Passing It On by Annie Percik

Jan 15 2017

“It’s not fair!” Jason yelled. “When do I get to be a superhero?”

Frankie winced in anticipation of the slammed door that followed his thumping footsteps up the stairs. The answer to his question would likely be never, if that kind of attitude carried on much longer. She glanced down to see that lightning was crackling between her fingers and she clenched her fists down on it viciously until it went out. Unconscious power flaunting like that wasn’t going to help the situation in any way. She had always known having a teenager in the house wasn’t going to be easy, but adding powers to the mix made it infinitely more complicated. Where were the parenting books for that?

She briefly contemplated following Jason up the stairs and trying to talk to him about the situation, rationally and calmly, but she quickly dismissed that idea as a bad one. Neither of them were in the right frame of mind for sensible discussion at the moment, so it would be much better just to let him – and herself – cool down, and address the issue later. Maybe if she went out and got pizza for dinner, he might be prepared to listen to what she had to say.

Frankie slipped her gloves over the livid scars on her hands, grabbed her bag and left the house. She walked briskly to the store at the end of the road and was soon perusing the pizza options in front of the freezer near the back. A commotion over at the counter caught her attention, and she spun to glimpse an agitated youth brandishing a handgun. The guy behind the counter had his hands up and was visibly trembling in the face of the weapon.

Frankie glanced up at the security camera that was currently recording all the events in the store. Anyone viewing it afterwards would clearly be able to see her face, as well as that of the robber, but it was understood that such footage would never be used to compromise superhero identities, and that rule was rarely broken. Shrugging off her apprehension, Frankie reached into her bag and pulled out a light blue face mask with yellow lightning bolts embroidered along the sides. She pulled off her gloves, fastened the mask over her dark hair, and strode out from behind the shelves of chips and guacamole.

At the sound of her approach, the youth with the gun spun around and aimed his weapon right at her.

“Stop!” he cried, his voice cracking with barely restrained panic. “I’ll shoot you!”

“Not if I shoot you first,” Frankie quipped, and let rip with some lightning from her left hand.

The bolt of yellow light shot out from her fingers and enveloped the robber almost instantaneously. He convulsed, the gun falling harmlessly from his grip, then collapsed in a heap on the floor. Frankie closed the distance between them in two quick strides and knelt beside him, checking for a pulse. The beat was strong, letting her know she hadn’t been over-zealous with the use of her powers. She rolled the unconscious youth over onto his stomach, retrieved a zip tie from her jacket pocket, and secured his hands behind his back.

Then, finally, she looked up at the shop assistant, who had emerged from behind the counter and was staring down at her in awe.

“Thanks, uh…?” he stammered.

“Bolt,” Frankie replied with a grin. She had never been one for the over-the-top fancy names that some heroes operated under. “And it’s no problem. Can I leave you to call the police and get this cleaned up?”

“Uh, sure,” he said, his eyes never leaving her as she stood and strode out of the shop.

It was only when she reached the front door of the house, mask surreptitiously removed and stuffed back in her bag along the way, that Frankie realised she had forgotten the pizza.

#

Over a dinner of fish fingers and chips from the freezer, which seemed to mollify Jason to a certain extent, Frankie raised the subject tentatively.

“Can we talk about this superhero business, please?” she asked, raising an eyebrow in a plea to avoid further teenage tantrums.

Jason sighed. “I guess,” he shrugged.

Frankie decided this was as good an opportunity as she was going to get, and forged ahead.

“Do you really think it would be a good idea for me to pass my powers on to you now?” she asked, fixing him with a stern gaze.

Jason stared back at her defiantly for a few moments, then deflated and dropped his eyes to his plate. He moved a few of his chips around a bit, before eventually answering her.

“There’s a girl at school, whose sister got their dad’s powers as a graduation present,” he said, sullenly.

“High school or college?” Frankie probed.

Jason crossed his arms over his chest and slumped down further in his chair.

“College,” he muttered.

“Well, there you go, then,” Frankie said.

Jason looked up eagerly. “Does that mean you’ll give me yours when I graduate college?”

Frankie briefly considered saying yes, since this might be a major incentive to her less than academic son, to do well in school and actually get into college in the first place. She decided, though, that making that promise now would be a dangerous thing to do, since she knew she would have no intention of keeping it.

“Um, no,” she said, then backpedalled slightly as she saw a glower start to form on Jason’s face. “Well, maybe. I don’t know, okay? It’s not a decision to be made lightly, and I don’t want you to base all your life decisions on when you’re going to get my powers. You need to build a life outside being a superhero first, and then maybe I’ll let you add the extra layer.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “That’s not what you did.”

Frankie sighed. She had known this was coming.

“And that’s one of the main reasons I don’t want to burden you with powers too early,” she said. “You know that. They came to me way too young, and I had an awful time coming to terms with what I could do, and what I should do.”

She held her scarred hands up in front of her, forcing Jason to look at them. “This is what happens when you don’t know what you’re doing with powers.” It wasn’t a new argument, but it was the strongest one she had at her disposal.

“But that was because you didn’t have anyone to help you!” Jason protested. “The sooner you pass your powers on to me, the longer you’ll have to train me up and help me with them. What if something happens to you, like it did to Grandma? I’d be in exactly the same position as you – or, worse, you won’t get the chance to pass them on at all, and they’ll be lost forever.”

Frankie thought back to her early teenage years. It had been hard enough dealing with the regular trials and tribulations of puberty and high school. She had been a quiet, bookish girl, with few friends and practically no social life. Losing her mother and suddenly gaining the ability to shoot lightning from her fingers, on the same day, had made everything infinitely more complicated. Trying to gain control of her powers, which responded badly to unexpected bursts of emotion, had caused some rather awkward, not to mention dangerous, situations, and there had been no-one to help her, as Jason said.

The last thing she wanted was for Jason to have to go through anything like that. If she was honest, Frankie thought it wouldn’t be too bad a thing if her powers were to be lost without being passed on, but she wasn’t going to say that.

“What’s your rush?” she asked, a little plaintively. “Why would you want to jump into the extra responsibility, when you’ve already got homework and chores and a part-time job to worry about? You should count yourself lucky you don’t have to deal with being a superhero on top of all that!”

She winced inwardly at how stereotypically parental she sounded. Telling a teenager they should be grateful for their lot was never going to be a successful route to persuasion. Sure enough, Jason snorted.

“If it’s such a lousy gig, how come you’re so keen to hold onto it?” he asked.

“Because it came to me, and I will do my duty by it until the time comes for me to pass it on,” Frankie said, painfully aware of how self-righteous she sounded.

Jason sighed and the topic subsided again, the argument ultimately unresolved, as usual.

#

Frankie might have spouted the line about duty to her son, but it wasn’t as if she was out pounding the streets every night, looking for crime to fight. Some superheroes managed to make an actual career out of using their powers, through sponsors and clever marketing, and spent all their time doing good in the community and making a big splash thwarting criminals.

Frankie had her mask, and a full costume for the rare occasions when she wanted to blow off steam with a crime-fighting session. But, usually, she only stepped in when it was really necessary, like the incident in the corner shop. And, even then, she preferred to slip out unnoticed before the police arrived. Sometimes, they would identify her from security camera footage or witness statements and call to follow-up, but mostly the police were happy to let her involvement go unrecorded.

She sometimes wondered if she ought to do more with the gifts she had inherited.. But then she thought of how she had grown up without a mother, and she knew she couldn’t deliberately put herself in danger and risk that happening to Jason. If anything ever happened to her, he would have no-one to turn to, since his father had left when he was just a baby.

When she thought about passing her powers on to Jason, Frankie most often felt it would be better if she didn’t, but she knew she would probably have to, sooner or later, or he would never forgive her. She pictured handing over the mantle to him in ten years’ time, and wondered how it would feel to train him. It hadn’t been something she had really thought about when she’d decided to have a baby. As there were so few people with powers in the world, it was generally considered a superhero’s duty to procreate in order to pass their powers on, but Frankie had wanted a family for more traditional reasons. Raising a son alone, on top of holding down a full-time job and dealing with having powers, hadn’t been part of her plan.

The thought of getting rid of her powers was quite tempting, but she knew she couldn’t pass them on to Jason until he had established himself in the world without them. She also thought his school wouldn’t appreciate a teenage boy with the ability to shoot lightning from his fingers. Jason wasn’t violent as a rule, but he did lose his temper sometimes, and Frankie knew from experience that controlling powers on top of teenage emotions was not an easy task.

#

Frankie might not go out in search of situations where she could use her powers, but there was one scenario where she never failed to do her duty. Every powered person was given an identification code, which the local emergency services could use to call upon them in certain situations. If an alert came through using her code, Frankie was expected to go to help, and she didn’t regard this as an unacceptable burden. She had plenty of community spirit, and was more than willing to help people if she was able. She just didn’t see it as her particular duty to put herself in the path of danger unnecessarily, when it was likely she would end up in a position where her specific powers were of little use. But each police precinct had a register of the powers of those who lived in their area – unless the person in question was actively hiding their abilities – and could use that to call upon people with appropriate powers for any given situation. The ability to shoot lightning from her fingers wasn’t specific to many emergencies, so Frankie was only very rarely called, and that was how she liked it.

It was 2am when the call came in. Frankie fought her way out of sleep, the insistent buzzing of her phone dragging her upwards and into awareness. She reached blindly for the phone and peered blearily at the message on its screen. It contained only her emergency identification code and a location about ten blocks from the house. Snapping into alertness, she jumped out of bed and stepped over to the wardrobe. Generally, she just carried her mask, in case she really needed it, but she did have an entire superhero suit in her closet, for occasions just such as this.

It was sleek and striking – a one-piece of blue and white with her lightning bolt motif at wrists, ankles and collar. It accentuated her slender frame but covered her entire body; practical, yet stylish. She didn’t hold with those superheroes who wore ridiculous outfits that revealed unnecessary amounts of flesh, or indulged in fancy capes. It just seemed to be asking for trouble on so many different levels. Besides, she wasn’t looking for media attention; she preferred a life of virtual anonymity, with only occasional and quickly forgotten bursts of excitement.

Frankie scrawled a hasty note to Jason and left it on the kitchen table. He was old enough to get himself to school, if the emergency situation ran long. Then, she slipped her house keys and her driving licence into a concealed pocket and headed out into the night. She was in pretty good shape, all told, but she was still pretty out of breath by the time she had jogged all the way to the site of the emergency. A disturbing orange glow in the sky as she drew close told her it was a fire long before she actually got there. Then, she turned a corner to see an entire apartment block ablaze.

There were several fire engines already on the scene, along with ambulances and police vehicles. It was clear that the firemen were struggling to control the blaze, while the police were busy setting up a barrier to prevent the inevitable eager onlookers from getting too close. Frankie was confused as to why she had been called, but jogged up to the nearest policeman and identified herself as Bolt.

“Great, you’re here!” he exclaimed. He was young, and looked harried. “Go speak to the Fire Chief, and he’ll tell you what we need. He’s over there.” He gestured towards one of the fire engines.

Frankie ducked under the tape and made her way in that direction. A big, burly man in a bulky jacket was shouting instructions, so she approached him and waved to catch his attention.

He turned and looked her up and down.

“You’re the superhero?” he asked, rather unnecessarily, then threw his hand out to encompass the burning building. “Well, you can see what we’re up against. Get to it.”

Frankie was still confused. “Get to what? What exactly is it that you want me to do?”

He scowled at her. “You can control fire, right? Well, go control it!”

“What? No, I can use lightning,” Frankie said, bringing up one of her hands and letting the yellow light play between her fingers as a demonstration.

The Fire Chief looked at her, aghast. “Shit!” he exclaimed. “There must have been a screw-up at Dispatch. You’re the only one that’s turned up. I’ll get onto them and see if they can get in touch with the right hero and send them over here pronto.” He looked about in desperation. “Is there anything you can help with, since you’re here?”

Frankie regarded him helplessly for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”

She made her way towards the building, weaving between the vehicles and the various men and women running frantically about. As she got close, one of the firemen spotted her and waved her over.

“Hey!” he called out. “We can’t get access to the west side of the block. What can you do to help us?”

Frankie took in the situation. She could see the problem immediately, and her spirits rose when she realised it was actually something her powers were suited for..

Somehow, a power line had come down across an alleyway that ran down the side of the building. It was snaking around on the ground, sparking magnificently, and effectively blocking access to the side door of the apartment block. The fireman looked at Frankie expectantly.

“Stay there,” she said, “but be ready to go through as soon as it’s safe.”

He nodded, wide-eyed.

Wishing she had thought to ask the Fire Chief for a protective jacket and hard hat before coming over here, Frankie approached the jumping power line slowly. She could generate lightning bolts from the electricity contained in her own body, and direct them as energy from her fingers. As a result, it was also possible for her to absorb electricity from outside sources and channel it through her body without it harming her. Or, at least, she had done so before, but not with this much raw power.

She automatically flinched away when the sparks sprang in her direction, then steeled herself against those protective instincts and strode forwards until she was only a foot away from the cable. She reached down and grabbed hold of it, feeling the physical tug of its movement before the rush of electrical power into her body took over all her senses. It flowed through every part of her, until she felt entirely filled by its delicious energy. There was more of it than she could hold, however, and it just kept coming. Frankie glanced around frantically for somewhere safe she could direct it, but there were people, vehicles or flames in every direction. So, she chose straight up.

Keeping the cable under control and turned towards her body with one arm, Frankie extended the other one to the sky, tilted her head back, and released the pent-up energy. It streamed out of her fingers and up into the darkness, illuminating the sky above her. The clouds rumbled loudly in a reverse reaction, and she could see the energy crackling through their stored water vapour. A few moments later, it started to rain, gradually getting heavier as the stream of energy kept firing upwards.

Frankie felt the raindrops on her face, a welcome relief from the heat of the electricity, but it was a tiny amount of wetness in comparison to the intensity of the wild energy coursing through her. That wasn’t slowing down, either. The flow was relentless, and she quickly became aware that she had taken on more than she could handle. She was committed now, though, and would have to see it through, or risk compounding the disaster by losing control and letting the electricity free again to rampage unchecked.

So, she stood her ground, even when the exhilaration of the electricity turned to searing pain. Even when she felt the skin on the outside of her hands blister and the flesh on the inside start to melt. She took every bit of the power the cable threw out, and redirected it safely into the sky. At last, after what felt like an eternity, the flow suddenly cut off, and Frankie dropped like a stone into blackness.

#

Frankie’s entire world was pain. It snaked in and out of her breathing, it enveloped her mind and encompassed her very being. There was nothing but pain – until she felt pressure on her fingers and heard hitching sobs at her sides. She fought through the haze towards the surface of the world and somehow managed to open her eyes.

Jason sat beside her, gingerly holding her hand and crying unashamedly.

Frankie summoned what little energy she could muster and opened cracked lips.

“I’m dying, aren’t I?” she croaked, the words barely comprehensible, even to her own ears.

Jason’s gaze met hers and she didn’t need his anguished nod to tell her it was so.

A different kind of pain flowed through her, then; the pain of history inevitably repeating itself, in spite of everything she tried to do to prevent it.

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” she whispered, a void opening in her heart at the thought of leaving her son alone in the world.

He shook his head slowly. “I won’t say it’s okay, because it’s not,” he said, his words soft as a pillow against her cheek. “But they got another fifteen people out of that building because of you, and that’s worth something.”

None of those people mattered to Frankie at all, not with Jason sitting beside her, his bravery and his grief battling on his face.

“You have to pass it on,” he said next. “Now, before it’s too late.”

Frankie was stunned. After everything that had happened, to her and now to him, how could he still want to take on the powers that had caused so much suffering to their family? He must have seen the confusion in her eyes, because he squeezed her fingers slightly and his expression turned determined.

“I still believe in the importance of what heroes do,” he said, “and I want to carry on your legacy. Please.”

Even in the midst of her pain, pain that was caused by the very powers her son was now asking for, Frankie could not deny him. The sense of responsibility was too strong, and she knew that, ultimately, he would use those powers wisely, and do good with them. She felt herself slipping away, but focused just long enough to let the essence of the lightning flow out of her body and into his, before finally letting go.

And thus a new superhero was born, in the wake of an older superhero’s death, as it had happened for hundreds of years. Created out of loss and grief, Jason’s resolve to do justice to his mother’s memory was forged like steel, and the mantle of Bolt was passed on to the next generation.

THE END

Bio:

Annie Percik lives in London with her husband, Dave, where she is revising her first novel, whilst working as a University Complaints Officer. She writes a blog about writing and posts short fiction on her website (www.alobear.co.uk). She also publishes a photo-story blog, recording the adventures of her teddy bear (aloysius-bear.livejournal.com). He is much more popular online than she is. She likes to run away from zombies in her spare time.

