Graphic Design Senior at RISD + Creative Writer living in Harlem, NYC. My work focuses mainly on the conceptual and image-making side of graphic design, aiming to produce unique, meaningful intersections of visual design and semiotic storytelling.

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1 – The Worldmonger’s World

A Worldmonger contemplates the value of her affection for her homeworld after she is made an offer she can't refuse.

           “Congratulations on your promotion, Ms. Dobrick."

I try to heed the words as I nod with a practiced smile, though my mind is elsewhere. It's back on Tephra, my homeworld, admiring the beautiful plains of saffron-stained sulfur that give rise to staunch smoky vapors from the crevices in the earth. The uneven mossy loam is green and the pale overcast sky is blue– my parents’ farm sits undisturbed beside the geothermal basins that every now and then explode skyward into frothy geysers of life-sustaining water and crystalline sulfur that they and so many millions of others depend on to make a living. Every time I appraise a new world, I think about all the ways that they're similar so I can come to appreciate them on my own terms. Through my words, I bring those vivid mental canvases to life– it's why I've managed to successfully trade fifteen planets in a row, a company record for the Systern Business Conglomerate.  

Now as a Senior Worldmonger, my career is in a place I’ve grown to be increasingly less comfortable with. I know that I shouldn't have to rely on a crutch in order to get ahead, it's a source of weakness that can easily be taken away or exploited. And it's led me to sometimes wonder about all the people that live on the planets I give approval to be sold off, and what it all means to them. My perspective, my affection is not unique, I know that– yet, I still feel as though it is. Every time a client expresses interest in Tephra, I point them someplace else, be it towards the lush canopy-world of Basilis or the red anthocyanin fields of Pontifex A in the vain hope that I shouldn't have to lose the place that I personally hold most dear. Every time I'm engrossed by its emerald auroral horizon I'm filled with unease because I know that one day, I'll have to make the decision between it and my own future, just like I’ve done for so many others.

Today I'm scheduled for a return visit to Tephra to see my sister and parents. I typically try to make a return visit after each sale to refresh my memory, even if I don't end up seeing my family. But this time, something felt different; I could tell as soon as I stepped out of the arrivals bay on the orbital terminal stationed above the planet and locked eyes with the CEO of the Vaum Corpus himself, Edde Vaum, who held his hands behind his back by the observation deck overlooking the horizon.

"Hello there. Amara Dobrick, Systern Business Conglomerate?" He prompts as I approach him with my remote-case trailing not too far behind. I give him a surprised yet skeptical look, unsure what to expect; flanking him are two of what I can only assume are overdressed members of his security detail. "Edde Vaum, Vaum Corpus."

I shake his large, outstretched hand. "Pleasure. Visiting Tephra, are you?" He smiles with controlled precision in response. It was unusual for a CEO of such caliber, much less a member of the Fortune Fifty Trillionaires to so nonchalantly make a stop at such a small planet barely off the galactic grid. His scraggly beard and tired, narrow eyes didn't seem to denote much prior preparation either.

"Actually, visiting your employer. I was told you were the closest available Worldmonger at the moment." I feel my mouth begin to dry up, though I carefully maintain my professionalism.

"That's me. Senior Worldmonger now, actually," I state somewhat proudly. He raises an eyebrow.

"Ah. Apologies. Congratulations on the promotion." He takes a moment before moving on. "As you might've guessed, I'm here to discuss business." I gesture towards the seating area, making sure my remote-case is in reach before settling in after my potential client.

"I see. So what sparked your interest in our world? I can't imagine it was tourism, considering the relative remoteness of our system." My dry attempt at humor is met with a chuckle of deliberation.

"Ha, no. Although I have heard there are quite some astonishing views here." He clears his throat. "We're actually more interested in the Tritium deposits ingrained in the planet's crust. The Vaum Corpus is hoping to expand its mining operations into the nearby realm in order to bolster growing demand for development of universal fusion technologies." I hadn't considered the potential value of those deposits beforehand, but the way he put it made it seem like an oversight.

"I see. What are your intentions with our world then exactly, should you trade for it?"

"We'd like to convert it into a dedicated ground-mining enterprise. Strip the surface for mineral export," he says without missing a beat. "We're willing to offer 2 trillion."

For a moment, I'm so taken aback that I don't know what to say. The answer would be obvious to any other Worldmonger– the price-to-size ratio was far too good to be true prior to any sort of negotiation. The words 'we have a deal' should've come to me immediately. Yet, I take a moment to hesitate.

"Let me speak with my administrators. We'll need to sort out paperwork and legal mandates with our Board of World Representatives first," I quickly fumble through. Mr. Vaum again smiles lightly, though his experience doesn't seem to lend to being entirely convinced. Typically a deal could be struck without much prior filing, I was simply making excuses.

"Of course. Give me a call when you're ready to go over your terms, then."

The next day I arrive at Tephra Sky Shelter 4, part of a collective of unpaid median-class refuges in low orbit for the financially insecure. It’s the place where my older sister Mio has been living for the past couple of years. She never asks anything from me, in fact she hates pity above most other things; it's why we've managed to maintain a friendly relationship, even with our different educations and paths in life. With recent events, I found myself looking for her guidance more than ever, struggling with the burden of this incalculable weight on my shoulders.

The shelter doesn't offer much in terms of luxuries: Living compartments are squeezed together floor-by-floor along the scuffed interior hull with narrow grated walkways connecting them across and adjacently, each with a single, pill-shaped oblong plaston-glass window beside the pressurized hatchway to each cabin. The overhead lighting is dim, intermittently-functioning fluorescent light-strips bolted flush against the fraying and piped ceiling diminishing visibility even during daytime hours. The rows upon rows of stacked steel hatches and mostly illuminated windows seemed to stretch endlessly down the vertically spacious, yet claustrophobic corridors of the orbital refuge. I estimate that there's probably about 100,000 people compressed into this hollow container more fit for vehicular cargo than permanent residents. Mio was occupant 11-582-3Y, a convoluted string denoting her room allocation in corridor Y on the third floor; at this point I've gotten mostly used to navigating the gridlike labyrinthine layout of the shelter, as daunting as it initially seemed, thanks to her room hugging the far starboard side of the satellite which offered a fairly consistent planetary view of Tephra's crescent. I just wanted to get there as quick as possible– the shifty eyes, musty draft and cool stench of fuel weren't exactly doing my anxiety any favors.

I step out of the elevator with a flickering overhead light and hastily make my way down the dark slender catwalk, being careful not to lose my footing on the grating. I pause in front of hatch 11-582, taking in a breath of stale air in deliberation of my next few words. I finally raise a fist to knock against the scratched hollow steel and hear a voice from inside not long after telling me to let myself in. Typical Mio, too torpid to even meet me at the door.

"Hey sis," Mio calls from the other room, "I'll be out in a second."

"What're you doing?" As I step in I briefly sweep my gaze across the cluttered living area, roughly the size of my office, complete with a coffee table, armchair and couch. The slightly open shades let muted green light pour in from Tephra's auroral horizon, washing out all other color in the room. A filmic catalog lays idly on the seat of the unoccupied armchair in the far corner, illuminating animated holographic snippets from the latest trends in fashion.

"Just splitting some pills." I hear a loud thunk after her remark, piquing my interest enough to enter the occupied kitchen. White noise from the overhead circulation vent drowns out any possibility of a soft-spoken conversation.

"Pills? What pills?" I make a lousy attempt at masking my concern as I meet Mio by the kitchen doorway, immediately alarmed by her appearance; her face carries hollower cheeks with a more pronounced jaw, her body and dark olive skin seeming to poorly fill in the folds of her clothes as she carefully steadies a combat knife against the grain-sized pellet. I manage to hold back a gasp. "Oh, god. Mio, what happened?"

She smiles brightly, with more wrinkles than I remember. "Rehab is what happened. I'm three months sober. Aren't you proud of me?" She brings the service knife down again with another loud thunk, more than enough force to split the capsule on the plaston cutting board. "These help with the withdrawal. Don't worry, they're prescribed."

My memory lapse seems to end after I recall her recent struggle with synthetic Paroxys, or "Flare" addiction. I'd been too absorbed by my own work to be involved much in my family's affairs. "I... I'm happy for you. It's good you're making a change, I'm sorry I didn't know." Mio produces another wry smile, brushing away a loose tuft of unbrushed hair. I've always envied her ability to seem so carefree, even in a situation like this.

"It's okay. I know you have your own problems to worry about." She pauses to swallow the split tablets, chasing them with a glass of water. "I'm guessing that's why you're here, right?"

I nod, suddenly guilty. "Yeah. It's about Tephra, Mio."   

Mio does nothing but sigh, putting one hand on her hip and the other against the countertop after finishing her water. Then she walks past me into the living room, gesturing for me to follow. She takes a seat in the armchair, switching off the filmic catalog, and I join her on the tattered couch beside it in the dim emerald dusk.

"So what's different this time? You can't just turn them someplace else?" She prods.

"It's the Vaum Corpus." Her expression darkens almost immediately.

"So it’s finally our turn." She takes a moment to pause and lean back with a small sigh. "Well, it was only a matter of time I guess. Could only hold them off for so long." She spins the knife between her fingertips as I reflect on her stories of her service in the Tephran Defense Front, sent to drive out lingering militant corporate assets in the surrounding realms all those years ago. Though the Vaum Corpus was never among them, it was no secret their interests were aligned all the same. "What do you want me to say, Amara? It doesn't seem like there's much to add."

