Last month, for my very low-key Camp NaNoWriMo project, I decided to write a short story following the rules set forth by 7×7: one segment in response to one image (chosen at random from the internet by my husband; if you know who made them, please let me know, because we lost track), no more than 300 words each. We only used six images, and thus, six written portions, and I had all of the images at the get-go, instead of one at a time. I also took the whole month instead of 12 consecutive days to put the thing together. And, although there’s a two-hour-per-piece time limit for compositions in 7×7, each of the written portions only took me about 20-40 minutes, and they haven’t been edited much since then, except for typos and such.
So, take this for what it is. A challenging and frustrating but somehow still fun exercise in writing fiction that could turn into something bigger someday. Maybe 😉
It’s not like I remember it, this planet. The blues and greens that painted me as a child have been replaced with browns and grays, the color of dry bones. Crouched here among these windowed walls, roofless with decay, I long for my youth. What winter could devastate me then, having known only a few silent snows, spectral with belonging?
I ache for those days, and exit, numb to these cold memories.
Twigs and refuse crunching under my feet, I wander, spring too far for feeling. It’s difficult to recall why I’ve returned, why any of it matters. But it matters.
Every path has a way forward, and a way back. What is new has a way of enticing that is so immediate, so viscerally consuming, that the known cannot compete — but the past has its own way of calling us home.
Home. What is it? To have lived so far away from it so long makes it seem impossible. Yet here I am, having traveled light years through science and history and understanding, alive with possibility and kinetic energy, the familiarity of this place firmly rooted in my blood.
A bird sings and I stop. If I was waiting for a sign, this must be it — life, in the sense the space-bound have forgotten. My fingers tingle with purpose, prepared for alteration, altercation. No one can fight for birth — and rebirth — like a woman.
So let them come for me — let this world remind them where we come from, what we’ve lost in the dark. Survival is not enough, nor the perpetuation of some people an excuse for the destruction left in our wake.
Look at my hands — look at yours. Do guilt and shame line your palms like mine? Or do you think you aren’t to blame?
Standing with my little brother in the doorway, his Halloween head shielding him from reality, I could tell the man was already dead, frozen in anguish over that same reality. From our position, you might not know it was a man. But I knew the old headsets. They couldn’t ease you out, couldn’t prepare you for the real world —
And what was real, anyway? When you allow the BREIGN to take away your pain, immerse you in your best dream, what joy could the alternative possibly give you?
No. That life extinguishes your life — emergence can only result in that consummate exhaustion called death.
But he must have felt the breeze on his skin. A part of him would not relinquish its grasp on the world he’d known, and that made all the difference.
Why would he give himself such a reminder? A so called “fail-safe” that would guarantee failure, nullify any chance of a safe return?
Because despite his moral failings, he was one of us.
“Is he dead?”
“Can we go check?”
But I did go check, after I led my brother to the ship — claimed I’d forgotten something in the house. What I’d forgotten, though, was there in that chair, at the edge of the yard:
His name was Peter, and as I stared at his sunken face, let my eyes trace the angles in his twisted, rotting arms, I remembered why we had to leave. I looked down at his mossy knees, barely more than bone now, and closed my eyes. Found a trace of his smile in the darkness. Found that piece of me I knew I’d need when I came back.
Head down, eyes re-opened, I shuffled through the grass — still green then — back to the ship.
Here I come again.
From this vantage point beside the bridge, near the loading bay, I can see that house encircled in the gears, and I wonder if anyone else could appreciate such a small window into their past, so perfectly and tragically framed by the present.
“Makes for a pretty picture, huh?”
Liam surprises me with this insight. The trees beyond and the river below are part of my imagination, but for a moment, I suspect he sees them too. As if he remembers. As if he hasn’t lived his whole life aboard a ship.
I nod and accept another container from Liam’s gloved hands, placing it on the platform beside me. There are maybe 20 of us on this expedition, and only a few who remember this planet as it was. None of us know how long we’ll be here, so preparation is key. We must not leave anything to chance.
One of the containers clangs against the dock as one of our older compatriots, Niall, drops a heavy corner.
“Hey! Be careful with that.”
Liam is young, but wise beyond his years. A born leader. He shakes his head as he passes me the fallen goods, and I smile a little as he gives me an exasperated look through his shaggy blond curls. He’s like Peter, in that way. High standards, laser focus. But the heart is there, too.
Niall is sitting on one of the containers, wiping sweat from his brow. Liam softens, goes to him. I don’t hear their exchange over the hum of the engines, but I understand as Niall heads back into the ship and is replaced by his cousin Nora.
