This is a thread where I dump all the short stories I write either for practice or for fun. Feel free to comment or critique whatever you like.
ENTRY ONE: [Sci-Fi] The Story of Josyp and Octovaria (Working Title)
“Octovaria, examine this object” Josyp asked, yawning.
“Will do, commander”
The lagship Octovaria came to a halt, entering rendezvous with the object. The scanners would take a long time to decipher the chemical and atomic nature of the object, but it would get there eventually. Not that it mattered. They had all the time in the world.
It took about three weeks before the scan was completed, and Josyp’s eyes opened in surprise, “That was fast” he commented, unplugging himself from the captain’s node.
“I do my best” Octovaria said, “Although the object appears to be mostly homogenous. Fissionable material: 2.1%. Not worth harvesting, not that we need to”
“Alright, we’ll cast off in a week or two, just bring her about” he briefly wondered what kind of object was out there, floating in interstellar space. Octovaria always cut her engines when she detected objects out here. There were millions of kilometers separating flecks of dust at these distances, it was so empty. Large objects were an oddity in and of themselves. What kind of matter was drifting out there, just astern of the long, cylindrical, smooth lagship?
“Octovaria, just out of interest” Josyp said, after having pondered it for a few days, “What’s the chemical composition?”
“Give me about a week” she replied, busying herself with evaluating her previous scan. Josyp entertained himself absent-mindedly, adjusting the parameters of his limbs, correcting rounding errors in his frontal cortex. He prided himself on absolute energy efficiency, and had a particularly long-scale time-perception setting, which is what had landed him the job of lagship captain.
He liked the isolation, just him and Octovaria spending a few millennia in space, with brief sojourns to reboot broken colonies that got stuck in an apocalypse cycle. He’d always wanted to travel through space, and as a kid had loved watching FTL races and hearing stories of the astronauts and taikonauts of the Primary cycle. Imagining those first spacefarers, in bulky and crude suits bumbling about on their rocky satellite. He’d always wanted to be an FTL racer, but as he got older and wiser, the peace and serenity of the sub-lightspeed lagships was a nice alternative. Cheaper too.
“Alright, captain, I’ve got the Chemical Composition done: 80% iron, 18% carbon-“
“Hold on” Josyp said, thinking, “What form is the iron in?”
“It appears to be rolled homogenous steel, captain. Quite rare to occur naturally. The carbon appears to be in an organic form. Perhaps you should perform an EVA? My sensors haven’t been replaced for a few centuries”
“Yes, I think so” Josyp agreed, “Open up the hatch, I’ll take a look”
A large hole opened up in the floor of the cramped cabin, and through it Josyp saw the universe rushing by, again and again as Octovaria slowed down her rotation that produced centrifugal anchorage. After about a day and a half, Josyp saw the stars come to a halt. He stepped out unsteadily, his body readjusting to treat the outside surface of Octovaria’s enormous hull as the ground. Octovaria had magnetized this section of her hull, so now Josyp’s metallic body was kept securely anchored to the hull, as if it were gravity. Their cargo, however, did not have the same luxury.
“I’m readjusting your time perception to a 1:1 ratio” Octovaria told him, speaking directly into his inner ear transmitter, “It’ll waste a lot of energy, but the plant life we’re transporting will begin to degrade within a week in zero gravity. We can’t afford to lose time”
Josyp wriggled his fingers experimentally. It felt no different to him, but it was strange to think he was now experiencing the universe at one second per second rather than his usual rate. It occurred to him that the whole process of leaving his craft would have been complicated and dangerous for those first spacefarers. They would have needed airlocks and spacesuits, but Josyp’s body had no lungs, no need for ambient temperature or air. They were far enough from stars for radiation to not be an issue, and he had an emergency thruster. EVA’s were as easy as going for a walk. If they could have afforded it, Josyp would have taken more walks.
He pitied those early astronauts...
Of course, the entirety of the outside was pitch-black.
“Octovaria, can you activate a spotlight on the object?”
“Of course, Josyp. I’m sorry, I had forgotten”
“Not a problem” Josyp assured her, as a brilliant white light illuminated the steel object.
