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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Revenging Angel by Charles Cameron Olson

Sep 04 2016

Paris, France
October 7th, 2017 AD
The screaming finally stopped. The man was dead.
Fayme knew this, but she held the arc a few seconds longer, basking in the actinic brilliance of
the lightning arching between her outstretched hands and through the dead man’s skull, filling his
empty eye sockets with light and washing out everything else in the room.
When she released the flow of electricity, the corpse slumped into the deep leather arm chair he
had been thrashing in moments earlier. Smoke poured from the eyes and ears and the scent of
burnt meat, hair and feces quickly filled the room.
Fayme breathed it in, relishing a smell that usually made her just a little sick.
“Brule en enfer, piece de Russe merde!”
She spat on the body.
A sizzle of fat ran from one ear.
At last her pulsing rage receded. Nikolai Boricov was dead. Adele was avenged.
Fayme almost collapsed as her strength drained away. She caught herself on the dead man’s
desk, palm flat, then yanked her hand away as if she’d been burned by the smooth wood. She
picked up the pink scarf she had dropped earlier while stripping and used it to polish the place
she had touched. Then she found her red silk opera gloves and pulled them back on.
No fingerprints. Never any fingerprints. There was no hiding that Eclair had killed Nikolai.
After all, there were only so many electrokinetics who could burn a hole through someone’s head
and most of them were men.
However, Eclair had no fingerprints on file, while Fayme Verreaux did. Fayme preferred to keep
her minor juvenile record separate from the thoroughly capital one associated with Eclair. She
still had a life to live, after all. Assuming she made it out of the manse.
It had been stupid to plan getting in but not getting out. Insane. However, she hadn’t been sane
after losing Adele. Revenge had been the only thing she wanted. Here on the other side life
looked a little different. Getting out alive had value again.
She took stock of her surroundings, surprised that no guards had come yet. Of course, judging
from the large collection of black leather straps and polished torture devices hanging from one
wall they were probably used to screaming coming from Nikolai’s private office.
They probably had heard her sister screaming that night five weeks ago.
Nikolai’s screaming would have sounded little different. After all, she had made sure to draw out
his finest falsetto.
Fayme pointedly ignored the wall filled with Nikolai’s toys and looked around the rest of the
room. She was surprised to find a large collection of paintings, most from the Italian
renaissance. She had missed it before when she first came in, too absorbed by revenge.
Fayme walked up to a print of Raphael’s Saint Michel terrassant le demon. Saint Michael
slaying the devil. She remembered seeing the original when she was thirteen. Her mother had
taken her and Adele to the Louvre on a Saturday to show them the paintings. She had taken from
ten in the morning until the museum closed. It had been wonderful. She leaned closer,
examining the brush strokes.
No. It couldn’t be. She extended her sensory field, feeling through the paint, sensing the
radiation from isotopes.
“Merde.”
This was the original. It had to have been one of the paintings stolen during the Paris riots in
2013. She checked the painting next to it. Caliari’s Wedding feast at Cana. Also the original.
To think that all these beautiful priceless pieces had been wasted on that beast day after day.
Then she thought of her sister being raped to death while the paintings she had loved as a child
looked on and her anger built back toward the storm it had been when she came in. For a
moment she wished she hadn’t killed Nikolai so quickly. Electricity began to crackle over her
fists, leaving char spots on her gloves.
Then she looked again at the archangel Michael standing triumphant over the bestial devil, spear
in hand, and laughed. She went to the armchair, dragged the corpse from it and cast it face down
under the triumphant painting. She liked the symbolism.
Turning her back on the body she extended her sensory field throughout the room, feeling for
metal through artwork, paneling and flooring. She searched around the whole room without
moving from where she stood and quickly found a safe in the north wall behind another Raphael,
an active data line running through the floor up to a hidden terminal in the desk and something
that had to be an equipment locker or a safe room behind the leather restraints on the south wall.
She went to the terminal first. As she uncovered it she caught sight of her reflection in the shiny
black surface of the dormant touch screen. Her long hair, currently dyed red to please the dead
man, was all awry from when he had grabbed her. She combed it straight again with her fingers
and tied most of it into a tight bun at the back of her head. Her green contacts were still in the
right place. Her mascara was a little smudged on one side. No fixing that until she had more
time. Fortunately, the latex pieces she had worn to accentuate her cheekbones and change her
chin shape were also still in place. Even if someone got a good look they would have a very
hard time recognizing her later.
Fayme woke the terminal and found it locked by a thumbprint scanner. That was easily fixed. A
little work on Nikolai’s body with a superhot arc of electricity and she came back with his
cauterized thumb.
Once she was into the computer she went straight for the security records. Nikolai had
administrator privileges for the records of all the cameras on his mansion. She found the ones
for that night and set a 32-pass security eraser to work on them. There would be no pictures of
her for anyone to find.
After that she set up a transfer to a backup site online and began uploading the contents of
Nikolai’s computers. Everything, personal files and security records first. If she did get into
trouble she could probably find something there to use as a bargaining chip, whether with the
police or the mafia.
After that she set up a voice-only call with a hacker who owed her a favor.
“Arnaud, you have contacts in the Paris police, yes?”
“Eclair? Of course.”
“Good. I need you to send them a picture for me. And tell them that if they are very quick, they
might just be able to search Nikolai Boricov’s computer and private office before his men can
destroy any of the delicious things lying around in here.”
“You are doing a very dangerous thing, my dear.”
“I’ve already done the very dangerous thing. Now I just need to escape. Will you do this for
me?”
“Of course. I’ll have the police on their way as soon as you send me the picture. I happen to
know a detective who is itching for a promotion.”
“Thank you, Arnaud. We really must have lunch sometime. You are a good man.”
“I look forward to it.”
She signed off and retrieved Nikolai’s smartphone from where he had left it in his jacket. It was
coded. She sighed and left it on the desk for the police. She would have to use her own.
After retrieving it from her shoulder bag next to the door she snapped a picture of the corpse
lying under the painting and sent it to one of the fake emails Arnaud kept for such things. He
would be waiting. That meant the police would be on their way in minutes. She would leave
when they arrived at the front gates.
Distraction arranged she went to the safe in the north wall, carefully removing the precious
painting covering it. Setting it out of harm’s way, she checked around the safe with her senses
but felt none of the electromagnetic telltales of an alarm. Some quick work with a loop of
electricity between right forefinger and middle finger allowed her to burn through the bolts
holding it closed. She had it open in under thirty seconds.
It was filled with documents. A small stack of bank bonds would make a good addition to her
personal savings. There also looked to be several small bars of metal. She recognized them.
Exotic elements. Dull-gold kartium and silver-white vivium. The three small marked containers
next to them would contain radioactive ludium, perfect-black spectrium and liquid-silver alium.
There was probably only an ounce of each, but even that was a small fortune.
Nikolai had been saving up for something, though it could just be his emergency retirement fund.
Everything small and valuable went in her bag. Then she shut the safe but left it uncovered.
On the other end of the room she found that the hidden metal room had been an equipment
locker. She found the switch that slid the wall out of her way and opened the door of the locker
the same way she had the safe.
Inside, an operator’s dream. All Nikolai’s most expensive toys. Some of the guns Fayme saw
had to cost more than a middle-class family made in a year. Several of them had barrels and
other parts made out of 1198 eternite steel so they could fire overcharged high-velocity rounds.
That made sense. Nikolai had possessed some superhuman strength. He could have used those.
She grabbed a field bag and started packing the custom guns away, along with some other small
items that looked useful.
In one corner she found that what she had first thought was a statue was actually a British
Gawain, one of their new powered armor suits. How Nikolai had gotten one… Fayme didn’t
want to leave it, but she had little choice. They had to be fitted and she didn’t have time. She did
take the power packs. They were small and worth almost as much as the rest of the armor.
Next to the armor she found a light railgun with ammo and more power packs. That she did
take. It barely fit in the bag, even broken down, but the amount of exotic elements in one of
those was absurd. She couldn’t bear to leave it.
When she laid eyes on the last item she truly smiled for the first time since stepping on the
manse property. A full US military tactical rig, complete with computerized tactical helmet and
ballistic armor. She was much lighter than Nikolai, but just as tall. This she could wear.
Minutes later she stepped out of the equipment room wearing black tactical armor with the straps
tightened all the way down and a blank-faced matte-black helmet. She had a large black field
bag slung over one shoulder. She had stuffed her shoulder bag into the field bag so she could
keep her hands free.
Before leaving she checked on the computer terminal to make sure it was finished downloading.
It was. She melted the hard drive. Then she went to the main door and ran enough electricity
through the deadbolt to fuse it. Finally she went to another door in the north wall. This one
would lead to Nikolai’s private quarters.
As she waited before the door she fished out her mother’s St. Nicholas medal from where it hung
around her neck on a long silver chain. The shiny gray pewter image showed the wear of many
years in an anxious hand. She kissed the medal and put it back under her new armor.
In the distance she heard sirens fire up. They had probably waited until they were already at the
gates to avoid warning the men in the house.
Fayme smiled again, put one hand over an open wall socket, and blew the wiring in the house.
She opened the door, searching the dark hall beyond in an instant with her sensory field. She
found no adults waiting, but almost missed the two small children standing right in front of her.
The oldest, a girl, barely came up to her waist. She shined a flashlight in Fayme’s face.
Autodampers in the helmet compensated, but it was still annoying.
“You are not papa,” the girl said in perfect French.
Fayme stared, trying to take in the situation. She knew Nikolai had been married. Her research
said he was separated, with two children, a daughter and a son. These had to be them. Camille
and Luc. Both born in France. Where was their mother? Why were the children here?
She couldn’t let them see their father.
Gently she pushed them both back a step so she could close the door. A zap from one hand
fused the doorknob and lit the hallway with a momentary flash. The children jumped at the light.
Fayme knelt in front of them and flipped up the faceplate on her helmet. What would she say?
She thought of St. Michael.
“No, I am not your papa. I am an angel. My name is Michelle.”
She concentrated and a white glow filled her left hand as she excited the electrons in the air for
an inch above her open palm. She could only pull that trick off at very close range, but that was
all she needed right here. The glow filled the hall with soft white light and the children stared at
her in wonder.
Then Camille met Fayme’s eyes.
“Where is my papa?”
Fayme sighed sadly.
“I am sorry, Camille. Your papa is no longer here. He did many very bad things and I was sent
to take him away.”
Camille continued to stare into Fayme’s eyes before letting out a small gasp. She grabbed her
brother and squeezed him until he squeaked.
“Shhhh,” Fayme said. “You must not cry now. Do you know where your mother is?”
Camille nodded.
“Good. Do you have her phone number?”
Camille nodded again.
“Very good. You are very smart, Camille. You must call your mother as soon as I am gone.
She will come and get you.”
“I want to see papa!” Luc cried.
Fayme glanced down at him. He looked so much like his father. Same sharp nose, wide brow,
brown hair. He couldn’t be more than seven, but Fayme could easily see that he would look just
like Nikolai when full grown. She wondered if he would be a beast like his father.
“You cannot. You must go with your sister. Your mother will come and get you.”
“I want to see papa now!”
Fayme narrowed her eyes.
“You would address an angel so? You are very much like your father, I see.”
Camille clapped a hand over Luc’s mouth.
“Please, do not kill him.”
Fayme exhaled. She hadn’t even been aware she was holding her breath. She wasn’t here to kill
a child. Even if he did look like a copy of his monstrous father.
“Teach him to be a good boy, Camille. See that Luc listens to his mother.”
“I will, miss.”
Fayme nodded. “Good. Now go back to your rooms. The police will be here soon and then you
can call your mother.”
Camille nodded and dragged her brother back down the hall into their room, shutting the door
behind.
Fayme sighed and got back up to her feet. The weight of the night hit her again. She had not
been expecting the children. She had seen the comprehension in Camille’s eyes. The girl knew
what lay beyond the door Fayme had guarded.
She had never thought of herself as the kind of person who would even consider killing a child,
but Luc had looked so much like his father. Nikolai. Her sister’s rapist. Her sister’s murderer.
He was dead now. She had to let him be dead.
Was that what she was becoming? A monster who would even murder children?
Fayme shook her head and headed down the hall. She heard yelling from other parts of the
house and knew she didn’t have much time.
Past the children’s room she found a window that looked out on the back yard of the manse. She
opened it, threw her field bag down onto a bush and dropped down after it.
A quick scan of the yard showed her an empty run to the hedge bordering the property and the
high fence behind it. She hurried across the grass, carrying the heavy bag effortlessly on her
back even though it weighed almost as much as she did.
When she was almost at the fence she felt a bullet crack through the air over her head. She
dropped, avoiding the second and third as the muzzle report from the first reached her. She
knew which direction the shots had come from and put a large topiary between herself and the
shooter.
So close to escape, but she couldn’t leave with someone shooting at her.
Fayme extended her sensory field around and through the bush, searching for the shooter, but
found no one. They had to be some distance away if the sound of the shot had taken that long to
reach her. Clear on the other end of the property. Well outside her sensing range. Her best
option would be to blind them and make her escape now, rather than engage.
She dropped the bag, fishing through and pulling out several smoke grenades she had grabbed
from the locker. These were the hot kind that the military used to jam IR vision. She popped
two and threw them to either side of the bush. She threw two more in the other direction for
good measure, re-shouldered the bag and crawled to the fence under a thick blanket of black
smoke. No more shots came.
When she reached the fence she stood up.
A wide, long loop of lighting stretching out from both hands cut through the bush and the fence
in seconds. The flash normally would have given her away, but the smoke covered that. She did
it again a few feet to the left, then again on the bottom to finish it off. She heard steel bars fall
into the street on the other side.
Fayme pulled burning topiary out of her way and stepped out onto the street. A few quick bolts
from her hands took out the streetlights and she was once again cloaked in darkness. Behind her
she heard the yells of the police again as they covered the entire property.
Fayme jogged toward a dark alley. Once she was in it she felt fairly sure of her escape. It would
take several more days to complete things, but once she sold the haul she was carrying on her
back she would have more than enough money to make it out of the country.
It was a victory, but it felt hollow. Even though everything Fayme had ever known was here, she
would have to flee the country if she wanted to have a life. She had grown up in France. It was
where her mother had grown up, and her mother and father before her.
Yet, it also was where her mother had died a drug-addicted prostitute and where her sister had
been raped and murdered by a monster. It was where she had been beaten and raped by gangs
and used by the mafia to kill people and steal things.
Her heart still felt empty, but she decided a life elsewhere would have at least some benefits.
Perhaps in America. She had been working on a minor career as an actress. Perhaps there she
could do it full time.
It was decided then.
“Adieu mama. Adieu Adele. Priez pour moi en paradis.”
She truly wondered if anyone in the darkness heard her. It did not matter. She headed down
another alley, intent on the home of a buyer she knew, already determined that she would never
again return to her dingy apartment in the projects of Paris.