I pray none of us have to die, knowing some of us will.
“Just a few more,” Liam reassures me, passing another box.
Weeks down here, and nothing to show for it. Stuck in a cave, the acrid air a constant assault on the senses. Nora is sick, and Niall is dead. Despite what we did to this planet, organisms exist. The kind that carry disease like an apocalyptic pestilence.
And yet, I have to question my own description — what is an apocalypse, if society survives? Can anyone really outrun the end times, or just delay it for a while? Does Armageddon depend upon some outside force, or will we always, necessarily, destroy ourselves?
I try to shake the negativity from my mind, but even Liam looks much less optimistic than he did when we landed. Of course, none of us anticipated the presence of zombies. Personally, I figured anyone left would’ve shriveled to death like Peter.
But the BREIGN brigade knew what they were doing. They knew we’d come, and assumed we’d fail. And maybe they were right.
Do I sound jaded? Is the stench of giving up so thickly rising from my pores?
“Hey, I think I found something!”
Liam and I look up to see Evelyn smiling and pointing deep into the cavern — do either of us dare hope for more than escape?
She disappears, and we jump to follow, slipping on the wet rocks — I try not to think of blood. Of the life water flowing from our brethren into the marsh outside, their organs turning to algae.
Evelyn waves from a crack in the cave wall, a crevice barely large enough for Liam and me to shimmy through. He hesitates, but then we both notice that there’s more light coming from a fissure behind Evelyn than there is from Liam’s lamp.
“I don’t know about this,” he says, but Evelyn and I are already passing through the gap.
Of all places, this is not where I expected to find it.
Yes, Liam. The birthplace of the BREIGN network.
The atrocity was aptly named, of course. A giant, ovular orb rests in the middle of the pale stone floor before us. Inside, the outlines of two more round, pillowy objects are just barely visible. Thick, medullaic wires stem from one side, reaching up through a slatted wooden ceiling to connect to what I can only assume is the hive of hundreds of smaller, more traditional super computers that run the simulations.
“It’s so beautiful,”Evelyn coos, approaching the organ-like awe. Her trespass disturbs me as much as her reverence.
“Where is all that light coming from?” Liam asks, and I follow his gaze upward. The opaque grid above us is tight enough that it’s impossible to see through, though clearly there is both natural and artificial light from yet another room beyond illuminating this one.
I’m sure Liam has deduced the same, so I say—
Don’t touch that!
Evelyn freezes, her fingers a fraction of an inch from the vessel.
“We don’t know what it could do,” Liam warns as Evelyn circles to the posterior of the cloudy cortex. I find myself moved by Liam’s understanding, and for a moment see his profile in a new light. Evelyn gasps.
“There’s someone in there!”
Liam and I run to her side as the glowing white sac begins a slow, shallow pulse.
Get back, Evelyn.
Something about this feels wrong. Liam senses it, too.
The fog inside the BREIGN clears. A pair of bright blue eyes set in a pale, hairless visage appears, and the mouth opens:
The resonant, alto voice is loud in all of our heads, as if the being is there, inside.
When I come to, my ears are ringing and my vision is blurry. I remember the bright flash of white light blowing me back, blinding me. Slowly, the scene comes into focus — only, not really.
I see shadows outside the cloudy, convex wall before me. The air in here is thick and wet, and I find this irritates me. Almost as if my irritation were a command, the fog clears and my heart begins to pound in my chest.
Liam. Evelyn. Motionless on the floor…outside.
I whirl around and feel a tug at the nape of my neck and at my belly button simultaneously. I see the pillowy sacs of fluid connecting to my naked, hairless body. I try to scream but I hear nothing, and who would come?
Another figure approaches, and I’m shocked to discover it looks just like me.
Liam stirs and I scream his name.
Just as he begins to raise his head, the figure that is me and not me looks straight in my eyes and smiles. Then she lifts my weapon and fires it into Liam’s chest.
I feel the choke and ache of the sobs, but not the dampness of tears. The murderer watches me, the mask of my face on theirs flickering a moment, to reveal the pallid skin and royal blue eyes I remember from before.
And now I begin to understand the BREIGN. How little we knew. How useless our research and desperate our attempt to rid the universe of this monstrosity.
And yet, here, in this bubble, as I transmit my words and memories to anyone awake and willing to listen, I realize I can end it. I know the code. And I see you know it, too, traitor. But I am stronger than you.
© Copyright Caitlin M.S. Buxbaum, 2021