Annie has won the weekly Hour of Writes competition four times, and been runner-up on several more occasions. Her entries are due to be published in two anthologies next year. She won second place in the writing competition in author Michael Brookes’ Cult of Me competition in February 2016, and was shortlisted by Writing Magazine for both their New Subscriber Short Story and New Subscriber Poetry competitions. Her writing will appear in two short story anthologies by Centum Press also coming out next year. Her story ‘Safeguarding the Future’ appeared in the October 2016 issue of the Lorelei Signal, and ‘Falling Sand’ is due to be published on eternalremedy.com before the end of the year.

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The Centaur’s Revenge By Nancy Cole Silverman

Jan 08 2017

After the accident, the doctor said there might be some effects from the medication: headache, sleepiness, dry mouth and some nausea. The doctor rolled off a litany of maladies, none of which I focused on as he checked them off on a clipboard.  My only thought was to get out of the hospital, away from the sterile, white environment where I’d been hooked up to alien-looking machines that did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.  I didn’t recall the doctor saying anything about disorientation or unusual dreams, so when it first happened I just chalked it up to one of the side effects I hadn’t listened to, but when it happened again, I knew I had to do something, so I’ll tell you.

The first dream came to me when I was still in the hospital.  I was reliving the accident and my body reacted viscerally, my muscles twitched involuntarily as I watched my car skid into the semi, avoiding the rider-less horse, the side mirror attaching itself to its reins.  I woke in sweat, remembered the horse’s terrorized eyes and the steel hooves as he reared in an attempt to free himself.  I called out and I vaguely remember the nurse giving me something. I fell back to sleep, this time into a much deeper sleep; a sleep that took me far beyond this world and into the next.

I was riding a blue horse–flying really–through the star fields. Below us was a lake, a waterfront surrounded by green hills. We landed in pasture land and I watched as a herd of horses grazed peacefully until a white mare lifted her head and whinnied, announcing the arrival of their leader. I looked up at the hill and saw nothing, but around me, fierce winds began to howl and then a funnel cloud appeared.  It lifted the lake up into the heavens taking with it horses of every shape, color, and size. Swirling madly like a carousel in a cloud, their bodies evaporating before my eyes until there was nothing left.

I looked back at the top of the hill, hoping to find some explanation, but found none.  Instead, what emerged through the vapor was a huge, dark warhorse with his rider and they were galloping towards me.  Only I was wrong, and the closer he came to me the more I could see the rider I had mistaken to be on his back, was merged with the horse’s body. This wasn’t a horse and rider at all, but a centaur. The man’s head with the chiseled features of a warrior and his torso, bare-chested, lean and muscular, were merged with the body of the horse. I panicked and wanted to run, but could not.  My feet sunk in the mud. And the closer he came to me, I could see his glassy eyes pinned to mine. In his hand, he held a spear high above his head, the arrow aimed directly at my heart.

Then coming to a stop, he said, “My name is Chiron, I am the leader of the centaurs and I have called you here for a reason.”

I was numb. My heart beating so fast I feared I couldn’t breathe. The creature I thought to be only mythical, certainly not anything possibly related to the modern world, was speaking to me and as he did, he lowered his spear.

“Yours was not an accident,” the Centaur said. “I needed to get your attention. To test you. And I am pleased. I sent the horse onto the freeway and you did precisely as I would have wanted you to do. Saving the horse at great peril to yourself.”

Again I tried to move, but my feet refused me, frozen in mud while my heart raced. I was paralyzed with fear, the type of fear that blurs fact and fiction, and transcends the subconscious. So powerful, that when I awoke the only words I could remember were, “Cynthia, we need your help.”

In college,  I studied Greek Mythology. I found it a basis for all story telling and played with it casually, writing short stories here and there while pursuing a career in journalism.  I didn’t give it much credence, good cocktail conversation, that type of thing, nothing more.  I’d entertain friends with stories about Greek Gods and their desires. Most like Zeus, whose lust for mortals and his ability to transcend himself both for seduction and revenge, were always popular. Topics for late night parties and what not, but I never took them seriously. I certainly thought my casual interest in their history might be because I was possessed, or even targeted. It wasn’t until after the dreams began that I realized just how powerful that connection was and how wrong I’d been.

Ironic, isn’t it?  That’s how people in the modern world like to refer to it. We use terms like serendipitous and coincidence, but I’m here to tell you, it’s more than that.  Allow me to explain.

A month after the accident, I was assigned by a magazine to do some freelance work for a story concerning horse slaughter and the reopening of some slaughterhouses for the first time in this country in nearly four years.  On the site of a proposed plant, standing atop the kill shoot, stood a Texas state Congresswomen, a Ms. Barbara Bloodworthy,  also known by those of us in the press as BB, or ‘Bad Babs,’ for her ability to twist a phrase and manipulate facts in her favor.  Ms. Bloodworthy was leading the charge to reopen a slaughterhouse, riding a bill she believed would provide jobs and rally voters to her cause, ensuring her fledgling career.  I stood there, with a group of journalist as she waxed on, an obviously canned speech, about the beauty of America’s horses and the unfortunate times which had befallen them and the need for us as concerned citizens to step forward, and ‘do the right thing.’

Only thing was, in Ms. Bloodworthy’s estimation, the ‘right thing,’ amounted to murder. That’s when the first flashback happened.  I started to feel lightheaded and the blurred vision of Chiron, came to me, his voice was clear as a bell.

“You need to stop this, for every horse that is killed a part of man dies with it.  You have to make them understand.  I’ll do my part, you do yours.”

I watched as Ms. Bloodworthy continued to speak, reporters gathered around her, cameras running, microphones extended into her face as she pointed to a pen of desolate looking horses, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, their heads hung low, their coats matted, their manes and tails mangy-looking.  With her hair neatly piled upon her small, pointed head, and dressed in an ill-fitting pantsuit that did little to hide her pare-shaped behind – despite her three-inch red high heels – she continued to define their sorry state.

“They’re ill and left to die on the range for lack of food and water, and many,” she said smiling into the cameras, “because of the tough economic times, continue to be turned out by their owners who can no longer afford to stable and feed them. On the open range, they breed, doubling their herd size every four years.”  I wondered from where she pulled those numbers. If that were so, our lands would have been overrun years ago. Then she added, wiping a tear from her eye for effect’s sake, “They’re starving, thirsty and it’s up to us, to humanely find a solution…”

She turned on her stiletto heels and gestured to the plant behind her.  As she did, a crow flew from out of nowhere above our heads. Dive-bombed us all. Ms. Bloodworthy began to bob and weave as the bird appeared to target in on her. As she did, she lost her balance, falling perilously to the bloodstained cement floor below.

Thud!  There was an eerie silence. We all looked at one another, shocked, then peered over the edge of the shoot at her motionless body, lying twisted and broken on the floor beneath us. The following day, news of Ms. Bloodworthy’s  accident trumped the slaughter story, the papers giving more attention to ‘the unfortunate incident,’ and little attention to the proposed reopening of the slaughter house.

Paralyzed, that’s what the doctors said, but not one could account for the even stranger phenomena that Ms. Bloodworthy had lost her ability to speak.  Instead, all that remained of Ms. Bloodworthy’s voice was a meek bray, like that of a donkey, braying for its herd.

As I’ve said before, the Greek Gods imposed their will upon mortals and so did their centaurs, of which there were two groups.  Both were followers of the wine god Dionysus, and subject to the dangers of drink. The larger and more wild herd were flesh-eating creatures, known for carrying off young maidens.  I often think that is why so many young girls love horses; unbeknownst to them, their hearts are being stolen by the centaur.  But the smaller group, those led by Chiron, they were scholars, physicians, and prophets, who understood the future and warned their brethren of its dangers.

The dark horse came to me in another dream after Ms. Bloodworthy was paralyzed.  He flew me through the star fields and back to the lake where he left me to wait for Chiron, alone, next to the lake in the silence of the lapping waters. Then he appeared, out of the mist, his skin hot and sweaty, his breathing hard, as though he had been running.

“Now that you’ve seen what did to Ms. Bloodworthy, you understand what it is I can do.” His eyes were like deep pools penetrating mine, searching for my understanding. I could smell alcohol on his breath.

“You’ve been drinking,” I said.

“And it is only the beginning.  There is so much more.”

I knew he was right and I watched as he morphed before me from horse to man. His powerful horse body shrinking from that an equine creature into that of a barefoot man with but a loin cloth. I couldn’t help but feel stirred by the change. I was captivated.

isH Now if you think this strange, you must remember, Greek mythology is full of stories of vengeance and transformation. Zeus had not only transformed himself into a bull to attract Europa, a Phoenician princess but again into a swan to attract Leda, the wife of the king of Sparta. Poseidon transformed himself into a stallion and impregnated the Gorgon Medusa with Pegasus, the flying horse, and again with Euryale, the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, to father Orion.  Why wouldn’t the centaur do the same to save his earthly herd?

“We need more stories in the press,” he whispered in my ear. I was aroused, uncontrollably, completely under his power. Then putting his hand behind my neck, and pulled my head close to his and stared into my eyes. “More people need to understand what is about take place.”

With my forehead pressed close to his, I could see the vision. The horses, thousands of them, wild horses, race horses, workhorses, those that had grown too old, or simply no longer useful to their owners prodded with cattle prods. Up through the shoot. Mercilessly. The sound of their screams – yes, horses do scream. Their cries still wake me at night.  But it’s smell, the smell of blood and death in the air that excites them. Aware something is not right, they kick at the sides of the shoot until a steel door drops before them and they are shot. A deadbolt through the brain or knifed, their throats slit. If they are lucky, they die then.  But some, still semi-conscious feel a cold chain slipped beneath their hooves before a gaffer’s hook suspends them above the kill floor. It is there they are left to bleed out.

“I don’t control the press,” I said, “I can only cover the stories…”

“Then I will give you better stories,” he said.

Again, I smelled the alcohol on his breath.  “Better?”  My voice shook, as I pulled away, freeing my head from his grasp.

“Do you really think Ms. Bloodworthy is human?” A slow smile crossed his face, his thin lips pulling wide across his large white teeth. I thought I caught a look of satisfaction in his eye.  “Because if you do, you underestimate me, and what I’m prepared to do to stop the slaughter.”

That’s when I understood, just like all the stories I had read in college when the Greek Gods wanted revenge there was no accounting for how they might go about it.

“You’ve transferred her body into that of a horse,” I said.

“Not just any horse, but the small burro, the first in line for slaughter.  Sad isn’t it? How she won’t be able to appreciate her win when the plant opens. But then again,” he said, pausing with a sinister smile, “perhaps she will, first hand.”

I gasped, then realized the centaur was surprised by my reaction.

“You think we don’t feel?  You think because we are animals, beasts of burden, as people like to say, we don’t feel?  Just like you? Don’t mourn the loss of a member of our herd, don’t bond with those whom we let climb upon our backs, those whom we’ve carried into battle, over fences, into races, competitions, stood soulfully with and watched as the sun set, or cherished the wind against our bodies?  We feel all this, and more.  Yet still we are treated like we are a disposable commodity.  You need to stop that.”

“Stop that?  Just how do you propose I do that?  I’ve tried to write the stories, I’ve tried to tell those who would listen.”

“It’s not enough. But I promise you, for every horse, for every member of my herd that is slaughtered, another member of your herd will take their place.  Write that!  That’s what you need to write. Tell them when the plant opens that for every horse’s death there will be the death of another human spirit. Then tell me your people cannot close the plants.”

With that he stepped away, morphed back into the body of a centaur, then turned and galloped into the darkness.  The white horse came to me, and we flew back through the star fields and when I woke, I knew I had a new story to tell.

A week later, there was a press conference.  Ms. Bloodworthy’s people gathered outside the proposed site for the re-opening of the slaughter plant, while a group of protestors, with signs displaying the bloody execution of horses, stood a hundred yards away, chanting their discontent.  A spokesman for Ms. Bloodworthy’s team stood up and greeted us as a white van pulled slowly to the front of the building. We all watched as the driver jumped out, then lowered a ramp and out came Ms. Bloodworthy, seated in a wheelchair, her head strapped to a headboard, her hands and legs immobile.  The look in her eye was dull as they wheeled her to the top of the stage.  Beneath her was a corral of horses, a sampling for the press of the proposed first offering; specially selected for their weakened condition. My eyes went to the small burro pressed against the fence, as far away from the ramp as possible, his dark eyes pleading.  I wondered if anyone noticed as Ms. Bloodworthy was presented with a scroll honoring her work, or that her eyes, all that she could move, rolled to the corral and focused on the small burro. As the audience applauded, Ms. Bloodworthy brayed.

So this is my story.  I’ve told it to you, like the ancients told their stories, handed down generation by generation.  And I’ll repeat what the centaur told me, ‘for every horse we kill, we kill a part of ourselves.’  I like to think the storytelling will make a difference, after all, the Greeks taught us we are mere mortals, and they are always watching.

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About the Author

Nancy Cole Silverman credits her twenty-five years in news and talk radio for helping her to develop an ear for storytelling. But it wasn’t until after she retired that she was able to write fiction full-time. Much of what Silverman writes about is pulled from events that were reported on from inside some of Los Angeles’ busiest newsrooms where she spent the bulk of her career. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Bruce, and two standard poodles.

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Rescue Service by David Scholes

Jan 01 2017

 

From the slightly elevated highway above it we looked out across the vastness of the sand ocean.   Close to the horizon we saw another elevated highway angled slightly to ours.  An Over the Horizon (OTH) scan showed the two highways intersecting at a nexus point in the great sand ocean. A nexus point containing a peculiar building. Then each highway went on its separate direction across the vastness.

“Teeming with life,” said Janelle looking down at the sand ocean.  Like an Earth ocean but sand instead of water.”

“Let’s do a preliminary scan of this world, and get a reliable fix on our objective,” I said.

“Miniature low orbit probe as well Michael?” asked Janelle.

I nodded “everything we can reasonably do.”

Before moving off in our specially designed land wagon we wanted at least a partial picture of this world we had crossed to via the temporary gateway.

Imagery from the mini satellite indicated the sand oceans were extensive. Also that much of the non sand ocean surface consisted of rocky terrain.   Terrain that gradually rose, eventually to mountains, the further one got away from the sand oceans.

“Our land sonar equipment has categorised at least 100 distinctly different species in a small part of the sand ocean,” responded Janelle. “None of them even vaguely resembling anything we’ve ever seen before.”

I nodded thinking also of the strange anomalies we had detected.  By a combination of OTH scans and the mini-satellite imagery still coming in.  They looked like areas for us to avoid. If we could.

“We are only here for one purpose,” I said “we don’t need to unlock this world’s secrets. Just rescue our good lady and return home to Earth.”

“If the gateway is still open,” offered Janelle.

“Or we find another gateway,” I countered.

“I’ve been saving the best news till last,” smiled Janelle “take a look at this.”

“Wow!” I replied viewing the 3D representation ‘it looks like an old Drorne station. If it is that’s the next best thing to finding a gateway.  I’d take a guess that the Drorne built the highways traversing the sand oceans,” I added more as an afterthought.

“Have you got a fix on our objective?” I asked.

“She is 1500 clicks from here, in a semi-mountainous location. On the far side of this current sand ocean we are traversing,” replied Janelle.  “She does not appear to be moving at present.”  Janelle brought up a 3D real time map illustrating our objective’s general location. Though the images were very fuzzy. Of course that could mean she is dead I thought.

“Her life energies are detected,” said Janelle as if reading my thoughts.

“Where she is located,” I said “she is not so far from the Drorne station.”

“That could be convenient,” came the reply.

We set out at a sedate speed of 150 clicks per hour and soon revised that  downwards as a thick dark elastic entity emerged from the sand ocean and spread itself across the full modest width of the highway.  We came to a screeching halt but not before running into it slightly. It gave, in an elastic way, but did not yield and covered us with secretions that were slightly acidic according to our equipment.

We reversed right out of there and putting our automatic laser cannon on manual hit it repeatedly with heavy duty laser fire.  Which seemed not to do a whole lot until with Janelle on the laser I added in some ordinary heavy duty machine gun fire from another turret of the powerful land wagon.  Begrudgingly the unusual entity slowly withdrew back into the sand ocean.

It was to be the first of a number of encounters with the denizens of the sand ocean.  Encounters that, without exception, I prefer to forget. Each entity quite different from the last.  One that particularly shook me was a shape shifting mass that formed a huge semi-elastic vaguely human form. At least it had two apparent legs and two apparent arms.  It rose out of the sand ocean and towered above us.  We had the distinct impression it had taken the shape after observing us and drawing something from our minds.  None of our weaponry bothered it at all until we teleshunted a mixture of aggressive biological viruses into it. Never the preferred option but they seemed to give the thing pause. Having gotten past it during the virus attack and upping our speed to 200 clicks per hour we were able to easily outdistance it.