 

– – –

 

Charles Cameron Olson is a grad student currently working on his MAT Secondary English in
South Carolina. He writes science fiction and fantasy stories as a serious calling, participates in
the body of Christ as a way of life and reads fiction books at a voracious pace on his smart
phone. He hopes to someday shepherd groups of high school students through the crafting of the
English language and maybe teach them some more useful things along the way. If you’d like to
know about any other stories he writes, check out his blog at CCOlson.Wordpress.com.

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When a Spade is Not a Spade by T. Gene Davis

Aug 21 2016

Gusting face freezing wind displaced Sister Wendy Riley’s bonnet, pushing it nearly off her dirty brown hair. No matter how many steps Wendy made toward Zion in the Great Salt Lake Valley, the wind seemed determine to blow her back to Liverpool. The annoying and ill timed gust that finally dislodged her bonnet came as she pulled her handcart up a rise. Releasing one hand from the crossbar to fix the errant bonnet meant losing the cart and her few belongings to the hill. With hair whipping her face, she prayed the tie string kept the bonnet around her neck until she reached flat ground ahead.

Wendy stood to one side while pulling the handcart, as though her husband still might join her on his side of the cart. She turned down offers, even from the Wilson boys, to help her pull the handcart. She did not want anyone in his spot. It was silly, but a week was still too soon.

The Sweetwater River had floating ice chunks caught in its eddies, but mostly it still ran along refusing to freeze. A thin layer of snow covered everything else, and the ground had already frozen solid. To Wendy, the Sweetwater looked more like a stream than a river. Stream or not, she still dreaded every crossing required by the trail.

Wendy whispered, “What I wouldn’t give for a nice log cabin with a big potbellied stove. I’d love to be warm all over all at once.” The wind carried her wish out over the Sweetwater unheard. She pulled the two man handcart alone as yet another widow in the handcart company. Her husband died from the same cold and exposure that threatened Wendy and possibly her unborn child. She tried staying positive, but the best she came up with was, “At least I’ll never have to sail across the Atlantic, again. This is much better than down below on that ship.”

She looked at her swollen red fingers on the crossbar, searching for signs of blackness–signs of frostbite. She had no feeling in them. She wondered if she would ever weave or play piano again. She hoped she would not lose any fingers, a few toes or even a foot was okay, just not any fingers.