Josyp magnified his view of the object, observing its shape.
It was a strange shape, and he concluded immediately that it couldn’t possibly be natural. One half of the object was shaped like a prism, with a single tapering tip, and bulging sides. This side was made entirely out of steel, with tiny circular protrusions holding the steel plates together, the other side was a mismatch of steel geometry, spires and funnels, cylinders and pipes. It seemed to be one whole piece of machinery, with platforms and railings running around the entire structure. Perhaps it was some sort of refinery? Or a factory or spaceport? Then again, it wasn’t like anything Josyp had seen before.
“I’m going to get a closer look” Josyp told Octovaria, propelling himself from her surface, controlling his trajectory to the object. It was closer than he’d thought, many times smaller than Octovaria herself, and overall was rather underwhelming. What kind of refinery was this small? Josyp struggled to imagine any scenario that would warrant the construction of something this inconsequential at such a cost far from any human civilization. Perhaps it was a mistake..?
There was something horribly wrong.
“Josyp, I don’t think this is a good idea. This structure doesn’t match any of the schematics I have on record”
Josyp hit the outside of the structure hard, his metal legs scrabbling for purchase against the smooth steel structure. The outside of the structure had corroded over time, little flecks of degraded metal drifted off in tiny clouds, like dust.
“That just means it’s not on the record. How far back do they go?” He asked, anchoring himself to the surface using a magnet, “It doesn’t look like this thing has been operational for a long time”
“Josyp, these schematics go back nearly a three hundred thousand years. We have every human schematic on record since the third cycle, and this matches none of them”
Josyp stopped his slow walk up the side of the structure to look at something printed on the hull, “So… you’re saying that whatever this is was never put on the records?”
“It seems that way”
“No, no…” Josyp tried to think, “Someone must have towed it out here at some point. Or… assembled it or something. Is there anything on the manifest?”
“I’ll check… just give me a few minutes” Octovaria went silent, likely busy accessing her records.
Josyp took the time to rest, and allow his reactor to replenish his energy. One second per second… He had to take things slower, now. He didn’t have the same luxury of time he used to. Instead he idly read the markings, numbers and words printed on the surface.
“Octovaria, could you also search for the words ‘HMS Lancaster’? Might help narrow it down”
“Lancaster?” Octovaria sounded puzzled, “Is that like a serial code or something?”
“I’ll do my best” she sighed, returning to her analysis.
Josyp scaled the remainder of the wall, his movements only making a very dull thunk, like from the end of a long tunnel, as the sound travelled up his arm into his inner ear.
“Still nothing… from the records” Octovaria told him, after a time.
“But there is something from somewhere else?” Josyp finished for her, looking back at his ship and companion from the structure.
“I found ‘HMS Lancaster’ on a manifest, but it’s not a manifest from the shipping records… it’s from…”
“From what?” Josyp asked her impatiently.
“It’s from… The historical record… from the primary cycle”
“I- What do you mean?”
“It means exactly what I just said” Octovaria answered, as exasperated as a synthetic voice could sound, “It means that this is a seaship. A seaship from nearly six hundred thousand years ago”
Yosyp was silent for a few minutes. It didn’t make sense. There had to have been some kind of mistake.
“There has to have been some kind of mistake” Octovaria echoed his thoughts. “Perhaps it’s a cover, or a façade or…”
“Or what?” Josyp asked her, just as lost for answers.
“I don’t know… It doesn’t make sense. I’m scouring the datastore and there is absolutely no advice on what to do in this sort of situation. We can’t even contact anyone; we’re hundreds of lightyears away from the closest habited planet”
“We’ll just have to follow standard procedure, then” Josyp concluded after a time, his grip tightening on the hull of the seaship. “I’ll investigate the ship, record our findings and publish them” He sighed, glad to have at least some objective, or a semblance of one; “Perhaps this is a lost exhibit of some museum somewhere?” he offered helpfully, the thought having just occurred to him.
“Yes… yes… that sounds likely” Octovaria wasn’t entirely convinced.
