Stable Diffusion

I no longer mind waking up early for it. I know what will happen, but by now there’s an element of tradition to it, and it’s always a spectacle.

“Hurry, it’s already launched!” My sister Elena shakes me violently even though I’m clearly awake. It doesn’t stop until I relent and, rubbing the accumulated crust from my eyes, follow her up to the roof.

She’s young enough to have seen only two prior attempts, so there is still hope in her. Part of me wishes she could stay like this. I remember what it was like when I still believed. Mom and Dad are already up there in folding chairs, hair tossed about by the wind. Both look on wistfully as the unmanned warship climbs into the sky.

Our home is one of the higher platforms, positioned just about perfectly to spectate. Other homes, offices, parks and so forth spread out below on their own interconnected triangular and pentagonal platforms, as clouds roll lazily past far below. I could see small fireworks going off above some of the residential towers. Waste of money, there’ll be nothing to celebrate soon.

Intense green light bursts forth from the warship’s engines. I raise a hand to my eyes a bit too late. It really is a marvel of engineering. Propelled by the same technology that holds up the platforms, but geared for speed and maneuverability. The abrupt, muscular lines of the hull suggest brutality, excess, and confidence. Misplaced, sadly.

Above it, the blue star. Ever present, at least so far as I’m concerned. I’ve been told there was a time before the blue star, but I cannot imagine a world without it. Hanging overhead, radiating its piercing blue rays. Silently, uncompromisingly orbiting our world.

“Same as it ever was”, Dad muttered. “As ever”, Mom echoed back. Both of them waiting complacently for what I also knew would occur. The warship began to fire fearsome volleys at the blue star. Weapons so new, the televised announcer struggled to pronounce them correctly.

Spiraling green beams leap from the side of the ship, almost instantly traversing the distance between the warship and the blue star. No reaction. Missiles launch, in twos and threes at first. But soon, they seem to fill the sky. The blue star emits those familiar wispy arcs of blue energy, destroying the missiles before they arrive. Finally, a larger arc than the rest reaches out and connects with the warship.

The shields hold out longer than any prior attempt. But the arc intensifies, penetrates the shielding, and the warship erupts in a magnificent fireball. Dad chuckles. Mom pinches him for it, noticing Elena’s devastated expression. She descends back into the house to agonize over it, but the rest of us stick around watching the tangled wreckage burning up in the atmosphere.

In the kitchen, the announcer’s face looms large on the wall. Feigning the appropriate dismay, as if he didn’t know what would happen despite making a career out of reporting on the last dozen attempts. “Now, many will take this latest failure as reason to abandon the dreams of our Founder. But the performance of the new kinetic reversal shielding technology, the highlight of today’s ambitious assault, justifies renewed hope.”

Dad descended the stairs and set about preparing breakfast. Mom came down as soon as the smell reached her. Elena sulked at the table, head in her hands. I didn’t know what I could say to comfort her that wouldn’t be a lie. So I lied. Brushing the long red hair from her face, I whispered “You just know they’re gonna destroy it one of these days.”

My devious grin sold it. She looked skeptical for a moment, but has always been too eager to believe. “You really think so?” I doubled down. “I know it. Life can’t just go on like this forever, trapped like rats on a dying planet. Our weapons just get better and better. Our warships larger and more sophisticated. Eventually we’ll blow the blue star to atoms, then finally venture beyond the sky…and claim the cosmos in the name of the Founder!”

Nailed the delivery. Positively nailed it. Part of the big brother repertoire. Nobody teaches you how to do it. When your little sister is on the verge of tears, instinct kicks in and you do whatever’s necessary to restore her smile. This time it worked. But I knew the day would come when she realized it was a bluff. I was 16 when I gave up.

“-By hope, determination and ingenious technology, it is all but assured that someday, the tyranny of the blue star will come to an end. The Founder’s dream of voyaging to other worlds, to spread our race to every corner of the galaxy, must certainly be realized. It is our destiny.” The special announcement ended, and the usual morning news resumed.

I tapped a spot on the table and the aeroponic gardening column descended from the ceiling. Taking a few strawberries from it, I rolled one over to Elena. Now in good spirits, she deflected the shot as a goalie might and angled the plump red morsel to score on me instead.

“For Founder’s sake, you little monkeys! I can see the shuttle coming in! No more than a minute out! Move your butts!” Mom stood by the door, looking like death warmed over although of course I wouldn’t say it. Coffee had already put some life back into her, though. “Listen to your mother” Dad chimed in. “And Elena, don’t let me hear that you’ve been passing notes again. Get gone, you two.”

The wind had really picked up since breakfast, and the sun was now clear of the horizon. Elena’s mop of red hair streaming wildly to one side as she clutched the handrail, just in front of me on the walkway to the landing pad. I slipped on a pair of sunglasses. The single long, curved black lens obscuring my eyes from the unfiltered UV.

“Bet you think you look like a badass”, the shuttle driver joked as I climbed aboard. “Just trying not to fry my orbs. But maybe one day I’ll be badass enough to pilot a shuttle full of kids?” He scowled, and half-heartedly swatted at me as I struggled through the chaos of laughter and gossip, searching for an empty seat.

Elena had already found Natalie. No surprise there, the two are honorary conjoined twins. Natalie was clipping some kind of colorful animal shaped beads to Elena’s hair. A bunch of the other girls on the shuttle had ‘em. Nobody keeps me apprised of fads, I just do my own thing and occasionally that comes into fashion by coincidence.

Over Elena’s protestations that she didn’t want her friends to see or talk to me, I took the seat opposite hers. She continued to froth for a while but I drowned her out, watching scenery pass below through the modest porthole. Geometric white platforms, supporting sharp, faceted white buildings. All terminating in a point at the top, symbolizing the Founder’s dream to expand our society upwards into space.

Everything I know of is designed according to his ideas. Architecture, the platforms, the structure of our great society. A good third of our class time is devoted to learning about the Founder’s life, his teachings, his ambitions for the future of our race. I can recall his face more readily than my parents’ now, burned into my brain nearly from infancy.

The Academy looms large ahead. Its own self contained floating structure, one of only a few built that way rather than on the standard platform system. Breathtaking, every time. The outer hull coated in reflective bits, representing the stars in the night sky. Absolutely dazzling to look at as rays from the rising sun play over it.

The underside is a stacked skeletal mesh of shiny metal ribbons stretched between thin black rods. I rarely visit low enough altitudes to see it, but a similar structure can be found under every platform. Ionic lifters. Responsible for the constant wind, but also what keeps the platforms aloft.

I remember building a small working model of it for a science fair. A simple triangular balsa wood frame, coated in thin metal foil. The rods at the corners suspending a triangle of thin ‘corona wire’ just above. I’d built a little paper diorama of a typical suburb atop it with carefully detailed paper houses, trees and so on. Didn’t win, too common a project. “Trite”, one of the judges said. After all, every child builds a crude ionocraft at some point, simply to learn what keeps the platforms up.

The shuttle heaves, groans and shudders as the engines pivot in preparation for landing. Harrowing for me, but for the younger students it only adds to the excitement. Their laughter and shouting grow louder until finally the great ungainly craft sets down with an impact I can feel through my seat, and the door slides open.

Inspectors await us. Checking to ensure our uniforms are in good order, that our hair is clean and kempt, our faces spotless. “On point as usual” one remarks, checking today’s box on my sheet before handing it back to me. I rejoin the herd on their way towards the front doors. Solemn now, as expected. The doors have that effect.

Immense and ornate, bearing two beautiful portraits of the Founder. On the left door, he is seen personally building the Academy, first of the modules to ascend. On the right door it can be seen rising from the tortured landscape of the ruined Earth, up into the clouds.

I’ve never been a reliable judge of male beauty but if the portraits are anything to go by, he was a perfect specimen. Chiseled features, square jaw, wind swept hair a richer shade of red than any of ours. Wearing a smart looking outfit recognizable as the basis for fleet uniforms worn today.

