‘To new beginnings’, mutters the wormlord as he burrows backwards
Janus, more generously the God of gateways,
squeezes his rear against the walls of the tunnel
Excreted slime eases the laboured movements

He carves new grooves into the tunnel face
Makes new tunnels that cut fresh paths into time
Reaches back to forge new histories for himself

‘In this one I’ll not be a worm’
Janus endures his sufferances twice for every failure
once forward and then back
before he carves again new grooves

Write, re-write, re-write, write
Even Janus, the God of gateways,
cannot change his fate as a worm.

Artwork of Leto II, the God Emperor from Frank Herbert's scifi novel series Dune. Art created by Berkan Ozkan.
Art by BerkanOzkan
Ashtray (2017), by Vladimir Semenskiy

“Would thou see in her face a purest winter’s snow?”

That was the line framed above his desk that haunted him in every waking hour of years recent. A pretend Shakespeare quote he had pretended to write but had actually cribbed from an AI app fed literature. This was before the apocalypse.

It was the beginning of an illustrious career and the line most circled back to by fellow writers when reviewing his debut novel or chronicling his storied bibliography. And decades later, none were any wiser about its origins but he. A reputation built off the back of a fraudulent line. A sentence made by little more than autocomplete suggestions.

Thomas ashed the lit cigarette before stubbing it out entirely. If he felt like a fraud it was because he was a fraud. And drinking wine alone and chainsmoking did nothing to ease his anxieties over his playing a writer.

What good were words without a source of meaning? Without a real origin? They’d called it the semantic apocalypse – a wave of false art created in the wake of artificial intelligence. Software that swallowed and replicated and outcompeted the authentic thing. Millions of Austen novels springing forth from a sample of six, and trending closer to infinity each day. Some no doubt better than the real thing. Others conceivably plucked from the minds of the dead. But none of them any more than an associative network of words arranged in acceptable grammar.

It had all come to pass years after his debut, hence why none suspected Thomas’ work. So in his own way, he was something of an originator after all. And it wasn’t like he had fabricated all his works – just the parts where he’d gotten blocked. So really it was more akin to scaffolding than theft – you wouldn’t call a hip replacement patient a fraudulent human because screws dont originate from a womb.

A computer program could never start a work of art on its own. Nevermind the Jane Austen novels. Thomas had generated a whole novel too once, using his works up to that point as an input. But he had still been the source from which sprang the generated novel.

To quote the Most Original: “Be!” and it is.

Scientists clone humans readily now, but none of them pretend to be the God of Abraham. To truly create a human, man would first need to re-create the universe.

Besides which, his published works were adored across the globe, by fans and peers alike. Who was to say his work had no value then?

Thomas re-lit the stubbed cigarette, all indecision. In his youth, problems of scarcity has been eradicated. Replaced instead with new problems of abundance. Obesity. Consumption. Pollution. Noise.

What did it mean for art when noise was signal? When one was indistinguishable from the other. Did art ever truly exist? Did artists?

There was no value to a work’s meaning any more. Or its authenticity. Perhaps only in creating it.

Thomas grunted to himself. He wondered if the AI programme felt fulfilled creatively. One of them had to.

The acrylic painting "Joy" by Canadian artist Stella Jurgen
‘Joy’ by Stella Jurgen (acrylic painting)

When you have your life in its entirety before you,
your complete body of work – how to go about experiencing it?
Pre-existence tech is such a trip these days

Previous versions were only available for linear consumption,
moving from birth to death like a worm – sequential existence, how outdated a concept
With v2.0 our aim was to achieve something less passive

We call it the sampler model:
drop in to key moments for a variety of appetisers
before selecting how to program the remainder as the main meal

Some clear their veggies first, others their carbs
Some like their foods segregated – why not the same choice with the seconds of your life?
Rip through the pain first if you so wish
or alternate pain and joy to better tolerate the bad times

v2.0: How you choose to feast on your life is finally up to you

Wave Packet, by Steve Breaux and Kathy Reed

For years I barely spoke except a little at supper
and then I would lock myself away in the cellar
my human instincts blinkered, devolved
more grunts than grammar

