Science Fiction Magazine

Short stories reminiscent of the golden age.

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Issue #1 - April, 2014 

Cover image courtesy of Natalie Holmes

Cover image courtesy of Natalie Holmes

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"The Dreamcatcher", by M. Justine Gerard
"The Last Repairman", by David Austin
"Shale", by David Jack Sorensen
"The Crystal Forest", by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
"That World Up There", by Kurt Bachard
"Shock", by Samuel Marzioli
"The Dead Channel", by David Galef
"Lighthouse to the Depths", by Nicholas Mazmanian

Just to give you a taste...

The Dead Channel

by David Galef


     After another half hour of gray fuzz, I tell Billy to turn off the astral screen. The picture started out recognizable, but after a while, you could hardly see Joy’s face. “But I miss Mommy,” he complains. He no longer cries at night, but he still sleeps with her picture under his pillow: Joy at Cameo Lake in a sunny mood.
     “I do, too.” I glance again at the projection, where a pair of disembodied lips are mouthing sweet nothings. “But I’m not sure this is helping much.”
     As I click off the screen, the lips part and come together as if pronouncing, “Goodbye.” Or maybe they’re saying, “Goon pie.” Then the box fades to a blackness deep as in the tomb where Joy’s body is buried.
     Over a warmed-up dinner of last night’s pizza from Dante’s, Billy asks me the usual round of questions: Where has Mommy gone? Does she still love him? What’s she trying to tell him through the TV? The answers to these are always “Don’t know,” “Of course,” and “Not sure.”
     Billy leaves his crusts on the plate in the shape of a bent triangle. “But that is Mommy, right?”
     “Right. Or at least, some part of her.” I reach over to eat what remains—leftovers of leftovers. We’ve been living this way for too long now. For a while, Joy was the cook in the family. Without her, Billy and I are adrift: dishes in the sink, bills unpaid, and is that another pizza box under the couch? I hired a woman named Ms. Kincaid to come watch Billy when I wasn’t around, but she started taking things, and I didn’t have the energy to hire someone else, so we eat a lot of take-out food and watch too much TV, though mainly the ghost of Joy on the astral screen. For some reason, the reception doesn’t work well on a computer.
     After dinner, I let Billy watch a bit more of what someone early on dubbed the dead channel. This time, we can see Joy gesturing to something by her side—a wheel, a tray? It looks vaguely circular and sort of hollowed out. “Maybe it’s the steering wheel from the car.” Billy is watching sideways from the armchair, which he claims gave him a better view.
     “Hmm. Maybe.” The steering wheel was left intact in the car crash. But the seat belt wasn’t buckled, and Joy smashed right through the windshield. I never let Billy see Joy’s body, which was horribly twisted, both arms and neck broken.
     So why doesn’t the astral screen show Joy that way? On the TV set, she’s whole again, if rather shadowy—maybe a little bent over. Billy is watching now, and gradually his features smooth into calmness, like a wrinkled sheet of paper when you flatten it out. He acts as if she’s speaking directly to him. After the funeral, I bought the basic astral set-up, figuring it would help Billy adjust. As for myself, I began to drink, cheap scotch, mostly.
     I settle back on the couch with a full glass of Dewar’s and toast the TV in mock salute. The astral screens were a marketing gimmick, developed in the wake of a genuine scientific discovery. An acoustical physicist named Holland, looking for new broadcasting frequencies, found a band that was oddly static-filled, on a wavelength so tiny, it made X-rays look like fat caterpillars. At first he thought it showed evidence of life on other planets, but the day his mobile tracking unit passed a graveyard, he freaked out.
     Joy is smiling at Billy, wide as a lake. He smiles back.
     It was clear that the dead left some sort of trail after their demise. The question was what that trail was. At times it seemed to be audible, at other times in the visible spectrum, and clearly linked to decaying biological auras, often a blurred image that looked like the departed one. Footage of those early tests, replayed sometimes at the astral screen sales centers, still gives me the creeps. Then a bio-engineer named Briggs did something with a mass spectrometer to make each signal DNA-specific. And Dead TV was born. That was two years before Joy left us. I remember how we’d lie in bed after Billy was asleep, talking about what a strange world this was becoming. “I don’t know,” she would say in the dark, staring at the slanted shadows on the far wall made by the streetlight. “It’s just too weird.”
     “Hmm.” I gave her the attention of a husband who’d heard this too many times.
     And now she’s gone and we have dead TV. It’s no trade-off.
     Whatever it is, whatever the images mean, they gave hope to people and made a lot of money for the Holland-Briggs Corporation. With satellite and communications tower transmission, you can receive the signals almost anywhere. The company never even bothered with an IPO, it was so profitable. Everyone from the AAAS to the FCC tried to either dispute the claims or get a piece of the action, but got nowhere. Several major lawsuits are still pending. The basic unit includes a data tuner and requires a sample from the deceased, even if it’s just a stray hair from a pillow. Soon after, you start seeing or hearing something horribly, seductively recognizable. The latest HB-7 model has an advanced digitizer for a better image.
