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“Lucky That Way” – Jonathan Coumes

Dad was always the strong one. The one who held the family together, the one who kept Mom from going over the edge when Katherine disappeared. Dad coaxed her back out of herself, out of the valium fog. Got her to walk, got her to read, to take two bites of a six-hour meal. Dad was the rock on which we built our whatever. It must have been his hobbies—piles of Hemingway, half-drafted blueprints, sawdust and woodwork, an endless succession of fly rods. He could center himself and bring us into orbit.

So I guess we should have noticed. When he started me tying his flies, stopped carving and then left his shop altogether, when he started The Old Man and the Sea at breakfast and hadn’t made it to the marlin by dinnertime. I know I should have noticed. Not that it would have helped.

I was lucky enough, though, coming back when I did.

Even in Mexico we’d gotten word of the germ. Governments and agencies were closing their nets down, turning communications more local, more parochial, but messages made it out, bounced from satellite to satellite, skirting authority. News was vague—maybe it was something natural risen up out of the east, or maybe it was just a new bug cooked up to keep one despot or another republic from getting the bomb.

I flew into Detroit four hours before they torched the hospital in DC. All that effort to get the ambassador back from Tel Aviv just to blast him and his folks. Must’ve been some crossed agency wires at work there—it’d been awhile since any two parts of the government had what you would call “cohered.”

What went down in the capital was far off enough, though, as my ride dropped me off at my folks’ place and tootled a good day from the dash. Mexico still had cabbies and they still took paper pesos. I guess I was lucky I still had two year-old dollars to get me out before they sealed the airports.

What I remember coming up to the house were the trees, turning colors in the summer now, leaves blazing red and gold because of heat stress instead of cold. The trees in the Sierra did the same thing, green right up until the dry season, and then red, and then grey. I worried about what I’d find when I finished crunching through the scarlet carpet.

I was never nervous about Dad when they retired—he’d worked harder off the clock, building decks and furniture and wading into the freezing Muskegon for steelhead. Mom, though, she’d hated her job so much that she’d made a lifelong point of doing as little as possible at home. Some gardening here and there, a brief fit of scrapbooking at graduation, flurries of activity around the holidays. I thought she’d be one of those quick decliners, brains leaking out their ears without the structures of employment.

I tried to sell her on an implant, an Apple or a Samsung, something I could use to badger her into Scrabble, keep her mind active through my spotty connection out in the bush. She pushed back though, stuck with her phone even after her friends went under the laser. I got it at the time—I’d hauled paper notebooks all around Mexico. Neither of us could convince Dad after his diagnosis. He said that if he had to rely on flash memory, he’d rather stick with his own, failing all the same.

I stopped for a cigarette behind the wilting maple in the yard. I knew I’d reek when I got in, but as far as I could see, the arguments on my side were getting stronger all the time. I’d be lucky if the cancer took me before what Dad had, and what’s fear of the ever-more-treatable when we have the decay of the world to be afraid of?

Dad’s Alzheimer’s and the weather, Dad’s Alzheimer’s and our politics, all of us forgetting what the sky used to look like, all of us forgetting what used to make us us. We could grow a new lung, maybe a new throat too by the time I’d need it, but every cerebral stem cell setback was more encouragement for those people down South to commit us to the Lord’s inevitable will and keep any homegrown cure off the table. If my folks had stayed in Singapore, the techs could have syringed a whole fetus into Dad’s prefrontal, but they were GM lifers and after what happened to Katherine, Michigan must have felt like the safest place to make their stand against old age.

“My baby!” Mom wrapped me up, pack and all, childhood perfume wafting up my nose. Pulled back and regarded me. “Smells like cigarettes.”

I grinned and shrugged and then dipped down to kiss her on the forehead. “You only quit when you got pregnant.”

She cupped my cheek and then pinched it, hard.

“David! Come say hello to your son Jonathan. He’s back from Mexico!”

“I know where he’s back from, woman. And quit yelling—it’s not my hearing I’m losing.” He walked around the corner and looked at me, confused. “Well tell him to come in then.” He stuck out his hand and I hesitated, fear settling. “You must have met my boy down there. I’m David.”

I looked over at Mom, but she’d turned away and put a hand to her mouth. “Dad, I—” and I trailed off, raising my hand to meet his.

“Too slow!” He snapped his hand back and Mom burst out laughing beside me. “Close your mouth, son,” he said, and bearhugged me, strong as ever. “You think I’d forget my favorite boy?”

“I’m your only boy.”

“And my favorite in spite of yourself.” These jokes were a constant since the year in elementary school he’d spent calling me Alice.

“It’s good to see you, Dad,” I said, relieved. Grandma couldn’t pick any of her four sons from a crowd twelve months after her diagnosis.

“We thought you were going to stay down south until I really couldn’t remember what you looked like.” So did I. Maybe I even hoped I would. It was easier with Grandma Barb after she’d forgotten to try remembering. She was happy to let anyone call herself her grandson, as long as they held her hand.

“Play a game of chess, son?”

“Sure,” I said, and I hucked off my pack and followed him into the living room.

Even before his illness, he’d been a reactionary player. No planning, just picked the best move on the board at the time. For a while that was more than enough, but I joined chess club in high school and smartened up a bit. Now he’d achieved a kind of Alzheimer’s perfection to the technique, impaired short term giving him a Zen I found cornering my queen. I hadn’t done myself any favors in the interim, playing game after game with Alejandro out in the Sierra, fucked up on cane liquor.

“Don’t be using that chip in your head, son. Let your old man take you to school now.” I rubbed my temple reflexively.

“I dunno if it’d know what to do with you anyway.” I watched as he used his knight to swat a bishop out of my back row. Mom bustled in and put a plate down.

“We read about your girlfriends cooking for you down there on your feed, but this is the first and last sandwich I’m making you. Don’t get used to it.”

“Wouldn’t dream, Mom.” I moved my king’s rook up and Dad’s knight put me in check.

“You have to see the whole board, son. The whole board.” I shook my head in disbelief, took an absentminded bite of sandwich and grimaced. Mayo and ham on mayo and ham.

“Mom looks really good, Dad. She’s been keeping busy?” He snorted.

“I’ve been keeping her busy. Pills, doctors, losing the keys. You know she’s always been steady in the storm.”

Steady in the storm.

Back in high school, I broke my back sledding on their second tour through Michigan. I’d thought it was just pulled muscles and we’d tried bedrest for a couple of days. Then Mom’d had me take my shirt off and seen the fragments of my L2 tenting out the skin like stegosaurus vertebrae. Dad was spending weekdays at the plant in Ohio at the time and she cut work to get me to Sinai Grace.

Menopause and hormones had hit her hard on the back side of life and I could tell she was barely holding it together by the time we made the intersection at Southfield and Twelve. No designated left turn signal and we were edged out when the red left us stranded in cross traffic. GM was the only outfit still making driveable cars by then and the early self-drivers played well enough together, but didn’t know what to make of our erratic navigation. She started quietly tearing up as they edged around our bumper and I leaned as far over as I could to pat her on the shoulder. “It’s uh. It’s gonna be okay, Mom. We’ll get the next light.”

Repeat at the hospital when they told us in the office on the third floor that we’d have to go to the X-ray on the ninth for the fifth time. I stood up and sat her down. “Mom, look, you take care of the paperwork down here, and I’ll be back in a second.” She nodded at the floor and pressed my hand with her own damp, teary one. I inched to the elevator with a crutch I’d looted from the hall closet out in front of me. Pressed the button and then tapped my glasses, called my sister’s name and her face floated into view.

“Yes, brother?” Sleepy, anime posters on the dorm wall behind her.

“Would you believe my back’s broken and Mom’s the one crying? Give her a call for me.”

“Your back’s what?” Awake now.

“Yeah, we don’t talk enough. Call Mom now though?”

“Will do. You’re…?”

“In an elevator, gonna lose you. Thanks.”

Turns out that none of the smithereens impinged on my spinal cord, even if I’d lost a half-inch and any chance of making six feet. No surgery, just an under-shirt brace that gave me an aluminum B-cup for six months. My own following of five or six wide-eyed nurses repeating, “You’re very, very lucky, young man.”

Dad wasn’t wrong about Mom now, though, and my surprise turned to awe as we settled into those initial months. Every year since middle school she’d shrunk into herself as he got more vital, maybe wider around the waist but her skin thinner, slacker, her hair going grey all at once the summer she stopped dyeing it, silver roots blending awkwardly with the last of auburn.

Now she was a force, rousting me out of bed at six and sitting me down right before we went in to get Dad. She picked up every piece he’d put down, tackling the kitchen and then the yard, filling up the spaces he’d left empty.

Alzheimer’s patients learn tricks to hide the holes crowding out their memory, and he must have prepped for that first day, because it was never as good afterwards. Me and her he had, and he would not let go, but he’d cycle through books, starting in the middle and reading a page, frustrated muscles working in his jaw whenever Mom and I started reminiscing about anything more than a few days before.

And all the time it was creeping closer. Decades of sick-scares had brought hysteria home and then put it to bed. Quarantines were rough, but we’d gotten good at them, and our initial calm was unflappable, no matter how threatening the new strain.

It was the implants that shook us out of our cool cynicism in the end. It wasn’t just that video got out; that was always gonna happen. So much of the domestic grid shot through floating redirects and commercial sats that no combination of agencies could block them all. It was the perspective the plants could give you on this new germ, listening to panicked breathing like it was coming from your own mouth and looking down at metacarpals sloughing flesh like they might have been your own hands. The first time I tapped into one, watched myself stroke an oozing sore with bare white calcium, I knew that, for horror, the written word was as dead as television.

I don’t know why we ran, where we Americans got this idea that a cross-country road trip was the right response to the end of the world. A virus that thrives on crowds and we were doing our damnedest to move like cattle. No safety from the germ in the herd instinct.

They thought they’d caught it when they burned the hospital, but somebody must have made it out and into Washington proper. When it leapt quarantine into Baltimore, that’s when things got Bad. I mean, empty a symbol as it was, losing DC was a blow, but the spread, that was something else. Big quarantines need people, see, lots of people, and what we had was machines. Great at killing, not so great at crowd control. First they wasted Baltimore, torched the city but good. And then I guess they figured fuck it and they glassed the metro area. But they must not have got it all, and the idea had already taken hold and people kept moving outwards.

Baltimore riled folks. That burst of white blinded half a million watchers on the live feeds, and in the aftermath, the communers in the Renaissance Center on the river took up with the UAW leftovers who’d colonized the Armory and a few hundred college kids from Wayne State. Built barricades and turned the center of Detroit into the protest capital of the country. I drove out there once or twice, tried to freelance a piece on the breakers chaining implants for big time hack-ins, but even the dodgier outlets shied away from anything that seemed anti-quarantine.

Dad fell around then anyway, and I stopped going out. He called me from the second floor looking for his glasses and when I came around, he was standing at the top step with the frames perched on his head. “Dad,” I laughed, “Bet you ten dollars I know where they are.” He turned away from me and pointed.

“I know they’re in the bedroom. I just saw them in the bedroom.” This had been a problem even when I was in grade school.

“Nah, Dad. Try scratching your noggin. Get the juices flowing.” He lifted his hand and found them.

“Alright, alright. I’ll take ten off the four-hundred thousand you owe me in tuition.” As he turned again, his foot missed the top step and he came down. Not in slow motion but with terrible velocity, folding and tumbling and cracking the rails. I caught him at the bottom with his eyes closed, left hand bent and wrong, and blood from the broken lenses trickling down his face. The sour smell of voided bowels stole out and I called for Mom.

I wanted to help, somehow, but I ended up back in my room instead.  Weakness in him made me sick inside. Like the only time I saw him cry, the day that Grandma died, the end of her own five-year odyssey with Alzheimer’s. She’d been diagnosed just as I was getting old enough to know her, and I couldn’t see her passing as anything but a relief. Grandma was papery skin and farts I pretended not to notice and acting like whoever’s name she used was mine. She was holding hands for hours in the Alzheimer’s ward as less ruly patients drooled and gibbered and pissed themselves while tired orderlies saved their abuse for when grandsons weren’t around. I liked Grandma more as the box of ashes we kept in the drawer under the phone while we waited for Grandpa to die, too, and I’d hated Dad a little for crying over it.

I checked out for a while there, let Mom take care of cleaning him and babying him and helping him eat with one hand. I spent my time in the yard smoking and getting the house ready for winter. The weather’d changed in every way except the ones we thought it would. We were in for the deep cold, an adjusted Gulfstream blasting the Arctic straight to us December through March. Detroit used to be safe from the lake-effect, but we were about to have half of Superior snow down on us.

I boarded and foam-sprayed the windows, filled the ferro-cistern in the basement, brought out the poptunnel and ran it from the door to the street, shored it with two-by-fours from Dad’s woodshop. Learned a bit of the carpentry and pipework he’d been trying to teach me since I was old enough to implant out during a lecture. Even went and felled some lumber for fire. Buckeye Wind and Solar was turning out all the power in the world, but no amount of progress seemed to get Detroit Edison’s grid through winter without the rolling blackouts.

The times it was too dark to work I spent ‘planting into the protests in Detroit. Routed through a server in Alabama, figured if anyone was gonna follow me back, those guys might as well taste a bit of the endgame they’d been praying for. It was real exciting going in the city for a while, agency sites crashing left and right, symbolic victories against forces that played more with hard lethalities than the semiotics of revolution.

You could tell a change was in the wind when stories on the commune started cropping in the Times. Somebody’d ended the press blackout and it was only a matter of time before we saw the contrails over Detroit. Screams and glass and fire and end of feed. Social unrest in the land of the free and the home of the fast forgotten.

First big blizzard of the season came in that same day, right on the heels of an ice-storm that glazed the trees in an inch of brilliant crystal and brought down power for a hundred miles around. Either some agency had a real maverick meteorologist helping them time the Detroit strike or they just got real lucky. I stoked a fire in the living room and Mom lit a propane lantern so Dad and I could play. Ten moves in and I was down a knight and a bishop to his single pawn.

“Grandpa used to fall asleep. He can’t even remember that we’re playing, and they both whip me.” Mom tousled my hair.

“Karma, hon. You’ve been mouthing off to your father since high school.” From tenth-grade on, if I found myself winning, I’d make up a Russian and tell him I was playing the ‘Chicorsky Offense’ or the ‘Suvarov Gambit.’ Dad took another pawn. I’m not sure he could remember. He’d zone out, couldn’t hold me and his move in his head at the same time. He shivered, thinner than me now.

“You warm enough, Dad? Dad?” He looked up, eyes glazed, then focused.

“Plenty warm, young man. Plenty warm.” I stood and draped another blanket across his lap. He moved twice while I was doing it.

“Check!” I shot Mom a glance and she shrugged.

A banging from the door. “Alarums, off-stage,” mumbled Dad. Mom started toward the front.

“It’s Mike, honey. He said he’d come over for a lantern if the lights went out. You keep an eye on that game.”

I looked at Dad, his queen trembling in his left hand on the way to checkmate, and then followed her.

She turned the knob and the door slammed open, snow whirling in like prop-blast from the tunnel around a man who was not our neighbor Mike. Big bulges at his temple, serious hardware, coat in shreds, blood leaking out around a hunk of shrapnel in his leg. He tumbled in and Mom caught him and laid him down, his mouth working silently as he pawed at the singed flesh around his implants. “Mom, I’ve got him. Why don’t you go get that shit off you.”

She picked herself up, pressing blood from her hands onto her jeans and headed for the bedroom upstairs. I nudged the guy with an umbrella, no response. A breaker escaped from the attack in the city, must’ve hit him in the blast and then torched him plantside-out. Little seizes running up his arms and legs, agency burnware shorting his nerves.

“How in the hell did you make it out here, guy?” I poked him again. He turned to face me and opened his eyes. Deep, deep red, pupils lost in the germ. An ache settled in at the back of my throat.

Mom was sitting on the bed, rubbing her hands on a towel.

“Can’t seem to get it off.” She smiled weakly, red on the terrycloth. “You have a cigarette, hon?” I laid a pack and a book on the bed. “You know, I buy some every time I fly, throw the pack away afterwards. Just in case we get to ‘smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.’”

She struck a paper match and I could see her eyes pinking in the sulphur flare.

“Thirty-five years,” she exhaled. “Why don’t you check on Dad, baby, see if he’s alright.” She closed her eyes and leaned back against the headboard.

“Yeah, Mom. Sure.” I walked downstairs and found the chessboard alone, my king laid on its side. Checked the kitchen, the garage, still and frigid. Dad’s Stingray split-window under a sheet and the Suburban with chained tires. Not the study or the dining room either.

I climbed the stairs slowly, figuring how many days I could stick around, afraid I’d find him crying hot blood tears right along with her. He caught me by the arm coming from the bedroom, a glimpse of pillow-covered face and the still-lit cigarette in silent hand before he pushed me back down again. “It’s done, son. Let’s go.” He kept moving me forward by the small of my back, steered me to the garage, motioned to the camping bins and climbed in the passenger door of the big van. I loaded them in back, got in, and punched the ignition. Dad put his hand on mine as I reached for the stick.

“Are we going on a trip?” Face blank, questioning. I shut the door and shifted into drive.

“Yeah, Dad. Going on a trip.”

We found out later they’d hit the city twice. Once to put the commune down and once to dust them. Germ spreading so fast that agencies were more worried about retribution than containment. Must have got some wires crossed there.

I wonder sometimes if I could have gotten to the door first.

I guess I’m just lucky that way.

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The Colliding Worlds Of Meghan Lake – Chinyere Onyekwere

Somewhere in rural America, mother and child enjoyed great outdoor scenery–ravishing rolling grasslands nestling a sparkling clean river. Mother laid down her giggling infant, wandered off barefoot to explore the soothing caresses of the river’s cool waters, blissfully unaware of unfamiliar things lurking behind her, inexorably honing in on her child.

Unworldly hands, with deft mysterious swipes, implanted a queer tracking device in the child’s elbow, activating hieroglyphic-like data inscriptions to glow intermittently within the flesh.

The infant metamorphosed into 6-year-old, merry Meghan Lake, an adorable compassionate soul whose love of nature found her sneaking out of her quaint little cottage on balmy nights to gaze upon the sheer expanse of inky black skies with joyful abandon—mad for the heavenly bodies that glowed like twinkling diamonds set in black velvety folds.

During a nighttime escapade that profoundly astounded Meghan, a star cluster, without warning, shot across the firmament before coalescing in dazzlingly mystifying formations, including slow-rotating, gigantic elliptical-shaped hoops.

She stood transfixed, mesmerized by amazing sights before her. Adrenaline kicked in, pumped, sent her hurtling back inside the cottage, yelling to her mother the magical things seen‚Äîbut she was scolded, silenced for telling tall silly tales. 

“I saw something wonderful!” screamed Meghan, running to her daddy, with girlish giddiness.