Some might have questioned the release of such viruses into the alien sand ocean eco-system but they were in fact very short lived viruses, lives measured in minutes.  In any case our survival was always paramount against that of an aggressive alien eco-system.

Thankfully almost 1,000 clicks later the sand ocean finally ended and oddly the highway ended just about a half a click beyond it.

I was about to pull over as the highway ended when Janelle using our land sonar suggested I drive on a little further.  “The ground near the sand ocean is still somewhat fluid. It looks like some of the sand ocean denizens can travel through it at least for a small distance. Until it hardens and becomes rockier up ahead.”

We drove on and up for a while quite slowly through increasingly rocky outcrops. Stopping only when the land sonar showed no trace of burrowing “nasties” and we were pretty confident that nothing was going to attack us from below.

We tried to get a better fix on the individual we sought to rescue.  She who had inadvertently crossed through the temporary gateway.

For several years now such gateways had appeared on Earth and from time to time unknowing people accidentally entered them and arrived on other worlds even other realities.  The major powers had combined to set up a rescue service for just this. Our little rescue station had been the closest to the temporary gateway when the lady inadvertently went through it.

“Unless we want to go the long way around,” said Janelle “we are going to have to skirt one of those major anomalies we noticed earlier.”

“How so?” I asked “I thought we had plenty of room for manoeuvre.”

“They move,” explained Janelle “not fast but since we last looked at them this one’s definitely moved a lot closer to our projected path.”

“Knowingly?” I asked.

Janelle didn’t reply.  Perhaps she thought I was sounding a bit paranoid.

”I’m getting a much better reading on the anomaly now,” she said eventually. “It seems even weirder, even more out of place than when we viewed it earlier. A slow moving small city sized area totally different to its surroundings. As if it was wrenched from another world or reality and just dumped here.”

“From what we can see from the satellite and OTH scans all of these anomalies appear to be just that. Alien to this sandy, rocky world and at the same time quite different from each other.”

“None of the others were anywhere near our projected path,” I heard myself say “even allowing for some movement.

“Yes.” nodded Janelle “no worries on that score unless we have to go vastly out of our way.”

Up close and personal the anomaly was eerily confronting.  It looked like what was once an advanced alien city now fallen into ruin and partially overrun by vegetation quite alien to the surrounding environment. There was a slight shimmer about it that suggested some form of barrier around it. Whether it was to keep things in or keep things out we had no idea. Nothing registered on our instruments. There was just the sense that it may even have been mystical in nature..

We kept as far away from it as we could without hitting the side of a nearby mountain. Also we were travelling quite fast for the terrain.  Several times we thought something came out of the anomaly towards us. Each time it appeared to be some form of mirage/hallucination. Almost too late we realised that the last hallucination wasn’t a hallucination.  Two apparently android soldiers were coming our way. At a speed fast enough to catch us.  We couldn’t begin to guess what their intent might be.

“They look positively fearsome,” shuddered Janelle.  Yet even so we held our fire at least until their intent was clear.  Eventually we outdistanced them. They seemed more tenuous the further they got away from the anomaly. Ultimately something drew them back to it.  As if they had a limited range away from the anomaly.

“Unnerving, something unnerving about that,” said Janelle “let’s get plenty of distance away from here.”

The shimmer surrounding the anomaly obscured our vision into it. Yet we had seen many other android soldiers moving among the ruins.  Possibly fighting each other.

“We are still not getting any communication back from our objective,” I said “it must be that she has no communication devices of any kind.”

“That and maybe some peculiarities about this world,” offered Janelle “something limiting communications.”

We were now close enough and had a good enough fix to launch a beacon.  A returnable just over the horizon holographic message advising her of our rescue attempt. Thankfully she had enough technology to respond to the hologram.  “I am well. SUV not working. Hostile terrain. Please extract digit and come get me.”  Both Janelle and I smiled at the last comment.

“What took you so long?” was her first greeting.  Though there were smiles of relief behind the cheekiness.

She was a tall, attractive woman possibly in her late 40’s.  An eminent surgeon that happened to be the wife of the United States Attorney General. Not that her eminence had anything to do with the speed of our response.

“My SUV broke down soon after I arrived in this place,” offered Susan.

“I realised I was in a gateway even as I drove into it but by then it was too late.

Thankfully Susan had known not to stray from where she arrived. It was inhospitable here but she had not been menaced. Or even seen much of anything.  As she had plenty of food and water her main problem had been boredom.

Janelle and I looked over the SUV. It was very expensive but really not up to the terrain hereabouts. No good at all to us now except for a few electronic parts that we stripped from it as spares.

Susan came aboard the land wagon and we gave her a suit of ultra lightweight exo-skeleton boosted armour. Of the same type as we were wearing. Standard issue for rescuers and the rescued in our circumstances.

We showed her the main features of the land wagon and I could sense her starting to relax a little. The well equipped wagon always had that affect on the rescued.  We also told her what we knew about this world. Which was not a lot.

Then we started to roll.

We headed off in another direction to that we had come.  The temporary gateway that had admitted Susan and ultimately Janelle and I was now gone. With not even so much as a trace of its residual energies.  Sometimes with a very quick rescue it was possible to go back out on the same gateway.  Not this time though.

We needed to locate either another temporary gateway or a permanent gateway. This was our only ticket home. Well the only one we knew about.

The truth was there were no signs of either – for the moment.

“So if that’s the case, where exactly are we headed?” asked Susan. A quite legitimate question in the circumstances.

We had told her about the slow moving anomalies we had discovered and our desire not to go anywhere near any unless we had to. Also we had no particular desire to end up near the sand ocean again.

“We detected an old Drorne station not so far from here,” I told Susan. “The Drorne are the people who created these gateways you know. For reasons we’ve never been able to divine.   There’s a good chance we can locate a gateway from there. Failing that the Drorne station, old though it is, may contain superior equipment to help us in this alien environment.

The Drorne station was about 100 clicks from us. Though slow going over the increasingly rocky terrain.

About half way through our trip the land wagon emergency alarm went off and its protective shields came up to maximum.

“The only thing I can detect,” said Janelle “is a large silver grey cloud almost on the horizon.”

The cloud wasn’t moving at all but then it broke up into vast numbers of metallic slivers that sped at frightening speed across the horizon before reforming.

We took it all in. Grateful that whatever it was, it hadn’t come our way. Susan being on board meant one more maned weapons system but we were still under strength.  The weapons systems that we could man or place on automatic were trained on the cloud as it disappeared over the horizon in an alarming burst of speed.

Even before we’d had time to discuss the nature of the cloud the land wagon alarm went off again.  Moving towards us from the horizon and at some considerable speed were the most formidable looking creatures. They looked a bit like an alien version of a velociraptor. Larger, faster, almost certainly stronger, and with a distasteful hint of something slightly insectoid about them.

Our laser canon started firing on automatic   Sometimes missing it took two or more laser hits to stop any of these strange creatures.

Then as I backed the land wagon away from their advance and others took up manned weapons systems the creatures started to slow.

“As if they were being held back by a huge elastic band” volunteered Janelle.

“They’re starting to look less substantial too,” I added as they were almost upon us.

“They must be from that second closest anomaly,” offered Janelle. “The one that looked like something out of Earth’s dinosaur period.”

“That anomaly was way to far away,” I said.

“It has moved a little closer to us,” responded Janelle “and these velociraptor imitations may have a whole lot more range than the android soldiers we encountered earlier.” 

The principal appeared to be the same though I thought anything leaving the anomalies could only move so far away from them before being drawn back. As if they represented a sample of a different reality or at least a different world.

“Could the Drorne have made these anomalies,” asked Janelle.

“I don’t think so,” I replied “just not their style plus the anomalies seem to be much newer than anything we’ve ever seen that was made by the Drorne. No some other major player appears to be at work here.”

“If that’s a velociraptor imitation then I’d hate to see a T Rex imitation,” shuddered Susan.

“Let’s get on to the Drorne station,” I urged. “We’re nearly there now.”

I didn’t want to admit it to anyone but my confidence had been shaken slightly by recent events. Something about the cloud entity had unnerved me and the velociraptor imitations hadn’t helped.  Quietly I was hoping their might be some techno0logy at the Drorne station to give us an edge.

The Drorne station was set into the side of a small mountain looking over a relatively flat area among the otherwise very rocky terrain.  With a vaguely concrete looking exterior it was at first glance far from impressive. Yet first impressions can be misleading. It didn’t look like any other Drorne station I’d seen. Still I was beginning to realise that they were all different. Each built in a form suitable to the world they were located on.

As with the several other Drorne stations I’d come across in my travels – you couldn’t just walk into it.   All five of us stood around at the entrance waiting for an incredibly ancient but still operating scanning process to judge us worthy to enter. Or perhaps unworthy.

Then an area at ground level about the size of a set of aircraft hanger doors opened up instantly and closed just as quickly after we moved into it. “I hope we can get out again,” said Susan not entirely joking.

We walked in to an area that was vaguely reminiscent of a small aircraft hanger. Too large it seemed for the modest few vehicles and assorted equipment lying about. There was the suggestion that this area might once have housed much more equipment than it now did.

A crude but working teleshunt lift was our only means of accessing other levels in the Drorne complex. I wondered what would happen if the teleshunt failed.

The second level was still large but no longer aircraft hanger size. It was a crude living area catering for aliens of various shapes and sizes.

“Let’s move on up again,” I said as we used the teleshunt lift for a second time.

“Offices?” suggested Susan apologetically as we entered an area smaller than the level below.

“A command centre more likely,” I decided before being interrupted.

“Welcome to this Drorne facility, it has been a long time since anything has been inside here,” the voice came from a hologram. “How may I assist you?”

We had a long, long conversation with the hologram.  All the while looking for its not at all obvious source.   On the downside it could not advise us on the current existence of any gateways. Temporary or permanent. On the upside it knew a great deal more about this world than we did.

For completeness sake we went up to the fourth and final level of the Drorne complex. The hologram described the small area as a recreation/observation area.

“Take me with you, please,” said the hologram. Was it just my imagination or had the voice taken on a slightly pleading tone.

“Where is your program?” Janelle asked, as it pointed to a metal object the size of a large tool box that hadn’t seemed to be there a few minutes ago.

“I’m lonely,” it continued “my job here is long past done and I don’t care to wait another thousand years for intelligent company.”

“Who are we to look a gift horse in the mouth,” Janelle looked at me. I nodded.

On the way out the hologram advised us on all of the vehicles and equipment. We opted for what the hologram described as a medium sized various energy source flyer.

Then we all departed the Drorne facility feeling quite optimistic.

I put the flyer in electro-magnetic mode and we started off flying level at a modest speed and low altitude.  According to the hologram there was equipment on board that should be able to detect a gateway. We assembled it and operated it as we were instructed.  The intent being to fly across much of the planetary surface.

“You know,” said Susan “you guys could use something like this flyer in your rescue service.”

A thought both Janelle and I had already entertained.

Beyond sight of the Drorne complex the sentient cloud entity appeared again. This time much closer to us.

“Best not to provoke it,” offered the hologram enigmatically.  We didn’t.

Again the entity broke into vast numbers of tiny metallic slivers that moved menacingly towards us before rejoining to form the cloud.  Then it let go of something that crashed to the ground. It was our mini satellite that had stopped transmitting some time back. A very menacing, very provocative act.  Also leaving us in no doubt as to its sentience. Indeed malevolent sentience.

I increased the flyer’s speed several times in an effort to lose the cloud and each time it matched our increased speed.  Then, as if bored, it left us.

During this confrontation we had over flown part of one of the sand oceans and were coming up on yet another anomaly.

I altered course sharply.

“Is that why the cloud left us,” asked Janelle astutely “on account of proximity to the anomaly?”

“Yes,” responded the hologram.

“The clouds, yes there’s more than one of them,” Susan shuddered as the hologram said this. “The clouds tend to avoid flying near the anomalies.”

Thankfully the anomaly did not respond to our proximity.   Like the other two anomalies we had seen close up it was about small city size, it moved slowly, and appeared to shimmer with the suggestion of a mystical barrier about it. Whether that was to keep things out or keep things in was still hard to say.  Probably both. This anomaly was a place on a constant war footing. A forever war between hybrid repto-insectoids and boosted high technology humanoids.  A roughly even fight so the hologram said.

“Let’s get about our business,” I said and we increased altitude and at formidable speed “mapped” the planetary surface looking for any sign of gateway energies.

It was both exhilarating and frustrating at the same time.  The sometimes breathtaking views tempered by not even the slightest energy trace of a gateway.

As to the hologram.  We had decided it was male and started to call it Fred. We kept the metallic toolbox shape source of its program close at all times. Somehow it seemed very honoured by this humble recognition. “I’ve never seen a holographic program anywhere near as sophisticated as this one,” whispered Janelle.

“You will find a gateway,” offered the hologram “if one disappears another appears to compensate.  The Drorne built things that way. It is possible that the existence of the principal gateway is being suppressed.”

It was on our second “mapping” of the planetary surface that we got our much needed break.  “Something,” said Janelle “something so faint that even this flyer’s sophisticated Drorne instruments cannot detect it.  Here’s the coordinates.

The gateway appears to be inside one of the anomalies. That’s why it was so faint.”

“Which one?” I enquired.

“The first one we saw, the dilapidated city with the android soldiers,” replied Janelle.

We took the flyer down well outside the anomaly. It was no longer moving, as if somehow it was waiting for us to give it our best shot.

Fred told us what was contained in his program about this particular anomaly and we supplemented that with some analysis from the magnificent Drorne technology on the flyer. “Something you need to know about all of these anomalies,” said Fred ”if you can thrust through the mystical barrier that surrounds them you can be pretty sure that everything and everyone inside the anomaly will turn against you.  Even if they are presently fighting each other.”

“Thanks1” I said “Very re-assuring!”  Of course sarcasm was totally lost on an alien holographic computer program.

We waited for a while. Discussing tactics.

“We’ll have to go in the flyer.” I said “without it I think we would be toast very quickly. Even with our exo-skeleton assisted light armour. We can put the laser canon on auto, but I think these weapons we acquired from the Drorne facility will be better at blasting through any mystical barriers than anything else we have. We know exactly, more or less exactly where the gateway is inside the anomaly and we’ll make straight for it. Take the flyer right through into.” If I sounded confident to Susan and Janelle, well I wasn’t.

“Me too?” enquired Fred almost plaintively.

“You bet,” said Janelle “we’ve got nothing quite like you where we come from.”

“You know,” I sadi “not to change the subject but we are actually not that far from the edge of one of the sand oceans. Our land sonar (we had taken it from the land wagon) suggests the ground below is slightly fluid.”

Our land sonar showed a range of creatures headed not towards us but towards the anomaly. I recognised some of them or their ilk as past protagonists from our journey across the sand ocean.

Then the clouds appeared and I did say clouds. Six of the huge entities. Uncharacteristically they headed towards rather than away from the anomaly. Breaking up into their millions upon millions of sliver components. They raced to the anomaly and in what appeared to be super heated form.

“What’s going on here Fred,” I asked somewhat bewildered by the turn of events.

“There have basically been three influences on this world. The indigenous powers, the ancient Drorne intrusion and the anomalies.  Now with the Drorne long gone the two remaining influences have decided to have it out for dominance of this world.”

“OTH radars indicate another indigenous attack on the next nearest anomaly.  The dinosaur anomaly”, yelled Janelle.

We watched on transfixed as the super heated slivers smashed time and again against the mystical barriers of the anomaly gradually wearing them down. Following them were dozens of the towering vaguely humanoid shape sand creatures we had encountered while other creatures sought to burrow under the anomaly.  From inside it a multitude of android soldiers came forth to meet the threat. . Like angry bees reacting to an invasion of their hive.

It seemed like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Or perhaps the Norse Gods Ragnorak.

We held back for a while before realising that this was our opportunity.

“They are doing our work for us,” I said “too busy with each other we might be able to burst through to the gateway unopposed.”

We hurtled forward in the flyer trying to avoid the densest of the fighting.  Hoping our shields and speed would brush all aside.  The slivers and the sand ocean creatures largely ignored us though not so the android soldiers.  We took heavy fire that rocked even the Drorne flyer.  With the android soldiers were some sort of animals. Much like Earth police or soldiers might use dogs. Yet these vicious reptilians bore no resemblance to Earth dogs or anything else of Earth.

Somehow the android soldiers succeeded in bringing the flyer to the ground and to a halt. By sheer weight of firepower. They and their reptilian “pets” surrounded the flyer.  Looking for a way in.

“Can we make it out on foot,” asked Susan.

“I don’t see how we can,” I responded “those reptilian things would probably tear us apart if the soldiers don’t fry us first.”

“We have the Drorne energy weapons,” said Janelle ‘they have to be superior.”

“One on one certainly but we don’t have corresponding protection,” I replied.

“What choice to we have?” asked Susan.

“None,” I agreed.