Josyp yanked himself ondeck. Unfortunately, the floor was timber, and thus there was nothing stopping the captain from careening through space, until he latched onto the steel of a funnel. He pulled himself down to ground level slowly, climbing ‘up’ the upside-down ship until his head bumped against the ‘floor’. Planting his feet firmly on the magnetized mast, he stood at an odd, horizontal angle compared to the rest of the seaship. Looking up, an enclosed walkway led to a staircase leading downwards. There was a soft light filtering through the vacuum from somewhere down below.
“I’m going into the lower decks” he announced to Octovaria, whose long sleek hull gleamed a blinding white, as the unnatural brilliance of the spotlight cast a bleached colouring to all in its path.
“Josyp, I’m getting a very strange sensor readout… Hundreds and thousands of neutrinos… it’s bizarre. Josyp… what is going on here?”
“May just be a malfunction?” Josyp reassured her, unable to calm his own nerves as he balanced precariously, his feet attached firmly to the metal mast while his upper body was loose, “You did say that your sensors are a few centuries due for replacement, didn’t you?”
“Just” Octovaria paused, “Please be careful, okay?”
“C’mon” Josyp smiled, turning to face Octovaria’s hulking shape, “I doubt there’s anything on this hunk of wood and metal that could even scratch my plating” he frowned, “It’s not like you to be so anxious, Octovaria. Is something the matter?”
“No, it’s nothing, really” Octovaria was embarrassed, “My sensors have been playing up, and I just hate to know that I can’t properly tell what’s going on. That’s all”
“There’s nothing to worry about, alright? This will only take a few minutes”
With that, Josyp carefully pushed off the side of the mast with both his feet, drifting forwards slowly, entering the passage headfirst, his eyes facing towards the floor. His back bumped against the descending ceiling, and he pushed against it, directing himself down the wide passage and into a vast room.
Josyp had to look twice to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.
It was a dining room, a large one, filled with carpet and chandeliers and tables and chairs and bars and portholes and tablecloths. In each seat was sat an ancient human from the Primary Cycle. All frozen in a moment. Nothing stirred. The humans were sat, as if frozen in ice, some holding their drink vessels in toast, some in mid-laugh. It was like he was looking through a window in time. The soft light he’d seen before came from the candles mounted in the walls and chandeliers. They seemed to burn, even in this total vacuum, but their flames were static, unmoving. Instead of a homely flicker, they gave off a sterile, constant light, only interrupted by Octovaria’s own light streaming in through the windows.
They were revolting, Josyp decided, staring at their flesh-covered, oily faces, covered in strange contours and colours. The decorations of the room were strange, alien. They way some of them were stuck in the moment of stuffing their faces or drinking their fluids was revolting. Josyp couldn’t imagine living in a horrible world where one needed to ingest bits of flesh and plants to survive, and pour strange liquids into their bodies. If Josyp had a digestive system, he’d have been sick.
But again, the tablecloths, the chandeliers, the carpets, their clothes… looked so beautiful, so soft, so malleable.
Octovaria was talking to him. Asking him questions, getting panicked when he didn’t answer him, calling his name again and again and again and again.
But Josyp didn’t hear her. He stretched out a trembling, steel hand as he drifted headfirst horizontally through this bizarre scene. He reached his fingers out, wanting to take the soft fabric of the tablecloth between his fingers. To see what it felt like. To experience something beyond this time.
His fingers clutched the corner of the fabric.
The sterile, muted light of the room cut to a warm, darker hue. The endless abyss outside the windows was replaced by sea and sky. There was a cacophony of sound as the vacuum was replaced by audible air.
Josyp clutched tight to the tablecloth, and came crashing down to the timber floor as he was immediately subject to unfamiliar gravity.
A shrill scream erupted as the tablecloth was yanked from its table. Glass shattered. A deafening sound of shrieks and gasps. Josyp struggled, and stared wildly into the horrified eyes of the now-animate humans who stared in revulsion and horror at his steel body. The ship lurched and dipped in the sea.
Josyp tried to scream. He screamed and screamed and screamed. He writhed and writhed in a terrifying confusion in the shrieks of strange birds and the tones of strange language, a confusing and desperate barrage of sounds and fear.
