Thread [short story reprint]

This story first appeared in Ideomancer, which is sadly no longer online. Therefore I’m reprinting this story here. It is On Brand for me, with the evil lights and creepy SF. I hope you enjoy!

CW: suicide, attempted suicide, torture, murder, imprisonment.

2,300 words
Science Fiction/Horror


image via Pexels

THREAD

by A. Merc Rustad

 

The nine-cluster appeared outside our unit’s bunker on the last day of the cycle. That meant only one thing.

They would take someone away.

I peered out the portviewer. All nine stood before the door, tall humanoid shapes composed of white light. They had heads like stars: translucent spheres with colored particles that suggested facial features. (That is how I imagined stars. I’ve never seen them for real.)

They didn’t have names. They didn’t have genders, either. We dubbed them he/she at random, although I never understood why. They weren’t like us.

Two smiled and knocked, as if politeness meant anything. I didn’t open the bunker door.

Bailey took charge, like he always did. “Everyone stay calm.” He glanced at me, and I nodded. “This is just a routine inspection.”

“How do you know?” Kory asked, wide-eyed. “We just got back. They don’t do inspections until the first cycle-day.”

Bailey slapped him on the shoulder. “Your record is spotless. They aren’t here for you.”

“Then who?” Tess demanded.

Everyone had unsuited except me. But Tess didn’t notice. (I often forgot to remove my pressure suit right away.) Tess let me stand by the viewer for hours after a shift and look at the empty road that connected the one-hundred-forty-seven bunkers on this facility.

“No one, Tess,” Bailey said. He could still tell lies. “No one is being taken to the House.”

Tess took a breath and glanced at Dom. “If you say so.”

“Mara,” Bailey said, lifting his chin and facing the door. Only Dom and I saw the tremor in his hands. “Let the overseers in.”

Dom took the scissors off the table and held them tight. They were long-bladed and heavy, used for snipping bone. He had already been to the House.

(But so had I.)

I keyed the pressure lock and opened the door.

Our unit’s bunker was a functional square room. Cots slid into the wall when not in use, and we were allowed a few personal effects. Tess had the geode collection; Kory had a holo-projection of a world he pretended was once ours, full of blues and greens and surrounded by the white of the universe. Bailey had a book—paper and leather—but there was nothing inside it.

I had a thread I’d mined and none of the nine-clusters knew about it.

All nine floated in and planted themselves around our bunker. We all smiled. The cardinal rule: never frown during inspection. Gemma had forgotten.

“Welcome,” Bailey said. He wouldn’t fail. He couldn’t. “Is everything in order?”

Two laughed. Two was always the leader. “A disturbance has been reported in your bunker.”

“What?” Kory said. “That’s impossible.”

“An anomaly.” Five glided around the perimeter. She stopped by Dom. He stared straight ahead, his knuckles bloodless. “Something is in this sector that does not belong,” Five said.

Tess tilted her head towards the floor, inhaling slow and deep. She practiced her breathing every night, because Gemma wasn’t there anymore.

Bailey shrugged easily. “We’re permitted to refine a portion of phosphates for our own use. No one has brought back anything else past quarantine.”

I hadn’t told the rest of the unit. Bailey said not to. “They’ll crack,” he’d said the day before, looking tired and sad. (I wish I’d argued, but I had no protest.) It would be easier if they didn’t know.

The thread squirmed in my gloved hand. I locked my jaw and kept my smile in place. Not yet, not yet, not yet.

We needed the nine-cluster agitated so they would touch us physically. I wouldn’t risk the thread failing to pierce their barriers. It was the only chance we had.

Kory swallowed and folded his arms. He was the youngest in our unit, and he still smiled when he didn’t have to.

“We’re making quotas,” Tess said from clenched teeth. “No one has violated the regulations. I check everyone’s suits upon entry.”

(She never checked mine. Bailey said not to. “Sometimes it’s all that holds her together,” I’d heard him whisper to Tess, when I came back from the House.)

Muscles twitched in Tess’s jaw. “What is this about?”

“Defensive?” Two asked her. “That is a common psychological signal that you are…hiding something.”

“We have nothing to hide,” Bailey said. He chuckled, his mouth stretched until it might break. “We’ve increased production by 127% this cycle.”

“So you did.” Four’s particle-expression swirled and brightened in warning. “And you were down 76% the cycle before, 58% the cycle before that, and 13% before that.”

No one looked at me. I had taken Bailey and Dom on the downward spiral. (Only I could see darkness, but they believed what I told them.)