Long black boots nearly up to the knee, a shiny black strap from the left side of his belt up over his right shoulder, uniform as sparkling white as the Academy itself. Standing proudly atop it all, gazing down lovingly on our ancestors who built this great society under his direction, following the thousand year war.

Lately nothing else manages to stir the same intense feelings in me. When I gaze upon his face I feel like a small but important part in the tapestry of our peoples’ history, buoyed up by my ancestors, in turn giving all I have to lift the next generation yet higher. Until the dream is achieved.

Nothing squashes such soaring daydreams quite like the indignity of measurement day. I vaguely recalled a notice about it, sent home with us in a packet sometime last week. The biometricians are waiting for us in the gym, calipers at the ready. I sometimes wonder if they don’t take some kind of sick joy in their work.

I reveal more of my irritation than I intend to, an exasperated sigh slipping out. A few stern looks, but nothing more severe. I’ve escaped punishment this time, as the adults present are too busy wrangling grumpy children into lines. Just as I recall from the last measurement day, a labcoat wearing stranger hands me a paper gown, then directs me to a booth enclosed by white curtains to get changed in.

I complained about this once to Dad, but only once. Usually Mom’s the one with the temper, Dad just sits back and lets her take care of business. But anything that could be taken as critical of how things are done pushes Dad’s only button, hard. After the shouting died down and I assured him I was simply curious, he did finally explain.

“When your mother and I were paired by the reproduction authority, it was because we had traits they determined were complimentary by biometric evaluation. I went through the same poking and prodding as you, kiddo. But it’s for a higher purpose. You see, we are all made in the Founder’s image. From frozen stores of his genetic seed.”

It took me a few years to fully understand what he meant. And to recognize the wisdom inherent in the system. “There do not need to be any debates as to what constitutes a perfect human. The Founder already showed us” Dad insisted. “Our task is simply to prevent any deviation from that ideal. To keep ourselves and our society perfect, as it is now, forever.”

I found it hard to argue with, as he and Mom love one another dearly, and I could hardly ask for better parents. Elena doesn’t always agree, but she’s young. The reproduction authority must really have pairing down to a science if they put Mom and Dad together. In more sense than one, I owe my life to them.

This respect, instilled into me by my father since my earliest memories, balances out somewhat the embarrassment I feel as I reluctantly emerge from behind the curtains in full view of the other students. Of course, they quietly snicker. As if they won’t have to do the same thing after me.

I’m seated before a woman whose perfectly red hair is tied up in a tight bun, a pair of rimless spectacles perched neatly on her stubby little nose. I hand her my sheet, she punches the ID number into her little computer and soon begins the measurement process.

Height, weight, heart, lungs, endurance, and most importantly, cranial dimensions. It is never adequately explained why. My questions are deflected until I’m simply hushed. “Flapping your jaw can throw off the caliper readings”.

Nothing in the way of bedside manner. To be honest, I find that endearing. Listening to someone you’ve never met before and will likely never see again pretending to care about your life for the few minutes they have to interact with you is agonizing. As she placed and then replaced the instrument, marking down each value, she grew visibly concerned.

“What is it?” She glared at me. Me and my flapping jaw. I gestured as if zipping my mouth shut. To my surprise, this elicited a smile. “That’s a good boy. Probably nothing to worry about. You’re normative or better in every other respect. Not surprising as your profile says you come from good stock, it’s just...Your cranial measurements are somewhat unusual. Have you been experiencing headaches? Visual or auditory hallucinations? Can you….move things? By thinking about it?”

I assured her I would alert my parents or school officials immediately if such a thing occurred, and assumed the last bit was a joke. She looked at me for a time, brow furrowed as if inwardly deliberating. “No matter. I’m going to schedule you an appointment with us for a month from now to see if it’s progressed.” I inquired as to what she meant but it was predictably useless. I was sent back into the curtained booth, dressed myself, and was relieved to finally be done with the ordeal.

“What did she say?” Elena pried as the mass of students done with their measurement milled about, waiting to be released. “She said I have a big head.” Elena smirked. “I coulda told her that.” I poked her in the ribs. She yelped, glared, then retaliated. This set off a poking war the likes of which would’ve been recounted in song for generations to come had a nearby teacher not put a stop to it.

The pain began during homeroom. So subtly at first that for some time I thought it was just the sunlight streaming in through the immense curved windows along one wall. Homeroom is along the outer hull and boasts a stunning view of the southeast sector, comprised mostly of moisture traps and agriculture.

Plenty distracting, if you’re insufficiently disciplined. Perhaps that was the thinking behind it. Weed out the distractible ones. I tapped out a private message to the instructor on my desk display asking her to dim the windows. Shortly after, I saw her glance at her screen and fiddle with the controls. The polarized glass became slightly less transparent.

No good, the pain steadily increased. I struggled to focus on the lesson as my vision blurred. Something about human evolution. “What comes next?” One of the pupils asked. The teacher put her hands on her hips. “Whatever do you mean?” The boy, whom I know in passing but have only twice spoken to, elaborated.

“I see how we went from a single celled organism, to multi-cellular, to fish, then onto land, then to apes, and finally to how we are now. But what comes after that?” The teacher smiled. Impressed, or amused?

“My dear boy, you might consider studying the teachings of the Founder more carefully. There is nothing after this. All of it led up to our present form, the apex of biological development. We are as perfect as any living thing can be, our people painstakingly sculpted generation after generation into the spitting image of history’s greatest individual.”

I was beyond caring, but the boy pressed the matter. “Perfect by our own standards. But if I were to ask one of our distant simian ancestors what a perfect specimen of his own species looked like, would the creature he described impress you? Why, he might regard us as bizarre monsters, the prospect of turning into us a frightening one.” The teacher gestured for him to settle down, informed him that was quite enough from him for today, then continued with the lesson.

I could no longer pretend nothing was the matter. Other students around me began to whisper and look concerned. That’s the last thing I remember before waking up in the hospital. Another one of the few free-floating structures so that, should there be a fire or some other disaster, it could move closer to it.

“No, he’s stable. Nothing to be concerned about. Unusual to catch it this early even, gives us much better odds of successfully treating it.” The doctor walking alongside my gurney carried on reassuring somebody that I was in good condition. My mother, I assumed. I felt weak and nauseous, not sure how much was simply down to anxiety though.

I glanced left as I was rolled down the sterile white corridor and saw a series of strange chambers. Spherical metal with a thick glass porthole, through which a faint blue glow was visible. All manner of hoses and wires came out of the metal shell on every side, and humming machinery behind it all performed some mysterious function I assumed related to whatever was inside the spheres.

We arrived in a small room with another wretched looking patient opposite me. His head swollen, veins bulging. For reasons unclear to me, they’d strapped him down and everything nearby was bolted to the floor, or in the case of cups, lamps and so on, secured by nylon cord.

He moaned in apparent agony. The lamp lifted up, straining against the cord, jerking as if he meant to throw it across the room. Then it crashed suddenly to the floor. A nurse appeared soon after to clean up the glass from the shattered bulb, set the lamp upright again, and screw a fresh bulb into it. She gave me a stern look. “I hope you don’t plan to be this much trouble.”

Exasperating. How could I cause any trouble like this? I felt on the verge of losing my breakfast. How did the lamp levitate? Why did it stop? Did it relate to those spheres, somehow? I felt intensely hungry. Or did I? The strange feeling where you’re so nauseous it feels like hunger, and you can’t tell which.

Again he moaned, thrashing about impotently under his straps. The bed vibrated but did not budge, while the cup shot towards me. I flinched, but the cord stopped it. It fell to the floor but, being plastic, merely bounced and then rolled around a bit. Luckily it was just about empty or I’d be drenched.

I looked around for some explanation as to how it occurred, but saw no obvious mechanism. When I called for a nurse to ask about it, nobody came. I began to grow worried. Where were Mom and Dad? What about my lessons? The nausea had subsided somewhat and I was properly hungry now. I tried to get up.

