A Balance Restored

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Summer holds her hands tight against her ears, but it’s impossible to block out the roaring, world-ending static. It rages through the Earth like an ocean. Dwarfs conscious thought. Threatens to sweep her soul away in its endless tides. Only by the most infinitesimal thread does she manage to hang on, and that’s only a holding pattern, a temporary stalemate that precedes annihilation.

She should have listened to her mother.

“All things have their place,” she’d said before passing on. “All things must maintain a proper balance. Upset that balance with your own designs, and the whole world might come undone.”

The exhortation had been her last.

Summer tried not to interfere in the human world. She took her mother’s advice to heart, and she strove to allow nature its due course. But so many people suffered, so many people died, and what was she supposed to do, abandon them to a dark, uncaring universe?

At first it was just little helps, small gestures to soothe the aches and pains of a village or a town. An inch of rain here, a calming of the winds there. So many lives saved. So many disasters averted. Soon she styled herself a savior, a superhero as Earth’s comic books and movies would have understood her. A goddess, righteous, noble, someone to be worshiped and revered.

Then the storms came.

Violent, ocean-sized gales, tearing through whole continents at chaotic speeds. A backlash to her meddling, a correcting force as the universe attempted to reassert balance.

If Summer had let the storms rage, perhaps some remnant of humanity would have survived. But she saw the hurricanes and tornadoes buffet the world, and she pushed back like a frightened child. She knew in the rational corners of her mind that doing so would summon a larger correcting force, yet she was too stubborn and invested to admit that she should stop.

Then came the static.

An all-consuming sound—a lightless void that tore the sky—a mounting pocket of vacuum that swallowed the world whole.

Now only Summer is left. She holds for the moment—she survives—but for how long? If only she could wait time enough for the breach to heal, for the universe to grow still once more.

But she knows the truth.

She’s the cause of the damage, and her destruction is a necessary part of that correcting force. For now she’ll hold, but no matter how long she survives, her fate has already been decided.

Everything has its place, and balance will be restored.

The World Fire

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Dappled light danced across Vivian’s face, a hypnotic electric blue. She’d traveled long and far to get here, to the ends of the Earth and back. So much pain. So much loss. Time had passed her by as she wandered the darker passages of the world, until everyone and everything she’d ever known was dead.

“The World Fire accepts your sacrifice,” said the priestess, sitting cross-legged opposite the brightest flames Vivian had ever seen, an azure blaze that sizzled and popped with raw, untamable energy. “Come and accept your gift.”

Vivian shambled forward, a painful lump bulging in her throat as she swallowed. She hadn’t eaten in three days and she was weak. When at last, after God knew how many centuries of wandering, she’d finally arrived at the underground temple’s gates, she’d expected the mysteries she sought to be laid before her feet. Instead, the priestesses had denied her entry, requiring her first to fast.

“Please,” she’d said, weary and starving. But they’d been adamant, and Vivian had been put up in a tiny monastic cell outside the temple proper with no source of light save for the dim flicker of an oil lamp, the flame blue, like all the fire down there.

“Do you know why we made you fast?” the priestess asked, face shrouded by a dark cloth.

Vivian shook her head. She was muzzy and and couldn’t think straight. She’d tried to meet the priestess’s eyes, but the fire kept drawing her attention, wild energies she’d lusted for her entire life.

“The World Fire demands sacrifice,” the woman said in a low voice. “Even after all you gave up in search of it, you were required to give up more, because only with your stomach and your heart empty can you partake of its secrets.”

Vivian licked her lips. There were many theories pertaining to what the fire was and what it could do, ranging from the plausible to the fantastical and everything in-between. She hadn’t known what to expect when she set out, then a young woman disillusioned with life, but she’d believed with almost religious zeal that the fire could satisfy her deepest curiosities, that in its furtive flickers she would glimpse nothing less than the mysteries of the cosmos.

“Come forward,” the priestess said again, and Vivian placed one stumbling foot after the next, the object of her endless quest burning before her like an indigo star.

There were those who said fire was an expression of the divine. There was Moses and the burning bush, the great “I AM;” there was Agni, the Hindu fire God, riding on the back of his goat with flaming hair flying in the wind; there was Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, wielding his mighty blacksmith’s hammer as he toiled in a supernatural inferno. Now, standing in the midst of this underground temple, Vivian believed all those stories were true.

