplete. 
     Early on in the voyage several great men tried to restore and rewrite The Manual through pieces of digital files, wrinkled and torn old pages, the words of old-timers who had committed to memory or written down passages themselves long ago.
     Gradually aspects of the ship had been misunderstood or forgotten, while others previously unknown had made themselves clear. To ever hope to understand The Savior, in all of its mystery and magnanimity, was certainly a lost cause. That did not stop the people from trying, though. 
     Divisions had sprung up in the great and mighty spaceship that sustained their lives. Some sectors of the ship believed pilgrimages to see the ancient pages of the original Manual that had been frozen and preserved behind glass was the answer. When they could not see the pages--they sent prayers towards that portion of the ship. 
     Others had not ever read The Manual for themselves--they accepted that the ship would always care for them, and listened to people who called themselves “Captains” explain The Manual to them from their own perspective. This was a strange title considering the ship drove itself; still, people respected their words as if these men were actually piloting the ship that allowed them to live within it, and treated them with reverence beyond that of average men. 
     Others still only read other’s translations, summaries of, and guidebooks to The Manual. One in particular written by a man with the surname of Force, called “Force’s Codex,” was lifted up above the others. For these people, the original sections of The Manual and other’s translations they pushed aside--The Codex’s interpretations and elucidations were lauded as the only true view. 
     Some doubted The Manual’s authenticity at all--how could any men, at any time, have ever known how a ship of this level of empyrean power had been created and launched? It was surely only a way to control the people aboard The Savior. The ship had simply always been, they thought. To worship a ship or a book was folly: it was simply a force of nature, the same as the space that passed around them. It was all they knew of life- and they would not allow a simple book to control their lives.
     Within these divisions even more segmentations began to spring up: Although your sector of the ship may send prayers to the remaining physical pages of The Manual; perhaps you sent them at a different time of day or sang a different invocation. Although your sector may have many Captains; they were all constantly competing for as many of The Savior’s denizens as they could convince to come and listen to their interpretation of The Manual. Although your sector may subscribe to the teachings of Force’s Codex; perhaps you believed that his advice applied to this page of The Manual, but not that page. Maybe your sector anarchically chose not to heed any of the advice of any version of The Manual at all! Whichever sector you were raised in and whatever your beliefs, all parts of the ship had one thing in common. The Savior kept them fed and clothed, the atmosphere clean, and the lights on. 
     Finally--the day had come. The mighty impulse engines that had not been heard for centuries fired to life--slowing the enormous craft. The Manual foretold that there would be touchdown one day: that they would have to settle a new world--a world outside of The Savior. Each sector prepared as best they could, each according to what they viewed as sacred. 
     The indomitable ship began to shudder--“Atmospheric Entry Initiated” was the glimmering coruscation upon the holographic automatic announcement banners that ran down each and every passageway. The history books showed these communication banners controlled by The Savior hadn’t flashed any system-wide announcements since “Impulse Engine Shutdown” nearly four hundred years ago. 
     Eons of spacetravel had taken its toll on the ship: The Savior’s citizens neglected to provide manual upkeep on several essential systems as The Manual had been lost and changed. The people had either ignored or misinterpreted many of the key ideas over the years. As the white-hot friction of re-entry burned across the nose of this vessel the size of a small continent--panels began to tear off and vanish into flaming ash. Key system controls beneath the hull heated up to critical levels. Cracks began to appear in the outer alloys and insulation panels as it descended through grey clouds and emerged over a bleak, austere landscape. A finger of rock stabbed up from one of the mountain peaks the ship streaked over--the overheated Thruster Compensation Unit couldn’t make a reading in time for correction, and the jagged spire punctured a large hole in The Savior’s midsection.
     Although The Savior was battered--it trailed leaked coolant and vital components across the alien landscape--it kept functioning as was preprogrammed in its system’s endless code: at a certain altitude, it detached an enormous cube section of the ship the size of a city. It slid away from the body of the bleeding vessel and landed by design in the center of an open plain on the barren world. 
     The Savior could read the descent was happening too quickly for its precious cargo--it automatically diverted all energy to forward thrusters. It opened all flaps and nonessential storage bays to try and brace the fall for the humans who lived inside its enormous and mighty walls. It jettisoned nonessential circuit boards and pumped the lowest levels of its hull with gasses and foams to try to temper its landing for the citizens. It would still be a harrowing, terrible arrival--but the people and their families would survive. 