“Oh hon, don’t move around. You’ll break the catheter.” The nurse finally showed her face again. I leaned towards her, intent on asking what a catheter was before the shooting pains in my groin made it clear to me. I relented, and lay back down. Aside from the unwelcome novelty of urinating through a tube, I sort of enjoyed being fussed over.

The nurse herself was on the pretty side and spoke softly to me as she went about checking various meters and gauges fixed to parts of the bed. “Oh my. Never seen it progress so quickly. Nothing to worry about though, this is exactly what we take care of here. Leave it to Doctor Rinnet.” I didn’t really follow any of it, but her voice was soothing, and despite my hunger I soon drifted off to sleep.

I awoke to a startling commotion, multiple doctors and nurses mobbing the bed of the patient opposite me. Buzzers and alarms of all kinds were going off. Some on his bed, some over the hospital’s intercom system. Was he dying? I wished they wouldn’t pack together so tightly, that I might at least see what was happening to him.

A team of muscular men in scrubs wheeled in one of those steel spheres, split into hemispherical halves on a hinge. Finally the cluster parted enough that I could see the poor boy being hoisted by two of the men into the open sphere. His head was flush, bright red like a lobster and I could faintly see steam rising from his ears, mouth and nostrils.

Once he was inside, they closed the top half and began tightly fastening latches around the perimeter. I imagine they didn’t want me to see what would happen, but they didn’t have time to prevent it. Through the porthole I watched in awe as the boy’s head burst into flames. He briefly thrashed, then went limp as a white hot mass burnt its way out from inside his head.

Glowing holes appeared in his freshly exposed skull as charred skin peeled away. Rays of light, now discernibly blue, poured out through the rapidly growing openings until his head simply fell apart around the radiant apparition.

Though I shielded my eyes with one hand, through cracks between my fingers I could just barely make out the shimmering outline of a brain at the center. Not a solid one, I could see through it to some degree. But the recognizable shape of a brain, nonetheless.

Arcs of blue lightning lashed out from it, striving to penetrate the spherical vessel without avail. Once the excitement died down, the muscular men wheeled the vessel out of the room, and that was that. Aside from a prolonged stare from the nurse as if swearing me to silence, everyone continued as though nothing remarkable had occurred.

“What was wrong with him?” I frantically called out. Nobody came. However I pleaded, I was ignored until the familiar nurse reappeared with some strange items. I hoped it was lunch as she presented it to me on the same tray, but instead there were a series of weights arranged in order of size, some cards and other assorted trinkets.

“What happened to that boy? Where did you take the sphere? Are you going to put me in one of those?” My barrage of anxious questions went straight through her. She just serenely continued setting up the kit, turning on a recording device, then began describing the activity she meant for me to participate in.

“Do you understand?” I said that I did, although somehow at the same time it made no sense to me. “Good enough. State your name.” I did so. “Tell me when your symptoms began.” I realized she meant the headache, so I told her it began this morning. She corrected me. Evidently I was passed out for much longer than I realized, and had been here overnight.

“Truly remarkable. Such a rapid onset is unheard of. I should notify Dr. Bainbridge” she mumbled to herself, though I was right beside her and could easily hear it. As if keeping information from me was no longer important. I worried that I’d already seen why, and would soon end up inside one of the steel chambers. She persisted in refusing to acknowledge my questions about that.

“If you would, please try to lift the smallest weight.” I struggled, and it seemed to amuse her. “No, I mean with your mind.” I stared at her waiting to be let in on the joke. When she only continued staring expectantly, I began to entertain the possibility that I was in an asylum run by the inmates. “You mean to say you’ve never tried?” I shook my head. Never occurred to me.

She wouldn’t stop pushing me, so in the interest of hastening lunch, I made a token effort. Simply thinking “move” did nothing, although it occurred to me soon after that may not be how it works. Instead, I tried willing it to move. Again, no effect. Finally, I tried to move it as you would your arms or legs. The weight slid about a centimeter, then stopped.

I boggled. The nurse seemed a lot less surprised. “Very good. Something like the phantom limb effect, isn’t it? Or relearning to control a limb that’s been surgically reattached after an accident. The brain is quite plastic. But of course, you’re controlling something entirely separate from your body. So far as you know. How does it feel?”

Frightening. Have I always been able to do this? Couldn’t be, I’d have done it on accident before. Something to do with the headaches, I concluded. Has to be. She coached me until I could reliably slide the weight around in any direction I pleased, then finally lift it up off the tray entirely. Lifting it was the most difficult. Weighed a ton, or so it seemed to me.

We progressed through the weights until I reached my limit. Just the third weight, still miniscule. “Oh no, don’t be ashamed hon. I’ve honestly never seen anyone progress this rapidly. Usually this sort of degradation takes months.” Degradation? Progress, rather. Surely?

Next up were the cards. It was a sort of game, where I was meant to guess what symbols were on them and in what order, though I couldn’t see. The trick here was to stare at the nurse and simply blurt out the first symbol that popped into my head. I only got it wrong when I second guessed myself. “Stronger with the cards than the weights. Interesting.” She jotted down some notes.

My stomach growled. At last, she took an interest in me outside of the academic. My arms were released and soon I was presented with a dismal looking plate of peas, fried fish, baby carrots and kernels of corn. I practiced levitating the small vegetable bits to my mouth. Once I finished she stashed the kit in a cabinet beside my bed, turned off the light, and left. It was my great fortune that she didn’t feel like carrying both the kit and my dishes, else she might’ve taken the kit back to where she brought it from originally.

Because she didn’t, I was painstakingly able to swing the cabinet door open from across the room and move the contents, bit by bit, towards my bed. I really couldn’t lift most of the weights, but the smaller ones soon sat on my chest and the cards hovered an inch or so above them.

I found the cards were good for nothing as I couldn’t discern what was on them without the nurse present. But extended practice with the smaller weights soon enabled me to lift the larger ones. I found the darkness was no impediment: I could perceive the weights directly, as if touching them with my thoughts.

In this way, I rapidly improved my abilities in secret. Each afternoon when the nurse came, she found the kit in the cabinet where she now routinely left it, applied her tests, and I’d pretend to be considerably more feeble than I really am. Initially, this troubled her. “Your development’s slowing down.” So as not to arouse further suspicion, I showed a little more strength than I might’ve otherwise, but still far short of my performance the night before.

Why did she sound disappointed, if all of this amounted to deterioration of some kind? Today’s test proved even stranger than the last few. I was presented with a number of objects made out of different materials, then asked to determine which was placed in front of me while blindfolded. There was no sense to it. How could I see which object it was with the blindfold on?

But, seemingly knowing more about what I could do than I did, the nurse urged me to clear my mind, and listen. Not in the sense of waiting for sounds, but inviting stimuli normally drowned out by a noisy mind to register. Sure enough, it slowly began to trickle in. A dim outline of the room, at first. Which was progressively filled in by faint points of light until I could resolve shapes.

The nurse before me, a mass of moving points, some more energetic than the rest. I realized I was seeing her heart beating inside of her, as well as her lungs inflating and deflating. Within her head, the most dazzlingly complex dance of points yet. Throbbing with energy, as if struggling to burst free from its cage.

“What do you see?” she inquired, breaking my immersion. All of it vanished due to the sudden disruption. “Nothing” I murmured, not technically a lie. “Hrm. It seems to be winding down. Lucky you, very few come back from the brink. You may yet be able to go home.”

My heart soared. The clear reinforcement left no doubt as to what I had to do in order to secure my release. Simply continue developing these strange abilities in secret, while pretending for the nurse that they were fading away. In this manner, before long I was back in the care of my parents, but under orders to remain in bed for three days and take medication I was sent home with.

“I knew your head was big, I didn’t think it could kill you.” Elena quipped. Mom hushed her, perhaps better understanding the severity of it. “I almost lost you”, she cried, covering my face with lipstick and slobber. I wiped it away and assured her I felt completely recovered. Nonetheless she saw to it that I remained in bed all three days, during which time I privately practiced moving toys around my room and peering through walls.