Josyp screamed again, and screamed again, but none could hear him. These humans spoke with sound, after all. How could they hear the desperate sound of his radio signals? Josyp looked for something, anything at all to escape this hell.
He let go of the tablecloth clutched to his fist.
It all ceased as quickly as it had begun.
His struggles knocked against the carpeted floor, and he once again drifted into the cool, soothing clutches of space. The whole room was frozen once more. Horrified faces stared in shock at the space on the floor where Josyp once had laid. The tablecloth lay half-spilled on the ground, and the diners were paused midway through either fleeing in terror or attempting a closer look at the non-existent Josyp. He rose through the space like a ghost leaving a corpse.
Josyp said nothing.
He was silent for a long time.
“Josyp, what’s going on? Can you hear me? Are you okay?”
Octovaria’s voice was a beautiful relief to hear.
“Yes, yes, I’m okay” Josyp sighed in relief, drifting further and further away from the strange spectacle.
“What’s happening? What did you find?”
“I’ll tell you later” he decided, pushing himself towards the stairs again, “For now, let’s get out of here”
It was nearly an hour before noon, if I recall, that I had perched myself in the treetop, and used my telescope to scour the horizon for something- anything. I noticed a steely interruption of the infinite blue; a black spire peeking over the rim of the world, staring over the cusp. Upon closer inspection, I recognised it as a mast, with a small observation platform where my telescope spied a man, whose own telescope spied me. It first struck me as odd that there would be a pole sticking out of the water, suspended only by its base, but I then reasoned that if I supposed the earth’s surface was curved, there might well be a ship beneath my sight, hidden only by two and a half degrees of separation.
That was how we spent our lunch, staring across the void into one another’s lenses. The mast drifted to and fro across the sea, seemingly without direction, and eventually came close enough that I could determine the vessel that carried it. It was a hulking, steel beast of a ship, with masts, spires, columns and flags sticking in every direction, and mighty funnels reaching out into the sky like inhuman monuments. It took nearly three hours for the ship to approach, and it was thrown this way and that (albeit slowly) by the wind and currents, never really seeming like it had a destination nor direction, but eventually it drifted close enough that the man on deck (for he had descended the mast) was able to call my way.
“Ho, young girl!” he called to me, cupping his gloved mitts around his mouth.
“That’s a big ship” I replied, mundanely, “Is it yours?”
“Of course it is” the man seemed taken aback, “I am an explorer, and this is my vessel. If this was not my vessel, what would I be?”
I pondered his question for a while, but wasn’t able to grasp his meaning, “Not an explorer?” I ventured weakly.
“Merely a deckhand! An occupation far beneath the qualifications I am worthy of” he wiped his brow with a handkerchief exasperatedly, though it was far too cold for one to have worked a sweat. “Tell me, do you know our current longitude and-or latitude?” he inquired, interested.
“I don’t know what a loggertude is, sir. Or a lattertude” I answered, embarrassed, “Sorry.”
“No need, my girl!” He encouraged, “I’m not sure what they are myself, what I do know is they are of utmost importance!”
It was at this time that I noticed the ship drifting closer and closer to the tiny island, and I was forced to step back. “Perhaps you’d like to stop your ship?” I suggested.
“And why would I do that? Vessels are made to venture, and what would a vessel be if it did not?” he demanded.
I fidgeted a little, feeling embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer to these important questions. “I really don’t know, sir. Do you think you could stop your ship? My island is only small, and I think your ship might sink it.”
“Well… I suppose it would be… Not a vessel!” he decided, seemingly very proud of himself. “Besides, I cannot stop this ship even if I wanted to”
“And why is that?”
“Because I have no sails!” he lamented, “Everyone knows you need sails to pilot a ship. I am merely carried by the current”
At that moment, the ship ran aground, sinking deep into the sand, and thankfully, not sinking the island.