     With an ungodly smash The Savior walloped and furrowed into the ground, plowing a long, deep impact valley behind it as it slowed to a stop. The people, their symbols, their books, their necklaces, their statues, their prayer sheets; all were tossed roughly and unceremoniously forward against the nearest wall. 
     Finally, The Savior stopped moving: its hull plates creaking and hissing from decompression and cooling.
     “Interim. Transfer. In. System. Finished” flashed in a gentle blue across the holographic automatic announcement banners, and then they flickered off. 
     Next, all of the lighting in the ship failed simultaneously. The cities on each floor of the ship were plunged into complete darkness for a terrifying few minutes. Then there was a deafening whirring: large portions of the side of the ship, thousands of feet long, opened up to become gargantuan ramps that led into the blinding sunlight and down onto hard brown dirt. The people raised their hands to the foreign star’s light, blinking and looking around at the horizon: flat except for the lone mountain range far behind them.
     Miles away at the end of the long furrow the ship left on the planet’s surface, the enormous cube lay: the final offering The Savior held for her people. Each and every sector of people began walking towards it and gathered into a long column. A tremendous mass of people, all dressed differently, of all different creeds and beliefs, slowly flowed like a liquid towards the cube. 
     They reached the cube. Each side was a mile long- it stood a mile high. They stood a distance from it for a time. They walked in circles around it. They inspected it. Eventually, they found a small screen with the chipped and faded letters “HJ” painted above it, and a keyboard in the wall next to it. They all knew what happened next. It was on the last page of The Manual--the only portion not taken away or changed over the years; the version didn’t make a difference. A man walked to the screen. All were still. 
     He typed a word onto the screen. The word was “WATER”.
     Hundreds of thousands of ropes descended from the top of the cube--as numerous as hairs on a head. The man that had typed in the word picked one up. He began to walk away from the cube.
     All the people near him grabbed a different cable and began to walk. Word spread around the cube--regardless of living-sector, or beliefs, or height, or dress, or ancestry: the people grabbed a rope and began to walk. Some people at first refused to carry one of the cables--but instinctually, it became clear the object would not move (or do whatever it was it was supposed to do) unless everyone was helping. Eventually, curiosity or guilt getting the better of them, they decided to see what The Savior’s final gift was. 
     Soon enough all the ropes were taught. They began to pull against the monolith. Slowly--slowly--each side of the immense cube began to move towards the ground. They pulled for hours, straining against the weight of the enormous metal walls. As the towering panels began to move downwards they revealed intricate machinery and computer banks--confusing masses of silicon inside of silicon, wheels inside of wheels. They toiled together, sweating under the looming structure until each of the four sides were level with the ground. The people, now a mile of rope away from their side of the cube, and another mile away from its center--shielded their eyes.
     There was a blinding flash of pure white light. A pillar of energy rose into the sky. The moment it touched the outer atmosphere, pearly white clouds began to form. They roiled outwards from the shining beam as if in fast motion to cover the sky. Webs of lightning crackled above, and rain began to blow and smatter every direction. The wheels inside of wheels began to spin--faster and faster. A pulsing sphere of shimmering energy, moving like waves and currents in the ocean, flowed out from the device. Where this wall of ethereal force touched the land--plants sprang up. Where it touched the rocks, moss grew. The ground shook. Water began bubbling up through newly formed cracks from deep within the planet--creating winding streams that began to fill the long trench behind the metal husk of The Savior.
     After a time, wonderful and awe-inspiring, the machine powered down and whirred to a stop. It lay still, dark, dormant. There was a great silence, broken only by the slight rustling of newly formed grass. The stored energy was used up; the planet had been terraformed.
     The people lifted their heads to the sky; then all linked their hands together. They bowed towards the crumpled, broken shape of The Savior on the horizon. Finally--simultaneously--everyone saw and understood the true meaning of it all. They sang songs praising the mysterious ship and thanked her for her final gift. The ship had not just been a survival machine, it was not simply a set of walls between them and the endless void, nor simply a set of rules and descriptions from an old book. The spaceship had been their caretaker, their parent, their sibling, their friend. All this and more: it had been their Savior.
     Around the dead and silent vessel they began to build a city, and the city’s name was Grace.
     In a dark maintenance room on the top of the abandoned ship that hadn’t been accessed in millennia--a dusty terminal lit up dimly. Simple green words flickered across the screen inside The Savior.
     “RUN: PROGRAM AΩ. AUTO-REPAIR SEQUENCE, INITIATED”​

