Still alive.


The third floor of the Ermis University Pressley Academic Building, like each of its other floors, was constructed to accommodate for any number of spacecraft docking simultaneously at its far end. With the triumphant whooshing of several pistons, the back passenger-side door of an Interstellar Defense Commission vessel opens in tandem with the dock gate, and Frankie Monaco steps out onto the steel floor. He had tried to tell the officers that Dr. Reiner’s office was on the ninth floor, not the third, but he was deposited here nonetheless. The door, and then the gate, shut with imperious thuds, and the Defense Commission pod speeds off silently to sneak beneath the traffic lanes high above.

Frank is joined here only by a freshly waxed personal spacecraft connected to one charging port out of hundreds. There is a quiet electrical thrumming emanating from it, and overhead, strips of halogen lights cast down beams of cold, intense energy. At the hall’s far end, there are two mechanical gates. The one on the left declares itself “ELEVATOR” by means of laser-cut, razor-thin lettering on a plate situated just above it. Frank’s boots call a lonely, hollow sound from reinforced steel as he makes his way to the security console nestled in the elevator’s frame.

It is only now, as he pats each of his pockets searching for his passcard, that young Frank Monaco recognizes the complications of having had it revoked. The scrap of cardstock he received upon discharge from the Defense Commission station bears only his name, his photograph, and a string of identifying numbers which, to him, are meaningless. He gives an exasperated sigh and taps the security console’s screen to wake it.

“Identification, please,” chirps a synthesized voice. A slot below the screen is illuminated.

“I don’t have it. Is this good enough?” Frank waves the paper at the embedded camera.

“Ooh, an Interstellar Defense Commission temp-slip? Go ahead and put it in, then!” The slot blinks a royal blue now.

Somewhat distressed, Frank complies, and his paper slip disappears with half a sound.

“Thank you! Where to, Frankie?”

“Ninth floor, please.”

“I’m afraid this slip’s only good for exit. Ground floor or nothing.”

“...What? Why even ask me for a preference?”

“Not up to me. It’s just how the slip’s printed.”

“...Very well, then. Ground floor,” Monaco murmurs.

“Safe travels!” The chipper voice signs off with a click. As the elevator doors begin to close, the gate to the third floor’s deeper hallways opens with a slick whoosh. A figure crosses through its threshold.

“Hey, wait!” Frank throws his arm out to prevent the elevator doors from sealing him in and rushes out of the cab.

The lone vessel at the charging port appears to belong to a tall individual with thick horn-rimmed glasses and a sour expression. The stranger’s attention is drawn to Frankie, and they meet near the middle of the hangar. A new pleasant baritone echoes in the metal chamber, contrasting nicely with Frank’s own reedy-voiced pleading. “How did you get in here?”

“I got dropped off by the IDC. I didn’t do anything illegal, though, they’re just jerking me around,” Frank says, hushed. “Listen, can you take me upstairs to meet with somebody? They took my card. I can’t get in.”

“You shouldn’t be on this floor.”

“I don’t even want to be here! I’m trying to get to the ninth floor! I told them it was the ninth, dammit...”

“Why were you dropped here of all places...?”

Frank steals a glance at the badge clipped to the stranger’s coat pocket. Erick Swenson, Ph.D. is printed modestly above the bolded word FACULTY. “Like I said, I think they were just giving me a hard time. My name’s Frankie, and I’m a student here. My uncle’s a professor, he teaches biology… Louis Dietter, maybe you know him? Just… Please, take me upstairs and I’ll be out of your hair forever.”

Swenson gives a patient smile. “Calm down, you’re alright. What do you need on the ninth floor? It’s a bit past regular office hours.”

“I know,” Frank sighs, collecting himself. “I’m here to see Dr. Marie Reiner. I was supposed to be here hours ago, but I know she’s around 'til pretty late… I’ll be furious if I miss her today only because I made the mistake of trying to walk here.”

“I can accompany you upstairs and to her office. I can’t stick around long, though.” The doctor checks a sleek device on his wrist. “I’ve got to be home before eight. My family keeps Wednesday nights open as a rule.”

“Thank you, Dr. Swenson. I’m sorry to keep you.”