     I look over at Billy, entranced by a vague mass that’s leaning toward him and caressing the air. For a moment, I feel jealous. I want to untousle his uncombed hair, to comfort my poor, motherless son. I also feel like yanking him away from this idiot-box. Instead, I pat him on the shoulder. “We’d better get to work,” I finally remind him, and he nods reluctantly. Tomorrow he has a math test, and I have to prepare for a history exam—one that I’m giving, not taking. Billy attends Rutherford Elementary School, and I teach at the Sanford G. Black High School, just down the road, which is convenient for when I need to pick him up. Like last week, when his after-school coin club meeting was canceled, and by the time I came by, he’d been standing on the sidewalk for an hour, just staring at the sky, it looked like.
     “Hey, have you been waiting long?”
     “No. Yes.” His face reshaped itself into petulance. “No coin club today, so they told us to go with the stamp club, but I didn’t want to.”
     I had the feeling that he’d have stayed on the sidewalk till tomorrow if I hadn’t come. Back home, while Billy’s working on long-division, not touching a calculator, I write out questions for my American History class. What was Federalism? Write a paragraph on the causes leading up to the Civil War. Who were the Robber Barons? Why can’t people ever remember the past, so they don’t have to repeat it? Maybe because the past is exactly what people want more of.
     I look over to see Billy looking longingly at the turned-off TV, his pencil poised above a half-worked long-division problem that’s turned into a jumbled pyramid of numbers. I sigh and reach for the phone. Chinese take-out from Lo Fat tonight.
     The next day, I wake up at seven to make Billy’s lunch: a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a hunk of milk chocolate I’ve clumsily cut into the shape of a nose. I always include one silly food treat, like a jujube ladybug or some purple potato chips, as well as a note, this time tucked into the foil-wrapped chocolate. The one today reads, “Please don’t eat me! I promise I’ll be good.”
     Billy’s pretty advanced for an eight-year-old and already knows more history than most of the students in my Am. Hist. class. Some of them, especially a contingent near the rear of the classroom, don’t seem to understand what economic hardship really means. I collect the tests and shove them into my satchel for a long grading session tonight.
     Walking down the hall (why are all school halls the same?), I say hello to Moira Doran, the tenth-grade chemistry teacher. She always wears a long skirt and has limbs as delicate as a moth’s, with a head that seems too heavy for her frame. But she has a lovely smile, the kind that draws you in even if the mouth is remarking about something as innocent as the time. I keep meaning to ask her to join me for coffee or something; I keep forgetting until after school’s over for the day. I’ve been forgetting for seven months. A few of the other faculty have taken pity on me—dinner invitations from the Goskins; two over-obvious pair-ups by my department chair—but I don’t want their pity or their offers, no matter how well-intended. I want Joy.
     On the way home, I ask Billy what he’s learned today in school, a question he hates. He gives me an evil look. “Long-division sucks.”
     “Hmm. Know what I learned today?” I quicken the pace as we walk past Dante’s Pizzeria.
     “No, and I don’t care.”
     So it’s going to be one of those evenings. I decide to cook dinner for a change. You want to know what I learned today? I ask my invisible confidante, sometimes Joy, sometimes no one attached to no face. Or a composite student from my afternoon class. Never ask a bunch of high school juniors to explain anything before 2000. I had the same disappointing results last year, come to think of it, and if I’d recalled that failure, I would have made up a better test. Those who cannot remember the past, et cetera.
     Back home, Billy reaches for a bag of pretzels, but I tell him to stay hungry because I’m cooking tonight. He brightens at this news but scowls when I say he’s got to finish his homework first. I’ve tried to interest him in numbers, but without much success. I’ve had more luck with science, especially if I can link it to something practical. On Friday, I decide to explain the television, which at least is a device he cares about.
     “Do you know how we get the picture?”
     He shrugs. “The box receives a signal, right?”
    “That doesn’t really explain it.” I clap him on the back, father-son style. “Let’s take a trip to the library.” He’s still at age where he likes almost anything we do together, so it’s not hard to convince him. On the way, we talk about early cathode ray tubes, which I almost understand. I’m a history teacher, not a physics professor.
     “But how does the signal get from the studio to our TV?” I say something about waves, ending elegantly with the last point I learned in college physics, which is that particles have properties of waves and vice versa. But that’s where my knowledge stops. Nearly all televisions use cable these days, but the dead channel has to come in on what looks like a saddle-shaped satellite dish.