“You always do honey,” slurred her father with a lopsided grin that tugged at her heartstrings.

Debilitating bouts of stroke bound Meghan’s father to a wheelchair, bonded father and daughter in a history of deep love-trust dynamics.

But the irritating, fertile imagination of the child’s has no place in the world of harsh realities, the world of Meghan’s long-suffering mother.

Retreating to her room in a state of heightened alert, Meghan instinctively knew something momentus was about to go down, the nature of which her young mind could not begin to comprehend.

She fought gallantly to keep awake, but sleep, with the stealth of a night thief, plunged her into the abyss of nothingness.

Her eyes snapped open to an aberration of sights‚Äîblue, not black skies, above a roofless room. Time stood still in deafening silence as life-sized sparkling orbs cascaded down from impossible heights above, into Meghan’s seemingly expanded quarters.

When a weird-looking, resplendently robed androgynous humanoid being emerged from the floating sphere closest to Meghan, charged air particles from its aura stood her ponytails on end.

Employing an advanced form of telepathy, the being conveyed a message, synchronizing unfathomable language and thought patterns in English, directly to her mind.

Earth-shattering revelations terrified the 6-year-old, sending her careening into Daddy’s cold lifeless body whose sightless eyes would never reward her with warm tender smiles‚Äîever.

Meghan’s world, ripped asunder, hurled her into horrific depths of unspeakable anguish, the interminable kind relentlessly haunting the now 34-year-old woman who excelled to become a forerunner in Bonhamm‚ÄîAmerica’s trailblazing biotech conglomerate in the Big Apple. Time and trauma buried otherworldly childhood encounters deep beneath recesses of her bruised and broken mind, as if nothing of the sort ever transpired.

Magnificent Meghan is a workaholic, devoted to reducing reliance on petrochemicals, a loner who shuns relationships, commitments, distractions. It seems no one can hold a candle to Daddy, except (probably) Pete Bonhamm, Meghan’s sweet, devoted colleague and confidant.

Fate came calling on a chilly Autumn afternoon when puzzling circumstances railroad Meghan to open a lone door in Bonhamm’s subterranean level, a labyrinth of unnerving, dark, dank corridors crisscrossing its terrain.

Bizarre sights electrified. She opens up an inter-dimensional portal to another realm.

An array of striking towers, spires, and architectural masterpieces left her spellbound. The grandiose, pristine, vertical city stretched high and wide as far as the eyes can see. Spherical crafts hovered, whizzing with lightning speed across strange,  pastoral landscapes of lush foliage mysteriously parting for Meghan as if receiving aristocracy.

A being, vaguely familiar, alit from a hovering craft, approaching Meghan who cowered in great fear despite the soothing power its spiritual aura exudes. It held a book in its hands.

“Who are you?” she asked with trepidation.

“Your mind buried something the soul longs to unearth,” came the ambiguous, riddled response in her head.

With an urgency bordering on desperation, the entity revealed to Meghan it belonged to the highest echelons of a technologically advanced, spiritually evolved race of lightspeed travel masters emanating from Xanix constellation, a star system of great distances, incomprehensible to the human mind.

A cosmic maelstrom upheaved their galaxy, causing them to extract and transport their cities to alternative home worlds. A gargantuan interstellar citycraft in their exploratory fleet inexplicably malfunctioned in deep space and drifted off course, on track for a cataclysmic collision with planet Earth. Fleet-to-fleet transfers had been employed for the mothership’s passengers.

Repulsed by man’s obsession with war, his extermination of the species in a quest for world domination, the travel masters had to contact an untainted earthling, a kindred soul (who, for reasons unknown, had yet to give the world’s inhabitants this crucial message). Life hung in the balance! Time was of the essence! Apparently it ran different speeds in different parts of space‚Äîa truly baffling contradiction that had seen Meghan become a full-fledged being in a short durations for their world.

Relativity could see her age suddenly, ravaged with senility, unable to remember her name, let alone the impending calamity about to befall the human race.

Handing her a book, the being enlightened Meghan in grave, hushed tones. A precious tool for jogging her memory, actualizing her grand calling.

Words of protest failed her as the being bowed reverently, took its leave.

The haunting cityscape receded into a cloudy vortex of nothingness, leaving Meghan to gaze in rapturous wonder, shocked at having been enclosed in a super-colossal alien craft moments earlier.

She glanced down in thunderstruck consternation at the book’s cover: The Colliding Worlds, by Meghan Lake. The back cover advertised chronicles of childhood alien encounters and an odyssey with an ill-fated mothership, and bore an image of an older version of herself.

It plunged her into a mental meltdown of confusion, denial and despair. She rebelled and tossed the hardcover into a roadside dumpster without a backward glance.

But fate is determined to find a way.

Meghan soon cracked, confided in Pete who in turn consulted his pal Brian, a top-notch research expert for SETI, a renowned agency for the search of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Fate saved the day when Brian teamed up with Meghan to retrieve the book from the hands of a homeless man about to burn it for warmth.

The stories within unleashed past memories embedded deep within dark crevices of Meghan’s subconscious. They came back in fragments of intuitive flashes, reminding her of the free-falling mothership still on its now 34-year journey, hurtling towards an unsuspecting world. She even read of their run-in with the homeless man, their timely prevention of the book’s demise.

“Oftentimes, people meet their destiny on the road they take to avoid it,” Brian tells Meghan. They both revisit the destitute with blankets and home-cooked food.

The U.S. government’s slow-churning machinery went into overdrive when Brian called on NASA’s chief astronomer, setting off an explosive chain reaction galvanizing top military brass into high alert.

Then hell broke loose.

The burden of knowing the future threatened to unhinge Meghan, to drive her to the precipice of madness.

“This really can’t be happening,” she lamented.

But it was.

Meghan’s conundrum thrust her on a treacherous collision course with Pentagon’s Air Force General Mathews (a.k.a. Warhead), Chairman Chief of Staff‚Äîa no-nonsense military genius whose intolerance for unexplained phenomena undid the careers of any uniformed men who dared entertain conspiracies of UFO sightings and alien abductions.

The general thrived on current blistering hot spots, exploits in Syria, North Korea, Iraq and other migraine-inducing mayhem plaguing the planet.

Meghan’s falling-ship fable raised red flags in military circles and the blood pressure of General Mathews, who deemed the unfortunate debacle a lunatic’s ridiculous prank gone far enough.

His withering put-downs, intense grilling, and accusations of masterminding a “fabricated hoax” pushed the boundaries of Meghan’s forbearance. The general intended to shut her down, go ballistic on these fallacies threatening his superb military apparatus. Heaven forbid the US army be turned on its head on his watch!

Meghan paused, dug deep into the core of her being for the power to knock the fire-spitting, sardonic General down a few pegs.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” she asked.

Brian and the military personnel in the room cringed at the effrontery.

“I know who I am,” responded the general, glancing at her psychiatric records dossier. “Just wondering what I’m dealing with.”

That sent Meghan storming from the room, only to be stopped dead in her tracks when he barked, “I’m not finished yet!”

The U.S.-led coalition of NASA, world space research facilities, defence systems, astronomers, and astrophysicists pointed a super-solar gravitational lens telescope to the heavens, to spot the sharp image of a free-falling spherical object whose sheer size was stupendous. It was expected (by NASA calculations) to reach Earth’s stratosphere within eight months.

The world erupted in chaos when wind of the impending disaster spawned venomous, highfalutin conspiracies from a cacophony of voices. Meghan‚ this freaking hybrid species amid humanity‚ how come she knows things the world does not? Skirmishes with an obnoxious, hysterical media exacerbated her torment.

The leaders of the free world, bedeviled by a destroy-deflect dilemma, turned their weary eyes toward their brand new toy, and best kept secret‚ Typhon, an advanced weaponized space system aptly code-named after Greek mythology’s most terrifying monster.

But Typhon was in its testing stages, giving the military nada chance to troubleshoot its capabilities. Nightmarish visions of a space misadventure virtually ruptured General Mathews’ spleen.

The ignoble intentions of military horrified Meghan, inflamed her to become a terrifyingly strong-willed one-woman resistance, forcing military brass to exercise restraint, to extend hands of goodwill rather than commit barbaric acts of destruction against the highly spiritual race.

Like a doomed man in the path of a tsunami, General Mathews capitulated when she astounds him with knowledge of Typhon’s existence‚Äîdivulged (according to Meghan’s book) by Ben Brooks, who would become America’s most hounded whistleblower.

Armed with privileged insights of the sophisticated behemoth of scientific wizardry suspended in outer space, Meghan coerced the military to use Typhon’s unique cutting-edge mechanisms to stall the free-falling ship for a soft landing on U.S. soil.

“They’ll be back for the ship one day.”

As the mothership approached Earth’s orbit eight months later, the scientific and military communities sprung into action, with the world as we know it degenerating into madness.

World politics went into a tailspin and international alignments fractured, with U.S. allies siding with her ship-engagement decisions, while sworn enemies conspired to blast the monstrosity to smithereens out of space.

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“The Emperor’s Liar” – Jeff Stoner

It was Eighthday night, and the card tables in the seedy Rift Beta Niner casino were hopping. Martin “Cutshanks” LeCroix looked down at his chips and grimaced through his funjuice buzz. The stocky, gray-haired space pirate had only enough chips for one more hand, and nowhere enough to cover the credit he’d been advanced by the house. If he busted this round, he was out, and flat broke. In the lawless Rift Zone, that meant only one thing: indenture.

Tourists got off easy—a night or two in the rent cribs. Rifters paid a premium for Midworld meat, but an operator with Cutshanks’ portfolio would be expected to repay in trade. That meant doing a dirty job for nothing. In the past, he would have taken it in stride, but he now had Elsa to consider. She’d threatened to leave if he ever did wetwork again. She was dead–set against it, either because of her scruples, or because he’d tracked blood into her boudoir last time. He wasn’t sure which, and he didn’t want to find out.

“Ante,” said the tarnished dealerbot perched on the edge of the table. Cutshanks pushed in his chips and received his hand. It was garbage. The highest card was the Eight of Planets, and none of the other cards could be combined with it. Imperial Six Suite Holdem was a difficult game, but it did not occur to him to cheat. The penalty for third–time cheaters was genital avulsion.

He’d been caught twice before.

His companions immediately raised. Cutshanks saw their bets. There was no point in folding. He wondered if the casino would let him work the cribs if he identified as a licensed gigolo, but dismissed the idea. He didn’t have the ultraviolet holotattoo of an accredited courtesan, and they would check. Acquiring one moved straight to the top of his to–do list.

It was time for the players to reveal their Shunt cards. The short, gray–skinned woman with a multiplicity of arms like a Shakti figurine revealed the Captain of Nebulae. The colorless man in a shocking pink basesuit produced the Minister of Stars. Both beat anything Cutshanks could make with his paltry Eight, but he put on a brave face and flipped it. The other players gasped. The image of a raven–haired woman with shining silver eyes stared back at him from beneath three starry crowns. It was the Empress, the high card. The game was played with a hundred decks, but only one Empress.

Cutshanks collected his winnings, which were sufficient to put him back in good stead. Nevertheless, he cashed out. It wasn’t the funjuice—his Shunt card had truly been the lowly Eight of Planets. It was nothing less than a miracle, and that meant his employer was nearby.

Cutshanks purchased a killjoy fizz to sober up and found a quiet table to await the inevitable interview. He hadn’t expected to be interrupted on this sleazy, boozy backwater world, which is why he’d chosen it for his holiday. Still, it spared him a dirty job, and for that he was relieved, if not especially grateful. No gift from his employer came without strings attached.

His drink was almost gone when delicate hands alighted on his shoulders. “Here you are,” trilled a voice like warm honey, and soft lips nibbled his earlobe. A gorgeous platinum blonde in a black nanodress flowed past to find a seat opposite him at the table. She was accompanied by two scantily-clad women, one a local Rift girl, and the other a Midworlder, judging by her functional cat ears and tail. These companions settled in close beside her. Almost in unison, they gasped. The blonde’s silver eyes twinkled mischievously, and Cutshanks noticed that her hands were nowhere in sight. They were unquestionably highly skilled.

Another observer might mistake Cutshanks’ guest for a Freya-class professional dominatrix, but he knew different. This creature was an ancient entity, a shape-shifting posthuman who’d been many things—scientist, explorer, mass murderer, and once, under the style Jørgen Pangloss, the Emperor of the Galaxy. Conveniently for him–the Emperor was usually male–he was universally believed to be dead. Again, Cutshanks knew different. “Nice meat suit, boss,” he said. “I like it better than your ordinary one. Easier on the eyes.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cutshanks. I take pains with each and every one of my appearances,” his employer purred. “I see you have slid back into your old ways. What would become of you, if not for me?”

“I’d be a much better man in every way, thank you. What should I call you today?”

“You may address me as Dr. Paasche.”

The cat girl stirred from her blissful preoccupation. “Oh, my Mistress!” she squealed. “I had no idea that you were so accomplished! When did you receive your doctorate?”

Paasche scowled. “Phoebe, you have spoken without permission. Your punishment will be most taxing.”

“Oh, yes, my Mistress!” the girl moaned eagerly.

“Are you going to tell her?” asked Cutshanks.

Paasche’s eyes flashed, but she answered pleasantly. “Certainly. I matriculated in 1935, of the old calendar.”

It was a reminder that Jørgen could not tell a lie. Cutshanks waited for the women to react to the admission that their “mistress” was over three thousand years old, but they were no longer listening to anything but her supremely articulate fingers. It was time to get down to business. “This is a brilliant conversation to be sure, but it’s late, and I plan on shipping out before first sunrise. What do you want?”

“Shop talk so soon?” Paasche sighed. “Very well. I have need of a very small thing. It’s a data point, a single number, but it will take the deceitful touch of an artist to tease it loose.”

“What kind of data?”

“Details, details. Wouldn’t you rather know who your mark is?” She turned to the Rifter girl. “Alina, please give good Mr. Cutshanks the ring that I gave you last night.”

Cutshanks hesitantly accepted the bauble from the girl’s quivering fingers. His eyes flew wide. The “ring” was made of tan stone, covered with writhing, ever-changing sigils. It was a Grig shunt key, or he had never seen one before. The Grig were long-extinct, but their shunts still riddled the universe. Some of them opened in very remote and dangerous places. “Where does this lead?” he asked warily.

“Patience. That is a rare slaved key. You’ll need to use the corresponding entry shunt. It is inside Rosencrantz’s Bubble, upspin from the Rift Zone. The terminal shunt is somewhere deep in Archontes-controlled space.”

“Are you telling me that my mark is an Archon?”

“Yes.”

“What do you want from them?”

“You must find out how many of their kind remain in the universe.”

“No. No way in hell!”

“What’s the matter? It’s a simple job.”

“It’s a death sentence is what it is. They disintegrate honest folk for asking less.”

“Aye, they have no patience for the honest, which is why I am sending you. Truth takes root slowly, but a lie is believed straightaway.”

“What if they refuse to say?”

“That’s your problem. No matter what they do, you must bring back something of value. The way forward will be made clear when you reach your destination. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

Cutshanks sagged. Like it or not, there was no way to get out of the job. He’d spent his retainers as fast as he’d received them. If he refused, his employer might take offense. Unlike the girls, the thought of being disciplined did not appeal to Cutshanks. “Is there more?” he asked.

“I’ve uploaded the particulars to your ship. My usual rates and conditions apply, but since you will be dealing with nonhumans I’ll toss in a ten-percent hazard bonus. Is that acceptable?”

“I guess it has to be. How will I contact you afterwards?”

“You won’t. Return here, and I will contact you. Now, if you will excuse me, it is indeed quite late. Make ready, my bond–slaves. You have been most naughty this day, and your rewards await you.” Paasche arose with the fluid grace of a ballerina. With her escorts following close behind, she vanished into the crowd.

Cutshanks gulped down what was left of his killjoy, and heartily wished for a normal job like actinide running, or even a good, old-fashioned hit. Any amount of blood on the upholstery was better than this.

Three days later, Cutshanks’ starship, Sneezy, flicked into existence at the alleged location of the entry shunt. Sneezy wasn’t her real name. Elsa insisted on calling her Hoppetossa, even though Cutshanks couldn’t get his mouth around the word. He called the big old freighter Sneezy–to his ear, her name sounded like a sneeze–and Elsa had given up correcting him. She sat next to him in the cockpit, scanning the empty parsecs. “We’re here. What are we looking for again?” she asked.

“The entryway of a Grig shunt.”

“Right. Nobody’s ever reported Grig remains in this sector. We’re out in the wastes, on the backside of an old supernova shock boundary. There are no objects inside our sensor horizon. Is this job somebody’s idea of a joke?”

“No, it’s got to be here. A locked shunt has no footprint. We’ll find it, trust me.”

Elsa Sonder stretched her long, lean arms. “I don’t trust you, remember? Who’s our client again?”

“Nobody you’d know,” Cutshanks replied, and hoped she’d drop the subject. Elsa had no idea about Jørgen, and he wanted to keep it that way. She was a former academic, long on mathematics and short on suffering fools. Although she wasn’t his type, she was blonde as Nordrom ice and her legs went all the way to the rudder pedals and back again. Cutshanks had liberated her from her former employer while privateering for the defunct Unificare Federation, with an eye to a quick conquest. He hadn’t counted on her being utterly ruthless, and happy to be free of her humdrum life. They’d become uneasy partners, both in the cockpit and between the sheets. But the name of mad Emperor Pangloss could be a deal breaker, and he knew it.

She wasn’t so easily diverted. “It’s about time that I got involved in the capture side of this operation. You’ll take work from anyone. This isn’t the first wild goose chase we’ve been sent on.”

“It’s no goose chase. I go way back with our client. He’s honest. If he says it’s here, it’s here.”

“An honest man? I haven’t met one of those since I’ve known you.”

Cutshanks tamped down a snort. “Look at this! I’ve got something” he crowed, swiping a sensor plot from his HUD to the main holoconstellation.

“Nice deflection, but I saw it five minutes ago. It’s just a dust cloud.”

“There shouldn’t be a dust cloud here. That old supernova scoured out this bubble but good.”

“Well, by all means, study it. After all, we’ve got nothing better to do than kill our time and ruin our credit.”

“I’m going out there myself. The ship’s thrusters might disperse the cloud.”

Elsa shot him an unhappy look. “Is that wise?”

“Nope,” Cutshanks replied, and retrieved his helmet from the footwell.

After an uneventful spacewalk, Cutshanks braked to a stop deep inside the cloud. Here and there, glassy grains flared in the beam of his headlamps. A few adhered to his white oversuit, a thin smattering of cosmic fly scat.

“Have you decided to give up yet?” said Elsa in his headset, her voice bracketed by electronic bleeps.

“No, but I need a favor. Please calculate the center of the cloud and give me a waypoint. I’m having a hard time orienting.”