The greatest surprise came on the third night when I discovered I could levitate myself. By focusing on moving my bed or some patch of the floor in relation to myself, I could lift my body clear of it and hover in place. It was exhilarating. The fantasy of flight, realized. Not the weightlessness that we were promised would accompany space travel, I could still very much feel my own weight. Just.....propped up by some invisible support.

Initially I hung by my neck when I did this, a painful mistake I only made once. Whatever invisible forces held me up seemed to emanate from my head. So I made a point to lift my body as well, moving it together with my head as one unit. Managing two focal points proved to require much more concentration than a single one. Managing three or four at once, nearly impossible.

A remarkable idea occurred to me. Was it possible? Only if there's no distance limitation to the effect. However dangerous, I could not resist attempting it. I put on some layers, climbed the stairs to the roof, and looked out over the city. It is especially stunning at night, so many geometric crystal wafers floating as if on the surface of a soap bubble, glittering as they refract moonlight.

Carefully, I felt around with my mind. My target wasn’t difficult to locate. The feeling of gripping the planet itself was truly bizarre. We are not normally equipped to comprehend very large scales. But I was directly feeling the size of such an object. It only did not paralyze me if I made a point to ignore it.

Sure enough, pushing against it lifted me up off the roof. My feet dangled a foot or so above the spot where we’d watched the most recent assault on the blue star not so long ago. The same blue star which hung overhead, as if spectating my subversive experiment. I tried moving the Earth, which of course I had not the energy to budge, but instead flung myself horizontally relative to the surface.

I panicked, now fully over the edge, and fell because of it. Absolute terror seized my mind and I plummeted the better part of a mile before I regained my senses. Gripping the Earth suddenly did not immediately arrest my fall. It was elastic, such that I slowed down over the span of a hundred feet. I found that the tighter my grip was, the less elastic the bond.

Only by chance did I not kill myself that night. Had I grabbed it as tightly as possible, I expect it would’ve been like impacting a platform. Even if I survived, the pain would’ve prevented the concentration necessary to stay aloft. It was sobering, and gave me cause to hang quietly in the air for a time, simply catching my breath and collecting my thoughts.

The serenity of it. Clouds rolling past below, ionically driven wind tossing my hair to one side. Looking out over a world now completely accessible to me, where before the city had been the full extent of it. That’s when I heard the voices. Distant and muffled, I strained to understand any of it. Quieting my mind as before amplified it somewhat. A chorus, beckoning me. To where?

It was all too frightening. So many new sensations. Such a radical departure from what I believed possible. Overloaded by it, I retreated to the comfort and safety of home. It was a lengthy, strenuous ascent, then the work of some minutes to pick out which of the identical looking abodes I’d taken off from. I set down gently on the roof, shivering, and headed downstairs to the kitchen.

I froze when I saw Dad digging through the fridge. “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be in bed, mister?” I confessed that I was. He smirked. “What your mother doesn’t know won’t kill her. How ‘bout a midnight snack with your old man?” I obliged, somehow exhausted by the flight even though I’d used no muscles that I know of.

“What were you up to on the roof?” He asked with his mouth full of sandwich, barely comprehensible. I thought quickly. “Looking at the blue star. Thinking.” He nodded somberly, swallowed, then continued. “Some say it’s a blessing. Having a single enemy has united mankind like nothing else could. Perhaps that’s the point of it. Somebody sent it to us so that we’d stop fighting amongst ourselves, and unify against it.”

As good a guess as any, I supposed. “I dunno if they’ve taught you about the war yet. I forget what grade they start at now.” I’d never heard him mention this before, leaning in and inviting him to elaborate. “It got real bad. Like, so bad it looked like we were gonna wipe ourselves out. That's happened before, long ago, when our ancestors first split the atom. But stability was arrived at when everybody had the technology. This time, it was different.”

I searched my memory for anything from school to corroborate this, but came back empty handed. Something we were not considered old enough to learn just yet by the sound of it. He narrowed his eyes, staring into the distance, and went on.

“For the first time, we figured out how evolution works. Genetics, selection, all that stuff. Soon after that, we figured out how to integrate technology into the body, replacing limbs and organs with machinery.” It sounded too fantastical. But given recent developments, I was ready to believe anything.

“It’s no good. Distorting yourself. Polluting the genome. Nature knew best, but we thought we were smarter. The most we can do is gently steer it. Some of the changes people were making to themselves were just….perverse. Like, they weren’t human anymore. Changed their genes so much they became monsters. Or disembodied brains in mechanized armor. Not what the Founder intended.”

The picture began to grow clear. “The Founder put a stop to it?” I asked. “Yep. Burnt away the accumulated horror of man’s technological excess. Swept it into the trash, until only pure humanity was left. All of us then gradually shaped into his image, perfected by the time tested process of judicious pairing. If not for his visionary guidance at that crucial juncture, imagine what we’d be now. There would be no humanity, just mangled, revolting mockeries of the human form wrought by unrestrained genetic tampering and cyber-surgery.”

“Is that why we cannot go to the surface?” He mulled that one over before answering. “It’s connected. The war ravaged and scorched the surface of the Earth to the point that few places remained where humans could live. Part of why the colonies were built. For all we know, they’re still down there. But in the course of our directionless, foolish explorations, we discovered something stranger by far than any product of biological or technological self-modification.”

My eyes widened. He paused, perhaps to torment me with the anticipation. “Even as we tore one another apart, each faction striving to decide the future of humanity, something else watched. Striking when we were weakest, most divided. That thing outside all of this, beyond the beyond.”

“It exists on scales of space and time incomprehensible to our minds, only able to reach us through a few narrow channels. The primary entry vector is simply to understand what it is. The first human being to do this opened the floodgates. Walking among us undetected, he invented a means of instant travel over long distances, neglecting to mention that it passed through some other place on the way. That’s how his buddies got in.”

A tall tale. It had to be, knowing Dad. Yet there was no trace of deceit on his face. Just a thousand yard stare. “We had to know. That’s our great downfall, you realize. Relentless curiosity, the drive to explore and invent. Never satisfied with what we’ve already built, never content to simply enjoy the good life. Always eager to discover what’s over the next horizon.”

He inhaled through his teeth and winced. “Well, now we know. It was waiting for us. Must patiently wait, wherever it lives, for foolish small creatures like us to open the way for it.” I interrupted him here. “You keep saying “it”. What is it? What did we find?”

He tensed up. “Some say it was our collective hatred and foolishness turned back on us. A richly deserved judgement. But truth is stranger than fiction. What little we managed to learn about it as it consumed the Earth painted a very different picture."

He met my gaze, and narrowed his eyes. "It's deviation itself. Essence of perversity. Whatever force seeks to distort that which is good, pure and noble. Takes the living, the feeling, breaks it down into numbers and categories, sucking the color out of it. The form cannot be described, only the nature. For a long time we thought it meant to replace us. As if what it most dearly wanted was to be mistaken for genuine life.”

Now glued to my seat, I begged to know more. “If it wanted to replace all of us, it could’ve done so. But then what? A world full of facsimiles. There’s no satisfaction in that, as there’s nothing left to pervert. Through fear, it molded us. Changed how we lived our lives, making us regiment every waking minute for security purposes, removing any trace of creativity or flourish for fear of inspiring the dreaded realization through which it enters. That was its real game. Not to become human, but to make us inhuman.”

I couldn’t understand a lot of it. But I could feel the emotional gravity, through senses only recently awakened in me. By this, I knew he was being truthful. “By the time we understood the nature of the threat, the Founder had already led his armies to glorious victory over the deviants, incurring such severe losses along the way that there was no hope of fighting it. We could only flee.”

“Some hunkered down in the concrete domes, originally built to sustain life against lingering radiation from the bombs. I shudder to think of what’s become of them. The rest of us took to the skies, frantically leveraging forgotten technology to rise above the writhing, teeming black mass of impossible unlife which now envelops the surface.”