"I don't know."

"Is that the attitude you have at work, too?" She snaps sarcastically, though I don't humor her. Then another sigh. "Look. At some point, you're going to need to learn how to set aside your own feelings if you want to play a part in the bigger picture. To be totally honest, I'm surprised you haven't already. This is the path you chose, so you need to be able to live with it."

"But this is different. This is our world, Mio. It's where we grew up, where our parents grew up. The place our people calls sacred. You know what Vaum will do once he gets his hands on it." She sends me an irked glare, but I'm looking past her at the drifting auroras between the slats, trying to distract the images of fire and scorched earth.

"And what about all those other worlds you sold off, and all the people who lived on them? You think they don't feel the sting of seeing their birthplace, their sacred land being torn up layer by layer and liquidated for profit?" The answer I expected comes back to bite me, like it deserved to. But how do I battle this hypocrisy when it's founded in something so integral to who I am? "Obviously those bastards don't hold anything back. They don't care how green or abundant the auroras are."

I glance back at her. "So what, I should just let them have it?" Her stern expression turns grim.

"You're the one playing the game. If you don't, someone like you will. Right now the ball's in your court, so you get to decide how it goes down. You shouldn't waste that chance to try and do something." She stops for a moment, then chuckles coldly. "This was already an industry world, anyway. I doubt the people who stay will be much bothered by it turning into another one."

Later that night as I leave Mio’s apartment, I begin to dial Edde Vaum's number on my pad while repeatedly going over my next few words in my head.

He picks up rather quickly, and I jump at the chance. "This is Amara Dobrick. I'm ready to discuss details."

"Ms. Dobrick. Ah, good to hear. When can we meet then?" His tone is enthusiastic; I take a deep breath, briefly feeling scarce.

"Actually, I was wondering if you'd like to join me on an orbital audit of Tephra before you make your decision. I'd like to go over some of the details and things you might see and expect from your investment first. Since Systern Business was founded on and currently operates from here, we know the planet's ins and outs like the back of our hand–"

"Apologies, I don't mean to be rude, but frankly we don't have the time for such a procedure. We like to conduct our business quickly and efficiently. I think a brief session for paperwork and legal counsel is sufficient for the deal we want to make," Vaum cuts in. I steel myself, being careful not to get carried away.

"I don't mean to insist, but don't you want to make sure your potential assets are in order before you make such a large investment? After all, our realm isn't regularly monitored officially due to our remote off-grid presence and sovereign world jurisdiction. Most people have free reign under local law, and that doesn't cover unregulated mining activities which could disrupt any official operations." Vaum is suddenly quiet, making me wonder if I actually managed to convince him.

"Hm. I suppose you raise a valid point." He stops, and for a moment it looks like he might change his mind again. "OK, you've convinced me Ms. Dobrick. I think I'd like to see Tephra's famous views after all. I'll be seeing you tomorrow, then?"

"Sure. Thanks for reconsidering," I add with zest. After hanging up, I'm filled with a kindling hope. Maybe there's a way to save my world after all– maybe it's just a matter of perspective.

Shortly before the Vaum audit, I receive a personal request from the Tephran Board of World Representatives. I'm still on the surface, preparing for my trip into orbit to meet with him, but the message seemed urgent; it was from one of the junior members of the Board, a representative named Boa Lucin. She said she wanted to meet with me privately, and that it was an urgent matter regarding our soon-to-be business with the Vaum Corpus. I wasn't exactly surprised by the fact that they reached out to me prior to the deal taking place, what did was that it was just one member requesting a personal meeting. On top of that, I'd never even heard of Ms. Lucin, even with my decent familiarity of the members of the Board. Maybe that's what piqued my interest enough to accept her invitation to talk.

I meekly enter the Representatives' boardroom, located in the Embassy of Worldly Affairs not far from the launch terminal. The space was uncomfortably large and dark for a supposedly private meeting, clearly set up for the seating accommodation of an indeterminate amount of foreign councilors and corporate attorneys. I'd entered behind the main podium where the Board's seats were placed, the only part of the room that was even slightly illuminated. I momentarily look around for the junior representative before I notice she's already taken a seat at the end of the brushed aluminum round table used by her committee. For a second I hesitate to do the same, but I'm quickly waved over.

"Ms. Dobrick, thanks for meeting me. I'm glad you could make the time with your busy schedule." Though her words are refined, I'm taken aback by how much higher her voice sounded and how much younger she looked than what I'd assumed. Her long puffy, curly hair almost made it difficult to take her seriously for a moment, but based on her traditional garments and distinct olive complexion there was no mistaking that she was a native of Tephra.

"No problem, though I'm not sure I can talk long." I finally take a seat opposite her at the counter, feeling increasingly uncomfortable occupying a spot reserved for members of the Board. "Pardon me for asking, but is this really the best place for what you had in mind?"

She laughs openly at my comment, taking me by surprise. "Sorry. There weren't many other spots I could think of that were more suitable. Also, I don't have single access to most private meeting rooms in the embassy yet." I'm intrigued by her implication.

"Suitable for...?"

"Right. I guess that brings me to my point," she says with a sigh. "I just want you to know that for me, this is off the record. And if you could keep quiet about this too, that would be great. But I'm asking you personally– please don't accept the Vaum Corpus' offer to purchase Tephra."

I pause before opening my mouth to respond, and she continues. "I know that doing so would be a massive financial loss for Systern Business, one that might feel foolish to pass up on. From a business standpoint, there's no benefit for you in declining their offer. But think about it; under the Vaum Corpus there'll be massive, likely irreparable environmental damage leading to widespread extinction of biodiversity and fauna, erasure of countless indigenous cultures, and total transformation of our socioeconomic political systems and traditions. Most current residents of the planet will be forced to leave or seek work under Vaum if they're even qualified. Sulfur export, our lifeblood, will be drowned out or abandoned entirely. We'll just become another statistic, another nameless mining colony under one of their endless manifests until they've drained every last resource, and I know that can't possibly be the will of our people. I could go on, but I think you get the point– this is personal, not just business. You were born and raised here too, weren't you? You should understand."

I nod slowly. "Yes, I was. But let me ask you something first, Ms. Lucin; what reason exactly do you have for jeopardizing the credibility of your young, flourishing career just to make such a rash bid with no guarantee of success?" She seems to lose a bit of confidence following my inquiry. "I can't imagine you told the rest of the Board about our discussion. Speaking of which, you're lucky I’m not reporting you to them right away for having partiality."

She laughs nervously. "True. You're right, I didn't notify the Board. But there's something you should know about me Ms. Dobrick: I don't like giving up when I know I can fight, that's not how I won two mayoral elections in my hometown. If there's a fight to be fought, I'll be there. Right now my fight is on the side of our world, for all its people and wonderful forms of life. And quite frankly Ms. Dobrick, right now you're the one who's threatening to throw it all into balance," she proclaims pointedly. "I'm not afraid to fight for my beliefs. That's why I called you here; to prove that my love for them outweighs my personal responsibilities as a World Representative. If you truly care about Tephra, you'd agree with my decision." Her eyes are bright again with rekindled confidence.

I feel myself growing conflicted by her words. Obviously, deep down I felt that same passion – but the rational side of me knew that kind of naïve expectation didn’t reflect how things worked in the real world. It seemed she was still too young to have experienced it herself; if she were truly unafraid, we wouldn't be having this conversation off-the-record.  

"I sympathize Ms. Lucin, but..." I struggle to find the right words, "this... isn't avoidable. If not now, then surely later. If not me, then someone else. If not this world, then one just like it. It's just the way things are." I break her gaze as she shrinks into her seat, discouraged. It hurt more when I acknowledged the truth to her words, that I was currently fighting against the very thing I loved and appreciated most. "I'm sorry. If it's any reassurance, let me say one thing; the deal isn't over yet. Things can still change, they always can."

I'm shaken from my reflections by Mr. Vaum's prompt to continue my explanation. We're hovering in close orbit above Tephra's northern hemisphere inside a Variable Observation Bubble, or VOB, and I was going over details regarding the planet's atmospheric composition from multiple different angles. For some reason I'd been paused on Mr. Vaum's son, Casek, who he'd requested to bring along on the audit. Just then I'd been reminded of an earlier conversation.

"I'm sorry, where was I?" I ask embarrassingly.

"The numbers regarding gaseous composition in the atmosphere?" Vaum suggests.

Though I'd lost my train of thought, I was sure that wasn't where I was going with my point. It seemed he wanted to get down to the raw data and figures, not receive a lecture.

"Ah... right. Atmospheric composition constitutes a 2:1 ratio of nitrogen to oxygen, somewhat similar to prime Earth and other habitable worlds, with a 65% nitrogen and 32% oxygen volume content. The remaining percentage is comprised of greenhouse gases like methane, carbon dioxide and trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide. This has allowed for complex biodiversity to flourish, even before human colonization and terraformation. Most of it is however limited to marine environments, as many introduced chlorophyll-based organisms on land have yet to adapt to the highly temperate, acidic, and mineral-dense water." As I speak, I draw the frontal membrane of the VOB's superstratum closer with a receding gesture to adjust the focal point and create a lens-like magnification of the coasts on the planet below. The fluid-plaston veneer of the Bubble waves and stretches like the surface of water as it molds to my command. "Temperatures at sea level commonly range from -10 to 15 degrees celsius from night to day, with only one annual season..." I stop for a moment, remarking that I no longer appear to have Mr. Vaum's attention. "...Is there anything else you wanted to know?"

