Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 34
Stories
What the Sea Refuses
by Brian Dolton
Foundling
by Christian K. Martinez
Portraits from the Shadow
by D. Thomas Minton
Three Seconds
by Jonas David
Oyster Beach
by Sophie Wereley
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Blockbuster Viagra
by Chris Bellamy

Three Seconds
    by Jonas David

Three Seconds
Artwork by Jin Han

We'd all been sitting around that table for so long we'd forgotten most of our lives before or where we'd come from. We just had our names, some vague memories of a place before all this, and an endless white void to stare into.

Or sometimes a black void. We spent a lot of time arguing about which was better.

"Today, we should make something," said Tessa. Her brown, curled hair floated around a face that had too many angles to be called attractive by most. But looks can grow on you after . . . well, however long we'd been there. "The . . . air, is ripe for it," she continued. "I can feel it, can't you?"

"Every day you ask this in some fashion," said Alec, his voice plodding and tedious. "You must know the answer by now." Alec didn't look like Alec anymore. He'd sort of devolved into a shapeless floating . . . thing, with no mouth or face or limbs or hair. His voice seemed to appear in front of him, with no source.

Day - the cycle of dark-colored void and light-colored void. Tessa liked it light, Alec liked it dark. Every once in a while one would give in to the other and the void would change color. Neither ever took the time to seek out my opinion on the matter.

Tessa glared at Alec, ages of frustration boiling behind her dark eyes.

"But this is so boring!" Her voice boomed, her words flying out in an explosive wave of sound that shattered the table into a billion tiny splinters, which then burned to embers and faded to nothing. A moment later it reformed between us, a cloud of smoke swirling up into the shape of the table, then hardening.

I scooted my chair forward and reformed my ears, which I'd sealed off in case of a following outburst. I rebuilt my mug of tea, one of the few things I was allowed to create, and took a sip.

"Existence only leads to suffering," said Alec in his floating monotonous voice. The void was his place, his legacy. Not that he'd created it -- it had been ages since Alec had lifted a finger to create even a chair to sit in. He was, though, the one that kept it empty. "Pure peace," he continued, "can only be reached through the absence of all action. The absence of being."

I once mentioned to him that he was technically creating words and sound waves, and thus bringing something into existence, when he spoke. That shut him up for a while. Now whenever he spoke he made his voice as simple and utilitarian as possible.

"Your arguments aren't going to have different effects on me the more you use them, Alec," said Tessa.

There was silence for a moment. Or an aeon, it was hard to tell anymore. I drank my tea, Tessa fumed, and Alec did nothing. As usual. Then, Tessa struck out.

I could almost feel what she was trying to do; I sensed an impression -- a vague form trying to come into existence below us, a wide swath of . . . something. But Alec reached out and stopped her, suppressing the creation before it could be completed.

Tessa let out a sigh, deflating in her chair. Some unspoken agreement passed between the two, and the void faded to black. Another "day" was over.

Sometimes -- maybe every thousand days or so -- Tessa would run, flying off into the darkness at seemingly impossible speed. But Alec always took off a split second later, keeping right behind her and stopping whatever she tried to do. I'd be left to sit at the table until I got bored enough to come find them. Alec knew not to worry about me creating anything. And I always destroyed the table before I left.

I created my candle, the flickering light brightening my section of the table. I enjoyed watching the wax melt down, dripping in patterns over the dark wood grain. Tessa created an elaborate floating lantern with flapping golden wings. It hovered above her head, giving off a pale green light. Alec sat in darkness, a vague, shifting form.

It took us a while, when we first got here, to figure out what we could do.

In the early years (centuries? millennia?) we didn't have a care. We created worlds far and wide: great, sweeping terrains of jagged crystal mountains and frozen skies, or infinitely fractaling flowers the size of galaxies. Anything we could imagine was ours.