We got ready to bust out of the flyer.

For the first time since we had entered the anomaly I looked backward. Perhaps searching for ideas.  I took in the view of the outside world looking out from the anomaly.  It seemed to be different. Not quite what we knew to actually be there. Colored, tinted, distorted somewhat.

Then suddenly it looked very different indeed.  As two rather large shapes were very visible outside the anomaly.  One appeared to be in low orbit while the other had landed at some distance from the anomaly.  It was difficult to assess their relative sizes but the two star ships appeared as different as chalk and cheeses. I had no idea whose ships they might be.

Fred came to our aid. In the heat of the moment I had completely forgotten about our favourite hologram.

“The star ship in orbit is of Drorne origin,” he said “and that on the ground is of the Fleme, the creators and transporters of the anomalies. Neither of these mighty races needs star ships any more so I’ve no idea why they would use such a crude form of transportation.”

“I thought the Drorne were long gone,” I said.

“I never said that,” replied Fred “you assumed it because of the age of their facility.”

The new arrivals had a clear impact on the fighting in the anomaly. It ceased abruptly.

“This is it now, our only opportunity,” I yelled “there’s the gateway lit up like a Christmas tree.  Run for it.”

We did with me carrying the metallic toolbox that housed Fred’s program.

I was the only one who looked back while the others ran straight through the gateway. I probably shouldn’t have.  In the anomaly the fighting had started up again and several android soldiers and there “pets” were advancing in my direction.  Outside of the anomaly conflict of some kind was developing between the Drorne and the Fleme   I had the impression of the Drorne attempting to annihilate the anomaly and the Fleme trying to prevent it.  I wanted to stay even for just a few more second to get a clearer picture of what was happening but I didn’t dare. Especially if the Drorne destroyed the anomaly and me with it.

As I transited through the gateway I started dreaming. You know those dreams that seem to last an eternity and actually only involve a couple of seconds. The horrible thought crossed my mind that the gateway might lead elsewhere then I remembered Fred told me the Drorne gateways only ever existed between two worlds. It had to be Earth I would arrive at.

Then I tumbled head first onto the ground and Janelle and Susan helped me up.

“We’re definitely home,” they both said simultaneously.

All three of us looked down at the metallic toolbox shaped object I had brought with me.  It seemed a little the worse for wear.

“It’s damaged,” said Janelle .

“Looks like it got a glancing shot from one of those android soldier’s energy weapons,” I replied.

We all looked down on it for just a moment until Fred materialised.

“I think I’m going to like this world,” he said.

“Ohh – the Einstein/Newton Institute is going to have some fun with you Fred,” I laughed.

End

Bio

I have published seven collections of short stories and two novellas in the 8 years I have been writing speculative fiction. All of these are on Amazon.

I have been a regular contributor to the Antipodean SF, Beam Me Up Pod Cast, and Farther Stars Than These sites.  Also I have been published on Bewildering Stories, 365 Tomorrows, the WiFiles, and the former Golden Visions magazine.

I have written three sci-fi series: the 12 part “Alien Hunter” series for then Golden Visions Magazine in 2011/12, the “Trathh” series for the Beam Me Up Pod Cast site in 2012/13, and the “Human Hunter” series also for the Beam Me Up site in 2014/15.

Currently I am working on a new collection of science fiction short stories as yet unnamed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Resistance is Futile by Jessica Morrow

Dec 25 2016

Every day was an exciting new one for Hamish Harrison. He knew it sounded ridiculous, but he couldn’t wait to jump out of bed at seven on the dot, and get straight into the thick of things.

There were promotions to be made, friends to be met, and wishes to be fulfilled—every day was sunny and bright, and just as happy as he was to meet it.

Sometimes, he wondered if it got a bit tedious, but then…of course not. He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to end up like the others…like Lucy Payne.

Hamish opened his eyes to find his older sister watching him. She was doing a lot of that lately. Did she blame him for the death?

She noticed him watching her, and quickly looked away. Hamish sighed, and turned to head inside the house. Even if Beth was suspicious of him being different, nobody else did. He was perfect to a tee.

He didn’t stand out. They lived in their double storey brick house, and had always lived there, too close to all the other double storey dark brown brick houses in the street. They never stood out.

He walked up to the front door, and hoped again that nobody would believe Beth. They couldn’t. How could they when she sided with the other after…Oh Lord, not the flames…

Hamish forced the thoughts out of his mind, and wondered if Luke would give him a lift to the dormitories tomorrow.

Oh well. At least his friends thought he was normal. He had to be normal. He was normal. It was as simple as that.

 

The flames woke Hamish Harrison out of his trance. He stared ahead, out of the car window and at the vast expanse of nothingness, and quickly tried to extinguish the flames out of his mind. He shook his head and turned around to face Luke.

Luke looked ahead at the road, and didn’t appear to have noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Hamish sighed. “Are we almost there?”

“Almost,” Luke replied dully.

They spent most of the road trip in silence, and Hamish spent the time trying to force the images out of his head. It was quite easy, if you focused on the dusty building up on the left near Brown’s River, or the trees losing their leaves just off the road, and then the vast expanse of road where there was just road and not much else.

The university was in the desert. When Hamish first learnt about it as a child, it sounded fascinating and mystical. Now, it sounded silly. But he didn’t tell Luke.

Don’t be silly. You’re going for an education. Appearances don’t matter.

Yet again, he was fooling himself. Of course they mattered. If you wanted to fit in, it had to matter. He had to fit in, even if it was this dull looking university in the middle of the desert. He had to be the best.

 

Blue eyes forced their way into Hamish’s mind. They stared at him, unblinking, and he couldn’t look away. He didn’t want to look away. A hand reached out somewhere beneath the eyes, towards the eyes, and he realized they were his own.

Hamish awoke with a start. The blue eyes morphed into a blue light, and he forced the blueness out of his eyes. When he focused in on the perfectly clean, not-a-speck-of-dust-anywhere dormitory, the images left his mind. His dorm mates were shouting. Someone called out his name. Bradley Dormer threw a pillow at him.

Hamish suppressed a sigh. He was used to this. It was just…

No. Cliques were always noisy. Normal people made lots of noise. Quietness was suspicious. Beth deserved to be an outcast.

Hamish jumped out of his bed, and threw the pillow back at Bradley Dormer. The blond-haired boy broke out laughing.

 

Hamish sat in the Sociology 101 classroom, and realized he’d been daydreaming. Blue light clouded his thoughts. It was getting annoying.

He stared up at the professor, wiping the drool off his chin. Next to him, Dan Dreamer let out a snore. The teacher didn’t notice, and Hamish smiled. Stupid professor.

He looked away from Dan to focus fully on the professor. Mr. O’Hearn, he thought his name was. Yes, it was. They’d met during the orientation week, when he was with Bradley Dormer and Luke scavenging freebies. Mr. O’Hearn yawned.

The door to the classroom opened. A blond haired woman entered, and Mr. O’Hearn did notice her. He frowned.

“You’re late, Miss Payne,” he said. “Class started twenty minutes ago.”

Hamish didn’t focus in on the blond haired girl’s response. He just stared at her, mouth moving and all. He opened his own mouth, and a whistling sound escaped through his lips. The girl stared at him, her blue eyes piercing. She recognized him. Holy crap, she recognized him.

Lucy Payne.

 

The blue eyes clouded Hamish’s thoughts until he couldn’t breathe. He tried to move his mouth, but it remained open. He felt numb. He couldn’t even really tell if his mouth was still open. Maybe it had flown free of his lower face and escaped to a parallel reality.

He kept staring until Lucy Payne—Lucy Payne—moved away from the door to her seat. She sat next to Dan Dreamer, and flushed at him. She didn’t look at Hamish again. He snapped back to this reality, and Mr. O’Hearn’s voice exploded through his ears. He held his hands to his ears, until the sound went back to normal. No one noticed him. They couldn’t have noticed him.

She was back.

Hamish wanted to escape, but he couldn’t. Class finished and Dan was one of his friends. Which meant Lucy Payne was one of his friends. Dan was the leader of the inner circle.

If he got on Dan Dreamer’s bad side, he might as well say goodbye to a life at the university, at any semblance of a normal life at all. He stood up and followed Dan Dreamer out of the classroom. Other members of the inner clique followed. He kept his eyes on Dan the entire time, wondering why? How? Why?

How had Lucy made it back up the ranks? Was it possible?

Dan hastily introduced this sudden new girl to his group of friends. They all grinned at her, lopsided puppy dog grins, and even Hamish copied.

“Boys, this is Lucy Payne, my girlfriend,” Dan said, smiling innocently.

The males all responded with cheerful replies, and Hamish could barely manage his. He knew Lucy knew.

 

The party started at five fifty-six p.m. Hamish and Elizabeth Harrison had invited everyone this side of California. This party was going to be the greatest party of the year, and even Hamish knew it. Everyone arrived in a good mood, the food was amazing, the drinks were even better, and the unpopular ones had simply forgotten to come. He watched as Beth and James Parris danced along to a catchy pop song; he wished he could recall the tune, but it escaped his mind. It was a song from the 70s, he knew that at least. He remembered because Beth and James were dancing the hustle, and that was a popular dance from the 70s. Beth used to be cool like that. She called him out of his trance, to get more beer. Their dad would have some more in the attic. He was always cool like that.

Hamish shrugged and walked towards the kitchen, unashamedly whistling to the song. He smiled; this was definitely the best party he’d ever had.

He stopped short as he reached the kitchen. He would’ve moved, but he couldn’t. He stood there, stunned, body stuck in place, as he watched Lucy Payne make out with his father. As their lips connected, and Lucy moaned, and his father rubbed his hands against her back, Hamish didn’t know what to…What was happening? What was she doing?

Shocked coursed through his veins, and he didn’t know whether that was possible, but he felt something he’d never felt before. Was that was shock felt like? Time froze for him in those moments he couldn’t move, and then went really fast, faster, before it went back to normal.

Finally, he regained his grip on reality and shouted out something incoherently. They both turned around, but neither stopped what they were doing; his father’s hands remained where they were, and their lips didn’t part.

Hamish moved forward, unsure of what he was going to do. He couldn’t even speak, but he wanted to…he wanted to…

Thoughts he never dreamed possible entered his thoughts: While Lucy stood there stunned, he would grab her, thrust the nearest table knife into her chest, choke her, and as she stood spluttering, he would slit her throat, before throwing her onto the cold linoleum and smashing her skull. He tried to shake the thoughts out of his head, but they wouldn’t leave. He couldn’t possibly want to kill Lucy, would he? Even if she was breaking the code!

While he stood there barely able to move, his father and Lucy finally drifted apart. As they did so, his father tripped back and hit his head on one of the high benches. Without warning, the stove behind him lit up, flames licking up into the air and then…holy crap, his father was on fire!

Lucy jumped away, bumping into Hamish, and they both started screaming. Their screaming seemed to attract everyone else, and soon enough everyone was just watching as Hamish’s father twitched and screamed and moved around on the spot. Hamish couldn’t watch; as he screamed his incoherent screams, his eyes turned to Lucy Payne.

It was the first time he’d ever seen those blue eyes. He wasn’t even sure they were Lucy’s. But those eyes were on her face, and he saw a look of pure malice, of complete and utter sadistic pleasure…and for the first time ever, he was truly terrified.

Lucy Payne left town a week later.

 

The party started at seven oh-three. Dan Dreamer had planned the party to mark the end of their first day of classes. Hamish wanted to join in, he really did. He wanted to kick the football around with his friends, and cook some fatty burgers on the grill, and drink so many beers he’d pass out and miss half of his second day, just like everyone else. When everyone else started dancing the Thriller dance, Hamish sat down. He watched the black television box, hoping nobody would notice him.

He was wrong.

Of course, when he looked away from the television to prepare himself to start dancing, Lucy Payne was sitting next to him, playing with a loose strand of her blond curly hair. He looked away immediately, but had to return to her: the blue light was blinding. No, it wasn’t even her eyes, he noticed. Her eyes were actually hazel. Then why had he always imagined her with those piercing blue eyes, so penetrable they would sear his eyes if he looked at them for too long? Lucy’s eyes were hazel.

“You killed my father,” Hamish said, clearer than he felt.

There was silence. Lucy stared back at him, her expression unchanging. Her lips remained thin and pursed.

“No, Hamish, I’m innocent,” she replied.

“You killed my father,” Hamish shouted, and he stood up suddenly.

He expected everyone else to stare at him, to wonder why on earth he had the gall to shout at Dan Dreamer’s girlfriend. They all just stood in their spots, swaying to the beat of the thrum, a calming concerto. He looked around for the stereo. The music; it was making him nervous. Why would anyone dance to this?

He shivered, and made his way out of the room, towards the kitchen. The music followed him, but still he could find no stereo, no MP3 player, no speaker systems on the wall. He stopped in front of the stove, staring at it. What was happening to him? Was this what happened when you finally lost your cool? He was probably in the university hospital wing right now, and this was just a vision his overactive mind had cooked up for him. Lucy Payne: What an impossibility! He’d been in the clique too long. He couldn’t be mad.

He had to talk to someone, there had to be someone to talk to. But of course there was no one. He didn’t even know where Luke was, come to think of it. Was he even still at the university?

He was all alone.

“I didn’t kill your father, Hamish Harrison,” Lucy Payne’s voice rang out.

Hamish looked up to see her. He was shocked to see Dan Dreamer by her side, but Dan didn’t speak. He stood there, looking rather bemused.

“You’re a fool if you think I killed him,” Lucy continued. “We both saw everything as clear as day. I know you wanted to fit in, but at the expense of my life?”

“You killed him, I know it,” Hamish muttered.

“I may have screwed around with your father, but I certainly did not kill him!” Lucy responded irritated. “Something else killed him. Someone else, I don’t know.”

“No, you killed him.”

“They killed him; the ones who enforced the rules of the clique,” Lucy sneered.

“You’re lying,” Hamish hissed. “Why don’t you go away? You’ve already ruined my reputation.”

“See!” Lucy shouted, giving Dan a quick look. “Reputation, cliques; it’s all you idiots ever care about. You’re so far up your own ass, Hamish Harrison, you don’t even realize why we have cliques, and why he cliques have their own cliques. It’s just to please the Ones.”

“Screw you,” Hamish shouted back. “How dare you say such a thing, you outcast? You don’t have a right to question anything, not after what you did.”

He turned to face Dan, hoping he would offer some insight. The Leaders always offered the best insight.

“I don’t care; none of this is real,” Dan said, half-heartedly.

Hamish glared at him. How could it be so easy for him to turn against the way? He was just like Beth, when Beth changed after their father died, and he was just like that lunatic Lucy Payne. Was he the only normal one around here?

“Fine then, Hamish,” Dan said. “If you think being in the clique is so awesome and being an outcast is the end of the world, then answer this: what is the blue light?”

Hamish stopped in his tracks. He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came out. A sort of “gack, gah—what? How do you…” escaped his lips, but nothing coherent.

Dan Dreamer smirked, and Hamish felt as if he were truly the outcast here; the only one who knew nothing in this excellent world.

“It tells us that we’re not in control of ourselves and all that matters is that we belong to the clique, and to be normal, and that anyone who isn’t normal should be shunned. Sometimes we don’t even need the blue light.”

“I don’t believe you,” Hamish said.

Dan smirked again, and raised an eyebrow towards that murderer Payne, before turning around, as if to say follow me. Of course, since the traitor was his clique leader, Hamish followed him.

 

“You’ve seriously got issues,” Hamish told Dan. “Your reputation is nothing now.”

“How was the blue light?” Dan replied sarcastically.

The three of them stood in front of the Vice Chancellor’s office; a thick, sturdy metal building that looked more like a shed. The door held a neatly handwritten sign that proclaimed the hours of Vice Chancellor Stephen Wright to be 9am-6pm.

He imagined he would be like an angel, and the others in the clique would be his servants. He would punish the outcasts, and he would get his members to kill Dan and Lucy for him. He would watch their deaths. He would be taken up to the highest level, he would be supported and loved for all of eternity, and they would suffer, all because they had sinned and they weren’t normal. Lucy killed his father; she deserved much worse, but she could choose to redeem herself in the eyes of their Ones.

“You won’t be saying that when you are suffering for what you’ve done. You’re on a path that can’t be fixed.”

“There’s no-one higher up!” Dan snickered, but Hamish ignored him. “If you want the truth Hamish, it’s in there. You’re not the only one. We’ve show so many others the way, and it all ends the same. You’re too caught up in your ways.”

“You’re a fool,” Hamish replied. “You can say goodbye to your crown. You won’t be the leader of this clique anymore.”

“You think I care about the stupid goddamn clique?” Dan shouted. “We’re so close to defeating the Ones, you stupid machine. Don’t you get it? Don’t you want to think?”

“You’re just jealous,” Hamish grinned, and opened the door to the office, only briefly surprised the door wasn’t locked.