He stands with his arms crossed behind his back near the transparent frontal stratum of the Bubble, overlooking the planet's greenish yellow terrain below. He's quiet for another beat before answering. "Apologies. I was lost in thought. Can you give me the numbers on surface crust composition?"

"Sure, I was just getting to that." I clear my throat and continue. "A large portion of the planet's surface is covered in geothermal springs that produce superabundant amounts of crystalline sulfur, including from other geological sources such as volcanoes and subterranean lakes." I quickly maneuver the VOB to a spot where the sulfur plains and active volcanic sites are clearly visible through the magnified lensing membrane. I then point out the massive caldera visible on the horizon, Cisterna Minor, as an example. "These larger calderas are mostly ancient and now benign, but many of the smaller ones continue to generate volcanic activity. The geologically active mantle also results in frequent earthquakes and large tidal waves, but the volcanoes are the ones that most frequently change surface geography and ecology, as well as causing erratic dips in temperature–"

"I was just asking for the numbers, please."

I pause for a moment, rewording my intent. "Well you see, those specifics are inherent to my overview. If you'd like, I could try to condense all the crucial details, but then there wouldn't be much point to doing an audit like this." Vaum glares at me impatiently, but is cut off before he can reply.

"I'd like to hear the rest Ms. Dobrick, if you don't mind." The voice originates from Vaum's son, Casek, who has spoken up ahead of his father. "I'm interested to learn more about your planet. In fact, I'd also like to visit the surface, if we can spare the time?"

I develop the urge to smirk, but dismiss the thought. "Well, it wasn't part of the plan initially, but it could easily be arranged. How would you feel about that Mr. Vaum?"

"Actually, I think we've learned enough. We don't normally go into such detail when making trade deals, nor do we believe it's entirely necessary, so I think it's fair to end it here." His assertion seems firm.

"I thought you told me you were bringing me along for hands-on experience," Casek suddenly challenges. "I wouldn't say, personally, that watching like a spectator from above has achieved that goal. Would you, sir?" Vaum seems to contemplate his son's words carefully, while I listen with bated breath. It seemed like quite a unique opportunity was beginning to present itself; could it be that the future CEO of the Vaum Corpus was being groomed right before my eyes?

"Hm. Well, I suppose that's a fair argument– it would be meaningless to argue the differences in our interpretation of past words." Vaum then turns to me, reluctantly resigning. "You heard the boy, then. Take us to the surface."

I'm the first one to step out of the VOB and sample Tephra's cool, ample air, as well as all its familiar scents. An overcast sky encourages a chilling gust of wind to tear through the open plains as the others exit the pod, reminding me to fasten up my climate-controlled jacket. Vaum seems immediately put off by his new environment, hastily buttoning up his own felt coat as his expression scrunches up after catching a whiff of the strong, permeating smell of sulfur in the air. Meanwhile Casek appears to be taken in by the experience, his head on a swivel as he studies the volcanic mountain ranges in the distance. It takes them both a moment to adjust to the marginally lower level of gravity as they nearly lose their balance descending the ramp. The rocky, mossy loam crunches and squeaks beneath our feet as we move away from the translucent spherical craft.

"Sorry, but the smell is nauseating. Is there anywhere that has a more pleasant... aroma?" Vaum urges, trying his best to keep a flat expression.

"Well, there are areas where it's less pervasive, yes. But due to the massive amount of geothermal deposits that exist here, it's simply one of the many qualities this world harbors overall." By this point, I and many other second-generation Tephrans whose parents sought refuge after the most recent colonial war and settled here have known the smell all our lives; it was indeed a common source of complaint from foreigners unfamiliar with the environment, citing a similarity to rancid eggs. Vaum doesn't seem pleased by my response.

"The colors are even more beautiful in person. I've never seen such vivid shades of yellow," Casek remarks as he sweeps his ashen hair back. "I can't imagine it's safe to live so close to all the fumes, though." He points towards the plume of hazy vapors produced by the nearest caldera.

"In certain places, the concentration of hydrogen sulfide produced by especially hotter springs can indeed be fatal. In such cases a ventilating mask would be required for farmers." I swiftly pivot away from the grim subject. "On the other hand, the smaller, cooler ones are used as public bathing sites and have been a popular method of balneotherapy for ailments such as chronic arthritis and dermatitis for countless generations. Many cherish them closely, myself included."

"That does sound nice," Casek sighs. "Hot springs in your backyard, huh?"

I continue, "Sulfur export is our lifeblood. Were the planet's environment or ecosystem altered, production of the mineral would decline dramatically. Many locals consider it to be sacred." I look back towards Vaum as I speak, hoping he would interpret my words.

"That won't be an issue. We don't intend to continue those exports, our clients' and therefore our priorities lie with the underground Tritium deposits."

"I see." I quickly move on. "Well, let me at least bring you to the nearest settlement. I'm sure you're interested in seeing how the natives here live."

"Look, I don't think we can spare the–"

"Is that where the rumbling is coming from?" Casek remarks abruptly, now noticing the ring of a distant resonance and subtle matching vibrations in the ground.

"Come on, I'll show you."

After a short few minutes of hiking we arrive at the village of Chalice, one of the many small border towns whose yield feeds the Master Port– the city-jetty where the large majority of raw mineral sulfur export took place. Chalice itself is located on the outer southeastern lip of the second-largest caldera on Tephra, Cisterna Minor. An entire culture has risen under the grueling labor and unpredictable danger of sulfur farming, learning to work together as a single apolitical unit in order to maximize the efficiency of required labor and economic growth. Like most border towns, many who grow up there become farmers or miners later in life, working days and nights tirelessly in order to scrape together the largest, most impressive pile of ore. In the case of sulfur farming, it could be done either via traditional methods of underground mining, or by venturing into calderas and low-lying deposits to suction-filter dense concentrations of the mineral up from the water. The threat there is invisible, but very real; without a properly secured ventilating mask, one could perish in mere seconds from the intake of hydrogen sulfide.

We're immediately greeted by the indigenous olive-skinned locals as we step into the village, all speaking in their native tongue. Vaum and Casek exchange baffled looks as I respond– the vocalisms were incomprehensible to most, understandable considering the multi-generational off-grid nature of Tephra's galactic presence. Not to mention that the known galaxy was already full of worlds which had developed their own unique dialects and variations of pre-existing languages. As we continue wandering through the town I'm reminded of the unique native architecture of Tephran buildings and above-ground conduit structures, which interconnect the entire settlement through a system of intricate lead pipes. Most huts, constructed from feldspar and mortar, integrate sulfuric compounds in their straw rooftops in order to ward off avian pests and parasitic insects, forming a swath of amber-colored canopies across the skyline.

"So what's causing that trembling in the ground? I can feel it getting stronger," Casek comments, absorbed by his surroundings.   

"We're about to reach it now," I reply as we reach the crest of the hill, stepping aside to let them pass first. Ahead of us sweeps a vast, encompassing field of pluming fissures and depressions, combining to form a massive cloud of hazy acidic smoke over the horizon. Beside most of them was a filter-pump to extract the minerals from the superheated water, a time-consuming process considering the damage done to the equipment by the extreme acidity and temperatures. Their collective siphoning and loud mechanical resonance caused noticeably strong tremors in the surrounding area alongside a persistent whining buzz, issues the townspeople were simply forced to put up with.

I rejoin the two at the top of the hill. "This is where the large majority of Chalice's sulfur farming takes place. Some larger calderas require human hands to navigate, but whenever we can we use these filter-pumps to extract the minerals without the added labor and risk. It's common practice across most production towns on the planet, as long as they have access to the supply lines that provide the equipment."

Vaum gives a stifled nod as he listens, while Casek prepares another question. "Are sulfur and sulfide compounds the only valuable elements that are gathered here?"

"Apt question. They come in the most supply and thus the most demand. But we also export other minerals, such as rare-earth elements like Alkaline ore and precious stones." As I say this, I notice the pattering of footsteps behind us. I turn to see a small curious child from the village drawing near, who has separated from his waiting parents at the base of the hill to approach us. Around his nape is a scaled opaline four-foot, a long native reptile species resembling a lizard-snake commonly kept as pets by the locals. When Vaum notices, the child comes closer and presents something in his outstretched hands to him; a large, malformed chunk of raw sulfur that gleams bright yellow in the emerging sunlight.

"Ah..." He looks over to me, seemingly unsure how to react. After a moment's deliberation he hesitantly accepts the gift. "...Thanks." The child then wordlessly spins on his heel to rush back to his parents, eager looks on their faces. We watch as they each take a hand and stroll away, casting a final glance back. Then Vaum turns to me. "What is this?"

"It's tephra– material ejected by a volcanic eruption, our namesake. By the looks of it it's a particularly fine shard of raw sulfur too. A rare find."

"How can you tell it's ejected from a volcano?" Casek inquires, staring at the chunk with wonder.

"By its malformations," I point out the misshapen round edges and pores. "Raw sulfur mined from the ground has a crystalline lattice structure with flat faces and sharp edges." Vaum doesn't seem to know what to do with the gift, still holding it up in his raised palm. "Tephra helps the soil become fertilized for crop growth. But because of the rising geothermal activity in the region, soon the nearby volcanoes will overwhelm the area with pyroclastic material, erasing all fauna and encasing everything else in a layer of frozen magma." I pause to sigh. "Here, it's simply the circle of life."