It soon became apparent that Tessa was the best. Her creations were more detailed and precise, more vast and organized and coherent. Mine tended to fall apart quickly, and Alec worried so much about doing it just right that he rarely did anything at all.

Then, as I cleared away one of Tessa's forgotten galaxies for her, I discovered my true passion.

Destruction.

There were so many ways to destroy -- infinite ways, all of them fun in their own right. I could crush a planet like it was being squeezed in a fist. I could explode it or melt it or shatter it into dust. I could tweak gently with the rotation and let it fall apart on its own. I could send it crashing into a sun or a black hole. I could turn it into a hundred trillion doves and watch them die in the cold vacuum of space before crushing them into a singularity.

Sometimes I liked to see how much I could destroy with the least influence. If you were careful, a single chemical reaction could unbalance entire ecosystems, or a single quake or eruption could shatter a continent. Removing a single carbon atom could cause a perfectly balanced structure to collapse.

It was endless entertainment. I set about destroying Tessa's creations with a relish I'd never felt for anything.

For a time, it was perfect. Tessa's creations came faster and larger and more detailed and brilliant. And I was always right behind her, destroying what she left behind. I used care and precision and delicacy as much as she did, enjoying my destructions like one would a well-orchestrated symphony. We found an equilibrium, she and I. The pace of her creation and my destruction were such that I ended up reaching her creations just as she got bored with them.

Soon, I began finding that her imaginings were prepared for me. Thick walls blocked me out, or bizarre beings attacked me. Intricate traps tested my reflexes, triggered by my very destruction of them. As I learned her tricks and defeated her minions, she devised more and improved ones. She got better as I got better -- we sharpened ourselves on each other.

Then Alec caught up to us.

I'm not sure what he'd been doing away from us for all that time -- probably fretting over a single leaf while trying to make a forest. But he found us and started his meddling.

Alec had no skill or passion for creating or destroying, but he did possess a talent for stopping us from doing those things.

It started as he watched Tessa building a new world, curious of her methods. She was crafting a giant disk that rotated precisely on a pinpointed spire. Beings were to live on the center of the disk, and the farther they wandered out to explore, the more likely the disk would tip and fall. Unless, of course, they worked together, coordinating their exploration.

Alec didn't like this idea; he said it caused too much needless suffering for the creatures, that she was playing games with them. They argued. Tessa told him to mind his own business, but he was incensed. So when Tessa began to mold the beings, Alec stopped her, suppressing her creative ability.

From then on it was all downhill. He didn't like the way I destroyed things, so he forced me to make it clean and quick. He didn't like the worlds that Tessa created, so he forced her to make them simple and lifeless. This was his passion: asserting his authority over us, holding us back unless we did what he approved of.

But Alec was not infinitely strong; he could only hold one of us back at a time. So as he stopped me from slowly raising the temperature on a planet to boil the life out of the seas, Tessa was free to produce more worlds full of beings and structures that were imperfect and unbalanced, yet beautiful for their flaws. As he switched back to stopping her from creating, I was free to push a populated planet into a black hole.

Finally, Alec made a decision. He held Tessa back completely, letting me run rampant in my destruction. He knew I couldn't resist. I razed our worlds with abandon, until nothing remained but void, and us.

And now, this table and chairs.

Time passed. We sat in darkness, then light, then darkness. Few words were spoken. I drank my hot tea and Tessa fidgeted, manufacturing new clothes and hair so fast that she sometimes seemed as much of a shapeless blob as Alec. Alec sat watching, prepared to stop anything we might do.

"Let's play a game," Tessa eventually said to me. "I need to do something or I'll go mad."

I grunted ascension and she brought a deck of cards into existence -- another of the brutally-fought-for objects that Alec let her have. She fanned the cards out on the table, face down.

"Pick a card," she said. "Any card you like, don't be shy." She looked at me, but instead of the usual cryptic grin or wink, she simply leaned with her arms on the table and waited.