H.T. Grossen is a writer that lives in the long evening shadow of the Rocky Mountains with his magical wife and children in Pueblo, Colorado. In his free time he loves deep conversations and any time he gets to create and engage in the fantastical- be it writing, acting, gaming, or just imagining with friends. 

 

Unknown Landmark by Dominic Leah Conda

     At 3,200 hours, when something started beeping, I wasn’t interested and rolled over. At 3,500 hours, when something beeped again, I was slightly more interested because I was getting thirsty, but still rolled over. At 3,800 hours, when the ship started crashing, I became very interested and ran around my station deck trying to figure out what had happened!
     Then the ship suddenly coordinates, and instead of tumbling into oblivion, it leveled itself out and floated until it peacefully set itself down. Then it went completely offline. Total. Not even the hibernating lights blinked.
     Initially, I had no intention of exiting the ship, but when I couldn’t even get the emergency lights to come on, I decided I had no choice but to inspect it from the outside. Then I stood in front of the hatch and realized I had no idea how to open it. I had never done anything manual over the course of my seventeen years of employment. Holding my pocket flashlight while flipping through the emergency handbook, I wondered how many transporters before me had experienced this problem. It hadn’t been covered in training and there definitely hadn’t been a notice for it on the bulletin board outside of the docking terminal! Then my stomach sank as the word insurance floated up behind my eyes.
     The cute and colourful handbook mentioned a lever tucked into the right-hand side of the hatch. When I pulled it towards me, it uncovered a small handle. I also had to pull that handle and rotate it three-hundred and sixty-five degrees several times before hearing a clicking sound. On the third click, the hatch flew open, startling me back a few steps. 
     It was extraordinarily convenient that the atmosphere was breathable since it had never occurred to me to put on my helmet. I did worry much later if it had been somehow toxic –- but at the time I had just been dealing with much bigger problems, like: what was I looking at???
     The jungle brush was one thing. Its canopy hung over the ship and it was mostly green, incredibly tall, and seemingly inanimate: not a call or chirp or buzzing of wings –- for which I was grateful. Just a very strange-looking forest that had probably stood untouched for who knew how many millennia. Then came the landing space made of maroon brickwork surrounded by dark green moss that had no interest in growing any taller. Neither prepared me though for what was directly in view as the bricks continued into a vast canyon of structures. 
     Hundreds of feet high, steep walls enclosed a valley of towers and centered, square platforms. Fifteen feet thick at their bases, the towers were seventy high with flat tops. The square platforms were shorter but wider with stairs climbing up their sides. There were also stairs leading up the canyon walls unto ledges roughly fifty feet from the ground, but there were no markings, no engravings, no statues, and no other designs as it stretched well into the horizon and possibly beyond.
     Humans were alone in the universe. That much we had agreed on a very long time ago. Well after we had left our place of origin, there was no reason to believe that there ever had been or ever would be anyone else. If God was around somewhere, He was on vacation or long gone Himself. 
Everything about that place though suggested otherwise.
     I have no idea what the weather is like there but nothing to me indicated any kind of permanent residence. There were no roofs or doorways or tunnel entryways. There also seemed to be nothing organic in the canyon, like the brick itself was too aseptic for that. I walked for almost an hour before I wandered up one of the platform stairs. It didn’t feel like a place a person could visit without purpose. It felt millions of years old, and if I could have gone back in time, it wouldn’t have mattered. That place still would have looked and felt exactly as it did, which bothered me since even stars lived, changed, and died.
     Who could have built it really didn’t matter? I was sure they were long gone too. They must have been tall but they could also have been shorter than my ankle. There could have been billions of them or very, very few. Diligent tendons and ligaments had put that place together. A race also with dexterity who had carefully planned and laid each brick, committing to both the enormity and incredible uniformity. 