The flames sang to her as they danced, casting harsh, abstract shadows along the walls, primal rhythmic chants promising salvation. Come, the fire crooned. Find the answers you seek.

A blinding flash erupted as Vivian stepped into the flames. They tore into her skin, which sizzled and crackled; they clawed at her eyes, which boiled and popped. Smoke choked her airways so she could no longer breathe. But none of that mattered, because here, on the precipice of death, the secrets of the universe were revealed to her at last.

“I see,” Vivian rasped through blackened lips.

The fire required sacrifice, the priestess had said, and how right she’d been. The fire had opened her eyes, giving her the knowledge she desired, but in return it had demanded her life. That was how the World Fire worked, how it claimed the fuel it needed to burn, the fuel it needed to power every revolution of the Earth around the sun.

Vivian’s body crumpled in immolation, and she offered her spirit to the fire and said no more.

An Unexpected Visitor

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Martha glanced at the clock on the wall. 8:00 p.m. She sighed, turned off the TV and prepared for bed.

While brushing her teeth, she gazed into the mirror, and not for the first time, she wondered what the hell had happened. In her mind, she was still a nineteen-year-old woman, yet she now had the achy, arthritis-ridden body of seventy-five. She could feel the weight of time pressing down on her, breathing down her neck, stalking her in every unseen shadow. She never failed to be surprised by how ephemeral life seemed in these vulnerable moments, like vapor that was solid to the eye, yet parted and evaporated to the touch.

She spat her toothpaste into the sink, rinsed out her mouth and turned off the light.

Ghosts of the past visited her as she tossed and turned through the night, visions of people and places that had either changed beyond recognition or were no more. The world seemed pliable in that place between dreams and the waking world, a land of impossible geometries and infinite possibilities.

It was in one of these not-quite-dreams that Martha received an unexpected visitor.

“You returned,” she said when she spotted him floating in the window sill.

“I promised, didn’t I?”

“I was fifteen when I last saw you. You promised to come back, but I gave up on you by the time I was thirty-five. Why did you take so long?”

The phantom reached out with insubstantial hands. “You were young. You needed experience that only age could provide.”

“Well, look at me,” she snorted. “You certainly got what you wanted.”

“But don’t you see? You are so much more lovely now.”

She said nothing.

“I have something for you. Open your hands.”

Martha had not seen this particular visitor in decades, yet she trusted him now and did as she was told.

“You saved us. An entire world exists today because once you loved. Now, that world belongs to you.”

Martha looked down at her gift and gasped. She held the universe in the palm of her hand.

“My final gift to you,” said the apparition, and then he smiled and disappeared.

The Stone

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“Psst, boy.”

Adrian glanced toward the alley, where an old man stood hunched against a brick wall.

“Boy,” he repeated. “Come here. I have something for you.”

Curious and heedless of potential danger, Adrian did as he was told. When he was close enough to get a good look at his soiled rags, and to smell that he hadn’t bathed in weeks, the man glanced sideways, as if nervous he was being watched.

“Take this.”

Adrian looked down at the man’s closed fist.

“A gift,” he said, shoving a smooth round object into Adrian’s left hand. A moment later, he darted off into the shadows.

Adrian examined his prize.

A stone.

Brow furrowed, he continued home and placed it atop a shelf. He didn’t think about it anymore that day.

Meanwhile, the stone waited.

That night, when Adrian returned to his room to sleep, he found the stone where he’d left it. He picked it up and carried it with him to bed. Beneath the moonlight spilling through the window, it seemed almost to glow. Suddenly, his imagination went wild, and he was certain this simple object could reveal the universe’s deepest secrets.

When exhaustion overtook him and he finally fell asleep, the stone was still clutched between his fingers.

He dreamed that night.

He was tumbling through the stars, falling, floating, jets like cosmic sparks shooting through space. Galaxies spiraled in the distance, galaxies of every shape and size, whirling, colliding, bursting in blinding coruscating flashes.

Adrian felt lost, but he was not afraid because he held the stone.

“The cosmos are yours now,” said the voice of the man he’d met in the alley. The universe shook with the force of his words. They were a binding, the oldest and most powerful kind.

And then he was opening his eyes, and all he could see or hear was the pale light of the moon and the chirping of crickets outside. He glanced at the ordinary-looking stone, still firmly grasped in his left hand. It felt warm.

