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A short story



Written and Illustrated

by Madeline Dillner



"They're at the place again, sir. What should I do?"

Dr. Vaughn squinted at the screen through his thick glasses. Sure enough, there were two small figures on the roof of the Hockney Building.


"Hmm.. that’s the third time this week. Is the new world ready?"

Walter shuffled the papers on his desk, more out of a scholarly habit than actual utility. All his notes were on the computer now. "Uh, yes sir, I think so."

"What about Petunia?"

"Good to go. Giant and majestic, just like you wanted."

"And the child?"

Walter grimaced. "I couldn't get it coded. Its head never moved quite right." He shrugged.

Dr. Vaughn leaned back and sighed. Walter was usually not a disappointment, but sometimes he was. "Ah well, just as good. One is enough. Why don't you open it up?"

A smile broke across Walter's freckled face. "Yes, sir."




Marguerite sat cross-legged at the edge of the pool as she'd done every afternoon at 4:40 PM for the last week. She watched the ripples move on its surface, blown by the hot sea wind that always smelled faintly of rust. Over the lapping of waves, she could hear the chopper thumping into the distance, carrying tourist-coded androids out to the Roosevelt Range for some sightseeing. She sighed. There just didn't seem much point in going, in her opinion. Especially since as an employee of Rekal, she got a discount on all implanted memories. She knew for a fact there were at least 50 different Roosevelt trips in Rekal's database. They were popular, though not as popular as the Mars trips.


The greeting startled her, even though she should have been expecting him. He came here nearly as often as she did.

"Oh. Hi," she said without raising her eyes from the water.

Ray's shadow turned the ripples in the pool into dark purple swirls. That was new. She vaguely wondered what David was doing at home. Probably playing with his blocks, as he always did. He spelled the same thing over and over. "D-A-V-I-D.... D-A-V-I-D..." She had been meaning to talk to someone about that, to see if there was a software upgrade she could install to make him interested in something else...without triggering the old assassin programming.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Ray asked as he peered over the edge of the building onto the empty street below, his dark hair brushing his shoulders.

"Oh, they're not worth that much," she smiled faintly and squinted at the horizon. "It's just... do you ever feel like you're the last human in this city? I mean, don't get me wrong, I like my job, but it seems pointless to implant androids with memories, when we aren't even sure if they're enjoying it. And the Davids are great, but I miss the laughter of real children. Sometimes I don't even know if any of this is real. Like maybe if I think hard enough, it will all dissolve..." she trailed off, as she swished her hands into the pool in front of her.

"What's the alternative?" he asked, shoving his hands in his pockets and peering across the street at the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Electric Sheep's now-vacant luxury apartments.

"I don't know," she said softly.

Suddenly, the sound of sheet metal ripping in two split the air and an electric glow made the hair on their arms stand up. Ray turned around to see Marguerite staring, transfixed, at a perfect arch hovering in the wall just feet away. Through it, verdant canyons shimmered in the light of an alien moon. Golden dust floated like dust motes onto the pool deck.

Marguerite rose to her feet.

"Have you ever seen something so beautiful?" she whispered. Ray didn't answer. She turned to him and grinned. He looked back at her and blinked. 

"Let's go," she said. She grabbed his hand and together they left the City of Zelazny for the world through the portal.


PART II: Exploration

As they stepped onto a cool plateau illuminated by the glow of three moons, the smell of rust was replaced with a faint scent of lavender and rain and something sweet that they couldn't quite place. The silence pressed on Marguerite and made her hold her breath. Before her sprawled a sea of rocky shelves and spires and slopes and valleys, spun with ribbons of crimson and gold. A lazy river ploughed its way to the plains a thousand feet below.

She closed her eyes and tears squeezed down her cheeks. She was not sure if the portal had disappeared and she did not care to look. This was real, she was sure of it, and she would never return to the other side. Next to her, she could hear Ray's shuddering breaths, as the beauty overtook him, too. 

He squeezed her hand. "Shall we?" 


When she looked at him, he was smiling wider than she'd ever seen. She smiled back at him. "Last one to the floor is a rotten egg?" 


He paused, "You know, I've never understood that. Eggs don't rot." 


"I think they used to. Back when they came out of birds. I wonder if there are birds here!"


"Let's find out."


They scrambled over the rocky, salt-crusted playground, in a world that felt like it was made for only them.


PART III: Discovery

After hours of walking, they felt no closer to the great plains than they were when they started. They'd passed spires and arches and even swam in the sapphire waters of the canyon river. The golden dust of the alien planet coated their hair as it dried and gave it the same sweet smell as their air.

"Should we stop to rest?" Ray asked, as they neared some rocky spires. 

"Actually, I'm not tired. Are you?" She asked.

"No, I'm not. That's odd. We should be tired..." he mused.

"Maybe it's something in the air here," she said. "Shall we test it?"

"What do you mean?" he asked, perplexed.

"Race you!" she said, as she darted back up the canyon wall. Her fingers gripped stone with a reptilian strength, and her breaths stayed steady as she scaled tens and hundreds of feet up the wall. She could hear him yelping with joy behind her, as he did the same.


When they finally crested the canyon's edge, the moons had set and a pink glow bled into the horizon. For the first time in days or months or years, they sat like statues and admired the sunrise. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, letting the dust dance in his lungs.