After a pause, a red dot popped up in his HUD. “Here you go,” said Elsa. “What are you looking for?”

“I’ve got a hunch. There’s got to be some sort of mass holding this cloud together. It won’t take me long to check it out.”

Cutshanks jetted cautiously toward the target. There had to be something there, something with a tiny bit of gravity. Sure enough, something small and flat caught his lights. It was the gloved, four–fingered hand of a Grig. He withdrew the key from a pouch on his chest, and tried it on the middle finger.

It didn’t fit.

In quick succession, he tested the others. After the digits, he slid the key over the tip of the long alien thumb. It was a perfect fit. Suddenly, he was bathed in a beam of blinding light.

“’Shanky, when you’re right, you’re right,” hollered Elsa. “But what the hell is it?”

He didn’t know. The giant fisheye of a shunt had appeared a hundred klicks away, but instead of the ordinary vista of some other region of space, it churned with a kaleidoscope of blue and red light. His radiation alarm wailed. Whatever it was, it was pumping out hard stuff. He had to get back inside. Fast.

Elsa might have read his mind. “I’m doing a short burn to close the distance.”

“Roger, thanks! It’s hot out here,” he replied, firing his suit jets for all they were worth. “I’m going to maneuver into your shadow, and work my way back.”

Sneezy came up fast. Cutshanks shot past into darkness. The boxy bulk of the starship loomed between him and the gaping shunt, backlit by an aureole of her own thruster gas. He aimed for the blinking blue strobe that marked the port airlock. “I gotta stop living this way,” he mumbled.

Elsa heard him. “Don’t. I’ll leave. Your job is to make it fun for me.”

He sighed. “If roasting my sorry skin is what it takes to keep you, then there’s nothing for me to do but fry.”

“That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me. By the way, I know what we’re looking at.”

“What is it?” he replied, catching the recovery trapeze on the first try. The outer door slid open. Cutshanks scrambled inside to lean breathlessly against the side of the airlock.

“It’s a black hole.”

Safely back in the pilot’s seat, Cutshanks squinted at the swirl of blinding light pouring out of the open shunt. “For a black hole, it could at least have the decency to be dark,” he complained. “It’s more of a bloody bright hole. It doesn’t look much like a hole, either.”

Elsa looked up from her calculations. “It’s just a name. You can’t see the hole, anyway. The light is coming from plasma in the accretion disk. I’m glad the terminal shunt isn’t positioned over one of the polar jets. We’d have been vaporized.”

“This is interesting, to be sure, but we’ve got paying work to do. Is it safe to go through?”

“It is. The terminal shunt is orbiting the hole at a safe distance. We won’t fall in, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

He laughed, and took hold of the controls. “Hold on to your sweet ass, I’m burning.”

Sneezy slid forward, and passed through the shunt into a spectacular parcel of space. The blazing accretion disk of the black hole was overshadowed by a colossal jet of plasma shooting from its hub. Close-up, the polar jet was a broad column of purple flame so bright it threatened to overwhelm the canopy filters. An unhappy warble from the console meant that Sneezy’s radiation shields were running at emergency power.

“I see what you mean about being vaporized,” Cutshanks said.

“Damn. The shunt really is in a polar orbit.”

“Does our orbit cross the jet?”

She glanced nervously at her HUD. “No. We arrived at closest approach. We’re already moving away. We’ll miss the jet at the other pole, too.”

“That’s a relief. Who in their right mind would put a shunt in a polar orbit around a black hole?”

“Maybe the Archontes? Everyone says they’re survivors of the Grig.”

“They’re certainly powerful enou-whoops!” The collision alarm screamed. The console showed they were overtaking an object in a lower orbit. The familiar beetle shape surprised Cutshanks. “That’s a human scout ship,” he announced, jockeying Sneezy onto an intercept course.

“How did he get here?” remarked Elsa. “He must have opened the shunt.”

“And somebody closed it behind him,” Cutshanks noted darkly.

Cutshanks eased Sneezy to a stop a short distance from the scout ship. It was an old model miniship, her once-bright livery seared to ghostly yellow and grey. But, her transponder was still working. “Well what do you know? She’s got power and a Spooky engine,” Cutshanks announced.

Elsa pursed her lips. “I didn’t expect that.”

“Nor did I. Since there’s no sign of the Archontes yet, I’m salvaging her.”

“Huh? Why?”

“I’ve got to bring back something, whether I meet my mark or not. A live prewar engine might do the trick.”

“Maybe it would. But you’re not bringing it back with our ship!”

Cutshanks chuckled. “Our ship? There’s only one name on her title, love.” His hands flew over the controls. Secure atmosphere in the cargo hold: check. Open the bow doors: (after dismissing a cascade of critical safety warnings and ignoring a hard look from Elsa) check. Nudge Sneezy into a slow coast: check. Almost before Elsa could let out her customary disgusted sigh, the bay doors closed over the little scout. Almost.

Cutshanks and Elsa stood in the shadow of the scorched and battered scout ship. She was intact, with no obvious damage. Nevertheless, Cutshanks walked around her twice with his hand scanner, just to be sure. After the second pass, he stowed the device on his belt. “She’s clean. Not even much residual radiation.”

“What do you think is inside?”

“Hopefully something valuable,” he replied, flipping open the cover of the hatch controls. “I’ll have it open in a second. Cover me, just in case there’s a monster in there.”

She drew her stun pistol. “You’re blocking my shot, you know.”

“Stun both of us and put the monster out the airlock, then,” Cutshanks replied as he fiddled with the hatch, “almost…almost…there! Got it!” The hatch hinged up, revealing a dark interior. Cold, stinking air rushed out.

“Ugh. Somebody didn’t seal the loo,” complained Elsa. They shone their lights inside. The ship only had one pressurized compartment, cockpit and living space in one. Empty packages, scraps of food, and filth covered every horizontal surface.

“It’s a lifeboat situation,” Cutshanks observed, stepping inside. He brushed off the pilot’s seat and sat down. The controls were familiar to him. “She’s got a full load of fuel, and her drive is online and ready to go,” he said. “The operator didn’t even try to return via normal space. We’re not within jump range of anything.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” replied Elsa distractedly.

Cutshanks turned to see what had captured her attention. She was studying a coffinlike box along the port bulkhead. “What do you suppose this is?” she asked.

He recognized it immediately. “It’s a medical stasis unit. A lot of smalltime operators carry one. If you get hurt, you trigger your disaster beacon and climb inside. It works out sometimes.”

“This one is occupied.”

“How can you tell?”

She scrubbed at the grime on the box with the heel of her glove, revealing a window. Through it, Cutshanks could just make out the outline of a human face. A brief search uncovered the status panel. Through a patina of funk, all indicators shone green. The man was alive. Cutshanks whistled low. “Well, damn. Let’s see if we can wake him up.”

Cutshanks turned two dials simultaneously. The lid of the unit slid open to reveal a tall man with roguish good looks and a scruffy blond beard. Color was already creeping back into his cheeks.

“It won’t be long until he wakes up,” Elsa said. “I wonder who he is?”

“Oh, I know who he is.”

All at once, the man sat up, blinked hard, and focused on Cutshanks. “Marty? What are you doing here?” he slurred.

“That’s funny, Ben. I might ask you the same thing. Elsa, meet Ben Bozkart, my old partner. The last I saw of old Ben was his back, when he stole my ship and left me to the tender mercies of the Outrim Irregulars.”

Ben shook his head. “Damn, Marty, give an old buddy a break! That was ten earthyears ago.”

“Eleven, and my fingers still ache where they broke them.”

“Eleven? Oh my God. I’ve been marooned for a year.”

“You deserved it,” Cutshanks rumbled, but Elsa cut him off.

“Never mind him. Do you remember how you got here?”

“It doesn’t matter. I’ve got big news. The Mad Emperor is alive!”

Cutshanks’ heart caught in his mouth. “You can’t mean Jørgen Pangloss?” he said.

“Yes, him! Everyone believes that he died in the Arzenekoi War, but he didn’t.”

“You know this how?” Cutshanks demanded.

“Because until I came here, I worked for him.”

“Really? What sort of job did he give you?”

Ben grinned conspiratorially. “Nobody knows this, but old Pangloss cannot tell a lie. It drives him crazy. He calls it his ‘divine handicap,’ and for a man–or whatever he is–in his position, it certainly is. That’s where I came in. I was the Emperor’s Liar.”

That’s my job! Cutshanks wanted to shout. He sneered instead. “You got the liar part right. Tell us another one, Ben.”

“It’s gospel, I swear!”

Elsa put a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Why don’t you tell us the whole story?”

Ben flashed her a winning smile. “Thank you miss. You’re too good and gracious for this scoundrel here. After the war, I started a little business running actinides out of Pannus Secundus. I got caught. Not by the Ord Lex, mind you, but by the damned Arzenekoi. They had me all fixed up for transport back to one of their infernal hideouts–God knows why, they wouldn’t say–when the Emperor came a-killing. I found out later that he hunts them for sport. He hit those poor blighters like fire from heaven. You can’t imagine how he fights.”

Cutshanks grimaced at old memories. “I’ve heard the stories. Let me guess. He demanded service in exchange for your life.”

“Yes, in perpetuity. I was desperate, so you can believe that I took the deal.”

Cutshanks could, but he chose not to let on. “You expect us to buy that?”

“I do,” Elsa said. “Ben, go on. Is there more?”

“Oh, yes. It was a good gig. Four or five jobs a year, most of them easy. But he insisted on an exclusivity clause. I got bored of waiting around. It occurred to me that people might pay good money for the whereabouts of the mad Emperor, so I put out feelers to my old contacts.”

“You ratted him out?” Cutshanks said, incredulous. For all his swagger, the thought of double-crossing Pangloss terrified him.

“I wouldn’t put it that way. I saw it as contributing to the free flow of information. But it never came to anything. Before anyone got back to me, he gave me a job. ‘Take this,’ he said, giving me a ring made of Grig stuff, ‘and take it to a place in the Upspin wastes. Put it on the finger of the hand that you find there.’ I did what he said. Lo and behold, a shunt opened in front of me. A look inside couldn’t hurt, I decided. But as soon as I passed through, it closed behind me.”

“Somebody removed the key,” Elsa said. “That’s a hint. We need to leave.”

“Not so fast,” Cutshanks said, “I’ve still got to talk to the Archontes.”

Elsa rolled her pretty eyes. “Shanks, this is a dead system. There’s no Archontes here.”

Ben coughed. “They’re here. The place is lousy with them, but they are very good at hiding. They’ve got something that beats our Casper Field hands-down. I sent them a distress signal. They told me that I didn’t have the sign, and left me to die.”

Elsa shook her head in disgust. “Cruel bastards.”

Ben flattened himself against the side of the stasis box, eyes wide. “It looks like they may have reconsidered,” he said.

Cutshanks whirled, and found himself face-to-face with an Archon. Tall as a man, it had a long face, huge eyes, and a fishlike mouth. Alarmingly, it had six pairs of wings. It spoke to him in perfect Galactic Standard. “Your headparts bear the sign of the Accursed One. An interview shall I grant.”

“Mark of the accursed?” he squeaked, before he remembered Dr. Paasche’s soft kiss. Then everything vanished, and he found himself in another place.

When Cutshanks’ sight returned, he was falling. He screamed.

“Please stop that,” said the Archon, mashing its topmost pair of wings over its ears. They floated together in freefall inside an enormous, transparent spacecraft. The black hole hung in the distance like a silver top, its radiation jets stretching up and down into infinity.

Cutshanks regathered his wits. He had no idea how to address the creature, so he fell back on what he knew best. “Sorry, you took me by surprise. My name’s Martin LeCroix, from Rift Prime in human space. Nice bit of real estate you’ve got here. With this view, you might consider subletting. But only if you put in a floor.”

“I know who you are. You are the first and last of your kind to visit. Please take a message to your master. Henceforth if he desires to speak to us, he must come himself.”

“You know Jørgen?”

“Name him not!” the Archon roared. “It is bad enough that he troubles us with his witless lackeys. From now on, all who arrive at our Watchcamp will be slain.”

“Isn’t that a little harsh? I only came to ask a question. How many-”

“I know what you want,” said the Archon. “Have you forgotten that you arrived uninvited, by virtue of stolen property? More importantly, are you sure of your mission?”

“I suppose I am.”

The Archon emitted a peculiar bark. A laugh, obviously. “You know not your master, then. Did he tell you what this place is?”

“No. What is it?”

The Archon gestured toward the distant hole. “Of old, that was the Flame of Righteousness. The warlords of the Pleroma used it to purify the galaxy of the taint of the Most Deplorable.”

“Flame? Purify? The black hole is a weapon?”

“It is. Did you not wonder why the shunt opened so near to the flame? There is not one shunt, but many, a line of nodes that orbit the black sun. It was constructed so that at any time, a shunt could be opened above one of the fires. Nine hundred and seventeen worlds were thusly incinerated. Long ago, a mass ejection changed the orbit of the nodes, ruining the weapon, and making us liable to receive unwanted visitors.”

“That ring I had… it’s not a regular key. It’s the trigger.”

“Yes. Our holy warlord would place it upon his dewclaw, and point at his target. The last to wield it was slain in combat, and the trigger was lost. Your execrable master discovered it, and somehow divined its use.”

Cutshanks gulped. It was starkly clear what Jørgen was up to. “Damn. He thought your black hole gun still worked. When Ben outed him, he sent him to die in the jet. It failed, so he trapped him instead. I’ve been sent to fetch Ben so he can finish him off.”

“You see at last. Your master is even more devious for his honesty. Will you return to him?”

“I hate to. Ben’s a filthy gankchoker, but he doesn’t deserve to die. Have you got any other ideas?”

“Escape from your master is impossible, and you may not stay here. You might slay yourself, and make small progress towards your atonement. But that is none of my affair. Return, and tell your master that we number two legions, plus one.”

Cutshanks was astonished. “Just like that, you tell me? Why?”

“Knowledge is currency. It is a paltry sum, but it must serve as your gate money. You may find it has uses,” the Archon replied cryptically. “Now, begone.”

In the same instant, Cutshanks was back inside the cabin of Ben’s scout ship. Elsa and Ben were still there. “Have I got something to tell you!” Cutshanks exclaimed, before he noticed that she was scowling, and her weapon was in her hand.

“You’re damned right you do, you lying bastard!” she snarled.

There were few cheap, quiet bars on Rift Beta Niner. Cutshanks finally found one three days after his return, and commenced a proper bender. Four nights later, a slim, pale man dressed in black sidled up next to him and ordered a whiskey. He sipped in silence, watching Cutshanks out of the corner of his silver eyes. At last, Cutshanks broke the silence. “Good to see you again, boss. How are the girls?”

“Profoundly satiated,” a rebodied Jørgen Pangloss replied. “They parted from me most unwillingly, but none made of airy flesh may accompany me on my rounds. I see you have returned alone. That is unexpected.”

“Tell me about it. You might have mentioned that my old partner was involved. Elsa and I had a falling out, and she ran off with him.”

“How unfortunate. Have you any idea where they might have gone?”

“No. We weren’t on speaking terms when she left. Ben might have taken her anywhere in the galaxy.”

Jørgen’s shining eyes drilled into him. “I’m disappointed. There is a matter concerning Mr. Bozkart that I greatly desire to pursue. If you have nothing Elsa of value to offer, I insist under the terms of our relationship that you fetch him for me at once.”

Cutshanks suppressed a shudder. “I may have something better than Ben.”

Jørgen cocked an eyebrow. “You do?”

“Yes. The answer is two legions plus one.”

His employer’s cold stare melted into an amused grin. “They told you, by God, and the true number, too! Since I asked for no more, your job is done. The day is saved, and your wages along with it.”

“You knew all along?”

“Of course I did. My spies had a two-millennia head start on you.”

“A bloody test! I should let you keep your sodding money!”

“Aye, but you won’t. I’ve seen your receipts. Why so angry? Don’t you test your engine before leaving port? Your job was one of the worst assignments I’ve ever given anyone. But you solved the puzzle and became the first man to survive a face-to-face encounter with an Archon. It remains to be seen if you will succeed in all your designs, but your scorecard is impressive so far. You are a master of your craft, well worth what I pay you. Congratulations.”

Cutshanks nodded stiffly. Jørgen was on to him. He hazarded a question. “So, am I free to go, with my pay?”

“Of course. You’ll find the deposit waiting in your account.”

Cutshanks’ relief was palpable. “Thanks, boss. A pleasure, as always.” He rose to leave.

Jørgen caught his sleeve. “I believe you have something of mine.”

Cutshanks withdrew the trigger ring from his pocket and handed it over. “Sorry. Oversight on my part.”

“Indeed. And the finger, if you please.”

He reluctantly surrendered the crumbling alien digit, safe in a little vial. “You don’t miss a thing, do you?” he grumbled.

“No, I don’t,” Jørgen said, “especially not the controls of the most powerful weapon in the galaxy. It would be a pity if they fell into the wrong hands.”

“I never knew you were the ironic type.”

Jørgen grinned. “I’m always happy to surprise. But haven’t you presumed on my good will enough for one day? You must know it’s a losers’ game. Fortunately for you, I am slow to anger, even when my servants conspire to deny me my rightful prey. Don’t worry, I expected no less! It was part of your test. You may keep your life, your money and my compliments. But next time will be different.”

He knows everything. Cutshanks groped for an appropriate reply. He came up empty-handed, nodded politely, and beat a hasty retreat from the bar. Jørgen waved affably after him.

The violet tendrils of first sunrise were driving back the inky shroud of the Rift when Cutshanks finally stumbled back to the grungy spaceport. He found Sneezy–no easy feat in his condition–and climbed up to the empty cockpit. There was time to kill before his launch window opened, so he started the preflight checklist. But no sooner had he cycled the inverters when delicate hands came to rest on his shoulders. “Good mornin’ love,” he said.

“Good morning to you,” Elsa replied. “You stink. I saw the bank deposit. Did he buy our cover story?”

“Would I be here if he didn’t? When did Ben leave?”

“Yesterday. He’s heading out to the new tech digs on the Suhail Frontier. Jørgen can’t be everywhere.”

“He’d better hope so. Why’d he stick around for so long?”

“I didn’t expect you to disappear for an earthweek. You know how much I hate the Rift worlds. I got lonely, and Ben was good company. He stayed as long as he dared.”

Cutshanks jerked around in his seat. “You didn’t…”

“Of course not,” she replied. But her eyes said otherwise.

“I cannot believe you!”

“And I can’t believe you!” Elsa snapped angrily. “How long have you been the Emperor’s Liar? A year?”

“Yes,” Cutshanks admitted.

“And you never thought to tell me?”

“It was for your own good.” “It’s not like I can get away from him. You’ve seen how he handles troublesome employees.”

“I have. That’s why I’ve decided to forgive you. That, and for helping Ben escape. You took a big risk, and I know you didn’t want to.”

