A Vivid Near-Future Dystopia Comes to Life in This Moving Sci-FI Tale

io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “A Pedra” by Endria Isa Richardson. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast.


A Pedra

I believe that if we have any notion at all of what has generally been called human nature, it is because History, like a mirror, holds up for our contemplation, an image of ourselves.

—-Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá

Audio Recording, “Lydia and Ecco at Insight,” February 3, 2134

I didn’t run.

If the boy had not called to you, you would have run.

I would not have run.


mãe,

There are few moments that I remember with clarity. From those early days, I recall mostly a vast, pervading numbness. Profound dissociation. I remember Salt. I remember Hog.

At night, I would curl between them. With my eyes closed, I would try to see them as they were just in that moment. I would block out what I knew would be. I would see Salt’s ruddy cheeks and puffy brown hair. His shoulders, just beginning to broaden with muscle. His pale forearms already ropey from physical training. Hog’s deep brown eyes and chapped, gentle lips. The soft tufts of his hair brushing against my cheek as he moved about inside a dream.

You will never meet either of them. You will never meet our child. Your grandchild.

If I still couldn’t sleep, I would look for you. Of course I never found you. If you were in my future, I would have already known.


Once, I told Salt and Hog that I had known a mother. A home. What I thought was a family. They were thrown away by their parents, addicts like you, as infants. At school, we were not supposed to say, “thrown away.” We were supposed to say, “offered to the future.” But I am not at school any longer. So, they were thrown away by their parents, eaten by Kismet to mine the one true future. They assumed the same was true for me, until I told them that I lived with you until I was eleven. But ah, puberty, eh? The ،. She came, and broke us. You could not handle me anymore. The aunties and uncles and cousins who had helped grow me, who had (I thought) loved me, raised their machetes and told you—-take care of her, or we will. I still remember the certainty of your voice when you said, “I will do it myself.” You took auntie’s blade. You marched me out of the only home I had ever known. You raised your hand to me, who had never known violence. You said, “Run, Lydia, meu coração, run.”


TIME, November 13, 2134

THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN’S PLAN TO OPEN THE FUTURE

The story of Insight’s first year was one of relentless forward motion: an underground research facility constructed in an undisclosed location, patents filed for what Insight billed as “a safer alternative to the drug kite,” an “army corps of scientists” hired, trained, and housed entirely on campus. In the intervening years, however, both Insight and XO seemed to vanish.

This is the first appearance XO has made since then. During this interview, as in our last, XO does not share his image or voice. We meet virtually. His avatar is a slightly built Southeast Asian man clothed in a slim-cut dark blue velour tracksuit. Sunglasses veil his eyes. “I am not a terrorist,” he begins. He laughs, and it’s jarring. “I am interested in terror as a mind-, and therefore time- expanding substance.”

I ask him to clarify what he means.

“What can heightened emotions, like terror, teach us about the pliability of time? There are ancient wisdom traditions that suggest that when we confront the unimaginable, and for most people that is something horrifying, that is when we truly are free. Unlocking all futures, not only the ones that are palatable to us, requires absolute freedom.”

When I ask him to share the most horrible thing he has ever confronted, he confesses, in a moment of unexpected vulnerability. “My mother abandoned me when I was very young. Deep down, I had feared that separation my whole short life. Once it happened, I realized I no longer needed to fear anything. I could be free. I could suddenly imagine many possible futures for myself. My future no longer relied on something I could not control, another person’s presence or absence. I want that freedom for everybody.”


mãe,

This is how my story begins, if you can call it a beginning. With our plan to escape.