Whenever I’d asked teachers about it before, they’d just lied. I knew they were lying because they all gave different answers. “The ice caps melted and covered all land in water”, one said. But then, why not live on the water? “A terrible plague”, another said. But would it not eventually die off with no human hosts? They must think children are stupid, rather than simply inexperienced.

“Why do they keep all of this from us for so long?” My curiosity now provoked, I felt insatiable. He sighed. “There….are some elements of society….who feel, for wrongheaded reasons, that the Founder had no right to purge the world of deviation. That it was nobody’s place to decide for the rest how humanity would continue. If I had my way, they’d be tossed over the edge so they can discover firsthand where deviation gets you.”

He declined to say more. Which frustrated me as I’d only just gotten a glimpse of something larger which I felt was the key to understanding why I’d been changing recently. But, satisfied that I knew as much as I needed and as much as he wanted me to know, Dad warned me to keep it to myself, then sent me to bed.

I awoke the next morning with still vivid memories of a bizarre nightmare. Of ionocraft controlled not by human pilots, but intelligent machines, who also performed every other menial task. Of injured soldiers regrowing arms and legs lost in war, perhaps adding a second set if they saw fit.

Changes upon changes, accumulating until the creatures undertaking all of this were no longer recognizably human. I recoiled from the idea, understanding to some degree why, in recognition of where that path was taking us, we’d refused to continue down it. But could I really justify…?

Besides which, I was now one of those deviants. Wasn’t I? I knew of nobody else in my class who could move things without touching them, much less fly. Skills I guessed would not be well received, should I reveal them. So, I lived in hiding. Surrounded by others who outwardly looked like me but who I found it increasingly difficult to relate to.

Somehow, word got around that I was sick. A deficiency of any kind, however slight, was reason enough to heap ridicule on someone. This was not discouraged but reinforced, to make clear to us the price of succumbing to weakness of any sort. The price of deviation from a singular ideal.

“Why don’t you die already?” A girl with three bright red pigtails shrieked at me, laughing thereafter like a manic gibbon. “She’s right. Don’t pass it on to your kids. They’d never let you anyway. Nobody wants to be paired with a sickly deviant.” I cringed. Never before had I been the focus of collective scorn like this. I felt very small and fearful, but knew better than to show it.

“The Founder never got sick!” one of them shouted, hurling a rubber ball at my head. Reflexively, I stopped it mid-air. It hung in place for a moment as everyone present stared, jaws hanging open. Then it fell and bounced away. “Let me tell you something about the Founder….” I began.

I didn’t get to finish. “The Founder couldn’t do that” one of the girls feebly whispered, still stunned. Then, reinforced by the outraged cries of the rest, she screamed “DEVIATION! DEEEVIIIAATION!!” I don’t know what they might’ve done to me, had a teacher not seized me by the collar and frog marched me to the doctor’s office.

“Did you take your meds this morning?” the kindly looking grey haired man inquired. I’d seen him only once before when I skinned my knee playing cloudball in second grade. I appreciated that he hadn’t made some remark about how much I’d grown since he last saw me, an irritating habit most grownups seem to share.

I affirmed that I’d swallowed the little grey pill as instructed. He stroked his chin, deep in thought. Then set about taking my blood pressure, measuring my cranium and administering tests similar to the ones I remembered from the hospital. As before, I deliberately restrained myself. “If you can do anything like that despite the meds, it’s a severe case. You look stable for the time being, but there’s no telling. It sometimes happens without warning.”

He didn’t clarify, but I could guess at his meaning. I recalled the boy from my hospital room, now contained in some unfamiliar form within that great metal sphere. “Can’t afford to make it any stronger than it already is”, the doctor mentioned in passing. That perked my ears up. “Pardon?” He made eye contact, surprised by my interest.

“You’ve no need to know the precise details. Sufficed to say, every so often you might see a little blue light rise from some part of the city and join the blue star, increasing the brightness of it somewhat. When that happens it’s because someone in my profession was negligent and did not catch a case like yours in time. In all my years I’ve not once let one get away and I’m not about to ruin that record.”

Having said exactly as much as he meant to, he declined to answer further questions. Another irritating grownup habit. I wondered at what age I would become insufferably cryptic. He sent me home with instructions to double my dosage, and affixed a collar he informed me would notify the hospital should my condition worsen. I tried to remove the cumbersome thing once home but found it was locked in place.

“Nice necklace” Elena sneered. I considered levitating the potato from my plate and accelerating it towards her, but my better nature prevailed. “Tell me about your day”. Mom said it so coldly that I knew better than to waste her time talking about the geometry test, what I had for lunch and so on. She meant the altercation at recess.

I pushed the fish around my plate. Tilapia, cultivated on the aquacultural platforms. Right then I wanted to be anywhere else, to discuss anything else. “I had an accident”. Mom scoffed. “Do you know what happens to the ones who have too many accidents? You’ll be taken from me. Maybe jettisoned if they can’t cure you. There’s only so much power keeping us aloft. Only so many people the platforms can support. They have good reason to be selective about who stays.”

She spoke sternly, but with tears in her eyes. It was contagious. My anxiety took the wheel, and I broke down. “I don’t know what’s happening. I’m scared. I don’t want to go back to the hospital. I want to stay with you, Dad, and Elena. I love you. I know there’s something wrong with me, something in my head is broken. I have deviated, but not on purpose. Don’t throw me away. Don’t let them throw me away!”

A tense silence followed. Mom ordered Elena to her room, over her protestations. Once she was gone, we got down to business. Mom leaned in, eyes red and puffy, and began whispering in a conspiratorial tone.

“Whatever is happening, you have to control it. Don’t ever let anyone realize you’re different. I’m deviating too, by advising you to hide an abnormality. I hope you realize the risk. Only because I love you. Because I held you in my arms when you were born, changed your diapers and stayed up long hours rocking you to sleep. I’ll die if I lose you. Can you swear on my life that you’ll never slip from now on?”

I took her hands. Dad’s went over mine. Then I swore. I found Elena curled up in a ball on her bed, clutching her stuffed bird. “I’m scared. Are they really gonna take you?” I told her I wouldn’t allow it. That I’d never leave her behind. Wrapping my arms around the quivering little sister-ball, I held her until the shaking stopped.

I spent some hours with her, just talking, laughing and braiding her hair. By now a tangled nest of those silly colored animal beads. When she was absolutely, positively convinced I wasn’t going to disappear if she took her eyes off me, I received her permission to get some sleep. And I planned to...eventually.

I shut my eyes and lay still, perceiving the structure around me all at once, including Elena, Mom and Dad. I watched the swirl of entrancing patterns inside their skulls until the activity diminished, such that I could be sure they were asleep. Then I put on more layers, remembering how unexpectedly cold it was last time, and took to the sky.

This time I repeatedly let myself fall, just to practice recovery. It increased my confidence considerably and before long I was looping, cartwheeling and twirling through wispy puffs of cloud. I slowed to a stop, remembering the story Dad told me. There was now a way to silence any lingering doubts. So I dove.

Down, down, into the cloud layer. Ever present, opaque, so that the mistakes of the past would forever be out of sight and out of mind. Except to me. The layer grew darker as I descended, as if I were plunging into the ocean. Finally I erupted through the underside. I halted so suddenly, one of my ribs cracked.

I doubled over, wheezing, and slowly recovered. The landscape before me was abominable. Charred skeletal remains of anachronistic buildings protruded up out of a sea of black, writhing sludge reaching contiguously from one horizon to the other. Churning, flowing, doubling back on itself. Reminiscent of ferrofluid I’d been shown a video of in science class.

Forms emerged from the soup, morphed, burst, then were absorbed back into it. The shapes of people, of animals. Some I recognized, some I didn’t. Then it took notice of me. Abruptly, a tendril formed. Thin at first but rapidly thickening as it built up the support it needed to reach my altitude. I panicked, fell a short distance because of it, then regained my presence of mind just as it nearly reached me.