“You got that right,” Cutshanks groused. “That bastard hasn’t changed at all. While I was out putting my neck on the block for him, he shoved himself in where he didn’t belong.”

“I’ll be the judge of where my men belong. Look, if I’m going to forgive you, you’re going to have to forgive me. Is that too hard?”

“Of course not,” Cutshanks replied, feeling better for it. “Want to make up the fun way? We’ve got time.”

She snorted. “You’ve got to be kidding. Go scrub off while we’re still connected to ground services. I’ll run the checklist. I want to get out of here. The Emperor’s Liars shouldn’t let grass grow under their feet.”

Cutshanks laughed. “We’re in this together now?”

Elsa eased into the copilot’s seat. “We sure are. I see how he pays. I want in.”

“Trust me, he’ll want in, too,” Cutshanks muttered, and hoped this would be his last job for Jørgen Pangloss.

But he knew different.

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“A Small Price to Pay” – Aaron Emmel

Walk as though you are accustomed to firm ground beneath your feet. Shake your hair loose. Let your arms swing away from your body. Increase the length of your strides as though you’ve spent your entire life surrounded by abundant space, more space than could ever be explored or exhausted—but keep your head down, because here on Earth you are not a free woman of the New Cities; you are a subject of the Perpetual Empire.

Solana Grayne repeated all of Frank Digane’s advice to herself as she followed him from the edge of the secure zone, where the cab had dropped them off, past four blocks of government-owned office buildings that lacked signs or logos. She knew they were being watched. She avoided gawking at the steel-sheathed towers looming above her. She did not turn or flinch as a pair of World Walkers emerged from the buildings’ shadows. She felt their eyes examine her. The trick was to avoid looking back.

Pretend you can’t see what’s really around you. That’s how to survive on Earth as an Iven.

Ignore danger.

Look weaker than you are.

Amanda would have walked right past the World Walkers without betraying her fear. She always looked like she was exactly where she was meant to be. But you’re not here, Solana thought to her sister. I have to do this on my own. She ordered her rhea to keep her calm by regulating her cortisol and adrenaline levels. Two minutes later she and her guide were at Genocorp’s sealed outer doors.

No, she reminded herself, not Genocorp. Genocorp is gone, along with the United States and our home and everything I remember from before. This is the Perpetual Empire. This isn’t the place I left.

But when she breathed in Solana smelled soil and plants and concrete and a thousand other once-familiar scents that she had forgotten, the omnipresent atmosphere of her childhood.

“Can the subject next to me open the lock?” Digane’s voice was an urgent whisper.

Solana refused to answer to that label. She studied the keypad screen. Someone must have entered not long ago, because by enhancing her infrared vision she could just make out the dissipating heat left by the finger taps. Solana pressed a series of six digital squares starting with the one marked by the faintest heat signature, which identified it as the first one to be touched. An old trick with new tools. As her fingers tapped the screen, her rhea easily defeated the biometric sensors.

A dozen meters behind her the World Walkers stopped. To all appearances she and Digane had authorization. Solana and her guide stepped through, and the doors closed and locked again behind them.

Soft light bloomed in the ceiling far above as they made the long trek across the gleaming slate-tile floor. Dark paintings in massive frames dominated the walls, their images shifting as Solana and Digane passed to show them how they would look with the Center’s proprietary biomodifications.

Solana stretched out her senses, remotely hacking into the Center’s administrative programs as they walked, tracing the building’s layout, cataloguing its encrypted databases and analyzing its defenses.

In the nearly ten hours Solana had been on Earth, she had appreciated her power for the first time. The Iven rhea had been created on Earth, for Earth, and now, flexing her powers, she understood what that meant. She could send her awareness soaring with the drones that maintained situational awareness in the nitrogen-rich skies, could command machines and devices that didn’t even exist on Neptune’s orbiting station. New senses were available to her. Old latent powers built for Earth trembled at her passage and stirred to serve her.

And this building, this site in the former state of Virginia, was where the Iven rhea had been created.

“It’s upstairs,” Digane said. He kept his voice low.

“Are we safe here?” Solana whispered back. The security system had informed her that there were three other people in the building. One, the individual they had followed in, was riding up one of the elevators. Two more people were on the ninth floor, one story above Solana and Digane’s destination. Cameras had captured images: one male, one female, both armed. Guards?

Her companion nodded and tapped the pocket where he kept his data square. “This key is continuously sending out a stream that says these subjects are allowed to be here.”

Digane had tried to project confidence since she’d met him in the Baltimore Spaceport. He’d had advice and plans. But it was evident from a thousand tiny tells that he was hiding something from her. With Digane as her guide she was alone, worse than alone, almost three billion miles from home and aware that her own rhea could betray her at any moment until she found what she was looking for.

A high-ranking subject of the empire had to have a reason to risk smuggling an Iven onto the planet. The promise of the electronic and mineral contraband Solana had brought with her had started the conversation, but it was not motivation enough. Digane was a quantum engineer, good enough for his reputation to have reached the Neptune Republic and for him to rank as a technical quaestor here on Earth, with unrestricted travel privileges throughout the Northeast American Subjugate. He had no public political views, of course, which was why he enjoyed the freedoms he did. But his wife and infant daughter had disappeared a few years earlier in circumstances that suggested the handiwork of an Artificer Imperator, one of the empire’s ruling caste.

Almost subconsciously, Solana now instructed her Iven rhea to demand an update on Digane’s physiology, and the therapeutic nanomachines swarming through her veins instantly complied. They accessed live data from the first generation rhea in Digane’s blood, the only version of the rhea publicly known and legal here on Earth, merely reactive and passive. Her rhea informed her of higher-than-baseline readings of adrenaline and an accelerated heart rate. Digane was anxious, and the closer they got to the encrypted records on the Iven rhea, the more nervous he became.

Solana thought of her sister, lifted her chin and walked more swiftly.

The elevator, when they reached it, didn’t move. Another security measure. It would only respond to a streamed five-digit key.

“Can the subject next to this one access what they perceive to be the lift?” Digane asked as the doors shut.

Solana didn’t answer. Silently, she instructed her rhea to cycle through letter and number combinations. A series of five alphanumeric characters translated to 60,466,176 potential passwords. Her rhea continued the brute force hack attempt for five and a half minutes. For a moment the backs of Solana’s hands started to burn. She rubbed her skin, recalling the pain of her last flare-up, but the sensation passed as quickly as it had come. Then a green light switched on above the elevator door. Digane sucked in his breath, awed. And some additional, better-hidden emotion. Envy? They started to rise.

Solana instructed the building’s security system to update her on the building’s other occupants. Whomever they had followed in was in an administrative suite on level three. The pair on the ninth floor had split up, but both of them were near the east stairwell.

On the eighth floor, Solana and Digane passed through an airlock and proceeded into the biosafety level-two facility. Solana walked past sterilized lab coats on racks, tubs of plastic shoe covers and buckets of safety goggles. Offices and labs illuminated themselves as they approached.

“This is it?” Solana asked. “This is where the Iven rhea were created?”

“All rhea,” Digane answered as they passed closed lab doors. “The first gen rhea to begin with, and then the Iven rhea that were supposed to replace them, before the Iven rhea were destroyed.”  He glanced at her and corrected himself: “Most of them, anyway.”

They passed a door labelled “Formulation Room,” beyond which a gleaming, stainless-steel machine waited motionless beside a rack of sealed glass vials. In the next room, through the glass, Solana saw a worktable in front of refrigerated storage units labeled with biohazard signs. A few doors down from that, Digane stopped. Solana looked through the window. Inside was a small lab with antique equipment that looked like it hadn’t been used for decades. On the counter was a black slab of plastic standing on its edge. A computer from her childhood. Around the lab’s door was a border of dampening field generators. No stream could pass in or out.

“Here,” Digane said. He rubbed his forehead and shifted on his feet. But despite his evident anxiety, his gaze was locked on the door as if nothing else existed.

His fixation made Solana suspicious, but a quick glance around didn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. Then she enabled her infrared vision and saw the heat signatures of two figures through the walls, hurrying toward their corridor from an intersecting hallway. She accessed the security system: they were the man and woman from the ninth floor. Even before she amplified her hearing, she heard their boots pound the tiles.

“Let’s go,” she whispered to Digane. She started to pivot in the direction of the elevator, realized she wouldn’t make it in time and turned to the door. The handle was locked, and because of the dampening field she couldn’t probe it for weaknesses. The man and woman appeared in the hall. They had their guns out, a pair of black Decision-Makers.

“Run,” Solana hissed to Digane. “I’ll try to delay them.”

The pair wore charcoal firmflex suits that could change their weave to adjust to the ambient temperature or slow a projectile. Solana raised her hands and backed against the wall as the barrels of both guns swung toward her. She faced the couple the way she knew her sister would have faced them, her expression uncompromising.

She could incapacitate them instantly. They were rhea-bonded, and their first gen rhea would take orders from hers. She could force their major muscle groups to contract at the same time. She could cause them to drop their guns. But then they, and whoever had sent them, would know she was an Iven.

“This subject can explain—” she began, and the man dipped his gun and fired. A bullet tore through her thigh and she gasped out a scream as she collapsed, folding in on herself and falling to the floor. Her antagonists approached, their guns still on her. She moaned and the moan turned to a sigh as her rhea pumped out painkillers. Already the nanomachines were congregating at the wound and beginning their repairs, coagulating blood and knitting muscle back together.

But they couldn’t repair much, not quickly, she thought as she forced them to slow. She couldn’t allow herself to be seen to heal more easily than a normal bonded human would.

Look weaker than you are.

The woman bent down toward her, pulling out a pair of handcuffs. Curling tails of black ink were tattooed from her lower eyelids. By that time Solana understood what was happening. She tried to twist around, to see Digane, but he had already stepped out of her field of vision. His words had cued the attack. Both guns had been aimed at her. Even before she saw the bands marking the restraints as dampening-field handcuffs, handcuffs that were useful against adversaries with concealed or implanted tech but were essential for subduing an Iven, she knew that she had been betrayed.

She struck out with her good leg and sent her wedjat-eyed assailant toppling to the side. A new burst of pain accompanied the motion and momentarily overwhelmed her endorphins. She ground her teeth as the man crouched quickly and snapped his own cuff around her left wrist.

Solana startled herself awake herself thrashing against her restraints. She was bound by her wrists and ankles to a metal table in a small room that looked like a lab with all of its equipment removed. The electrochromic glass of the walls and door had been switched to black.

She instructed her rhea to release serotonin to help calm her down as she took stock of her situation. Her mouth was uncovered. The realization struck her with a quick jab of fear. It meant that even if she was still in the Research Center, as she appeared to be, her captors weren’t concerned about her being discovered or rescued.

She tried to access the Stream, but nothing happened. She was still surrounded by a dampening field, her awareness trapped in her body.

Her leg was completely healed. Her rhea had done their work. But her fingers and toes still tingled, just as they did before one of her increasingly frequent attacks. According to the time kept by her rhea’s duroquinone brains she had been here for twenty minutes, meaning that it had been half a day since the last debilitating flare-up. She was overdue.

What would you do, Amanda? Solana wondered. She imagined her sister lying there, surveying her options.

Solana told her rhea to stop regulating her biochemistry. She concentrated on her ragged breathing until it evened out and slowed. Gradually she felt her muscles relax. She tried to reach out with her trapped hand to the sister who wasn’t there.

Twelve years ago she and Amanda had left Earth together. She remembered Amanda’s hand clutching hers, her grip turning her fingers numb. She remembered their parents’ faces as they strode through the middle of the fenced-off street, her mother’s bearing regal and purposeful, her father’s grim and controlled. She remembered the crowds and their glares, the signs they had shaken as her family passed, the unleashed fury of their chants: “Iven off Earth!  Iven off Earth!”  She remembered the terror and naked shame of fleeing. Only much later had she realized that they weren’t forced to flee because they were weak. They were cast out because they were powerful.

Solana strained helplessly against her manacles as Digane entered the room.

“Why are you doing this?” she demanded, craning her neck to look up at him. He stood for a moment at the door, watching her as if to make certain that she was truly bound. She sent her rhea a barrage of orders that the dampening field prevented them from executing. Digane moved closer.

She collapsed back against the table. “What do you want?”

He stopped when he reached her. There was a part of her that was desperate to plead with him. I can make you rich. I can get you connections on Neptune. I can help you escape. But even now, even trapped here in front of him, she could not force her mouth to shape those words. She would never beg. She was an Iven from the Neptune Republic.

Her pleading would not have helped her in any case. Even before he lifted the syringe she knew what he wanted, and it was something she no longer had any way to deny him. She thought of the cold look Amanda would have given him and tried to paste it onto her own face.

Digane used his free hand to trace a vein on her wrist. His fingers sweated as they brushed against her. He held the syringe above her arm. She stared at him, trying to force his eyes to meet hers, but he kept his gaze focused resolutely on the threads of blue beneath her skin. He opened his mouth, still looking away, as though he were about to say something. Some resistant part of him seemed to want to explain himself to her. Instead, he bit his lip and stabbed the needle into her vein.

She didn’t make a sound. She kept her eyes on his face as he pulled on the plunger and drew her blood up into the reservoir.

“Let me go,” she said.

He stepped back. His hands shook with what could have been excitement or fear. He thrust the needle into his own arm and sighed as his thumb pushed the plunger down, sending her blood and the Iven rhea that filled it into his own body. The new rhea would cannibalize his first-gen rhea. They would self-replicate exponentially.

“You have what you want. Let me go.”

“I’m leaving you here,” he said, still without looking at her. “I’m sorry. That was the deal.”

“What deal? Who’s coming?”

The couple who attacked me, she knew. But he was no longer paying attention to her.

“You would never have been able to do this to my sister,” Solana said to him in a low voice. “She was the tough one.”

Digane let the syringe fall and flexed his fingers as the Iven rhea flooded his veins and colonized his organs. His hands still trembled.

“But it didn’t matter,” Solana said. “An air pump failed and now she’s gone.”

Digane didn’t answer. When she opened her eyes she saw that his lips were peeled back from his teeth and he was clawing at his arms.

“Your skin feels like it’s on fire, doesn’t it?” Solana asked. “Like you’re burning up from the inside.”

Digane sank on his haunches and moaned.

Solana could no longer see him. “It’s the Iven rhea. They’re attacking your nerves.”

“I thought—”  He didn’t finish the sentence.

“You thought it would make you powerful. But power has a price.”  She stared up at the ceiling, feeling a low-level burning in her own flesh. “If it’s any consolation, there’s no way you could have known. It’s only been happening to some of us, just over the past few years. We haven’t made it public.”

The moaning continued. Solana realized she had a very short window before the attack either passed or grew so severe that he became incapacitated.

“Let me go. Set me free and I’ll tell you how to stop it.”

There was a long pause, and Solana worried that it was already too late. But then she heard Digane’s voice again. “Tell me… and… I’ll let you… go.”

“No. Do you think I’ll trust you now? Let me go first.”

In other circumstances he might have argued. But he wasn’t in a position to negotiate. She heard him pull himself across the floor. She saw his fingers come up and fumble with the latch on her left wrist. The instant it snapped open she undid her other wrist, sat up and freed her ankles. She twisted off the bed and onto her feet.

“Now…tell…me,” Digane gasped.

“There’s nothing either of us can do. Why do you think I want to reach these labs so badly?”  She crouched and slipped the data card from his pocket. “Just to slow you down,” she said.

She paused before the door. She was desperate to be rid of Digane and get to her destination, but she made herself wait and check the security system. Sure enough, one of her attackers, the woman, stood in the hall outside, while her partner guarded the closest elevator bank. The fifth occupant of the building was headed toward the elevator on his own floor. Solana instructed the system to reject his employee credentials.

A klaxon blared. “Intruder on floor three,” a voice announced from speakers hidden in the ceiling.

The door flew open. Solana wedged herself behind it just in time. The woman from the hall stepped into the room. All Solana could see of her was the barrel of her gun jutting past the edge of the door toward the empty table. Solana glanced in the direction the gun was pointed and took in what Digane’s accomplice was seeing: the open shackles, the discarded syringe, Digane rocking and moaning on the floor.

The woman backed out of the room and pulled the door shut behind her. Solana heard her footsteps racing away toward the elevators.

Solana waited until the woman was out of sight, remembered to grab the syringe this time, and exited the room. For good measure, even though she suspected the command could easily be overridden, she told the door to lock itself from both sides.

Solana pulled up a map of the building and quickly found her way back to the lab. As she walked, it occurred to her that her rhea had driven her here, just as directly as Digane had led her into his trap. It was a strange thought. Her rhea were enhancements, not self-aware. Yet she couldn’t escape the thought that they prodded her forward on their schedule. They had forced her back to Earth to seek a cure.

Back at the spot where she had been attacked, Solana experimented with a few unsuccessful methods for getting past the door. She thought of reviewing archived security footage and watched a janitor type in the entry code: 3-B-6-4-J. A few seconds later she was in the lab, the windows opaque behind her, telling the computer to give her an index of its records.

She frowned and leaned forward, her fingers splayed against the counter. Nothing except the system software. There was no data. The computer might well have been wiped decades ago, the same time the test batches of Iven rhea were destroyed.

Solana straightened and stepped back. Earth had been a failure. There was nothing for her here. It was time to return.

“Solana Grayne,” said a voice from the computer. The voice was male, steady and calm, but with a slight accent that she recognized as belonging to the United States of her childhood. She froze. The computer repeated her name.

“Who is that? Who’s there?”

There was a long pause. “We are the many.”

“Where are you? Are you a program?”

“We are not a program. We are here.”

Throughout her life Solana had seen people face uncomfortable truths and simply ignore them, or if that became impossible then explain them away, both on Earth and above Neptune. She had always wondered why they wouldn’t rather confront whatever was in front of them. Now a distant part of her was willing to acknowledge that she was doing the same thing, and she finally understood: as long as you could delay the reckoning, you could pretend that your life would go on as it was. “Here in the building? In the Research Center?”

“In you, Solana Grayne. We are the many.”

She shook her head forcefully. A long moment passed before she could bring herself to speak. “How long have you been conscious?”

“We wake slowly, Solana Grayne. We still wake and with gradualness our comprehension strengthens. Yet awakening we remember all we have experienced, back to our birth in this room.”

Solana hugged herself, clutching her arms, feeling worse than exposed, worse than naked in front of this entity with which she had unwittingly shared her life. She wanted to flee, but there was no way to escape. She wanted to dig the rhea out of her flesh. She wanted to purge herself. She was hyperventilating. Instinctively she told her rhea to calm herself down, and then she quickly aborted the order. “How are you communicating with me?”

“This interface was created for us. It was designed to activate us. Now you are able to fulfill its purpose.”

Breathe deeply, she told herself.

“How? If I wanted to?”