Many of us at school never made it past our first year. We overdosed on kite or any one of the other street drugs, or died because we couldn’t source clean drugs, or the bleak reality that our lives were completely ، pointless drove us mad. If we made it far enough, we were placed. We tried, for some more years, not to ، ourselves or anyone else. Until then, it was best to find something, or someone, that could anchor us—-in one body, in one time—-and focus ، that. Otherwise, we tried not to focus at all. Floated somewhere between present and future. Drank until we had to take a break from drinking. Drugged ourselves into the stratosphere. Fucked. Got angry. Messed around. Me and Hog had a serious fling. Then me and Salt. Then me, Salt, and Hog. As good a way to pass the time as any. Then Hog got called in for early placement, and came back quiet. After that, it was mostly me and Salt.

That was about when we decided to do something we had not seen ourselves do. Do you understand? We decided to cheat the future.

It cheated us instead.

The day Ecco came for me, I was hurrying through the main corridor back to Salt’s room. Someone called out to me from inside the Head’s office. I got ready to lie my way out of anything—-I swear, that half-full bucket of prune liquor me and Hog have brewing in the dormer is only for educational and scientific purposes—-but stopped short at the door.

The man standing in Head’s office was short. Only a few inches taller than me. And brown-skinned and wide. Good and stocky, a nice soft fatness wrapped around a solid frame. At the time, I probably thought he was attractive. There weren’t many of us blacks at the school. I was one. Hog was half of another. (Salt was Jewish. They were even more of a pariah).

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At that point, I still believed that I knew everything. Will that sound arrogant to you? It’s not. It was brutal. I didn’t know facts and figures or theoretical physics. But I believed I knew everything of consequence that would ever happen to me.

(And to Hog.)

(And to Salt.)

(And to anyone who had, for training or for contract, required me to rip apart the fabric of time, extend my mind, like a finger, into its gap, shine my awareness . . . And see the ، gems inside.)

We had not seen our plan. We hadn’t seen it fail, we hadn’t seen it work. We were desperate enough to try, anyway.

I had not seen this man, either. Not in time, and not in life. I should have known, then. I should have known to run, to grab Salt and Hog and run. But I was curious.

After a while, I asked, “Who are you?”

“Ecco,” he said, “It’s nice to finally meet you, Lydia.”

Many things happened, more or less in sequence immediately after that. There was the first explosion, and that also surprised me. You have to understand, surprise was not an experience I knew well until that point. Mostly, I already knew. Mostly, I had already seen. Not this. The bombs, improvised molotov cocktails, weren’t supposed to be lit for several more hours. I was supposed to light one, Salt and Hog would light two others. A good amount of chaos, running and screaming in the halls, ensued. Then, a ، to my head and darkness.

I woke. Later, elsewhere. I shouted (several times) from the pain in my head. No one came. I explored the room I had found myself in. It was blank, unrevealing, an infuriating beige-nothing. There was no bed, no furniture. There was no discernible door. The walls were soft, pliant. I seemed to be in some kind of sophisticated cage. It blocked me from seeing out of the present moment. I could not think, could not question. I could not rationalize. I curled up on the floor, and slept.

When I next woke up, Ecco was standing above me. He handed me pills—-pain, and what I assumed was kite. I asked him many questions. He answered three. It was 13 August 2133, so three days had passed since the explosions at school. I was at a research lab called Insight. And, he said, I had been brought there to liberate the future.

This began the next phase of my life. Ecco was my abductor, my captor, and later, my torturer. He was also the only person I saw, spoke to. I did, in those early days, feel something like sorrow for him. He would always begin our sessions with a series of “what if” questions: What if there were many, perhaps infinite, futures? What if there was a way to unlock time itself? What if we could move in time, not only see it stretched out, frozen, before us?

He called it running.

“You will run time, Lydia,” he told me. “Once you lose your fear.”


The First Hundred Years of Kinsight: From the Early 22nd Century to the Present, Chapter 3

By the time Insight Unlimited arose in the early 2130s, Kismet Corporation had already become the largest sole employer across the continents. In the Global North alone, Kismet contracted the services of at least 300,000 KIDS (Kismet Indentured Servants) in the first half of 2133, and was set to expand to half a million by 2134. Until Insight’s rise, the only challenges to Kismet came from fringe human rights organizations and activists sheltering in so-called “Dark Towns” (towns which had not converted to Kismet-time, and which often harbored absconded servants).