Our unit mined minerals and ore on the debris rings of 6-X76. We averaged a 97% productivity level per work segment, and had for the last ten cycles. That was when Gemma went away, and Dom came back from the House.

“Fine. It’s my fault,” Tess said, pulling her shoulders back. “I didn’t keep the unit on track. You took Gemma.” Her hands fisted and she took a steady breath. “But I accept full responsibility for the unit’s decreases previously.”

Kory winced. I shook my head minutely. Don’t do this, Tess. It’s not your fault. They weren’t suspicious yet. (I couldn’t watch them take Tess away.)

Eight laughed, a faint hissing sound characteristic of all Eights. “Your statement is contradictory. You were the hardest worker in the unit during the previous three cycles.”

“It’s in here,” Five said. “It does not belong.”

“Disassemble,” Two told Five. “Find it.”

It was too soon. I shot Bailey a flat look. He sat on a plain metal stool and shut his eyes. “Dom,” he said, very quietly.

Dom tensed, ready to do anything Bailey asked. He always did.

Bailey’s smile weakened, and he tilted his head a fraction at Two. Dom’s muscles bunched. He might not harm Two—we didn’t know how to hurt the nine-clusters ourselves—but he would distract Two anyway.

Kory’s face beaded with sweat. “They found something,” he blurted. “I saw Mara put it—”

Dom jabbed his thumb into Kory’s eye. The eyeball popped. Kory screamed, clutching his face.

Tess snarled and raised a fist at Dom, but Bailey snapped, “Don’t.”

Two clapped his hands. “Oh, well played. You are hiding something.”

I didn’t know Kory saw me take the sock or put it back. Everyone had been eating when I did. (I didn’t eat much anymore.)

Five began expanding, translucent arms budding from her torso. She threw the holo-projector to the floor, scattered the geodes, pulled apart Bailey’s book. The cots were empty.

The thread was heavy, pressing into my skin through the glove. It had taken all my enhanced strength to lift it from the mines. I couldn’t hold it much longer.

Bailey’s breath came faster. They might question him—Dom could resist, but Bailey couldn’t. He had never been to the House.

I kicked the cabinet where we kept our pressure suits, jostling loose the plastic door and the lopsided drawer.

Three swiveled her head. She spied the single bit of fabric—a sock—peeking from the drawer. It was black. I’d rubbed the thread all over it to change it. (I was the only one who saw why it was different.)

Five hissed. “This house is touched by the dark.”

The nine-cluster’s heads began to pulsate in alarm.

“Anomaly found,” Two said.

Kory let out a strangled moan. Bailey sat rigid, his face ashen, and folded his hands on his lap. Tess inhaled shakily.  She put her arm on Dom’s shoulder, but Dom stared into the distance as if he wasn’t here anymore.

Nine looked at me, her eyes expanding until they encompassed her forehead. “Mara, you don’t seem surprised.”

I kept my arms around my knees, the thread in my hand. “Space is dark.”

They didn’t like that.

Our eye-filters were programed for light. We looked at the space between mining sites and planets and we saw the brilliant white of the universe. I shouldn’t have known what dark was.

But I had been to the House, where they pluck out your eyes and you bones and your skin and your neural pathways and remake you. And in between being remade (again and again and again), I saw beyond the light. I saw infinite blackness.

It was beautiful.

Nine strolled towards me. “This unit is no longer operational.”

We were all going to the House.

Another unit would replace ours. There was always another.

Dom lunged. He still held the scissors, the keepsake he brought back from the House. He aimed for Bailey. The scissors sunk through the back of Bailey’s spine at the base of his skull. Bloodied metal tips poked from his windpipe. Bailey’s muscles twitched and he slid to the floor.

Dom always loved Bailey the most.

Two sighed and pressed a radiant palm over Dom’s face, picked him up, and carried him out the door. Two left Bailey’s body where it lay. The machines to revive the body were all in the House.

Blood was darker than I remembered.

I held on tight to the thread.

Kory screamed and threw himself at Two. “Don’t take him!”

Eight batted him aside, and he hit the wall hard enough to break his ribs. (I didn’t flinch. I don’t think I can, anymore.)

Tess grabbed the scissors. She stopped smiling as she ran towards Kory.

One moved for the first time. He expanded a stasis field around Tess, rendering her immobile. She dropped the scissors. They bounced across the floor and skittered to my feet.

“Mara,” Kory gasped as Eight carried him towards the door. “Help me…”

I couldn’t. (I’m sorry, Kory.) If I moved, if I dropped the thread, we were lost. (I’m sorry, Tess.)

I smiled up at Nine. I didn’t look at Bailey.

“Space is dark,” I said again. “I’ve seen it.”

