“Surface Tension” by Gary Hartley

Image: Tracie Cheng

The oil has spilled and we know it is coming. It will not be contained. There will be no expertise right there where it happened and none when it arrives, because it is us here, just us, with no expertise. Beaches await dark blankets and dead feather beds.

Over there, the robots are heading our way, from inland and on planes and from the places that the majority can only describe in terms like ‘nowhere’. We have made eye contact but not acknowledged each other meaningfully. We reap some benefits at this point of course; they have not pulled their guns and we might well venture to imagine that they never will.

We comment more and more on things, often with tenuous-at-best grasp of said things. Mute, we type everything out. We ensure there is no nervous tension this way, no silences for our eyes to take in.

Soon, the water shadow is upon us, part of our lives. We cannot sit on beaches and sip fizzy drinks and hope for, if not the best, not the absolute worst things all at once.

Smaller and smaller issues we find worthy of commentary. We let nothing go unexpressed; grasping opinions and acceptable formats from what was once dead air. As we tap tap we flick glances at colleagues and rivals and that’s, naturally, the same thing.

The once-living creatures and the floating plastic bottles are now the same sort of ephemera, croutons in abandoned soup that no service industry staff member will be seen dead collecting on a tray for improved aesthetics.

We see the briar pit and we want so badly to stick in it, for the experience firstly, then to tell friends and strangers and strangers as proxy friends, maybe go on to pitch it as a long-form work. The effect of the sun’s rays on the semi-liquid blackness is beautiful in a way. We do not vocalise, mouths stuck in rigid ohs as we ponder the lexicon of disaster.

There will be no humans coming to take our jobs, nothing that convenient. We will not be able to shout at their strange languages and funny clothes. Hard loss pollutes memories, but there will be some recall of this as the epoch when we could have done the solidarity thing, but dodged it for reasons that seemed practical at the time.

Near-dead bird can’t fan off the gloomy gloop, wings now in the hands of those flight non-experts that can be bothered with ideas as old as intervention. Solvents in the water, nothing ever solved but we pass comment, of course. Takes so hot the soles of our shoes melt, molecules creeping towards a water-bound family reunion of sorts.

Slip slapping in as ever, the sea, stoic in just another of its doomsdays. They say the ship’s been plugged. The robots don’t mind either way as they stare into mirrors, aspiring for more convincing emotional reactions. Their makers say the loving machines will clean up messes in future, there will be nothing like this, this all-too human thing. Their creations nod and smile; practice could possibly make perfect. The only sticking point might be price, but we’ll cross that smart bridge when we’ve coded it.

It never mattered that we had no expertise. That ship had sunk and the library had long shut. Not in my day, those thoughts and words that came before, those laughable irrelevances. Speak now or forever something bad. We comment and comment again, wondering if there’s an economic angle to this paragraph or the next. Everyone else is thinking the same thing. We might write about that too – shrink-wrap the new news, string it out to whatever word count is vogue.

It is what it is and a dozen or so other stock phrases for courage. Keep eyes closed, leave all communication devices on the sleeker-than-ever-before sand and do what’s necessary. The time for stepping in was yesterday and you blew it in a long, bad conversation – the only way is out. We walk into the oily water, watery oil, first ankle then waist-deep. The gloopy weight feels a bit like armbands, meaning it’s that time again. It’s time to wonder if it’s OK to feel reassured.






Gary W. Hartley is from Leeds, but has lived elsewhere for some time. He used to co-edit The Alarmist magazine, and has a book of poems out on Listen Softly London Press. He communicates into the digital void via Twitter: @garyfromleeds





The Chemistry of Mayson W. Burnham and His Surrounding Universe by Cavin Bryce

Image in frame by Nikolaja Lutohina



Ninety-nine percent of Mayson W. Burnham is composed of these following elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. Roughly zero point eighty five percent of the Mayson W. Burnham is composed of potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. As with all matter, an incredibly minute amount of  Mayson W. Burnham is composed of absolutely nothing- we’ll estimate here that 0.0001% of Mayson doesn’t even exist on an atomic level, that 0.0001% of him is utterly void of measurable building block materials.  Mayson W. Burnham is probably a physicist. Or a carpenter. Or a delivery man. Unless he is already dead, in which case he would simply be deceased.

Oxygen: a chemical element recognized simply as “O” on the periodic table of elements. It has an atomic mass of 15.999u. It is highly reactive element, part of the chalcogen group, and, following Helium and Hydrogen, is the third most abundant element in the known universe. As a gas, it is invisible. As a liquid, a light blue. Oxygen composes roughly sixty five percent of Mayson W. Burnham. It is used for cellular respiration- to oxidize his blood and keep his organic machinery pumping. If one were to dissect Mayson W. Burnham, on a microscopic level, they would find oxygen located in his proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, and fats.

