On a remote outpost in the middle of the sea, two friends are menaced by an orb which appears in the sky out of nowhere.
J. Billings lives and breathes in Hilltop, OH. His fiction can be found in Black Warrior Review (forthcoming), Blood Orange Review, and ergot.
X waded waist-deep into the sea and turned around to tell me he knew it was only a matter of time. I sat at the edge of the water and told him I couldn’t remember anyone telling me that before. He said no one told him, he felt it in the back of his mind, somewhere hidden in an ever-present place, where this nagging feeling stuck out and had finally come dislodged upon the arrival of the orb. Ah, the orb, that ominous crimson harbinger floating in the starless night sky, shading the waves surrounding X like lapping blood. I didn’t know how one could expect such a thing. Certainly there’d been no training. But X insisted it was inevitable. In every lifetime we could have lived, the orb would have appeared over the sea out of nowhere.
• • •
We decided to contact the Overseer. I plugged one of the disposable six-foot long radio transmitters into the narrow hole above the main cabin and X entered the coordinates into the type-pad before we played rock, paper, scissors to see who would be able to talk into the globular communicator. I won and X was horribly upset because he claimed seniority should have ruled. I told him to stick it up his ass.
“This is V, reporting from my position on the Cold Rock. We’ve come into visual contact with what can only be described as a foreign object, completely unidentifiable based on our knowledge. This thing appears to be at least a few miles away, hanging in the sky, unmoving but vibrating. We have several working theories, such as a landing gear light or the head of a slow-moving missile, or some scientifically-explained phenomenon regarding noxious gasses violently reflecting between the sea and the low atmospheric ceiling, like a prism. We’re reaching out before our scheduled touch-base recording to receive some sort of go-forward guidance as to what this object may be, or at least how to treat it. We, meaning myself and X, await your command. End of transmission.”
We expected to hear a reply shortly. If there was any occasion which merited a response, we thought this would be it.
• • •
I ventured down to the beach with my binoculars in order to get a better look at the orb, and, when I set it in the center of my gaze, almost instantly, it pulsed in three bright bursts and emitted a low hum. I found X back in our quarters with a pillow wrapped around his head. He said he’d never heard a more contradictory sound. Something about it could contain life and death, joy and pain, fear and fearlessness, absolute darkness and the presence of eternal truth, all in one. I tried to ignore him, but I couldn’t sleep because all I heard was a deep throbbing drone, one which I couldn’t place as X’s or the orb’s.
• • •
We had no way to measure time; in fact, the concept seemed only vaguely familiar and impossible to capture, but I thought we would have received a response to our first transmission given our urgency. We continued to send additional messages as the orb grew more visually and acoustically hostile. Maybe it’s jamming our signal, I thought. I felt lost to the unknown.
• • •
As we completed our rounds, X told me he considered the sea an organism in itself, growing and shrinking, teeming with its vital cells (the fish), flowing blood (the waves), and natural limits (land, specifically our rocky beach). The sea, in his mind, operated and breathed as one body and could not be studied as something broken down into parts. According to his theory, marine biology was a crackpot religion and, in fact, he couldn’t think of anything else funnier. Every time he began to say the words, he broke out into hysterical laughter and the orb seemed to hum louder and I shielded my eyes from its brightness, which encompassed the beach in red.
I told him he couldn’t have been more incorrect. “The very essence of the sea is that it’s its own multi-part world,” I said. I asked him if he considered our island to be a single organism.
He snorted. “Of course not, how could you even ask such an asinine question?”
I pointed at him and shook my fist. “And you and I are not cells, microscopic villi-by-proxy, swaying to the commands of the island’s biological shudders and movements?”
He stopped writing in his brown paper log manual and looked up to the hum of the orb. “No,” he whispered. “We answer to something else.”
We didn’t speak for a few minutes while we went back to scribbling in our brown paper log manuals, both noting the growing cracks in the pavement on the stairs from our quarters to the beach.