“It’s alright. I’ve got plenty of time between now and then to get you through a few floors and hallways,” Swenson says, unclipping his faculty card from his coat. They walk together to the elevator, and the security console comes alive once more. The doctor’s card is accepted with a pleasant noise.

“Where to?”

“Ninth floor. Please and thank you.”

“Safe travels!”

“What do you do at the University, sir?”

“...Quite a few things,” Dr. Swenson sighs. The ninth floor’s halls are dimly lit now, and rather empty. “I hope you’ll understand the privacy.”

“But you’re a scientist, right? You look like a physicist to me.”

“Appearances can be deceiving,” says Swenson mildly, “but you’re right, I’m a physicist. What gave it away?”

“I’ll keep my secrets, too. It’s only fair.”

“Come on. I’m curious.”

“Alright. You’ve got a certain practicality about your dress, so I guessed that you’ve passed by some aspects of the individual self along the way somewhere in your studies. That’s not a bad thing, really, it just makes me think you’re working with something pretty massive that reminds you that you’re a bit like an ant... My first guess was that you’re a historian, actually, but you seem too busy to be a historian... I wonder what sort of physicist is left alone in a secret lab at night?”

“Who’s to say there aren’t busy historians?” Swenson says with a smile. “It’s not a secret lab, anyway. There are secrets in it, like there are in almost any laboratory... but you were dropped there by the Commission, Frank. It’s not any sort of secret in itself.”

“Are you a historian, too, by any chance?”

“Not unless you count Earth History.”

“Of course I count Earth History.”

“In that case, Frankie, you were right on both counts… but I wouldn’t really call myself a historian.”

“Under most circumstances, I wouldn’t call myself a philosopher, either, but that’s what I told that sergeant just this evening.”

“Tell me about that.”

“Well, they told me it was strange that I was walking when I had a permit to fly, and took my writing away... and my passcard, too.”

“...What kind of writing was that?”

“I don’t really know how to describe it. Just some thoughts of mine. Philosophy, like I said. I’d meant to bring it to Dr. Reiner. She’d told me she likes my work, so I wanted to see what she thought about it, I guess.”

“...You should start being a little more careful.”

“Why do you say that?”

“The Interstellar Defense Commission took your passcard after they confiscated a letter you wrote. Think.”

“You’re saying it’s political? That seems a little far-fetched to me. I’m nobody.” The pair stop at another closed mechanical gate.

“Well, right now, you’re really nobody,” Swenson says somewhat gravely, retrieving his passcard once more and waving it at Frank. “You’ll get your own card back, and probably rather soon, but… hm. Come back to see me when you do.”

“Um… Alright, Dr. Swenson. I’ll let you know.”

Swenson nods. “Most of the faculty offices are past this gate. You shouldn’t need a passcard again, so this is where I leave you.” The doctor swipes his card and waves Frankie inside. “Ask Dr. Marie to print you up some temp-slips for exit. It was nice meeting you, Frank.”

“Likewise, sir,” Frankie says with a respectful nod, heading inside. “I’ll see you.”

“No need to be so formal,” says Erick Swenson, waving dismissively. “I’m no one special. Don’t forget to come find me again. I’ll be on the third floor… any night but Wednesdays.”

The gate closes as Frank waves good-bye, and the gentlemen part ways. The student turns to face the office plaza. A ring of doors surrounds a perfectly manicured field of grass blocked off on all sides by glass fences. At the floor’s heart is a marble fountain, but at present, it is still. The sound of his own footsteps becomes Frankie’s sole companion once more.

It is around seven in the evening, and only a few lights still gleam through glass walls. At least if he can’t find Reiner, he can beg somebody else for exit papers. Thankfully, though, a lamp’s gentle glow is visible through shutters in the office marked 9125 - REINER. He breathes a sigh and knocks twice on the fiberglass door. It swings inward, and Dr. Marie Reiner greets him with a relieved smile.

“There you are! I was starting to worry. You’re not the type to be so late.”

“I’m really sorry, Dr. Reiner.”

“It’s quite alright, Frankie. Come in, come in!” She waves him inside and takes a seat in the modest chair behind her desk, gesturing to the other chairs across from it. “Well, let’s see your work, then!”

“I don’t have it,” Frank says, sinking into one of the chairs.

“What? You said it was finished.”

“It is finished. I guess I lost it on my way here.”