Challenges grew in later years. Over the course of the latter 22nd century, Insight would destabilize Kismet’s stranglehold on the global economy by seeking to control the company’s indentured workforce. Seers, trained to locate resources in the future, were highly valuable to Kismet. In later decades, Insight’s poaching and re-training of Seers gave rise to a new class of workers.1 Runners were able to directly collect advanced technology, materials, and intellectual property from as far as millennia into the future, and return with them to the corporation. It is estimated that nearly half of all early runners were lost on their travels. A small number of highly sensitive Seers would later work for Insight and their subsidiaries, providing a range of services that included the location and extraction of missing runners.

In the early 2100s, Insight began to seek control of those Seers whose unique skills they believed could disrupt Kismet’s control of the future. The wars between Insight and Kismet, waged largely between seers, runners, and dark towns, marked the beginning of a brutal century. However, the resulting liberation of trans-temporal commercial trade and merger of Insight and Kismet into Kinsight is inarguably among the greatest achievements of humankind.


mãe,

I remember the first time Ecco took the drug kite from me. I had not been fully without it since I arrived at school, nauseated and time-sick, barely able to stand. The third week I was at Insight, Ecco undosed me.

I remember bracing for the rock of nausea. It came.

Hog, prismed, leered at me from a thousand eyes. He shattered.

“Hog?” I asked.

Ecco stood once more across the room. “Ecco,” he said. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Lydia.”

“What do you want?” I asked. “What do you want from me anyway?”

I came, shuddering against Salt, and bit his shoulder.

“Lydia,” someone cried. “Sai daqui!”

I dropped from a tree in the dark, felt my arm ،. Screamed.

I screamed in the room.

I leaned over a toilet and vomited; flecks of bile and water hitting my cheeks.

I fingered a smooth, black knife.

I saw a brown face, like mine, but older. “Pedra,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” said Ecco, coaxing, caressing my cheek.

I found a brown hand in mine; clasped it. I let it pull me into darkness studded with bright crystal lozenges. Oblong mirrors, blinking on/off/on as the light in my mind caught their strange fractals.

“Mãe?” I called. “Mãe?”

Hog’s body fell to the mats.

Salt’s chest exploded.

Lozenges winked as I cast my mind about, seeking elsewhere. Inside of time, I saw futures. Not lozenges, not mirrors—-oh god, mamãe. How could I have thought they were mirrors. They opened. I was pulled forward, the nails of that hand digging in my flesh.

“Mãe? Mãe?”

I heard the boy’s voice behind me. I threw myself backwards, toward him.


Audio Recording: “Lydia and Ecco at Insight” November 3, 2134

Tell me about your mother.

The ، who sold me to Kismet?

“Papagaio come milho, periquito leva fama.”

I don’t know what that means.

I thought all you young people spoke Português. Eh? It means you are ungrateful to your mother. “Ao menino e ao borracho, põe-lhes Deus a mão por baixo.” God puts his hand under the boy and the young pigeon.

Easy for you to say, who will never fly. If I felt God’s hand beneath me, I would spit on it. “Pimenta nos olhos dos outros é refresco.” Pepper in the eye is a pleasure to you, eh?

Eh, não pimenta, mas pedra. Stone in the eye is a pleasure to me. Have you never tried to see her, Lydia? To understand why she abandoned you?

I have tried.

But you can’t?

No.

But you talk to her, when you are gone in your visions.


mãe,

The first time I was undosed from kite, I began to understand what Ecco meant with his talk of liberated futures. With his talk of running. I had been inside of some terrible material. I had felt the dark stuff move around me. Its currents were strong. I could feel some alive presence just beyond my skin tugging where it wanted me to go.

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I think Ecco comes from that place. Or he came from that place. Something about him feels the way it felt. Empty. Hungry.