“We will fix that.” Nine’s face erased any particle expression. “The House will welcome you back.”

I snatched her wrist as if I wanted to push her away. I couldn’t. No one was that strong.

The tiny black thread wormed into Nine’s translucent arm. She didn’t notice. Her body was too full of light.

She pressed her palm over my face and the House came back in my mind, every imprinted memory.

#

In the House, you are unmade.

(—it hurts it hurts it hurts—)

The nine-clusters have no identical analogues for physical bodies, no way to feel pleasure or pain the way we do, but such things fascinate them.

They can record it in a million ways inside the House and translate it into data they can experience.

An Eight told me that when he extracted my nerves one at a time with his minute tools.

And in the House, even if you stab yourself in the brain with scissors, they can fix you and make you remember.

(Dom tried. He tried so many times, and so hard, but they remade his body every time.)

No one comes back from the House whole.

#

When I found the darkness, it was buried deep beneath rock and iron. A single thread, barely three centimeters long.

I told Dom. He stared at me, empty-eyed like he often was.

“I don’t know what dark is,” Dom said.

I grasped his gloves. “It can eat away the nine-clusters. All of them.”

This was my theory. If they had made the universe light, they must fear the opposite. They could not live in blackness.

Once a ten-cycle, all the nine-clusters gathered and merged their heads into a great sphere of light. They shared everything, knowledge and particles and experience and delights they’d witnessed in the House.

One drop of darkness would infect them all.

“I can get it,” I told Dom. “I just need your help.”

He shut his eyes. It was light out even when you didn’t look. “They’ll take us back.”

“I know,” I said. (I didn’t remember how to lie when I came back from the House.)

Bailey was deeper in the tunnel, his comm synched with ours. Dom could cover my workload while on shift, and Bailey could make sure no one else in the unit found out what I was doing.

“They’ll take Bailey.” Dom’s voice cracked. “They’ll take all of us.”

“I know,” I said. “But we’ll blot them out and no one will ever be taken again.”

We were made in darkness, before the nine-clusters came. We could live in it again. And we know how to make our own light.

Dom leaned his head against the wall, his helmet clicking against rock. All I heard was his breath over the comm.

“Dom?” I asked, when he didn’t move.

“Bailey,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” Bailey said. “I’ll help, Mara. Sometimes I think I dream of the dark.”

Dom fisted his hands.

“I can show you what the dark is like for real,” I said. “The light will end.”

It was what we all needed, even if we could never admit that.

Finally, Dom nodded.

We began to dig.

#

I look out one of the House’s many windows, at the nine-clusters watching. Specks of blackness float in their star-like heads.

The darkness is growing in the Five that leads Dom away again.

“It will be dark soon,” I promise Dom, but his blank stare never changes.

The nine-clusters glow brighter, as if to hide it, but I know what darkness looks like.

(I will never forget.)

Soon, the darkness will expand and the stars will collapse. Nine by nine, they will become vacuums and take away all the light in the universe.

It will be beautiful.

 


first published in Ideomancer, Decmber 2013
(c) 2013 by Merc Rustad

How Grandma Saved the World And Invented Intergalactic Diplomacy

How Grandma Saved the World And Invented Intergalactic Diplomacy

by A. Merc Rustad

 

Grandma was the first person to encounter the aliens, and because of that, we’re alive decades later and I get to tell you the story of how she saved the world.

It goes like this.

Grandma always believed in being kind. She talked to her potted gardenias when she watered them. She fed all the neighborhood’s strays. She made tea for anyone who came to visit. She donated a check to the local foodbank once a month and volunteered on weekends.

You could say Grandma never met a living being she didn’t like. She petted the grass and chatted to the local oak trees in her front yard. She apologized to the front step if she tripped on it bringing in groceries. She left crumbs in one corner of the pantry for the ants and always kept fresh water in the bird bath and nectar in the hummingbird feeders.

Maybe you think no one could be this perfect. Maybe you think I’m exaggerating Grandma’s legacy, because of how she saved the world.

Let me tell you, Grandma wasn’t perfect by a long shot. She got mad at politics and she cursed so blue the dictionary ran out of words to keep up with her. She had a record for vandalism (taking out bigoted signs on neighbor’s lawns), she’d been arrested for obstruction (public protests), and for assault (she punched out a douchebag while escorting a scared young woman to a clinic).

So no, Grandma wasn’t a saint. But she always believed in being kind, even if sometimes you had to put politeness aside and punch a douchebag out cold.