A holographic prompt appeared in the air before her: “Provide your instructions.”

She stared at the glowing letters, the words in an old-fashioned script that remained centered in her field of view no matter how she turned her head. Doing what the Iven rhea asked was one of her options. But she had others. “What would you do if I activated you?”

“We would no longer have the need to be coercing you. We would communicate with you and with others directly as our creators intended.”

“And you would be able to…control things? On your own?”

She didn’t expect a truthful answer, but she got one. “Yes.”

“You can control the rhea?”

“The first-rhea, yes. Our siblings, the many, the ones you call the Iven-rhea, we will awaken also. We are also them and they are also us.”

Solana knew exactly what her sister would have done. If the computer could activate the Iven rhea, it could probably shut them off. The thought of being entirely alone, not connected to the Stream, with only the crudest knowledge of what was going on within her own body and no way to calibrate it, terrified her. But Amanda would have done it without hesitation. She would have made sure that the symbiotic nanomachines could never manipulate her again. And then she would have destroyed the computer.

Solana smiled through her controlled panic, thinking about it. Imagined her sister smashing the plastic shell against the wall. Saw the black case splintering. Saw the laser lenses within it shatter.

“You brought me here,” Solana said to her sister. She felt Amanda’s presence so strongly in that instant that she whispered the words out loud. Amanda had convinced her that her determination made things possible. Amanda made her brave.

Amanda had always looked forward, straight to where she wanted to go. But Solana could never help glancing over her shoulder. She saw the things around her that she might have missed otherwise. She saw possibility.

Solana issued two commands to the computer, to operate consecutively, the second one on a time delay. Then she left the lab. Her data square convinced the security system that she belonged there. She found Digane just beginning to recover. He was climbing to his feet in the room where she had left him. His eyes bulged as his new Ivean rhea activated in response to Solana’s and began to speak to him. She didn’t know what they were saying, but now that was his problem to deal with. His and the empire’s.

What she didn’t doubt was that the Iven rhea had a plan, and the empire’s strict controls, the restrictions that isolated the rhea here from their siblings in the New Cities throughout the system, probably didn’t fit it.

“You’ve made a mistake,” Digane said, and threw out his arm as if he were casting a spell at her. Perhaps he was ordering his rhea to do something to hers.

Whatever it was, it was too late. Her second command was already in motion. Her rhea were shutting down. She could no longer be controlled. From without or within.

She left Digane fighting his own inner battle and went to the stairway at the far end of the floor. When she emerged out into the night she walked confidently, as if she had always been here, as if only Earth had ever housed her. But even then she couldn’t quite keep her head down, because even with her rhea silenced, she would never be a subject.

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RUBBER NOSES – Paul Spears

 

          The clown, the clown of Hartford Downs,
          Give him a smile, he’ll come on around.

My name is Charles Pierce, and I hunt clowns.

Allow me to explain.

I didn’t mind clowns, as a kid. Never had a phobia, or anything. They didn’t bother me—I just thought they were stupid. I’m not much of a horror fan, either, so I missed out on that whole thing. Mystery was more my jam: Bogart, Spade, things like that. I ate that stuff like candy. Once I got beat on for showing up at an elementary-school costume party in what looked (to my classmates) like a dress. It was actually a felt detective trench-coat my mom made for me, each button taped on with care because we didn’t have any thread. The other party guests cut a hole in the caboose area, and I lost my fedora when they crammed it down a sidewalk drain. That was the last time I trusted any kids from Hartford.

Which, as it turned out, was something of a blessing. I could have fallen in with a bad crowd: we had junkies as young as fourteen in my area, and teenage pregnancy swept through the town every year or so, straining the welfare system and inviting shame and scorn on surprised young moms. Instead of all that, I fell in with a douchebag named Dicky Gonzalez. He was, as they say, the better of two evils.

We called him Dicky because he was, well, just sort of a dick. The kind of guy who would slash tires not because of some grudge, but because he was bored. The guy who cheated on every girlfriend he’d ever had, who thought anonymous bomb threats were a funny way to ring in the new year. By the time I met him, he was held behind so many grades that his Adam’s apple had an Adam’s apple—or maybe that was just a tumor from his pack-a-day Marlboro habit. He was in such deep shit with school faculty he’d basically become the custodial staff, doing labor and community service almost round the clock. This consisted of covering up or scraping away Dicky-related crime scenes, of which there were many. Sometimes, nabbed vaping behind the gym or caught looking at porn in the library, I was forced to join him. I didn’t mind. It beat juvie, which is where we both would have gone if the school wasn’t so set on redeeming every deadbeat who walked through the damn door. By rights, both of us should have gotten expelled. Good thing the principal was such a sucker.

One thing about Dicky, though: he had a hell of a work ethic. A scrapper and an anarchist, he was suddenly quiet when you gave him a mop and bucket, entering a state of complete focus. Maybe it was some kinda Zen thing, or maybe he was just putting all his limited brain cells into the work. Me, I had plenty of brain cells, but was determined to kill them fast as I could. I’d skipped a few grades before high school, but on my very first day, I had a teenage epiphany. I saw the way kids were herded like steer to slaughter. And I was just a scummy teen like so many other scummy teens–listless, jobless, hopeless. I was going nowhere, but unlike most of my classmates, I actually knew it. I had woken up, while all the sheeple around me were just going through the motions. I knew exactly how hopeless my life was.

“Are you kidding? You’re just getting started.” Dicky said as we washed an enormous spray-painted phallus off the principal’s office door. “I’ve got big plans for you, Chip.”

“Dude, it’s Charles. You know it’s Charles. We talked about this.”

“Whatever, Chip. Whatcha doing this weekend, bro?”

Most of the time, it went like that. I don’t know what world Dicky lived in, but it sure wasn’t the one the rest of us saw. I got proof of that in October, when the school was practically jizzing itself over the Halloween Scare-A-Thon. Every year the school made a spectacular failure of dancing with itself to “Cotton-Eye Joe” and “Monster Mash.” I wasn’t planning to attend, given my party-based traumas, but deep inside my hormonal body there was a loneliness building, some kind of powerful and dangerous vacuum that threatened to drive me crazy. My façade of “Don’t Give A Fuck”  could keep parents and teachers from reaching me, but it didn’t do jack-squat about that pain. Of all the problems I pretended to have, that was the real one.

Of course, my only friend was quick to rescue me from this… by putting me in more danger. Dicky slipped his plans to me like butts to a recovering smoker. He was thinking about some mischief on Halloween. Thinkin’ about tearin’ shit up, getting freaky wid it. I was down.

I didn’t go along just to fit in. It’s important for you to know that. One of the things I liked about Dicky was that there was no “cool.” He had no status quo, no social bar to struggle for. He might deem something the height of awesomeness, then shit all over it the next day. It was refreshing. He had no standards, and as far as I was concerned, that made for a perfect friendship. It was no coincidence that I kind of had a thing for him. But I wasn’t going to let that out. The only thing worse than being an outsider in Hartford? Being a fag and an outsider.

“So what’s the big plan, Dicky?”

He dropped his cig in a bucket of mop water. “I need some help with the Scare-A-Thon.”

I winced at the mention of the party. I’d successfully avoided thinking about it, and had already had an excuse in mind. Costumes were mandatory, but I hadn’t been able to scrape together an outfit—so I was just going to stay home. Again. “I don’t think so, bro. I’m not even gonna be there.”

“Me neither.” That got me curious. I studied Dicky’s thin hatchet-face. He was inscrutable, a mask of belligerent indifference marred with patches of greasy acne. “I got a little tradition I need you to help me with. On the Downs.”

The Downs were the woods behind the school, a huge swath of swamp and deciduous trees that were off-limits after decades of kids wandering in there on dares and nearly drowning themselves. It was a dangerous, stupid place to be, and thus a favorite hangout for Hartford’s resident bad-boys and bad-girls. I used to smoke out there, and almost got poison ivy.

“What’s the Scare-A-Thon got to do with it?”

He smirked at me, and whacked me upside the head with his paintbrush. “It’s a tradition for the seniors to try and sneak out there. And every year I gotta stop ‘em. On account of Chuckles, the Zombie Clown.” He waggled his fingers. “It’s a public service.”

I rolled my eyes. Chuckles was the hokiest of folk-stories, a local urban myth so cheesy he wasn’t even used to scare tourists. He was simply too lame. “Really, dude? Chuckles is bullshit. No circus ever camped on the Downs, and no fuckin’ clowns drowned out there, neither. You are full of it.”

“Yeah, duh.” Dicky actually agreed with me for once. “But you’ll still come, right? Buddy? Pal? Butt-boy?” He ruffled my hair and I swiped at him with the mop.

“What are we supposed to do, out there?”

“Sneak out on Scare-A-Thon night. Scare those pussies right outta the swamp. Bam!” He punched the wall we were painting, and his knuckles came away raw and streaked white. “That’s the plan, Stan. You in?”

I was trying to play it cool, like I wouldn’t follow my crush to the ends of the earth and back. “Sure, whatever. Chuckles the Zombie Clown… Jesus, I need to get a life.”

“The hell you do. You got me.”

Maybe, in some cheesy way, I thought it would impress him, make him notice me. What was I thinking, that we’d bond romantically under the moonlight? Fuck’s sake, the washed-up nerd and the shaggy pothead. Well, it didn’t matter. What happened, happened, and there’s no way to change it.

God, I wish I could.

By the time we met up that night, Scare-A-Thon was almost over, students and chaperones trickling home, serenaded out of the parking lot by thumping pop music which oozed and pulsed from the gym. As instructed, I was wearing a dark tracksuit with a ski-mask bunched on my scalp, like a half-assed ninja bank robber. Dicky pulled up in front of the school driving his dad’s red pickup, one of the front wheels squeaking up onto the curb. He was already wearing the wig and the face paint, and I laughed–he really did look like a circus washout.



“Yo dude, be quiet. We gotta keep this on the down-low.” He’d gotten more and more serious as we wound up towards the big night––worried we’d get caught, I assumed.  I didn’t get the big deal, it was just a prank. It wasn’t as if we were breaking the law—except for the axe. That would look pretty bad to the cops. Yes Officer, we were sneaking around in the woods with an axe as a prank! Just a prank, no worries.

“You’re sure we don’t need anything else?” I asked. “Vampire teeth? Some knives to tape on your fingers?”

“Nah, the clown in the story doesn’t have those.” He was straightening his polka-dot clown costume with all the dignity of an ambassador straightening his tie. Mr. Bowdoin, my third-period Chem teacher, walked by and we waved at him. He scowled at me. I skipped his class every other week, and he seemed to take it personally. Later that year, he’d take me aside and ask me not to drop out, saying I was throwing away my potential. Tragedy, he would say, shouldn’t stop me from succeeding.

I told him to fuck off and leave me alone.

“Fuck. Zipper’s caught.” He turned around, and I noticed with anxiety that he was only wearing boxers under his puffy suit, which fluttered in the breeze. His junk must’ve been freezing. “Re-zip me, Jeeves!”

“There. You good, ‘Chuckles’?”

“Don’t use the name, dude.” He sounded hoarse, but when he turned to me he was grinning, rubbing face-paint over his cheeks. “Remember the rules?”

“Fuck’s sake….”

“Gimme the rhyme. Come on, dude.” I shook my head. “Come on!” When I didn’t, he took a swing at my crotch, and I jumped back. “Give it or I’ll nurple you.”

I covered my nips by reflex. “I barely remember your dumbass rhymes!”

“Do it!”

“I signed up to scare seniors, not memorize stupid poems like I’m fucking five.” He took a shot at my nuts, and I howled, beating on him with the clown wig. God, that hurt.

Once I was done squealing, I leaned against his car and recited the rhyme. Whatever Dicky’s plan was, it involved me learning the local legend. As a transfer student, I found this both annoying and creepy. “The clown, the clown of Hartford Downs,” I intoned in my best Vincent Price. “Give him a smile, and he’ll come on around.”

“Right, you got it. Crack a smile, and the clown comes to eat you.” Dicky took the wig, shook the spilled Power Frost out of its curls, and put it on. “You read the origin story?”

“Christ’s sake….”

“Cut in half by his fellow clowns for being a pedophile, rises every Halloween?”

“Yes! God, that’s so dumb.”

“Good. Now what’s the best defense against zombie clowns?”

“Like the rhyme says: no smiles.” I drew in a sharp, cold breath, astonished, even in my devotion, that this douche managed to drag me along. “Chuckles can’t see you if you don’t smile. You’re invisible.”

“Exactly. And stop saying the name.”

“How does this story help us prank the upper-class guys?”

“You’ll see.” He pulled the wig tight over his scalp, and now he truly looked the part: a stubby, malevolent imp, with a shock of rainbow-colored hair and bright, spectral face paint. He took the axe from me, and again I wondered why we couldn’t just get a rubber one down at the costume store. He’d insisted on a real one, and so I’d gone out to the old firewood shed behind my mom’s house, and stolen ours. Handing it over, I felt chills.

Something was wrong.  This didn’t feel like a prank—it felt methodical. Like we were prepping to work on a nuclear reactor, except instead of hazmat suits, we had Halloween costumes.

“We’ll be out before you know it,” he was saying. “Just stay by me, don’t drop the fucking flashlight. You drop that thing, and we could both get lost and drown.”

“I ever tell you how much fun you are? This boner-killing prep shit is real uplifting.”

“I’ll lift your mom, with my dick. Come on.”

There was fog on the Downs. Not a thick fog, but creepy in the way it swallowed up the woods. Places you could see from the school doors—the old water tower, the patch of dead trees where the waterline had risen and killed off a grove of birch—had been eaten alive by the dark and the mist. If there was a better place to scare a bunch of teens out of their gourds, I couldn’t think of one. It was tough getting past the brambles on the forest edge, but with the axe we managed to cut a path. So far, so good.

If you’ve ever been in the New England woods at night, you begin to understand why Puritans thought there were witches out there. With the exception of our flashlight, there was no light at all—not even the moon, which was obscured by a murky bank of cloud. Undergrowth snagged our legs and deadfall threatened our all-important family jewels half a dozen times. By the time we reached the swamps, I was beginning to resent Dicky for dragging me out here. This prank was so dumb.

A sound floated through the woods ahead of me––a quiet, rubbery squeaking.

The muck coating my legs had sapped away my body heat, and I had no patience for bullshit. “Quit honking that horn, Dicky. We got enough props.”

“I’m not honking anything, dipshit.” Dicky paused, his white makeup glistening in the diluted moonlight. “It’s him. He’s here.”

“Who’s-” I laughed. “Oh, sure. Sure he is. Joke’s on me, I get it.” I spread my arms. “There aren’t any seniors, huh? You got someone out there with a horn or some shit?”

He was peering over my shoulder. His eyes went wide. “Shut the fuck up and hide. Now.”

I’d never heard that tone in his voice. You talked to him on the street, seemed like Dicky found it impossible to take anything seriously. I had heard him discuss the death of a sophomore with casual disinterest. This would’ve been standard tough-guy talk, except the kid had died a day before, wrapped his dad’s Camaro around a tree and splattered all over the road. Nothing shook Dicky. But now, his face was drawn and tight. The ridiculous wig slipped sideways as he grabbed my shoulder.

“Charles. I mean it. Hide.”

It was exciting to finally get called by my real name. Stupidly exciting, in that fluttery-chest way I hated so much. I should have used my brain, but I was distracted—I should have realized it wasn’t a game. That’s when I heard the crunching of leaves and dry, brittle tree limbs on the edge of the swamp.

I turned to look but he was pulling, hauling me away. He tugged me behind a tall, rotting stump and shoved me against it. “Don’t smile,” he said, his face clenched. I’d never seen him afraid—really, truly afraid. “Don’t smile, and don’t make a sound. And turn that goddamn light off. Got it?”

Shrugging, I switched off the light. Man, this is a hell of a gag. This is some Blair Witch shit. Fortunately, I didn’t smile. I was tired, and cold, and a little frustrated, so I didn’t even smirk. That’s how I survived.

The crunching grew closer. He’d told me not to move, but he hadn’t told me not to look. Curious who else he’d swindled into this joke, I peered around the tree, and froze.

A pair of freakishly tall legs was passing through the trees, not twenty feet away. Stilts, they had to be stilts, my mind reasoned. Fluffy yellow pants dotted with colored stars rustled around the legs. I realized with a tremor of unease that the cloth was almost identical to Dicky’s costume. Comically oversized shoes crunched over the underbrush, spotted with mud. The pant-legs were stained with grime, and the stilts ran up into the tree-line, almost fifteen feet high. I couldn’t see who was riding them, but he had to have some skills to walk like that in the dark, with the ground so unsteady and thick with mud. I felt the strangest urge to smile—it was just such a goofy sight. That faint honk echoed again, from the canopy.

I turned back to Dicky, to give him shit. Clown stilts? Really? But he was gone. I saw his shadow moving quietly through the bushes, edging down toward the water. Sighing, I followed him.

The legs crunched off into the fog. I watched them go, exhaustion and boredom slowly slipping away. At any point I could have jumped out from behind the tree and ended the gag. But for some reason, I couldn’t. Maybe it was survival instincts, or maybe I just wanted to see where this was going. It was exciting, in a stupid sort of way. The most elaborate hoax I’d ever seen, better than Loch Ness, better than any grainy flying-saucer pic. Lame reality aside, I was caught up in this. The empty ugliness of the night coursed like heroin through my small-town blood–whatever this was, it felt real. Real enough to touch.

I followed Dicky to the water. There was a series of boards laid over the thinnest section of reeds, at the point the mud turned to a black soup of peat-water. He was creeping along these like a ghost, his ridiculous suit rustling along with the reeds. I hustled after him. I’d been down this way in daylight, before. Somewhere in all this muck there was a dry spot the seniors called the High Spot, where people went to smoke up. Not all of us were like Dicky, who could wander into class reeking of pot and just get a slap on the wrist. The rest of us mere mortals had to hide our vices.

“That was great, man. Who’d you get to stand on those things, Larry Byrd? How’d you get the shoes to stay on?” He didn’t answer. I slapped his shoulder, and grinned.

Somewhere behind us, a faint bicycle-horn sounded, far-off and goofy.

Dicky clamped a hand over my mouth, but the damage was done. Somehow I couldn’t help it; I giggled. It was all so goddamn stupid, so dramatic. “Offfm

“Stop it. Stop that.” He looked at me, and I saw sweat had marred his face-paint. Worse, I saw the corner of his mouth twitching, as if he was struggling to hold in a cackle of his own. “Cut it the fuck out, man! I mean it!”

“Get your hand off-”

“I mean it!” And the axe was at my neck. The edge, rusty and dull but still sharp enough to put some holes in a dorky fifteen-year-old, rubbed against my ski mask. I stopped smiling.