The man dropped down from the deck, landing with a tremendous splash into the clear, shallow water and striding confidently onto the beach. He was a stout man, with tight, beige coloured clothes, glasses and a great pack filled with all sorts of tools and gadgets whose purpose I could only imagine. He planted a flag deep into the sand with a single attempt; “I hereby claim this island for the empire”
“Empire?” I asked, interested, “Whose empire?”
“Why, the emperor’s, of course” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“But I thought this was my island”
He laughed a deep belly-laugh, which was so infectious I could not help laughing with him, though I knew not the reason; “You are but a child! And children cannot govern!”
“What other lands are there in this empire?” I tried to change the subject.
“Just this island, so far, but there will be much more to explore, and many people to meet, I am certain” he asserted optimistically.
“But how do you know that there are other people?”
He strode over to his ship and tapped on a great number ‘2’ embossed on the side. “Two! Which means there is a ‘one’ somewhere, and perhaps a ‘three’ or ‘four’! And presumably, a crew for each. I have yet to find anyone else, but I am certain I will”
“Okay” I nodded, “Who is the emperor, then, if there are none others in this empire but you and I?”
He pondered that question, stroking his pointed beard thoughtfully, “You are too young to govern, so I suppose it would have to be me!” he proclaimed, “I shall be the emperor until either I die, or a better candidate if found. Such is the way in a modern democracy”
“I thought it was an empire?” I asked, but he didn’t seem to hear.
“This is a pleasant island” he mused, “It is a shame I cannot stay”
“What- are you leaving?” I had asked, distraught.
“But of course! Eventually the tide must come in, and carry my vessel onwards. And where my vessel goes, I must follow!” he said triumphantly.
“Can I come with you?” I ventured hopefully.
“Sorry, but you must remain here”
“Why is that?” I tried to stop myself from crying- I didn’t want to look immature in front of the explorer.
“Because one day, when you become an adult, I will need you to govern this island for me”
“But…” I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand, “What does a governor do?”
“Why, make laws, build roads and dictate which side of the road one must use”
“But there is no-one but myself to obey laws, and no place to build a road to” I protested.
He patted me hard on the shoulder with his great paw; “Why, then you will have achieved complete political unity! That’s something to be proud of!”
“It is?” I asked, uncertainly.
He seemed to understand my disappointment; “Here, look at this flag- Whenever you are lonely, you may have this flag to remember me by”
“What use is an empire is it benefits not its ruler nor its people?” I asked, although by now I did not expect him to answer.
“Perhaps I shall mint some coins, that my face may appear on their backs, and the empire’s economy might function”
“What use is a ship, if it ventures where it pleases?” I sat down on a tuft of grass, while the explorer wandered off, musing to himself.
“Or perhaps banknotes might be easier, and I always did like the little pictures on them”
“What use is a man, if he does little more than fulfil his own needs?” I muttered, laying down in the sand, not hearing what else the explorer had to say.
I must have fallen asleep at that point, as I woke to the water lapping at my toes.
The ship was gone.
The flag had washed out to sea.
The explorer was gone, as if he had never existed.
Niccoló breathed a heavy sigh. The stars were beautiful tonight, as usual. The planet of Roma and everything on it was so unbearably beautiful it made him want to scream. He often felt he was of two minds. One of them begged him to get off this decadent and superstitious hunk of rock, while the other always won when the daily heap of florins were loaded into his bank account. The soft, unblinking stare of Il Vaticano beamed down at him with its sterile, holy glare, as the tiny artificial moon trickled across the navy sky. What were they doing there? He felt stuck now more than ever, as the sun moved behind the hulking spires of the Basilica, which stretched high over the planet’s troposphere, the tip of its grand spire cutting into the folds of space, where hermits would arrive in their ships to begin their long pilgrimage to the surface. The grand staircase down to the grand hall of the Basilica took nearly a month to descend to a commoner, and the hermits and monks of the pilgrimage needed to make several stops to fast and purify themselves to allow themselves to pass closer to the holy sanctum. Once they reached the sanctum of course, they would spend scarcely a minute inside the grand hall, where the work of so many artists and sculptors lay hidden from the public so long that none knew what they looked like anymore. The hermits and monks would pass into the room for thirty seconds, cross themselves, and start up the staircase again.