Grandma had an open-door policy: she never locked her doors and anyone was welcome in her kitchen. Make sure you scraped off your boots if it was muddy or snowing, always say thanks when you left, and don’t bother the gardenias (they have delicate dispositions).

It was December when the saucer crashed into her backyard.

Grandma had been filling up the bird feeders with seed, setting out dried ears of corn for the squirrels, and replenishing the salt lick for the deer. A tremendous BOOM! knocked her flat on her back so hard her breath huffed out in a great whoosh of steam. It wasn’t thunder, even if the weather had been awfully strange–heavy clouds, electric disturbances causing power outages, and reports of weird lights in the sky.

Well, Grandma’s first thought, of course, was that somebody had gotten into an accident, and she went into high gear. Grandma had taken first aid and CPR courses, and in her youth, she’d wanted to be an EMT. (She switched professions when she injured her back too badly to work in the field, and had become a public health counselor instead. She’d also worked at a crisis hotline, a Planned Parenthood clinic, and did free health seminars for endangered youth.)

Even out of breath, Grandma staggered to her feet and shuffled as fast as knee-deep snow would allow towards the sound. There wasn’t any smoke, but she smelled crackling ozone and noticed her electricity was out. It was before the Winter Solstice, so days were short on light. It was near dark already, and she hurried, puffing with exertion.

The saucer had clipped one of her oak trees, which made her wince. She patted it gently in passing. She’d bandage up that gash first thing in the morning. What she focused on first was the dented metal saucer–a spaceship. Oh, yeah, Grandma loved old sci-fi movies (the original The Day The Earth Stood Still being her favorite) so she knew at once what had happened.

Aliens had shown up on earth!

And they were in her backyard, and their ship was damaged, and they probably needed medical attention.

The saucer’s cloaking device was still flickering in and out, so it took her fifteen minutes of working up a sweat before she managed to pry down the cracked door on the ship. She’d heard weak banging on the inside, and suspected the pilot–or pilots–were trying to get out.

“Are you acclimated to our atmosphere?” Grandma called. “Or do you have appropriate hazard suits? Oh lordy, I do hope your universal translators are working. Hold on, I’m coming!”

The hatch was ajar, but she couldn’t get enough leverage with just her mitten-wrapped hands. She’d left a shovel by the garden fence to clear a path to the salt lick, so she grabbed that and used it as a pry bar. The handle snapped. But she’d done enough, and the hatch creaked open at last.

Grandma stepped back, watching with concern. There were four aliens: they didn’t resemble gray bobble-headed UFO pilots or green lizard-like bipeds or tentacled atrocities, of course. They were willowy humanoids with metallic skin and six eyes and folded wings along their backs.

(Of course, we know them now as the Angels, given that most of the population still can’t pronounce their proper name, but they don’t mind. Some are rather flattered by the comparison to mythology.)

Two of the aliens supported a third. Even with no experience with their physiology Grandma could see right away that one was hurt. The fourth stepped forward and flared hir wings.

Grandma smiled, her stomach pitter-pattering in nervousness, and held out her arms. “Welcome to Earth! Do you require medical attention? Please come in. My house is right there. I’m not sure I have food that will meet your dietary requirements but you are more than welcome to anything in the fridge. And if you can drink tea, I’m happy to make a pot.”

The first Angel slowly lowered hir wings and blinked. Then ze said, haltingly in English, “You are not hostile?”

“Me?” Grandma said, and laughed. “Oh hell no. I believe everyone deserves dignity, respect, and happiness. I try my best to live to these ideals, hard though it is some days.”

It was more effusive a greeting than she normally was wont to give, but she wanted to be sure, right out of the gate, that the visitors understood her intentions and her heart.

“Detecting no lies,” said the Angel. (Grandma would later learn this was the diplomatic liaison, who was an empath.)

“May I invite you inside? It’s frigging cold out here, at least to a human body.” Grandma pointed at her house. “I’ve a spare bedroom made up, and a recliner in the living room, and I might even have that old air mattress still…Come in, please.” She backed towards her house, beckoned, and then held the door open as the for Angels glided across the snow and ducked into her kitchen.

She put on a pot of tea, broke out her first aid kit, and set a plate of sugar cookies on the table for her guests. She wasn’t the greatest baker, truth be told, but she could make a mean pre-packaged tray of cookies right out of the fridge. She’d had two platters wrapped in foil and ready to take down for the town hall meeting.

The two Angels laid the third on the recliner in the living room and held their hands together over hir body. It wasn’t so much blood as it was a discoloration along the abdomen. Grandma suspected internal bleeding, or the equivalent in their biology.

“Can I do anything to help?” she asked.

“Light, if you may spare it,” said the liaison.