     The public library in our town is a grand old building erected during the Depression: a gray stone structure with pediments like brooding eyebrows over the façade. Not many people come here to read anymore—books, I mean—but they see it as a chance to leave the house. Anyway, the computers work fine, and for us it’s an outing. On Wiki-tech, we find a history of radio waves: James Maxwell in 1864 discovering electromagnetism that travels through space, Heinrich Hertz a generation later generating radio waves, and the first applications by the 1890’s. I try to stress the momentous sense of history. “Think of what it must have been like to hear an orchestra in your living room.”
     Billy giggles. “How’d they all fit in there?”
     We move on to the modern miracle of television, with the projection effect on the screen, the illusion of a unified image. Then cable transmission, satellite hook-ups, digital receivers, plasma screens—a bit above Billy’s level, but a few science-for-kids sites offer luscious diagrams. The few explanations of the dead channel I can follow up to a point, but I’ve never gotten exactly what generates the auras in the first place, or how the traces form images. A few early scoffers called the dead channel an electronic Ouija board.
     Back at home, we have a quiet evening meal of spaghetti and soggy cucumber salad, followed by a game of Crazy Eights, which I play deliberately badly. After that, he looks up questioningly, and I nod wearily. Thirty minutes—maximum—of the dead channel. I try not to look, but it’s hard when your late wife is on the screen, even if the haze rarely resolves into much that’s meaningful. Admittedly, at times Joy was a little hazy herself, but that was only when she got into a mood.
     When I was young, I want to tell Billy like a bothersome uncle, we didn’t have the astral screen, and when someone died, all we had were graveyard visits every year. The reaction of major religions to the dead channel has been curious. Most have embraced it as proof of an afterlife, though they’re wary of the specifics. “An instrument of the devil!” a bishop denounced the device last year, but that’s probably happened to every major invention since the wheel.
     We don’t attend any church, but on the way to the Waffle Hut on Sunday, we drive by Fairline Cemetery, and Billy wants to visit Joy there.
     His request is down to a tight formula: “Kwee please?”
     “Um, okay.” I try to explain, as always, that she’s not really there anymore, an easier point to make before the marketing of the dead channel. Fifty feet from the entrance to Fairline is an electronic billboard for Dead TV, tastefully framed by two overarching trees. The scene is of a young-looking older woman, blowing a kiss to us. The tag line stands out in blue boldface: “Gone but not forgotten.” The one last year read, “Passed on but not passed over.” It makes me think of an author that Joy liked, a man who wrote, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
     We drive past the booth at the gate, taking a ticket. It’s crowded today, and the nearest place we can find to park is at the other side of the greensward. Visits to grave sites have become a lot more common since the dead channel made its appearance. The reception always seems better, or maybe it’s just the ambience. Some families bring a picnic and a portable astral screen TV and spend all day. Of course, if you can’t produce a piece of DNA from the deceased, you can’t tune in, which leaves out communicating with long-dead great-grandparents, but there’s always enough recent death to call up someone on the channel. The signal is also supposed to fade over time, so you can’t tune in to Paul Revere, even if you know where he’s buried and can find a hair from his tri-corner hat. I wonder how many years of Joy we have left.
     She’s resting, if that’s the word, in 561C, a 7' x 3' plot marked by a plain stone slab. Joy Hargreave, 1980 — 2020. No silly motto like “Flight of angels sing thee to thy rest” or even “Beloved wife and mother.” We know what she was to us, and I just hope she knows—or knew. In what kind of state do the dead exist? No one, not even Holland and Briggs, has come up with the answer to that one. Billy and I stand awkwardly by the side of the plot, not wanting to step on her.
     “She knows we’re here, right?” Billy won’t look directly at the headstone, so his gaze settles on a nearby willow tree.
     “Maybe.” I was told by my father, whose father told him, not to lie to children. Despite attempts to adorn the plots—a bouquet of nasturtiums for Aunt Dot, Dad’s whiskey bottle—the place feels barren. Joyless. I can’t imagine that anything’s living under the ground besides worms.
     “Mom wants to tell me something on the TV.”
     “How do you know?”
     “She keeps moving her lips.”
     “Okay.” I nod wearily. “We’ll wait for a sign.”
     Ten feet away, the willow branches toss about like a mane of hair, in a breeze that wasn’t around a moment ago. All the way back home, I try to persuade Billy that sometimes a wind is just a current of air.
     Chicken and green beans that night. TV dinners with no TV the next, followed by a game of Monopoly. Dead channel-watching is down to half an hour a night again, with me occasionally watching alongside Billy. The image onscreen is like a gathering nebula, or an amoeba with pseudopods that extend unexpectedly into a face and limbs. Static like an impossibly fuzzy soundtrack accompanies the picture: “Zzz. . . ffftt . . . stppss . . . .” Occasionally we hear vowels: “gho . . . fah . . . .” Late at night, I lie in my half of the bed and stare at the mercifully blank ceiling, but my ears echo. The footsteps. Go far.