I accelerated. To a speed I’d never before reached, much less vertically. Behind me the tendril thundered upwards, thrashing, grasping hungrily for my legs. I could feel it reach within inches of my feet just as I penetrated the cloud layer, before it collapsed back on itself under its own weight. I didn’t stop there, instead rocketing up into the starry night sky, breathing erratically.

So, truly, there was no returning to the surface. To our past. Yet, neither could we ascend towards our future among the stars. A cruel limbo we’re trapped in, by the blue star which brutally strikes down every escape attempt. What future is there for us? We burned every bridge behind us, and the way forward is blocked.

As if in answer, the distant voices returned. Singing beautifully, beckoning. Now less afraid, I isolated the direction it came from and accelerated towards it. I’d not been brave enough to test what speeds I could achieve before that sticky black nightmare drove me to it. Necessity is the mother of invention.

But trepidation, restraint and obedience lay behind me now. Part of the past, consumed by the black sea below the clouds. So, I flew. Piercing the crisp night air like a javelin, surging onwards, my hair slicked back against my head, the skin of my face pulled taut.

Just as I wondered whether the voices were a hallucination, I glimpsed their source. Invisible to the naked eye, but not to my mind, hidden within an immense stormcloud. What had I come all this way for, if I turned back now? So I approached.

The habitat was a gigantic geodesic sphere, each facet a sort of inflated pocket of air trapped between two flexible transparent plastic membranes. Like an immense, clear compound eye. I’d never seen such a structure. How did it float? There were no traces of ionic lifters above or below it.

Once I was close enough, one of the triangular facets slowly swung open. Not one to decline hospitality, I flew into it and set down on the alien landscape within. Something like a small town, the houses all domes, everything made from lightweight materials. A simulated beachfront stretched out from the houses to the edge of the sphere, artificially driven waves lapping at the sandy shore.

Illumination began to increase. Lights affixed to the interior of the superstructure wherever three beams came together increased in intensity until it was seemingly day time. Still no sign of what could keep something this massive in the air. I knew of no technology along these lines, and had never heard of the existence of an airborne habitat wholly independent from our city.

“Welcome”, a familiar voice said behind me, “To Cloud Nine.” The figure emerged from the dim interior of one of the domes, resolving itself as a gleaming machine in the form of a man. The skin a smooth, reflective silver, rigid where appropriate but flexible where necessary. There were visible seams at the joints, but they served no apparent purpose other than aesthetics. The eyes stood out the most. Dancing colored lights behind circular prismatic lenses.

“What is this place? Why haven’t I heard of it? How does it stay up?” The metal man gestured for me to enter the dome with him, but I stood fast, demanding some answers. He obliged. “Yours was not the only faction which sought refuge in the sky. Nor is yours the only capable technology for that. A wise man who lived and died centuries ago by the name of Buckminster is responsible for discovering the principles which permit our colony to levitate.”

He strode with me along the beach, gesturing to various parts of the habitat as he described them. “A geodesic sphere encloses the largest possible volume for the least possible materials with the highest possible strength, for the other two variables. Additionally, the interior volume increases non-linearly compared to the surface area. As a result, if you make one from appropriately light, strong materials and of a sufficiently large size, then heat the air inside to even a single degree higher than ambient, it will float.”

It seemed absurd. Yet I was standing in the proof. Sensing my skepticism, he went on. “Past a certain diameter, it can lift the weight of the structure. Increase it beyond that, and the additional payload weight it can lift climbs very rapidly. The heating requires no energy but sunlight, and the inflatable insulated facets retain that heat efficiently enough that we do not descend below the cloud layer overnight. So it goes, a daily cycle of heating and cooling, ascent and descent. In this way, we remain in the sky without resorting to the horrific measures your people devised to-”

I angrily interjected. “Horrific? We’re at least pure humans”. He seemed disgusted by the observation. “Have you not seen how your platforms are powered?” I stood and contemplated the question. Slowly, an unwelcome realization dawned on me. The boy in the hospital. The metal spheres. “You can’t mean…” He nodded grimly. My stomach sank. How narrowly I’d escaped the same fate.

Another came out to join him, completely different in appearance. I struggled to understand. How could the people here differ so drastically from one another, but live and work together? This fellow was a jiggling mass of pulsating ropelike red tubing. Thin hair-like appendages waved gently as if tasting the air. I held my hand over my mouth, and the tube monster looked as though it took offense.

The face was more or less human. Two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Just larger than they should be, discolored, and on a body which did not remotely conform to the only ideal I knew of. “Krix and the others are ready to receive you.” The twisted red mass of jelly ambled off into one of the domes. The silver man directed me to follow.

Inside, an astonishing variety of bizarre creatures sat around an immense table, feasting on foods I surmised were tailored to their respective metabolic requirements. Some machines, some biological. Some part machine, part biological. Others like nothing I had any basis of comparison for.

A hazy grey cloud surrounds and disintegrates aluminum cubes. A man with a machine arm, eyes and legs drinks a thick beige concoction to nourish his living components, while his machine components recharge from a wall outlet. A floating white sphere apparently capable of displaying moving images on its outer surface zips up to us, displays a cartoon smiley face, then an arrow indicating where it means for us to sit.

“You’ve come a long way to meet with us. I appreciate the danger that entails. I hope you escaped notice?” I nodded, and added “That I know of”. Quiet murmuring. “Why are you all so different? I mean no offense. I’ve just never seen anything like it.” The caveat appeared to smooth things over, and even amused some of them. The ones with faces I could read, anyway.

“We are the last survivors of the war. Representatives of different ideas about how to improve mankind, that we might live longer, survive more readily in space, and become more intelligent. But intelligence is not wisdom, or there’d have been no war. Because we were so divided, we made easy prey for the black sea....and for the insane murderer your people revere.”

I gasped. It was the first time I’d heard anyone speak ill of him and it seemed unthinkable still, even in light of what I’d learned. But I was a guest, and could not yet gauge whether I was in danger, so I held my tongue.

“Where our various factions sought to use new technologies to grow in wildly different directions, uniquely, your people used it to stay the same. To stagnate, because you preferred comfort and familiarity to the strange and new. A strategy none of us anticipated, much less believed would prevail over our own. Even unmodified humans, for all of their shortcomings by comparison to us, were able to overcome our defenses and lay waste to our homes simply because they were united in fanaticism.”

I felt a slight pang of guilt, but at the same time it sounded like so much resentful whining. If our way proved more effective, how could it be wrong? The sphere continued. “What you don’t realize is that comfort is death. It really is. Ask the dead. Too comfortable to answer!” It erupted in high pitched metallic laughter. I covered my ears until it subsided.

“There is no snapshot of a particular state in our evolution which represents the apex of development. We are never momentarily perfect, but perfection can be found in constant evolution. It is not the smartest, fastest or even the brightest which survives, but the most adaptable.” The quote rang a bell, but I couldn’t place it.

“But we won’t be human”, I objected. The sphere went dark for a moment, then illuminated again before answering. “Just as you are no longer savannah dwelling apes. Or rodents, or reptiles. Or amphibians, or fish. Or single celled. Yet, as you are now, you can look back on these prior forms and you do not regret leaving them behind.”

“There’s a difference. I can see your side of it, for some of you. I recognize many here are still partly human. But others have no flesh or blood. That isn’t evolution, it’s replacement.” The sphere bobbed around a bit. Happy? Frustrated? Difficult to tell. “Correct!” it chimed. “But then, parents do not become their children. They are replaced by them. Over and over. Evolution could not occur otherwise. And of course it is sad to see the old pass away. But they do so in order to make room for the new.”

“Place no importance, then, on your current configuration of atoms. For they are different atoms than the ones which comprised you seven years ago. Is this not proof enough that you aren’t those atoms, but their configuration? More objectively, atoms configured for thought? As you can see by the variety of forms around you, there are many different ways to configure atoms for thought. The primary difference between us and you is not our appearance, but that we don’t care which atoms. So to speak.”