Wendy and her husband came by train to Iowa City, and other than sailing the Atlantic for six weeks, the trip was pleasant enough. Sleeping in an abandoned rail car with her husband and several other families didn’t even sound bad at this point. Her feet were so swollen, she was afraid she’d have to take off her shoes and wrap her feet in strips of rawhide. In the modern year of 1856, you’d think they’d have a rail line out to Zion. Wendy sighed inwardly taking another pain filled step.

The wheels creaked as she pulled the handcart reminding herself that one more step was necessary, and after that again reminding herself that one step more was necessary. Uphill. Downhill. It was all painful. Sometimes downhill was worse that uphill. During steep downhill sections of the trail, she had to put a tree limb in the spokes of the wheels to act as a brake and then she dragged the handcart like a sled. She hated trusting the wheel spokes while braking, they were made from green wood and were shrinking. Several handcarts already lost their wheels because of green wood.

The company captain sounded a bugle signaling the handcart company to a halt in a hillside cove. The cove offered some shelter from the never ending wind. Wendy did not hear him but she heard the bugle and saw all the carts ahead gathering. She pulled her handcart into the circle.

She was uncertain about being pregnant. After setting down the handles and crossbar of the handcart, Wendy felt her stomach through her dress. She prayed for a child to remember him by. If she was pregnant, the child would not be born until they reached Zion by the Great Salt Lake. That thought was a relief.

There was much to do in setting up camp and preparing a simple meal. Wendy kept moving to keep the cold from overpowering her. She wore her best dress. It was her warmest. Much to her embarrassment, the dress was so worn that her ankles clearly showed.

Wendy decided whether to push snow away from where she slept, or stamp it down a bit. Her hands were too numb to move snow, so she settled for tromping back and forth a few times to flatten out the snow. Brother Sandy Rebar and Sister Edith Rebar pulled their heaping handcart next to Wendy. As she set up her thin cotton wedge tent on the flattened snow, Wendy frowned at the unnecessary stack on their cart. Wendy had left behind every unnecessary item (and some necessary items) when her husband died. It was all by the trail about a week back.

Brother Rebar went off with other men to bury Brother Peter’s child, leaving Sister Rebar to set up camp by herself. He was gone long after Edith had finished setting up camp. Wendy noted that Edith finished setting up camp before her. Of course, she hadn’t had to pull a handcart by herself like Wendy had. Wendy finished setting up camp and cooking her own meal before Edith’s husband showed his face again, proclaiming something in a loud obnoxious voice — not a word in English. By his hand rubbing his stomach, Wendy guessed he was demanding food of his wife. He doesn’t help one bit making camp but wants food, Wendy shook her head and pretended they were not feet from her own campfire.

As the sun set, there was music, singing, speeches and an impromptu dance. Wendy hid in her small wedge tent, laying on her back looking at the dark peak of the tent, listening to it all. She watched her breath rise in the darkening tent. She imagined it forming an ice sheet on the inside peak of the tent. Her husband would not have hid in the tent. He loved the nightly camaraderie. The tent seemed bigger now. She thought about leaving the tent behind, too. She thought of the unborn child. If it existed it had to live. All he left her were useless tools. Nothing says love like an unused tool. She imagined it all back there by the pile of rocks that covered him. If she was pregnant, that was enough.

Even over the others making merry at the dance, she heard Sandy, Edith’s husband. He spoke no English, and plenty of it. His loud foreign voice and ego were as big as he was. She did not have to understand him to know she did not like him. Eventually, night prayers were said and everyone, including Sandy, settled down. Wendy lay in the dark wondering who would die in the cold tonight.

Wendy became aware of Brother Rebar’s plight well after the camp had settled down for the night. Sister Rebar fussed over him with no normal loud responses that were his custom. At first all Wendy heard of Edith were whispers, then a soft moaning in her native tongue. Wendy knew that sound. Every woman on the trail knew that sound no matter what language it took, and prayed never to feel it welling in their own breast. As the minutes and hours passed and the desperation in Edith’s voice began to peak, Wendy relived her own husband’s passing. In the distance the wolves howled at the setting moon, finally settling down after the moon left the sky.

Brother Rebar gave up the fight some time in the quiet time after the moon set. Edith took the place of the wolves howling a banshee scream of despair. She screamed for help from anyone in her broken English, but everyone else was busy fighting the cold and trying to stay alive in their own tents. While the cold wind carried her cries away, Wendy imagined Edith in her tent inches away from her cold stiffening husband, just as Wendy had lain next to her husband just days ago.

Edith said something between sobs, but it was unintelligible . Wendy moved her fingers, trying to warm them. In the dark laying on her back, she began fingering a piano sonata. She smiled slightly, revealing chattering teeth. It was the last sonata she had played before leaving Liverpool. It was a sad slow melody that matched tempo of Edith’s settling sobs.

Someday she might play again, if she did not lose any fingers from frostbite. Her fingers ached. That was progress. Feeling meant life–life for her and her unborn child. She wanted a boy. A boy would look most like him. The menfolk had tried for a proper burial. There was nothing to do for it, except try to dig the frozen ground, give up, and pile rocks on him hoping it slowed the wolves from getting their meal.

Suddenly, next to Wendy knelt Brother Rebar. He looked alive enough. Light surrounded his body. Wendy let out a barely audible scream. Eyes wide open, she did not move.

“Brother Rebar?”

“Sister Riley. I did not return your spade.” He spoke perfect English.

“My spade?”

“Your husband’s spade. I borrowed it the night before he passed.” How could he know English?

“I don’t think he’ll be missing it.” Edith was still quietly sobbing only a few paces to Wendy’s left.

“I’d feel better if you collected it. I left it by the boulder where we buried Brother Peter’s child.”

“You die; your wife’s in hysterics; and you’re worried about a tool?” Typical. Menfolk and their tools.

“Please, go get it for me. I’d feel better if you would.” With that he was gone. It was dark again. Wendy muttered about Edith’s husband every time Edith let a straggling sob escape.

Eventually, the east became less dark. The sun began to rise. Then makeshift tents were folded and placed on the carts. Morning prayers were said, and meager breakfasts eaten. The men moved Brother Rebar off the trail a few paces, but not all the way to the boulder where they had laid Brother Peter’s boy.

There was no attempt to dig the solid ground. Sister Rebar helped find rocks to place over him. She was more gentle than the menfolk. After they could not see his body, they just tossed the rocks on the stack. She gently placed them, as if afraid to hurt her frozen husband.

Wendy wanted to help–to put an arm around Edith. She was never very good at that sort of thing. She did not like Brother Rebar, but she did not wish this on him. Instead she looked at Edith sideways when she could without being noticed or looking rude.

I’d toss the rocks on him, she thought, but chastised herself for the thought and looked for the signal to move on. It must be time. She unconsciously rubbed her stomach. Was it growing?

The signal came to move. Creaking and clumping of handcarts falling into a line over old wagon ruts passed Wendy as she continued to pretend not to watch Edith straightening up Brother Rebar’s grave.

The rule was simple. At the sound of the bugle, the company of handcarts moved no matter who didn’t. Soon, creaking carts were out of hearing and out of sight. The wind blew through the remnants of fall grass that poked through the snow. Grating of stone on stone as Edith’s shifted rocks broke the quiet. Edith’s handcart, loaded with personal items stood waiting for her. They were alone with their carts and a pile of stones covering a dead man that lay between them.

Wendy walked around the grave and stood over Edith. “Sister Rebar.”

Edith pushed another stone to a more stable position. In her thick swiss accent, Edith begged, “Please, just Edith. I am not an old lady at church.”

Wendy looked at Edith and realized she might be nineteen or younger. Wendy smiled despite herself. She enjoyed Edith’s accent. “Edith, then. It’s not safe for us alone without the handcart company. We need to get moving.”

“I cannot.”

Wendy pictured her own husband’s remains scattered by scavengers not more than seven days behind them. “It’s hard to leave him. I know.”

“No, …. Yes. I mean, it is not that. I am too weak to pull that cart. I do not know what Sandy was thinking. The only thing not on that cart is a log cabin. The captain emptied it down to the necessities five times, and Sandy loaded it back up, right in front of the captain–such strong a will.”

Wendy looked back at the cart then down at Edith. She was a little thing. “We can share. Grab your food and some clothes, and put them in my cart. We can pull together. The load should be light enough. You’ll have to leave everything else.”

Edith stopped fussing with Sandy’s grave and stood. She brushed snow, sticks and burs from her apron and dress. They moved the small cask of flour, a couple of dresses and two blankets. Then they stepped into place, picked up the cart’s front bar, and pulled the cart into a slow bumpy roll. With each step Wendy prayed she did not dislodge the child in her stomach.

After a few steps Edith broke the silence between them. “I am sorry.”

“About what?”

“Your spade.”

“What?”

Edith tried pronouncing the words in better English almost eliminating her thick accent. “About your spade.”

