Illustration by: Chris Thompson
Stories by: Douglas Grant, Tom Rau and Michael Shields
A challenge to create a story, one thousand words or so, inspired by an illustration is met by multiple authors…
Submission #1: Douglas Grant
He was a solitary man, and the feeling of accomplishment he’d felt upon reaching the summit of Mount Everest had been severely diminished by the exponential commercialization of the climb in recent years. Annapurna and K2, despite being mountains with far less traffic, weren’t quite as rewarding as having conquered Everest. And Everest had been a letdown. The way he saw it, Earth’s highest mountain had become just another tourist destination no different from a ski resort in the Swiss Alps.
He’d taken a crack at Antarctica, but ice-climbing there had held little appeal for him. Upon further reflection in later years, he realized that a man such as himself needed to remove other men from the equation in order for the experience to be truly gratifying. It was in a state of aloneness in which he felt the most content. He needed to experience the feeling of being one grain of sand in a desert that spanned thousands of miles. He had no family and no friends to speak of, so he had a responsibility only to himself. And that was the way he liked it.
There were two problems however. The first was that he was over the hill. At age forty-nine his body was in decline, and he found it maddening to race against nature’s clock in order to feel fulfilled in the only dream he considered worth living for. The second problem was he’d nearly exhausted all of the planet’s natural wonders. There were no more boundaries left to cross, no frontiers left for a man whose peaceful existence meant the absence of all other men.
Then, at age sixty, he’d been presented with an opportunity of a lifetime. Cashing in his entire life savings, he’d purchased a ticket to a recently discovered and yet to be colonized habitable planet. The atmosphere wasn’t breathable–scientists had concluded that whatever race of beings had once inhabited it were ammonia breathers–but there were ways around that. And he would travel there to ice-climb a glacier that dwarfed Everest. The experience would be enriched by the sheer scope of his isolation. Save for the scientists stationed at the planet’s three outposts, he would be alone, utterly and contently alone. The way he liked it. It was a dream-come true.
The expense of traveling there had been staggering, but what he’d really paid for was secrecy. He hadn’t wanted anyone to know exactly what it was he was about to undertake. The astronauts had in no way guaranteed his safety. In fact, they’d advised against this expedition. This was of no concern to him. Not only was he not afraid of death, he actually welcomed the opportunity to die a happy man in the pursuit of his life’s goal. It was all too perfect.
He had been on his journey for over a month. Technological advances had provided safeguards in his suit–such as antigravity boosters that would arrest a plummet in an untimely fall–that would help to ensure a higher probability of success. He had all the provisions he would need, and most importantly he was alone. Completely alone.
On day fifty he came over yet another rise in the ice surface. What he saw before him was the summit. He was sure of it. He double-checked his suit’s internal navigation system just to confirm it. The reality of the situation began to sink in, and he became a bit shaky. His journey was nearly at an end. A feeling of euphoria engulfed him as he beheld the spectacular view before him. This was the summit. He was almost there. He fought back tears that he knew he’d be shedding when he reached the top. This was joy.
The sun here was similar to Earth’s, and it cast the surrounding clouds in vivid hues of gray, cerulean, and cobalt. The sister planet was quite a sight to behold, more spectacular than the fullest silver moon of his home planet’s cycles. Never in his life had he felt such a connection to the cosmos, and his insignificance in the grand scheme of things did nothing to abate his sense of wonder in the face of nature’s majesty.
He wanted to savor this moment, and yet he hadn’t even reached the top. He was getting ahead of himself. The sun was quickly setting, and he realized that he would need to set up camp for the night before he could resume his ascent the next morning. Then he would reach the top. Then he could die.
Even now he could see one of the planet’s three moons climbing over the horizon. But as he gazed at the rising moon, he couldn’t help but feel as if something was terribly amiss. The moon wasn’t completely spherical, and there was something off about the color. He experienced a moment of trepidation as he used the digital lens inside his helmet to magnify the image. What he saw shook him to his core.
It was a hot air balloon. It rose higher and higher and it was rapidly approaching. He stood there frozen, unable to fully process this very unfortunate turn of events. As it came closer he was able to make out the individual passengers. They were all suited as he was, their faces hidden. They were indistinguishable. One of the suited passengers, a man or a woman, spotted him and began to wave. He or she began tapping the others in the basket and they all turned their attention to him in unison. No doubt even now they were recording digital images of him in their helmets’ internal cameras.
He still couldn’t believe what he was seeing. A hot air balloon was obstructing his perfect view of the twilight sky, hovering just over the top of the glacier he had yet to reach the peak of.
Son of a bitch.
Submission #2: Michael Shields
Encar bullied food into his mouth at an unnatural rate. His plate screeched and squealed from the hurried thrashing, as the rotted wooden table gently swayed back and forth under the pressure of his eagerness. Encar’s father, bearded and obese with eyes burdened from a lifetime of stories he could never share, stared at his son with equal parts amusement and irritation. His eyes fixed upon his son’s decimation of the day’s supper, an expeditious annihilation of provisions that only occurred once every two years. He examined the lust and passion that he himself bled in his youth, knowing full well any leash he fastened to his son must be rugged and capable or it would tear apart like tissue paper. He saw too much of himself in Encar.