Casek appears troubled, but stays silent. Vaum tightens his grip around the chunk decisively, slipping it into his coat-pocket. "Yes, certainly it would be a common occurrence on a planet with such great geothermal energy. That's what makes it so valuable for ore-mining, after all." He looks at me with the first genuine smile I've seen him produce– a smile that told me nothing I could say or show him was going to change his mind.

On the VOB heading back into orbit, Vaum excuses himself to take a call in the back cabin. As I direct the craft in vertical takeoff and set it to autopilot to handle the orbital maneuvers, I notice Casek approaching me with a conflicted look. I hesitate to initiate the conversation, as he stays silent for a moment in close proximity.

"Ms. Dobrick, I wanted to ask you a personal question, if you don't mind."

"Sure, Casek."

"What does Tephra mean to you? Personally?" In the brief second that I'm surprised by the question, I nearly answer it with complete honesty.

"I'm sorry, I can't say under legal clause. It would break my impartiality agreement." He looks away, disappointed. "How old are you, Casek?"

"Eighteen. It's the first time my father has brought me along on one of his business ventures. Though I can't say he does this a lot, it's the one of the only times I've been aware of him actually visiting a planet he was interested in purchasing." I smile lightly to myself, wondering with a small glimmer of hope if I actually did make an impact. "Look, I know my father can be a bit hard to place sometimes. When it comes to certain things, there's no way to change his mind, with others he's willing to change it even if you don't want him to. It's something that's served him well in his pursuits. But to be honest with you, that's not how I want to be. I want to follow my heart and openly fight for the things I care about, even if it doesn't always benefit me." He goes into his pocket, retrieving something in his palm.

"And what do you care about?" I ask.

He shows me what's in his hand; a small, ash-coated rock with hints of unmistakable yellow streaks. "Life. Humanity. Nature and all its wonderful creations, no matter what world they're a part of." He rubs off some of the ash, revealing an imperfect crystal of sulfur. "I found this on the ground while we were heading back, but I know it means much more to me than it does to my father. And I want you to know that I'll always remember Tephra and Chalice for their amazingly unique people, culture and honest, hard work. Not everyone in the galaxy can be as lucky as us, I realize that now." When I don't reply, he continues. "Even if the Vaum Corpus purchases Tephra, I'll try my best to avoid the same mistakes my father made. You have my word."

Before I know it I'm sitting in the Embassy of Worldly Affairs, seated among a crowded auditorium of corporate attorneys, spectators, and members of the Tephran Board of World Representatives stationed at the front podium. Edde Vaum is settled before them, going through the standard procedures of stating intent, budget management, and sociopolitical restructuring. But I'm unable to pay attention to any of the words being spoken, for my mind is elsewhere; it's back on Tephra, watching as its soil and sediment is ripped up from the ground by Vaum's fleet of heavy excavators as the sky darkens above. And I remember that I can't blame anyone but myself for it. Then I think back on all the opportunities I had to change my mind, back out and say no; Boa's plead to protect the world and all its forms of life, and Casek's pledge to change the Vaum Corpus for the better. The virgin generation's optimism that I found myself unable to fall in line with, like my time had already passed. Maybe it was okay to place my faith in them to change the cold bureaucracy that dominated our lives. Maybe their decisions were enough to really make a difference.

As Vaum's staff projects a manifest list of all their recently annexed industry worlds, scrolling through a seemingly endless list of planets all with their own specifications, statistics and economic metrics, I begin to experience a strange sense of ego death. What was the difference between the backwater world I was born on and all the ones that had already been bought long ago? What made my perspective more unique and important than the billions of others that have already existed before me? In a galaxy full of limitless worlds, it suddenly seemed so vain in hindsight. Or maybe it was because I had finally chosen a side. Maybe there was still hope for humanity to love and care for the worlds it inhabits enough to reject the pre-established norms and illusions of grandeur. For me, it was already too late. I look over at the members of the Board of World Representatives, catching a knowing glance from Boa who sits with a beaten, yet resolved expression. We share our quiet sentiments as Mr. Vaum officially finalizes the deal with his signature.

2 – Keyhole Vista

A free, all-inclusive resort paradise is built to
accommodate the stress caused by the up-and-coming end of days, whose purpose ultimately becomes challenged over time.

                 Thirteen months had passed since the world first learned of its demise.

Specifically, by means of a ten-mile wide asteroid named 433 Eros which would – upon impact with the surface – wipe out the majority of life on the planet. The thought was indeed harrowing; an unavoidable, inescapable, instantaneous end to human history without the benefit of post-apocalyptic civilizations to carry on our legacies. There would be no extravaganza, no horrible post-calamity holocaust, nothing left except for maybe a few lucky survivors squeezing blood from stones to get by until the inevitable next ice age. Total obliteration in just a blink. Imagine that! Some would call it a merciful ending, perhaps a deserved one. Truthfully, I wasn’t too bothered by it either. But believe me, the rest of the world sure was. So what was their solution to the up-and-coming end of days? Well, unfortunately I’d come to know the answer far too well.

For the past month I’d been holed up in “mankind’s last refuge”, as they so aptly christened it. The place encompassed about… a couple hundred square acres of land? All of it indoors too. After all, they didn’t want anyone to be distracted by the breathtaking natural beauty of northern Greenland; that's right, as a response to the indisputable up-and-coming end of days, they decided to build the biggest all-inclusive international resort paradise in the world tucked neatly inside the beautiful arctic fjords of Scandinavia, only to erect a fully-enclosed supercomplex to wall its guests off from it. And to top it off, the suits behind the whole deal couldn't help but slap on a wishy-washy corporate name to top it all off: “Zion International Resort: Mankind’s Last Refuge!” It was the best joke I could never laugh at– in good conscience, anyway. Not to mention the big-headedness of it. I hailed from the actual world-famous Zion National Park down in Utah (the one everyone thinks of when they hear "Zion") as a former Park Ranger, so seeing the namesake defiled this way was some form of sacrilege... or something. In truth, my reaction had more to do with humoring the bitter irony of it all rather than some sort of blood-oath to the Rangers.

Okay, so I might have called myself a Ranger (and sometimes still do in reminiscence) but the truth was that I wasn't really what you'd call "Ranger material". Really I was only in charge of lower-level work, like marking off paths and lightly scolding trespassing teenagers and tourists when they'd overstep them, though I still technically had the title of a regular Park Ranger. But there was a different reason why I signed up; back then, nature is really what helped me cope with the rough patches of married life. I’d always feel more at ease surrounded by it, not having to think of the trials and throes of nuclear life. Plus, being a Ranger was a good way to pass the time. I only came home every couple months or so. But I’d since retired, now a divorced forty-something year old guy with no real passion in life other than… my former tolerance of tour-guiding and path-marking. So in hindsight I guess I didn’t really have anything going for me anymore. But boy, if I was gonna stay in this resort for the last few months of my life, I’d sure need to come up with something to do. So one afternoon I planned to mull it all over behind the counter of one of the multitude of international themed bars at the resort, sipping away at a shoddy ‘margarita-in-a-coconut’. There I intermittently pondered my future prospects, lazily swishing the drink in my hand while side-eyeing the overdressed bartender. Maybe I’d become a sommelier; for starters, I could tell this margarita sucked. Serving it in a coconut decidedly didn't make it any better.

So, why did I even come here to begin with? I wasn’t happy back at home, I knew that much. Sloane and the kids were a handful, and when I realized I couldn’t make myself care enough about their problems, we parted ways; I decided that it was the best for us all. But that alone wasn’t much reason to spend the rest of my life in this huge, overly embellished promised land. I guess I thought if I came here, I could find happiness away from my usual life. Correction, my therapist thought I could find happiness away from my usual life. When I arrived I briefly considered consulting one of the in-house psychiatrists to schedule some sessions, before I realized they’d probably just tell me to turn around and go right back to where I came from.

I turned the question over in my head once again as I left the Hawaiian-style wood countertop of the Tropical Tiki Bar, manufactured in the poor image of a sultry pink sunset. The whole damn place reeked of shiny plasticity in an over-the-top school playground kind of way, and the Tiki Bar was no different. I only picked it because the acidic color choices were a refreshingly manic change of pace. As I departed, a small beep emitted from my E-Band telling me I’d paid 10.99 for my drink– on instinct I tried to rip the stupid thing from my wrist and stomp it to bits.

Maybe it was ridiculous to think I’d be happier in a swanky ditch like this; everything from the fake foliage and hills to the pseudo-ornate pathways and ramps were overly saturated in various shades of green and light browns, resorting to brushed metal for footpaths in a flamboyantly tone-deaf and contrived manner which only served to get more on my nerves. They clearly tried to make it seem like the “outside” areas of the resort looked as convincing as possible, but no matter how much fake nylon grass and wood-paneled palm trees they planted, nothing would even come close to the real thing.

The one saving grace in my opinion was the fully-immersive real time day/night cycle, dimming the simulated sunlight above at night to paint a pretty believable replica of the true starlit purple-black sky (though it baffled me that they didn’t just leave the roof open; perhaps they didn’t want people noticing the bright streak of 433 Eros in the sky plummeting towards its inevitable destination). Right now it was a pale cloudless blue that I actually found to be a little uplifting. They even found a way to mimic the gentle cooling breeze of the tropics, though I theorize it was just a very well implemented ventilation system hidden within the aforementioned fake trees. Okay so maybe it was a bit harsh to call the place a pigeonhole or a ditch, but that didn’t change the fact that it was nothing but a knock-off. Maybe I should’ve just stayed on the actual Zion grounds so I wouldn’t have to complain so much.