Adrian smiled.

Planter of Worlds

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Andi reaches into a faded leather pouch and produces a handful of seeds. She scatters them about the ground. Waters them. Moves on.

She waits for them to grow.

She is a Sower, a planter of worlds. She wanders the cosmos, the last of her kind, spreading her celestial seed. Wherever she goes, worlds spring up in her wake, quivering with wild, newborn magic.

Long ago, her people filled the fertile fields of the universe, sowing and nurturing celestial objects of every kind. Stars burst to life in the darkness of empty space and bore an abundance of planetary fruit. It was their greatest work, their crowning glory.

But when they were finished they moved on. The canvas had been filled, they said, and they were ready to plant bigger better gardens. But Andi couldn’t let it go. She saw that it was beautiful, but also imperfect, and she knew that with time she could make it better.

So Andi picked up her seed pouch and got to work, planting a world here, a star there. Each sowing brought the cosmos that much closer to perfection.

Andi knows her work will never be complete, that perfection is an eternal struggle, something to be aimed for but never reached. She understands something the rest of her kind did not, that a labor of love is never finished, that it must be tended to assiduously.

She hopes that one day they’ll return. Perhaps if they lay eyes upon her work, they’ll stay to help.

Roots

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The universe was weakening.

Betty could feel it fraying around the edges, the evil beyond pounding against the celestial gates. The cosmos wouldn’t hold for long, and when its defenses fell, it wouldn’t just be this universe that would suffer. Hers was the cornerstone, the center of all existence, the universe in which all other universes derived their being. If she didn’t do something soon, all would be lost.

She closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. Let her soul slip from her body. The cosmos absorbed her into itself, until she was sailing across space and time. The fabric of existence quaked and shuddered with the force of the Darkness’s attacks, and she felt herself falter, gutter like a flame caught in a strong wind. But she would not let the world she loved die with her.

She pressed on.

She let the Darkness draw her, let it tug her along the macrocosm’s star spangled surface like a lure. It was hungry, eager to consume, and she would use its hunger against it.

One rumbling quake after another, each like a mountain hurled at her from a world-sized sling shot. Soon enough she found herself at the source, a bulge in the cosmic substrate, a festering pustule that was growing like cancer just beneath the surface.

I can’t do this. The thought skittered along the membrane of her mind, but she ignored it. She could, and she would. All of reality depended on it.

She let the Darkness pull her in further, until the g-forces from that supernatural black hole threatened to pull her apart. Then she reached out it was like sticking the arms that were back with her body in tar took hold, slowly peeled back the layers of empty space.

The darkness shuddered, reeled.

WHAT IS THIS?

It was aware of what she was doing now. She had to work quickly. She inserted herself into the place between, felt for the roots of this deadly celestial blight and pulled.

Another rumbling shudder.

I WILL CONSUME YOU.

Waves of despair crashed over her, and she faltered once more. She could feel those poor souls who were trapped on the other side, wailing in eternal despair. It was catching, and like a hook those dark emotions began to reel her in.

But Betty wasn’t having any of that. She sent out roots of her own, a blinding sprawl of interconnected fibers. They anchored her to space and time, where she stood fast and let the Darkness’s greedy tugging work against itself.

Sure enough, the more ardently it struggled to pull her in, the more the hold of its own roots weakened, unable to withstand the intense shearing forces.

There was one final shudder, one that nearly did her in, and then Betty felt the first root snap. One by one the others followed.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? the Darkness bellowed, its disbelieving howl rippling across the universe. I AM UNDONE.

The last of its roots disengaged and the Darkness was cast out at last, hurtling into the empty void beyond.

Exhausted, Betty surveyed the damage. It was extensive, she thought, but with time and help it would heal. She considered her body back home, an unfathomable number of miles and eons behind her, and let it go. She was part of the universe now, ageless and eternal.

She extended her roots as far as they would go, hooked into the wounded patch of space and time like a scab. Yes, she thought again, the cosmos would heal. Together they would grow into something stronger, something greater.

The Darkness would return, but with her and the cosmos joined, they would be ready.

The Traveler

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Special thanks to Shaleen for giving me the idea to write about sleep paralysis.

Rob lay down and closed his eyes. It was time to sleep.

Darkness. Relaxation. A moment in eternity, suspended in the half-life of semi-consciousness. Then he was drifting away from the waking world.