Encar swatted his knife and fork down upon the table and sat exuding the fevered energy of a child on Christmas morning, a holiday that of course had been abolished centuries ago, its celebration deemed irrelevant. Encar’s mother removed a pot heating upon the front burner, set it aside, and saddled up to Encar, first wiping debris from his face with her apron and then removing his plate, as Encar’s father kept his steady gaze.
“Alright Encar” his mother said, “Go upstairs and change into something warm. I will get your suit ready for you.”
Encar bolted from the table taking with him all the air in the room. Encar’s father slowly cupped the entirety of his face with both his hands while using the tips of his fingers to rub his forehead. Encar’s mother, an able-bodied experienced comforter, worked her way over to him and dug her fore-fingers into the flesh above his clavicle, and her thumbs into the tension beneath his shoulders, moving her fingers rhythmically in a circular motion.
“Saul, you have to tell him someday right? What if you go with him today and at least explain some of it to him?”
Saul, taken aback, shrugged his wife’s hands from his back and without looking up let her know what he thought of her suggestion with an almost inaudible grunt. “He can never know. He shouldn’t ever know what I have done.” Encar’s mother hadn’t noticed the tears in Saul’s eyes till he stood and excused his sulking worn body from the room. As Saul exited Encar burst back into the room fully clothed, flannel head to toe.
“We gotta hurry Mom! By my calculations he is only about a quarter rotation away!”
“Don’t worry Encar. You have plenty of time. Just make sure your warm enough and that both your tanks are completely full.”
“I will Mom, I promise” Encar answered overcome with excitement, “Two years ago when ‘Blossom 13’ flew by I swear I could see the captain. I swear it! It was almost as if he could see me too; he was hovering above me for about ten minutes!”
Encar’s mother grew concerned and sharpened her tone. “Encar, remember what your father told you, and he would not pleased to hear that. If at any time any of the vessels begin to descend you come right home. Immediately!”
“I know Mom, I know. I just want to see it ascend Bumgar Point, and then drift up over the glaciers of Patreous Mons. I will come right home after that. I promise.”
Encar liberated himself into the foyer to put on his suit while his mother sat at the table suddenly defeated. A look of frustrated disappointment seized control of her ordinarily stoic and strong visage.
Saul sat at his desk scratching his matte black beard and deeply contemplating the thoughts and feelings this day continually doled out. Feeling every bit of the burn his aching arthritis offered he reached over and with a small key he had shelled within his palm he unlocked the lower cabinet of his desk, which popped open with a mechanical click the moment the key was turned. The filing drawer rolled out on its own accord. Saul hesitated before he reached his meaty palms into its depths and retrieved a large dog-eared manila envelope. He set it on the desk staring at it with the fear reserved for more menacing and animate objects. He then took a tarnished silver letter opener and gutted the top of the envelope with a quiet ferocity.
Turning the envelope over Saul littered his desk with its contents, mostly photographs that he sifted through quickly before keying in on one in particular. It was a photo of a group of about twenty men posing together. Behind them were large carrier balloons of all different colors and designs filled with hot air and ready for lift-off. The men all wore matching blue launch and entry suits, and standard issue captain’s hats. Saul’s sunken eyes wandered over his former co-workers and then rested upon the image of a man he hardly recognized, a young version of himself with the same bushy beard but above that chin-strap postured an ear to ear smile unseen to the world up until this very day. In the photo he held one arm above his head with a clenched fist and the other arm around a man dressed in all grey wearing black boots and black gloves, the only man showing no signs of enthusiasm. Without warning the voice of his former superior invaded his thoughts.
“You are our eyes, our ears, our everything……”
“You will be welcomed with open arms and you be granted access into each village…..”
“You will be able to supply The Center with all the information they may need….locations, populations, defense systems…..”
“The lore of the Blossom Balloons is that of saviors, maintain that image and tell the people what you need to tell them…..”
“And if you need to rationalize it to yourself, which I am certain you do not after such extensive and advanced training, remember that in a world of limited resources, since the days of The Freeze, population control is essential…”
“May God be with you on your journey….”
Saul shook himself free from the Colonel’s words; sweat was now drenching his brow and soaking through his shirt. A look of determination now occupied the crevices of his face that fear and sorrow had so recently held. With purpose Saul began to dress himself, flailing through his office closet, a whirlwind ignited, draping himself in anything he could find.
Tumbling downstairs Saul bust into the kitchen to find his wife sitting at the kitchen table, hands folded in prayer. His sudden cumbersome actions startled her to attention.
“Mari, can you please help me get my suit ready. Has Encar left?”
“Yes honey. What’s going on? Where are you going?”