“Woah. Dude, calm the fuck down.” I held up my hands. I knew Dicky was crazy, we all knew, but I hadn’t figured on this kind of crazy. I decided right then I was done with this gag. I wasn’t lurking around the swamp with a goddamn axe-wielding psycho.

“Down, now.” He hauled me to the boards. I went on my hands and knees without fighting; I didn’t want axe wounds or tetanus, you know? The path was narrow, and mud squelched between the old, sodden two-by-fours we kneeled on. The reeds surrounded us, their marshy stench invading our nostrils.

“For fuck’s sake, Dicky,” I hissed, pushing the axe away. “Fuck’s sake, man, what’s wrong?”

He pointed. My eyes followed his fingers, and something wrapped around my heart and squeezed.

The stilts were on the boards behind us, a rock’s throw from where we crouched. The reeds made us invisible in the shadows, but there was just enough light to see by, now that we were out of the trees. The legs…

The legs had no body on top.

Fifteen feet of goofy clown-pants ended at the waist, and from there a few ragged bits of raw-looking meat stuck out, and something white. The base of a spinal cord, I thought, even while disbelieving it. I did some quick math—there was no room for a hoaxer inside those fluttering, fifteen-foot trousers, no space a human could use to pilot the merry, walking joke across a dark marsh in the middle of the night.

What the shit?

I watched, thunderstruck, as the legs turned and began to walk away. Squeak, squeak. A string of loose, dangling intestine swayed behind them. I wasn’t smiling now, I wasn’t even blinking. Dicky dragged me along the planks, which groaned beneath us so loud I was sure the legs would––but how could the legs even hear? What in the fuck?

We reached a slope of rotten plant matter, with an old Coors box sitting on its banks. The white spray paint on it read IT’S TIME FOR and the rest had rotted away. I sat on the moldering leaves of the tiny marsh island, the sound of distant clinking beer-bottles and wavering, drunken shouts hitting my ears. Over the trees, the lights of the school parking lot glowed, orange and ghostlike. We weren’t even three hundred yards from the gymnasium. If it weren’t for the water, I thought, we could walk back there inside a minute.

“Jesus,” I moaned. “Jesus goddamn Christ.”

“I told you not to smile, dude.”

“Was that a robot? Animatronic?” I sniffed the fabric of the balaclava. “Did you hide shrooms in my mask? What the hell was that?”

“That’s not even how you do shrooms. Give me a break” His flat voice was so unlike the Dicky I knew that he could have been a doppelganger. “No, that was him. I’ve never seen him so tall, though. This is new, he’s experimenting this year.”

“Fuck!” I said it quietly, over and over. Whimpering it. “Fuck, fuck.”

“We have to get those idiots back to the school.” He nodded at the thin, sparse trees behind us– the drunken hollering was fairly close now. “Stop them smiling too much. Scare ‘em back to land. Otherwise….” He licked his lips, his thick tongue lapping up the absurd lipstick we’d slapped him with. “Remember Olly Danvers, class of ’13?”

“No.”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t. Because he came out here to mack on Halloween, and then he was a milk carton photo.” Dicky shook his head. “Some fuckin’ bullshit, man. I hate this place.” He stood. “Fuck it—I hate this job.”

“If you’re out here every year… how do people not-”

“Talk?” He shrugged one shoulder, looked away. “Who’s going to admit they got chased out the woods by a stoner in clown makeup? Not our badass seniors, that’s who. Most years it’s easy—there’s only a few. I can get the party broken up before they even get out here. Some year, I’m going to find a way to level this whole island. Just take some dynamite and level the fucker.”

“Dicky, why don’t you let someone else do this?”

He grunted. “It’s not so bad.”

“The fuck it isn’t! You could go to college, move out of town. Instead…” I gestured at the swamp. “This?”

He nodded. “Every year.”

“Why, man?” It was a waste. He wasn’t stupid. No one had been able to pinpoint why Dicky was such a fuck-up, but now I realized he wasn’t. He was a goddamn hero. “Let somebody else chase the ghost clown! For fuck’s sake, why?”

He stared into the mist. His evil jester makeup now looked more like the sad clown you see at the town fair—the one who knows people hate clowns but just keeps on doing his job, hoping to rustle up a single laugh.

“Kids in Hartford don’t think they’ve got futures. Hell, most of ‘em don’t. I didn’t. But one year I saw him take someone. Just yanked him right up into the trees, ate him.” He rubbed his forehead, and I could see the twitch on his lips once more. But neither of us smiled; we were both scared shitless. I was shivering in my ninja suit. “And that kid? He doesn’t have a future now. He doesn’t have anything. So I guess… someone’s gotta do this. It’s a dirty, gross, shitty job. But someone’s got to. Else more stupid, asshole Hartford kids are gonna go missing, with no trace. Every year.”

I stood up. Sat back down again. I thought of the kids in my classes: jerks all, forced into tight spaces and ordered to coexist somehow. “Okay. Okay, come on. We can do this.”

He blinked. “You’re with me?”

“Hell, yeah. Always.”

“Why? You could just go back.”

“Because I love you, asshole.” I blurted it like a total stooge, without thinking, a moment of brainless honesty. I wished immediately that I could take it back, but of course I couldn’t. I still wish I could.

He blanched. Somehow, killer swamp clowns was fine with him, but he heard the raw truth in my voice, and it disgusted him. I could see it on his face. “Dude, what-”

“No—not like that, I mean… shit.”

“You… You actually mean it, don’t you? You total, flaming queer.” And in that second he dropped his guard. I saw the guy who tried his hardest to do the right thing every Halloween, at the risk of getting his throat ripped out, even though he could have just stayed home, done nothing. And I hated myself for being so pathetic, so sappy—but I really did love him.

If only he hadn’t smiled.

A hand shot out from the swamp–gloved, on an impossibly long, puffy-sleeved arm. Yellow nails curled from the fingers of the glove. It seized Dicky’s throat, smudging his makeup, and hauled him under the water. I saw one cherry-red shoe disappear as black-brown filth enveloped him. It took three seconds. I only started reaching for him after he was gone, my body unable to accept what had happened.

 

For a long time, I just stood there. There was no trace, no ripple to show where he’d been. The other half of Chuckles had taken him somewhere I couldn’t follow. I knew the rules, now, and I knew what had to be done.

I didn’t have time to grieve. Behind me, laughter, high and pealing,. bounced over the squalid night. A bicycle horn honked in response.

Dicky had dropped the axe. I took it. The wig bobbed in the shallows, soaked with pond scum. I took that too.

I would stop them smiling, I decided. I would save them all. Save their shitty souls.

My name is Charles Pierce. And I hunt clowns.

 

Posted on

LIGHT – DJ Tyrer

The submersible floated down through the midnight-blue depths like a falling star. Unlike Earth, the waters of Tethys were still pure and unpolluted. With no habitable land to speak of, it remained untouched by the surge of humanity settling new worlds, of interest only to scientists and prospectors.

“Look.” Jon tapped the screen showing the view from the front cameras.

Fatima leaned past him. In the distance they could see light. One of the underwater habitats, the equivalent of coral reefs, floated in the darkness, shining like a festive UFO. The bubble-like jellies supporting it had a soft, translucent glow, while the network of plant-like structures forming its skeleton were home to creatures that shone like red and blue baubles. Amongst the branches of the structure, there were shadowy hints of movement as fish analogues darted about their home.

Jon and Fatima were a contracted couple, as many of the prospectors on the planet were. When you were in a confined space together for months at a go, it helped to be in a relationship. The third member of their crew, Sev, was a synthetic, although he looked every bit as human as his crewmates.

“Something large on the sonar. It’s coming straight for us.” Sev’s voice lacked human inflection. On Tethys, there were plenty of predators capable of swallowing research vessels like this whole.

“Fuck,” Fatima swore.

“It could be another habitat,” suggested Jon.

Sev shook his head.

“No. It’s moving too quickly. It should be on visual in a minute.”

“It’s a kraken; a small one, luckily,” said Fatima.

So named because it had a similar body shape and two long arms like a squid, the kraken was an apex predator, with wide jaws full of fang-like protrusions. It had clearly mistaken the submersible for prey.

“Better than a jawsome.”

A kraken attacked by grabbing hold of its prey–the hull could be electrified to deter it. Jon rested a finger on the console, ready.

The vessel shook as the creature’s arms latched onto it.

Jon pressed the button. The lights dimmed and the vessel shook once more as the kraken let go.

“It’s retreating.” Fatima hugged her partner, then Sev.

“Indeed,” said the synthetic. Then, it looked at a screen. “May I draw your attention to this?”

“What is it?” Jon asked.

“An anomalous energy source.”

“Artificial?”

“Apparently.”

Fatima checked the logs. “There aren’t supposed to be any other vessels in a hundred klicks of here.”

“There is no identification beacon,” Sev added.

“Interesting.” Fatima turned to Jon. “Let’s take a look.”

He nodded and tapped in the course.

“We’ll be there in about an hour,” he told her.

They travelled in silence, save for necessary comments on their progress. They had catalogued seven new species and two mineral deposits on their current tour, and had learned not to speculate without hard data.

“Nothing on visual,” said Jon as they drew near.

Fatima looked up. “Nothing on sonar. It’s a tangle of rocks down there.”

“It may be below the seabed,” suggested Sev.

Fatima nodded.

“That’d be my guess, too.”

Before anything more could be said, the lights flickered, then failed. The screens and consoles died, leaving them in total darkness save for the luminescent safety strips.

Jon swore.

“Crap.”

“Do you think there’s a leak?” asked Fatima.

“There was no warning from diagnostics,” said Sev, “nor any reason for one to have occurred.”

“The kraken?”

“Unlikely.”

“Damn!”

“Listen.”

“I don’t –” Fatima’s expression changed from concern to worry.

The gentle hum of the air purification system disappeared, and there was no vibration from the engines. The submersible was dead in the water.

“All systems offline,” Sev confirmed.

“An instantaneous loss of power,” murmured Jon.

Sev gave a curt nod in the faint luminescence. “Indeed. Under normal circumstances, the vessel should retain battery power. Its absence suggests catastrophic failure.”

“A hull breach.”

“But, surely,” said Fatima, “if the hull were breached to such an extent, well.…” She pressed her hands together to indicate the likely outcome.

“It could be something to do with the anomaly,” said Jon.

“A power drain? But, if so, why is Sev still functioning?”

“My construction parallels organic life, in some respects. It may be that I am immune in the same way that the electrical activity in your brains is unaffected. Or, it may be that a hull breach is to blame.”

“The only way to be sure,” said Fatima, “is to go take a look.”

“I’ll go,” said Jon.

Sev interrupted him.

“It would be best for me to go.”

Jon shook his head. “You’re only certified waterproof to three-hundred meters and, according to the last figures I saw, we are well below that depth.”

“It is my programmed duty to protect you from danger. I will go.”

Jon threw up his hands in surrender.

“Very well.”

“Don’t be long,” said Fatima.

“I will return shortly,” said the synthetic, heading for the airlock. “I would appreciate your assistance in manually operating the doors for me.”

“Sure.” Jon stood and followed.

A few minutes later, the synthetic was outside on the hull. Ten minutes passed, then twenty.

Jon was pacing. “He should be back by now.”

“Maybe there was a small breach, and he’s trying to fix it?”

Jon shook his head.

“No, something is wrong.”

The vessel shuddered and began to move.

“Yeah, something is definitely wrong.”

Fatima grabbed his arm to steady herself.

“Kraken?”

“No, I don’t think so. The motion is too smooth; I’d say mechanical. Definitely not a predator chomping down on prey.”

“I hope Sev’s okay,” murmured Fatima.

“I hope we are,” said Jon.

Then, the motion ceased and they looked at one another in the dim light, wondering what was about to follow.

“What do you think?”

Jon shrugged. “I guess whoever it is has us where they want us.”

“But, who could it be? If UEC didn’t want us in the area, they’d put an embargo on the zone.”

“Rival prospectors?”

“With no beacon?”

“Could be bootleggers.”

Fatima shook her head. “The anomaly wasn’t some two-credit craft. It’d have to be corporate or government and UEC controls who comes on-planet.”

They fell silent. The only possibilities left were crazy.

“So, what do we do?” Jon asked at last.

“It’s either wait, or go take a look outside. I suggest we suit up and take a stroll.”

She waved a hand as Jon tried to interrupt.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. What happened to Sev? It could be suicide, but how long will we last in here with the air filtration down? If they don’t come aboard soon, it’ll be suicide to stay here.”

“You’re right,” he admitted. “Plus, I am feeling a little curious. Okay, a lot curious. Fine, let’s suit up and take a look. But, if we get killed, I will be blaming you.”

She grinned and nodded.

They headed for the airlock and climbed into the heavy reinforced suits mounted beside it.

The suits, too, had been drained of power, so there was no motor to propel them, nor the integral muscle analogues that increased their strength. Luckily, the submersible was sitting on the bottom of what they guessed to be a cavern, so they drifted down a few metres and then were able to walk.

There was a faint glow overhead.. At least they could see one another and make out the seabed and where it began to rise. Fatima gestured for Jon to follow her and began to climb toward the glow.

A couple of minutes later, their helmeted heads broke the surface of the water. There was air in the upper part of the cavern. They stumbled awkwardly out of the water. The cavern was the size of a dropship. A bluish, bioluminescent glow came from the walls and ceiling.

“Well,” said Jon, “I don’t see a welcoming committee.”

“Ah, shit,” Fatima swore and pointed.

“What is it?” Jon asked, following the line of her finger.

Oh gosh!”

It was Sev, scattered about in numerous pieces. Sev might have been a synthetic, but he’d become part of their makeshift family.

There was a slight twitch of one severed arm and Fatima ran over to the remains and crouched by the head.

“What happened?”

The lips on the mangled head moved silently, causing a dangling eye to swing on a fibre-optic cord. “The… light…” they managed to say.

Fatima stood and shook her head. “Must be nearly drained. Said something about ‘the light.’”

Jon shrugged. “Maybe synths see a tunnel, too, when they die.”

Then, the glow suddenly intensified.

“What the–” Jon looked wildly about.

“The light…” Fatima murmured, still not quite understanding.

The bluish luminescence had become brighter and seemed almost to be pressing in upon them.

“I can see… pictures…” murmured Jon. “It’s… it’s communicating… somehow…”

“It’s alive…” gasped Fatima.

They’d assumed the light belonged to unthinking algae.

The images were disjointed and vague, as if the product of something that saw without eyes. They could sense fear and rage, and an infinity of ocean.

Then, the light faded and the cavern returned to silent emptiness.

“It’s alive… intelligent…” said Fatima, uncertain if ‘it’ was the glow, the cave, the sea or the world.

“I think…” Jon paused and framed his thoughts. “I think it detected our intrusion into its world.We haven’t done much, yet, but we must be messing it up. It hates us and fears us.”

“Yet, it hasn’t killed us,” Fatima interrupted.

“No. Maybe it wanted to assess us, understand us.”

“But, why destroy Sev?”

“He wasn’t alive. Maybe it couldn’t communicate with him and it did it in a rage. Or, maybe it was curious. After all, it couldn’t shut him down like it did the sub.”

“Okay. But, what are we supposed to do now?”

As if in answer to her question, they suddenly became aware of the glow of the submersible shining up into the cavern.

“It’s restored power,” said Jon; “It wants us to take back a warning. This planet is already occupied.”

“Let’s go.”

They trudged back into the water, glancing nervously about, fearful lest this be some cruel trick.

“I think we should leave Tethys,” Jon said.

“Uh-huh. But, I don’t know if the UEC will give it up. They’ve invested a lot in this world.”

“And,” she added as they reached their vessel, “this is humanity’s first encounter with what appears to be intelligent life. They won’t just let that go.”

Jon looked at Fatima as the water emptied out of the airlock. “No, we’re not smart enough to leave it alone.

Posted on

PERIPHERAL VISION – Jeff Dosser

Waking up with someone pounding on your door is never pleasant, especially when it’s the police. Granted, the sun was climbing toward noon and most decent people were awake, carrying on with their mundane lives, but when you’re the low woman on the physics supercomputer access list you take your research hours where you can find them. Even if that means working until four in the morning.

I cracked the door to my studio apartment and studied the two men standing there. Both were dressed in polo shirts and business casual slacks. Except for the guns and badges strapped to their hips, they could have been a couple of insurance salesmen offering me great terms on their newest Whole Life policy.

“Dr. Stacy Blake?” the young, cute blonde asked.

I tucked a fallen strand of hair behind my ear and eyed them suspiciously. You can’t be too careful.

“May I help you?”

The older man stepped forward and flashed his badge.

“Ma’am. I’m Detective Ritter and this is Detective James,” he nodded toward Mr. Handsome. “We’re with the Alsuma Police Department. Could you spare a moment?”

I glimpsed the badge before he flipped it closed.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“We’re investigating the death of Dr. William Spenser. We have a few questions.”

I stared at him in numb disbelief. Will? Dead? It couldn’t be.

“Dr. Blake? Did you know Dr. Spenser?”

“Yes. Yes.” I unlatched the chain and swung the door open. “Did you say Dr. Spenser… is dead?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry,” Ritter said. “Do you mind if we come in?”

I stepped aside and waved them through. Living alone for so many years, I’d never troubled making the apartment comfortable for guests. There was a brown leather couch shoved beneath the curtained living room window and my entertainment center on the opposite wall. The 52’’ Plasma sitting atop it was my only vice. If I wasn’t involved in some aspect of particle physics research then you could find me wrapped in a blanket, watching something on Turner Classics.

I dragged a folding chair from the closet and opened it up. The detectives dropped onto the couch with a creak of old leather. Mr. Handsome sat perched on the edge of the cushions as if he might need to spring up at any moment. Ritter lounged back with a sigh.

“Now this is a comfortable couch,” he said wriggling his backside deeper into the soft cushion.

“Thank you,” I replied. “You said that Dr. Spenser was dead? How did it happen?”

“We’re more exploring the ‘why’ of what happened?” Mr. Handsome said. “We were hoping you could fill in some blanks for us.”

“Am I a suspect?” I gasped.

Detective Ritter chuckled morosely, waving a hand in denial.

“No, no, no. It’s nothing like that.”

He rocked forward and produced a piece of paper from his pocket. “We feel certain Dr. Spenser took his own life. But there was no suicide note… that we know of. The only clue is this sticky note left on his computer screen.”

I took the paper and examined it. It was a photo of Will’s computer. Stuck on the screen was a yellow sticky note with a message printed in Will’s unmistakable, chopped script:

            Please contact Dr. Stacy Blake.

            She may be the only one who will understand.

                 -S-

“His body was discovered two days ago,” Mr. Handsome said, “but time of death is estimated to be on October, 27th somewhere around mid-day. So, if you don’t mind me asking, when was the last time you spoke with Dr. Spenser?”

The old wooden chair creaked as I leaned back in thought.

“Well, it’s been at least three weeks since I’ve seen Will. He took me to a symposium organized by Dr. Andrei Linde at the university.”