Wendy stopped, dropping her grip on the handcart. The cold made her rub her arms and shiver. Her legs wobbled a bit. “What about my spade?”

“I did not mean to upset you.” The cart quickly stopped with Edith pushing alone. Her great effort meant nothing to the handcart. Edith gave up, letting the handles and crossbar drop to the ground in front of her. “I feel terrible. We borrowed it the night before, … your …. Well. We meant to give it back. I made Sandy promise to give it back in the morning. He said you would not want it, but I made him promise.” Edith continued despite an escaping sob. “It is the only promise to me he ever broke.”

Wendy watched Edith wipe her cheek with her apron. “He was right. I don’t want it.”

“We should have returned it.”

“If it makes you feel better. Let’s get it.”

“I looked already. It is not anywhere.”

“Let us take another look.”

Wendy led Edith away from their handcart past the abandoned cart. Edith hesitated at her old cart, but seeing that Wendy meant not to stop, caught up with a few quick paces. Silently, except for the rustling of skirts in the trampled snow and sage, they continued to the boulder where Brother Peter’s child lay.

“There it is,” Edith spoke before Wendy. Wendy smiled. Just another dumb tool. “Why on earth would I ever want a spade,” Wendy mumbled to herself.

Wendy walked up to the spade leaning next to the boulder and the child’s grave. The tip of the spade was slightly damaged from attempting to dig the frozen ground. Behind Wendy, Edith gasp and began sobbing. Crying over a chipped spade seemed a bit much. “Honestly, I don’t really even want the spade.”

Wendy turned, looking at Edith. She held a small leather bound book that she must have just found in the snow. Edith alternated between brushing white flakes and ice from the cover, and glancing at the wind turned pages. “What is …?” Wendy began, but decide to look over Edith’s shoulder instead.

Edith looked up as Wendy stepped over to see. “It was right here,” she motioned at the snow at her feet. Edith thumbed through more pages–none written in English. The only word that Wendy could make out on the pages was “Edith” over and over on almost every page. Edith explained, “This is Sandy’s handwriting. These are love poems.” She spoke through her hand on her mouth.

Perhaps jealousy prodded her, but Wendy knew they had to catch up to the handcarts. “Bring it with you. There will be time to read after we break for lunch.”

“Yes. Of course.”

After an hour, they found themselves with their handcart pulling up a hill within sight of the rear of the handcart company.

“Wendy. Thank you for letting me share your cart. You are a good person.”

What makes me a good person? Wendy wondered. She silently prayed for help living up to the complement and leaned into the cart’s crossbar. She thought of the spade left back at the boulder, then focused on another step, and worried about dislodging the child she hoped was growing within her.

Bio:  T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software. He lives with his wife, four children, and three cats in the Rocky Mountains, where he wages a never-ending war to keep his static electricity loving cats from rubbing against his prized Kindle. Follow his daily exploits on Twitter @TGeneDavis or visit Gene at http://tgenedavis.com on the web.

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NORM by Asher Wismer

Aug 07 2016

 

I stapled the last two papers, slipped them into the manila envelope, and sealed it. That was about it; I took the next two hours to practice my marathon kazooing.

My boss, Captain Keratin, poked his head around my door.

“Sounds good,” he said. “Are you playing the parades this year?”

“Maybe. I can’t seem to get the extended low hum for the bass line.”

“Keep practicing, you’ll get it. Speaking of practice, check this out.”

He wore his usual outfit, which meant shirtless to show off his now extremely impressive chest and abs. As I watched, he held out his arm and, visibly straining, grew a little tree from it. The tree wasn’t perfect; it was flesh-colored and the leaves drooped with weight, but it looked pretty good.

“I’ve been practicing the fine details,” he said. “Hold on–”

He gave a shudder and the tree fell from his arm. He caught it and held it up. “If you look close, you can see the texture of the bark. Still can’t control my pigment, though.”

I held my gorge down. “Cool. How long does it last?”

“Day or two. I’ve been working on making small things for the office.”

“Oh, yeah, I noticed the coasters in the break room.”

“What about the cups?”

“Cups? No, I didn’t notice them.”

I had.

“Smoothing them took forever,” he said. “Too bad you didn’t see them; I think the last one decayed this morning. I’ve been working on a larger piece, too, but I can’t tell you about it yet.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Here, I finished the last tax forms.”

“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

“You sure?”

“Go on, you look beat. I’ll be in the office till five if anything comes up.”

Down on ground level, things were pretty quiet. Almost no traffic; people don’t need cars and buses when they can fly, or teleport, or run faster than sound. The city’s SuperCops keep the runners and flyers from breaking the sound barrier too often, but glass is quickly falling out of fashion.

My place is off the main row, a few blocks back. It’s small, but it’s mine outright, and I have pride in that, at least.

Shawna the Magnificent was home, flexing in front of the mirror.

“Too bad about the cups,” she said, as I walked through the door. “They sounded kind of cute. I’d love a unique set to display.”

“If he can make them permanent,” I said, “I’ll put in an order. I think it’s gross.”

“I know.” Shawna shifted her weight, outlining the muscles in her thighs. “What do you think? Green’s my color but this orange isn’t so bad.”

I went along with her pretense, but I could see her jaw flexing as she restrained herself from answering her own question.

“It’s nice. You might think about piping the hems with something flatter, to accent your hips.”

“And my chest,” she said, twisting and shaking. “I talked to Doctor Op today.”

“Your boobs are beautiful,” I said. “You don’t need them enlarged. I love them, and you know I mean it.”

“I know, she said, and turned from the mirror to embrace me. Her chin bumped affectionately against the top of my head. “I just love to hear it.”

“Any chance of staying in tonight? I’m feeling–”

“–kind of down. I know. I can’t, but I have a show and a patrol right back to back. Oh, honey, I’m sorry! Don’t feel like that.”

I didn’t say anything. It wouldn’t make any difference; she picks the thoughts out of my head almost before I think them.

“You’re so good to me,” she said. “And you know I tell you everything. I don’t hold back.”

“It’s not too bad to wish you had everything but that, right?”

“Love you.” She kissed my forehead. “Gotta run. Dinner’s in the fridge. I’ll tell The Tailor what you said about the piping! See you tomorrow!”

“Love you too,” I said, and I meant it, and I knew she wouldn’t say anything about the slight irritation and frustration that colored the feeling. We Normals can’t help what we feel; I’m just lucky Shawna is understanding. Any other E-Norm would have left me long ago.

#

 

The mutations started slowly. Just a few around the world; some of them robbed banks and others hid from the public and still others put on costumes and started raking in money from endorsements and media deals. The rest of us watched, secure in the knowledge that Extra-Normals were outnumbered by Normals.

And then the scales started to tip. More and more people developed powers far beyond those of mortal men. Apartment buildings burned as Pryos woke up in flames, and Invulnerables ran into the blaze to rescue children and pets. Airplanes spun from the sky as practicing Flyers jammed up flight patterns, and were caught in the air or on the ground by Brawners and Affectors. Jaunters leaped inside bank vaults and Dampers kept them from escaping.

The strange thing was, no one really paid much attention until one election day, when The Powerful Ben became our first Extra-Normal President. He lasted two weeks before it came out that his psychic abilities had turned entire states to his advantage; his successor, the entirely Normal Vice President Albert Jenquist, started the Extra-Normal Congressional Quorum.

With fledgling laws in effect, and general opinion from most — even E-Norms — that a newly superpowered public needed a superpowered government, the status quo returned.

 

#

 

I took a walk. The City is meticulously clean; trash is burned at the curb or flown to one of the new volcanic vents created — on purpose and accidentally — by Phasers and Disruptors. Dust is easily controlled by periodic gusts of localized, superpowered wind. And crime?

Two Norms approached me.

The larger one blocked my path and said, quietly, “Hand me everything in your pockets and walk away.”

“Not interested,” I said.

“Come on, man,” the smaller one said. “We need some scratch for the week! There’s nothing at the Public Works, and nobody’s hiring Norms!”

I didn’t say anything about my job. It was Pre-Change, and Captain Keratin (formally Bill Jones, middle manager) lets me stay on because even without powers I’m pretty good at math.

“Keep walking,” I said. “You don’t want to mess with me.”

“Shit, dude’s smaller than you,” the larger one said. “You threaten us? You don’t got nothing on me, little man.”

I closed my eyes and felt the wind move. When I opened them, the two thugs dangled from a lamppost. A beacon blinked from the large one’s chest, summoning the SuperCops.

No reason to stick around. Whichever public hero had rescued me would have already sent his real-time videolog to the local Powered Precinct, and they’d find me if they needed a statement.

So not much petty crime anymore. There are certainly Super Villains, but they keep a low profile. Some of the Public Heroes are very pragmatic when it comes to justifiable homicide.