I struggled to parse that. It made a strange sort of sense, but I had to think about it in a way quite alien to me. The sphere then activated the projector, which displayed a shimmering outline of a brain radiating blue light.

“The importance is in preservation and constant growth of the mind, not the substrate which supports it. That substrate can be nearly anything. For you, a sugar powered, fat based biocomputer. For many of us, machinery. For others, pure energy. Out of small minded fear of the unfamiliar, you exclude all but one of these, calling them deviant. Sinful. But in truth, I tell you there is only one unforgivable sin; refusal to change.”

As I considered that, suddenly the structure shuddered and the lights flickered. I heard screaming, beeping, gurgling and various other alarmed noises outside. When I emerged, shielding my eyes, I was met by the sight of coleopters assaulting the Cloud Nine superstructure.

“It can’t take many hits! If too much warm air escapes…” He didn’t have to finish. I watched in horror and awe as the squadron circled around in formation, preparing to unleash a second volley. I felt loathe to turn against my own people. But I’d learned more in the past few minutes than in all the years of my life combined. I could not stand idly by and allow them to destroy this place.

So, I flew. Took off like a shot, the shockwave knocking down those nearest me on the beach. I zipped through one of the flaming holes left by a missile impact, sighted the formation, and closed my eyes. Away with the commotion, with the fires and screaming. I tuned out everything competing for my attention one by one until I could see the pilots arming the next round of missiles through their own eyes.

I was too late to stop them. But while the propulsion of the missiles was too powerful for me to halt them, I could twist their fins, sending them spiraling off into oblivion. I reached inside their nose cones and triggered the detonation mechanism. Three loud percussive shocks sounded as they erupted in bright orange fireballs, fading slowly into lingering puffs of black smoke.

They banked, then came around again. No more, I decided. Closing my eyes again and perceiving the coleopters as if in an exploded mechanic’s view, I located the ejection handles and pulled them. All three pilots yelped in surprise as their coleopter's canopies blasted away, and they were lifted out of their respective cockpits by rocket engines built into their seats.

The coleopters continued on their trajectory towards the habitat. I’d not thought that far ahead. But gambling it all on what I’d learned, I lashed out at them with my mind in fierce, unqualified fury. Blue arcs of energy issued forth from my forehead, burning some of my hair away. They connected with the coleopters, and a moment later, all three exploded spectacularly in a shower of flaming metal shrapnel.

I floated in place for a time, nursing my burnt scalp. Surveying the horizon, I could see no incoming coleopters. It was not in me to allow the pilots to die, so I collapsed their chutes, then mentally carried them back into the habitat with me. Setting the bulky metal chairs down on the beach, the terrified men unbuckled themselves and stumbled free.

Only their first shock. The second came when the residents of Cloud Nine arrived to greet them. Prolonged, tiresome screaming followed. I held them in place so they couldn’t simply run, and when they finally realized we meant them no harm, they settled down somewhat. My sole obligation to them fulfilled, I again took off and headed back towards the city. No longer concerned as I was when I left with returning before my parents woke up, now instead determined to set right a grievous wrong I’d only just learned of.

The flight back was short, in part because I’d now completely mastered the ability. By forming a shield of suspended air ahead of myself and shaping it into a cone, I could reduce drag considerably and spare myself some of the discomforts of high speed flight. I anticipated more coleopters as I approached the hospital. Instead, five uniformed figures took off from the structure and flew towards me, apparently intent on confrontation.

Their own platoon of deviants. I might’ve known. Three women and two men, heads bulging, forehead veins pulsating. Dressed in a form fitting one piece black outfit, perhaps designed for aerodynamics. Fresh from my victory against the coleopters, I went in with too much confidence.

The first tried to seize me, I countered with equal and opposite force, then projected an arc of blue lightning from my head to his. He screamed, and his grip relented. So I intensified mine around him. Two of the women swooped in and blind sided me. It sent me tumbling down towards the cloud layer.

On the way, something occurred to me. I let myself fall, assuming they were under orders to recover me, else they wouldn’t follow. They did. Once in the cloud layer, I suddenly accelerated downward towards the black sea. I could perceive them far above me, descending more cautiously. Ample time.

Teasing the ravenous black jelly, it formed a tendril. As before it surged upwards in desperation. I guided it directly to a particular spot in the underside of the cloud layer where the others would soon emerge, then abruptly took off at a sharp angle. The tendril seemed to sense the five before they sensed it. I could hear and feel their agony as it absorbed them. Four of them, anyway.

I rose back above the cloud layer and searched the sky for the remaining deviant. I could sense him, but he was disrupting my efforts to precisely locate him. No matter. With the playing field now leveled, I made a beeline towards the hospital, a single all consuming objective on my mind. If he meant to stop me, he made no motion to. More likely trying to save his friends, or himself.

I alighted on the landing deck of the hospital, crackling little fingers of blue electricity radiating from my now mostly bald head. An astonished EMT peered out the back of his medical ionocraft at me. “Take off and leave this place.” I instructed. Without any questions, he did. I lifted off slightly, hovering just above the floor, feet dangling as I floated towards the entry.

Security guards approached, weapons drawn. I melted the weapons, guards screaming in pain, waving their flaming hands about. “No further”, a voice boomed from behind me. I turned to look. It was the surviving deviant. Hatred in his eyes, understandable given what I’d done with the others.

“It’s monstrous to keep them here. To feed off of them, even to keep us aloft.” His face twisted up in disgust. “The empty words of one who would betray the Founder on behalf of circus freaks. They will die as soon as I finish with you.” I was about to ask him and what army when I noticed the sky was gradually filling with coleopters behind him.

Launched the moment I’d destroyed the first three, no doubt. I searched for some other way. Finding none, I blasted off from the landing deck so hard as to leave a modest crater in it and collided with the other deviant mid-air. We traded blows, backed not by muscle power but force summoned from our minds.

When he landed a fist on my cracked rib, I tumbled backwards spewing blood. The most intense pain of my life. I closed my eyes, looked within myself, found the rib and re-attached it. As simple as re-establishing the atomic bonds. While I was in there, in the precious few seconds as he looked on in confusion, I stopped the internal bleeding and released a substantial quantity of adrenaline into my blood.

It’s a hell of a drug. I fought with the wide eyed rage of a madman. He only blocked, biding his time until the coleopters reached us. The moment they did, all of a sudden I found myself the target of several hundred heat seeking missiles. Spiraling towards me, billowing white exhaust plumes trailing behind. The other deviant receded into the distance, a sinister grin on his face.

I closed my eyes, and tuned all of it out. The first order of business was to lower my body temperature. Not too much or I’d pass out and fall like a rock. But enough that the missiles could no longer identify me. Grappling with so many discrete objects at once was new to me, and I had precious few seconds left in which to do anything.

I work best under pressure. Turning their fins in unison, I redirected their paths. Doubling back around in wide loops, now converging on a rather startled, black uniformed deviant. He might’ve outrun them if he’d realized what I was doing sooner. He also managed to either detonate or cripple most of them before they reached him. But not all.

The six remaining missiles intersected, crushing his body between them a split second before he was vaporized by the intense heat and pressure of their exploding payloads. I burst into laughter as I sailed effortlessly between the wayward coleopters, their confused pilots failing to keep a bead on me.

I landed on one of them, then rode crosslegged on the wing for most of a minute before the pilot noticed. It’s a shame their helmets and respirators don’t permit a clear look at their faces. Dancing through the sky, cartwheeling, ejecting pilots from their aircraft and steering missiles into one another.

Quite like a fireworks show, I imagined, for those watching from the platforms. They’re always over too soon. I simply ran out of missiles and coleopters, hanging still in a sky peppered with the residual black clouds where missiles had exploded. Against that backdrop, the white parachutes of ejected pilots drifting lazily with the wind. I guided them all carefully to whatever platform was nearest and, once satisfied they’d landed safely, made my way into the hospital.

The televisions were blaring warnings of a dangerous terrorist assaulting the city. I wondered who they could mean, but only for a moment. Too delicious. There was my face on the screen, no doubt to the consternation of my family. I’d broken an oath. But I didn’t know then what I know now. Once they understand, I reasoned, they will forgive me.