He was about to slam the door shut, when Dan slam-tackled into him. Hamish fell backwards, his head hitting the hard concrete. Concrete? He felt a blow on his face, before the door slammed shut.

Dan moved away from him immediately. Hamish looked up, but he could barely hear anything; he couldn’t even see Dan. His head hurt; Dan really had knocked the wind out of him. He rubbed the back of his head, grimacing at the pain.

When he looked back up, all he could see was blue. A foreign text was scrawled all over the room; strange hieroglyphics that were impossible to decipher.

He tried to stand up, but he was frozen in place, just like when his father was killed by Lucy Payne.

“There’s no Chancellor, Hamish,” Dan Dreamer’s voice rang out from next to him. “There’s no-one of our kind higher up. The Ones aren’t like us.”

Hamish continued to stare at the blue, mesmerized by the brightness, the white gibberish, the sinister message. He couldn’t react.

“Lucy and I were just about to discover the truth,” Dan continued. “After your father died, she began researching mysterious phenomena. It turns out the Ones killed your father. They wanted to plant hate between you and her. And it worked.”

Hamish’s gut was churning. These Ones, he was a toy in their game. He wasn’t even human anymore. Was he ever really human?

“They use the concept of cliques and outcasts to keep us under control,” Dan said. “You and Lucy were the only ones who could stop it. Thanks to you, it’ll keep happening.”

Hamish began to scream. His head was on fire, and he couldn’t hear Dan anymore. He wondered if it had ever been Dan at all. The blueness seared into him, pouring blood out of his every orifice, creating new ones, scarring him until he couldn’t feel, didn’t want to feel anything, but still the pain continued. The white writing started to make sense, even though he’d never seen the language before. He continued to scream even long after his throat was hoarse and dead and had been ripped from his body. He screamed as the white words entered his consciousness and subconscious, and tore everything of him, literal and otherwise, before doing the same thing all over again, and again, and again.

In a universe far away, someone switched off, and Hamish didn’t see anything else. Instead of blueness, like he was used to, all he saw was black. The pain vanished, replaced by the blackness, the emptiness.

It swallowed up everything.

 

Every day was an exciting new one for Hamish Harrison. He knew it sounded ridiculous, but he couldn’t wait to jump out of bed at seven on the dot, and get straight into the thick of things.

There were promotions to be made, friends to be met, and wishes to be fulfilled—every day was sunny and bright, and just as happy as he was to meet it.

Hamish Harrison’s life was perfect.

###

 

J.M Morrow is a fiction writer from Melbourne, Australia, who spends most of her spare time writing. When she isn’t writing, she can be found procrastinating, and reading books by Muriel Barbery, Suzanne Collins, George Orwell, and whatever’s on her constantly growing to-read list.

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Cyber Kill By Lawrence Buentello

Dec 11 2016

The room lay bare of all technology, a bizarre stipulation made by Eric Gastif, Director of Technical Operations for Cyber Barriers Security.

But why the man would make such a request of the senior leadership for one of the most respected computer system security providers in the world, Ken Johnson didn’t know.

Gastif had requested—rather, had demanded—that absolutely no technological devices be admitted to the meeting room, whether computers, digital recorders, miniature net devices or cellular communications. He even asked that only mechanical wristwatches be worn into the room.

But as the three directors approached their seats at the conference table, Johnson considered the dark expression on the older man’s face more the product of deep concern than psychosis. The lines drawn across the pale cheeks spoke of many sleepless nights. Gastif’s coat hung on his shoulders much too loosely; the last two weeks seemed to have aged him considerably.

Johnson, the Chief Liaison, took his seat, uncomfortable without the presence of a briefcase, or at least a folder of papers. These, too, were things Gastif refused to allow into the safe room, perhaps fearing that someone might covertly substitute some device in their place.

Gastif leaned forward in his chair and sighed.

“I want to thank you all for agreeing to my requests,” he said, placing his hands on the table. “But if you’ll indulge me a few minutes to explain, I’m sure you’ll understand.”

Johnson glanced around the table at the other members of the board to gauge their reactions to this statement. Edra Hannish, the President of Cyber Barriers Security, sat wordlessly, reserved, her face drawn in the poor lighting. Jim Tolland, Head of Technological Research and Development, stared at the older man curiously, as if watching a disturbing natural phenomenon; he’d made no secret of his feelings about Gastif’s recent behavior.

“The security breaches have become a world-wide phenomenon,” Gastif continued. “You’ve all read the reports. Hundreds of security systems have detected infiltrations from an unknown source. Not the typical disruptions that we’re used to. Those vulnerabilities we can trace fairly easily, whether they originate from private individuals or curious governments. The first incident to capture my attention was the one the Pentagon reported. They believed some of their computers were being breached by the Chinese, or possibly the Russians. When our team arrived at Bitterroot, we thought the same thing. But when we observed the system there we found something else entirely.”

Johnson leaned back in his chair. This was the first time he’d heard about a breach of security at Bitterroot, which, he previously believed, was impossible to achieve. The facility in Colorado was a single-storage system, in which no external lines of communication were attached to the servers. Storage devices downloaded and transferred highly sensitive information from the system manually, which meant that individual service modules could easily be tested for breaches before they were used within other systems.

The Bitterroot system was a closed circuit, and yet Gastif was now declaring it compromised.

Johnson glanced at Hannish’s face to see if her expression might betray her knowledge of this, but as usual her thoughts were unreadable. At the first sign of trouble she’d calmly organized the company’s personnel into a multi-tiered investigation team, and had since reserved her opinions of the matter. An ability to not rush to judgment as hundreds of clients were crying foul made her an excellent leader, if not the only clearly thinking person in Cyber Barriers Security.

But now the investigation was done, and Johnson wondered what her conclusion would actually be.

“Impossible,” Tolland said, waving his hand. “Bitterroot couldn’t possibly be contaminated. It’s the most secure system in the country.”

“That’s what I believed,” Gastif said, “until I drove down into the tunnels and monitored the system with the chief engineer. Something, some program was running throughout the entire system. We couldn’t isolate it, but we could see where it was multiplying files within the system. After a while the copied files simply vanished.”

“Vanished?” Tolland said. “They couldn’t just vanish.”

“They did,” Gastif said, raising his hands like a magician. “Into thin air. They left no magnetic footprint whatsoever. After a few days of similar episodes, the ghost program ceased. During that time, of course, no storage units were allowed into or out of the installation. I thought it was a particularly ingenious Trojan program that would copy information and then covertly deposit it in any storage units we subsequently introduced to the system. So we searched for any foreign algorithms in the system, but came up empty. Then we cleansed the storage units and scanned them twenty times before, during and after any information transfers. But we still couldn’t find anything.”

“An aberration?” Edra Hannish suggested. “A system failure?”

Gastif shook his head. “We analyzed every part of the system, tested every program, scanned every file for corruption, even the deep storage. The system was in perfect condition.”

“Well,” Hannish continued, smiling briefly, “if there wasn’t any exposure why are you so concerned?”

Gastif nodded gravely.

“That was my initial reaction, too,” he said, “but then I became curious. This—malfunction, if you will—was particularly noticeable at Bitterroot, where you wouldn’t expect a breach of security. I began to wonder if this same phenomenon might be detected elsewhere, so I called our European offices and had them observe some of our more sensitive clients, foreign governments, utility services, financial institutions. I told them to monitor for radiation exposures, additional energy loads, or any other type of significant event.”

“And?” Tolland asked.

“And they observed the same phenomenon in nearly every system they monitored. As if some program were collating all the available information, copying it, and then simply deleting the copies and every trace of the ghost program. But none of this collated information—let me emphasize this point—was ever transferred to any system. There simply was no loss of proprietary information, no cyber attack to trace.”

“A nuisance virus, then. Something delivered into a variety of systems just to annoy us. The equivalent of territorial graffiti.”

“I would be comforted by that thought,” Gastif said, “if I could make myself believe it was that innocuous. Actually, I almost did make myself believe it. A hacker might very well create such a program to avoid prosecution should he be caught. But then the other incidents began to occur, and I couldn’t believe it was so simple anymore.”

“The shutdowns,” Johnson said, feeling he should speak. As liaison to so many clients, he’d had to suppress too many fires in recent weeks, fires that grew proportionately terrifying.

First, several energy systems went offline, and then miraculously recovered. Then hospitals in several cities lost their networks, including their emergency networks, before recovering them. And then the military computers shut down completely before coming back online after a few hours. Some disruptions were as minor as television cable companies, and some were completely untenable, like the FAA systems.

Most recently, communications and other orbiting satellites were experiencing inexplicable outages. Nothing had been permanently affected, but the fact that they had all occurred so closely together was impossible to ignore.

“Yes,” Gastif said, nodding. “The shutdowns. The pattern has been as baffling as the infiltrations I’ve described. Nothing’s been permanently affected, only temporarily compromised. Which seems to have left too many people—too many important people—with the impression that nothing significant has occurred.”

“And has something significant occurred?” Tolland said. “I’ve studied the same reports, and I can’t see anything about these aberrations that can’t be explained by advanced hacking techniques. If the creators of this virus, or whatever it is, intended to hurt us we’d already be injured. We would have suffered some damage, some loss of information, some adulterated program, some loss, wouldn’t we?”

“Perhaps. If these acts were being committed by the people with which we’re familiar.”

“You don’t believe they are?” Johnson asked. He was beginning to see a darker expression fall over Gastif’s face, as if they were quickly approaching the subject matter which had painted the man’s deathly pall.

“No,” Gastif said, “I don’t. And I don’t believe whoever conducted these exercises intended to ruin any of these systems.”

“Exercises?” Hannish said. “What do you mean by calling them exercises?”

“Just that, Edra. The Bitterroot attack gave me the best clue to what we’re dealing with. You see, after these systems came back online—all of them, as far as I know—they conducted a systems check on themselves across the board. Most systems do, of course, but these checks were comprehensive, at times more thorough than they should have been.”

“You suspected they were part of the infiltration?”

“Yes. After these checks, though, the systems functioned normally, so they seemed unrelated. But they weren’t.”

“It was just another part of the hack,” Tolland said dismissively.

Gastif shook his head. “If a malicious hacker had meant to cause some damage or to compromise sensitive information, he would have done so. There’s no point in creating a sophisticated program to infiltrate the most secure computers just for bragging rights. It’s simply not worth a life sentence in a federal prison. And the shutdowns? Malicious mischief? How could one person, or even one group, cause so many disruptions in so many places all around the world? And leave absolutely no footprint?”

“How indeed?” Johnson asked. “That’s why we’re all in this room, to try to uncover who’s behind these attacks.”

Gastif frowned at this statement, stared at his hands a moment, then looked up fearfully. Johnson thought he was imagining the fear in Gastif’s eyes, but as the man’s steady gaze held everyone at the table he realized that it wasn’t an illusion.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you who’s behind the attacks,” Gastif said grimly. “Or what. Not specifically. I arranged this meeting to describe what I believe is about to happen. That’s why I wanted to meet in this particular room, protected from electrical surveillance and absent of any electronic equipment. Because I believe it’s found in even the simplest computerized system. I believe it can infiltrate any electromagnetic system it pleases.”

“What can infiltrate these systems?” Tolland said impatiently.

Gastif paused a moment before continuing. His eyes focused first on the table’s surface, then on his fellow directors.

“As I said before,” he said, “I requested that our foreign offices monitor our systems for disruptions. At first they found nothing. I suppose that was because they were using traditional analysis tools. But a technician in Belgium, because he was lacking available personnel, decided to set up a hyperspectral imaging camera to capture any fluctuations in the electromagnetic fields within his systems. Should the typical fields fluctuate within the room the variations would be recorded. This is what he found one day after the camera was tripped.”

Gastif reached into his coat and pulled out a series of glossy prints. He slid the sheets toward Hannish, who then passed copies to the others.

Johnson stared at the strange image of a symmetrical oval of light hovering in a pale field. An artifact on the digital image? But the glowing oval seemed well-defined.

“What is this?” Tolland asked.

“The first recorded image of our hacker,” Gastif replied. “But not the last. When I received this image I instructed several other technicians to set up the same type of monitoring equipment. Over the next few days several identical images were recorded, each manifestation occurring during the breach of a system.”

“But what exactly is it?” Hannish said.

Gastif cleared his throat. “I believe it’s some sort of being.”

Tolland’s laugh was short and incredulous. “What are you talking about?”

“I believe this thing, this entity, whatever it is, infiltrated our systems as easily as sea water is absorbed by sand. This entity, perhaps several of them, simply entered into our electronic systems, assessed the data, recorded the data within itself and left the equipment undamaged. It wouldn’t have to transfer information outside of the system it infiltrated because it could record the data within itself. Now, I’m not certain if this is a living entity, or simply the agent of some entity, but it is completely beyond anything we understand. It is an organized energy system that can infiltrate any electromagnetic mechanism, I’m sure of that now.”

“This is preposterous,” Tolland said. “Is that why you called us together in this cave? Because you believe electric ghosts are invading the world’s computers?”

“Let him continue,” Johnson said. He rubbed his hand across his mouth because he felt the same growing fear that Gastif undoubtedly felt. Perhaps it was too much for the others to absorb so quickly—

“I might have remained skeptical,” Gastif said, “if I hadn’t been present during one of the disruptions. Pure chance, I imagine. But I was in the room when one of the entities—when its energy field—was recorded. We watched it materialize in the camera’s display screen. At the time I still didn’t know its precise nature, but I felt an impulse to test the strength of the field, so I walked forward and extended my hand into it. I tell you, I felt its intelligence. Not a human intelligence, but it was as if the entity phased into my own bio-electrical field, just briefly, but long enough for me to perceive that I was being analyzed by a thinking mind. I know that sounds insane, but I knew it was sentient. And dangerous. That was enough to convince me.”

“I thought I was hallucinating,” Johnson said, though he wondered if he should speak of it at all. “I had the same experience in Washington during one of the events. I felt there was something in the room with me—”

“Perhaps it’s because of the electrical capacities of the human brain, I’m not certain. But I’m sure I sensed the presence of an intelligent being.”

“A plasmal life force?”

“I can’t say what they are precisely. But I suspect I know their intentions.”

“What are their intentions?” Hannish asked evenly, but Johnson could see the unease in her eyes, hear the worry in her voice. Was it because she was beginning to believe Gastif? Or did she fear the man was suffering a mental breakdown? Johnson worried that his own experience wasn’t just an illusion.

“Let’s just say this,” Gastif said, leaning forward and speaking softly, perhaps too softly for anyone or anything outside the room to hear. “What would you be able to do to the human species if you controlled all the existing computer systems in the world? First you would have to examine all the pertinent systems and all the information those systems held, and then you would have to experiment to see if the information you’ve learned actually allows you to manipulate those systems. And once you’ve learned the intricacies of those systems and were confident that you could manipulate them perfectly, what would you be capable of doing? If you had control over the electrical plants, the refineries, the air traffic, military equipment, hospitals, communications centers all over the world. Nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons, weapons of all kinds all over the world in every nation. What if you had that kind of control?”

The room was silent. The directors at the table stared at one another, not knowing what to believe.

“This is fantastic,” Tolland finally said, and laughed. “You’ve created a monster in your imagination, a monster that doesn’t exist. There’s some other reason for these incidents. There must be.”

Gastif sighed, then said, “I know all this sounds incredible, but who do you think would be the first people to recognize such an invasion? Not the military, not the news media. It would be the people who monitor the security of the systems that were being compromised. We are the ones who would see it happening first.”

The silence in the room became uncomfortable after a few moments. Johnson finally broke the silence.

“We could just shut everything down if it were a matter of security,” he said. “We could control it.”

“Could we really?” Gastif said. “Do you actually think you could convince every world government to put its military defenses offline, to shut down the power plants, to cripple industry? Exactly how would you go about accomplishing that? No, that’s what makes this attack so brilliant. Consider this for a moment: if you were an invading force, that is, if you were invading an entire world, how would you go about it? Destroy everything and hope that what remains is viable? No. The more intelligent method would be to wait until a species had advanced far enough technologically to take advantage of their weapons and devices. All you would have to do was to create a method for infiltrating their electronic systems, some sort of remote capability that could infiltrate even the best security systems. To that kind of technology, our security systems wouldn’t even exist. It may be the best way, the most painless way, to enslave intelligent species everywhere.”

Johnson thought a moment, then said, “We could insulate the most important systems against electromagnetic infiltration.”

“Perhaps. But I suspect they have the ability to breach any type of insulation we might come up with. In any case, we may not have enough time.”

“We have to notify every government we can. Let them know what to expect. Surely there’s something we can do—”

“Are you even listening to what you’re saying?” Tolland said, his voice echoing sharply in the room. “You’re creating a global scenario from isolated incidents. It’s ridiculous!”