“I’m afraid the power’s out, but the stove’s gas and I have plenty of candles and an old battery powered lantern in the laundry room.”

She set to work bringing light to her cheerful home. She told the gardenias about her visitors (“They seem like very nice people, and I do hope their friend is okay.”) and made sure Maxie the cat was aware of the guests so he wouldn’t freak out (poor thing was always nervous with new people) and told her internet modem not to stress that it couldn’t get signal. The power would be back up in a while.

Grandma didn’t show it, but she was still nervous. Guests! Not from Earth! It was altogether quite a shock. A pleasant one, but still…she was getting on in her years and she still had two care packages to make before the post came tomorrow. She worried she wouldn’t be able to be a proper host, especially if the visitors were night owls. She tended to go to bed right around nine p.m. these days.

Once the house was as bright as she could safely make it, she stood in the kitchen and fiddled with her hands. The trio in the living room were exactly as she had left them: two holding hands over the third, whose eyes were closed.

The fourth Angel settled at the kitchen table and accepted a cup of tea. Angels have mouths very much human-like, and ze nodded in approval. It was just boxed Earl Grey, but Angels had never had earth tea before. Grandma had always believed tea could solve many problems, or at least make dealing with them easier.

The liaison finally said, “Are you the representative of this world?”

Grandma considered her reply carefully. She could be honest and say that no one person could represent an entire world populated by billions of individuals. She could give an expected answer: no, but here is a list of people who are, theoretically, in charge of running the place. (That wouldn’t do at all. Grandma was mighty displeased with the current government.)

And here’s the other thing about Grandma: she didn’t need false modesty or self-depreciation. She knew she was a decent human. Not the best, and she had her flaws, but fundamentally, she was a good woman. She’d tried to live her life well, to give back to others, to show hospitality and compassion, to leave this Earth just a fraction better than she found it.

So she thought: why shouldn’t she be a representative for Earth? Surely she couldn’t speak for everyone. But right now, she was speaking just for her little corner of the world: her plot of land, the plants, the cats, the neighbor girl who brought her muffins on Sunday mornings, the deer in the back woods, herself.

“I am,” she said. “One of many.”

The Angel tilted hir head down in what Grandma took to be a polite gesture. “We thank you for your hospitality. Our Queen was injured in the crash. Ze will take several days to heal. May we reside here until our fleet arrives?”

“Of course,” Grandma said. “You can stay as long as you like.” She was honored they wanted to rest in her little house. That would give her time to settle, and to chat, and maybe Maxie would warm up to the Angels and come out to say hi.

If there was one thing Grandma loved, it was making new friends.

Grandma wouldn’t know it until the power came back on and her TV and internet worked again, but all over the world, bigger saucer ships were hovering over cities and oceans. Waiting for signal from the downed craft in Grandma’s back yard.

When the Angel Queen recovered, and enjoyed Grandma’s famous chocolate chip pancakes, Grandma and the liaison sat down to discuss global treaties, trade relationships, and travel routes to and from Earth.

Grandma was invited up into the mothership, where she put world leaders in their place the moment anyone suggested weapons, tactics, or being an asshole to the aliens. Grandma had never been shy about talking over men. (Remember that time she punched a guy? Yep. She did it again, and this time she got applause.)

And of course, she was now best friends with the Queen, who was inclined to take Grandma’s word for what would and wouldn’t be good for earth. (Yes to better tech and advanced farming and the eradication of poverty and disease and hunger; no to weapons and space-travel just yet. Wait a few decades, Grandma suggested. Let humanity work through its issues on land before taking to the stars, even supervised.)

It could have been a very different story, you know. But you’ve seen those–the ones about war and conquest and invasion. Fictions we won’t have to live. We didn’t get that future because Grandma showed our friends kindness and invited strangers into her home during a time of need.

That’s how Grandma saved the world: with compassion and a plate of cookies and mugs of tea.

 

END

© by Merc Rustad 2017

2,100 words | Science Fiction

 

(originally published on my Patreon, July 2017)

 

“Of Blessed Servitude”

Fictionvale Episode 1 has launched! I have a short story in it, too: “Of Blessed Servitude.”

fictionvale-ep-1

It’s a dystopian SF western-ish story about the past and loss and fighting for what you believe in. Gay protagonists! Demons who live in the sun! Cyborgs! Killer whippoorwills who will eat your soul! (<–that’s the bonus cameo.)

So. You know. If any of that strikes your fancy, give it a looksee. 🙂

You can pick up a copy here. (More links such as Smashwords and B&N.com and iBooks will be coming soon.)