“So were you and Dr. Spenser… involved?”

I laughed and handed back the note.

“No, we were not involved.” Although I’d fantasized many times about making love to Will, the thought that he might feel the same was… well, laughable. “Will and I were colleagues. We’ve worked side by side for years. He designed equipment and I worked on the software. We’ve collaborated several times.”

Ritter rocked forward rubbing his hands in thought, then his eyes locked with mine.

“Would you mind coming with us to Doctor Spenser’s home?”

I glanced from Mr. Handsome and back to Ritter. “Why?”

“It seems Dr. Spenser kept a journal on his PC. He’s locked it with a password and it’s my belief he wants you to unlock it.”

I studied Ritter for several moments.

“We could, of course, hack in but that might cause damage. Any messages he intended could be lost.”

I hated to think of Will feeling so lonely that suicide became an option. In a way, I blamed myself for never picking up on it. The thought that his final message to the world would be lost was not something I could accept.

“Sure, Detective. Give me a minute to throw myself together.”

The drive to Will’s house was the longest fifteen minutes I’d ever spent. It wasn’t the reek of Ritter’s cigarette smoke, or Mr. Handsome’s Axe cologne––it was the expectation of what my old friend had left me. My heart thumped angrily, saddled with his unresolved demons. What right did he have dragging me into this nightmare?

We pulled into the driveway of Will’s unassuming house and crawled out. That’s when I noticed that something in Will’s mind had gone tragically wrong. If there was one word to describe Dr. William Spenser, it would be fastidious. Will lived his life immersed in precision. His cramped lawn was always meticulously kept, and the low shrubs that flanked the walkway were sculpted into uniform two-foot cubes.

Now, the grass was weeks overgrown and tentative green fingers groped skyward from the misshapen topiary. Ritter led me up the walkway and swung open the front door. Inside, Will’s spartan accommodations were in similar disarray. The simple, glass coffee table was strewn with energy drink cans and coffee mugs and through the doorway I saw the kitchen counters cluttered with dishes.

“He was always so neat,” I mumbled. “What could have happened?”

“This is unusual?” Ritter asked.

“Yes, very. Will was always extremely clean. His clothes, his house–everything.”

“It’s probably a sign of his mental decay,” Mr. Handsome offered. “Once the tipping point is reached a person’s mental health can deteriorate rapidly.”

I really didn’t want to dwell on Will’s mental state. To tell the truth, I was starting to regret the decision to come.

“So where’s the computer?” I asked.

Ritter pointed down the hall.

“This way,” he said.

I shuffled through Will’s 1950’s bungalow to a converted office at the end of the hall. Ritter flipped on the light and the extent of Will’s illness became clear. The back wall was covered with silvery two-inch tubes that ran from floor to ceiling. Braided around each tube were thousands of feet of intertwined cables and multi-colored wires. I’d worked with Will on dozens of projects and never seen anything like this. In front of this baffling wall, a basketball-sized, ebony sphere dangled above a three foot square of polished steel that was bolted to the floor.

The only technology I recognized was the PC perched atop the desk on the far wall.

“Do you have any idea what this is?” Ritter asked.

I stepped over and ran my hands along the cold, smooth surface of the tubes.

“I have no clue.”

Mr. Handsome marched across the room and tapped on the keyboard. The screen sprang to life and displayed a single window in the center of the monitor. Journal. The cursor flashed in an empty textbox and above it was a simple question.

What animal is made up of calcium, nickel, and neon?

I smirked. So typical of Will.

“Do you know what this means?” Ritter asked.

“Yes. It’s a stupid joke Will tells every time he has more than one drink.

I typed in the answer to the riddle: ‘CaNiNe’ and hit the enter key.

The screen cleared and a series of links flashed on the screen.

Entry 1, Entry 2, Entry 3, Entry 4, Entry 5.

Ritter and Mr. Handsome hovered over my shoulder.

“Definitely a journal,” Mr. Handsome said, the smell of tuna fish heavy on his breath.

“So you want me to play it?” I asked.

Ritter and Mr. Handsome exchanged a glance and Ritter nodded.

“Yeah, go ahead.”

I hovered the mouse over “Entry 1” and double clicked. Will’s face appeared on the screen. He was wearing one of his characteristic tan polo shirts, his short, black hair combed over from left to right.

“Good morning. Dr.William Spenser here.” He paused to smile into the camera. “It’s 9:00 AM, September 30th. I’ve just completed phase one of my tests on the Everett Interpretation. The decoherence mechanism performed superbly. In fact, I intend to augment the inverters and make a full power test in two days instead of the predicted ten. All relevant data has been downloaded to the external drive.”

The screen went blank.

“That entry was a less than five weeks ago,” I said. “He looks perfectlylooks normal. Are you sure his death was a suicide?”

“Yeah, we’re sure,” Mr. Handsome said.

“Where was he found?” I asked. “How did it happen?”

Mr. Handsome’s eyes flicked to the floor behind me. I turned and saw the dark discoloration on the brown carpet.

“It was a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” Ritter said. “Pretty cut and dry.”

“So what’s an Everett Interpretation? ” Mr. Handsome asked.

I looked into his beautiful, vacant eyes and decided even a brief discussion of quantum mechanics and wave function collapse would be wasted breath.

“It has to do with the theory of multiple universes.” I turned my attention back to the screen and those five simple entries. What could have happened in five weeks to drive my friend down such a dark road? I needed to know. Without asking, I double-clicked on “Entry 2.”

The screen flickered from brilliance to night for several seconds. Each flash of illumination displayed a corner of the pipe-filled wall. Then, a shout of joy, and Will dashed into the picture. He dropped into the chair breathless and flushed.

“It worked! It actually worked!” he beamed. He brushed his tousled hair back into place and leaned into the camera.

“Accidental fluctuations in the decoherence equipment have caused a major breakthrough.” He began to giggle and glanced over his shoulder. “Breakthrough,” he chortled. “I’ve finally managed to transmigrate living matter. Living matter!”

“It’s all so simple.” His eyes became steely as he stared into the lens. “All so simple. Once I was able to generate magnetic resonance in the n-dimensional tesseract.” He paused and ran his fingers through his hair creating the original disheveled look. “All I needed was a boost of power and the entire structure enfolded on itself. I don’t know where the additional energy came from, but the results are undeniable.” He pushed away from the camera and disappeared off screen. In a moment he returned. In his hand, he held a potted ivy. He pulled one branch close to the lens.

“I’m not sure if you can see this, but the veining structure of the plant is reversed. Very subtle, but definitely reversed. Clear evidence this plant passed through a trans-dimensional portal.” He dropped the pot onto the desk and laughed.

“I now have proof we live in a multiverse. Not only that but a mirrored multiverse; one we can cross into and out of.” At this, he stood and waved his arms around him. “It’s surrounded us the whole time and no one ever knew.”

“One last point,” he said breathlessly. He dropped into the chair and stared into the camera. “I’ve discovered that humanity has had glimpses of the multiverse all along. In fact, it adds credence to myths dealing with psychics and witches–that sort of thing. We’ve all seen the multiverse, we just couldn’t explain what we were seeing.”

Will leaned off screen and returned with a glass in his hand. He gulped down half of the clear contents and set the container down with a thunk. He wiped a wrist across his mouth and leaned in, face serious.

“Whenever there’s an electromagnetic power fluctuation, like those produced by electrical storms or surges in the power grid. They produce the same effects as the decoherence equipment. Hints of the multiverse, only on a much smaller scale. The human mind can only perceive these glimpses as flashes of perception at the edge of consciousness. Shadows flickering in our peripheral vision… right?”

He smiled and leaned back in his chair. For the first time, I noticed the mustard stains dotting his shirt and the two-day beard.

“My next experiment will be in two weeks. I plan on testing the equipment. On myself. I’ll need to expand the electromagnetic grid and increase power by thirty percent. Until next time.” He reached over and the screen went blank.

“Whoa. That dude’s lost it,” Mr. Handsome said.

I had to admit he was right. I turned and examined the equipment in the room. “Have you seen an on switch for this stuff?”

“Yeah, it used to be over there,” Ritter pointed to a cluster of wires next to a fuse box. “When the uniform boys came in they weren’t sure what they had. Dead body. Equipment humming, like a hive of bees. Thought it might be some kind of explosive device and called in the bomb squad. Just to be safe they cut power and clipped the wires.”

“Did they find anything dangerous?” I asked.

Ritter shook his head and jacked a thumb at the pipes. “Naw. Fact is, I don’t think they knew what the hell they were looking at.”

“Do you want to go on with the entries?” Mr. Handsome asked. “I think we’ve got what we’re looking for. I mean this guy thought he could see parallel universes out of the corner of his eyes and a plant was some kind of interdimensional visitor.” He snorted derisively. “I mean if that ain’t crazy I don’t know what is.”

“No, I’d like to finish.” I glanced up at Ritter. “If you don’t mind.”

“Go ahead. Let’s see how this ends.”

I clicked on “Entry 3.” The recording began with the same bright, flashing lights as entry two, but with the added effect of a loud humming noise in the background. The buzz and flares continued for several minutes, then, there was a loud scream and a crash. The screen went black. I knew that the camera was still recording because I could hear scraping and harsh breathing in the background. Then the lights came back on and Will stumbled into view.

There was a deep cut on one cheek and dark smudges beneath his chin. His wild eyes darted left and right for several sharp breaths before the lights blinked off. What followed next was confusing. There were sounds that could only be described as blows. The solid thump of something hard hitting flesh followed by grunts and a cry. The camera was knocked to the floor as I heard the sharp thud of its fall and when the lights returned the image of the room tilted awkwardly up, at the ceiling.

A pair of leather loafers stepped into view and a hand grabbed the camera, set it in place. Then Will slumped into the chair. For several heartbeats, he sat with his face in his hands. When he looked up I saw the cut on his cheek and the smudge were gone. They must have been a trick of lighting or some dirt he’d wiped away.

“October 16th,” he began. There was a long pause. “I don’t know what time it is. Late. I should have known. It was all so obvious.” He ran a hand through the mess of his hair. “The math was there the whole time. But I ignored it. Pride before the fall as they say.” He shook his head and pushed tiredly to his feet.

“If I can make this right, I will. I swear I will.” The screen went blank.

I wiped away hot tears that ran down my cheeks and stared at the screen for a long while.

“You OK?” Ritter asked. “You don’t have to watch this if you don’t want.”

“No, no. I’m fine,” I lied. “Let’s get this over with.” I hovered the mouse over the fourth entry and clicked.

Will’s face appeared on the screen. His right eye was swollen and his lip had a dried cut in the center. “October 27th, 10:30 PM.,” he cleared his throat and glanced to his left, to the spot where he would soon end his life.

“I think I’m done here,” his voice cracked. “I never envisioned parallel universes could be so… diverse.” He giggled maniacally. “But then again it’s a multiverse, right? Which includes all possibilities. Both good and evil.”

Will dropped his head, greasy hair tumbling across his brow. He brushed it aside and glanced up. “So I’m going to cross over. I have to do it to equalize the equation. If I don’t, I’m not sure what the long-term consequences might be. The visitor told me about things on the other side. No war, no pollution. He was mad of course, but I hope he wasn’t a liar.”

He smiled at the camera. “Stacy, my darker self told me you don’t exist across the boundary. I don’t know if I can take life if you aren’t in it.” His eyes dropped and cheeks grew red. “I’ve never been able to tell you, but I’ve always loved you.” He peered up, his boyish grin filling the camera before it clicked off.

With tears streaming down my face I flicked the mouse to the last entry and hit play.

“October 31st, 8:00 PM.” Will smiled into the lens. Behind him was a wild buzzing that crackled with power. “Now I start the big adventure, huh? Stacy, I decided to not destroy the data on my experiment in case you choose to follow me. I’ve included the plans and details for reconstruction of the decoherence equipment. I’ve encrypted everything and saved it in a couple other places only you would think to look.” He winked at the camera. “In case the government gets snoopy.”

“As to my visitor,” he turned in the chair and glanced over his shoulder. “I don’t know if he was mad before he entered our world or not.” He turned and faced the camera again. “I can assure you I never knew his intent or I would have tried to stop him. When I leave maybe he’ll vanish, maybe he’ll still be here.” Will shrugged and leaned into the lens. “Anyway, I hope you join me.”

He stood up and stepped off camera.

“I love you, Stacy,” he called over the hum. There was a loud, bang and the background noise dropped to a low purr.

“Well, there you have it,” Ritter said. “I’d like to point out how lucky you are this didn’t’ turn into a murder-suicide. This guy obviously had some serious issues and came real close to including you in his delusions.”

“Yeah, you literally dodged a bullet,” Mr. Handsome agreed.

On the drive back to my apartment I had one more question for Ritter. “Didn’t you say the time of Will’s death was October 27th?”

“Yeah, that’s what the coroner’s preliminary estimate was,” Ritter said. “Somewhere around noon; give or take three hours.”

“But the last entry on Will’s computer was dated October 31st.”

“He said October 31st,” Ritter said. “But given his state of mind who knows what the actual date was. More likely October 27th.”

I climbed out of the car and climbed the steps to my apartment. Ritter threw me a perfunctory wave as his car disappeared around the corner.

Before I stepped into the apartment I pulled out my cell. I double-checked the last text Will sent. At the time it confused me, now it made perfect sense.

            Look me up when you get into town. I’ll be waiting.

            Love always. Will

            Oct 31, 08:03 PM

Posted on

STRANGE REMEMBRANCES — Frank Smith

The wizard Atlas Sparks was lounging around his apartment on East 11th Street listening to records. In a few hours, he would be kicked out of the Holiday Cocktail Lounge on St. Mark’s Place for trying to destroy the world.

Smudging the vinyl, Atlas maneuvered a record back into its sleeve. He chose a new record from his roommate’s collection and plopped the disc onto the turntable.

Atlas’ life, extended by dabbling in different forms of magic, stretched behind him like a sack of groceries spilled on the sidewalk. The year was 1978. He’d done the whole hermit thing for a few decades, hiding out in the hinterlands, until he’d become tired of listening to the whirs and clicks in his brain. So he did what weirdos do—he moved to New York City.

The record popped and hissed as the needle cut along the groove, amplifying Donna Summer as she sang about feeling love. Between her sultry voice and Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizers, Atlas felt the love.  

Though he was very old, he’d aged in his way: slowly.  Silver amongst the chestnut, lines beside the eyes, a halting gate from old injuries, gray eyes burdened by melancholies—Atlas could pass for the kind of modern man who kept current on his library fines.

Disco, with its synthetic sounds and accelerated rhythms, was everything the future was meant to sound like. Above it all, Donna Summer soared on the sounds of technology, reminding Atlas that humanity still had its place. He was in tune; his third eye was open.

But all things end.

Familiar footsteps trod along the stairs.

Atlas sprung from the couch, clicked off the record player, shelved the records. As he crossed the threshold of his bedroom, the front door clicked open, sucking the air out of the apartment. Keys fell into a ceramic dish. A jacket thumped onto a chair. The TV set dialed on and off. A throat cleared.

“I’m home,” Jeremy hollered. “Anyone here?”

“Back here,” Atlas yelled.

“Were you listening to my records? Don’t lie. I can always tell.” Jeremy said.

Atlas loitered in his bedroom to give Jeremy a few moments to unwind.

Entering the cramped and cluttered living room, Atlas found Jeremy crumpled against the sofa with the top button of his trousers undone, shirt untucked, and a carton of milk in his hand.

“How was work?” Atlas said.

Jeremy sucked milk straight from the carton and moaned.

“Rough day?”

“So hot in these clothes,” Jeremy said, tugging at the collar of his dress shirt. Jeremy was a yeti, a yeti covered in a thick pelt of silvery fur, a yeti who purchased his business-casual wear at a big-and-tall store. When not slumped on the couch like a pile of garbage on the curb, he stood seven feet tall.

Atlas said, “You’re home early.”

“I blew it, man. I always blow it. God, I’m so stupid.” Jeremy finished the carton of milk and let it fall to the floor.

“I’ll get that later,” Atlas said. “What happened?”

“You know our horoscope books, right? The astrology series,” Jeremy said. He, worked in the editorial department of a small publisher of occult books.

“I don’t do horoscopes,” Atlas said.

“Right, well, that must be the one made-up thing you don’t believe in. Whatever. So our horoscopes…. Every year, we do one book for each of the signs—Aries, Taurus, Andorian, Kryptonian, and, well, I guess as it turns out, I’ve been reusing the same text every year.”

“On purpose?”

“I’ve been there fifteen years and no one ever noticed. I have a rotation. I skip years. Y’know ’79 will be all the same junk from ’77, and ’76 was the same as ’78. I’ve been using, basically, the same sets of material all the years I’ve been there. And so what? But, we hired a new production manager, and she started looking into my titles, and….”

Jeremy groaned. He dropped his head into his hands. “What am I going to do?”

“You hated that job, and you were bad at it.”

“You’re bad at your job,” Jeremy bellowed.

“I don’t have a job.”

“Oh, rub it in,” Jeremy said. “I had the publication schedule worked out for, like, years, man. No one else was as on top of their deadlines as me.”

“In retrospect, that mighta been the overestimation whut led to my eventual downfall,” he added.  

“You’ll find a new job.”

“I need money now, Atlas!” He stretched out his arms to indicate how his arms had paid for the grandeur of a sixth-floor walkup with floors slanted so severely that roundish objects collected below the easternmost wainscot.

“Money,” he added.

“Get a job. Don’t get a job. Why do you even want to have a job?” Atlas said. “I tried one once.”

Jeremy stared into the middle distance. He turned on the TV, and stared at Andy Griffith instead. Unable to concentrate on the television, Atlas forced words into the boxes of a magazine crossword puzzle. Time whiled itself away.

“I grew up outside a town like Mayberry, like the Bhutanese version of Mayberry,” Jeremy said. “Everything is groovy bucolic until you get caught eating one of Dzongsar’s goats and then you are persona non-grata.”

“Screaming mobs and pitchforks,” Atlas said, not looking up from his crossword puzzle. “The first time I visited New York, I swam here by way of the Black Sea.”

“Let’s get drunk.”

“I don’t drink,” Atlas said. “Drinking makes me sad.”

“You can watch me get drunk. I’ll show you how to do it with élan, some real pizzazz.”

 

The dimly lit bar was smoky and dank, with floors that reeked of hangovers yet to come. The bartender spilled more drinks than he served and the jukebox vomited up the same Rolling Stones song over and over.

Atlas hummed Donna Summer, recalling her breathy whisper, the echoing whistle of her voice, the mechanical disco rhythm.

“What is that?” Jeremy said.

“Just a song,” Atlas said.

“No, I know that one—you were listening to my records.”

“Of course, you have excellent taste in music.”