I shouldn’t be sad. It’s great for Norms, not that there are many left. I used to fantasize about what powers I’d get, and how I’d use them, but now I just move through life at a slow walk.

I shouldn’t be sad. I just wish I didn’t feel so helpless.

 

#

 

“E-Norm IDF forces are fighting a pitched battle on the banks of Gaza today…” “Bad Blake is holding two world leaders hostage, but Judd the Impossible is on the case…” “Two natural disasters in Africa are holding the attention of the entire African Ultra Peace Coalition…” “John the Altruist finished his year-long project to aerate and hydrate soil in the Gobi desert…” “Two new E-Norm classifications were announced today, bringing the total up to three-hundred fifty.”

 

#

 

I wandered downtown. It scared me to see everything so deserted.   No reason to head home until later. Shawna’s patrols were legendary in our little circle; she had limitless strength and stamina, and I can’t remember the last time I saw her sleep. She leads a loose group of other Heroes in the area, and things are safer than they’d ever been. My brush with the muggers was typical; there wasn’t even any point in yelling for help. Everyone and his brother is on the lookout for crime.

A poster, stapled to an anemic tree poking from the sidewalk, caught my eye.

“Old Art! Come see the Finest Collection of Pre-Change art in the City! Over Six Hundred Pieces! Remember the Old Times, when Everyone Was Normal? Now We Can All Remember Together! E-Norms by request only.”

The address was only a few blocks away.

While walking, I saw two Speedsters practicing on the empty freeway. With my Normal eyes, I could only see them when they stopped. Little sonic booms echoed. I saw a Flyer floating between two trees like a hammock, reading the newspaper. I saw a group of Reactionaries sparring in an empty lot, blurring as they anticipated every move; saw a demolition in progress, no machines, just Invulnerable Brawners punching the walls down; was bumped by an Invisible; was saved from a falling air conditioner and lifted over a river and given a thousand dollars cash “just because I can, and enjoy it!”

It would almost be easier to sit back and do nothing.

But if we don’t work, we die.

The Norm Art Exhibit was in a little gallery, set into the side of a building with wide glass windows. I dropped my extra thousand dollars in the donation slot and walked in.

I’m not much on art. Even the best tends to go over my head; there’s something in nice lines and realistic proportions, but mostly I just stare and think “Huh.”

The first thing I saw was an ordinary two-slice toaster,  fire-engine red, sitting on a pedestal.

Just past it, paintings and sculptures, non-representational art, a silent video display, and what looked like footprints leading up the wall to the ceiling.

There was no one else in the room. Despite the advertised “Finest Collection,” I didn’t seeanything that might hang in the Louvre. A lot of it was just stuff: matchbooks; theatre programs; USB mice; ergonomic chairs; a leather couch; light bulbs through the decades; a display of toothpick buildings.

“They’re nice, aren’t they.”

I was looking at an old microwave oven, the kind that took up an entire wall and cost as much as a new car.

“I don’t know Jack about art,” I said, “so maybe I’m not getting the full effect.”

“Come over here,” she said. I turned. She was my height, thinner, curly red hair and bright eyes.

“I already saw the toaster,” I said.

“Just come and look.” She wore shorts and a thin wrap, and it was very cool inside the studio. I flicked my eyes up, trying not to stare.

The toaster was exactly the same as it had been. I walked around it, looked into the top, and, at a gesture, lifted it to see the underside.

“Nope,” I said. “I don’t get it. I suppose you could define toast as art, if you’re hungry, but I’m just not seeing anything but a toaster.”

“It is exactly that.”

“Huh?”

“Itself. The toaster has a single purpose — to make toast — and a single function, which is the making of toast. It does what it is intended to do and wastes no energy on clocks or radios, or sounds.”

She pushed the lever down. I heard ticking. Presently the lever sprang back up.

“See, it doesn’t even need electricity. Take the sides off and the electronic guts out and you can mount it over a fire. The springs will work regardless. It is a perfect, functioning thing. It is, in fact, exactly what it is.”

“And that makes it art?”

“Still a Norm?”

I shook my head. “Not here for that.”

“Why are you here, then? Not, I think, for the art.”

“Born and raised and never any different, thank you for asking. What about you? Do you fly? Do you break glass with a thought or run faster than sound?”

“My name is Lily,” she said. “And I don’t do anything but live.”

 

#

 

“Panic on the high seas as an Absorbent passenger on the Queen Mary II accidentally fell into the pool…” “The ENCQ is debating sixteen power sets to determine if they fall under existing E-Norm classifications…” “Union Auto Workers continue the strike into its third year…” “Five hundred people died in the worst Pyrrhic attack ever…” “Nine unrelated women in different countries gave birth to green-skinned babies…” “World’s Fattest Man gains another seventy pounds, tipping the scales over nine thousand.”

 

#

 

“When the E-Norms started spreading, we all lost purpose,” she said. “You remember. We waited for nothing. We are Normal in every sense of the word, and we resent their superiority.”

“I’m married to one,” I said. “Do you live around here?”

“Traveling with the exhibit,” she said. “I’ve been here a few months.”

“You might have noticed her on the news,” I said. “Shawna the Magnificent. Tall and built, but she thinks her boobs are too small.”

“I don’t watch news much.”

“She’s also telepathic.”

“That must be interesting.”

“Not the word I’d use.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok. She loves me, or she says she does. I love her, and I know I do, because she’d tell me if I was lying.”

“I guess that could be useful.”

“Or annoying.”

“Or that.”

She sipped her coffee, looking out the window. It was raining. No one else had come into the studio.

“Since I accepted my normality,” she said, “I’ve been trying to find purpose. Every day there are more powers, fewer of us. The worst part is that everyone just accepts it. Do you work?”

“I don’t need to,” I said. “Shawna makes so much money from endorsements….”

“But you do anyway.”

“I had the job before the change. It’s something to do. Besides, I used to room with my boss, and he’s a nice guy.”

“Any other Norms working there?”

“Just me.”

“What do you do?”

“Accounting. Audits, taxes, checking and rechecking. I don’t need to, the computers can do it all, but he still thinks it’s better to have someone checking the numbers after. I don’t know. He’s probably just being nice.”

“Or he wants your help because you’re good at it.”

“I’ve thought that, but there’s no reason to have me over someone else.”

“For quotas?”

“No such thing, you know that.”

“Not officially.”

“There’s no point anyway. There are so few Norms left it’s easier to just ignore us.”

“What does your boss do?”

“He’s a Transmuter. He can produce material from his own body mass and form it into objects. First thing he did when he got control was change all his fat into muscle.”

“What use is that?”

“He can make coasters,” I said, and giggled. It sounded so stupid.

“That’s disgusting.”

“No one argues with the boss.”

“Does he at least go by his real name?”

“Captain Keratin.”

“Wow.”

“He doesn’t even go on patrol, he just styles himself like a hero. Shawna is a real hero. She risks her life every day.”

“She sounds like a wonderful person.”

“Magnificent, even.” That got a chuckle. Lily sat back, looked out the window. Aside from the rain, there was nothing to see. I couldn’t guess her age. Her face was smooth except for a few lines around her mouth, and her eyes were very blue.

“What are you doing later?” she said, still looking out the window.

“Later? It’s already later for me,” I said. “I usually take a walk and then make an early night. Bill — Captain Keratin doesn’t care what time I get to work as long as the checking gets done.”

“I’d be closing the gallery soon anyway. Do you want to get dinner?”

“I usually eat at home.”

“Don’t you have any friends?”

I didn’t answer.

“I’ll buy,” she said. “Someone put a thousand dollars in the slot today.”

 

#

 

“An eight-year-old boy set fire to his school today, manifesting the first signs of Pyrokenesis…” “Six men were arrested by the Gulf City Power Police for attempted murder and robbery…” “An unidentified man in a yellow jumpsuit buzzed the Garber building for two hours…” “Two more cars were found in their parking spaces crushed to shoebox size, time still left on the meters…” “The Scintillating Hypnotist is in court today with his third jury, attempting to make his case without powers. His Honor Phil The Unbribable presides.”

 

#

 

We ate at a small cafe down the street; it still cooked food the old-fashioned way, on a grill, instead of Transmutation by the resident T-Chef. They usually don’t use their own body mass, preferring clean sand and organic mulch. There’s nothing wrong with the food — in fact it tastes amazing — but I like to support the few real restaurants that remain.

“I lost my husband in the Chicago Massacre,” Lily said, cutting her steak into tiny triangles. “He worked in the DMV, and the lines went berserk with their new powers. I was out of town. When I got back, the whole complex was gone.”

I didn’t say anything.

“It was just bad luck, really,” she said. “When they reimbursed me I think they expected I’d get my own powers soon and then I’d never look back.”

“It was a bad policy,” I said. “Paying survivors to keep out of the news.”