“I suppose you’re a communist?” asked X. I asked him why he might think that. “Because you believe the universe works together, for the good of the whole, but in independent fashion.”
“I believe there’s the possibility,” I said.
“How do you reconcile the food chain?” he asked.
“It’s nature,” I said with a shrug.
“It’s the most natural example of the bourgeoisie, it’s feudalism, pure death on a stick,” he said. “It’s all part of the same process.” He smiled, undoubtedly beginning to feel like he’d won our argument. “One body living and dying a million times to keep itself alive.” He looked up to the orb. “Maybe it’s here to rebirth us.”
“What if it’s here to kill us?” I said, throwing up my hands.
“Maybe it’s both,” he said.
I ignored him and walked ahead, towards the lookout over the beach. “Any idea when we get off this rock?” I asked.
X said that was something we should not ever think of. “If we think of it,” he reasoned, “it will never happen”.
• • •
It was my idea to run a diagnostic scan with our remote motorized balloon probe. X pleaded with me to just let the orb be, but I told him we had to try something, it was our job after all. We watched together as I released the probe from the beach and that great quagmire in the sky swallowed it up like a sponge absorbing water. X said he was thankful and terrified. He was resigned to the fact that the orb would reach us one day and there was nothing we could do about it until then. I wasn’t so sure.
• • •
No response from the Overseer and X’s mood swings became increasingly unpredictable. One startling moment in particular, I found him kneeling on the beach with his eyes fixated on the orb, which grew larger, slowly creeping closer, continually circling our island, miles or possibly lightyears above us, pestering us with its viscous aural haze. I couldn’t make it out even in its massive shape. It was an orb and that’s all we could say. A deep red orb. There were no flames, the light shone in a dull metallic way, and the hum continued to drone on and grow louder with each effort we made to try and study it closer. I was desperate to avoid looking at it as much and I pitied X’s lack of self-control.
• • •
I scoured our training manuals for anything applicable to our situation. Alas, not one hint of an orb, a circle, a sphere, or a globe, yet the total absence of any mention made me feel the orb’s presence even more.
• • •
As a peace offering, I relinquished the position of communications liaison and X accepted. Our relationship seemed to be in the process of being mended. It was a shame we let it deteriorate in the first place. He taught me everything I knew. He was our mechanic, chef, guru, and amateur meteorologist, and I should have been more delighted to work with him. I was too concerned with that old thing in the sky which grew larger by the day, seemingly descending on top of us and zooming out of the horizon at the same time. I continued to try to convince X that we were not here for the orb, but he still disagreed. I couldn’t help but think he blamed me for everything that had gone wrong.
• • •
I was logging slight zig-zagging movements of the orb from the control station when we received notice of a return transmission from the Overseer. I phoned X over the intercom and he said he’d be right there after he finished with his lunch. For several minutes, I forgot the orb and wondered what the voices would sound like, and then I tried to think of my mother’s voice but couldn’t. When X arrived, I pulled the tab under the blinking red mail light and the square speaker on the wall began to crackle. The static bursts rose and dropped to form words and I blinked my eyes rapidly as the voice became clearer. X looked at me and smiled and I closed my eyes.
“We, meaning myself and X, await your command...” and then the static turned over upon itself with a faint beeping.
• • •
In an effort to relax, X prepared a splendid dinner of dethawed cuboidal tuna. We ate on top of a large flat sea stone overlooking the side of the island opposite of the orb. I felt like we had never seen it, even though we could still hear it buzz. I asked X if he still believed the nonsense about the sea and death and rebirth from our previous conversation.
He sighed and said, “One does not forget a belief which clings to their inner being.”
I told him it was alright, there was no reason we couldn’t go on together believing different things.
We looked out to the horizon where the sun appeared as the rolling eye of a fish peeking out of the still water, and then X began to hum a tune. I cried at the sound of the music, even with his gravelly and off-key voice, and soon I sang as well and the orb joined in with a beautiful one-note harmony.