The basilica itself had of course taken several centuries to complete, and nearly one hundred popes and consuls oversaw it’s construction, worming ever higher from the dirt of the crust to the folds of heaven. And the heavens, of course, was the domain of the Holy See, the governor who could not stoop to the level of governing. Il Vaticano, the Marble moon, where his holiness and his fleet of cardinals sang hymns and sermons for whatever grand purpose had warranted the quadrillions of florins that went into constructing the gargantuan thing. There was a clack of metal against marble and Niccoló remembered where he was. He turned from where he was sitting and saw the sullen form of Caterina, one of his coworkers, wheeling a metal trolley stacked precariously with their monitoring and seismic equipment. Her shield shimmered faintly in the shadow of the Basilica, and reminded Niccoló to make sure his was still activated. There was, of course, no chance of either of them going insane and attacking the other, but since the shields were invented three hundred years ago, it had become taboo to turn yours off, as the only way to attack someone through their shield required one to turn off their own. Shields, Niccoló mused, were also the reason they were here now. The shields were the forefront advancement of science in history, completely impenetrable to even the most powerful weapons in existence, they rendered warfare and violent conflict completely obsolete, and enforced a near-universal chastity for all those of the faith.
That was why no one ever tried to research atoms before. Nuclear decay was an uncertain and uncomfortable topic for the church and many institutions, as Alpha, Beta and Gamma radiation was the only harmful substance able to pass through shields, albeit slowly, due to turning the surface of the shields themselves into a layer of unstable isotopes. Anyone who did not die of natural causes, for almost one hundred years had almost certainly, through some misadventure, died from radiation sickness. But now, that changed, al thanks to Terman. Terman was a wonderful man, extremely wealthy and powerful (he owned the enormous Castello d’Alivino, after all), but always kind to his subjects and servants, often inviting them to his banquets and providing lodging for them within the walls of the Castello. Terman, however, was fascinated with all kinds of frontier science, atoms in particular. He had contacted Niccoló and his team of Atomicists (almost a curse word in scientific circles) and offered them generous patronage when no one else would. This was, of course, a stunt which lost him favour with the Medici and the Papacy, but he almost seemed not to care. And all that had led up to this test, a test that could have been done years ago, but never was, until now.
“You weren’t able to get us a chaletto to bring the equipment?” Niccoló queried Caterina.
“No” came the reply, “They were occupied in arranging Il Patrono’s banquet. You know he expects a celebration when he returns from the colony.” Her voice was disinterested, and monotone. Caterina was a Mathematician, and he got the distinct impression that she hated her job more than anything in the world, but work was hard to find for intellectuals, particularly on Roma, and mathematics was the only thing, as far as he could tell, that Caterina was much good at. He helped her take the trolley down the enormous staircase that led into the minor pavilion of the Castello, nearly two hundred immaculate steps of marble, careful not to scrape the graphene edges of the cart against the blocks.
When they finally reached the landing, they brought it off the path into Castello field, where rows upon rows of immaculate tulips of every colour imaginable danced in the non-existent breeze, They were rather distracting, Niccoló thought, and wished that they hadn’t been programmed that way. There was barely an inch of the Castello grounds that wasn’t plastered with staircases and sculptures and fountains and gardens, but Terman had laughed it off, remarking that they could use this field for their tests, as it was “By far the least magnificent of my gardens!” They attached their equipment to the communications network, and Niccoló used a telescoping lens to observe the small tower they’d constructed nearly five kilometres away, at the top of which rested the atomic device. This was, of course, the first test of its kind. No one quite knew what would happen if Uranium went this violently critical in a fraction of a second, and he had his doubts that anything would happen at all.
“No time like the present” He told Caterina, who guessed what he meant, and activated the detonator. Nothing happened for several seconds (the communications networks were often backed up and their access code was the lowest priority), but a second later Niccoló had no doubt that it had worked.
The flash was more blinding than the sun.