As I reluctantly took in my artificial surroundings, my mind began to wander, my eyes following suit. I started to notice the spread-out milling congregations of people, all trying to distract themselves from their inevitable deaths by yammering on about how much fun they're having on their all-inclusive vacations. There were more foreigners here than you could ever hope to meet in one lifetime; half the time I couldn’t even hear myself think while being bombarded by twenty different languages I didn’t even know existed. Then again, everyone in their own way was a foreigner to a place like this.

Something else that bothered me was the staggering population of children, all shapes and sizes, all laughing and playing and dragging their folks in tow - I mean, it made sense for families to come to this resort, but did their young ones even know why they were here? Were they simply lured by the prospect of a never-ending vacation? What would Max and Tessa think? Honestly, I didn’t care about other families’ bratty tots, they weren’t my problem! My own kids were a different story. I gave custody of the two to Sloane; she’d take care of them way better than I ever could hope to, but that didn’t keep me from thinking about them from time to time. I knew I wasn’t happy here, but they’d probably beg to differ considering how much fun they had in Orlando back when. But right now I had my hands plenty full with Duck, the little rascal. BIG rascal. Oh, I really hoped he was done growing at this point. Speaking of which, where did I leave him again…?

There's too many dog parks in this damn tourist booby-trap. Too much of everything in this damn tourist booby-trap. Too many places to go grab a bite (albeit of all varying cuisines), too many places to get a massage/manicure, too many seedy casinos, too many culturally themed bars, too many places to go watch a movie that’s probably going to be terrible anyway, and too many places to play mindless, repetitive VR/XR games... It didn’t help when every storefront was just as plasticky and clinical-looking as the foliage that surrounded it. Neon lit signs with bubbly fonts that changed languages periodically, horrifying animated holo-mascots dancing for the entertainment of potential customers, free samples of practically every commodity for sale– anything to lure in the lucrative pocketbooks of their target demographic.

Practically more than half the entire resort was set up like this: The supercomplex was partitioned off into four sectors, two major living areas (one for the elderly/the families and one for the single/couple parties) and two entirely for entertainment and refreshments. Despite it being roughly an even split, the aggregation was suffocating - it’s like stepping out your quiet suburban neighborhood in the morning and being immediately bombarded by the bustling crowds of Times Square. The place was beyond packed with literally everything you could ever imagine (except the news, thankfully). And for some people that probably sounded like heaven, which I guess explained the extraordinarily congested overpopulation. But for a middle-aged guy like myself, I’d rather just curl up somewhere and read a tourist guide to the Milford Sound in New Zealand and just imagine being on a real vacation instead. And the sad part was that I probably could spent my time like that if I didn’t feel the need to stretch my legs and go somewhere so often.

It’d become habit to take Duck on a lot more walks than usual recently, mostly through the less crowded areas of the resort like the southern district of the “Families/Elderly” sector which was allocated for the older retirees. Matter of fact, I should’ve been living there if I wasn’t 20 years short of the mean retirement age. They had huge open golf fields and midday naptimes and everything (now that sounded like a good time to me). I’d heard quite a few people – usually on the younger side – mockingly call the neighborhood the “Fossil Ground”. How dare they! I’d met quite a few older people that were really friendly and even offered some great life advice while I passed through the district on my walks with Duck. Mostly on how I could turn my life around and such. Which would’ve been more helpful if the world wasn’t ending in three months, but hey. It made me miss my parents. So screw the juveniles who made fun of those poor old folks. The world's going to end, we have bigger things to worry about! I guess it just goes to show that even when your existence and everything you’ve ever known and loved is threatened by an apocalyptic demise, some people still bother to make the time and scrounge up the spite to poke fun at others.

After some more semi-aimless wandering I eventually pause in front of the Wagging Tail, one of the more popular dog parks in the supercomplex, hoping to find Duck making trouble for everyone again. He was the last tangible tie to my family that I had, and in some ways I think that was the reason I loved him so much. I gave him the love I couldn’t place in my wife and kids, the love he deserved for being by my side through it all. He was the best friend I could ever ask for. That said, he didn’t get along too well with anyone that wasn’t me, and I was hoping he would learn to behave and socialize if he stayed at these parks for enough time. Maybe make a few friends of his own, live a life of his own. The whole works. Wait, no. No puppies. I tried to distance myself from the horrifying thought by entering the building with impetus, approaching the aptly bone-shaped front desk and drummed on the counter a few times to get the lady’s attention.  

“Hey. My name is Franklin Arborn. I’m here to pick up my German shepherd, uh... Duck.” The young receptionist lady gave me an odd look through unkempt brown bangs, briefly turning her eyes away from her fullglass computer screen that was oddly brimming with lines of code. When she took note of my proximity she quickly turned the monitor away a bit as if adjusting her viewing angle.

“Duck? This is a dog park, sir. We don’t accommodate members of the Anatidae family.” I resisted the urge to groan, lean in, and then laugh obnoxiously loud in her face so she knew her witticism was greatly appreciated.

“Duck is the name of my dog, ma'am.” She produced a wry smile and leaned forward on her palm.

“That’s an interesting name. Why not Goose? Or Swan?”

“Look, ma'am, I’ve had a long day. I’m just here to get my dog. I really don’t want to have to deal with this,” I pleaded flatly. In response she shrugged her shoulders and relaxed back into her chair, returning to rattling away on her keyboard.

“Sure. His tag is #23. You should be able to authenticate your ownership using your E-Band next door and pick him up through the gate, I just unlocked the entrance for you.” I mumbled a brief thanks under my breath while taking note her name tag so I knew to avoid her if I ever came back: ‘Katie’. Messy brown hair, overalls, small, annoying. Not to mention the words "M.L.R. Study Improvements" tilting her cryptic batch of code, legible through the back of her fullglass screen.

It looked like Duck had learned some manners while I was away, meaning he hadn’t started any fights or anything like that. I was notified of this by one of the caretakers who was strangely over-observant of him. Probably because he knew what he was capable of. I felt a surge of pride in my chest as I left through the pen and back out towards the front desk with Duck in tow, making sure the comfort-leash I bought was securely fastened so he wouldn’t assault anyone on the way out. But maybe it was about time to graduate from leashes; my boy was finally growing up! I whistled a chipper tune as I approached Katie, whose eyes I felt on me as I passed.

“Hey there, find him okay?” Her tone was oddly sincere; maybe I scared her away before by being a prude.

“Oh, yeah. Thanks.” I flashed the leash handle in my hand and tried my best to smile, which resulted in not much more than a flat line. Katie leaned over the desk, and a wondrous child-like grin spread on her face when she laid eyes on my furry companion.

“Aww, is that Duck? He’s a real handsome one, isn’t he? Look at those rugged good looks!” She stepped away from the desk and rounded it to approach. I instinctively winced in anticipation of her face being torn off, but Duck seemed to be oddly friendly with her; his tail began to wag ever so slightly and his panting quickened as she scratched him along the dark fur on his back and around his ears while carrying that same warm smile. It’s the first time I really took notice of her as a person rather than a sarcastic-AI receptionist. “Who’s a good boy? Who is? You are!”

“He’s never been good around strangers. What’s your deal?” She didn’t meet my bewildered stare as she replied, Duck seemingly melting into her touch.

“Take a look around. I work at a dog park. It’s kind of a job requirement to be good with ‘em, misbehavers and death-machines included.” I scratched my head, wondering why that hadn’t occurred to me earlier.

“Don’t you have to, uh… let them get used to you first? This is your first time meeting him, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. But once they spend enough time around the caretakers and the other guys in the pen, they usually soften up a bit. But you’re well behaved, aren’t you? Atta boy!” She seemed to get distracted mid-sentence when Duck enthusiastically licked her chin. He’d never licked my chin.

“Well… we should be going. Got a lot on the agenda and such.” I tried to pull Duck away from her a little, and Katie finally took the time to meet eye contact as she rose with her hands on her hips.

“What could you possibly have on your plate? This place isn’t really accommodative of agendas.” I took about three seconds to formulate a plausible bluff but gave up when I realized there was hardly a point.

“Yeah. You’re right. I'm just being jealous.” She laughed heartily at that. I took the time to bring up something else that was on my mind. “Hey, what was with the uh... lines of code on your monitor earlier? Sorry, I couldn’t help but notice.” She seemed a little surprised by my inquiry, shifting her weight on her feet as if in consideration of the answer.

“Oh. Well, I was a software engineer before coming to work here. This is kind of just a part-time thing I do. You know, to afford all those fancy dinners before the world ends and everything.” I felt a little bad for her, pinching pennies in the last few months of human existence. But then I began to wonder why people would even volunteer to be in the workforce for a supposedly luxury resort like this; I mean, most places like the arcades had automated vendors that substituted the need for human labor, but establishments that needed a personal touch somehow scoped out willing workers in the midst of the pre-apocalypse. I almost pushed the query before I realized that might’ve been a bit too direct.

“Right. Well, don’t kill yourself over your work. We have a big space rock hurling towards us for that.” She chuckled nervously, twirling her locks a bit. It looked like she wanted to say something else but held it back. I took it as a cue to leave.

As I reach the front door, she finally pipes up. “Hey. Bring Duck back around sometime, I’d like to see him again.” I give her an improved smile this time, and leave without another word.