Suddenly, Marguerite gasped. "Oh, Ray! Look!"


Following her finger towards the sky, he saw an elongated shadow backlit by the sky's lightening hue. It looked like the prow of a great ship. Or a misshapen dirigible like the restaurants in Zelazny used for advertisements. It was impossible to tell how close it was... or how big. 

They sat, frozen, as the rising sun revealed the rest of the figure: Two flukes hung like wings. A massive tail with an underside that made the finest silks in Zelazny's best department stores look like rotted towels. And finally, a great eye that blinked slowly and serenely. The leviathan floated peacefully in the morning atmosphere. 


"Do you think she knows we're here?" Marguerite whispered.


"How do you know it's a she?" he whispered back. 


"I...I just know." She turned to him with tears in her eyes. "Oh, Ray, I don't want to go back. I don't even care if we die here--I don't want this to end."


"Nothing ends, Marguerite," he said as he took her hand. "Nothing ever ends."

They watched the giant float across the morning sky. Her dewy skin sparkled in the morning sun like a curtain of emeralds. When she sang, the golden dust vibrated into airborne ghostly fractals and like a billion joyous stars, it danced around the feet of the humans from Zelazny. 




The Author

Halloween 2016

One of my earliest memories is of my mom pulling my sister and me in a Radio Flyer wagon to the Champaign-Urbana Public Library, where we’d spend the day with her reading books and wallowing around in their 1970’s-era recessed carpeted play area. In my memory, it was sunny in the bluish way that Illinois summer days are, and I was warm and happy. My mom was a librarian (still is!), and instilled in us a love for literature from an early age. Both parents read to us every night, even when they were exhausted (my dad would often make up words to the story as he nodded off mid-page). My favorite story was The Salamander Room, by Anne Mazer. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t also have wild animals and trees in my room.


When I was old enough to read chapter books, I devoured the Pony Pals series, and used to wish for a pony every night until I was well past the age where most people realize wishing for a pony doesn’t work. (I like to think that my refusal to accept reality was due to a staunch belief in the fluidity of reality itself, rather than straight up weirdness.) As I got older, I made my way through Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, as well as works by Susan Cooper, Garth Nix, Orson Scott Card, and finally Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. I even dabbled in Zelazny.


I’m all grown up now. I made it through college and work a full-time job doing environmental remediation and community development. Instead of taking my leave of reality via the pages of books, I now do it by spreading paint on canvas, often while listening to favorite TV shows. My ICELAND series was painted entirely with Stargate SG-1 as the background noise.


The three paintings you see before you did not burst forth from my imagination fully formed. The whale in the sky is an idea I sketched in 2014. The buildings were a doodle during a conference in the downtown Oklahoma City Library in 2016. The alien landscape was inspired by The Martian Chronicles, and drawn hastily in snapchat while pulled off the highway on a 3,500-mile solo road trip in 2017. One day as I went through my old sketches, these pieces told me they belonged together, and that there was a story that united them. I believed them.


This is that story. I hope you enjoy it.

Madeline Dillner was born in 1990 in northern Illinois, to an Okie and a Chicagoan. She is a state employee, a business owner, and an artist. She lives in Wynnewood with her fiancé (Colin), two dogs (Bella and Björn), three cats (Rama, Bootsie, and Annie), ten ducks (all named Claire), and nine chickens (Kevin, Captain Holt, Rosa, Gina, Sarge, Jake, Amy, Scully, and Hitchcock), in the house that her mom’s parents, Thomas and Ruby Ella Dillard, built. She paints in the same room that Thomas (a well-known artist in Wynnewood) did until his passing. 




A Game for Sci-Fi Geeks Like Me


Why don’t you see how many references to sci-fi and dystopian novels you can find in the paintings and in the story? There are quite a few…


If you need help, here’s the list:


  1. Whale named Petunia - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, where a whale and a potted petunia fall through space

  2. Child android named David - Second Variety, by Philip K. Dick. The blocks and bear in ILLUMINATION belong to David.

  3. Electric Sheep apartment building in ILLUMINATION – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – novel by Philip K. Dick (note the gargoyles)

  4. City of Zelazny - Roger Zelazny is a sci-fi author

  5. Golden dust - like the spice in Dune, by Frank Herbert. (I’ve only seen the movie. Please don’t hurt me.)

  6. Ray and Marguerite - the names of the real life Bradburys

  7. The helicopter in ILLUMINATION going to the Roosevelt Range – Martian Time Slip, by Philip K. Dick

  8. The elephant blimp in the upper right-hand corner of ILLUMINATION - an advertisement for the Gunga Diner (which itself is a nod to Gunga Din, by Rudyard Kipling) in Watchmen, by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins.

  9. The painted ad on the brick building that says "WHOLESALE" and Marguerite's job at Rekal (pronounced "recall") - We Can Remember It for You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick

  10. Pools at the Hockney Building - David Hockney is a painter who I feel has a very disconcerting and dystopian art style. He has painted a series of pools, and they creep me out.

  11. The clock at midnight in ILLUMINATION – The clock is not indicative of the real time (the painting is set at sunset), but the end of the world, like the doomsday clock in Watchmen.

  12. Three moons in EXPLORATION - Star Wars, where the planet Tatooine had 3 moons

  13. Ray’s last line is almost word-for word one of my favorite lines in Watchmen.

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