I tell him to run his futures by himself. He says I just need to discover the key to freedom. What will make me unafraid to enter the infinite future.

Sometimes I think he is just lonely.


Audio Recording: “Lydia and Ecco at Insight” March 3, 2135

Are you ready to try again today? To run?

I’d rather die.

Die then. Kill yourself.

I can’t. I don’t.

See if you can. See if you do.

I know how I end. I know how I continue. I know everything.

Everything. What arrogance. You didn’t even know me.


mãe,

I never named him. I call him meu caração, my little boy, meu amor. I have been able to survive here because of him.

It’s been five months since I last saw him. The first five months that I have been completely alone, in my life. I was already pregnant when Ecco took me from school. A child of Salt, or a child of Hog? I like to think, a child of both. I birthed him here, at Insight. Until August, they let him stay with me. We lived a strange, captive life, but we lived it together. Then Ecco took him. He said it was my own fault. My own choice.

I don’t move. I don’t speak. Ecco gives me more kite now, triple what I used to take. I close my eyes and fly. I see everything, all of time rippling beneath me like waves, diamond-studded, glinting, on, off, on.

But now I know. They are not mirrors, they are not diamonds. They are mouths.

That is the difference between seeing and running.

Sometimes, I let myself wonder whether Salt or Hog ever made it to you.

That was our whole, foolish plan. Run to you, mamãe, like little children, and beg you to shelter us as you could not shelter me before. When there is no one left, no hope, we always turn to our mothers, eh, no matter how angry we are.

I don’t think you will ever receive these little notes.


ecco tells me that the secret to running is losing your mother.

ecco tells me that if I want to find the boy, i’ll have to run him down myself.

i tell him that i have been trying.

something is not right

not right

i have started talking to myself, to hog, to salt, even to you. sometimes i wake as though from the middle of a dream, and i am talking to someone else—-but no one i know, or have known. i am the only one here. i am the only one here. i’ve been here for too long

too long


Audio Recording: “Lydia” April 2, 2135

What do you remember from your first days at Insight, Lydia?

I was dopesick. In pain. I hadn’t been without kite in years. I could barely stand. Couldn’t walk.

You were lost in many simultaneous futures, without the drug that stabilized your vision in the world and its one future.

Yes.

You saw me.

Yes.

And what did you think, that first time?

That you were my mother.

(Soft laughter.)


they took my eyes

they took my eyes

they took my eyes


Journal of Time and Sight, Vol. IV, Winter 2324

APPLYING ENUCLEATION TO ADDRESS THE PATHOPHYSIOLOGY OF HYPER-STEREOPSIC PARALYSIS IN KISMET-TRAINED SEERS

Interest in the procedure of enucleation (removal of the eyes) as an intervention gained prominence in the late 22nd century, after it was performed with some success by the liberatory research group, Insight Unlimited. Numerous studies have investigated the subject since the embargo against eye-removal was lifted in 2135.

At that point, the early Theory of Time Sight posited that children treated with the drug dimethylcathinone (“kite”) could be trained to see in four and possibly five, six, or seven dimensions. Davis and Shutter continued the theory, positing that time-paralysis (inability to move through time) exhibited in Kismet-trained Seers was a psychological, rather than physical, limitation. All children treated from an early age with dimethylcathinone should theoretically be capable of movement and not only sight. Hyper-reliance on world-sight, they hypothesized, might prohibit Seers from “flattening” time to one-dimension, a technique achieved by so-called “time runners.”

Following the use of double obsidian implants after eye-removal in one subject, L. Peres, research into the procedure was halted due to undisclosed complications.


The Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2135

TWO MEN SENTENCED IN TERRORIST PLOT AGAINST KISMET

Two men convicted of thirteen counts of ، in the first degree were handed six and three consecutive life sentences, respectively, this morning. The two men, Adam Hogkins, twenty-one, and Terrence Salz, nineteen, were convicted in July for their roles in aiding in the terrorist attacks on the Kismet Headquarters in Northern California in 2133, as part of a third-wing backlash over the use of “indentured servants” by the Kismet Corporation. The men, both students at the Kismet Training Academy, were found guilty of planning and providing material support for terrorist acts and illegal gang membership.