• • •
I found a zoophytic organism washed up on the shore, and I considered it to be a gift from the orb. The world didn’t seem so small or large anymore when I felt it breathe in my hands. Only this once did the world seem to be the right size. X refused to allow me to bring the organism into our barracks. He said an unknown foreign substance in our quarters, even one seemingly so banal, would have been beyond reckless.
As a silent protest, I stayed awake on the beach with the organism and held Him (gender discovered via extensive anatomical examination) in the palm of my hands while we looked into the throbbing orb. In that moment, there on the beach, within a sort of middle ground in the center of the Venn diagram of our habitations – the sponge’s being the all-connected biosystem of the sea, as X would lovingly put it, and mine being the concrete hexahedron looming over us – I felt an odd spiritual connection with the sponge-like tube. We floated together in an autonomous and proto-plasmid haven, with no ability to envision beyond the here and now, wistful for our respective familiarities, no desire to sever our cosmic tie. I only put Him down when I noticed some slight scorching on His skin from the shine of the orb.
When I returned later on, the sponge was gone and X claimed he knew nothing of His whereabouts. In fact, X pretended like he had never seen Him at all.
Maybe He returned to His rightful place, I thought. Although, I didn’t even know if there was such a thing.
• • •
X became increasingly distracted from his duties and refused to shave his beard. A severe breach of protocol, though I didn’t think I could report him if I wanted to.
My best guess was that our transmissions were blocked by a gargantuan magnetic wall that was built after our arrival on the Cold Rock. X’s theory was that everyone off the Cold Rock had ceased to exist, we were working for no one. Another transgression against protocols, but there was no point. Was it possible for us both to be descending into nihilism?
• • •
The orb grew closer, but the humming died down. We didn’t look at it as much anymore. Both of our beards had grown long. My blond hair was well past protocol-length and I decided I would voluntarily report myself if we ever heard back from the Overseer.
• • •
“What’s happening back there, what’s your best guess?” I asked X while we laid in our bunks in the middle of the night.
He turned to me and shrugged his shoulders, a shameful answer to my question.
“Are we missing much?”
“Everyone is always missing things all the time,” he said.
“But what about us,” I asked again, “what are we missing?”
“V, you have to realize everything happens in the same moment,” said X. “Absolutely everything. We don’t miss a damned thing. We’re the aftermath, no, the shrapnel of some explosion in the air and everything happened at once and then we begin to float down through the air with all of the other bits and pieces and we do it at the same time and it all looks the same. We’re at the peak of the parabola, V. It’s just a matter of how long it takes us to come down.”
• • •
X woke me up to tell me the orb spoke to him. He said he couldn’t sleep and went for a walk on the beach when the orb disappeared for an instant and then suddenly reappeared, oscillating directly above him, bathing him in its voice. He pretended to cower under the light like a wet newborn child, and I asked him what the orb said. He said he didn’t know. I asked him again, this time to describe the words he heard or spell them out on our small chalkboard. He said there were no words, only feelings. He said the light overtook him and he felt like he was back home.
“What is home?” I asked.
He said he didn’t know, he couldn’t remember.
Of course he couldn’t remember, I thought. All we remembered was the Cold Rock.
I couldn’t sleep after X woke me up and I could only think about the orb loving him enough to speak to him. I decided not to let the orb out of my sight. All I could do was sit on the beach with my binoculars. My arms ached and my head burned as I felt the orb’s energy, but I wouldn’t leave until it overwhelmed me. I noticed different tones layered in the humming. A high stringy metal sound with a low-pitched beep and a soft and muffled thumping with a chattering of teeth. When X joined me on the beach, he said he believed each sound represented a different being, with the orb standing in for God.
“What is God?” I asked.
He said he didn’t know, but the word had meaning, didn’t it?
I agreed and then we started to call everything God. Let’s go eat some God, time to wet ourselves under the God, I stubbed my toe on that damned pointy God, I need to record this phenomenon in my Godbook. Look at that God in the sky.