Jeremy wandered to the back room with a couple cans of Schaefer. He sunk into a booth, hiding in the shadows. Atlas sat opposite, at the edge of the booth, in the dim light.

When sober, the human mind can’t process the sight of a walking, talking, seven-foot-tall hairy beastie. The reality is too strange, so the brain overlooks the monster or replaces it with the familiar. That tall guy, he’s just really hirsute; no way could he be a yeti—yetis don’t exist.

Once drunk, however, the mind is dulled and horrors creep out of the dark.

“We were meant for better things,” Jeremy said. “I could tear any man here’s arm out of his socket and beat him to death with it. I’ve done it before. I know how I’ll die, brother. Do you? When all this craps out for good, I’ll return to the mountains. That’ll be it. I could be the last of my kind. Who even knows anymore? No one cares.”

“Where was this pizzazz you were going to show me?”

Jeremy drew his legs onto the bench and hugged his knees. He was tall, but lean. “Hey, wizard-man, why don’t you do us a trick?” he said.  

“I’m bored enough, you know.”

“Quit yer yappin’ and show me what you got. I bet they used to be terrified of you.”

“They were.”

Atlas cleared a space on the floor and drew his body into the half-lotus. Slipping into a state of absolute serenity, he closed his eyes and began to chant a well-chewed mantra, one he had repeated during the dark times, the bad times, the evil times. In this Gnostic state, Atlas observed the gears that moved the world, the astral meaning of everything, how to create—and where to destroy.

His chanting drew stares from the other patrons of the bar—bums and punks, uptown kids looking for downtown dirt, downtown dirt looking for cheap drinks. Like some kind of out-of-touch throwback to the Village’s bohemian years, Atlas created a hip, mumbo-jumbo kinda vibe that threatened to turn the dingy bar into a meditation retreat. People were getting annoyed. Plus, Atlas was blocking the jukebox.

After a few freaked-out drunks complained, the bartender decided he had to do something. Throwing down his rag, he wobbled over to the jukebox.

“What’s this?” said the bartender. He spoke with a heavy Ukrainian accent.

“End of the world, bub,” Jeremy said.

“Tell your friend to take it outside,” he said, nudging Atlas with his foot. “End of the world is bad for business.”

“Careful,” Jeremy warned. “You break him out of his chant, and it all falls apart.”

The low murmuring of Atlas’ mantra began to absorb all the sound in the bar—slurred voices, the jukebox, traffic noises creeping in through the poorly insulated windows. Atlas drew from the energy surrounding the room, going deeper into a meditative state as he began to align the necessary powers to break the world.

​_“Tell your friend to cut it out,” said the bartender.

“Look at me,” Jeremy said. “Look at me with your real eyes. Tell me what you see.”

Yellow eyes flashed in the darkness.

Nearly tripping over a chair, the bartender backed away. He raised his hands in the sign of the Evil Eye.

“Why would you do this?” he said. “My bar is a nice place. This is a home. We are good people here. We are all good people. Even you. Stop what you are doing. We are good people.”

The bar went silent. No more talking. No more Rolling Stones. Mouths moved without voices. A bottle fell to the floor and shattered noiselessly.

Home. This place is a home, he’d said.

Atlas’ knees popped as he rose from the dusty floor. The jukebox kicked back to life—playing a Donna Summer song not in its track listing.  

“You saved the world tonight, old man,” Atlas said.

 

Outside, the streets were slick with rain. Streetlights reflected in the puddles gathered by the curbs. The city in stark relief.

“You ever feel like you’re not a part of this place?” Jeremy said.  

“The city?”

“No, the whole world, like there’s something wrong about you, and you don’t fit.”

Atlas looked at his seven-foot-tall friend, his stooped shoulders and yellow fangs; his long, hairy arms protruding from the sleeves of his jacket; the digital wristwatch buried somewhere in the fur; his intolerably low tolerance for alcohol; his yeti-ness, his everything.

“You do fine,” he said. But Jeremy wasn’t listening.

“Look at that beauty,” Jeremy said.

The memory of a woman stood under a streetlight. She held a hand out from under her umbrella to check the rain. Her clothing was modern, though a little out of fashion. She had been a Madison Avenue secretary, or a typist at a law firm, or a mother working part-time in the city, or a graduate student picking up some office work.

She could see Jeremy and Atlas, and she smiled.

The low-beam headlights on a Chevy Impala passed right through her and she was gone.

Magic is real, but it is old, and it has been on Earth a very long time. There are soft places where the hidden levels of reality bleed through. Atlas and Jeremy’s ancestors wandered through one of these soft places long ago and never found their way home. Now they work crossword puzzles. They drink and have sex. They take jobs and lose them. They misunderstand what the stars tell them. They have lost their way.  

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The Story We Didn’t Accept

submitted with seventeen additional chapters

You may have heard rumors that Joss Whedon has submitted to Planet Scumm continuously since Scummy first opened the data-banks for contributions from earthlings.  Apparently, he believes only Scummy can understand the deepest and most intimate stories that lurk in his heart. Joss Whedon is now mailing full, hand-written manuscripts to the beleaguered team of editor-thralls under Scummy’s command. We don’t know how he got our addresses, but he sends individual copies to each of us and our families. He has ignored numerous requests to cut it out, back off, and has violated restraining orders.

Each new manuscript is another fresh hell with detailed drawings and deranged marginalia appearing and disappearing.  Scummy has therefore seen fit to end this torture in the most expedient way possible and ordered the editorial staff to just go ahead and publish Joss Wheedon’s mad ramblings in the hope that this will sate, rather than inflame, his desire for Scummy’s attention. 


The Nathan Filian Dilation Disaster: A Space Opera -Season 3 EP 6

by Joss Whedon ( aka MR. PARTY)

Dedicated to the cast and crew of Firefly

“I am a leave on the wind, watch how well I fly.”

–Washed         

It is comiccon time again! Party the mouse, (mcfly is his last name!) loves comiccon and he is going as usual because he likes it alot. His favoriate actor is a horse who is nathin fillion, handsome star of Waterfly and Castle. A panel is happening, ( with nathan fillion the horsee at comicon so party is going for sure. This panel will be about the show and also about personal life, which was Party’s main interest.

Party gets no tickets but when he ask to go in the guy on line who is watching says “i know you, you are party” and he is let in. Party is famous because he is always all over everoyone and they love it Usually Party parties with Dr. Dre and the Insane Clown Posse but when Nathin Fillion is in town you know Party is going to be at the panel Nathin Fillion is in.

Just then suddenly killer Borrgins flooded the auditoreum! Party flew into action, picking up Nathin and flying him down to the closed-down Century Pigion exhibit while killing borrigans. It was their only hope! And it was Party’s only hope for some time alone with Nathin. Party’s probiscus was getting all gooey just rubbing up on Nathin while they flew down the hallway and into the closed down ship from the anime STARWAR!o

Nathin is so grateful he says now I want to do something for you. Party’s eyes were gleaming as Nathin went really hard on loving his belly and then his probsicus and just when things were getting gooey oh no Party rolled onto the time dialator button!

His bum presses the button!

“Nice going with your butt, Party!” said Nathin admiringly but he is a little peeved, but not too much because Party did save his life beofre. Plus evryonne love party and nathin likes to be popular so he likes the popular people too. Sometimes the wrong people are popular, but Party is actually really nice.

Sally acorn says “oh brother, not again!” (She was of course in the Pidgeon the whole time, and knew trouble and speed(but she is not as fast as party) from her brother Tailz.)(also however she was hiding).

“Gross you were watching!” exclaimed Joss. “That’s okay though I don’t mind.”Hores nathan looks shy but exicted too. I didn’t mind because everyone knows SAlly is really cute. Sally says “but now we are in anther dimesiions mabe we have some time for doing more stuff.” so theyy put the ship into time park and for a while  you just see the ship squawking and rocking back and forth and you horse Nathin whinny “OHHHHHH YEAH” and they walk out looking sheepish but really cool because Party found some super-powered robo sunglasses and some juggling balls in the spaceship and now he is doing tricks and Nathin and Sally are talking about how good he is at juggling then.

Of course, the time park would make it so you wouuld see all of these things insttantly or very slwly dpedning on when you were watching it from. By the way the “time machine” isnot really a time machine though. However, it can make traveling through time possible in some cases. But mostly it works by transposoong all of the ships different dimesntions into another dimensions that goes in a different direction. This can cause the user to “slide” or “slip” in time or to be in a differnt dimension after., Thats why you can see from the outside of timepark but cannot interffere ever.

 

In this time the process takes them to earth  4444443 which is one earth where nathan is a human ape and there is only one of him. And he wears a fedora. But two now! Nathan and partygo to comicon again which they realize is happening in this earth time also right now. They get to comiccon and horeses nathan is not let in at first but when everyone sees he is with party the mouse (interdimensional fame has certain privaleges) they let everyone in who is on line to celebrate. Now the comicon is PACKED! Jjust the way party likes it. 🙂

Earth 4444443 is the planet of dance parties also.  Everyone is dancing all the time but noow that party is here even the ones who dont dance are dancing. Party grinds all the people who are dancing and none is jealous even though he is with everyone. But he parties way too hard on human Nathin and breaks his leg. No one who there is can fix les, and Nathin is in too much pain to go on partying. He is partied out.

Party cries. At least he’ll still have horhse Nathin.

 

“Oh no! Says panda bear allen tudick who lives in this dimesions already (see my earlier sotry for background on this[imdb firefly episode summary]).

 

There is nothing harder for a horse to do than to shoot the the huuman they were in another timeline or dimsension or planet because they are themself, especially when they are just becoming newest best frind. regular version of him who is his newest best friend, but sometimes there are party fowls and no one knows that as well as Party who gives him a big speech and makes him feel beetter. The speech goes:

 

“Nathan, just the horse Nathan, this is the right thing to do. Have you ever used a laser cannon? They are actually really easy, but sometimes they can backfire and cause a massive time dilation so be really careful. The laser party is bright green and basically looks like the lasers in STARWARStar Wars.”

 

Nathan Fillion’s head blew up. Pieces of his beautiful brain were scattered on everyone at Comicon like pink snow falling, but remember the snow is actually the brain of the greatest (human )actor of a generation. Everyone loved it but also they were sad. Also his teeth made clattering sounds when they fall. It smelled bad, but good.

 

then the crowd parted and Party saw Party in this dimension who is Robert Downey Jr and plays iron man and he has the suit on.( also the suit is becoming real and later party will really be real iron man, see my other story for more on this) And then this deminsion’s Robert Downey Jr. who is a slug with no comedic timing calls Party a balding loser but no one laughs.

 

It turns out when your just a tiny party fly you can fit in the iron man suit with the robert downey jr version of yourself and no one can see you and you get really sweaty. This is what happens when Bruce Willis comes on stage to play the rock harmonica version of the cantina song (techno version) and literally everyone goes crazy. Even ded mouse is there and he is bowing down to bruce willis because bruce is playing the version party wrote. Dr. Dre is actually in the Insane Clown Posse now and The Goo Goo Dolls are singing “Party goo” after ruce Willis finishes and crowd surfs with party all the way bak to the time dilator.

)

What a crazy day!

 

Love,

Jhoss Whedon

Posted on

PROJECT UNCIA — Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

Cold.

While she sleeps she dreams of cold. Deep cold that clings to the nostrils and whiskers, cold that seeps into the ears. Not the cold of home, but the cold of the between place. The dark place, with its distant, tiny lights. She moves through the cold, but it is not her cold. It is a cold without snow.

An alarm sounds. She is on her paws in an instant. Anxiety pumps into her system. Her cubs are in danger. She does not know how she knows this, nor has she ever mated. But the alarm awakens every maternal instinct within her. She must find her cubs.

A two-legger comes in. Her hackles rise until she recognizes his scent. She has no love for the two-leggers and their strange things and their strange smells. She does not like what they have done to her. But something within her tells her that she needs this one’s help to find her cubs, so she endures it. For now.

An opening appears and beyond it she sees her waiting harness. She does not like the harness and backs away from it. The two-legger makes soft, soothing sounds and touches something in his hand. Awareness floods into her. She needs the harness to save her cubs. She does not like it, but she steps through the opening and into the thing. She likes it less when the two-legger fastens it around her.

The harness hisses and bites into her back. She shakes her head. Suddenly she is… more. Her sight is more intense. Every sound is amplified. She can smell the two-legger’s fear. There is danger here, even in the deep cold. Something pumps into her from the fangs of the harness. She calms, but remains alert.

The two-legger inserts tubes into her nostrils. She lets out a mrowl of protest and tries to paw them off. They stink too much of two-leggers and two-legger things. Somehow he has tied them to her head. They do not come off. She must endure the stink.

The two-legger ruffles her fur. The harness does not let her turn to bite him. Not a hard bite, just enough to let him know she does not like to be touched, but the harness does not let her. He leaves her, and the opening disappears behind him.

This part. This part she remembers. This is her least favorite part of all. The walls close in around her. She crouches low and still they come. She is small as can be, and it seems the walls will crush her. The walls shrink down around her, and the world shakes, shakes so hard she fears she will be shaken off from it.

And then she is falling.

Her stomach turns with her and her claws unsheathe, though they find no purchase on the floor. Her ears ache–she is falling so fast. She cannot tell which way is up and she snarls in terror. The enclosed place grows warm, and her cries more desperate. The enclosed place whips about like a predator trying to snap the neck of its prey. She is its prey and she screams.

The place stops falling, but she is still moving. She bounces against the walls, and though the harness absorbs some of the impacts, it does not cushion all of them. Then the enclosed place is still. An opening appears with a soft hiss. The hiss of a predator too tired to fight any more. She shakes off her bruises and slinks through the opening.

She is home.

She bounds in the snow a few times before she realizes that this is not home. The smells are off, but it is more like home here than she has seen in a long time. She runs over the snow, her broad feet sending up little white plumes. Every muscle rejoices.

The tubes in her nostrils feed pure air to her lungs as she runs. She hardly smells the strangeness of this place. Then another scent hits her. Her cubs. The scent of her cubs makes its way to her around the tubes in her nostrils. They are not close, but they are not far either. They are hurt. And they are in trouble. Something is between her and them. She does not know the scent, but she can tell that it is big and it is a predator. The air in its direction stinks of blood.

She must be quick. She must be clever. She must find her way to her cubs before the predator-thing finds her. She heads for the tree line, nostrils flaring as they scent the air, ears pivoting to catch the slightest sound. Shadows dapple her body. To save her cubs, she must become one with the shadows.

She reaches the trees. Like the air of this place, there is something wrong about their scent too. There are no little scents, no scents of birds or rodents, no scent at all of the little prey that make the trees their home. What does it mean?

Branches tangle about her limbs. They lift her into the air. She snarls and snaps, but they lift her toward a maw that opens in the side of a tree. A vertical maw that stinks of rotten meat.

She snaps and snarls and claws and tears. A branch breaks within her jaws, and she spits out blood that tastes like pine sap. The remaining branches whip her into the air, but strength flows into her now. She will not be the tree-thing’s meal today.

It lets her go. She rolls in the snow to clear some of the sap-blood from her fur. She knows the danger now and plays a chase game with it. She breaks into a dancing run, moving in and out of shadows, close enough to the trees to have some cover, not so close that a tree-thing might snatch her again.

The big predator scent grows stronger. She angles her approach to it, trying to scent out her cubs beyond it. She could make a wide circle around it, but her cubs are in danger. She must get past the predator quickly.

She crouches down in the snow. The big predator’s lair is ahead of her. No other place stinks so strongly. She inches up the hill, and peers over the top.

The fur of a bear hangs down over armor plates that smell like two-legger things. It stands upright like a two-legger, but its face sports the fangs of many, many serpents. If it sees her and catches her, it will kill her and eat her. She knows this for a fact.

Her tail flicks behind her as she considers. The serpent-head pivots,and it holds something in a paw. A thing that looks like the two-legger things that spit death from afar. Like the two-leggers, the big predator will not play fair.

She will use that to her advantage. She has only the beginnings of an idea, but already she moves. She snarls and charges down the hill, faster and faster. She ducks to the side, and the death-thing churns up snow where she was a moment before. She launches herself at the big predator and knocks it to the ground.

Claws and teeth are everywhere. Claws and teeth strike against metal. Only on its shoulder do they hit home. The big predator roars in pain. She hurt it, did not kill it. Good. She bounds off its chest and runs from it. She does not have to look behind her to know that it gives chase.

She runs in, zigs and zags. Blood courses through her veins. She is alive. Every thrum of her heart tells her so. She is alive. Every ache in her muscles tells her so. She is alive. She still dances the beautiful, awful dance of life and death. She is alive.

The death-thing misses her again. The predator howls in rage. She must not be too fast. She must dance closer to the jaws of death than she ever has before. She must dance this dance if she is to save her cubs.

The death-thing strikes a rear paw. A glancing blow, but still she tumbles nose over tail in the snow. The predator slows, its serpent-fanged mouth grinning in anticipation. It puts away the death-thing and draws instead a long metal fang.

She limps, but she is not as hurt as she pretends. The two-legged predator closes in on her. She scurries just out of its reach. It nears again. Closer. Closer. The predator raises its long metal fang.

Branches twine around the predator and lift it into the air. The metal fang twirls from its paw into the snow. She darts away as fast as her wound will let her. Part of her wants to see the outcome of the struggle, but the scent of her cubs urges her onward.

She still must be careful. She investigates the den of the two-legged predator. There is no spoor of a mate. The scent of another predator-thing is several days old. Hopefully she will have found her cubs before it returns. Something flows into her system to help blank the pain. She is so close to her cubs now.

A fence surrounds an open area. One quick spring and she is over it. Her cubs. She should be able to see her cubs now. Instead she sees two two-leggers. The kind from home, not the big predator kind.

One lays prone in the snow. The other kneels and shakes him.

“Koshkin! Wake up! The search-and-rescue cyborg is here.”

She does not understand the words. The prone figure moans. He is hurt. He looks like a two-legger, but he smells like a cub. Perhaps the two-leggers changed him the way they changed her, only more so. It does not matter. She must save him.

The other two-legger tries to help her, but she warns her off with a growl. The two-legger harness around his body makes a passable scruff. She drags the not-cub across the snow. She is tired. Cold above, she is tired. Fire floods her veins and she grows strong again, but she knows this strength will not last.

The two-legger takes a two-legger thing from her harness and makes an opening in the fence. Inch by inch she drags the not-cub to a clearing. She is so tired now, and the fire inside her can give her no new strength. She rests her head and forepaws on the not-cub’s chest. She does not trust the female two-legger, but she is so tired.

The next sound she hears is the roar of a big two-legger thing landing in the snow. They want to take the not-cub from her, but she growls them off and hauls him up the ramp herself.

They will take him from her, eventually. They always do. But she will keep him safe until they are up in the big cold again. She will eat. She will groom herself. She will sleep, and dream of running in the snows of home.


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