He had to look away; else his retinas would be permanently damaged, and instead chose to look up, where he expected to see the starry sky, but what he saw instead was worse. The grand shield, the one that stretched kilometres overhead to cover the entire Castello was scorched jet black. At the same time as seeing this, Niccoló heard the almighty eruption of sound that threatened to rupture his eardrum. When he felt brave enough, he looked back down towards the test site. The entire field and it’s flowers had been flattened. Vaporised. There was a black cloud of the polysteel and marble that the underlying crust beneath the device, the material of the crater it had created. There was an almighty groan, and with dread, he looked back up at the sky. The shield seemed to shimmer for a moment, then shattered into a hundred million black shards of graphene-glass, which floated down to earth like a dark snow. It was simultaneously the most beautiful and the most horrific thing he had ever seen.
As the black shards settled on Niccoló’s own shield, it too shattered in turn, and he heard, like a thunder, the shattering of every shield the black rain settled on, like bubbles in champagne. He looked at Caterina through the glass eyes of his radiation-suit, and for the first time Niccoló saw tears running down her face. Whether they were tears of joy or sadness, he could not tell. He briefly wondered if the Pope had seen the explosion from Il Vaticano. It was certainly large enough. He found it an entertaining though that the Pope and his cardinals had buried themselves in Hymns and God’s work when the real hand of God had touched the atom-scorched planet below. It was a most heretical thought, and it was for that reason it gave him the most comfort.
I don’t consider myself spiritual, or intellectual. I’m not gifted particularly in the nuance of nature, nor the method of science. I don’t admire beauty when it is apparent, and I consider myself much the same person that I was a year, or two years ago. Despite this, it’s hard to ignore the world when there is nothing else. I follow the railroad for what seems like hours, the minutes and seconds blending into one another as the bicycle tyres waver unsteadily over the barren soil. The vast expanse of the plains are littered with a half-dozen treasures left desolate, as though locked away in a museum upon which I’ve trespassed. An anchor lays, half buried in the grey-brown silt, stained and scarred by the stinging salt of a sea one century fled, and now merely holds fast in the ground, despite the ship that it supported having long since disappeared. The railroad was more recent, but it feels like the difference between ancient history and middle age. It disappears across the grey-brown landscape, bending this way and that like a child’s mad scribblings, raking across these forgotten pages of the world’s rim. A shack or old chimney, dotted here and there along the rails, mark the ill-fated lives that once called this place home, what one was the marker of civilization and familiarity now stands as a warning of the savagery of this land. Old fields and paddocks long since abandoned still stand staunch against the dust that eats away at the twisted barbed metal, strung madly like strings on a broken violin, played off-key by the rushing of the unfeeling wind. The soil, so parched and broken, seems as if there never was life that must have been. These fields must have been awash with grass once, and animals must have grazed here, content to exist and carve a life out on these forgotten fields. But now the ground is deserted and lifeless, and suffers not a blade of grass to live.
What lives did these faceless men and women lead? What of the fishermen, whose quaint ships now lay rotting husks and skeletons, half-buried under a dry waste? What was this place to them? Perhaps it was an escape, a place to relax and let your mind wander and dream. Perhaps it was the grueling and painful work that one hoped to escape from. What of the people who once worked the farms and the mines of this unknown plain? Did they come with families, and carve a new life for themselves under the unforgiving sun, content merely to exist? Did they come alone, hoping to make their fortunes, only to have those hopes dashed? Were they happy? The artifacts of decades gone yield no secrets, their stories and wisdom forever buried under a thin layer of inexorable dust.
Looking forwards again, the railroad stretches onwards on its neverending journey, to a destination of which I know nothing. The brown of the land begins to boil off into the sky as mirage blurs the line between land and sky. The few clouds that there were are sparse strings, flung wildly across the blue firmament, pointing every which way in an unintelligible tangle. Was I the only one who would see this same sky? Perhaps another traveler might find themselves here, in the unknown, vast magnitude of this world. Perhaps they would uncover the secrets I’d failed to find. Perhaps they would find new questions, questions that I had never thought to ask.