He was a traveler, an empyreal wanderer who roamed the spaces not accessible to him during his waking hours. He didn’t know if there were others like him, didn’t know if his talent was common or rare, only that it was fundamental to his nature.

There was a doorway in the distance, a bridge between Earth and the infinite expanse beyond. Rob rushed toward it eagerly, trailed by the ephemeral white mist that connected him to the slumbering body back at his apartment. It opened as he approached, and he stopped for a moment on the threshold to marvel at the celestial canvas beyond, universes stacked on universes, a cosmos of limitless bounds.

He took it in, a deep breath of the freshest spiritual air, then burst through the doorway like a rocket. He soared across the stars, a soul unfettered by the shackles of solid form. He could be anybody, anything. He thought of a bird, and he was flapping his wings in an endless expanse of blue. He thought of an ocean, and he was feeling his immense world-sized body crash into the rocks. In a timeless instant that could have been a millisecond or a thousand years, he cycled through an uncountable array of creatures and structures both physical and abstract, visited an unknowable number of worlds both alien and familiar.

Then suddenly there was a presence. It bubbled up around him, cutting off his flight through the stars. It reached for him with oily tainted feelers. Rob recoiled. He’d never seen anything like it, had never been afraid in this place before today. He dashed back toward the doorway between the worlds.

It followed. He could feel it gaining on him. If he stayed, he thought it might sever the cord that connected him to Earth, that it would carry him away to someplace dark and cold.

Almost there. He was almost back on the other side. But just as he’d started to wake, that dark entity snatched him from behind. He could feel the mattress beneath his head, feel his lungs rise and fall as his body breathed, yet he couldn’t move his arms or legs, couldn’t open his eyes. The world was still black, with that dark presence trying to reel him in.

He tried to kick loose, but its grip wouldn’t budge. Meanwhile the heart back in his body started to race, the lungs drawing in shorter and shallower breaths. He lunged at his body, scrambled to reanimate muscles that had been frozen by the paralysis of sleep. But he was maddeningly out of reach. All the while that mysterious entity continued to pull, dragging him inch by inch.

Rob clawed, scratched, dug in tight with his heels. Finally its hold began to slip. He could feel himself slide closer to his body. Reach. He had to reach. Just a bit farther. He could almost move a finger. The entity yanked harder, but Rob gave it everything he had. Finally the muscles in his fingers twitched. He felt the doorway between the two worlds begin to close behind him. He was almost there. Almost

The door slammed shut.

Rob bolted from the mattress in a pall of cold sweat, heart thundering in his chest. He scrambled to catch his breath. He’d made it, but barely. What was that thing? Was he safe now?

For the first time in his life, Rob was afraid to go back to sleep.

Lady of the Stars

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The Lady of the Stars found her when she was only an infant, an orphaned ball of molten rock hurtling through the cosmos. She adopted her. Nursed her. Nurtured her. She named her Earth. And in the eons that followed she thrived. Mountains sprang forth from her surface like newly germinated flowers. Water condensed, pooled, bulged into vast sprawling oceans.

And perhaps Earth’s most important accomplishment: life. First were born the amino acids. Then the single celled organisms. Then the plants and animals. Each form was more complex than the last, and each was assembled under the expectant gaze of The Lady of the Stars. Soon the planet teemed with life. And finally, Earth’s crowning achievement: humanity.

Humans. Her daughter’s children. The Lady swelled with pride. She loved them as her own, spoiled them with all they could ask for and more.

There was peace.

But the Lady had sisters, and they were jealous, for they were barren and could have no children of their own.

“I’m like you,” she protested when they confronted her. “Earth was not my own. I adopted her. Can you not scour the cosmos for your own adopted children?”

But they were too consumed by their hatred to hear her words. Instead they bound her, cast her outside the boundaries of space and time. Earth became distressed, torn by the competing interests of the Lady’s sisters. Humans mirrored their divisions and formed divisions of their own. There were wars. People died. Earth rumbled in pain.

The Lady, hearing her daughter’s distant cries, was overcome by grief. She broke the chains that bound her, and today she runs toward her child, toward her grandchildren.

Will she come too late?

The Book

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There is a book. It is written not in English or Spanish, Greek or Latin, Hebrew or Arabic, but in the wordless language of Creation. It is a series of divine utterances, a wellspring of stars, energy and life.