The trial was one in a series of cases that arose out of what authorities determined was a sprawling terrorist plot orchestrated by an activist organization known as “Quilombo Sombrio,” and carried out with the cooperation of one other student, Lydia Davis Peres, the daughter of a well-known Quilombo member. Peres has been missing since the attack on the Kismet Headquarters.

Normally relegated to one-time guerilla attacks, the incidents—-the bombing of a school and kidnapping of a student on August 10, 2133; the subsequent August 14th, 2133 bombings, and the largest escape of “indentured servants” at three Kismet locations—-underscore the growing threat of mainstream dissatisfaction with, and potential of violence toward, the company that “controls the future,” Kismet Unlimited.

Human rights groups decried the lack of evidence against either defendant in the July trial, and are petitioning for appeals. Judge Julius Johnson sentenced Mr. Salz to a minimum of ninety-six years in prison, and Mr. Hogkins to a minimum of 192 years in prison. The younger Mr. Salz was escorted out of the courtroom by the bailiff. Mr. Hogkins appeared to be transferred to another authority, representatives of whom waited outside of the courtroom. He was transported to an unknown location in an unmarked car.


Audio Recording: “Lydia and Ecco” August 15, 2135

Do you know what I have for you?

I can’t see.

Here. (forty-five-second interval.) Pick it up.

hnh. hnh. hnhh. hauh. Hau. Hau. Hau. Hauh. Haugh. How. How. Hough. Hog.

It is the head of your Hog.

(screaming)


i am the only one here. She is not the only one here.

Audio Recording: “Lydia and Ecco” (undated)

Who do you talk to at night? The boy?

I talk to Lydia.

You are Lydia.

No.


She wants to run, but she is still afraid. Why? (She still has hope, even after holding Hog’s head in her hands).


I whisper to Lydia in the dark. “Acalme-se.” Quiet yourself. I know our mother’s tongue. It passed to me along dark currents that human eyes will never see, human limbs will never wade through. (I have waded through the dry fields, rippled by dry wings that beat over sun-chapped skulls. I have waded through the salted sea currents. I have been worn away and dismantled. And still, I am).

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“You cannot change the past, meu coração.” My heart. “Only accept with wonder what the future may make of you.”

“I know your voice,” she whispers.

I laugh. “Of course you know my voice.”

“Who are you? Who let you in?” Her hand gropes in darkness.

I take her hand in mine. I make quieting noises with my tongue. “I simply come,” I say. “I walk through walls.”

She feels my fingers with hers. I place her hand on my face, let her trace the ridges of my eyes. I do not let her flinch or pull back her hand when her fingers slip and touch my eyes. They are smooth as silk, and very cold. “See?” I tell her. “There is nothing to fear. It is just stone.”

“I hate it,” she says, as though she were a child.

“You fear it,” I say patiently, as though she were a child.

“It is not me.”

“It is us,” I tell her.

“I need to leave,” she says. I feel her stand.

“Leave.”

“I have a child,” she says.

“Find him.”

She searches inside of herself for a feeling that has always been solid certainty, and now is so much fog. She pulls on air, says, “I will not survive.”

“Look at me,” I tell her. I take her fingers again, bring them to my face. “And see that you survive.”


The São Francisco Times, October 10, 2135

KISMET STUDENTS FOUND

A police raid was led on the dark town known as Quilombo Sombrio early this morning, located in a northern area of the state that has been largely uninhabited since flooding in the late 21st century gutted the cities and towns nearby. “We were able to collaborate with a private company that had obtained intelligence about the coordinates of the town, located in the foothills of Cruz Sagrada. We have long had reason to believe that the town was harboring fugitives belonging to the Kismet Group. We were able to relocate a number of the missing students. There were some casualties on both sides.”