     Reaching the top of one of the enormous platforms, proved uneventful and almost disappointing since the overall view didn’t change. The towers and canyon sides were still well above me. I had a new view looking down but that was onto a floor that still displayed no pattern. The continuity was making me nauseous when it dawned on me that I was in real danger of getting get lost, very lost. A shiver went down my spine when I realized that if I lost sight of the ship, everything, everywhere would immediately look the same and unless the sky cleared, even if the sky cleared, there was still a possibility that I would never find my way back again –- or make it to the other side. 
     Walking back, the immediate stress of the situation wore off and I became very tired. Thankfully, it didn’t occur to me that my ship might regain consciousness and fly off again without me, so instead, while still caught up in awesome wonder, I walked up one of the longer stairs that took me to the mid-ledges. Up there something changed. The towers seemed to line themselves up but I still couldn’t fathom what that meant. Then the sky cleared and revealed three small moons.
     As I had suspected, each was white and uniform looking. They orbited so peacefully within and around each other, that I remotely thought they had been placed that way. The night sky also didn’t become fully dark. A faint, orange glow seemed to flare every now and then, giving me a kind of nightlight without casting long shadows. Under that alien sky, snuggled up into a corner, I fell into a very deep and dreamless sleep.
     The next morning, I rolled over and my keychain clip slid off my vest. The key rings tinkled and the reverberating sound amplified in the canyon a thousand times over. I threw myself up and against the wall in terror, looking all around me. After a long twenty minutes before I calmed down again, I tried to figure out what had happened. When I noticed my key rings were missing, I scrambled down the ledge stairway and mercifully found them at the bottom. Clinking them again in my hand by accident, their amplified sound came rushing back at me.
     Slowly approaching one of the towers, still with no visible way to climb one of them, I carefully and quietly tried humming a tune. The air around me changed instantly and the melody came crashing back from somewhere far down the canyon. Had I blasted the ship’s horn, the generated soundwave would have blown the ship way back into the jungle, if not obliterating it entirely. 
     Then for no reason at all, I whispered.
     My voice rushed back in and all around me and then hushed itself again but not before I thought I had heard something contradicting. Bracing myself for the force, and focusing my mind, I spoke softly and sure enough, heard the contradiction again. It was the echo of someone else’s voice. Someone else from somewhere else down the canyon had answered. 
     Looking at all the towers, I didn’t think they had been placed randomly, but finally, I felt like I had noticed something. Summoning all my courage, I gently sung the only real tune I could think of which was my mother’s lullaby from when I had been a child. It back came to me in all its glory along with the echo of hundreds of other replies. Feeling satisfied that I had left a sincere offering on that altar, I headed back to my ship, knowing with confidence that it would receive me again and return me safely home.
     Many weeks after leaving, I pulled up the maps and looked up those coordinates again. The numbers on screen were very mundane and confirmed for me that there was really nothing guarding or keeping that place a secret. The race that had built it had meant for it to be found. Probably also thinking no one else was out there, they had still hoped for the better. 
     I imagined majestic beings that lived very, very long yet uneventful lives with few companions, and that the canyon had been a cure for that loneliness. They had come to understand that life has an incredible beginning, and then despite its constancy, excursion, duration, and troubles, surprisingly, and maybe even more incredibly, has an ending. Whenever they missed their loved ones who had gone before them, they went to that canyon and called out to hear those same voices back again. A promise to anyone who visited that they hadn’t been left alone.
      I didn’t tell anyone about the crash when I got back. I was already on very thin ice with my supervisor and I couldn’t picture anyone from the union board taking the slightest interest. The mausoleum of a superior race had very little in common with a species as quick to multiply as it was to annihilate itself. Sure, we all had permission to enter that sacred place, but did we all need to be there? Calling out to indifferent neighbours, relatives we didn’t care for, or to trespass again on the peace of our coworkers? No, let the universe keep some of its secrets. I went immediately looking for my friends whose voices I was desperate to hear. 