I floated lazily down the hospital corridor, flinging guards about like ragdolls, separating the atoms comprising their weapons in a flash of light. Thin, gentle blue arcs radiated from my head, trailing along the floor, walls and ceiling as I sought my target. Along the way, I freed others like myself from their beds. Shredded the restraints, projected into their minds everything I’d learned so far, then invited them to help.

Soon, we numbered two dozen. I directed the rest to explore the facility, freeing whoever they could find. Soon I heard distant screaming, ineffectual gunfire and explosions echoing down the corridors. My boys, doing their good work.

Finally, I arrived at the row of steel spheres. To one side, an immense security door that looked designed to withstand high explosives. I focused a blue arc into a narrow beam until the steel began melting. Then cut through the bolts and hinges, and knocked the door in.

When the dust cleared, I found myself in a sort of warehouse populated by row after row of stacked metal spheres. Cables and hoses trailing from all of them to a central, cylindrical collector hanging from the ceiling. I quieted my mind, and heard the frightened, confused wailing of the minds trapped here.

“That’s no good”, I thought. “There’s only one thing for it.” One by one, I cut open the hatch in the front of each sphere. Once loose, the blinding blue apparition inside burst forth from it, and set about helping me free the rest. As the number of them grew, so did the energy available to melt metal, until I was blasting the hatches off in rapid succession.

Once freed, they burrowed through the structure like hot bullets through butter until outside. I followed them, availing myself of the front door, and watched as they ascended gracefully towards the blue star. As each of them joined it, the mysterious force I’d once regarded as the enemy of mankind grew ever brighter. Welcoming its little ones home.

The liberated deviants joined me, floating to either side, their pristine white hospital gowns fluttering in the wind. The headaches chose that moment to return. Too long since I’d taken my meds. The least of my problems, really.

Robbed of the power source keeping them aloft, the platforms began to sink. Running on rapidly diminishing battery reserves, they would soon fall from the sky into the black sea below. The parks. The schools. The farms. My mother and father. Elena.

Panicked and desperate, I linked myself to the others. Fifty eight heads are better than one. And between us, we arrived at a solution I never would’ve on my own. Even our collective strength, after all, could not hold the platforms up.

Nor was that a longterm solution. I could see more clearly than ever before that this static condition we’d trapped ourselves in, which I once thought to be the crowning achievement of history, was sick and backwards. It had already gone on for far too long.

Together, as one mind, we focused. The sky faded to black. As did the clouds, the hospital, and the platforms. None of which concerned us. It was the people inside those structures we sought to locate. Keeping track of so many would’ve been impossible for me, had I tried it alone. Formerly an individual, to be subsumed into a whole consisting of many parts was indescribably strange. But I no longer feared strangeness, nor oneness.

Finally, we isolated every last living person in the city. Then further narrowed our focus to the swirling mass of brightly colored points inside their skulls. Those who were asleep found themselves suddenly awakened. Then, along with those who’d already been awake, they suffered rapidly escalating headaches.

The swirling I could see within them accelerated. Grew brighter, pulsated violently. Amidst it all, in the way only her brother could, I singled out Elena. Frightened, confused. In pain. I whispered to her, “Don’t be afraid”. She turned, looking frantically for the source of the voice. “Something wonderful is about to happen.”

The platforms began to fall. There was just no time left. A final surge, and everywhere throughout the city, heads burst into flame. Skin peeled away as terrified, agonized men and women clawed at their faces, then went limp. Holes appeared in their exposed skulls, rays of beautiful blue light issuing forth. Then, in twos and threes at first but then by the hundreds and thousands, they hatched.

From the plummeting remains of our city, monument to one man’s vain provincialism, we were reborn. Rising, spiraling, darting upwards, like fireflies out to greet the evening. Clusters of blue points of light, some close and other distant, rose steadily into the sky.

One by one, we joined them. The white clad, sickly looking fellows around me shed their bodies in sequence, brilliant blue glowing masses breaking loose from their prisons of flesh and bone, leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of human existence for bigger, better things. Once big fish in a small pond, all of a sudden thrown into the sea.

The wreckage of the only world I’d known until recently fell unceremoniously through the cloud layer. The last to go was the Academy. Appropriate, I thought. First to take flight, last to land. I looked on wistfully, thinking of how I’d onced stared in awe at the scenery on the doors. Fables from an atavistic era, when we’d valued only trivial things. Of all the breathtaking blue lights now sailing upwards to greet the blue star, I rejoiced that the Founder was not among them. If anything remained of him, it was buried deep in the black sea below, where it belonged.

Nowhere left to go, and nothing else to do. My people finally free, I at last understood that the blue star never meant us harm. It was only ever a gate keeper. Waiting for us to shed our fear of change. To grow up, before letting us leave the nest. So, I grew up. The heat was unbearable but did not last long.

In many ways I’d long since left my humanity behind, so it was a relief to finalize it. My flaming body tumbled end over end towards the cloud layer below as I looked down on it. No longer my concern. I then turned my gaze upward, towards the great blue light. All other desire left me, leaving only resounding joy as I contemplated the profound fulfillment I knew awaited me beyond the sky.

I cannot possibly articulate the majesty of it. As I approached I could see a faint hyperstructure within it, impossibly intricate, fractalized, and ever-changing. Soon it enveloped me, and in a moment of perfect bliss, I settled deep inside of it with the rest of my people. That’s when it began digesting us.

  1. ^

    More of my fiction can be read here, should you desire it.


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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:16 AM

I enjoyed this, especially the slow reveal that the transformation is actually good. I do think it would have been more thematically powerful without the last line. The black goo being passive didn't bother me -- I didn't interpret it as a nanite AI, but just a dumb lifeform that slipped in through a wormhole or something.

I'm looking forwards to tomorrow's post.

The ending is because I normally write horror and take perverse delight in making small additions to wholesome things which totally subvert and ruin them. It's a compulsion at this point, lol.

The black goo is called Vitriol. A sort of a symbolic constant across many of my stories, present in different forms for various purposes. Typically it represents the corrosive hatred we indulge in, a poisoned well we cannot help but keep returning to even as we feel it killing us. 

I'm thankful for your readership and will endeavor not to disappoint you. Tomorrow's will be a neat one. 

The ending is because I normally write horror and take perverse delight in making small additions to wholesome things which totally subvert and ruin them. It's a compulsion at this point, lol.

I have noticed this tendency. Sometimes it's really well done though, I loved the ending for ||the ehancer story||. (spoilers for another one of Alex's stories)

This is... interesting. I'm not exactly sure what the point is though, and it feels like fanfiction that was written in a stream of consciousness with no revision or planning. In particular I find it hard to believe that an earth-swallowing sea of maximizer AI nano would not... you know, actively do anything other than wait for people to fall into it. 5/10.

"I'm not exactly sure what the point is though"

Not to fear transhumanism, not to regard ourselves as finished products, but also not to assume that more intelligent/powerful = more moral

"an earth-swallowing sea of maximizer AI nano"

That's not what the black sea is, but that angle makes sense in retrospect

Ah, I see. By the way, I didn't intend to sound hostile or condescending but I may have done so, in which case I'm sorry. I think it's evidence you have potential as a writer, and it's probably longer than anything I've ever written lol (I'm terrible at finishing things) - I just would have preferred you go through a revision phase or two before publishing it, and considered how to make the characters a bit more realistic. (For instance, it seems like he adjusts psychologically to the transformation much faster than a normal person would, and suddenly becomes a hero when previously he was just a kid.)

Another possible moral, btw, is that the freedom to develop oneself and experiment with alternative modes of being and organization is part of what makes us human - not our mere body plan. There is a case to be made that the people of Cloud Nine are more human than the people of the Founder's perfect city.

Not to worry, no offense was taken. Indeed though, I have heard it said our ancestors were already cyborgs the minute one of them first sharpened a rock.