She asks me how.

“You think of yourself as a peça. The piece. The ،. But we call ourself a pedra, the stone. Time cuts us, we do not cut time. We submit to time, allow it to move us. It will move us toward him. Our filho de pedra. Our endless echo. He who will cross all futures to create me, and destroy you.”


Audio Recording: “Lydia and Ecco” September 30, 2135

Quilombo Sombrio.

Quilombo?

A dark town in the Northwest. That’s where we must go.

Why?

To find my mother.


I arrive at Quilombo after the police have gone, after the fires have burned themselves out. Ecco warned me that the town had been razed. The seers collected, taken back to Insight to readjust to the light of time after their years living in darkness. “It will be good for you,” he said.

I marvel at what is here, what has been here, evading time. Inside of me, Lydia remembers the trees. I touch a giant that towers to my left—-wide plates of bark, roughly threaded, that smelled like vanilla and sugar. I touch my arm and remember a break she had received, falling from a tree as a child.

I sense movement. Survivors, coming out from the forest to collect their dead. Amongst them, I know, is Lydia’s mother. I do not see her with my eyes. I see her within time. She floats to me on its black river.

“Mamãe de Lydia,” I say, holding out my hands.

Her fingers are rough and warm. She traces the ridges of my eyes.

“O que é que você fez?” What have you done?

“Survived,” I answer.

“O que eu fiz para você?” What have I done to you?

Lydia, the child, the ،, reaches to her. “Mamãe,” she yells, deep within my head. “Save me.”

She still does not know that I am the one who will save her.

Mamãe buckles and falls. Her hands grab at my face, my shoulders, my arms, my shirt.

I pull my knife from her ribs, and wipe its blood on the tree.

“You told me to run.”


I am no longer afraid. There is nothing to hold me anywhere.

The future beckons with all its glistening teeth. I turn my eyes (my stones) and see vents gaping open, closed, open, open, open. Until each is as wide as each, and running is only a matter of stepping from one open mouth to another.

I run.

and the thing that is inside me the thing i am inside of—-spins me like a pebble on its tongue—-swallows me whole (i am swallowed)—-i am in its one long throat—-it is the length of the universe—-i am passed by smooth muscle—-into its belly—-bright and white as the sun—-if i look too closely, i will die—-i am swallowed into the one true future—-burning—-but i who have no eyes cannot see—-and oh god, i cannot die

everything leads here, ecco, you have seen this noplace too—-knowing this, i see you—-not the you that moves outside of time; the you that is being eaten alive (unending, it does not end) by the future—-

i see you, meu filho, the one i never named, you and i both know that there is nowhere to run—-

I open my eye. I see the Ecco who stands outside of time.

“Mamãe,” he says, and takes my hand.

He is no longer the sound, he is the echo. I am no longer the ،, I am the stone.

We have nothing, we are nothing, we can go everywhere.

Time moves us.


1. Research into the emergent phenomenon of runners found no biological basis for the tendency of Black children to become runners. Johnson, Edgar et al, “‘Running from Loneliness’: Assessing psychological trauma present in Kismet-trained time-runners.” 2156 November 11. Johnson posited running as a conditioned response to an underlying trauma disorder—a literal flight response.


About the Author

Endria Isa Richardson is a writer based in Oakland, California. Her essays have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Alpinist, and Bay Nature magazines, and her speculative fiction is in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, FIYAH, Nightmare, and others. Her work has received notable mentions in Best American Essays and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the runner-up award from the Black Warrior Review nonfiction contest. Endria holds a JD from Stanford Law School, and is currently a PhD student in African American Studies at UC Berkeley.

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Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the April 2024 issue, which also features work by Mitchell Shanklin, Modupeoluwa Shelle, David Anaxagoras, David Marino, Susan Palwick, Vandana Singh, Rich Larson, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition here.


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