Dominic Leah Conda is a member of the Horror Writers Association from the University of Guelph with a fascination for all things lost and forgotten. She likes guiding her readers to haunted places . . . and then abandoning them there.

 

Love's Dark Matter by Pearse Murray

It is a June moonless clear night, one dark beer, one rich port and a darkly rich silence between them. This is a silent communication of old love, of digested time with that ease born from over sixty years together. The alcohol throws some additional light in it for both of them. Beth becomes less moody in its company and the stars induce a bending of the mind in Larry. The wondrous mysteries of stars have created time-waves in their thoughts and invade
their own old enquiries of each other’s hearts.
They are sitting out on the open back deck which looks out onto a wide stretch of Iowan prairie grassland. This silence lasts for about an hour when Larry blasts loudly,
“What’s that?”
“What’s what?”
“That! That thumping sound.”
“I do n’t hear a thing. The freight train went by an hour or so ago. You were dozing then maybe you were dreaming again, dear?”
“I told you before, I never dream. Have n’t dreamt since I was a child.”
“Oh Larry, you’ve been full of dreams, not in your sleep but in your living days. One big container of dreams. Shall I remind you of all your dreams like the big job, the big family, the big house, the big fancy car and all things big’?”
“No, I’d rather you not. But can you not hear that sort of fast thumping sound? Listen! I think it is coming from the sky.”
“No. I can’t hear a thing, unless you mean the fireflies over there. But they are meant to be seen not heard. You know you are always waiting for something or other, some drama in your dull life with me. We are a right pair of dullards are n’t we?”
Larry has heard this wounding remark before and he lets it pass.
“No, seriously, there’s a constant pounding sound. I can hear it clearly now.”
Larry stands up and he hinges his head upwards.
“Now there you are, that’s it, see the stars?”
“Yes I see them”
“Well?  Do you not hear them hammering away?  Look at them; they’re beating I think from their shivering.”
“You are having me on, are n’t you? You’re always doing that—ever since I met you sixty years back.”
“Has it been that long? But I think it is the stars emitting their energy, they are echoes from the Big Bang”
“Some drummer then, that God. Since when did you become some sort of a cosmologist or whatever they call those guys who stare at the stars and the stars never give answers back? I gave that up myself when I was a teenager. You have been watching too much of that science channel about the mysteries of the Universe. The damn thing is simply there and created not for us to worry about. It does n’t depend on you, that’s for sure, thank the heavens!”
He notes to himself the self-congratulatory tone of her own adolescent enquiries that the Universe and Beth are in a state of mutual indifference. He also notes her doubts on his competency in managing the same Universe.
“You are off your rocker again, or is it that you’re just hearing things. Maybe it is that dark beer? It‘s those hops that are in it,” she adds with a chuckle.
“It is, but I tell you, that has nothing to do with it.”
“What is ‘that’ and what is ‘it?’ Are you saying the beer is causing your madness or do you mean that ‘it is’ that you are hearing things again?”
“What do you mean ‘again’ before that last one? That seems to be two questions both of which are confusing me.’’
“What’s so confusing about what I asked?”
“The questions you asked have nothing to do with the answer I just gave earlier.”
“That’s because you did not answer the questions I asked and you gave me an answer to a question I did not ask.”
“That’s right, now that I think of it, Right?”
They remain confuse, uncertain, accepting their mutual lack of clarity.
“I give up, Larry. I do see the stars but I don’t hear them. So let’s talk about something else.”
“OK, but what shall we talk about?”
“Oh, let me think about that.”
They sit back and take in the horizon. A silence between them is drawn out again as more time is pressed to the service of pouring, sipping, pausing and watching fireflies and stars.

“Well, how about dreams?”
“But you just said that I am already dreaming and you know them all.”
“Oh not your dreams, Larry. How about our dreams or maybe my dreams?”
More silence between them and more sipping and more pouring follows.
“So then, what are your dreams, Beth?”
“My god it is a dark starry night alright. And the fireflies, starry themselves. It’s just lovely. Look at it!”’
Larry ponders—she has never stated in all the years he has known her that anything was lovely— maybe her dreams will be lovely too?
“Well then, tell me all about your dreams, Beth.”
“Remember when we first met? We talked about having children.”
Beth looks to the horizon, waiting for his reply. After a long pause she turns to Larry and she sees him suddenly slumping from his chair to the deck and feebly pressing his hands against his chest. He utters a soft moan of love for her.
“Larry! Larry, are you alright there?”
Silence.
“Oh my God!! Help!’
Beth runs into the kitchen and calls for an ambulance. She rushes back to him, kneels beside him with a glass of water and his body registers no movements.
Beth looks to the sky for answers and she concludes that the stuttering stars, masters of his heart, have called him. She curses them for filling her heart with the regrets of not telling him her dreams. She is in that darkness deeper than the vast deep space that is the infinity and eternity of ‘there’.

Pearse Murray: native of Dublin, Ireland and now lives in Albany, NY. His poems and short stories have appeared in a wide variety of print and on-line media such as  Tree Magic, Child of My Child, The Lonely Voicw, Crossways, Voices Israel, Miriam Lindbergh Poems for Peace, Mizmour L’David, The Shoah,  Poetica Magazine and Cyclamens & Swords,  Blue Collar Review and Poetry Salzburg..