     Next week, Moira glides over to me in the hallway. “Charles, you’re never going to ask me for a cup of coffee, are you?” She sighs, and when she shakes her head, it’s as if her hair is sighing, too. Then she brightens up. “All right, I’ll ask you.” Which leads to a sort of date at Java Joe’s that afternoon, with Billy ten feet away at the counter, seriously involved with a cup of cocoa, topped by twin marshmallows. I’m all coffee, black and bitter, but Moira’s a cream-and-sugar type. “Look,” she says, “I know it can’t be easy, being a single parent.”
     I’m not in a tractable mood. “Really? You know what it’s like?”
     “My father was one.” She lays a hand on the table, an inch away from mine. A quick smile. “For one thing, Billy’s clothes never match.”
     I look over at Billy, who’s dressed today in brown pants and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The pants show his ankles, and I can’t recall the last time we went clothes-shopping. “All right, you got me.” I take a long draw on my coffee. “But it’s not as if we’re charity cases.”
     “That’s not what I meant at all. It’s just—.” She pauses, as if wondering what not to say next. “Did Joy take care of all that?”
     I have to consider my reply. Frankly, I haven’t thought about Joy that way for a long time. I think of her coming home from work and going right out again for a walk, not so much for exercise as to escape from something. Not us, just—circumstances. “No,” I finally say. “She wasn’t always available, if you know what I mean.”
     Moira bites her lip. “Was she on medication?”
     “No, God, no, she hated medicine. Therapy, too.” I repress a mental picture of her coming back from the one psychologist she ever went to, telling me, Biggest waste of time I ever spent. “Anyway, she wasn’t crazy. Just distracted sometimes.”
     “I can be that way, too. But—”
     I lay my hand on hers, but more to quiet than encourage her. “I know what you’re getting at, but look.” I point to Billy, who’s mostly finished his cocoa and is playing a fishing game with his last marshmallow. “Joy was his mother. And my wife. We loved her.”
     Moira blinks as if someone just snapped his fingers under her nose. “Okay.” Her hand slides out from under mine as she gets up to leave. “But if you ever want to talk, just give me a call.”
     I watch her leave the café, and Billy waves goodbye. “She seems like a nice lady,” he tells me on the way home.
     “She is.” I look around self-consciously. Can the dead hear us? Do they care? That night, after a meal that’s not worth eating, I let him watch the dead channel for over an hour. Unconsciously, Billy has moved closer and closer to the screen until he’s only inches away. The wavy arms beckon. He’d be inside that box if he could figure out how.
     Picking up Billy next afternoon, I find him sobbing. As a brown school bus shoulders by, he slowly walks over to me, his head down. I can’t get any story out of him at first, but eventually he spills it. “It was—was Ricky. He—he—”
     “He what?” I put my arms around him like a force-field.
     “He said Mom’s not really talking to us. It’s just—just decay.”
     “What does Ricky know?”
     “His dad’s a physicist. That’s what he told Ricky.”
     “Now, look. . . .” But I can’t calm him the way Joy could, with just a hand on his brow. Instead, we stumble home, and I know this is just going to get worse. Soon Billy’s seated in front of the couch, worshiping the screen. When I say something, he waves me away as if I’m interrupting his life. I let him watch all he wants that night, but the same thing happens the next evening and the next, until it’s been three weeks. Billy sloped in an attitude of longing: What does it mean to want something you know you’re never going to get?