“I am going to do something I should have done a long time ago, but first I must find Encar and talk to him, and then I have much to tell anyone who will listen.”
Mari, without hesitation, began to ready Saul’s suit. She began filling his tanks as he burdened himself with the weight of the necessary outdoor gear. When every last buckle and snap was in its locked position Saul turned to leave but felt his wife’s hand upon his arm. He turned to her and saw a look of pride and joy he had not seen in multiple decades. She had his helmet in her hands, the standardized helmet worn by the respected few that manned the helm of the Blossom Balloons. She handed it to him and with such satisfaction and admiration sent him on his way.
“Go get em’, Captain.”
Submission #3: Tom Rau
What if God...
Transcript of an Anonymous Interview….Location: Unknown
Interview conducted by Terence Reardon, 2112 AD
He sits slumped and lifeless in the corner, his body twisted and grotesque in what would appear to be a completely barren cement room. Nonetheless, my view seems to be from the center of the room. His eyes are flat matte black. When I sit down at the chair in front of my webcam his eyes briefly roll upward into the top of his head. He moans. A few seconds pass. His eyes slowly roll back into his field of vision, the words already slithering out of his mouth.
“The greatest thing man ever created was God. Don’t let them tell you any different. Well, unless they want to talk about hope. I might listen to that argument. God. Hope. At the end of the day is there any difference? The only distinction I see between a religion and a cult is the numbers.”
[TR]: What’s the difference between God and hope?
“Man created God for one reason. Because the only thing you have never had any faith in is yourselves. Because you are scared that you live for nothing, because you can’t accept that all you are is particles, and that one day when things fall apart, they scatter, and you never speak again. “
[TR]: Where are you?
“I’m somewhere far away, a place where I was given the right to explore, to be creative, to be alone, to find myself.”
[TR]: What’s it like outside of that room?
“It’s beautiful and lonely. So cold that your bones would shatter and you would freeze instantly.”
[TR]: Where are you? Why are you there?
“I came to this world to escape everything I had created. Everything that was forced upon me. I made this because I could, because I had to. What else could I do…? Is that something you are really asking me? You cannot fathom in your most abstract and complex moment of being what I feel. Imagine trying to explain String Theory to a stick of butter. Imagine having all of it on your hands, the lives, the deaths. In one thought I am everything you have ever felt in your entire life. If I could let you in for just one nanosecond you would light up, billions of neurons firing at once, one great thought before you convulse into a heap of nothing on the floor. Your last thought like a nuclear explosion of pain, love, ecstasy, hope, and desolation. What you don’t and can never comprehend is that I am nothing to you. A group of particles and molecules. The result of infinite stretches of space banging into each other to form the perfect storm. Every thought is a chemical reaction. Fuck me, love me, hurt me, and leave me. None of it is original. All just pieces of an infinitely large abstract equation that you will never be able to understand. You made me because you are scared. Because you need to understand but you can’t. Because hope is an artificial construct. Because I am not real.”
[TR]: What do you do everyday?
I stare at my repulsive hands for what must be years at a time, maybe centuries; through the darkness and the light. I stare at them and watch the shadows grow and recede. I know every single bit of filth, grotesque scar, and break. Sometimes, it must last for weeks. Have I been here for 1,000 years? A million years? I have no idea; scars from maniacally digging into the cold steel earth sit on my knuckles like gargoyles; others scars cut across my hands like rivers, born of my attempts to tear off my hands with my teeth. All of my fingers broken; crooked from beating them into the cold dead walls.
[TR]: Do you have any regrets?
“I could have been a lot of things. But I was an animal. At the time I didn’t think I had much choice. In retrospect, you always have a choice. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. If man had the power to create God, then surely he can create a world that is better for him. After all, what is God other than a manifestation of your greatest fears? A curtain to pull across and hide behind, blinding you to the fact that the world is just a random act of events created by the mashing up of electrons and probability. You made me because you couldn’t stand to look in the mirror and accept yourself for what you are. Together we’ve been rotting away in the dark for hundreds of generations. I’ve learned to accept what I am. I am the saddest part of your soul.”
[TR]: What’s your plan?
“You still don’t get it. I have never had a plan. My plan is chaos. My plan is the culmination of billions of people dreaming, billions of people dying. It could never be any other way. My plan is to sit here until probability and molecules collide in a way that extinguishes my existence. My plan is to ride the perfect wave out to sea. My plan is to leave you, my creators, and let you create something devoid of hate.”
[TR]: When will this occur?
“When you open your eyes. When you can learn to accept yourself. Learn to accept the end. When the balloon comes over the mountains and lands at my feet I will climb aboard, and just like you, I will turn into oblivion.”
[TR]: I want to believe you. I want to give up hope.
It hangs below the flames, floating away, the last of my people. The envelope full, the light behind cloudy like a heart’s, the air cold, frigid, deadly. I will finally be alone.
Goodbye cruel world. I never thought I’d see the day you flew away.