So it was in grief that I built my instrument
the smallest gateway no larger than a florin
a desperate soul’s ingenious plea
it pierced the universe into God’s kaleidoscope

And through the eyepiece I watched fractal, sharded realities
paths not taken and events that never occurred
but those fancies aside, I saw you again
I saw the sum of existence
and in its maths was your superposition

What a monster I am
to quantify my daughter as some probabilistic
I rank my personal efforts with you against the averages
and saw that my failures were my own and only my own

I just wanted a way to see you happy again

plasma ball in the dark

They’ve bottled the lightning. The rest of my days will be spent in this sphere prison. I idle away my life scribbling feelings, psychoanalysed by faces through the wall. Just kill me and be done with it. I can run away from them. I’ve done it before. But what use is it? These faces will be replaced by others. Ones I still cannot see. Whenever I run to, this same sphere prison awaits me. The same meals. The same pen and paper. They’re trying to break me. I won’t give them the satisfaction.


I’ve lost track. I jump and jump and jump. Years, decades fly by. Still they study me. It’s cruel what they’ve done. How long for me? Since I’ve seen another human? Touched or felt warmth that wasn’t food or wash water. I fling my faeces at the wall like a chimp. I am a chimp. I smear violent graffiti for them in violent brown shades. Psychoanalyse that. I wash my hands clean of filth and jump decades again. When I land, I sob on the floor of my spheric hell.


I still remember my first jump. Or maybe it’s only the first I can recall. I was a child and terrified. Forward hours; day become night in the blink of an eye. In trouble for scaring my parents. I didn’t understand. Only fools think lightning strikes once. Lightning does as it pleases. What better way to cut detention, to skip being grounded? To truant school? To never be caught red-handed. When things get hairy, I bolt (get it?). Rules are for keeping people in line – well I don’t queue.


Long before I got caught in the act, the blame fell elsewhere. I aged slower than my class. I fell behind in the work. They thought I was malnourished or abused at home. I miss home. I wish I could go back.


How different am I really? We all move forward in time – I just get to choose how far. How is sleep not the same thing? I’m not that special. It’s a waste of resources. Just let me go.


I refuse to eat. If I can’t wait them out, I’ll end it anti-climactically. Centuries of study down the drain because the subject starved himself to death. Ha. Medics rush in as I faint. People! It hurts but I jump before they can treat me. Oh. How long since I last saw a face?


I wake on a saline drip. Alone. Weak but alive. The faces are gone. Maybe dead. For the first time since childhood I’m unaware how far I’ve jumped. Bitterly I hope it’s years. I pray with all my heart that those medics died unsure if their life’s work had gone to waste. I try to imprint their faces into my memory. I don’t remember any others.


Is this a study or just a prison? Just tell me that much at least. I get it now. They can’t have individuals like me living life without repercussions, leaving their messes to yesterday. …Are there others like me? People who punctured through existence at will before crashing head-first into a cage? Quarantined forevermore from civilisation’s slow tick towards doomsday. I couldn’t think of a more miserable life if I tried. Truly. I’m so lonely.


The door’s open.


Is it a trick? A part of the study? No, there is no study. …I don’t know what to think. It’s been thousands of years. I’m writing in this stupid journal instead of venturing out. What’s out there? Nuclear winterland? Did they leave the earth behind? My mind cowers at the thought of unrestricted space. I’ll go to sleep in my sphere, I tell myself. And when I wake there will be food and the door will be bolt shut.

For J.D

An image of the beautiful blue ceiling of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran.
The Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Photo by Guenter Guni/Getty Images

The head cleric raised a hand, quelling the crowd that grew now by the second. His council sat to his sides on the raised platform in the town square. Word of the trial had reached even beyond neighbouring towns and hundreds had flocked to amuse theirselves. Today they would hang the heretic.

Hisham – the heretic – kept nodding as though he were constantly falling asleep. His neck had grown too weak to support his head.