Once, it was passed from one keeper to the next, an unbroken succession rooted not in blood or prestige, but honest merit. It was a cosmic secret to be guarded, and it was never to be opened. But thousands of years ago, the last keeper tried to violate this rule. He was slain, and the book went missing. Those who remembered it had children, grandchildren, then died. The book passed from memory to legend, and from legend it was forgotten.

Like an ocean swell, civilizations rose, civilizations fell. All the while, the book hid beyond the shadows, watching, waiting for its next keeper, someone worthy of its secrets, someone who would at last be allowed to open its dusty weather-worn pages, for it so longed to be read.

Now, it sits upon a humble library shelf.

Today it spies Garrett, a child of ten, who happens to be at the very same library. The book gazes down at him, peers into his soul, sees that he is worthy. It drops from the shelf into the boy’s backpack, and the boy, unknowing, carries it home with him. He does his homework. Watches TV. Eats dinner. Prepares for bed.

Meanwhile, the book finds its way onto Garrett’s mattress, and there it waits beneath the covers.

After Garrett climbs into bed, after the winds of sleep have begun to carry him away to secret lands, the book nudges his shoulder.

Garrett wakes.

Half asleep, he reaches out, taps the ancient leather spine with his fingers. He opens his eyes. Fully awake, he rises to a sitting position, reaches into the sheets and pulls the book out into the open. Where did this come from, he wonders. He opens it. A warm light shines on his face.

Garrett flips through empty weathered pages, and a universe springs to life.

Life in Reverse

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It was happening again. A cosmic hiccup. A moment in time, repeated.

The world moved around her, but in reverse. How many times had Stacy been through the same series of events? She might have been through a single iteration, or she might have been through a thousand. Forward. Then backward.

Water rose from the shag carpet like Jell-O, streamed back into a glass that reflected sharp needles of light as it fell upward, arcing through the air and finally righting itself on Mary Anne’s serving tray. The woman back-stepped from pale and mortified to warm and boisterous.

In an insane corner of her mind, the part of her that was convinced she’d done this long enough for the sun to burn out, Stacy wondered if God had found some particular event in the world so funny that he’d had to hit the rewind button to watch it again.

Then she wondered if this was Hell.

Mark’s shoulder disconnected from Mary Anne’s, just as his foot parted ways from the table leg that had tripped him. His head came up like an Olympic swimmer rising from the water. All of this in a world without sound.

How could that be? Shouldn’t she hear everything, but backwards? Did it have to do with waves of sound traveling backward instead of forward, toward instead of away from the source? Maybe, though she suspected that wasn’t quite right.

During all of this she was frozen, like the ice sculpture mounted beside the chocolate fountain, dripping backwards as it spontaneously refroze. Like the T-1000 in the Second Terminator movie, she thought, and a mad giggle would have escaped her lips if she could have opened them.

Lucy stepped back into her field of vision, approached her in a strange backwards walk as she undismissed herself from Stacy’s company. She had no idea how far back time would go before things righted themselves, but a sense of certainty was mounting that the stage was nearly set for the next iteration. She thought of the movie Groundhog Day. Was there a lesson in this? If so, why couldn’t she remember any of her previous experiences? She suspected, much to her horror, that this was pure accident, that the universe wasn’t so neat and orderly after all. That, more than anything else, scared her.

If this was immortality, she wanted to die.

Lucy’s mouth opened. The arm she’d withdrawn from Stacy’s shoulder returned. And that was when she felt it, a tug, an instant of hopeless disorientation as the universe stopped, tilted, began to spin in the opposite direction once more. In one infinitesimal moment she felt she was on the precipice of something, that she existed outside space and time, that she was nearly a god. Then memory drained from her head like water down a sink.

“Stacy,” said Lucy, a hand on her shoulder. “It was so good of you to come. Let me see if I can find Steve so he can say hello.” She left Stacy, gone in search of her boyfriend.

Then there was a shocked cry, a mortified apology and the dull thud of a glass landing on the carpet. Stacy’s eyes went to the wet spot, and she could swear that just beyond that darkened halo of shag carpet there was some cosmic secret, a hidden trap that was about to spring.

Another tug, then a pull. The muscles in Stacy’s body froze, and a knowledge that wasn’t quite memory returned to her. It was happening again.

A moment in time, repeated.