The game, I was certain, would be all in her head as she watched how I reacted. Tessa's mind was a labyrinth of plots within schemes within plans, and without worlds to design, she liked to spend her time outsmarting me with clever puzzles or riddles.

Subtlety was never my strong suit.

I raised my hand halfheartedly and destroyed the cards one by one. Some curled and blackened, collapsing into little piles of ash. Some I shredded into little tufts of paper, some I sliced in halves until they were composed of individual atoms, some I crushed into miniature black holes and tossed away into the void. I took my time -- days, weeks perhaps -- destroying each card individually and meticulously. Alec and Tessa watched, silent.

Finally, one card remained.

"Is it the ace of spades?" asked Tessa. Again, her face seemed honest, earnest. I did not detect the mocking glint in her eye as I usually did moments before she caught me in some puzzle, proving once again her mental superiority.

I picked up the card. The face was white, with three words written on it. Please destroy him. I glanced up at her briefly. Her eyes were still serious, almost pleading.

"No," I said after a moment, and the card crumbled like sand, pouring out of my palm to hiss over the table.

I shot a glance at Alec; he seemed oblivious, though it was hard to tell with him. He couldn't read minds -- none of us could, even those of our creations -- but what Tessa and I were doing was not exactly inconspicuous.

I'd tried to destroy Alec twice before, both ages ago. The first time I may have been hesitant. I'd thought long and hard about it, weighing the consequences of killing one of only two people in existence for me to talk to, against the lust for my destructive freedom. I'd finally decided I had to be free, and struck. He'd stopped me, but during the few seconds his guard was down Tessa managed to create hundreds of thousands of worlds, all strange and intricate and beautiful. I destroyed them, one by one, as Alec held her down.

The second time I didn't even expect to succeed -- I only hoped to give Tessa another chance to build more things for me to knock down. But Alec had gotten stronger after so many centuries holding us back; he was able to stop me from destroying him and Tessa from creating anything meaningful.

Now, I didn't see the point. There was a possibility, I thought, that maybe he'd grown weaker over the years; we barely struggled against him anymore. But then, we also might have grown weaker.

"Let me try once more, I know I can get it this time," Tessa said.

I nodded and she spread out the cards. Again I made her wait while I lovingly destroyed all but one. Alec sat silently in his dark corner.

"Is that the ace?" she asked again, leaning forward, her eyes intense and locked onto mine. "I'm pretty sure it is this time."

I picked up the card. Please, I'll help.

She was serious. Did she really think we could defeat him? Her destructive abilities were no better than my creations. Her efforts would be like a breath in a hurricane.

I sighed and the card boiled away into a fine mist. "No," I said. "You aren't very good at this."

"One more try." She spread the cards out again. "Not like we have anything else we can do." She looked right at me as she said it, determination in her voice.

I worked quickly this time, curiosity gripping me. I pulled a card away and ignited the rest in a flare as bright as burning magnesium, leaving a charred black line across the table.

I looked at the card. This time there were more, smaller words: We can do it together, we have to try. What else are we doing here?

I held the card loosely in my fingers, staring. Could we actually succeed? And if we could, would I even want to? I knew that my purpose was to destroy, but in a sense I had already succeeded at destroying everything in existence. This eternal stalemate could be seen as a victory for me.

But then what was left to do? I'd considered trying to destroy Tessa lifetimes ago. The idea of ending such a potential for creation -- in essence, destroying an infinity of worlds -- held some appeal to me. But my passion was in the details, the precise and intimate destruction of individual creations. And even if I did someday get tired of it and want to destroy Alec and Tessa both -- and then myself, effectively destroying existence all together -- I would still have to destroy Alec first. Else he would hold me down for eternity, satisfied in his everlasting nothingness.

I locked eyes with Tessa and gave a barely perceptible nod. Then I stood and threw the card at Alec in one motion, attempting to change it into a sword as it flew toward his amorphous body.