I didn’t really trust her. But, truth be told, that didn’t stop me from longing for some kind of companionship. It had been that way ever since I first arrived; it was surprisingly easy to fall prey to loneliness despite the constant flux of just about every inkling of artificial or non-artificial life in Zion. For a moment a scene of Sloane and the kids played in my mind again, and I wondered if I’d just be a little bit more content in their presence. Right now, in the midst of a thinly populated afternoon, even that sounded good. It was a familiar feeling; I’d spent many dark starlit nights in the meadows of Zion surrounded by the restless bustling of Mother Nature, and somehow still felt like the last man on Earth. Why did I feel so alone back then? There was nowhere in the world I could’ve been that was less lonely. The grass, the trees, the cliffsides and the air all teemed with life since the beginning of history - hell, that was the whole reason it was deemed a wildlife sanctuary - and yet it was as if my own existence was the only thing that was truly real. Maybe I felt so alone because to me, it was.

I'm distracted from my reflections as my gaze is pulled toward the melting horizon, the artificial sky turning a calming lavender in the wake of night– though a sliver of the sun was still yet peeking above an equally artificial horizon. My grip on Duck’s leash loosened a bit, and I decided to take a seat by the path on one of the psuedo-wooden benches for a little while. As if brought upon by the gentle breeze, a wistful thought passed my mind; maybe I should call Sloane.

The next four months came and went in a similarly lethargic fashion.

I hadn’t paid much attention to any measurement of time because I couldn’t find it in any way important enough, so the news of it being last week leading up to the end came to me as a tepid surprise. When I strolled through the Four Corner Plaza (the famous and somehow familiar centerpiece of the four sectors) to head down for lunch this morning, I’d noticed the formerly bustling population buzzing about the helix-shaped staircase leading up through the levels of the resort had quelled significantly, as if they too had only now heard the news. Of course, that wasn’t the case; it had been this way for a while now, I wasn’t sure how long exactly but I hadn’t taken any real notice of it before today. The atmosphere of the whole resort simply felt far more hollow than it did when I first arrived. Nothing seemed as saturated, nothing seemed as lively; it was like someone forgot to turn on one of the big overhead stage lights of a play, casting an uncomfortable darkness over the usual, albeit excessive radiance. But it wasn’t the result of a depressed stint following Eros’ contact with us in a week. No, it was as if nobody cared about the grounds themselves anymore. Trash and old toys littered the formerly product-like nylon grass fields as a feature of this neglect.

People burned themselves out on happiness and now they had nothing else to turn to. It became pavlovian, habitual to feel enthusiastic about the idea of the resort. Being here, being free from worry and reality. Though, I couldn’t really be sure of that– I didn’t know whether I was right or if it was my own bitter cognitive biases tainting my perception of the truth. Yet I still let it get to me, because before I was at least able to play off people’s vitality in place of my own. But now that the actual real life end-of-days was approaching at an alarming rate, it felt difficult to continue ignoring what was really at stake. What reality really was. In this place, nothing seemed real; the people, the food, the entertainment, the setting, it was all done in the image of what it was actually supposed to be.

I tried to push aside those familiar sentiments as I waited for Katie to arrive for lunch at the Angus Sandwich Shack. At least she’d picked a good place; we had been eating together every so often over the past few weeks, probably due to a mutual loneliness that culminated in us platonically meeting up one time after I checked Duck in at the Wagging Tail. I’d gotten to know a bit more about her while keeping my own personal history to a minimum. Though, it didn’t seem to bother her all that much. She was the type to go on and on about seemingly insignificant things, like what time her complementary yoga lessons started and what kind of dogzillas she needed to teach manners to on that given day. It was nice to hear someone else rant about life for once.  

“Hey! Frankie! Wait long?” I finally hear Katie pipe up from the doorway as she stepped out onto the relatively populated balcony where I sat. I picked the spot closest to the edge for the best possible view - it was a popular seat after all, so for once I couldn’t pass it up.

“Yeah, I did. Was it that hard to get here on time?” She shrugged a bit as she took a seat opposite me. “And for the last time, it’s Franklin. Not Frankie.”

“Nope. Frankie. Katie and Frankie. And, unlike you, I’m a working member of society. Is that not a good enough reason?” I was instantly reminded that there was no getting by this woman without having to engage in a round of verbal fisticuffs. I decided to concede by sighing and leaning on the metal railing of the balcony, looking out onto the plastic vistas. Katie was a good deal younger than me; she’d recently graduated college and had been hired by one of the big tech giants, I didn’t know which one, but apparently it was based on merit alone. It was certainly impressive - at that age, I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with my life. I had a degree in English that I wanted to throw in the garbage and light on fire. But I didn’t tell her that. “Hey. What’s up?” She suddenly broke through my silent contemplation with an upbeat curiosity.


“You just seem a bit out of it. I dunno. I’m not that good at reading people, sorry if I was being presumptuous.”

“No, no. It’s nothing. Thanks for asking, though.” I smiled a little, and began to search for a topic of conversation as I mulled over the menu. “How’s your project going?”

“Oh. You mean...”

“The one you were talking about last time. The thing about making improvements to some kind of user experience for your company.” I tried to ignore a rising shame following the pitiful generalizations I was only barely able to muster.

“Oh yeah! Yeah, it’s going… um, good. I guess. It’s hard to get enough feedback to make improvements that really matter in times like these, you know?” I could tell she was distilling it for my sake. I felt my cheeks flush in embarrassment.

“Well, doesn’t it depend on who you’re asking? Does it have to be really specific or can it apply to a larger audience?”

“Larger audience for sure. But… people don’t really use the site that much anymore, is what I meant.” Katie was typically very withdrawn when she talked about her work. Was she just being humble or was it actually embarrassing to talk about? I tried to think back to the first time we met, to what it had through the back of her monitor.

“Hmm. What was the name of the site, again?” I asked. She groaned in response to my failing memory.

“I told you already! I’m not gonna repeat myself.” I continued to search my memories. Did she? I couldn’t quite remember that she had ever mentioned it. I decided to not press the issue, deciding to play along for the sake of her confidentiality.

“Oh yeah. You did. Whoops.” She released a breath, almost a sigh.

“You know, something has been on my mind for a while. Past couple of weeks. Doesn’t it seem to you like people are kind of losing interest in this place? Like… I dunno, like people just don’t really care as much as they used to. And I’m wondering if the resort just isn’t making them as happy as it did back when it first opened.” Her inquiry loosened the bottleneck of ideas I’d accumulated over the past day, though strangely it seemed she’d only asked for that very reason.

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about that, too.” I sat back, put the menu down, and tried to find a way to phrase my muddled thoughts. “My theory is that, people feel closed off from reality. I mean, this place makes it feel like you have no reason to leave, so people don’t. It’s supposedly perfect because there’s no fear, no danger, and no asteroid. It’s like a funhouse prison. After awhile you’re going to find that using the same bouncy-castle over and over gets boring, and you want to go to an actual castle. You see what I’m saying?” I quickly reconsidered my analogy, realizing how little it pertained to my actual point. “No… scratch that. What I mean is, this place wants people to just focus on being happy, nothing else. It wants you to believe that happiness is all there is, and that’s all that should matter. I mean, why else would they close everyone off from the real world like this? They want you just to focus on Zion. On forgetting reality, on forgetting Eros. And being happy all the time gets tiring, you know? You lose the depth and complexity that comes with life. You can’t have happiness without sadness, and I think that’s something people have realized.” I stopped for a moment to consider how much of what I’d said was what I actually believed. I wasn’t sure how to continue, because I had lost my train of thought. Katie only sat there in silence, maybe thinking about what I’d said. Or wondering how much more idiotic my theories could possibly get. “I... think that’s how I feel too,” I finally muster.

After many more moments of uncomfortable silence, she finally spoke up. “Yeah. Maybe you’re right. I think you have a good reason to believe that.” I wasn’t sure how to reply to her oddly conclusive statement, so I just sat there silently waiting for her to continue. She just smiled at me. “Let’s order some food, yeah? I’m starving!” I nodded slowly, noticing the twinkle of something new in her eyes. Maybe it was of realization, of acceptance. Or of the birth of new ideas and optimism. Or maybe not. All I knew was that for once, I couldn’t be sure what would come next.

The next morning I awoke to a strange feeling. For one, the rays of fabricated sunshine that cut through the blinds appeared starker than usual, perhaps due to my angle to the LED-simulated sun. Duck seemed more upbeat, raring to go on an earlier-than-usual morning walk coupled with a few barks for good measure. And although it was quiet, it was as if the resort had been imbued with an old energy– I thought for once that my outlook on life had improved ever so slightly just because I’d gotten used to the usual sullen atmosphere. Any good day was a day that I thought should be appreciated in the wake of total annihilation. So I took Duck down through the early dawnlight suburban streets of the southern district, before a booming announcement over the loudspeakers shattered the serene ambience of the resort that I’d somehow grown to appreciate. What was said sent me into a temporary moment of freefall– yet, at the same time I felt no surprise.


As the announcer finished, leaving ripples of the revelation to die out and sending the world back into a steady silence, I took a moment to breathe in the clinical, recycled air of the Zion resort. It was exactly the same as it was the day I arrived. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? But for some reason, I was expecting it to feel different. Just like I was expecting the formerly hypothetical and seemingly absurd announcement that the world wouldn’t be ending after all would make me feel better. Not just about being given more time, but about myself, and about the choices I’ve made in my life. But it hadn’t. My mind wandered back to Katie, to Sloane, to Max and Tessa. I wondered how they wanted to deal with the uneasy ambiguity of an uncharted future. I couldn’t be sure what they felt, just like how I couldn’t be sure what I felt.