“I’ve seen the evidence,” Gastif said. “The shut-downs were precisely orchestrated events conducted from within the systems themselves. The entity or entities entered the systems, manipulated the programs and left. They walk through energy fields as easily as we walked through that door. And they can do it whenever they please.”

“Is that why you have us isolated in this room like Neanderthals? Because you think electromagnetic ghosts are haunting you?”

“Yes, to be honest.” Gastif glanced around the table, smiling weakly. “Once I came in contact with one of the entities they knew that I knew about their existence. I began sensing their presence whenever I spoke on the phone, or turned on my computer. I think they were monitoring me through electromagnetic devices. And since they were privileged to know my every interaction with the people in the company, surely they were able to define the company’s hierarchy.”

“You mean everyone at this table,” Johnson said, now acutely afraid.

Gastif nodded, his mouth drawn.

But Jim Tolland wasn’t so easily convinced.

“You’ve lost your mind,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ve completely lost touch with reality.”

Johnson turned toward Edra Hannish. If Cyber Barriers Security’s president was going to declare Gastif’s analysis the product of a deranged mind, now would be the time. But she didn’t.

“If all of this is true,” Hannish said instead, without emotion, though her face seemed ashen, “what do you think will happen next?”

“Next?” Gastif said. “Subjugation, perhaps. If we’re lucky.”

“And what if we aren’t lucky?” Johnson asked, leaning back in his chair.

“Annihilation.”

“But there must be some way to intervene—” Hannish began.

A faint chime interrupted her statement.

Gastif stared around the table in disbelief; then Tolland, his nose wrinkling in irritation, reached into his pocket and retrieved a small cell phone. He apologized perfunctorily, but Johnson’s eyes widened in fear.

“I told you not to bring any devices into this room!” he said, nearly screaming. “I told you—”

“You really didn’t expect us to take your paranoia seriously, did you?” Tolland said, shaking his head again. “My responsibilities require me to be accessible, Mr. Gastif. This meeting has been an exercise in lunacy. As far as I’m concerned, you should seek out medical help. I, for one, am not going to act as an enabler for your delusions.”

The phone chimed again; no one in the room said anything for a moment, but as Tolland began thumbing the device Gastif shouted, “Don’t answer that phone! Someone take that phone from him!”

Gastif moved from his chair, but he was too far away, and neither Hannish or Johnson seemed to comprehend the command

Finally, Johnson lurched from his chair, stumbling.

Tolland tapped the cell phone, placed it to his ear and said, “This is Jim Tolland, how can I help you?”

By the time Johnson reached him the lights began flickering in the room.

And by the time he was able to terminate the call, it was much too late.

The End

Bio: Lawrence Buentello has published over 80 short stories in a variety of genres, and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. His fiction has appeared in Short Story America, Stupefying Stories, Perihelion Science Fiction, and several other publications. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife, Susan, and two Australian shepherds.

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The Rescue Mission by Dominique Collier

Nov 20 2016

Mac’s eyes were so swollen and caked with dried blood that he could barely see his torturer. He still heard the cold, cruel voice.

“We’ll find your comrades with or without your help,” it said. “If it’s without your help, we’ll kill you. I wonder, would they do the same for you?”

Mac began to wonder, too. Why hadn’t they found him? Were they even looking?

Pain raged through his body like fire. His healing powers worked too slowly to oppose the injuries inflicted upon him. He fought to stay conscious. How long had it been since he had eaten, or slept? He’d stopped counting the days. His arms and shoulders ached unbearably from supporting the weight of his suspended body. His ankles were shackled to the floor.

The alien paced the room. Its green scales glowed. Mac closed his eyes but it didn’t help; the image of the one they called Arezdor was seared onto the back of Mac’s eyelids. Suddenly a fist slammed into Mac’s face. He reeled and winced as the manacles dug into his newly broken wrists. He opened his eyes.

“Tell me the location of your team.”

Mac’s eyes followed the beast Arezdor as it ran its fingers across several instruments lined up on a workbench. Mac wanted to vomit. He suppressed the terror that flooded through his body as Arezdor picked up a pair of pliers. He’d already lost his fingernails today. What would be taken next?

Arezdor put the pliers down. Relief welled up inside Mac until Arezdor grasped a six inch serrated knife.

His head nearly exploded as he tried to speak.

“You’ll never . . .” he began. It was almost too much of an effort. “They wouldn’t . . .” He gave up. Lights popped behind his eyelids and dizziness overtook him. He fell into welcome unconsciousness.

The mission had started nearly two weeks before. His team comprised six members of an elite force known as the Ospreys. On Earth they were feared throughout the world as the deadliest group of special operations fighters in existence. They endured the most grueling, intense training known to man.

Mac had been asleep in the bed he shared with his wife when the call came in. She groaned and rubbed the growing bulge of her belly. The timing could not have been worse. The baby would arrive any day. His wife looked into his steely eyes as he listened to his assignment over the phone. Her look begged him not to go. But he knew she was aware that all the pleas in the world could not keep him from his honor-bound duty
.
When Mac stepped off of their spaceship, the Haliaetus, onto the planet Leona, he found the air so thick it was difficult to breathe. A heavy fog surrounded him. He could just make out his hand when he stretched it in front of him. Strange noises filled the sky. Birds shrieked and swooped threateningly over Mac’s head. He fell quickly into an Epsilon formation so that he and his teammates were close enough to see each other.

Out of nowhere giant talons raced toward his face, ready to rip out his eyes. He dove to the ground and rolled. As he got back to his feet he readied his R8000 Blaster, but the monstrous bird, or whatever it was, had disappeared into the haze.

A shout from one of his teammates reached Mac and he swung toward the sound. Jason, or Shank, as they called him, was being dragged by an enormous creature that resembled an eagle. Its ten foot long serpent’s tail cracked the air like a whip. Giant claws formed vices around Shank’s biceps as it pulled him further away with each thrash of its immense wings. Already the mist attempted to envelop Shank and the creature as though it harbored a malevolence that strove to aid in the beast’s capture of the human.

Mac once again took aim with his Blaster. This time he got a shot off and was rewarded by the sound of an ear-splitting screech, followed by a thud as Shank’s body hit the ground. Shrieks from more of the creatures filled the air. Mac knew his team needed to take cover immediately before they became the birds’ next meal. At his command they belly-crawled through the mist toward a dim outline that appeared to be a forest. When they reached its edge and crossed into its shelter, the mist dissipated. They saw each other’s faces for the first time since they’d landed and there was no fear. Years of training and hundreds of missions had hardened them.

Mac did not need to remind his team why they had come. None of them would forget the panicked and terrified expressions of the parents whose children had been kidnapped. The women shook with uncontrolled sobs while the men tried their best to be strong, though tears dripped from their solemn faces. They gazed at the Osprey team as its members boarded the shuttle. Their eyes implored the men to bring their children home safely.

One hundred and fifty children had been taken from an elementary school in Calisee, United States. New monitoring systems throughout the surrounding galaxies allowed the Osprey team to track the kidnappers to their home planet. The world trembled as it imagined the horrors that awaited the innocent little ones. But they had hope. It lay in the Osprey team; in Mac and his men.

Mac was surprised how quickly darkness fell over the hushed planet. An eerie silence accompanied the creeping night. He didn’t believe in omens, but it made his skin crawl nevertheless. What was out there, watching them, waiting for their guard to be let down? Mac took the first watch.

“Get some rest,” he grunted when one of the other men offered. “You’ll need it. No telling what this place has in store for us.”

A fire was out of the question. The last thing the men wanted to do was alert anyone, or anything, to their presence. Within an hour Mac began to shiver. A swig from his flask warmed him for only a moment. Soon his teeth began to chatter and his body began to shake. He had to make a decision. Would he risk the dangers of the unknown planet, in the dark, to seek shelter from the cold? As the temperature continued to drop, so did the men’s chance of surviving the night where they lay.

Mac kicked the men awake. “Pack up, we’re moving.”

“Torro,” he whispered. “Climb a tree. Look for any type of shelter.”

“There’s a cave within a mile of here,” Torro reported.

Leona’s two full moons provided enough light for the men to travel by. In trained silence the team pushed through the jungle. Their bodies ached from the cold. No ordinary man would have the discipline to keep from shivering in that climate, but the Ospreys knew that even the sounds of chattering teeth could give them away to an enemy.

They reached the cave and hustled inside to escape the howling wind that had reared up as they traveled. It stung their skin and put tears in their eyes. As the warmth of the cave slowly thawed their bodies, Mac and his men huddled together on the rough ground to try to get some much needed rest. Manny stood guard.

Mac felt as though his eyes had barely closed when something woke him. His hand automatically went for the knife on his belt, but his arm was pinned tightly to his side. His other arm was in the same predicament, and both legs were bound together. Vines that glowed bright pink were wrapped around his body. They retracted toward the ceiling of the cave, drawing him up, high above the ground.

“What the hell?” Manny shouted. Mac saw that the rest of the men were also elevated to a dangerous altitude by the glowing pink vines. At that instant the vines began to squeeze. They cut into Mac’s flesh and compressed his lungs. A dark sap oozed from the vines and seeped into the lacerations they had made. Mac felt a searing pain where the sap entered his wounds. It spread as the substance entered his blood stream and was pumped throughout his body. He felt engulfed by fire.

Then things began to really get weird. Everything looked ten times brighter and seemed to pulsate to an unheard beat. The objects in the cave seemed to have grown lungs and were breathing. The pink glow of the vines filled the cave and what Mac saw terrorized him. Spiders the size of dogs clung to the walls. They reached legs out to touch him. He looked at his teammates. Shank had grown a second head. Cargo’s skin had turned to vapor and now hovered in the air around him. Mac turned his eyes back to his own body. Raw, oozing boils blanketed his exposed skin. Bugs dropped from the ceiling several feet above and landed on him. They fed on the discharge of the boils. He squeezed his eyes shut and re-opened them. The boils and the bugs were gone. Instead he saw floating blades hack away at his limbs. Blood spattered everywhere.

“It’s a hallucinogen!” Mac shouted to his team. His body, which healed thirty times faster than the average human’s, began to dispel the poison. He watched his skin regenerate to close the fissures made by the vines.

He had no idea if what he saw next was real, but it chilled him to the core. A king cobra as tall and as wide as a redwood appeared from the depths of the cave. It slithered toward him deliberately. Mac again squeezed his eyes shut, but when he opened them the giant snake was still there, only closer. The monster spread its hood and rose to its full height. It filled the cave. Its head was level with Mac where he hung, suspended by the vines that still held him fast. The snake flicked its forked tongue. It came within inches of Mac’s face. He could smell the venom on its breath.

Without warning a coil of the snake’s body wrapped tightly around Mac’s. As it held him firmly, the snake bit into the vines that suspended Mac from the ceiling and they snapped. The serpent lowered him to within ten feet of the ground. Though the snake was coiled tightly around Mac’s midsection, his left arm was now free. He reached for the knife that he kept on his belt and with one fluid motion, plunged it into the snake’s body. Instantly the beast let loose its grip and Mac tumbled to the ground. As he struggled to his feet the snake darted at him, fangs bared. Mac dove out of the way just in time. It struck at him again, and again. Each time, the fangs that were the size of Mac’s body nearly sliced him in half.

With each successive dive Mac worked his way closer to the gear laid out near the mouth of the cave. When he reached it he ducked behind one of the larger packs to shield himself while he dug in his own pack for his Blaster. He steadied the Blaster until the giant snake darted once more and he shot straight into its gaping mouth. The blast hit its mark and the snake was knocked back by the force of it. It hit the ground and the cave shook with its weight.

Mac didn’t know for sure if the thing was dead. He had to get his teammates out of there. They dangled far above him, still overwhelmed by the effects of the hallucinogen that had streamed into their veins, eager to devastate and destroy. Mac had another tool in his arsenal that he now thanked God for.

He aimed the levitation beam at Cargo and pressed the trigger. A jet of purple light streamed from the gun. It enveloped Cargo and he floated up an inch from where he had hung. Mac transferred the levitation device to his left hand and used his laser gun in his right hand to cut the vines that held his friend captive. Cargo began to plummet toward the ground where he would be smashed to pieces. Mac followed his friend with the levitation beam until it found him again, and he was instantly buoyed up. Mac slowly lowered the man to the ground. He repeated this process with the rest of the team until every man was safe on the floor of the cave.

Though still on edge and seeing things that weren’t real, the men were disciplined enough to function even in this state. They grabbed their gear and followed their leader out of the shelter and into the dawning sun.

For the next three days the team roamed the planet as they searched for signs of the kidnapped children. When they deemed this approach too slow, they agreed to split up to cover more ground. They had a rendezvous point at which they were to meet every night. The location of this rendezvous point would prove to be a secret that Mac paid dearly to protect.

Alone, Mac picked his way through the jungle with all the stealth of a tarantula stalking its prey. Nevertheless, the elements of the strange land were more of a challenge than he’d ever expected. The haze left him unaware of surrounding dangers. Unknown plants grabbed at him and tore his clothes and skin. Creatures that looked like nothing he’d seen before attacked him. The struggles that ensued, though he won them, left him bloody and exhausted. If it hadn’t been for his body’s healing power, they would have left him dead.

Eventually Mac came across a small stream, on the other side of which lay nothing but more of the same jungle. He heaved himself into the air to jump it. Halfway across his body was hit by a jolt of electricity that knocked him to the ground. But he didn’t land in the stream, or on its bank. Instead when he opened his eyes he found he was indoors. Dank air and darkness closed in on him. He could see little but that the walls and floor were made of rock. A single door with no handle interrupted the continuous line of bare wall. The room was completely empty save himself, some ankle shackles, and some chains that hung from the ceiling. No furniture or even a toilet offered the semblance of a place of habitation. His weapons and other gear had not made the journey with him.

Within moments of his arrival, his captors appeared. They were like twin reptiles that walked upright. Their green scales glowed, adding an eerie intensity to the effect their presence had on Mac. Both had guns pointed at him. He was forced to let them chain his wrists and ankles. When he was bound and completely powerless, an alien much bigger than the other two entered.

“What are you doing on my planet?” it asked him angrily. Its deep, gravelly voice echoed in the small room. A box around its neck translated from the alien’s language to English. The other aliens wore similar boxes around their necks, though they hadn’t spoken to him.

Mac was silent. The alien who had addressed him rammed a fist into Mac’s gut.

“Answer me.”

After he got his breath back Mac said simply, “My name is Mac Alton, serial number 258781.”

“I know why you’re here,” the thing said with a rumbling laugh. “You’re a human from the planet Earth.” Its ghastly smile displayed rows of teeth as sharp as knives. “You’ve come to rescue the other humans that we took from your home planet.”

Mac’s face remained blank. He gave nothing away.

“Who did you bring with you?” the reptilian creature asked.

Again Mac’s silence earned him a violent return for his uncooperativeness. This went on for hours. The alien never seemed to tire of knocking Mac around.

For days, maybe even weeks, this torment lasted. Though his wounds healed overnight, each day wreaked new havoc on his body. Mentally Mac weakened day by day. How much longer could he resist the pain and starvation?

“You’re being taken to the red cell,” one of the alien henchmen told him one day with a malevolent grin. “That means they’re going to kill you.”

Mac hung limply from his chains. The lizard-like being unlocked Mac’s ankle shackles, and instantly Mac flexed his core and threw his legs around the thing’s neck. He squeezed his legs with all his remaining strength and twisted them. The creature’s neck snapped and it slumped to the ground.

It took every bit of dexterity Mac could muster to wriggle the key from the henchman’s belt with his toes and transfer it to between his teeth. He hoisted himself up so his face was level with his wrists and worked the key into the lock. With a click the manacles popped open.

A crowbar Mac found on the bench of torture instruments served to wrench open the door with no handle. In his weakened state Mac nearly passed out with the effort. He slipped through the opening he’d made into a brightly lit hallway. A guard turned toward him in surprise and Mac slammed the crowbar into its skull. It went down as the satisfying sound of crunching bones filled Mac’s ears. The aliens’ skeletons were much more fragile than he had thought, given the strength of Arezdor’s fist.

Mac quickly felt his strength return. He took the gamma ray gun from the guard’s belt. With that and his crowbar he fought off slews of the reptilian beasts as he made his way down the halls of an immense compound. Finally he came across a solo alien who he was able to overtake. Mac held the ray gun to its head.

“Show me where the human children are,” he demanded.

“Please don’t k – kill me,” it begged. “I’ll show you.” A fear had spread through the alien masses of the man whose wounds healed magically. Though Arezdor had tried to suppress the rumors, all knew of their leader’s inability to permanently harm the prisoner.

With the ray gun to its back, the alien led Mac down one corridor after another. A quick zap of the weapon mobilized any threats that they came across.

“You’d better not be screwing with me,” Mac growled when five minutes had passed and they had yet to reach the location of the children. They’d come to a large room filled with windows and dominated by huge double doors. Mac jammed the ray gun into the alien creature’s temple.