“But it worked. The only reason we know about so many incidents is because of the free press, even freer now. Reporters who don’t need food or sleep, X-ray vision, everything’s out more than ever.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.

“I barely even think about it anymore. He was a good man, simple, just what you got on the surface. Good at his job, just worked hard and kept me happy.”

“Do you run the exhibit all by yourself?”

“These days. I had a crew when I was putting it together, but they all moved on or got Powered. It’s not hard. I was looking for purpose and here it is.”

“Showing toasters?” I said, adding a smile to show that I was joking.

“Well, I was hoping to get a convection oven for the next location.”

I laughed.

“How’s your steak?”

“Good,” I said. “Just perfectly grilled.”

“Dying art.”

“So many things are.”

“Do you want to sleep with me?”

I shrugged. It felt completely natural. Looking back… but I’ve learned to never look back.

“I didn’t want to ask,” I said. “It’s not the sort of thing you go for on a first date.”

“Well, I want to,” she said. “Now. We’ll go back to the gallery.”

The steak went wherever old food goes. I went with her. The rain had stopped and the sun was out, filling the streets with mist.

Inside the gallery, Lily pulled blinds down over the windows and locked the door. I sat on the couch and she started to undress, no seduction or dancing, just taking clothing off. Her body was thin, and I saw old scars. We all have some; Norms don’t heal like they do.

When she was naked, she came over to the couch. I still had my clothing on, and she took my hand and pulled me up and kissed me, tangling her fingers in my hair. I ran my hands down her sides, feeling the scar tissue, and she overbalanced me and we went tumbling to the couch.

After, she stood and walked around the gallery, still naked. It was warmer, or I was, and I watched and thought about things and wondered why I had never cheated on Shawna before. She’d know, of course, but I thought she might understand… but maybe not. And she’d know about this before I could make any sort of explanation. I could find a Wiper, perhaps, and pay him to erase my memories….

Lily completed her circle, back at the couch, and sat down beside me. I leaned up and pulled her into an embrace, and we lay there, two Norms in the world.

Until she stiffened and pulled away. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You can’t stay here.”

It was expected. “Do you have guests coming?”

“No, I just — I have something to do. Please, it was wonderful, you’re a wonderful person, but you need to leave.”

Is sixth-sense considered a power? There are Forecasters and Seers, but they work more on accurate probabilities, bolstered by their powers rather than created by them. Norm I may be, but sometime I feel things.

I got up and pulled my pants on. Lily stayed on the couch, head down, and made no move to dress.

“Are you ok?”

“Please,” she said. Her voice was different, a little hoarse, a little higher.

“You’re not a Norm, are you,” I said.

“The sun is going down. I’m going to change. I don’t want you to be here.”

“Are you dangerous?”

“No.”

I didn’t say anything, and I watched as the room dimmed, slivers of sunlight running up the wall until they vanished completely, the only light now from the street lamps outside, and I watched Lily’s body change, and what happened to her eyes, and when it was done I looked at — her — and nodded and left.

The City streets were the same. I walked, hands in pockets, and saw all the same things I’d seen yesterday, and last week, and last month. The big changes had come and now the world would adapt, as it always did. More violence, but fewer crimes. More accidents, but fewer deaths.

More anger. More ability to act on that anger.

More pain.

 

#

 

“Is Transmuted food toxic? Reports from the Organic Farmer’s Union tonight suggest elevated levels of hemotoxin in fast-food burgers…” “Protect your home from spying eyes! Genuine lead foil, guaranteed non-toxic…” “A Manchester man took his own life after the ENCQ classified his perfect color-matching ability as non-powered…” “An abandoned shipping container was found to contain over ninety thousand dead rats, all perfectly preserved, each missing their liver.”

 

#

 

Shawna got home in the early morning. I hadn’t slept, just sat at the table, thinking. She walked into the room, sat across from me, and said, “I knew it had to happen sooner or later.”

There was nothing I could say that she wouldn’t pick out of my head faster.

“She was pretty, at least. Are you happy? You’ve tried out a Norm and now you’re feeling bad about it, so that’s good. What do you want to do now?”

“You know.”

“I don’t know what that bit at the end is,” she said. “Fine. All right, but you have no right to think that.”

“I can think whatever I want,” I said. “You’re always in my head and I love you but if you can’t get out of my head I want a divorce.”

“No, you don’t,” she said. “You’re just talking to avoid the issue.”

“I’m talking to keep you from talking over me. You always talk over me. I never get to say what’s on my mind because you always know what I’m thinking. So, tell me!”

She shook her head. “I don’t overpower you.”

“Every day.”

“So why have you stayed with it for so long? Because you love me? No you don’t, and I wish you’d just let your real feelings out.”

“What?”

“I am! I am very special! Just because there are more of us around than before–”

“Stop! Stop it!”

“Don’t you understand? What I am? What happens when everyone is special? Everyone who isn’t special, isn’t special! Is sub-special! Norms, all of you!” Shawna glared at me. “How dare you pretend to love me?”

“I never–”

“I don’t love you! I used to but not since I changed! You are nothing compared to me, nothing at all, just some sort of biological process with no basis in useful reality! I am special! I always was, just never knew it! Stop lying to me! You know you don’t really love me, you never did, you just loved the idea of me! Stop trying to make me your ideal woman and GROW UP!”

Tears ran down my face. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, and Shawna spoke for me.

“You did,” she said, and her voice broke on the words. “I wanted you to hate me for being your superior, but you never did. Godammit, stop loving me! I don’t deserve it, I don’t — stop it! STOP IT!”

She leaped to the ceiling and broke through, and I remained, normal, ordinary, no powers or purpose.

 

#

 

Captain Keratin showed me his latest when I arrived at work. I hadn’t slept for two days.

“It took me forever,” he said. “And I had to keep eating to get the mass right, but it’s my best yet!”

Fleshy, smooth and hairless, and draped over the conference table.

“It’s a tablecloth,” I said.

“And the best part,” he said, “is that I think I can keep it from decaying! I’ve been experimenting with a nutrient injection.”

“You mean,” I said slowly, “that it’s still alive?”

“Well, not like you or me–”

I puked. I couldn’t help it. Mostly water. I sank to my knees, coughing.

He knelt next to me, laid a hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right?”

For a moment, I could hear a little of the old, Normal Bill Jones in his voice, but the touch of his hand brought the nausea back.

When I stopped choking, I stood and waved off help, and went to clean up in the washroom.

An hour later, I handed Captain Keratin my resignation.

“Are you sure about this?” he said. He didn’t seem to be offended.

“I need to get out and get away from the city,” I said. “Shawna’s left me and… well, I can’t say I’m happy at work anymore.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“It’s not you,” I said. “Don’t think I find you disgusting. It’s just what you do.”

“You’ll get a top recommendation letter,” he said. “But I wish you’d think about it.”

“It’s all I’ve done for the past day,” I said. “I can’t think about it any more.”

As I was packing up my things, he came running in, and not as Captain, but as Bill. I could see it in his eyes.

“You need to hear this,” he said, and placed a small radio on my desk.

“…of the population. Again, our top story today, independent testers have been combing and polling the country for the first Extra-Normal Census, and the numbers have been staggering. In the last two months, incidences of Normal vs. Extra-Normal have dropped dramatically, and according to the latest reports, Norms may be as few as one in five hundred thousand worldwide. At these levels, it is possible that we may soon become a world of entirely Extra-Normal humans. With no Norms left, decisions made by the ECNQ will be informed entirely by E-Norm needs….”

My mouth had dried up by the second sentence. I dropped everything and staggered for the door. Bill called my name, but it registered only as a flat sound across my brain.

No Norms left!

The thought was physically painful. Bad that I had never developed powers, worse now, if the census report was accurate, that I might be the last Norm in the world.

Wait, though, I’d been mugged by two Norms just the other day! I stopped in our computer lab, blessedly empty, and opened a public-access terminal for the police blotter.

“…two men arrested for a street crime are now claiming protection under ECNQ rules for newly changed E-Norms–”

When I opened my eyes, I was on the roof of the building. There was no one to see me. The skies were clear, the sun setting. I didn’t know where the time had gone, didn’t know where I’d walked or who I’d seen.

All I knew was that I was alone. For the first time, I looked over the City, saw the sterile world that Powers had created, no smog, no dirt, but no life or energy either. The problems of the Powered were larger than our Normal, small concerns. We — I — had no place here.

As the sun shone golden over the skyline, I took one little step.

And she caught me, matching my falling speed so I felt nothing but a little bump, and she was crying, sobbing my name, “–sorry I’m sorry so sorry I never meant to say those things, I do love you, you know I do, we’ll work it out and I don’t care a bit about her, I’d never lie to you, I can’t, love you so much please please don’t hate me–”

And we rose above the city, and I saw Flyers in the sky, making patterns, and down below the streetlights started to flicker on, outlining the blood of a City, creating a new society from the ashes of the old.

