Nothing, then the slow accretion of atoms pulling toget

Cutler’s fingers twitched and he dropped the omniphone. A modform grabbed the phone and tossed it into Cutler’s lap, from which it skittered onto the floor. Cutler didn’t move. The modform grimaced, picked up the phone again, and pressed it into Cutler’s hand. Before he could say a thing, the creature was gone.

“Why don’t you get that fixed?” the clerk asked.

Cutler rolled his eyes.

“I was on Arctuis when they started up the world engine.”

The clerk paled and put his hands up. Didn’t want to hear it? Too bad.

“When the morphogenetic wave swept through the lab I saw my colleagues, my wife, two of my three children, become parts of the machine. My daughter was incorporated in the effluent monitoring apparatus. I recognized her shoes. She was one of the lucky ones. Her mind was instantly destroyed. Dawson, the lead investigator, was still conscious three weeks later when they finally managed to shut the thing down. By that time nearly two thirds of the planetary mass had been converted to living tissue, but no breathable atmosphere had been created. The air supply to the lab was intact. Dawson pleaded with me to break the seal and release him, but I could do nothing.”

The clerk interrupted, though he looked like he was about to lose his lunch. “I thought he couldn’t talk. That his mouth was…”

“He blinked his eyes,” Cutler snapped. “He used Morse code, we all had to learn it back in those days.”

“So what happened to you? You survived. Why not have your body rebuilt, or replaced?”

“Can’t. Why? Who the hell knows? No one could figure out why the half of me they found was still alive, 20 days after the planet went crazy. So I’m the only guy in a powerchair in the freaking hundred planets. I’m the only guy they can’t regenerate or even graft prosthetics to. I’m the only guy who doesn’t respond to rejuvenation or life extension treatment. Some guys have all the luck, eh?”

“But the world-f*ck,” the clerk whispered, “that was at least 80 standard years ago. How old were you when it happened? You look … young.”

“Yeah, well, what happened to me, it ain’t all bad. I read minds too.” The clerk’s knuckles turned white where he gripped the edge of the counter.


Kid needed to get a grip. He’d even believed that Morse-code crap.

The end

I trudged for a day in a direction that had not existed the day before.  Tramping to the bleak beacon was like plowing through mounds of slushy snow seeping through your boots.  When the pair of shining black beams smote me, the going slowed to a crawl.

I’d passed beneath the lower angle of the beacon’s lantern room’s reach before the sensation in my goose-pimpled flesh returned.

A white-bearded dwarf exited the base of the beacon waving a lantern, a replica of the one squatting on the beacon.  “Turn back!  Look not into eyes!”  His voice was mechanical, gear-grinding.

The journey had worn my patience so I toppled him.  He fell back flinging his lantern behind.  He hit with a clang; the lantern’s hinged glass door swung open and cracked against the rocky soil, and the cold, coal-black flame soared, guttered, and winked out in the indifferent wind.  The man groaned as I carried on.

Years of severe weathering had pocked the formerly sleek obsidian surface of the beacon.  I ran my hand along its rough flank and steered myself up the inner winding.  The rotting wooden planks protested the load as I pushed wide the trapdoor.

Inside the lantern room, I swung open the glass lens and slid shut the iron vent to suffocate the coal-black flame.  Ice crystals formed in the cracks spread across the vent.

The lens separated into smaller, distorting glass blocks–each chanced to point at the spire that had been my home since my days as unformed crockery.  From this vantage, it looked little more than a mossy screw, but each lens block also pulled it in some direction that made my attachment to it laughable–fat, skinny, hour-glassed, warped.

I pivoted and found myself gazing, across a broad desert, into a land leviathan’s slow blinking gaze.

“You fool!”  The dwarf was hoisting himself up on the floor.  “You’ve opened the gate to misery!”  He brandished a dagger, slashed and thrust.

I dodged.  “Wait.”  Again.  “I see your point.  Please.  Let me open the door, so the flame can breathe, and men do not look.”  With an elbow, I broke the ice and slid the door open, careful not to let the chill black light fall on me.

The dwarf tilted his head back and absorbed the light.

I threw his heavy metal frame into the flame and slammed the door shut.

…The dominant native tribes are fond of outrageous adornment, in every color and substance they can discover or invent, some solemnly encasing themselves in tubes of gray, others in gauzy lengths of yellow and pink and every gaudy color, and some contenting themselves with a string of faded green stuff about the waist and streaks of calcium upon their visages.

For sustenance, they dine upon 10,000 foods, including members of most of the other tribes, both those that stand still and lift their limbs to the upper air, and those that run, fly, or swim.

To amuse themselves during their short life spans they play a variety of games, of which there are two that seem most popular.

In one, they pass objects to each other, sometimes holding objects in their homes for several generations before sending them on, sometimes entering each other’s homes by force to remove certain objects. They seem to love best those objects that gleam most.

In the other game, they stir themselves into an ecstatic fury by means of images and sound, until thousands, and now, as their numbers have increased, hundreds of thousands, drape themselves in identical attire, and travel to meet another myriad crowd–again in identical attire, though of a different design—whereupon meeting, the two masses set about destroying one another.

Scholars like myself are fascinated by both games, and continue to make the long journey from our own home to this odd little planet to observe the players, with growing fondness and concern.

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