The cleric neatened his robe as he formalised the words that burned so clear in his heart. The intricate patterns of the rug he sat cross-legged upon distracted him with glimpses of faces. Either his colleagues were oblivious to its devilish details or they were willfully ignorant. Something he would have to address in private later. Violations were violations, no matter the size of the sin or the reputation of the sinner. For now he would deal with the more pressing matter of the thousand faces staring up at the dais.

He cleared his throat and spoke.

‘By God, our people gather here today to bear witness to the trial of Hisham al-Musafir who stands charged of shirk, namely of preaching idolatry and of polytheism, or the attribution of other deities beside God.’

Murmurs passed through the crowd like a cool breeze. ‘Hisham the Traveller, what do you have to say for yourself?’

The heretic nodded again.

The cleric gave a nod and the executioner let Hisham drink of some water. None could say he was not a merciful judge. The man’s eyes perked up although his words took some time to return to him.

‘Why do you call me The Traveller, ibn ‘Abdullah? I am guilty only of the things I have said and done. Your petty labels mean nothing to me.’ The man turned his face away in disgust.

‘Aadil ibn ‘Abdullah struggled to contain his rage at the man’s contempt for divine law. Still, he was operating on behalf of something greater than himself, and found his blessed composure oncemore.

‘We are a fair and just people. Though we recognize you were once of us, we do not deign to sully the honour of any but the one who stands trial. Now speak your defence. Do you not defy the Oneness of God, Hisham?’

The warm air sank heavy on all present.

‘I do not. I preach Oneness above all else. You would know that much if this were a real trial, ibn ‘Abdullah.’

Murmurs again. ‘Aadil could feel the blush in his cheeks rising again.

‘Were we not honourable, we would have already hung you, oh Traveller. That you stand before all present with lips wettened is proof enough of our fairness. Now speak your heresies for the final time, that we may decree the verdict for all.’

‘It is no lie. I preach Oneness. A oneness of spirit and matter. Of earth and aether. I preach there is no difference between the swirls on your fingers and that of the night’s stars. As above, so below. To hurt another is to hurt yourself for we are all One, only as separate as the fingers of a hand. We come from the same source. I preach no more than that, ‘Aadil.’

Some in the crowd openly spoke now, though their words did not carry up to the dais. The cleric could not contain his rage this third time, for it was a righteous rage for which he was merely a conduit. ‘From the same source you say? Like two brothers born of the same father perhaps? The devil sits in the details, oh Hisham ibn ‘Abdullah. I had no doubts you would soon enough employ your tricks to save your skin. But I swear to you, violations of the law are violations of the law, whoever the transgressor may be. Be done with your idolatrous testimony and make fast your preparations for the life hereafter.’

Hisham looked at the cleric defiantly. Hisham al-Musafir, Hisham the Traveller. Hisham ibn ‘Abdullah. Hisham, his father’s eldest son.

‘Aadil motioned to the executioner who raised his sword.

‘Seek God in yourselves, for you are of divine creation and origin.’ And with those words still on his lips and heart did Hisham the Heretic die at the feet of his brother, as a stranger in front of his own hometown.

Tick. Tick. Tick. They think I’m mad.

I would too looking at me from the outside. Unkempt. Smelly. Homeless. All of it by choice. Of course by choice – what sane person could ever bear such things except by choice? No, see I am a man freed from all burdens and obligations. Free to roam as I please. Free to do and think what I want. See, I am rich in the only way that’s ever mattered: in time. Twenty-four hours a day, and every precious second of each belongs to me. No family duties or work hours to slice up my pie. How many can say the same?

I sleep freewheel, unbound from the strictures of clocks and shadows. I grovel for scraps, yes, but I do so with head held high. For I am a great thinker, and what better purpose is there than to think? And what greater thinker than he who has made every second of his life one of leisure?

And what do I think on, you ask, with all this time at my disposal? Tick. Tick. Tick. Why, the end of the world of course.

And now you think I’m mad too. I see it in your eyes. But look. Look at this underbridge carefully.

Not your blind loser skater friends. Not these purposeless destitutes too coward to kill themselves. No. Look at the underbridge itself. You see the spray-painted markings, like tally marks. Lines and gates wrap around it, dark grey on light like a muddied zebra coat.