• • •
X and I were on another round, working in our logbooks while the orb swirled overhead, when I stuck a toothpick into my mouth and pricked my tongue, and the simple tick of the pain felt like the turning of a key in my head and I remembered myself as a young man in a dark building and then I pleaded with myself to not go up the stairs. I opened my eyes and saw a pyramid of small holes in my arm from the toothpick. As I opened our First Aid kit and rooted around the box for a bandage, I raised my arm and told X to take a look. I saw him glance at my arm and then turn away quickly.
• • •
I asked X why we were chosen to serve our government. He snorted and made a crass joke about servicing the government until they came for us. I asked how long we had been in service and he said at least ten years and I had no idea what he meant. I asked him how long the orb would be with us and he said forever.
“Why?” I asked.
He said because that’s how it was supposed to be.
• • •
“Three-hundred and seventy-eighth transmission to the Overseer. V speaking. Are you there, sirs? My bunkmate, bless his soul, has indefinitely withdrawn to our sleeping quarters. The ominous shadow of the orb follows us everywhere. Need guidance. Super weapon from an enemy? Plans to Alpha Mike Foxtrot this round piece of shit. No other options. Respond with negative if necessary. Godbye.”
• • •
We laid in our bunks watching the bloody orblight dance on the gray ceiling and I said, “X, why are we here?”
He said we were here to be humanity’s sentries.
“Then what are we looking for?” I asked.
“We are here to protect, monitor, log, study, watch, walk, feed, fuck, and sleep,” he said.
I sat up in my bed and asked him to stop the existential bullshit.
He told me to go to sleep and we laid in silence for a few minutes.
I could hear him rolling over in bed and emitting some sort of animalistic sound, like a yelp mixed in with moaning and humming. He stopped moving and turned to look at me and I saw a thin drop of blood bubble up from his lip.
“V,” he said, “V, we’re here for the orb.”
I jumped out of bed and called him a lunatic. He started to laugh and said I didn’t know what that meant.
“What happens when it’s gone, X?” I said with a smile. “What’ll we be here for then?”
He was on top of me before I could move. “What does that mean?” he shouted.
“It’s okay, X,” I said. “It’ll all be over in the morning and we can go back to just you and me. I’m going to torpedo that thing to smithereens.”
In between his punches I could see the orb peeking in at us through the barred windows. When he got his fill, he stood up and went to the window to return the orb’s stare. His shirt had bunched at the top and he pulled it down to cover the hundreds of tiny pinprick holes covering his skin.
“We’ll lose all of our hope when you shoot those guns,” he said. “If it doesn’t die, then we’re truly at its mercy. If it does die, then we have nothing to live for. At least now I can hope in a million different possibilities.”
He was right, I realized. Anything in the world was possible at that moment. I went back to bed and watched him stare out at the orb with an intense longing.
• • •
When we woke up, we couldn’t find the orb.
• • •
We shaved our heads according to protocol and sent new updates to the Overseer. We lathered concrete over our walls and steps. We planted and re-planted. I swam in the sea and X watched the sky from the beach.
• • •
Maybe the world was in a good place if no one felt the need to respond. They must not have believed anyone was in real danger from the things we saw. And, if the world was disintegrating into nothingness, or the world had already sifted into a pile of sand, then we respected their decision to allow us to live in ignorance.
• • •
I still could remember the nature of silence from when the orb was in our sky. In the absence of any sounds, the orb remained. I was reminded of its presence by the impossibility of silence. After it disappeared, true silence felt too empty.
• • •
“X, what did it mean?” I asked, as we drew circles with red crayons on our bunk walls.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Something.”
“What if it meant nothing?”
He put his crayon down. “Existence breeds meaning.”
“Well, it doesn’t exist anymore,” I said.
X sighed and then looked at our crude sketches and smiled.
“What happens when we reach the end of the parabola?” I asked.
“The beautiful thing about the parabola is that its arms are infinite,” X said.
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