The creation of the sword was, of course, just a distraction. He easily stopped me from making it, and the card flapped harmlessly against him. But while his attention was on the sword, I struck at his brain, pulling it apart at the atomic level. He blocked me and pushed back. I struck at his heart, trying to pickle it, his lungs, trying to shatter them into crystal. He blocked me each time.

I could sense Tessa's attacks. They were much more elusive than I'd expected, but Alec still deflected them with little effort.

"Even our own existences cause nothing but suffering," Alec said flatly.

Tessa still struck at him, her blows sudden -- unpredictable even for me. Then a great barren landscape stretched out below us; a flat expanse of grey rubble. I almost lost my concentration in shock. She'd created while trying to destroy Alec at the same time. I'd never tried to use both sides at once.

"Even we cannot peaceably exist," Alec droned. "What right have we to use this power at all?"

"We were existing just fine till you stopped us!" cried Tessa, attacking him with careless passion.

Alec blocked her from creating anything more, and I sensed how thinly he was stretched. All his strength was spread between stopping mine and Tessa's destructive powers, and Tessa's creative power.

My creative power was still unblocked.

I reached out toward the landscape Tessa had built and began to form something of my own.

I pieced together a brain, as intricate and advanced as I could manage -- perhaps the mental capacity of a child. It floated above the rocky terrain, spinning slowly as I worked.

"What do you think you are doing?" demanded Alec, but he did not move against me yet. I felt him quivering, wanting to reach out and stop me, but afraid to test his limits.

I covered the brain in flesh and blood, giving it a heart and lungs and creating some air for it to breathe. Then I began to design the nervous system.

"No, what are you -- stop that!" Alec's voice strained, breaking from its normal even tone.

A final tweak and the nervous system was completely hooked up -- but flawed. Alec could see that flaw; indeed I made it as obvious as I could. All the nerves in the creature's small body fired constantly, sending a steady flow of pain signals to the brain. I let it fall to the ground and roll to a stop against a crumbled rock. It sat there, immobile, tortured by its own existence.

I began to build a second one.

"No!" Alec stopped me, and his hold on my destructive powers weakened. I struck, and he defended, but in so doing he just slightly released his grip on Tessa's creative power. She made several hundred of the creatures in a tenth of the time it took me to make that one.

Alec cried out again, a wordless screech at all the torture before him. He let go of me completely and reached for the creatures, using his creative powers in an attempt to turn off their pain.

"You'll be happier in oblivion, my friend," I said.

In an instant I reduced Alec to a cloud of atoms.

A moment later, much more casually, I also destroyed the creatures and our table and chairs, then floated down to stand with Tessa on the rocky soil. We stared, breathless, each waiting for the other to act.

"I told you we could do it," she said.

I could sense her buzzing with barely contained power. She watched me closely, and I gathered that the only thing keeping her from releasing it was her uncertainty of how I would react.

"Give me a head start?" she asked with a sly grin.

"I'll count to three."

"Thank you," she said. "For . . . you know." She laughed, and I could see the twinkle of infinite possibilities in her eyes.

"One," I said, and she was gone, a sonic boom echoing through the air above the crumbled landscape. Countless planets and stars and galaxies appeared in her wake. Pulsars spun away from her like tops, and nebulae of all colors spread out in waves where she passed.

"Two." A wall as thick as a star slammed into existence in front of me, stretching as far as I could sense in all directions, blocking me from the worlds she'd created. It was made of a carbon lattice, arranged at the atomic scale in such a way that made it the hardest substance I'd ever encountered.

"Three." Forms appeared above me. Great tentacled monsters, giant fanged birds, starships with mounted weapons, thousand-ton molten rocks -- all converging on me.

I laughed. She'd been planning this for a while. I raised a hand and vaporized several meteors before they could crash into me, truly stretching and flexing my destructive powers for the first time in aeons.

It felt good.

"I'm right behind you, Tessa," I said, and hurled myself at the wall.


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