I held on tight, and I knew that my life would never be more than this.

But it might be enough.

end

Author Bio:

Asher Wismer graduated from the University of Maine at Augusta in 2007, and is a former college-level tutor, computer technician, and 35mm Film Projection Manager. He currently works as an Editor at eNotes.com, answering questions from dozens of educational fields. His story “December in Florida” appeared in the anthology Holiday of the Dead, from Wild Wolf Publishing in the U.K., and his flash fiction has appeared on the website 365tomorrows.com. Asher lives and works in Augusta, Maine.

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DICE by Brian J. Smith

Jul 24 2016

1

THE chains hung down from giant rings embedded into the ceiling and held the hooks into her back, pulling the skin taut. Feet dangling, the overhead light threw shadows onto the wall, rivers of blood trickled down her back, buttocks and legs only to drip off onto the floor. She sobbed, strands of long blonde hair clinging to her sweaty forehead. She tried not to move for fear the hooks would pull away and tear her apart. She was like a baby in an infant carrier minus the safety harness.
“Whitney.” Anthony Fraser replied in an eerie whisper. “Don’t be afraid. It only hurts when you move around like that.”
Whitney peered at the broad shouldered man leaning in the corner, his arms laced across his chest. He pushed himself away from the wall and stepped up to her, his plastic butcher’s apron winking under the overhead light. The straps from the goggles on his face looked tight against the sides of his egg-shaped head. He slid the back of his hand across her cheeks and flicked her lips with his finger.
“Do you know what these are?”
She stared up at him through the curtain of blonde hair shading her face. Her gaze fell back to the floor as the chains and hooks gleamed in the light. Something in his hand rattled like broken teeth.
“That’s okay. I understand if you don’t want to talk. I’d do the same thing if I were in your shoes. They’re plain, ordinary dice.”
“Why…are…you—.” Whitney said between sobs.
“Shhh!”
He rolled the dice in her hand, pacing back and forth like a teacher waiting for an answer. She watched the dice roll around in his hand, her head spinning from the recently administered drug.
“These are the keys to your fate. Since their invention, dice have always played a part in our lives. In board games, we either go forward or backward. In crap games, we roll an odd number and win or end up with snake eyes and go belly up. Which is where you come in,” He handed her the dice. “If you roll an odd number, you live. Roll snake eyes and your die. Don’t worry, the dice aren’t loaded so you’re guaranteed not to lose.”
Whitney rolled the dice inside of her trembling hand and threw across the floor. They rattled together like cracked knuckles, struck the wall and tumbled into place. One dice showed a one but the other teetered on the edge, switching between six and one. He walked over to the corner of the room and watched the dice away. Her heart beat echoed in her throat, her nerves twitched and her breath became difficult; fear wrapped a cold noose around her throat, rending her speechless.
When the dice settled, Whitney raised her hands in the air, screaming, “Seven. I rolled a seven.”
Anthony stood beside the switch on the wall. He looked at her with sad, basset-hound eyes.
“You have to let me go,” Whitney pleaded. “That was your rule, I could live if I rolled—.”
Without a word, Anthony flipped the switch and jerked the hooks from Whitney’s back, spraying blood across the room, leaving hunks of meat and strips of skin hanging from the tip of the hooks as her body plopped onto the floor like a wet, bloody dishcloth.

2

“OKAY, Anthony.” Dr. Robin Hammond said, “What do you see?”
Lying on the plush orange couch, his hands overlapped on chest, his eyes closed, Anthony said, “I’m walking down the hallway heading to third period class. Everyone’s smiling at me. Some of them are laughing inside their little circle of friends beside their lockers. I see my girlfriend for the senior prom pulling her books out of her locker so that I can carry them for her.”
“Who is your girlfriend?”
“Amber Dunn. She’s as beautiful as ever especially when she’s wearing her cheerleading uniform.” He gasped audibly. “Something wraps around my hips. When Amber turns to hand me her books, she looks down at me and starts laughing and pointing at my crotch.”
“What happens then?”
“Everyone starts laughing and pointing, even the teachers. I look down and see my pants down around my ankles. My dick’s hanging down like a wind sock on a hot day. Amber’s pointing and laughing even harder then Scott Richards walks up and puts his arm around her waist and when I got up to say something he pushes me back down onto the floor and as they’re walking away they’re kissing but I’m crying too much, pleading for everyone to stop laughing but they’re still laughing and pointing and laughing and pointing and laughing and—.”
Anthony’s left leg twitched, his foot shot out and kicked the glass of water off the coffee table. It struck the wall, spraying glass and water across the room. He sat up to see what happened when the door flew open; Dr. Hammond’s red-haired secretary walked into the room. Hammond was knelt down on the floor, picking up shards of glass with his bare hands.
“Be careful, Doctor.” The secretary cautioned, “You’ll cut yourself.”
“It’s okay, Sydney.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor.” Anthony pleaded. “I didn’t—.”
“Maybe you need to—.”
“It’s not his fault, Sydney. Mister Fraser’s anger got the better of him and he kicked the glass. It happens.”
Sydney sighed and stormed out of the room, shutting the door behind her. After assisting the doctor with the clean up, Anthony slumped back onto the couch, sweating profusely. Dr. Hammond returned to his chair and placed his spaghetti-thin arms together on top of his desk. The dull gray sunlight outlined the gold curtains.
“It seems that we’re making progress.”
Sighing as if he heard a bad joke, Anthony said, “You call that making process? I could’ve hurt someone.”
“From what you’ve told me on the chart I asked you to make, the dreams are not as persistent as usual.”
“Persistent?”
“Constant.” said Dr. Hammond. “You’re not having the dream as much as you did when you first came to see me.”
“The pills are doing great.”
“I thought so.” Hammond smiled at first, then took it away. “Which is why I’m going to up your dosage.”
Hammond scribbled on a nearby prescription pad, tore off the sheet and handed it to Anthony. He wished Anthony a nice day and asked him to make his next appointment with Sydney. Slipping the prescription into his jacket pocket, he left the room and walked up to Sydney’s desk. She was talking to someone on a headset telephone; she rolled her eyes, put the person on hold and dropped the headset onto the desk.
“What?”
“I need to make my next appointment.”
She searched the computer, moving the mouse with the celerity of an person hurrying to get out.
“I have the tenth of next month.”
“I can’t I have—.”
“Okay, the tenth it is.”
She clicked the mouse a few more times, printed a sticker displaying his next appointment time and handed it to him. Anthony stood, looking at her as if trying to figure out a math problem.
“What’s your problem?”
“Here’s your—.”
“What did I ever do to you? You sit at a desk all day long. We’re both human, Sydney and we need to—.”
“We don’t need to do shit. The way I see it, there are some people who can be saved and there are some who can’t. No one can save you, Mister Fraser.”
Anthony slipped the appointment card into his front pocket and took the elevator to the lobby. Since he’d been going to Dr. Hammond about his nightmares, he never understood what Sydney had against him. During his visits, he tried his best to avoid her at any costs so as not to give her a reason to berate him but it was too hard since the doctor stopped making his own appointments. He imagined her inside of a giant dome where no one could invade her space. No matter how hard he tried not to, he always took up too much room.
Before the day that would stain him forever, he attracted the opposite sex like a paper clip to a magnet. Nowadays, he was as compatible with them as the left shoe going on the right foot. Internet dating was out of the question; speed-dating—non-negotiable. He was no stranger to the nightlife and usually came home alone, his breath reeking of beer except for last night when he met Whitney and she was as easy as drunk girl got.
Of course, later on last night, he was worried about the booze making a strange combination with the sleeping aid and kill her before he had the chance to kill her himself. The events that took place at Logan Middle School fifteen years ago had, and would, stain him forever. He could never love a woman enough not to kill her, let alone marry her. He was more than willing but the desire for an honest relationship was impeded by the gut feeling that she would betray him just as the entire school had done and ruin him forever.
Crossing the lobby and out the door to his car, Anthony overheard an old couple chatting to a middle-aged woman in a dark blue business suit who was rubbing her hand over the back of the old woman’s shoulder.
“These things happen, Eleanor.” said her husband.
“Our baby boy has gone out on several dates and he’s always been home the next day, John.” She cried into her fist, the one holding the balled-up tissue. “The only thing I regret is letting him get that tattoo of his mother’s name on his chest. For all I know, he’s probably joined her in heaven.” Walking between two parked cars, Anthony dug the little ball of dried blood out of his opposite finger and flicked it toward the parking lot when a young husky woman stopped dead in her tracks, her high heels clicking. She looked down at her strapless pink shirt, then up at Anthony, her face twisted by disgust.
“What the hell was that?”
“Nothing.”
“You call that nothing?”
She pointed to the little black dot on her dress. His face flushed and grew hot; he almost gasped but he kept his composure.
“I’m sorry. I was doing some gardening before my appointment.”
“What are you?.”
“I’ll pay for the dry cleaning.”
“No shit.” She sighed disgustedly.
Anthony took a napkin from his coat pocket—he always kept a supply on hand in case the nightmare made him cry which was very often—and wiped the speck of dried blood from the dress. Looking up at her, he fell back onto the pavement in a failed crab walk. The heavily built woman had been replaced by the beautiful Amber Dunn ala cheerleading uniform, pointing and laughing, pointing and laughing. The blue sky morphed into the middle school’s plaster ceiling; the parking lot was now a rank of gun-gray lockers and Formica flooring. The vehicles in the lot became the students of Logan Middle School, looking superior as they laughed at his pain.
The past had successfully twined with the present, playing with his mind. He looked down to see if his pants were in place but the laughing seem to pierce his pride and gnaw at his soul. He looked around, crawled to his feet, rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and took long deep breaths like the good doctor suggested. The laughter began to fade away, replaced by the noise of afternoon traffic and tree-cloaked birds. At the moment he was supposed to have been pushed down, something struck his left cheek, and woke him up.
“What the hell?”
The nightmare faded; the world was back. Traffic whizzed by as the wind bent the treetops. Shadows bled everywhere like motor oil on a white cloth.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Anthony said. “I usually don’t do this kind of thing in front of a beautiful woman such as yourself.”
“You think I’m beautiful?” The woman asked, her eyes dazzled by the sun. “My boyfriend tells me I look like a roast with a pink ribbon around it.”
“Forget him. Can I make it up to you? Take you out to dinner tonight, my treat.”
Blushing like a schoolgirl, she said, “Okay. But I don’t know your name.”
“Anthony.”
“Trisha. You know like Trisha Yearwood. I’m a tax—.”
“I like country music, too.”
They exchanged phone numbers and set a date for tonight at seven-thirty.