While the world began to bustle to life around me, awoken with a reanimated vigor, I tried to convince myself to feel the same way. I tried to feel optimistic about being given another chance to lead a life that I could be proud of. I began to hear the cheers and celebration of people old and young alike, chasing the morning air down the streets in immodest clothing and ecstatic smiles regardless of whether they could run or not. I quickly became enveloped by the crowds, feeling a hand clamp down on my shoulder as I met the eyes of an elderly man who smiled without either dentures or a care in the world. I smiled back at him. Although I struggled to reconcile with this overwhelming doubt, the rest of the masses seemingly weren’t - their palpable excitement of a new day embraced me warmly, as if they now knew what lay ahead of them. But I wondered that if beneath their visage, they too strode on with uncertainty.

3 – Like What You See?

A deafblind model takes advantage of a new way to perceive the world – and herself. 

    I’m brought to life by the feeling of someone watching me.

A woman – familiar, yet distant – watches my comatose body lie still on the hospital bed, bandaged and sedated into a deep torpor. I feel the faint coolness of the hospital’s clinical air evoking a slight chill while the soft warmth of the afternoon sunlight oozing in through the blinds provides a balancing heat. Through her eyes I can almost see the orange blush coating the entire room, creating a moment of comforting ease in an otherwise uncomforting situation. I try my best to control her gaze to no avail– I realize quickly that I am only a passenger to their sensations, to someone else’s existence. I struggle to find a way to see the world for what it is through their eyes, through the pale film that obscures everything before them. I finally resign to my panic when I accept the fact that I am no longer in control of either the me that is lying still on the hospital bed or the woman in the room who I inexplicably now inhabit.

But things change when she begins to move. She looks down at her lap upon her folded hands, and even through the obscurity I immediately recognize a familiar bejeweled engagement ring wrapped around her finger and casual torn-jeans on her thighs, legs tucked together out of a nervous habit. Unmistakable blond locks of hair fall against a white blouse, before they are pointlessly tucked behind her ear; my sister, Bree, who sits across from my bed-ridden self is probably awaiting some kind of news I’m not supposed to be privy to. On cue, I begin to hear murmurs. They start out quiet, nigh-inaudible, but as they begin to grow in volume and clarity I start to pick out single words; “wake”, “operation”, “different."

In a start I regain feeling in my body. Not the body of my sister, but of my own atrophied arms and legs. I wiggle my fingers and toes, and my sister’s eyes rise to meet the movements. I take baby steps like I was taught by Jaz, my runway coach. I suddenly remember her telling me, “You’ll never take off if you can’t handle the run-up first.” But things had to go my way - I didn’t listen. Now I had no choice; one step at a time, I flex muscles in my forearms and calves, up through my biceps and thighs and finally through my body, as if wading through a murky bog without a lantern. Every part of me is on fire, but to my sister, that clearly doesn’t matter. She’s now risen from her chair and hastily approached, clutching my hand so firmly that I’m able to feel it through the abject numbness of my own bodily sensations. She looks up, and I see a small glint of chrome from beneath layers of gauze secured around my forehead, pressed tightly against my temple. I have no time to consider what it could be before I regain control of my motor functions, leaning into Bree’s bearlike hug. I reciprocate as best I can, still overwhelmed by the incredibly unnatural feeling of inheriting her bodily stimulations in place of my as they own flood from her mind into mine. I speak, and Bree listens.

“Bree...” hearing myself talk through the ears of someone else immediately nauseates me, but I try to collect myself and look down at the bed, her gaze following. “What happened?” Conflicted, she breaks eye contact as her glances bounce from corner to corner of the hospital room.

“You were in an accident, Seb.” She’s reluctant to continue, her voice breaks sharply. “I… it’s complicated.” She doesn’t elaborate, and for some reason I find myself holding back.

“Bree. I can’t see or hear. I can’t see or hear, Bree.” My own body, struggling to find its sense of direction, finally meets the eyes of my sister - and myself. A conflicted silence passes.

“You suffered severe damage to your brain and nervous system. The doctors said there was only one way to save you.” She leans over, reaching for the now occupied spot above my temple, stroking a lock of disheveled blond hair from my jutting cheekbone and studies the foreign metal object. In her voice, a deep sadness lines her strenuous composure. “I’m so sorry Sabine. We didn’t have a choice.”

“What is it? What’s it doing to me?”

A terrified realization contorts her expression as she struggles to form an answer. “I… I don’t know.”

From beside me I hear the door open, and I disappear from sight as Bree looks over to a doctor who has tactfully entered the room. A cognizant expression is passed between them and Bree nods, approaching my bed. But as my own eyes cast a look at him, I no longer inhabit the body of just my sister. From the bespeckled eyes of my doctor and the worried gaze of Bree, the sensations I’d felt previously double in capacity, and I am once more overwhelmed by a flood of extrasensory stimulation unlike anything I ever knew was possible.

The doctor tries to explain my situation, but his words are meaningless, simply passed from his own stimuli to those of my sister and then back to my own.  Like an endlessly flowing current, I now exist within them all. I feel as though I’ve been given permission to perceive every inch of the world through their senses, two times what I was used to before. What’s the limit? How far can I go? How much can I even take before I’m unable to understand the concept of my individual existence? Maybe it’s already too late. I see myself from two different angles, through the eyes of two different people, I hear myself from two different pairs of ears in different parts of the room - never before have I been so acutely aware of my own surroundings, of the way I am and carry myself. It’s terrifying, but at the same time euphoric. I’m intoxicated by the endless possibilities. My heart races. But Bree and my doctor have no idea - they don’t know that the way they look at me only makes me more confident in myself.

I tune back in. “...Ms. Cober?” The doctor speaks. I give him a flawless smile; I adjust the corners of my mouth accordingly through the clarity of his prescription lenses. His heart beats faster.

“Sorry. This is just so much to take in at once.” I try to change the tone of my voice to not sound too upbeat. The doctor looks at Bree - she’s giving me her best reassuring expression. She has no idea how excited I feel. I continue, “Is the implant permanent?”

He sighs, adjusting his glasses to compose himself. He glances at his clipboard, flipping through pages. As I read through his notes, I can tell it’s in vain. “Well, until we fully assess your nerve damage and develop an appropriate treatment, I’m afraid there’s not much we can do. Your occipital and temporal lobes underwent an extensive healing process, but with our current technology we weren’t able to mitigate the neural pathways responsible for restoring your direct stimuli.” I release a brief ‘oh’ as I exhale, feigning disappointment. “For now, the ARDIS implant will have to serve as a temporary replacement for your dominant sensory organs.” Bree isn’t convinced.

“But… but you’re working on a treatment, correct?” She turns to the doctor, arms crossed. He replies with a flat smile.

“Of course. But it’ll take time, and it’ll be costly.”

“That won’t be an issue. Just… please try to help my sister. Please.” I nearly raise my hand in protest, but I stop myself. I need to keep things under control, for her sake. For my own sake. I simply opt to nod instead.

I’m released from the recovery ward later that day. I join my sister in a taxi directly outside the hospital, led by her firm grip the entire way down the stairs, through the lobby dominated by leering bystanders. She has no idea I’m about to pass out from the sheer amount of sensory information. I’m overwhelmed, so much so that I find it hard to focus on where I am, what to focus on, what to listen to and what not to listen to. Everything becomes a blur. I try to use Bree as an anchor; I study myself and my flawless features from her sole perspective, my towering six-foot presence compared to her comparatively meager frame. I grip her arm tighter as we get into the cab.

“Everything okay Seb? Do you need anything?” I give another pristine smile, sloppier and more nervous this time. I’m afraid the world is closing in on me, yet at the same time opening up in a way that brazenly bares every inch of itself. I didn’t even have that much confidence in my own body.

“Yeah. It’s just, well… it’s a little overwhelming.” Bree shoots me an overly concerned look as the taxi pulls away from the curb; I can tell by the way she strains her facial muscles to frown, a distinct and unmistakable feeling.

“Seb, what exactly do... how do you see and hear? I tried to understand the doctor’s explanation. It was mostly just nonsense. I ended up missing some of the fine print.” She shrugs her shoulders a little, and I produce a stifled laugh.

“What makes you think I was listening?” She suddenly turns serious again, glaring intently. As we cruise speedily through downtown, I start to feel the whirl of sights and sensations flood my head again; I continue to focus on myself, on Bree as best I can.

“You didn’t answer my question.” I try to find a way to phrase it, but I’m finding less and less excuses to keep the conversation going. I want to soar, I want to experience everything, I want to exist in this world like I’ve never done before.

“Bree,” I say, as I look through the eyes of our taxi driver, “do you think I could start modeling again?” Baffled, she sits in silence. I take it in, and alongside it the opportunity to let go. I’m immersed in the birth of neon city lights upon the backdrop of a setting sun, I take in the swirling, endless conversations of people on the street, of businessmen in their highrises. Of hotdog stand attendees and retail workers. I am one with my environment. Everything around us is me, nothing is hidden. I’m euphoric, and terrified - I’ve never felt this way before, but at the same time I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve lost myself, I’ve stopped struggling to contain my boundless desires. Bree’s response is adrift in the wind, along with the many other voices I’m unable to give my attention to. But it doesn’t matter because I’ve already decided.