“That explains why you were late, then,” Dr. Reiner says. “You must’ve spent quite a while looking for it!”

“Not exactly. I started walking here from my dormitory building, and I guess I had a run-in with the IDC,” Frankie says delicately. Reiner’s eyes grow curious behind convex bottle-lenses as her student explains the events of his evening.

“You’re lucky to have bumped into Erick,” says Reiner. “I have colleagues who would have sent you to the ground floor without a second thought.”

“I liked him well enough. I was a little dishonest with him, though... I recognized his name and knew vaguely of his work, but I let him think I had bizarre intuitive powers. Do you know what he does around here specifically? He wouldn’t tell me.”

“Whatever it is, it’s above my pay grade,” Reiner says with a good-natured scoff. “I’m sorry about your writing. They didn’t destroy it, did they?”

“I hadn’t thought about that. They might’ve. I wrote it all by hand, so that was the only copy…”

“Nothing can erase your ideas themselves.”

“I hope not. I’m cross about it, though. It was a good paper.”

“Why in the world was it confiscated?”

“Hm. I’m not sure what to make of that. I don’t think there was anything dangerous in there.”

“Tell me about what you wrote, Frankie. You might be right, but you could be very, very wrong.”

“I poured my soul into it. My anxieties, mainly. I have hundreds of questions I’ve never been satisfied with the answers to… I spent a while trying to figure some of them out myself. It was an essay of sorts, but there were a few vignettes and imagined dialogues. It’s hard to summarize the whole thing, but I certainly wouldn’t call it a masterwork. I’d be a good deal angrier if I could’ve.”

Dr. Reiner rests her elbows on the desk and tents her fingers, worry masked lightly behind her lingering curiosity. “Tell me one of the stories you wrote, as well as you can remember it.”

“Alright. This is an early one. It’s about a child.

“She is alone on Earth’s moon, breathing, dreaming, kneeling. The flesh of her palms meets dense dust, and vicious tremors begin to course through her. As she rises, strange monoliths rise with her, their independent emergences from below the ground rending the humble satellite asunder. They stretch upwards and surround her, blocking out the gentle glow of starlight completely in a matter of seconds. She falls into a new chasm and cries out to the cosmos as she is buried beneath polished platinum.

“...I left out plenty, but that’s one of my favorites.”

“Huh,” Dr. Reiner breathes.

“I wish you could’ve read all of it. That's not even the best,” Frank huffs, toying idly with a glass model of a human eyeball on the professor’s desk. “I hope I’ll get the manuscript back.”

“I’d settle for your passcard, Frank, but your handwriting might save you.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I wonder if there’s a computer anywhere that could process your script. The Commission probably tried to process it mechanically, but couldn’t. Maybe that’s what was so suspicious. They might just give up on it and send it back to you.”

“That would be pretty funny.”

“You didn’t write anything threatening, did you?”

“You’re going to have to be more specific with what you mean by threatening. I’m not calling for assassinations or anything, but I’m not subtle about my distaste for certain aspects of human life on Mercury.”

“I suppose I don’t know how careful you ought to be, but I want to say that you’re unlucky to have your work at the IDC’s desk and not mine.”

“I hope you’re right about my script, then,” Frank laughs. “I always knew it would come in handy someday.”

“What else do you remember?”

“Let’s see. There was a charming back-and-forth between two robots who get the idea to embrace, but can’t, as their arms are like baskets, only built for moving packages.”

“That’s sweet.”

“It was! But mostly, it was very sad,” Frank sighs. “The bulk of it was dialogues between the two of them, actually. They had a nice relationship.”

“If only they could’ve hugged.”

“They did, but they couldn’t be separated, and they became dead weight on the sorting line. Then they were crushed into scrap by a hydraulic press.”

Silence takes the office for a while, until a digital clock chirps on the hour.

“...That wasn’t the end, was it?”

“No, not quite yet. Soon, the rest of the robots in the facility followed suit. They formed a massive, unbreakable chain, but all of them were destroyed, too. Then they were replaced with human workers. A red warning light was fixed on the hydraulic press that flickered imperiously every few moments. It glared down menacingly at the hundreds of bodies, who never could be sure that they wouldn’t be crushed for hugging, or for linking arms...”