I’m not a spiritual person. I’m not an intellectual, but as the hours stretch on and the sun sets behind the smoke and silhouette of the city, approaching across the horizon, I’m not the same person who left. It’s difficult to notice the value of individual things, when in a relative sea of experiences, but when all the world is reduced to but a few landmarks, their scarcity makes them all the more valuable. I never truly knew that world that I had grown up in, that I’d lived in for so many years, I had always been a stranger. Now, the stalls and shops, the drains and graffiti, I search them all for stories and secrets. For the people who made them, for the generations that grew up in the same world as I, and the ones that passed it, leaving their mark. The world is open, and a thousand people have explored it, but so many of those people’s works lay silent, just out of view, in the background, waiting for someone to ask the right questions.
There was once a time when people fought for a reason. There was a time when people would fight, and their loss would be either a tragedy or a sacrifice. We always knew deep down it wasn’t right, but that didn’t stop us. When the grass is greener on the other side, a border isn’t going to stop you from taking what you want. War has always been a terrible thing. A last resort beyond last resorts, something that came about due to neglect, or mistake, or the actions of ‘evil people’, whoever they were. Still, war had strategy, gains and losses. Objectives, fleets and armies and corps and wings and divisions. We thought we had war figured out; should it come to it, there was no reason that the executioner of the enemy should have to feel at all connected to his quarry. Why should our sons have to stare down the whites of their eyes, when an indiscriminate missile can do the same job. Quicker, cleaner, and more efficiently.
Red dots on a screen are so much easier to kill than people.
It was the 21st century, and we thought war was extinct. Now policy was fought with words, compromise, threats and bargaining. It wasn’t perfect, but nothing ever was. Sometimes you had to settle for the next best option, such was the sentiment of the time. We continued this way for a great duration, existing in tenuous, convenient peace. War was, of course, the easiest option, but we persisted down paths of increasingly convoluted and stagnant diplomacy, as our species readied itself to leave for the stars.
Eons dragged by, as humanity exploded onto the stage of the universe. A thousand moons and planets colonised, and our population became uncountably high. The strange nature of this universal system dominated the everyday life. People stayed mostly complacently, living quaint existences on their respective celestial bodies, knowing that when they looked up to the stars from their humble homes, an infinity of other people were looking back.
I think that was part of the majesty of it, knowing that regardless of what leg of space you wound up in, there would always be a trove of other people with you; you would never truly be alone. It was strange then, when the wars began again. It was going to happen eventually. In an unrestricted universe of one hundred trillion people, someone is going to have a grievance with someone else. And when the population reaches levels where even census is nigh impossible, diplomacy is a laughable idea.
There was never any declaration. It wasn’t on the news, there were no protests, no conscriptions, no call to arms. If you were unlucky enough to live on a target, you were annihilated. Projectiles pushing the speed of light appearing from interstellar space, destroying with impunity. Planets were converted to silos, and we began launching our own attacks into oblivion as fast as those attacks returned. We didn’t know who we were shooting at, and neither did they. Computers determined the position of our targets, and we follow their guidance. There is no nation to invade or rebellion to fight, there is only an ambiguous collection of enemies and would-be enemies, united against or with one another out of convenience.
It is not that much different from the time before: Statistically, out of the tens of trillions of people, your chances of being the target of attack was very low, and those targets that were unlucky enough did not suffer. The weapons with which we fight do not linger in their destruction, they annihilate within a fraction of a second, deleting a society from existence with reckless abandon. It gives us something to do, I suppose. Gives us news, and excitement. Makes us look up and wonder “who is winning?” It hangs over our heads, gives meaning to each day that our existence continues. We have yet to contact a planet that is not participating in this conflict; and it seems that the attacks and destruction reach to the very frontiers of endless human expansion. No one knows where Earth is, or if it even still exists. We don’t know who we are fighting. We don’t know why we are fighting. We don’t know where we are fighting, but we fight on anyhow, because it’s the only thing left to do.
War used to be about tactics, gains and losses. It used to be about armies and fleets, corps and divisions. It used to be about attack and defence. Glorious victory and crushing defeat. But we have long since solved war. The only logical form war can take is to maximise the kinetic energy applied to your enemy, while minimising their capability to do the same. Such a simple exercise can easily be done by computer, all that is required is that we push the button.