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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.

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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