When Mayson W. Burnham steps outside he first encounters oxygen when he takes a breath of air, as it makes up twenty one percent of his atmosphere here on planet Earth. Plants of all types, when they aren’t being feasted upon by herbivores and omnivores alike, have it in their kind hearts to thrust oxygen into the surrounding atmosphere so that their very natural predators can continue to subsist, to consume. Inside of any house, you will find a residential heater that metabolizes oxygen so as to warm the tenants exposed toes. When  Mayson W. Burnham gets too old for his brittle little lungs to effectively recycle oxygen for life fuel he will adorn a plastic mask fitted to a green cylinder full of concentrated oxygen. Heaven forgive  Mayson W. Burnham if he ever strike a match in this condition for this same gas that supports life also propels great rockets into space– and it would do a fine job of blowing our character to bits.

In the Tupperware housing leftovers, embedded in our water supply, and floating passively, unnoticed and unacknowledged in our atmosphere, one can find the element that composes most of their body. That is surely no evolutionary coincidence.

Carbon: recognized as “C” on our periodic table, this element is the second most abundant in Mayson W. Burnham. It composes eighteen percent of his body and is, not surprisingly, the fourth most abundant element in the universe. When oxidized, that is to say stimulated by oxygen, carbon will produce carbon-dioxide. This gas is potentially fatal to organic life. It is at least objectively interesting that the two most prevalent elements within the body of  Mayson W. Burnham, when combined in unfortunate fashion, would yield him a certain death.

When Mayson W. Burnham was youthful he sketched flowers and vases full of fish using graphite, which exists when the atoms within carbon are jostled about in just the right manner. It is socially expected of  Mayson W. Burnham to one day buy a great rock of composed of carbon, which we humans have named a diamond, and that he should one day present this rock to a woman he is very romantically fond of so as to concrete their relationship and instigate the act of propagation, a fancy term coined to describe continuing his species by means of sexual reproduction.  Mayson W. Burnham remains impartial to this cultural phenomenon. It should also be noted that outside of this ritual diamonds exist as the hardest naturally occurring material. One could conclude that it is a squandered resource outside of our innate requirement of it to survive.

Hydrogen: is an element that is highly combustible and reactive, recognized on the periodic table as “H.” Hydrogen is labelled atomic number “1” and, in its monatomic form, is the single most abundant element in the known universe; making up ninety percent of every atom. It is invisible, odorless, and all encompassing.

When Mayson W. Burnham is slurp, slurp, slurping down a big glass of water he is consuming a substance of two thirds hydrogen atoms and one third oxygen. This substance will fuel his body. It will allow him to think and breathe, to, effectively, act as a functioning human being. When he is tearing into a ribeye or enjoying the passive notes of a coq au vin, though Mayson is far too simple to ever be exposed to such a luxury, he will break down the organic material in order to strip away the valuable resources within it. Of course this includes hydrogen, which will be transported to the mitochondria of his cells in order to create energy for cell function, thus higher function of the body. It will allow Mayson W. Burnham to recall, run, or ruminate.

It is unfortunate, when observed through the scope of modern history, that humans- with their great big brains- have been able to utilize the destructive and volatile properties of hydrogen. The most evident example of this occurred in 1945, thirty one years before the birth of  Mayson W. Burnham, when the United States of America dropped two metal balls onto the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the final stage of World War II. Inside these metal balls were radioactive elements, such as uranium and plutonium, that facilitated nuclear fission by slamming hydrogen atoms with particles called neutrons. Plutonium is an element that was invented by humans for the sake of explosions. Uranium was invented by the universe but it only explodes when the humans tell it to. These metal balls were weapons known as nuclear bombs. In Hiroshima, twenty thousand soldiers, and between seventy and one-hundred-sixty thousand civilians were obliterated. Nagasaki totaled between forty and eighty thousand deaths. Most were instantaneous but others were more prolonged, a result of exposure to the lingering nuclear radiation.

In 1937, some odd years before the birth of  Mayson W. Burnham, hydrogen was used in an attempt to revolutionize air travel. The LZ 129 Hindenburg was forced to use the highly combustible gas due to helium being a scarce, expensive, commodity at the time. At 7:25 (local time) the Hindenburg was sighted to have caught fire. It was immediately engulfed in flames and crashed. Thirty six people burned to death or were killed upon impact.

Nitrogen: is an element recognized by the symbol “N” and carries the title of atomic number seven. Nitrogens electron configuration looks like this– [He] 2s2 2p2 — and  Mayson W. Burnham might argue that it is neither aesthetically pleasing nor entirely disagreeable if he ever cared to think about it. It is a diatomic nonmetal named after the Greek word “πνίγειν” which means, literally, “to choke.” It should be noted that along with every other element at our disposal we human beings have harnessed nitrogen for the use of killing. This act is referred to as inert gas asphyxiation, which is a very politically correct term meaning murdered by gas.