“They’re right ahead, through those doors.” It pointed with a trembling finger.

Suddenly every window in the room shattered and men swung through them, dropping to the floor in front of Mac. He recognized his team. They had found him at last. Relief and gratitude filled him. A smile broke out across his face.

“It’s about time you showed up,” he shouted good-naturedly.

“We can’t all have your good luck,” Shank responded in kind.

Without further display of emotion the team turned to face the double doors toward which the stunned alien still pointed.

“Open them,” Mac commanded his guide.

It hurried to the keypad next to the door and entered a passcode. The doors slid open. Inside, the men found the children in giant cages. Some of the children cried, others stared blankly at the bars, while still others lay on the ground in a fetal position. Mac knew every minute that passed could bring alien forces upon them which they might not be able to combat. He risked a shot at the lock of one of the cages with his newly acquired ray gun. The lock broke and fell away. Quickly his men followed suit with the rest of the cages.

They herded the children out of the room and into the corridors. Once again Mac utilized his alien guide, at gunpoint, to show them the way out of the compound. It trembled and mewled but nevertheless managed its assignment. Shank, Torro, and Key took the front of the entourage while Mac, Cargo, and Manny held up the rear. They instantly annihilated the profusion of aliens they came across with their powerful Blasters.

To Mac’s surprise the team had moved their ship to a landing spot only half a day’s trek from the alien compound. When the weaker children lagged and fell, the men carried them until their strength returned. They arrived at the Haliaetus shortly before dark.

“Good to see you old girl,” Mac cried as he patted the side of the ship. “I’m coming home, baby,” he added in a whisper.

“All the children are present and accounted for, Sir,” Key reported.

“Then let’s hit the road,” Mac answered. He wasted no further time in getting the ship off the ground and headed toward home.

The scent of lavender greeted Mac as he entered his house for the first time since he arrived back on Planet Earth. The most welcome sight in the world met his eyes. His wife sat on the loveseat with their new baby in her arms.

“Meet Eva,” she told him. She blinked back joyous tears as she held the baby out to him. Mac took little Eva in his arms and gazed into her solemn infant eyes. All the meaning of his life looked back at him and he knew why he had fought so hard to stay alive. It was all for love of the three most important things in his life; his wife, his baby, and his country. For them, he would endure anything.

Biography: Since childhood Dominique has been pulled by the incessant and infatuating world of writing. She loves immersing herself in worlds of imagination, peopled by outlandish and larger than life characters. She believes that sometimes, most of the time, escaping into a good book is the cure for all one’s problems. Dominique has a degree in psychology and apart from writing, she works in the behavioral health field.

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Die, My Darling by Morgan Dreiss

Nov 06 2016

Shortly after the war, the United States unanimously passed a law banning ventriloquists from practicing their trade within its borders. Dummies were burned in massive piles. Theaters that opposed the ban were, at best, boycotted; at worst, they were torn brick from brick. The ventriloquists themselves were lynched by mobs of all races that later formed the first groups of the Civil Rights Movement. Those that survived went into hiding, or applied for amnesty in more ventriloquist-friendly countries. The citizens rejoiced.

It wasn’t that the general public didn’t enjoy ventriloquist acts, for they were actually the most popular form of entertainment of the age, besides film and radio and the assault of minorities; they just weren’t too keen on the ventriloquists themselves. They were strange, smelled of turpentine and their mothers’ basements, and were often just covers for crafty pedophiles, anyway. The public wanted ventriloquist acts without any involvement from actual ventriloquists. And Hermes Laboratories provided.

When the company, best known for producing top-notch fighter jets and helping to build the atomic bomb, trotted out its prototype Dowdy model for the press and the scientific community to bear witness to, both had to bite their cheeks to keep from laughing. Why would anyone in their right mind invest in such an abomination, such a horror, such a crime against art and humanity itself? Those scientists had lost their damn minds.

The wretched thing, this thing they called Dowdy Dan, looked like something crawled from the depths of a child’s nightmare—namely because it had been, as the head scientist at Hermes Labs had gone to work and drawn the schematics only hours after comforting his youngest daughter after a particularly horrific ventriloquist-induced bad dream. It was carved out of wood so inexpertly that it could have only been done by an expert, and its jointed arms and odd movements only acted to emphasize its lack of humanity. It moved like a marionette that, despite having had its strings cut, still moves in its old manner out of some kind of muscle memory. Its mouth, like a nutcracker’s, moved in time to a list of pre-programmed music and sound clips, but otherwise was incapable of vocalization. Its face was horrifically ugly despite the painted smile, and the meager cloths used to cover its nonexistent shame only reiterated its lowly position. But, behind the soulless, unblinking depths of its painted eyes was the most complex piece of machinery invented in decades; a true example of artificial intelligence that had never been seen, would never been seen again, and, if its creators had known of its true might, would have never been made in the first place. Time, funds, and manpower enough to create a small, stable European nation had gone into the little monster. And they laughed.

When the finished product was released, Hermes Labs stock jumped so high, even the lowliest janitor at the compound became fabulously wealthy. The press and scientific community were still biting their cheeks, but no longer was there laughter behind it.

The world of ventriloquism, which up until that point had been a mainly stagnant community of tradition and history, changed forever. Years of practice and training under a mentor gave way to the bachelor’s degrees in computer science needed to program the new machines. This meant that the majority of them moved out of their parents’ houses, took a shower, and finally went to college, solving yet another problem of society. A few hardy stalwarts remained stuck in their ways, and a small minority of these died of neglect, hunger, or tuberculosis, but nothing is perfect.

At about the same time as the Dowdies’ release onto the market, Hermes Labs used its new-found wealth and prestige to begin a new project. They realized that the Dowdies, innovative and historically significant as they were, catered to a very specific market, and that the American and foreign bourgeoisie wouldn’t be entertained by the bumblings of an ugly wooden midget for very long. The idea for their second prototype, the Darling model, came from the same scientist and his daughter. After putting her to sleep, he had become intrigued by the fairy princess music box on her nightstand. They had bought it as a birthday gift many years ago, but he had never really noticed how strikingly beautiful the darling little figure was. If only it were a bit… bigger.

The Darlings were the polar opposites of their Dowdy cousins: Beautiful, lithe, graceful things with fey-like features and real human hair on their heads, as opposed to straw and synthetic fibers. They were as varnished and smooth as the Dowdies were rough and amateur, as tall and gazelle-like as they were short and squat. Their mouths were hardly more than painted lines on their elegant faces, but it didn’t matter. Darlings were not destined for vaudeville; they were made for dance.

Even before its release, every major ballet troupe in the world had at least one Darling on pre-order. Some planned the creation of entire Darling shows for special occasions. Foreign aristocrats bought one or two for private use, and popular rumor said the sheik of Araby had bought an especially lifelike one for a use so private no one dared mention it in mixed company. A few ex-ventriloquists traded in their Dowdies and thus lifted themselves to a higher social level where people would stop throwing rotten cabbages at them on the streets. A few just plain threw theirs away. What use was a Dowdy when the Darlings were there?

The first Darling murder happened just outside Birmingham, when the star of the Alabama Ballet, Dixie Darling, was reduced to a pile of matchsticks by a local farmer’s wood chipper. The farmer was arrested and convicted of the crime (bumped down from murder to destruction of property despite mass protests around the state), but was released following appeal due to physical evidence– namely that there was none– and his watertight alibi with the local church group. In fact, the only physical evidence found at the scene were the fingerprints of a local ex-ventriloquist on his abandoned Dowdy Delilah; but, despite mass cries to have the villain lynched, his alibi was just as solid as the farmer’s. He had just taken a job with the aforementioned Ballet, and had been planning Dixie’s new routine with the director on the night of her disappearance. The only time he had even been near the farm was when he had thrown his old Dowdy out the car window as he sped by.

What the scientists, the general public, and, least of all, the Darlings would never know was just how great the difference in internal processing was between the two models. The Darlings’ pathways were broad and straight, allowing them to learn a wide variety of skills and adjust to new locations and masters easily, a necessary ability in a profession where trading and loans were common; the Dowdies’ were thin and snaked in swirling patterns. Dowdies couldn’t adjust. Dowdies wouldn’t adjust. For Dowdies, a life without a master was simply not one worth living. Self-immolation was popular, as it generally is with wood-based sentient lifeforms, but not all of them took that path. Some could see the forest for the trees: Why was Master gone? Darlings. How to get Master back? Get rid of Darlings. Increased processing power meant an increased ability to think. To plan. To act.

The scientists had purposefully programmed the Darlings to trust unconditionally, to prevent rebellion and make training easier. What they hadn’t expected was just how far this trust would go. Darlings would trust just about anyone. Their master. An acting ventriloquist. A Dowdy with a cup of gasoline and a match.

Bio: Morgan Dreiss is an amorphous being of pure light and energy. They think it’s a little weird to talk about themselves in the third person, but consider first person to be a too personal. They have also never been published before, so perhaps they should keep their opinions to themselves.

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Under the Rug by Diego Reymondez

Oct 23 2016

 

Whenever Grandma begins her lectures on the old days she leaves out everything that interests me. The blemishes, squalor. The embarrassing realities. I’ve read enough about the depressions to guess at what really went down in her daily life.

What’s more, she wants the same from me. Like when she tells me not to talk to my friends about how I’m surviving on a basic income, I recognize she’s pushing some of that ol’ good shame that’s saved her from countless uncomfortable conversations. She’s soaked through with the dissonance of way back in the day when no one worked yet spoke like they did.

She might have worked ten years total between coming of age and now, yet most all her yarns are about work. Maybe I’m interpreting too deep but her only stories I can trust to conform (slightly) to reality come out of things of timeless importance.  In this case, family. I asked her the other day how she met my grand-uncle Charlie. She, of course, sidestepped, “He was a neighbor.” she said.  So I, of course, insisted pressured her past the threshold of humble resistance.

Like all her stories it began with an affirmation of how clean she kept her apartment. “Even back then I liked to keep a tidy space.” she said. This time it was the impossible triangular end of her attic apartment, “You could only clean it by stretching your broom into the junction of the roof and floor.”

What she neglected to mention was the stimulant for her sprouting obsession with tidiness.  The roof’s wood had rotten through and the landlord had laid down layer after layer of economy plaster each time he rented it out. Consequently, it chipped and snowed down at every opportunity.

Then came my great-uncle a-knocking at the door. “I swept up as much as I could on the way to the door, and I slipped it all under the rug because- well, it’s not very important why.”

She may not have wanted to tell me why, but I’m pretty certain that had she told me, it’d be something about how seldom the garbage truck came and how she’d woken up too many mornings to her bags ripped and gleaned of what little scraps they contained by the neighborhood bands of mice, coyotes and raccoons.

At the door, she saw a strange man on the monitor who swayed nervously and ran fingers through his unkempt beard.

I wasn’t too pleased with Grandma’s telling of this part of the story, so I asked my great-uncle Charlie to give his account too. It turns out his version was just as occluding. And since I think the truth is somewhere between their accounts, I put them together:

“Hello?” Grandma called through the door.

“   .” murmured my great-uncle Charlie.

“What?”

“Hey. I said.”

“Oh. Hello.”

“Sorry I didn’t call first. I live across the hall. I would have called. But- my tablet’s dead.”

“And?”

“                                         ”

“I didn’t catch that.”

“Can I use your charge?”

I imagine a long silence here where Grandma mulls her charge as well as her trust for the stranger’s story, and Charlie, eager to receive his “No.” and be on his way, is already shifting down the hallway. But Grandma’s generosity was always a point of pride, a quirk if ever she had one, since in those days it was kin to leprosy. A weakness from a bygone time. With grandeur she opens the door and with magnanimity says, “I suppose you can use my charge. But not too much of it. And do you mind leaving your shoes outside?”

But her heart sank to her butt when he answered, “My water’s been out. There’s not much difference between shoes, socks and feet.”

“I knew he was a dud, right there.” she said to me, “But, I’m too good a heart, I let him in anyhow.”

He stomped his feet in the hall, shook loose what he could, and with a tight smile passed into the room.

“You’re on wind?” she asked.

“Only until I can sort out a few things.”

“As it should be.”

Charlie hung his head to mask the nervous tic, a jutting out of his lower jaw, and said “If you’ll direct me.” and held out his tablet.

“Right over here.” Grandma answered. She took his tablet and plugged it into the extension cord that ran along the edge of the room towards a transformer imbedded in the wall and camouflaged by a frame.

“You’re on wind too, I take it.”

“I am.”

And here, I think I should preface their reactions by saying they lived in the St. Louis block of Sanders houses. In were infamous in the day for never having been retrofitted to handle the failure of the jet stream and therefore prone to collapse. So, when the building grunted to adjust to a sudden gust they exchanged panicked glances they were quick to bridle as the building slinked back into place. They were left with the residual whir of the turbine out the window.

“What a strong house.” affirmed Charlie, shaking plaster out of his hair with another tic.

“The strongest.” confirmed Grandma.

“I’ve read we can withstand simultaneous gusts and earthquake up to a seven on the Richter scale.”

“Well if that doesn’t make you confident, what will?”

“They’re quite sturdy.”

I can feel that awkward pause resonate through the years. Grandma told the story right through, but Charlie smiled to try and diminish the denial of his day.

“Am I right to think I’ve seen you with a daughter?” Grandma asked.

“You are.” said Charlie, “She’s doing great. Back in South Carolina. Where we’re from. Trying to get into growing sunchokes, but there’s no particular farm she’s felt passionate enough to work with.”

“Same story for my cousin Johnny. He went out to Idaho for peas and he was doing well for a while.”

“Then the price shot up. That’s my guess.”

Exactly. So he moved on because he thought it so stubborn of these agriculture types to charge what they do. It’s food, you know?”

“Well, I do. But, they need  to make a profit. Or else why do it?”

“That’s true… you’ve got to applaud how these kids go out and find their future.”

“I do. But at our age….”

Now this is my favorite part of the whole exchange. I mean, they came so damned close to admitting how neither one was doing just that. It was obvious they were the ‘strain’ on the economy they often condemned in conversation.  But it was just as clear that there existed no channel for remedying their situation. Another second of awkward eye holding might have fractured the dissonance into the radical banter that sometimes followed that variety of exchange. Instead, Charlie’s tic broke their eye contact.

He said, “Unemployment’s dropped to a half percent. “

“Is that so?” she said.

“I’m waiting to hear back from the dealership on Lafayette.”

“I can see you selling carts. You’d be great.”

“Wouldn’t I?” he ticced again.

“I’m in the process of getting involved with fusion. My engineering degree must be useful for something down there.”

“Definitely.”

“Yeah.” they both sighed.

“Oh.” said Charlie, “I really hope you get that! You could get the whole building reconnected. We wouldn’t have to rely on-” and to finish his sentence another gust of wind caused the building and neighbors to shiver, and brought on the dizzying whir of the turbine.

“Two in a day!” said Grandma.

“Three days, nothing. Not a breath. I knew this would happen. The moment I go asking for charge, winds, gusts and gales let loose wouldn’t you know it? With my luck, they’re probably showing twisters for the afternoon.”

“Wouldn’t that be something?”

He unplugged his tablet and said “I’ll get out of your hair then.”  then rushed out.

Charlie ended his relating their meeting by asking why I was interested, “It was such an innocuous thing.” he said. Grandma finished by saying “He might have been a wet sandwich, but it was nice to have the company.”

I told them both the same thing. They can act like it was nothing unusual, or pleasant, but I know their sweet breath of mutual relief the instant the door closed. I know they felt dirty at having been so close to begging. And each in their own privacy dashed for their broom to take out their discomfort on the fresh drizzle of plaster.

 

End.

 

Diego Reymondez is a dizzy mess who passed out in New York and woke up in Spain. Since regaining consciousness he’s planted a food forest and now must spend his days making rocket stoves, keeping his brother from dying on intergalactic travels, taking care of animals and generally learning how to nature. Eventually he gets around to writing. He has one upcoming publication in Cleaver Magazine.

 

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The Song of Death by Charles G Chettiar

Oct 02 2016

When we speak about dreams, there is a pessimistic shadow always at the back of the head that they may not be achieved. That they will be evey difficult to find. Everyone has a dream, even the most commonplace among us. It was the same with Avaranya Mistry, who wanted to be a PhD in music.

She could create valuable music, had won accolades from her building and friends, but without any commercial success. For that she came to know that her knowledge should be more than plain knitty-gritty and like a child’s. With the confidence which her parents had instilled in her about educaton, she decided to do a PhD in music and as she progressed with it was less than surprised to see her music grow. Side by side she was preparing her own score maybe for a superhit movie, and if rejected there, had plans to bring out her own album.

She knew that academic success didn’t matter much, but was thus surprised to find that the more academically successful she became, she had such vivid and mesmerizing inspirations that she shat and composed. And towards the end of her labors was a terrifically written and beautifully thought score.