     He stops trying at school, and I get a note about missed homework—and Billy’s always done well at school. I have a brief, unsatisfying phone conversation with his teacher, Miss Loeb, who asks guarded questions about Billy’s emotional outlook. “What’s the point?” asks Billy, and watches some more. I shut off the set, provoking a fit. You don’t love Mommy! Oh, but I do, I did, I always will. Always. Billy won’t get out of bed the next morning.
     Like Joy, I don’t believe much in therapy, but in desperation, I take him to see a woman, Cindy Brunner, recommended by Moira. When Billy emerges, it turns out that all she asked him about was whether his mother or father ever gave him enough affection. He tells me about it later in a puzzled voice, as if he doesn’t really get it.
     I pick up the phone and call Moira, arrange for a threesome date next Saturday. Billy perks up a bit when he hears this. We go to a ball game, the Red Socks versus the Yankees, which bores all three of us silly. But Moira woos him with a box of Cracker Jacks, and he smiles a bit. I look heavenward: no evidence of Joy’s resentment; no whispers at dusk.
     That evening, the screen images grow more complicated: facial features growing more distinct, the voice straining almost into clarity. I watch Billy watching, trying to feel what he feels.
     And then Joy speaks. That shadowy mouth opens, wide as it was in life, and rasps something about the accident. “Ssu . . . sigh.” The volume jumps, hazy as the sound is, and the word suicide slithers out the speakers like a snake.
     It’s too late to cover Billy’s ears, but in fact he doesn’t seem to notice. He stares straight ahead at the screen, hamburger halfway to his mouth, adoring the projection. Is it my imagination, or does Joy scowl all of a sudden? I recall all the days when Joy wasn’t joyful, when she began to mutter and act distraught. She’d forgotten to go to work that morning, and the last haircut she gave Billy was a jagged mess. Like a willow tree with bad bangs. I blame myself: I should have spotted the symptoms earlier, or rather, since they were perfectly obvious, I should have taken them more seriously.
     Of course, I told Billy it was an accident.
     I look up, breaking from my sour reverie to see Joy pursing her lips to blow a kiss at Billy. But what is she saying to me? The word regret hovers in the air—maybe.
I don’t know whether I believe in astral projections, and Holland-Briggs certainly doesn’t need any more of my money, but something’s out there, I swear. There must be. I have to investigate further. I should go out and buy an HB-8 model with a one-year option for the next upgrade. Or else take an axe to the astral screen I’ve got and make sure Billy never sees one again until he’s old enough to sort all this out.
     Tomorrow I’ll do one or the other. But I have to wonder why this world didn’t fit Joy. Was there no other option? After saying goodnight to Billy, I went back to the screen and crept up close, staying long into the night and early morning. Joy tells me “I love you” or “above you,” her features like a mask made of dust. I’ve never noticed the background before, but it looks like an empty room. Is it lonely there? Is it as solitary or confused as this world? I may never know, but right now I’m watching and waiting and listening, trying to piece out the shadows and sounds from behind this magic curtain.


David Galef is a professor of English and the Creative Writing Program Director at Montclair State University. He has published fiction in Fantasy and Science Fiction, Amazing, and many other places, and, in what seems like a previous life, was an assistant editor at Galaxy magazine. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman.



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