Despite its innate ability to kill, nitrogen is also a very important part of human reproduction, and the reproduction of any creature that converses with its future generations through the language DNA. Mayson W. Burnham shares, or shared, between 99.0% and 99.9% of the same DNA as every other human on the planet. DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. Deoxyribonucleic acid is the main constituent of chromosomes. Chromosomes carry our genetic information, they tell us who we are, and who we are not. Without nitrogenous bases, DNA would fail to hold shape and the conversation between parents and unborn descendants might look like this:

Parent: you will look like this!

Descendant: Like what?

Parent: and behave this way!

Descendant: like how?

Parent: and you will live!

Descendant: but I won’t!

This element, component, constituent- what have you- is the seventh most abundant in our very own Milky Way system. It is also incredibly abundant in our atmosphere where it is actively unified into N2; a unit composed of, as you might have guessed, two nitrogen atoms. N2 makes up seventy eight percent of the gaseous mixture surrounding our civilizations, which is pretty ironic considering its asphyxiating nature.

There is a complex order through which nitrogen is recycled and used here on our little planet. I will condense this process for you now, in the form of a darling little tale:

A rabbit nibbles on a piece of grass, as they will often do, and actively digests the organic material. In this circumstance our bunny here is considered a consumer. When the rabbit defecates, as they will often do, small traces of nitrogen will enter the soil through decomposition; which we will soon examine more thoroughly. After eating up grass for several years and making adorable rabbit babies, as they will often do, our fluffy buddy will, unfortunately, snuff it. As soon as those adorable eyes sparkle no longer, and the pinkest of pink noses ceases to twitch, microorganisms will begin feasting on its corpse. Horrific image, noted, but entirely natural and vital to our ecosystem. Those microorganisms, along with maggots and larvae, will munch on the fur and flesh of our dear friend, inevitably producing ammonia. The ammonia will then undergo nitrification in the soil and be absorbed into surrounding plant matter to be consumed by the young of our late bunny– who was arguably taken too soon, as most adorable creatures are.

Needless to say, Mayson W. Burnham will also undergo decomposition, and certainly may have already. He will eventually, if he has not already, bite the big one. He will then be digested by microscopic monsters and maggots alike. Just the same as our rabbit acquaintance. And so will your dearest friends, and your parents. And so will the mail folk and doctors and brothers and wives of the world. Every person. Every animal. This is our fate as organic beings apart of a natural system.

Calcium: an alkaline earth metal labelled “Ca” on our periodic table and referred to as atomic number twenty. It is a pale yellow metal until it is oxidized, in which it takes on a dull silver appearance. It is the fifth most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust and it’s atomic weight looks like this: 40.08 g.mol -1

If you are anything like Mayson W. Burnham then you probably think of milk when you hear the word “calcium”. And it is true that humans, the honest mammalians that we are, produce milk with calcium within it. The post prominent form of calcium is found embedded in limestone and in the fossilized remains of ancient sea creatures.

Outside of the consumption of dairy products, Mayson W. Burnham makes use of calcium when he starts his car, for its 0.1% calcium–lead alloys in the battery allows for decreased water loss. He has also made use of it in the form of Drain-O, which is often used to disintegrate the piling up of hair and skin particles left in his sink. Even though he cannot produce calcium,  Mayson W. Burnham has a great mass of it stored in his skeleton. He has absorbed it through years of ingesting precious animal products.

Finally, what is left of Mayson W. Burnham is composed mostly of trace elements. This includes the aforementioned potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. This also includes iron, iodine, fluoride, copper, zinc,chromium, selenium, manganese and molybdenum. Without these wonderfully minute specks within him, Mayson W. Burnham would cease to function.

Of course there is an unregistered, unaccounted for, volume of space that resides between all material constructs. I hypothesize that it is this lingering lack of mass, the 0.0001% of empty space, that accounts for Mayson W. Burnham’s drive to pursue new experiences. It is an unconscious drive to fill the unfillable void. When he is stuffing his eyes and gullet up with organic and intangible stimuli, it is likely an attempt to satisfy that empty microcosm. And, unfortunately, it is this same lack of initial ingredients in that microscopic space between his flesh that probably instigates the bitter feeling of being incomplete. It is as though his mind is able to recognize that between the cells churning away, between neurons and electrons, bosons and quarks–existing beside the teeniest, tiniest, of particles–there is a definite space that yields nothing, yes, absolutely, positively, nothing. . . and that infuriates him.

So,  Mayson W. Burnham will go on being a perfectly capable animal if he still lives. He will consume calcium and breathe oxygen. He will eat and read and paint and participate in sexual encounters despite his unwillingness to procreate. He will wonder if these things have yet to fill that lingering, empty microcosm. And they won’t, because they can’t, because chemistry is more complicated than smiles and movies and grilled meat and colors.


Image in frame by Rick White


Cavin Bryce is a twenty-one year old student of English attending the University of Central Florida. He spends his time off sitting on the back porch, sipping sweet tea and watching his hound dog dig holes across a dilapidated yard. His work has been recently published in Hobart, CHEAP POP, OCCULUM, and elsewhere. He tweets at @cavinbryce.