Now I stand in the wings of the catwalk, carefully adjusting the sequined sleeves of my ornate low-cut silk dress as I wait in the queue. Bass-heavy music blasts into the eardrums of the audience and reverberates through their cores. I catch every sensation, every detail of my body, thanks to my manager Preston who nervously stands beside me in the darkness of the annex. His eyes are plastered to me, admiring every niche and curve of my figure, not unlike the other soon-to-be eyes who wait in anticipation of my premiere. I give him an appropriately oblivious glance and he shyly averts his eyes and begins to babble into his earpiece. I can’t contain my excitement, restlessly debating whether to step out onto the runway ahead of time or not; it doesn’t distract me for more than a couple seconds before I find myself confronted by the longing judgment of the world.

For a moment I forget the procedure. My mind is in lapse, pure freefall, from the intense pheromonal frenzy. Reality only kicks in as I begin to confidently stride down the narrow length of the ramp. I take deep breaths… Jaz’s words ring in my head, I settle into my groove: “Don’t forget. Subtle chin tilt downwards, you want them to see your entire face. Keep a natural look. They all know how beautiful your smile is already, no need to distract them from your outfit. But your eyes are fierce; they still need the fire, the passion - just don’t make it too easy for ‘em, yeah?” And then something else, something Jaz didn’t nor wouldn’t be able to tell me: “Whatever you do, don’t get too distracted. Don’t let go. You need an anchor, because without one you’ll drift out to sea.” On cue, Preston’s terrified gaze watches the length of my back shrink in size as I continue to glide down the runway, seemingly unfazed by the countless of eyes - the endless stimulation - all trying their best to take control of me and send me into an inescapable nirvana. I resist the urge to send him a glance back.

I now let some of my observers trickle in; I use their mesmerized gaze to adjust my figural presence, my attitude, the length between my carefully-placed steps; in turn, they grow warmer in their cheeks, and the room emanates with a new fiery passion as I accommodate every single one of their preferences. Against Jaz’s strict traditional methods, I put a girly, playful spring in my step, I lift the corners of my mouth just a little bit to hint at a smile, I intensify the furrow in my brow. My back remains straight, my stride remains even with one foot in front of the other, and my shoulders and arms are relaxed as they delicately swing by my sides. I reach the end of the catwalk, my struts aligning to the beat of the music, and strike a confident, sexy pose full of ardent fervor; the surrounding congregation erupts with cheer and applause. I know exactly what they want. I can’t help but unprofessionally let loose the biggest smile I can muster, barely managing to suppress an oncoming giggle.

At the end of the night, I tiredly retreat into the darkness of my hotel room with Preston in tow. I’d told him that he would be my anchor, my “guide” of sorts, but I never elaborated on what exactly that meant, and he had agreed to stay in the same hotel room with me only after I insisted it was necessary due to the operation. He was concerned about his reputation, and more importantly my reputation. But as far as he knew, I was simply myself, just a more refined and superior version. I suddenly began to wonder whether or not anyone in the audience noticed the metallic glint tucked behind my voluminous hair, or if it even mattered. Exhausted from doing any more thinking, Preston watches me flop onto one of the two twin beds face-first in a very unladylike way.

“You were amazing today,” he says just barely above his breath. Preston was never a very expressive or outward person - managing behind-the-scenes suited him just fine - so his comment surprises me. I sit up and look towards him, meeting his gaze with a casually puzzled look.

“Uh… thanks.” I can’t help but get a little awkward. He refuses to make eye contact, instead looking out the large wall-sized windows exposing the glittering LA skyline. The entire room is dark, and unusually tense. Moving shadows line the walls and dance in interpretation of passing cars. He shifts a little in his posture.

“I’ll get the lights.” Strangely, he doesn’t go for the overhead switch, opting to illuminate the smaller scattered lamps stationed by the bedside table and the desk in the corner of the room. His footsteps are dampened against the soft carpet floor; he still hasn’t taken his shoes off.

“Preston, you’re gonna track grime around the carpet… now the poor custodians have to do more work than they need to.” He smiles a little, scratching the back of his head full of slicked-back hair. Apparently he forgot that he’d been jogging around backstage all day, his soles now a refuge for glitter and oil no doubt. He makes eye contact with me again.

“Shoot. Sorry.”

“You might want to save your apology for the little lady that comes knocking on the door at 8 in the morning tomorrow.”

“I’ll just leave a bigger tip,” he snidely responds as he removes his loafers.

“You can’t just buy your way out of everything, you know.” You wouldn’t assume he were very wealthy just based on his attire, frequenting a grey cardigan over a dress shirt and solid dark blue chinos. But Preston was deceptively professional when the situation called for it, and his paycheck sure reflected that.  

“I don’t know,” he took a seat by the desk and leaned back a little with his arms crossed as if entertaining the idea, “I probably could.” I shrug my shoulders a little in response, admitting defeat.

There’s a moment of silence before the tension returns. Preston clearly has something on his mind. I try to search for a topic of conversation, and for a moment I turn to my implant when I find myself absentmindedly fidgeting with the smooth metallic surface. He notices when he glances back at me, and I quickly stop when I see how obvious it is.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that, Sabine.” He points to it, as if to confirm my suspicions. There’s no avoiding it now. I debate whether to tell him the truth or not, but I quickly vanquish the thought - I trust Preston a lot, he’d been with me ever since my career really started taking off.

“Ask away then.”

“How do you know what other people want?” I’m temporarily caught off by the nature of his question - to figure that out from observation alone is pretty worrying. There is no hint of amusement in his tone. His dead-serious air sends an involuntary shiver down my spine; I get the feeling that he already knows the answer, he simply wants to hear it come from me.

“I see the world differently. I sense the world differently. I perceive things through other people, as many people as there are around me. I know what they see, what they hear, what they want. I don’t know how it works, all I know is that I’ve never been more content with myself as I am now.” Preston is silent for a moment. “Can’t you tell?“

“And it’s all because of that thing in your head?” I nod. He doesn’t pursue the logistics of it any further, rather he sits back again in a way that says his suspicions were confirmed. A rising feeling of apprehension plagues his gut - he’s about to say something I don’t want to hear. “Sabine, I got a call after the show today. It was Verve Magazine. They offered you a spot in their upcoming November pageant.” I try to contain my excitement, because he continues to speak. “I turned them down because of that… that thing. I knew something was up today, because I’ve never seen the crowd at Epsilon so riled up before. It didn’t feel right.” My excitement turns to anger almost immediately, my face burns red hot and my fists are balled up before I can even fully process what he’s said. He turned down the opportunity for my career to launch to new heights because of my implant? Rationality wouldn’t come to me. It made no sense. I was perfect today. “Sabine…”

I stand up. I try to calm down.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.” He scoots back in his chair a little, clearly afraid. Through his eyes my preconceived beauty becomes monstrously distorted. “You ruined my career. All because of this stupid implant. Do you seriously think I had a choice? Do you think I wanted this? What the fuck was I supposed to do, say no?” I try to keep my voice at a reasonable level, but through Preston everything sounds horribly sinister.

“Sabine, look at me. It’s not fair. Not fair to you, not fair to any of the other girls. So it would be best if you didn’t participate. Don’t you understand that? Besides,” he stands to cement himself in his pride, “that competition isn’t worth it. You wouldn’t have gone anywhere even if you won.” I don’t take the time to consider whether or not I’ve misinterpreted his words before I’m consumed by a terrifying animosity. My spite, directed at his entire being, bends the previously flawless elegance of my figure; in his eyes, I’m no longer the model who took the jaded crowd of the Epsilon Center by storm. I’m a pariah. I want him to disappear. Everything becomes a blur - he turns away from me, approaching the window with quick and uncharacteristically unsteady strides.

I don’t have time to stop what happens next before I’m blinded by the familiar numbness of pain, of unstoppable consequences and wanting to take back everything in a single moment. The world is consumed by fear, by unrelenting turmoil. I can’t even tell if the coldness I feel is that of the outside world or of my own anxiety. And then a body falls, wind whipping by its face, carrying it like a feather on the moon towards the ground below. A brief moment passes before I relearn the meaning of both agony and emptiness.

And then I return to the dark. I return to myself. I’m in the hotel room lying on the ground, feeling helpless and scarred. I feel life leaving the body that had hit the street below, lying amongst the strewn shards of glass and spattered crimson. I wonder to myself if I were responsible, and every conclusion I come to points to the answer I refuse to accept. But it isn’t possible, I shouldn’t have that power. Right? It’s impossible. I didn’t have a choice. I tug at the cool piece of metal fused to my temple and find it won’t come off. It’s a part of me, just like my decisions, and now I have to choose how to live with them. I stand up, waiting for something else to happen, but I am alone as I drift into a familiar oblivion. I’m only met with a cool gust of wind as I shift the weight of my feet who feel nothing but broken glass.

︎ 1_Mall Parking Lot Maps
︎ 2_Year Zero, Y2K Zine
︎ 3_SpaceX Poster Series
︎ 4_Collage Tarot Deck
︎ 5_Olly Marketing Campaign
︎ 6_Multiworld Corporation™
︎ 7_Degree Project, In Transit Out
︎ 8_Motion Graphics/Animations
︎ 9_Typographic/Formal Studies
︎ 10_Branding Work
︎ 11_Short Stories

Will Lotz ︎ RISD Graphic Design BFA Graduate + Creative Writer living in Harlem NYC. My work focuses mainly on the conceptual and image-making side of graphic design, aiming to produce unique, meaningful intersections of visual design and semiotic storytelling. Through my practice I strive to combine my passions within larger scale projects in the form of creative direction and management.

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