3

IT didn’t take him long to get Trisha back to the house, via sleep aid. Getting her into the house was a different story altogether. Instead of escorting her through the threshold like a newlywed couple, he dragged her into the house by her arms and shut the door before anyone else saw him. He stripped off her dress, a floral affair this time, and hooked her up to his latest contraption; she was so heavy she would’ve pulled the hooks out of the ceiling before he had a chance to give her the dice. He opened the skinny contraption, set her inside and locked everything into place.
The date had gone off without a hitch. They chose a fancy Italian restaurant. He ordered the chicken parmesan and she ordered the fettuccine Alfredo with stuffed crabs. Although he’d ate until he was comfortably full, there was nothing stopping her. He waited until she got up to use the bathroom before dropping the pill into her Diet Coke.
He’d chose a booth in the back as not to attract any witnesses. He slipped the ruptured pill packet into his pocket as she came back to the table. She asked him what it was; he told her it was his heartburn medicine. She insisted, if he felt that bad, they could get everything to go and go back to his place. He said he was fine and insisted that she finish her meal.
After the stuffed crabs, she became groggy. She blinked her eyes, as if she were fighting sleep. He paid the check, got their food to go and carried her out to the car. He drove around until the pills took full effect, giving them plenty of time to get ready.
When she opened her eyes, Trisha looked aimlessly around the room. Anthony was standing in front of her, wearing his trademark butcher’s apron. Tears slid down her cheeks as the leather straps of his latest contraption pressed into her pasty white flesh like bread dough wrapped in a thong.
“Wake up, sleepyhead. This won’t take long, I’m sure. No wonder your boyfriend doesn’t find you attractive. I damn near pulled a muscle gettin’ your fat ass in here.”
She closed her eyes and cried, her sobs muffled by the rag in her mouth. Her arms hung down from the straps like two dead weights. She fought against the straps, whipping her hair this way and that. He grabbed her shoulders and held her in place.
“It’ll only hurt if you fight it. This is something of my own design I like to call, The Peeler. You see, you’re being held by the straps in an upright position. The blades on all sides of you are going to peel your skin off like an onion. Don’t be afraid, though. I’m giving you a chance to save your life, Trisha. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk. I know I wouldn’t. If you roll an odd number, you live. If you roll snake eyes, you die. Your fate is in your hands.”
He put the dice in her hands and smiled. She took the dice and rolled them across the floor. They struck the wall and rolled into place; their heartbeats drowning out the sound of the dice tapping together. She bit her lower lip, muffling her cries. Looking at the two dots staring back at her, she squeezed her eyes shut as if suppressing the image of the dice. A sound of applause echoed in Anthony’s ears like the sound of a television audience.
They were praising him for a job well done. The dragging, the lifting and the set up had finally paid off.
“Fate’s a bitch.” Anthony said, reaching over for the switch on the wall. “It was nice knowing—.”
A white light whipped across his vision; his head swiveled on his flaccid neck. The room spun on carousel legs and his legs buckled. His hand slid away from the switch and down the wall. On his hands and knees, his breath was hard. He tried to stick his fingers into the back of his throat to puke out the drug but his hand was too heavy to lift. He rolled over onto his back to see Trisha unlocking herself from the contraption and
stepping onto the floor.
“Sleep aids are for amateurs. I like the kind where you spray it on your clothes and all it takes is one whiff to put them down. My mamma didn’t raise no fool.” She said and kicked Anthony against the side of the head.

4
WHEN Anthony woke up, his arms had been pulled up over his head and his wrist had been tied to a hook embedded into the ceiling of a large wooden shack. Sunlight slipped through the cracks in the wall, laying gold neon across the dirt floor; the heat made his head greasy slick with sweat. The rope that bound his wrists rubbed harshly against his skin as if he were being dragged across carpet. He tried to wiggle free, but his efforts
were fruitless. Feeling the drug wear off, his head felt less painful and his vision cleared.
“It’ll only hurt if you fight it.” A familiar voice spoke from across the room.
Something clicked and a harsh fluorescent light lit up the shack. Trisha walked across the room, wearing nothing but a plastic apron and a pair of goggles. She came to the left side of the room, pulled back an old army blanket and revealed an array of tools sitting on a dirty Formica folding table. There were several knives, saws—both handheld and electric—a comb, a can of oil, two scalpels, a pair of shears, wire cutters, a small pair of scissors, tweezers, three different kinds of needles and a claw hammer. She picked up one of the needles and examined it, letting the metal wink in the sunlight.
“I’ve got to admit,” She said, kneeling down in front of him. “you were easier than the others.”
“What others?”
Trisha walked past him and flipped a button. Brass-colored light filled the shack, winking off the tools sitting on the table. Anthony looked around and stopped.
Neatly arranged against the left-side wall, nestled inside tall glass containers, were six motionless young men. Some were cute; some wouldn’t have bagged a girl to save their life. She’d had them in neat order and frozen in different poses. The first one, a dark-haired fitness freak, was dressed in a dark-red football uniform minus the helmet. The one after that was in a golf uniform but the last one was what caught his attention.
A medium-built bald man with pale skin—with the name MELODY tattooed on his chest.
The only thing I regret is letting him get that tattoo of his mother’s name on his chest.
“Look, Trisha. I was just playing a little*.”
“Shhh!” She put her finger to her lips and asked. “Do you know how long it takes to learn a hobby? A lot of practice. A beginner like myself has to endure a lot of time and patience to make you look more life-like. Sometime you have to—.”
“I thought you said you were a tax attorney? You said something about tax—.”
“You never let me finish. I went to say taxidermist but you interrupted me.” Trisha replied. “Something you have to freeze the specimen and then remove the skin, which can be tanned and preserved for a later time, of course, that’s after all the important pieces are taken out like the liver, kidneys and other body parts.”
She stuffed a rag into his mouth and picked up the scalpels. His eyes swelled in surprise.
“I’m going to start with your legs and then go up from there.” She said, kneeling down in front of him. “It’s okay. I understand if you don’t want to talk. I’d do the same if I were in your shoes.”
She pushed the blade into his left leg, spraying blood across her apron and slid the scalpel down, peeling the skin clean away from the bone.

Bio: Brian J. Smith has been featured in E-Mails of the Dead, Book Of Cannibals 2: The Hunger, Pill Hill Press’ 365 Days of Flesh Fiction, Metahuman Press’ The Dead Walk Again and And The Nightmare Begins…Vol.1: The Horror Zine and such magazines as Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine and New Voices In Fiction and such e-zines as The Horror Zine, Postcard Shorts, Thrillers Killers and Chillers, The Carnage Conservatory, The New Flesh and The Flash Fiction Offensive. He currently resides in Chauncey, Ohio with his mother, his brother the writer J.R. Smith and six dogs.

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