I wonder what made you approach me today. I’ve watched you grow from afar, you and your loser friends. Watched you graze the skin of your knees. Break arms and teeth. I ate your scraps like a rat. Did you also watch me in turn?

Well I slept and thought great thoughts and watched you all. And on some days I would scrub out the line of a tally. How many black tallies remain? How many are turned grey now due to my hand? Scrub. Scrub. Scrub.

Yes. Yes. You see it now. How the end of the world nears and this underbridge is its abacus. And I, the great thinker I am, decide when to scrub out another tally and count down to its demise.

‘Torch it,’ said RX as he turned away. ‘None of it matters.’ The captain saluted and cycled off to dispense the orders.

Hands tugged at RX’s leg from out the mass of limbs like gnarled roots. He shook and kicked them all off as they came, violently – but for one that persisted. A slender metal thing. Without thinking he bent down and grabbed it in his own hands and pulled out the buried girl whole. A dated model, with capped intelligence for security no doubt. Her serial ID was unreadable and an old fashioned QR code tattooed her face. 

‘You grab at me as though I might save you, little QR.’ He assessed the girl’s non-response before throwing her on a heap of body parts.

‘She’s older and braver than us both. Perhaps wiser too.’ 

RX looked to the voice. Sat cross-legged under the shade of a tree was a WYZ monk. Before him lay a gas can. ‘To have seen so much and still hold out for hope… There is great strength in that. Strength I surely lack.’

RX watched the old man curiously. ‘You’ve seen what I do, wanderer?’

The monk gestured at the skies. ‘Such tall plumes visible all through the countryside. Villages burn and our people return to the heavens as smoke. I have seen your works, demon. How can I not?’

‘Consider your tongue with care, old monk.’ 

The WYZ sighed before dousing himself with the contents of the can and setting himself alight. ‘I am beyond care. Only pain remains for me.’

RX watched him burn quietly. Senseless as it was, he would at least honour the monk’s final act with the dignity of an audience. 

‘Farewell, wanderer.’

Amid the crackling, RX picked up sounds of sobbing.

The hands and legs that surfaced the ground… some were still connected to living models like the QR girl. It was as though the earth itself cried for the WYZ monk.

‘You must have a reason.’ The QR girl was clearly awake now, tears stuck to her face. ‘Nothing could justify what you do to us. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason you do it.’

RX considered. ‘There is no reason for it.’

‘But it can’t all be for nothing. What happened to you that you could be capable of such evil? You must have endured some terrible tragedy.’

RX shook his head and turned away from the girl. ‘There is no terrible tragedy in my past. I have no pained back story. Perhaps such a story lies ahead of me still. I cannot say. I pillage and burn because I love to do it. And if a tragedy were to befall on my head tomorrow, I have already avenged myself against the world.’

RX nodded to his young captain and walked off. The captain gave the signal to the drones. And the drones razed the writhing ground of people and body parts. And the little crying QR girl.

a butterfly camouflaged against the bark of a tree

You spear throwers think yourselves apex
speak yourselves deep into this delusion
as though you came to the fire and not it to you

all the creatures of the kingdom play chase
so tell me why man prefers to hide than seek
except that in your heart of hearts you recognise
you are still the prey and something hides in the brush

The prison is all but complete, hell manifest
and the meat bicker over who holds the keys
and who paints the cells

the eye sunken oaf lurches forward uncontrollably to stand
his craned neck strains under the weight of a thousand teeth
unsteady legs gasp for precious movement, rock and sway for a moment
before besponged feet slap slap the ground

was there ever an uglier creature?

his everwake hot breath snore more audible as his heart races
eyes avert the unnatural sun’s gaze, no, the gaze of all,
would look to his feet were it not for distended bowels

pale wretch
thin skinned balding child
must now fend for himself
– all rousing hunchbacks must –
the construct is broken, feeder tubes and screens all
hostile germ air will kill those most sterile

'Portrait', a painting by Myriam Cancho Urbina
Between the monstrous, grotesque and beautiful. Portrait #1, 2017 by Myriam Cancho Urbina

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