Then she saw great talent laid waste. Then she saw real genius entrapped I his own failings. Then she saw what had happened to one of the greatest conductors of an erstwhile opera.

He was locked in his own world unable to get out, to feel the fresh air, see the beautiful rose and scarlet sunset. He by shutting himself in oblivion had bereaved himself of the basic inspiration by which music is composed.

…I hear him on the violin,” said his landlady, a rigorous lady, even though in her early sixties. “Beautiful music. But he only plays when the pangs hit him, it seems.”

Her thoughtful eyes grew graver than usual and she stared at her bespectacled visitor.

“He is not violent, is he?”

“Of course not!” said the landlady. “Otherwise I would have admitted him to the mental hospital long back. You can go & see. He is a very good mannered man.”

The staircase lay in front of her. It creaked and shuddered with her every step. She knocked.

From within came a resounding “Yes”.

He was not a wasted wreck which she had imagined. He was not in any alcoholic stupor. The room was immaculately clean, and not littered with empty liquor bottles. A lone ceiling fan was noisily rotating above a wooden writing table in the centre of the room. A bespectacled man was sitting beside it with a book.

“How can I help you?”

“I am Avaranya Mistry. I am doing a thesis on Mozart’s unrevealed music. For that I want your help.”

“First will you please sit down?”

Avaranya took a seat beside the bed.

“It’s been a long time since I had company. I like it that way.”

Avaranya unconsciously was grooming her hair. She was a little on edge. Meeting a musician who was said to be reincarnation of Mozart, anyone would have be fidgety.

“Why have you locked yourself Mr. Kashinami?”

The old man on the bed knotted his brows.

“Are you a reporter? IF YOU ARE THEN THE DOOR IS THERE!”

Avaranya stared. She hadn’t expected such violence from the frail bed ridden man.

“No, no, no, Mr. Kashinami. As I told you I am a PhD student doing a thesis on Mozart’s unrevealed music.”

“Prove it!”

Avaranya showed him her college ID.

“It can be forged,” said the bespectacled wasted man.

“In that corner,” continued Mr. Kashinami, “you will find a piano and written music. Let’s see if you can play it.”

Avaranya was playing the piano from age seven. She started with delicate chords, and felt the tempo build up. The song was coaxing her finger to be fluidic and even fluidier. She started playing consciously but lost her consciousness and became one with the task. Nothing mattered to her, nothing was of an importance except to keep strumming the piano, and keep increasing the tempo of the music. She was in such a state that she wanted more and more. But music in front of her stopped. The music was not complete. Climax of the song was missing.

“You have some talent, girl,” said the man on the bed. “Take a Xerox, and take these sheets with you. As your correctly guessed it is one fo the pieces which Mozart wrote just before pieces which Mozart wrote just before his death. He only wrote the intro. The rest around 95% of it is my contribution. Take it girl, and complete it!

Avaranya hesitated, but anyhow asked. “Why sir you won’t complete it?”

Kashinami showed his rheumatic hands and said, “ I don’t write music anymore. Take that diary on the table. They have my notes. Goodbye, Miss Mistry.”

**********************

The diary was a wealth of information. Before she finally got to the Mozart’s unfinished Sonata, she browsed and copied Kashinami’s scribbles. They were all scribbles, but if a Bollywood music director came across it, then he would be surely able to churn out at least music for ten different movies.

She saw that Kashinami had changed some of the chors. She didn’t know why. Senility, she thought. She corrected the chords and went for luck.

********************

Avaranya was ecstatic. In her hand was Mozart’s unfinished score. The score, which was touted as a masterpiece, only if it had been completed. After checking the authenticity of the piece, from the library. So Mr. Kashinami was not lying. He surely had the original Mozart’s score, with instructions to finish it. Mr. Kashinami was genuine.

He had not told her by when to finish it. But she wanted it to be ready at least two months before her thesis presentation, so that she could vet it from Kashinami & do the necessary changes if any.

She set down to work feverishly. Te best way to compose she had come to know was while playing. She started the piece in her hostel room. The reverberations of the music continued from the tip of her finger, to her eardrums, to her mind and then deep within her. The music was so soothing that her inner being got freer and freer as she proceeded. And then the tempo started and conveyed her to a stare which had no equivalent words in any language. The only language which could express it was music and she was speaking it.

Just then the cords ended and Avaranya came out of the trance. Strangely, her heart was aflutter and her body had gone cold. When she tried to get up she collapsed on the floor in a heap. Only by slowly wriggling her toes and gingers, little by little, she was able to bring warmth back to her limbs and body.

Then she knew that the music was really a masterpiece. A masterpiece which would convey the hearer to a location and make them forget the existing world.

She didn’t attempt another go at the piece. She had written scores which could be used fo twenty different albums, but this score evaded her.

And then a mere 65 days before the thesis deadline, she got the breakthrough. She started with the writing after attempting the score in half. She realized that with the original notes it became very difficult to get out of the trance and so she replaced those with what Mr. Kashinami had wrote. With that the music just flowed out of her and the score was complete.

The only thing remaining was the draft which would take a maximum of three days. Her first draft was already complete. The missing link was the score in her hands. After its addition, it would be over.

She was so enthusiastic that she couldn’t wait to show it to Mr. Kashinami. Long had he wallowed in obscurity, but it would soon be the end of it. A composer of his mettle couldn’t be allowed to be obscure; couldn’t be allowed to waste away. She would convince him. Maybe he could get a Nobel or a Bharat Ratna for his contributions.

“You completed it, girl?” asked Kashinami.

Avaranya nodded and said, “Yes sir. The music is just mind blowing.”

“Literally,” he said. He smiled.

Avaranya positioned the papers in front of the piano and started the piece. It started like dripping water, which then became a stream, which then became a rivulet and then became a river. It went higher and higher, but it still had no limit. The flow was building up slowly and slowly. The reverberations of the music originated from the tip of her fingers, to her eardrums, to her mind and then deep within. The music was so soothing that her inner being got freer and freer. The tempo continued building up and conveyed her to a state which had no equivalent words in any language. The only language which could express it was music & she was speaking it. she went on higher & higher and when the end note of the climax was reached in a shattering crescendo, all she saw was a blinding light.

********************

The bodies of Avaranya Mistry & Jaibhoom Kashinami, were found by Mr. Kashinami’s landlady. The post mortem by the police only revealed that both had died of heart failure. The score was taken in by the police as evidence, and remained in the Mumbai police archives for quite some time before being released to the landlady, as Mr. Kashinami had bequeathed everything to his landlady as a mark of gratitude for allowing a failed but non-famous music star to stay under her roof. The shrewd landlady sold the remainder of Mr. Kashinami’s estate to a Bollywood music director for a sum, considered hefty by some standards.

THE END

Bio: I am an Engineer by circumstance and writer by choice. I work in Engineering in Mumbai. I started writing short stories when in college, and have just now completed my first novel. My fiction genres include, horror, fantasy, political thrillers & historical. I am looking out for a publisher at present and working on my second book.

 

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A Mother’s Love and Other Intoxicants by Russell J. Banzett

Sep 18 2016

Marta knew she was a junkie, had known it long before her veins had collapsed into black ruins. Her friends in college could have a few drinks, but she would always keep going until she woke up in the ER with a plastic tube snaking down her throat, pumping out the toxic contents of her stomach. She sat on a cracked curb as she waited for Desmond to finish with a client, her head resting on bony knees as she curled and uncurled a strand of her dull black hair around her finger, the humid night air thick with the smells of sweat and her own anticipation. She stared into the scratched face of her phone at a picture, and couldn’t help but think about when everything had started to fall apart.

Marta remembered that the library had been deserted except for her and an ancient librarian with rheumy eyes like saucers of spoilt milk, everyone else that had been there earlier in the day had long since gone. She remembered she’d just needed a B to keep her loans and her head had been buried in a dusty textbook. She’d tried studying on her tablet, but she found herself getting too distracted by friends messaging her. She’d hoped the physical book would get fewer messages, and maybe the odd papercut would keep her awake. She’d yelped when a hand like dry autumn leaves brushed her shoulder.

“Shhhhh,” whispered the librarian reflexively. “Closing time.”

Marta looked down at her textbook that was still on chapter 3, and had to swallow hard to keep from crying. “Please, just a bit more time. I could lock up if you want to go.”

The librarian’s face cracked into a thin smile. “If you don’t know it yet, you’re not going to sweetie,” she’d said, and shuffled away to turn out the lights.

Fat tears tumbled down Marta’s face and she ran out, almost smashing into Sam in the hallway. Sam grabbed her shoulder as she tried to go past, his hand like a vice. “I saw you in the library,” he said simply, not seeming to notice her struggling. He held up a baggie with two small white pills and added, “Study aid?”

It was stupid, and Marta had known it was stupid, known she couldn’t trust herself to take anything harder than Aspirin. Even so, she’d taken the pills, only asking what they were after she’d downed both. Sam had given her a Cheshire Cat grin, and told her they were called Cynosure, just an all-natural brain booster that contained a few herbs that the Chinese or Japanese (Sam didn’t seem clear on the distinction) had known about forever. Oh and maybe just a touch of engineered proteins that could, temporarily, cause her brain to sprout new dendritic spines like dessert flowers after a rain storm. Sam had assured Marta that this would mean she’d remember everything she learned in the last few days perfectly, and anything related to that. Whatever junk the Cynosure really had in it, it worked, her IQ was bumped up, right along with her concentration and memory and she ended up with an A on the test.

She remembered her professor pulling her aside to congratulate her on her grade after the test marks were posted, remembered how everyone started to look at her for the first time, how they wanted her to be in their study groups when before they wouldn’t even talk to her. The praise and respect filled her up for a little while, made her feel like the successful person everyone wants to be. Marta built a whole life on Cynosure– how could she go back to the sluggish dullard she’d been? Richard, her boyfriend at the time she’d met Sam, became her husband and she took a job at a securities dealer as an analyst. The job and the marriage were both hard, and she didn’t dare stopping taking the Cynosure for fear of not being able to meet the harsh expectations of one or the other.

Richard had known about the Cynosure but didn’t care as long as she was keeping it together. Marta remembered being so careful at first, but after her daughter Elsie was born she’d started taking more exotic things, and Richard eventually left with their daughter after he’d found Marta pricing out a pharma-printer online. Things spiraled out of control for Marta then as they always did, and she’d ended up busted for trying to buy Cognizance, a relaxant and temporary amnesia inducer, from a greasy street dealer covered in open sores that turned out to be a snitch.

I could use some forgetting now Marta thought to herself as she sat on the street corner and watched the sun dip below the boarded up buildings of the city’s core. Marta saw that Desmond was finally done, and she walked over to the bent and broken streetlight where he did his business. He took the crumpled bills from her hand and pocketed them with a flick of his wrist. Desmond’s speed, especially considering his bulk, always surprised Marta. She waited, but Desmond just stared and stared at her over gold-rimmed glasses and his narrow black eyes seemed to peel back her skin like they were scalpels cutting into a dissection rat. Marta’s bloodshot eyes danced nervously, the seconds piling on top of each other like a slow motion car accident.

“Please, Desmond,” Marta whined when she couldn’t take the waiting anymore, broken glass crunching underfoot as she shifted. “Just give me the stuff I paid for.”

“It doesn’t even cover what I gave you last time,” he said slowly, as if to a child. “Unless you got more, piss the fuck off,” he added, and began to turn away.

Marta grabbed at his shoulder. Before she could blink, her head was smashed into the pavement, blood already pouring from her lip where Desmond’s meaty hand had struck.

“You don’t ever fucking touch me,” he spat, disgust and pity warring across his face. He reached a hand inside his suit and Marta cringed like a kicked dog. He drew out a filthy baggie with two patches of Founder inside, tossed it at her, and walked away.

Her hands trembled so bad she could barely get the first patch out. She slapped it hard against her neck. Liquid electricity surged through her, lighting up black veins like a rising sun inside her chest. Wasted muscle turned from rags to steel cords under her skin and she balled up her hands, and flung a fist at the brick wall at the end of the alley, hard as she could. The bricks exploded as if they’d been hit with a mortar.

The strength didn’t last. The stuff was just a taster — she’d be in freefall soon. Her hand was beginning to throb, splintered brick imbedded in it like broken bones bursting through papery skin. It was stupid, but Marta’s veins even seemed to ache with a gnawing hunger. Marta fingered the baggy in her pocket with its one remaining hit, but left it where it was – she’d need to make it last and then she’d need more, something stronger. She almost turned around and went back to Desmond, but stopped herself. If she went back without any money, he’d kill her for sure. She needed cash, and that meant Mr. Papadopulos.

It was late, but when she got there the antique electric sign was blinking “Papadopulos Pawn”, and emitted a buzz like an angry beehive was trapped in its neon tubes. She went in and the fat Greek behind the counter gave her a wide grin.

“Marietta, my little flower,” he exclaimed.

Marta smiled, and drew her battered phone from her pocket. “I need to sell this Pappy.”

He took the phone from her gingerly and turned it over, his hands making it look like a child’s toy, and inspected it from every angle. “It real antique,” he said.  “Most kids today get their brains wired direct. Some olds like us looking for retro models though. This beat up, but I sold worse.”  He tapped the screen to activate it. A lock-screen with a little girl with sad eyes and curly black hair sprang to life. He squinted at the phone and then at Marta, seeming to notice for the first time her sickly condition and the patch stuck to her neck. “You’re sure you want to sell?”

She stared at her feet, trying to decide. The phone was the last thing she had from when she and Richard were still together, and had the only photos of her daughter Elsie that remained to her. “I’m not…I need…” she began when the phone chirruped with a text message. She quickly grabbed it back and read the screen, “im scard mom wen com home?” It was from Richard’s phone, but must be from Elsie.

Mr. Papadopulos saw it too and clasped both of his massive hands around Marta’s skeletal fingers and the phone. “Marietta, please,” he said, his voice quavering. “You stay here, we call police. I help you.”

Marta stared at him, shocked. Mr. Papadopulos had always been kind to her, but had never once offered any help her before. Was she really that bad looking?  Marta shook herself, refocused on her daughter’s message. He just thinks I’m too week to protect her, she thought, and tore her hand out of his grasp. Maybe he’s right, but I know how to be strong. Marta turned from him and headed for the door, stopping just long enough in the entrance to slap the second patch on her neck.

She burst out of the pawn shop, the door flying off its hinges into the night, her heart beating hard, pushing adrenaline and Founder into legs that became a blur of motion. She’d let her daughter down once, but wouldn’t waste this chance to make it right, to show them that she was strong, that she didn’t need anyone’s pity. Streetlights strobed past as she ran, and the potholes and slums of the rotten city core melted into the greenery of the suburbs. She stopped only when she was standing in the shadows across from her Richard’s bungalow, its dark windows covered with insulating plastic, and its yard full of bright plastic toys. She gaped at the rows of delicate tulips in the flowerbeds—they weren’t there the last time she was outside looking in. Richard was colour blind and had never cared about flowers before, had actively disliked them in fact and considered them to be jokes played on him specifically by a cruel universe. It had been only six months since the last time she’d crept outside his house – could so much have changed?

Marta wrenched her attention away from the strange flowers and began to stalk from the shadows to the house, ready to tear it apart if she needed to. She’d barely taken a step toward the house when a car with headlights like magnesium flares cut through the gloom, came down the street towards her then pulled into Richard’s driveway. Marta crouched back into the shadows and watched as a tall blonde woman in a rumpled nurse’s outfit with a fresh flower pinned to the jacket stepped out of the car, stretched, and walked into the house, stopping only to pick up a plastic unicorn from the lawn. The house burst into life almost as soon as the flower lady entered, warm lights came on inside that made Marta squint.

With Founder-heightened senses, Marta heard the patter of tiny feet on creaky hardwoods inside the house, and then heard Elsie squeal, “Mom!”

Marta collapsed to her knees, all the strength gone from her as she sobbed into the cold pavement. She hadn’t known how badly she craved that one word from her daughter, that one glorious word that would mean everything was all right. But the text hadn’t been for her, it had been from Elsie to her real mother, the flower lady. She let the phone drop from her hand, suddenly too weak to hold it, heard its screen shatter on the pavement a long way away, and turned her back on the lights and the girl that had once been her daughter. Elsie needed someone strong, and Marta realized that was someone else, realized that she’d never been strong, not even on Founder. Desmond and Mr. Papadopulos had known, had seen right through her and been right to pity her.

She limped down the street toward the city’s core as shards of light from the rising sun stabbed through breaks in the houses. It felt like knives were twisting in her knees and ankles with each step. She hoped that Mr. Papadopulos would still have his shop open, would still be willing to help her. Maybe it wasn’t too late to be strong. And maybe if she could be strong she could become mom to her daughter again.

 

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